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Book Review: On Consolation by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff, On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times, Random House Canada, Toronto, 2021, 304 pgs.

How do we find solace amidst grief and turmoil, especially when we struggle to believe in a God who lends order to existence? That question forms the basis of Michael Ignatieff’s newest book. He begins his journey by exploring the Psalms, the Old Testament story of Job and the life of the Apostle Paul. In this survey-style presentation of western sources and thinkers exploring grief and consolation, Ignatieff seems not so much as a “searching” agnostic, but perhaps more like someone who quietly laments the decline of religious faith around him, and in him. Ignatieff resolves to explore those remnants of religious tradition that he finds tenable when working through the most universally shared aspects of the human experience: suffering, loss and sorrow. He supplements this with the personal stories of how people of faith and of no religious faith sought to console and be consoled through the centuries.

Ignatieff begins with the foundational biblical story of Job, and the salience of the Psalms, before examining how Paul sought to build a universal language of consolation as Christian communities spread further afield in the decades after Jesus. Then, Ignatieff looks at Cicero’s principles of  patriarchal stoicism when faced with suffering, and how it didn’t hold up when grief visited him in two profound ways: through the death of his daughter Tullia and the demise of his treasured republicanism under the tyranny of Julius Caesar. Alternatively, Ignatieff might have begun with Cicero or at least explored stoicism before presenting Paul, as this ideal — valued by the male elites of the Roman Empire — pre-dated Jesus and formed part of the socio-cultural context within which Christianity also existed and grew. But Paul, the story of Job and the Psalms acknowledge the universality of suffering and offer responses to grief that remain foundational to our thinking and culture — and this is also the basis for Ignatieff’s book. They are foundational in a way than can no longer be said for a stoicism that was intended to speak only to a specific class of men.

The story of Job poses that age-old question: if there is a God, why does He allow for such profound suffering in the world, especially among people who strive to live righteous lives? The Book of Job is a drama written by an unknown author, likely before the fifth century BC. It’s a drama that I think could be convincingly performed on stage in any good theatre. Job is acknowledged as fundamentally decent and he is respected — he lives a stable, good and prosperous life, only to have everything turned on its head. Satan doubts that Job’s goodness and faith is anything more than an inch deep — the moment he experiences misfortune, his faith will wane, the Great Adversary suggests. In brief succession, God allows for Job to lose everything — his children, his prosperity and his health. This righteous man’s life is in ruins.  Initially, Job’s friends do precisely what good pastoral training would suggest anyone do whenever someone is in deep pain: they sit with him in silence — in this case, for seven days. But when they finally speak, they reach for the worst possible response to why God allowed for a good man to suffer. Job must have done something terribly wrong for God to allow for such pain and punishment. Job, profoundly hurt by this cruel treatment, demands that God explain Himself. Ultimately, God speaks to Job in a lengthy monologue. The one definitive thing we can glean from the Book of Job is that suffering is not divine punishment for some earthly trespass. In his monologue, God brings Job to a grand celestial cinema where He shows him in fine detail the vastness of the complex world that He has created. God does this in order to demonstrate His vast power and knowledge in contrast to mankind’s lack of knowledge and powerlessness in the universe.

Ignatieff refers to God’s monologue as a “majestic tirade” and he writes:

In God’s eyes, Job is impermissibly arrogant for he dares to blame God for his torments. Job must make peace with what he cannot understand. The voice from the whirlwind insists on obedience but it also confers recognition. Once the voice ceases speaking, Job knows that God has heard him and he accepts that he must reconcile with a divine power he cannot hope to understand. His reconciliation with God begins with an admission of ignorance, but not of guilt…Having spoken and having been heard, there is now a dignity in his surrender…The book of Job is an account of the order of the world in which consolation is possible, because the heavens are not silent…The injustice of God’s world may be hard to bear, but it is the work of an intelligence that surpasses our understanding, not random and meaningless chance.

