On Consolation: Finding Solace in Dark Times by Michael Ignatieff

Michael Ignatieff’s On Consolation could not be more urgent. The book is subtitled Finding Solace in Dark Times, and who would dispute that these are dark times?

But consolation is a tough sell in the results-oriented marketplace of self-help. “The consolation prize is the one you don’t want to win,” Ignatieff writes. “A culture that chases success does not devote much attention to failure, loss, or death.” Elsewhere, he admits that “consolation may be the work of a lifetime.” You might as well title a book “The Sisyphean Futility of Tidying Up” or “Think and Grow Old.”

On Consolation is written for a certain kind of person: Western, educated, individualistic, and secular. We are “those who live outside Grace,” as Albert Camus said. “Our times,” according to Max Weber, another one of the book’s subjects, are characterized by “the disenchantment of the world.” Ignatieff wants to re-acquaint us moderns with the old ways we’ve left behind, and to remind us that some problems are, by their nature, beyond the powers of technology and good government.

He goes on to sketch a “collection of portraits” of mythical and historical figures “in extremity.” His choices, while undoubtedly worthy, are pretty conventional, but he mixes in a few welcome surprises. If, like me, you weren’t previously familiar with the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti or the English doctor Cicely Saunders, you won’t forget them.

Michael Ignatieff

Not all readers will see themselves represented, in the current understanding. But that didn’t stop enslaved Africans in America, or their descendants, from singing spirituals about Israelites in Babylon, weeping for Zion.

Ignatieff tells us that consolation is “an act of solidarity in space—keeping company with the bereaved, helping a friend through a difficult moment.” He shows us that it is also “an act of solidarity in time—reaching back to the dead and drawing meaning from the words they left behind.”

Boethius cited the ancients while writing The Consolation of Philosophy, which, 800 years later, inspired Dante’s Paradiso. Lincoln read from Psalm 19 in his second inaugural address. (“As was said three thousand years ago, so it still must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”) These lifelines, thrown across the centuries, link the book’s subjects to one another, and to us. “We are not marooned in the present,” Ignatieff writes.

Ignatieff is an accomplished historian of ideas, going back to his 1984 essay, “The Needs of Strangers,” and his new book can be read, in line with his earlier work, as a series of metaphysical case studies. But despite certain shared preoccupations and superficial similarities, the author of On Consolation is a different man.

In one of the book’s rare personal asides, Ignatieff writes that “of all the advantages conferred on me, the most incorrigible entitlement was existential: that I was somehow special,” adding, “Failure and age gradually teach most of us otherwise.” He doesn’t elaborate, but he doesn’t have to: it’s a matter of public record.

One night in 2004, Ignatieff was visited by three kingmakers who saw in him the next prime minister of Canada. Ignatieff had the right pedigree—his father was a diplomat, his grandfather a minister to Czar Nicolas II—and a sterling C.V. But he had spent most of his working life abroad, and they knew his cosmopolitanism could become an issue.

“I would tell my story as a homecoming,” he says of the messaging strategy in his 2013 campaign memoir, Fire and Ashes. “It was one of the oldest in the book: the prodigal’s return. In the Bible, didn’t everyone turn out to embrace him when he showed up on the dusty road?” Ignatieff finished a distant third, losing both the national election and his own seat in Parliament.

He went back to teaching and is currently a professor of history at Central European University in Vienna. Yet On Consolation is far from academic. The epiphanies in its pages are not arrived at by pure reason; they’re “forged in the crucible of experience.”

The men and women we meet are not yet required reading for liberal-arts majors, faces on coins and stamps, or names attached to inspirational quotes; they’re beset by “plague, the collapse of republican freedom, campaigns of mass extermination, enemy occupation, and catastrophic military defeat.” Survival is not assured, let alone posterity.

Ultimately, On Consolation is a book about the limits of ideas. “It is not doctrines that console us in the end, but people,” Ignatieff writes, a conclusion also reached by a few of the book’s most fervent crusaders.

Take Paul, who made belief rather than observance the central tenet of Christianity and promised all converts everlasting life yet made few inroads with his own people. “If I have faith that can move mountains”—and if anyone did, he did—“but have not love, I am nothing,” he said.

Or consider the Marquis de Condorcet, whose treatise on human perfectibility appeared the year after his violent death at the hands of his former comrades in the French Revolution. “I am holding onto life only by love and friendship,” he told his wife, Sophie, in one of his final letters. “What madness to dream of future centuries and not to live in the present.”

Ash Carter is the Features Editor for AIR MAIL and a co-author of Life Isn’t Everything: Mike Nichols, as Remembered by 150 of His Closest Friends