Review: On Consolation

On Consolation, Michael Ignatieff. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2021.

Summary: On how significant figures through the ages have found comfort amid tragedy and hard times, enabling them to press on with hope and equanimity.

Finding consolation, the solace that enables us to face tragedy and not relent nor give way to despair, has not been a theoretical exercise in the past pandemic years. Many of us have grieved the untimely deaths of friends and loved ones, and the rancorous discord of our public health debates, while healthcare workers dealt with multiple deaths every day during the peak of the pandemic.

In On Consolation, Michael Ignatieff, novelist, columnist, sometime politician, and historian of ideas, explores how people through the ages have found solace when faced with the worst life can throw at one–war, plague, tragic deaths. Ignatieff writes his book particularly with those in mind who reject the comfort offered by traditional religion. How do those who do not embrace a religious faith find consolation? He would contend that many have and that we may find help from them.

He begins with Job and the Psalms of lament. These do not offer answers for Ignatieff, but model the “doubt that is intrinsic to belief” and their preservation affirms that we are not the first to ask these questions. He then turns to Paul, contending that when Paul, as an aging man realized he may not live to see the return of the Messiah, turned to love as the sign of what the God he does not see is like (even though the text Ignatieff cites is one of Paul’s earliest letters, written at a time he was bidding people to be watchful for Messiah’s return). I think Ignatieff misinterprets Paul, though noting the theme of love that remains is an important observation, and one that runs through all Paul’s letters.

He explores the great conflict in Cicero’s loss of his daughter between the self-command of Stoicism that did not allow the show of emotion and his deep grief. Consolation comes from one’s male peers for that self-command. And sadly, men have been holding back their tears since. For Marcus Aurelius, consolation came from fulfilling his duties, even amid loneliness and loss. Boethius, facing execution contemplates his death and his fear of how it would come and finds consolation in his writing, both in the knowing of himself and the contemplation of God that enabled him to endure. And he hoped that he would be remembered, and he is.

In Goya’s The Burial of the Count of Orgaz, Ignatieff identifies our longing for timelessness in the elongated figures of Goya. Montaigne points us in the other direction. We find consolation in our love of life, the succession of pleasures, pains, and indignities of our embodied existence that signals we are yet alive. For David Hume, consolation came in the form of an unsent letter as death approached, summing up his life and that he had been true to his ambitions.

Condorcet, facing his own death in the French revolution, found hope in the idea of historical progress and the progressive perfectibility of man. Marx was similar in some ways, envisioning a utopia beyond capitalism, and a materialist grasp of life in which consolation was no longer necessary if a just world order can be attained. Lincoln found consolation in the humility that renounced vengeance for reconciliation, drawing upon a store of biblical wisdom.

For Mahler, he worked out consolation in his music, supremely perhaps in the Kindertotenleider, adapting five Ruckert poems and the lieder style, to trace a journey of coming to acceptance of the death of a child. For Weber, consolation took the form of finding meaning with one’s calling, in a world without God, where calling may only arise from within the self. For several, Akhmatova, Levi, and Radnoti, consolation as survivors of the Holocaust came in the form of faithful witness. Camus wrestled with what it was to live outside the grace that offers final consolation, concluding that living with the grace that accompanies another at life’s extremities is the consolation afforded us.

The final individual focused on is Cicely Saunders, who founded the modern hospice movement. Her consolation was the compassion that relentlessly sought to create the conditions physically, socially, psychologically, and spiritually. Her watchword was that of Christ in Gethsemane: “Watch with me” and she created a setting where one could reflect on the shape of one’s live among their loved ones. She helped people find closure and console those from whom they would soon be parted.

This book might have been called “the varieties of consolation” and what this suggests to me is that in a world where transcendent belief has waned, consolation is something each must find for oneself, and often it is within the contours of one’s particular life, experience, and, especially, relationships. The book offers the consolation that whatever we experience, whatever we ask, we are not the first, which may be some comfort. Ignatieff argues in the end that it is not in doctrine but in people that we find consolation:

“It is not doctrines that console us in the end, but people: their example, their singularity, their courage and steadfastness, their being with us when we need them most. In dark times, nothing so abstract as faith in History, Progress, Salvation, or Revolution will do us much good. These are doctrines. It is people we need, people whose examples show us what it means to go on, to keep going, despite everything.”

Ignatieff, p. 259.

I think there is much in what Ignatieff says. “Presence” that walks with one in the hardest times, sometimes the “presences” of those who have gone before, are deep sources of consolation. Yet there is something that Ignatieff, in his “age of unbelief” fails to account for, I believe. That is faith incarnated in believing people. Ignatieff speaks of how the dying console others. This happened on a visit to my grandmother in the last weeks of her painful death from cancer. Through the pain, she spoke of her faith in life everlasting. I’m sure my love meant something to her but her embodied faith has touched my life and my view of dying to this day, 57 years later. Faith ceased being an abstraction for me that day. Ignatieff has written with eloquence of the consolation found apart from transcendent belief, a vital concern in our day. Perhaps for those who find consolation in our doctrines as well as our community, writing a similar work may be a timely contribution to the discussion Ignatieff has initiated so well.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer Program in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

3 thoughts on “Review: On Consolation

  1. Excellent presentation of thought provoking ideas. However, being in the medical profession I have witnessed more than enough death and trauma to say that patients with some type of transcendent belief ultimately find an inner strength to accept their situation and find peace. That is not to say that acceptance was not preceded by questioning and doubt about their faith. But acceptance seems to come sooner.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: March 2022 | Bob on Books

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