Two chapters later Ignatieff recounts how when Tullia died and as Rome fell into the hands of a tyrant who quashed the aspirations of republicans, Cicero retreated to his estate of Astura in the Bay of Antium, and fell into depression. Like Job’s friends, in 45 BC Servius Sulpicius initially did the right thing and reached out to Cicero, in an effort to console him. But he said all the wrong things — at least by our contemporary standards. Essentially, he told Cicero to toughen up before people come to think that he is weak. He told him to stop mourning the death of his daughter, because her life was a mess anyway. The far greater problem, according to Servius Sulpicius,  was Caesar’s tyranny. In this Roman world, there’s no God from whom Cicero might demand an explanation. The Roman gods are distant, aloof and disconnected from the fate of mortals.

While Ignatieff doesn’t make this connection explicitly, it’s worth noting the stark difference between the remote and unresponsive gods of the Romans with the God of the Hebrew Scriptures who is intimately involved in the affairs of humans. This divine engagement is so passionate that the Old Testament uses the imagery and language of extreme violence and destruction to teach through story how much God is attached to creation, to the fate of humans and how much He is inflamed by earthly injustice. When it comes to Job, Ignatieff’s take is similar to one of the most compelling interpretations I’ve heard over the years, notably from Bishop Robert Barron. The prominent Catholic bishop, author and publisher suggests that Job shows how every living person is a valuable, but also an extremely small part of God’s grand providence. Due to its vastness, we cannot possibly see the whole of this providence nor understand its workings and direction.

Ignatieff transitions adeptly from Cicero to Marcus Aurelius — the Roman emperor from AD 165 to 180 who, in the latter, war-torn part of his rein, sought consolation through private self-reflection. Cicero felt compelled to put on a stoic performance for other men of stature in society. He believed that he could achieve consolation, or at least deep satisfaction, from the respect that this act would bring him.  Marcus Aurelius, on the other hand, did not seek a public audience at first. This story is one of the inherent loneliness of leadership — when on the front-lines along the Danube, in the endless, grotesque battles with the barbarians, the emperor had nobody in whom he could confide. During long nights when he suffered from insomnia, Marcus Aurelius used a confessional tone in writings that were, at least initially, meant for no eyes other than his own. As much as he feigned disinterest in posterity — especially in such that these writings might offer — Ignatieff provides example after example of how his writing was indeed at times in search of an audience.

After his death at age 59 in Sirmium (present-day Serbia), his body and his scrolls were transported back to Rome — scrolls that would, as Ignatieff writes, “remain unknown for centuries and then be recopied by scribes in monasteries in the ruins of his empire and, through copying, be given a new purpose he was not alive to see: consoling others for the perplexities and anguish not even an emperor knew how to master.” And that, according to Ignatieff, is at the heart of consolation regardless of one’s beliefs: the knowledge that others around us and in history share our experience of anxiety and have sought consolation too.

It’s the story of Boethius, the Roman aristocrat and Christian who in the sixth century begrudgingly served Theoderic — an emperor with barbaric ancestors, an Arian heretic, a brute and an impostor — that seamlessly brings together Christian and pre-Christian approaches to consolation. Boethius is charged with treason, banished from Rome and imprisoned in Pavia, where he was to await execution. At other points in his life, even as he was distraught about Theoderic’s rule, he found meaning by escaping to libraries and into the Patrician world of Cicero. “In one man, the rich tributaries of the classical and Christian traditions flowed together,” Ignatieff writes evocatively. Ultimately, in his confinement Boethius finds consolation in the ancient Greek philosophical tradition. He creates for himself an intricate internal dialogue with the character Lady Philosophy.

Ignatieff takes issue with how the Catholic Church has appropriated Boethius, portraying him as a Christian martyr. He points to the language of doubt that weaves through Boethius’ Consolation. Ignatieff writes that this “stubborn litany of doubt flows like an incantation.” Doubt, however, is part and parcel of faith. Most serious Catholic thinkers do not see doubt as the opposite of faith. It’s present in the poetry of the Psalms, and it’s at the heart of Job — one of the most iconic books of the Hebrew Scriptures. Ignatieff concludes that Boethius likely found consolation in the process of self-reflection — and in writing.

