For several years now, Michael Fontaine has dedicated himself to discovering and reanimating the buried treasures of late Latin literature. This is a mark of the true humanist: the ability to sift, patiently and deliberately, through the silt of literary time, and locate those true gems that have been consigned to undeserved neglect. In 2020 he published an adroit translation of John Placentius’s unique satirical poem, The Pig War; that same year he released a wonderful rendition of Vincent Obsopoeus’s guide to controlled inebriation, How To Drink.
Translating is not glamorous work. Both of the works mentioned above date to the 1530s, and preparing them for modern consumption is hardly an easy task. There are some pulse-pounding Indiana Jones moments of discovery, of course, but these are followed by the many months of painstaking toil and tedium required to put a manuscript into acceptable shape. The rounds of translating, collating, editing, and correcting an old text are labors that only other scholars can fully appreciate. And yet Dr. Fontaine has always found a way to present his discoveries with a freshness and energy that hold the reader’s attention from the first page to the last.
His latest project is a fascinating volume entitled How To Grieve, recently released by the Princeton University Press. I was intrigued by the front cover’s declaration that the work was “inspired by Marcus Tullius Cicero.” What, I wondered, did this mean? Fontaine provides us the engaging details in his introduction. The work is an essay of consolation. At one time, the “consolation” was an accepted literary category; writers would compose their reflections on grief, death, and the fleeting nature of all things. Consolation essays enabled the bereaved to make sense of their pain, and assisted in emotional rehabilitation.
The best consolations combined persuasive rhetoric, cultural and religious allusions, literary quotations, and a refined, elegant sensitivity. As a literary device, they were generally addressed to a specific person, but were in fact intended for a wide audience. The most famous examples from antiquity are probably the consolations written by Plutarch and Seneca the Younger. Cicero was known to have written a consolatio; composed in March of 45 B.C., it was widely admired in antiquity. Fontaine describes the original work as “one of the great masterpieces of the ancient world, a new standard and source of solace and relief for centuries.” But this composition, along with other priceless Ciceronian works, such as On Glory and the philosophical treatise Hortensius, was lost in the centuries following Cicero’s death. Only scattered fragments have survived; the original was long thought to have been swallowed up by oblivion.
Or was it? In the year 1583, Dr. Fontaine tells us, a startling new book was published in Venice, claiming to be Cicero’s long lost Consolation. Was this the actual work? Had the text survived the Dark Ages and medieval period on some precious palimpsest in an obscure monastery? Had it now been finally pried from the jealous fingers of some abbot in the mountains of Germany, Switzerland, or northern Italy? No one really knew, and the publisher was not willing to divulge any details. Yet the text was convincing to those acquainted with Cicero’s stylistic peculiarities. It felt like Cicero. The hopes and expectations of the humanists were tempered by the uncertainty of the text’s background; but if it was not Cicero, then it was a brilliant forgery, and therefore had merit in its own right.
What made the document so convincing was that it weaved all the known fragments of Cicero’s work into a coherent whole, in a way that revealed no ruptures, seams, or breaks in thought. The author—perhaps we should call him Pseudo-Cicero—was clearly someone with a profound knowledge of Latin composition and the Ciceronian corpus. “Much of the content,” writes Fontaine, “matches what we find in the Tusculan Disputations, a text Cicero began writing very soon after.” Although the text’s murky pedigree aroused the suspicions of many scholars, the newly-discovered consolatio was included—with some reservations—among Cicero’s collected works for centuries after it first appeared in 1583.
But alas, the essay would not stand up to modern forensic scrutiny. Fontaine relates how computer programs that can analyze “stylometrics” have determined that the 1583 text was almost certainly not written by Cicero. It seems to have been a brilliant literary exercise penned by an ardent humanist who, for his own reasons, chose to remain anonymous. And here we begin to enter the world of philosophical speculation. One begins to wonder: even if the document is spurious, does it not help to convey Cicero’s ideas? Fontaine makes an important point:
Furthermore, it’s clear that the forger combed every single one of Cicero’s philosophical essays, as well as the entire consolatory tradition, in assembling this essay. One can imagine the forger copying relevant passages into notecards, spreading them out on a table, and then carefully assembling them into a coherent whole. The result is akin to the best historical fiction of Robert Harris.
What is odd about all this is that it requires more labor to execute this sort of forgery than it would be for the Pseudo-Cicero simply to write his own original work. But this is missing the point, of course. The motivations of men are many and impenetrable. There are some minds that simply delight in the activity itself. Who can say? In any case, the essay is a brilliant addition to the consolation tradition, and has a special quality of its own, despite its specious origin.
The essay begins, as Cicero’s essays usually do, with a preamble and introductory remarks. It then proceeds to discuss the “stages of life,” the miseries of man, and the omnipresence of death. We are treated to many examples of Roman courage, as well as arguments on the necessity of living one’s life rightly and the immortality of the soul. Most endearing of all are the sections paying tribute to Cicero’s beloved, and deceased, daughter Tullia:
You see, she was naturally predisposed to side with what she deemed noble and right, but she didn’t stop there. She’d analyze and assess situations so masterfully, you’d think native wits were the one thing she needed least. And if you’d examined her conduct and character is greater detail, or witnessed her skillful household management, deep knowledge, and knack for everything, hardly anything would have needed a man’s wisdom or patriarch’s acumen to understand and settle matters. She was a woman, and yet fortitude and practicality—so rare even in us men—were so highly developed in her that she never sought outside help for her ordeals. [p. 159]
Are there any specific techniques that can help us deal with our grief? One way is by following the example of great men:
On that topic, a great deal of good lies in imitation. A lot of people willingly seek out and imitate the actions they see as responsible for others getting the things they want themselves. Hence it frequently happens that modeling themselves on great men awakens a sense of heroism for many, and in many situations they’d never even thought about before; and once heroism starts pumping, needless to say, it makes rapid gains in progress and musculature. [p. 217]
It struck me while reading Dr. Fontaine’s translation that the consolation genre would be an excellent starting point for someone seeking insight and ideas on how to deliver a funeral eulogy. What public address could be more difficult to conceive and compose? What tone is, and is not, appropriate? Is it better for the eulogist to aim for seriousness, or anecdotal levity? These are not easy questions, but I believe that the consolation has significant, and underappreciated, practical value to us moderns in many applications. Dr. Fontaine’s new translation is a major contribution to the consolation tradition, if we may use this term. And, because tragedy and grief are inseparable parts of human existence, it is a tradition that will never die.
Read more in How To Grieve: