There used to exist a literary genre called the consolatio, or consolatory essay. It is the type of thing that would be written by one person to another on the event of some terrible personal tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one. Sometimes (e.g., in the case of Boethius) the writer simply wrote it for himself. The ancient authors recognized it as a form of oratory, but it has been out of fashion for a long time now.
Such writings would take the form of essays, speeches, even letters. We do not really find them being written as formal compositions since the end of the Renaissance.
This is our loss, because I have found the consolatio to be a great tool in lifting one’s mood in dark moments. They really do make one feel better. That I can say with certainty. But such things take great skill to write. One must strike a delicate balance between sympathy and encouragement. Perhaps that is why modern writers shy away from them. It takes philosophical depth, tenderness, sympathy, and a breadth of understanding that many writers today lack. It also requires intimacy. Our modern culture, for all its pretenses to the contrary, is a profoundly non-intimate culture.
It likes to bombard us with stimuli, but it shrinks away from any real emotional connection. And over time, we all become numb to the feelings of others. We care about ourselves, but very little about assuaging the bereavements of our fellows. This is not all. Our attention-seeking culture does not favor the virtue of dealing with pain in a quiet and subdued way. People now want to share their pain with everyone else, often in the most distasteful and undignified way. It is a terrible feature of the popular culture. Fortitude has become a lost art.
I recommend reading the best of the consolatory essays. For me, the best are those composed by Plutarch, Seneca, and Boethius. I will discuss each of these briefly.
Plutarch (A.D. 46-120). Readers will already know that I am an enthusiastic devotee of Plutarch. His writing covers an incredible range of biographical and historical topics. He was also a committed Platonist, and sprinkled his pages with philosophical asides that add to the reader’s enjoyment. He was a privileged aristocrat, like most of the ancient writers, but in his writings was able to reach a depth of maturity and vision that few have matched. He was among the wisest of all the classical writers.
His consolation essay to his wife was written after the death of their very young daughter Timoxena. His wisdom, sympathy, and perspective are evident in every sentence. These passages give a flavor of the whole:
In the beginning everyone welcomes Grief into his house, and then when it has had time to take root and has become a companion and housemate, it will no longer depart when the inmates wish it to. It must therefore be resisted at the threshold, and not be allowed within the citadel by way of mourning dress or shorn locks or other such tokens, which, confronting and glowering upon us daily, render our spirits petty and narrow and confined and unsmiling and timorous, so that it has no share in jollity or brightness or the kindly board, being so besieged and hard pressed by grief. Upon this evil there follows neglect of the body and aversion to anointing, bathing, and other attention to the person. The opposite should be the case; a troubled soul should itself receive support from a robust body.
Here is another:
If you pity the baby because she departed this life unmarried and childless, again you have the consolation of knowing that you yourself enjoyed a full share of such experiences. It is not fair to set a high value upon these matters for those who lack them, and a low value for those who have them. She has arrived where there is no distress; there is then no need for us to be distressed. Why should we be afflicted with grief on her account when she herself can experience no grief? The loss of treasures loses its sting when they reach a state to which the sting is no longer appropriate. It was only of little things that your Timoxena was deprived, for all she knew was little things, and in little things she took her pleasure.
Seneca (4 B.C.–A.D. 65). Considered one of the best of classic Roman writers, his consolations have not received as much attention has his letters and Stoic essays. But they are still very good. They are not as intimate and personal as Plutarch’s consolation, but they are still excellent exemplars of the genre. Three have survived: De consolatione ad Marciam, De consolatione ad Helviam matrem, and De consolatione ad Polybium.
The consolation Ad Marciam was probably written around 40 A.D. Seneca wrote to Marcia, the daughter of a prominent Roman citizen, on the occasion of the death of her son. Here are some of his sentiments [Ad Marciam 7]:
Three years have now gone by, and your grief has not yet fallen away. It rejuvenates itself, and grows stronger daily; and having stayed there, it claim the right to remain. It thinks it wrong to leave. In the same way that all vices become part of us once they last for a long time, unless they are suppressed firmly once they make their appearance, so such misery and sadness, and self-torment, feed off of this kind of repressed rage. Unhappiness of the soul eventually becomes a kind of pleasure. For this reason I wanted to come to you about a cure for this at its very first stages…I cannot now treat such deep-rooted grief by handling it gingerly; it must be crushed. [Non possum nunc per obsequium nec molliter adsequi tam durum dolorem; fragendus est].
Boethius (480–524 A.D.) Perhaps the most poignant of all the consolation essays is that of Boethius. I wrote a complete chapter about him in my book Thirty-Seven, which contains detailed information about his life, works, and fate. He was once the court favorite of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, but lost favor in a dramatic way. He was clapped into jail and eventually executed on trumped-up charges of conspiracy.
His Consolation of Philosophy is one of the first expressions of the medieval mind. It was written while Boethius was rotting in one of Theodoric’s dungeons, and while he had ample time to contemplate his fate. It is not a consolation like the ones discussed above; it is more of a full-fledged treatise on fate, hope, and salvation.
Cicero (106–40 B.C.). Yes, even he wrote a consolation, and you can be sure I would have devoured it if I could. But, alas, the work has not survived the ravages of time. According to our best information, he composed it sometime around 45 B.C. He wrote it for himself. The occasion was the death of his beloved daughter Tullia; this tragedy nearly drove the great man insane with grief. We know the work only in the few fragments which survive in the writings of other authors, chiefly Lactantius.
There is an interesting side-note to the story of Cicero’s consolatio. In 1583 the Italian humanist Carlo Sigonio claimed to have found a complete copy of Cicero’s work. Doubts were immediately raised by other humanists, who noted the dissimilarities in the diction of the work with that of known works of Cicero. Sigonio was accused of forgery and fraud, but the matter was never really settled.
In 1999, a team of linguists, using computer regression techniques, definitely established that the alleged work was not by Cicero. It was a Renaissance forgery. The team’s report can be found here, and makes for interesting reading. Regardless, the loss of this work of Cicero is a tragedy, since it seems to have survived the Middle Ages, only to disappear sometime during the fifteenth century. Time truly does destroy all.
These consolations really do help to soothe the tumescence of the soul afflicted by grief or distress. They embody some of our noblest impulses: the handling of grief, and the fortitude needed in continuing life’s great journey.
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