Fast fowarding some 800 years, Ignatieff explores how Dante builds on Boethius’ legacy and how he identifies with the persecution that the sixth century Roman aristocrat experienced. Dante is the next stop in Ignatieff’s ambitious journey documenting consolation over thousands of years. Beatrice, one of Dante’s creations, now carries the torch once held by Lady Philosophy — illuminating the promise of paradise and revealing that Boethius himself is now an inhabitant of heaven, right next to the likes of St. Thomas Aquinas. Ignatieff takes care to link the people, philosophies and chapters in such a way that the book does not devolve into an anthology, but retains and common thread and thematic focus. For instance, when exploring David Hume, Ignatieff notes how the author of A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), rejects both the concept of the soul, as accepted in Christian thought, as well as the primacy of reason, as embraced by Cicero and other ancient philosophers. Hume believes that value and consolation is to be found in our interactions with others in society and in a personal freedom to fashion our own lives. After a lifetime of struggle with mental illness, and then physical ailments, Hume sought consolation in the hope of posterity.

As a resounding faith in human progress develops — and as Ignatieff presents Karl and Jenny Marx’s faith in an earthly utopia based on reason, where consolation would be as unnecessary as religious faith — the chapter depicting three witnesses to the horrors of the twentieth century is an act of dousing cold water on all of this. Russian poet Anna Akhmatova preserves the experience of women standing outside Kresky prison under Stalinist tyranny, waiting to see their incarcerated sons or husbands. She was there to visit her persecuted son, Lev Gumilev. Italian author Primo Levi records his day-to-day experiences in Auschwitz, and in particular an interaction with a Frenchman called Jean. The fellow inmate seeks to learn Italian and the two men begin to discuss and debate questions of translation. “The words reminded the two prisoners that they were not brutes, and that there was another world, beyond the wire, where one day they might live as men,” Ignatieff writes. He then turns to Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti and to the series of short poems he recorded in a notebook while he was in forced labour in 1944, as part of a mostly Jewish labour battalion. Radnóti lives with hope that the audible advance of the Russians means that the war would soon be over and that as he is marched from the copper mine in Serbia where he laboured back into Hungary, he would be going home to see his wife Fanni. In fact, he and other Hungarian Jews were being marched to a concentration camp in German territory. He documents how men around him, including a violinist from Budapest, are forced to empty their pockets and lie on the ground, before being gunned down by SS guards.

By November 1944, Radnóti and other inmates on the death march had become so weak that they could no longer walk. Hungarian guards placed their limp, near-dead bodies on a cart and transported them to a hospital. The hospital staff refused to treat the men. So, the Hungarian guards took them to a forest, gunned them all down and buried them in an unmarked, shallow grave. In 1946, Radnóti’s wife Fanni was informed of the exhumation of human remains and that Radnóti’s personal possessions had been recovered. She picked these up from a butcher shop — among these was the notebook with the poems that bore witness to the Holocaust. The paradox of Radnóti — and Ignatieff alludes to this — is that he is at the very heart of the canon of Hungarian literature. Schools are named after Radnóti and his poems are part of the Hungarian curriculum, even as Hungary continues to have much difficulty accepting Hungarians’ murderous deeds during the Holocaust. It is easier, but disingenuous to simply blame the occupying Germans. But as this book is about consolation, Ignatieff also suggests that the consolation that Akhmatova, Levi and Radnóti may have found in witnessing and recording the horrors they experienced is faith that future generations would heed their warnings and see all of what they recorded as valuable and instructive in building a world where none of this would be repeated.

It is in the chapter that I think we find two of the most seminal lines of this book. Speaking of Levi, Ignatieff writes that after the War, he had to “struggle with the disbelief in evil that is the chief illusion of happy lives.” Ignatieff, born in 1947, notes how the history of the Holocaust has marked his generation. Here he writes: “It was a past that put paid to any possibility, at least for me, that I could ever be consoled by Condorcet’s faith in progress or Marx’s faith in revolution.” If we needed evidence that human reason, the concept of enlightenment and the vague idea of progress could never stamp out the human propensity for evil, the twentieth century provided this in abundance. This is where I think religious faith, especially Christian, offers a sobering reminder: there is something intrinsically “fallen” about our world — something that no advance of human reason or understand will ever mend.

