Overview:

Michael Ignatieff’s readable survey, from Job to Camus, is a fount of wisdom for those seeking what the title promises.

Reading Time: 4 minutes

As an omnivorous reader, I unconsciously categorize my books: the ones I quit partway through, those I finish but donate to a library, books I keep for repeat reads, and, top of the heap, the treasured titles I underline and dog ear, the better to savor and re-savor certain passages. Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation belongs in that last rarefied tier.

I discovered On Consolation less than two months after my son Josh died. My concentration was bupkis, but I was desperate for insights into coping with my heretofore unimaginable devastation. I tried and put down Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, but found I could easily, gratefully digest Ignatieff’s prose.

One of the frustrations of grief is the struggle to find words for the cognitively, emotionally incoherent. On Consolation gave me words and phrases for what I couldn’t yet express on my own.

In 17 chapters just short of 300 pages, Ignatieff surveys great writings, largely of Western provenance, for the various means their authors sought comfort in nearly unbearable times. Writing for secular readers, Ignatieff focuses on ways of coping that don’t invoke supernatural justice and purpose.

As Ignatieff moves through the centuries, he shows there is no consolation template to copy and paste into our days.

Several chapters speak to profound grief: Job, Cicero, Gustav Mahler after the deaths of children. Many others delve into personal and social injustice: Boethius’ and Václav Havel’s imprisonments, Primo Levi in Auschwitz, Anna Akhmatova’s Stalinist persecution. Other chapters consider David Hume’s depression, Karl Marx’s wrestling with structural inequality, Abraham Lincoln’s contemplation of war’s devastation.

Though his writing flows wonderfully, Ignatieff is no lightweight. Besides his time in Canadian politics and as president of the Central European University, he’s written numerous historical volumes, both academic and popular. On Consolation has the feel of a topnotch “Great Courses” survey, in book form.

In a curious choice for a nontheistic volume, Ignatieff begins with Job, the Psalms, and the Pauline epistles. Your own mileage may vary, but for this exvangelical burned out on theology, these chapters were the least engaging. However, I did appreciate his insight into Job’s travails, that “consolation can lift us from the depths of despair only if we have the courage to demand recognition, from ourselves and from others…The story also counsels us to stop asking the question that so often torments us in grief: Why me?”

Continuing chronologically, On Consolation lifts into the stratosphere as Ignatieff writes of the Stoics. His chapter on Cicero exemplifies his mixture of biography and philosophical analysis. Cicero literally wrote the Roman book on consolation, urging the bereft to “recall to mind what has befallen others, to induce the reflection that what has happened to ourselves is nothing new.”

When his own daughter died, philosophy failed him, enough so that he became an object of derision and scorn among his peers. With time, Cicero’s grief kindled a fearlessness, enabling him to rise as a great defender of the Roman republic against Caesar’s dictatorship.

Though we know how that ended, I find Cicero’s psychological journey relatable. I’ve discovered a new fearlessness since Josh died. And there’s a contemporary political parallel in Congressman Jamie Raskin’s staunch defense of the American Republic during Trump’s coup attempt. Raskin’s son took his life exactly a week before January 6th. As the rabble entered the Capitol, Raskin thought to himself, “What’s there to be afraid of when the worst thing imaginable has already happened?”


Related: Secular values in action: Rep. Jamie Raskin


The next chapter, on Marcus Aurelius, makes clear that Ignatieff’s purpose is not hagiographic, but to portray his protagonists, warts and all. Of the emperor and military strategist, he dryly writes, “He…was indifferent to wealth, as only men can be who have never known anything else.”

As Ignatieff moves through the centuries, he shows there is no consolation template to copy and paste into our days. Since his subjects are artists and authors of all variety—poet, philosopher, painter, classical composer—many found a measure of peace through the act of creation and organizing their thoughts in written form.

However, with the 16th Century French pioneer of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, we find something different. Ignatieff writes, “[Montaigne] moved the search for consolation away from the mind to the feeling, second by second, that life was worth living simply because you could feel its rhythms coursing through your veins.” There is comfort and meaning merely in being, not doing. I love these words from Montaigne for those who self-castigate for days or years of supposedly doing nothing worthwhile: “What, have you not lived? This is not only the fundamental but the most illustrious of your occupations.”

Proceeding to the 19th and 20th Centuries, I appreciate Nietzsche’s candor that sometimes “no means of consolation is so effective as the assertion that in their case no consolation is possible.” For Soviet poet Anna Akhmatova and Italian author Primo Levi, meaning emerges from bearing witness. For Albert Camus, seen in his philosophical novel The Plague and his underground fight against the Nazis, consolation comes through resistance in the face of inevitable defeat.

A running theme through Ignatieff’s book is the centrality of hope and endurance, even absent a preordained cosmic purpose. In his introduction, he also points out the Latin etymology of the word consolation, to “find solace together.” His final chapter, on the founder of the modern hospice movement Cicely Saunders, returns us to the word’s roots. For Saunders, the motto “watch with me” contained the heart of consolation. Wordless company, when words cannot deliver us, is often exactly what we need.

Lincoln Andrews

Lincoln Andrews

Life seemed as good as it gets in early 2021, with a happy family, a job I loved, and a long-desired move out of the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest. My world split open on September 12th, when...