Ignatieff reminds me of many urban, learned, liberally-minded Central European intellectuals I’ve had the chance to meet in my adulthood, especially during more than a dozen trips to Budapest — in cafés, bistros, at political protests, public lectures and round-table discussions, at exhibitions, picnics or book launches.  Those would have been Ignatieff’s haunts as well, during his years living in the Hungarian capital. These well-read circles are often a repository of great lexical knowledge, a deep appreciation of the arts, a bastion of free thought and free expression and a place where memories of peaceful resistance or “internal emigration” during the one-party regime before 1989 are all shared. And so many twentieth century Hungarian authors, poets and thinkers did existentialism — including Christian existentialism — exceptionally well.

Yet sometimes, these salons and intellectual circles of central Pest can also make people myopic to the experiences of broader society. Ignatieff’s book isn’t myopic and insular — it’s a lyrical survey of a vast swatch of western civilization and it’s accessible to a broader audience — not just a small circle of academics. At one point, Ignatieff offers a particularly vivid depiction of a painting on the hope of salvation from the 1580’s entitled The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. The reader need not have seen it or know about it to gain an appreciation of El Greco’s work through Ignatieff’s written words. It’s Ignatieff’s conversational tone interspersed with some atmospheric prose that makes this complex history more accessible. But I do wonder if one of the main premises in the book — which comes close to writing off belief in the transcendental as waning to the point of irrelevance in the contemporary world — stems not from the author’s place in the elite circles of European intelligentsia; circles that are not representative of society as a whole.

Disaffiliation from traditional religious institutions in affluent, western societies is certainly real. When we prosper, when our temporal affairs are going well in our individual lives, we tend to rely on community (such as a church) much less. When daily life is not marked by the relentless pain and grind of survival in a harsh socio-economic or political climate, we don’t find ourselves pushed to the limits of what we can take and so we’re less likely to seek a power that is discernible only near the furthest limits of human knowing.  Disaffiliation from religious institutions does not necessarily translate into a lack of openness to the transcendental. I’m not referring to the cliché of being “spiritual but not religious.” Rather, outside the scope of a modernist mindset that seems increasingly dated, tired and out-of-touch, there are many younger demographics in western countries that are open to the unknown, to mystery and to the transcendental in ways that perhaps many of the generations before them were not.

The question of meaning — especially the meaning of suffering, and of human pursuit and resilience in general — is central to Ignatieff’s book. Those who hold to some faith in a Creator or a transcendental power may find meaning in being a part of something more than random chance. Bishop Barron suggested once that in a world without an intelligent Creator everything that happens to us — fortune and misfortune — is just “dumb luck.” Of course, there is sometimes talk of “meaning-making,” and this theme appears in Ignatieff’s book — that through our passions and pursuits, we can bring meaning to our existence and even find consolation — as Cicero and many others once sought. But from a strictly rational, non-religious view we are genuinely insignificant morsels in a vast, indifferent universe. That’s a point made particularly well in a thesis submitted by Robert Sykes to Saint Paul University’s Faculty of Theology. “An argument from the basis of science against the primacy of humanity [in the universe] is not a justification for refuting the dignity of humanity in creation…There is something about all of us that understands we are significant, even if we hold a very minor physical role in the universe as a whole,” Sykes writes.

The starting point for each person featured in Ignatieff’s book and the basis of their quest for consolation and to console — regardless of whether they were religious or atheist — was a recognition of their significance and dignity. The universe as we understand it gives us no reason to think that our lives, our pursuits and our turmoil have any significance or meaning at all. But in one way or another, everyone in the book — including the author himself — looks well beyond the limits of reason.

Published inBook Reviews

One Comment

  1. Gabriel Gabriel

    Very cool
    Understand the book Ignatieff
    The first step in understanding the creation thesis will be to understand the book of Job.
    The second step will be to understand what we are spiritual beings.
    From here it is easy to understand what we all live (we fill, we feel) through our beliefs (faith) and our reasons for each one, which does not mean the general reasons of humanity.
    Because for the reason of the last one above; it is beyond our ability to declare, determine and much less to indoctrinate any rules to define what will be a fair, optimal and flawless society.

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