BMCR 2013.10.27

Greek and Roman Consolations: Eight Studies of a Tradition and its Afterlife

, Greek and Roman Consolations: Eight Studies of a Tradition and its Afterlife. Swansea: Classical Press of Wales, 2013. xxv, 200. ISBN 9781905125562. $100.00.

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

Thinking seems to be essential to the work of mourning. Freud described that work as a process of rousing memories of the deceased and choosing in each case the prospects of life over brooding upon the loss; having discharged one’s affection for that memory, one lets go at last. This task was not unknown to the ancients, as the Greek and Latin consolations testify. Perhaps the difficulty of this “grief work” accounts for the relative neglect into which these ancient texts have fallen. While there has been recent interest in consolation among Spanish scholars,1 this compilation, which collects papers from a December 2007 colloquium on the “Greek and Roman consolation tradition and its influence,” is the first attempt to treat both traditions of consolation on a book-length scale in English.2 Han Baltussen and the contributors’ work must be recognized, then, as an important effort to push the limits of current scholarship. But more than that, the achievement of these eight chapters is commendable, and they constitute the high-water mark of scholarship on classical consolation.

J.H.D. Scourfield develops a generic model that rejects the strict boundaries on form and content of a traditionally conceived genre, and treats consolation primarily as a social practice. He proceeds empirically toward a heuristic framework, designed to enable critical work without imposing arbitrary closure on the range of texts that may be considered consolatory. Scourfield places polite letters of consolation intended for private circulation—Sulpicius Rufus’ letter to Cicero, for example —at one end of a spectrum; at the other, he situates texts designed for public ceremonies—such as the funeral oration composed by Ambrose for Valentinian II. He introduces a further distinction between consolatory and metaconsolatory texts: the latter comment upon or theorize the practice of consolation that occurs in the former. In this way, Scourfield accounts for a text such as Cicero’s Disputationes Tusculanae as more metaconsolatory, and one such as Seneca’s ad Helviam as more consolatory. Scourfield’s contribution thus distinguishes the surviving consolations by open, inclusive designations that do justice to their great variation.

This perspective helpfully maps each of the essays in this volume. Some examine texts recognized as consolations “in the core sense,” while others treat texts that fall at the outer limits of Scourfield’s spectrum. Three essays devote their attention to these core consolations. Baltussen argues that the chronology of Cicero’s response to the loss of his daughter reveals a process of “grief work.” Featuring a helpful review of Kumaniecki’s reconstruction of the Consolatio, Baltussen’s contribution is most valuable for its theoretical treatment of Cicero’s texts. He explains Cicero’s mourning through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s stages of grief and modern bibliotherapy, thus theorizing the importance of Cicero’s practice of writing for his recovery.3 Baltussen observes that Cicero’s innovative “self-consolation” moved him quite unconsciously beyond his grief to the acceptance that one may discover in the Disputationes Tusculanae. This places the Consolatio at a crucial moment of personal and philosophical transformation; its composition seems to have precipitated Cicero’s “ambitious programme” to establish a body of Latin philosophical texts.

Marcus Wilson takes past scholarship to task for failing to treat Seneca’s practice of consolation with sufficient complexity. While epistles 63 and 99 as well as the three consolatory “essays” have always been considered central to consolation literature, Wilson expands the range of texts by including passages from Seneca’s dramas, in this way emphasizing the multiplicity of voices in Seneca’s texts. In so doing, Wilson reconsiders the possibility that Seneca may have rejected the efficacy of consolation altogether. He is shown to have regarded the purpose of consolation as the cultivation of virtuous courage opposed to grief, not the complete extirpation of passion. Wilson concludes that the public dissemination of consolatory texts indicates a political purpose. In sum, the expansion of Seneca’s consolatory corpus to include the subtleties of his dramatic and rhetorical composition shows that Seneca’s practice of consolation cannot be considered purely interpersonal exchange; rather, acknowledging his multiple voices and registers of discourse allows the political agenda of — for example — Seneca’s address to the daughter of Cremutius Cordus to come into greater visibility.

George Boys-Stones treats the Consolatio ad Apollonium found in Plutarch’s corpus, another text central to the traditional definition of consolation. Boys-Stones presents his analysis as a series of readings, leading the text’s addressee deeper into Platonic philosophy. On a first reading, one should receive encouragement in overcoming paralyzing grief, such as that for the lost child. One must on a second reading reconceive the lost child as “an emblem” of one’s own errant emotions. This quasi-allegorical reading of the text invites the reader to turn inward, regarding the pain that grief causes not as the inevitable loss natural to our condition, but as a weakness of reasoning challenged by powerful forces of emotion. Finally, Boys-Stones highlights the quotations from Plato’s First Alcibiades and Gorgias, arguing that their appearance here parallels a progression, also described by Olympiodorus, from these two Platonic dialogues to the Phaedo, upon which text the author of this letter promises to send to his addressee a commentary at a later time. Boys-Stones concludes that these references show Platonic consolation to have moved its addressee first into a placid emotional state, and then to have persuaded the readied soul with reason; the subsequent commentary on the Phaedo should invite the rational soul to consider its own immortality.

The remaining chapters discuss texts that have previously been considered peripheral to consolation as traditionally defined. James H. K. Chong-Gossard’s contribution accounts for the scenes of consolation in Athenian tragic production, illustrating how “consolatory motifs” must be recognized as such to appreciate their dramatization of the consequences of rejecting consolation. Carefully analyzed examples, such as the Sophoclean Electra’s exchange with the Argive women and the Euripidean Heracles’ advising Admetus, substantiate Chong-Gossard’s argument that the exceptional degree of suffering proper to tragic heroes goes beyond the reach of consolatory advice. Scholars of tragedy and of philosophical consolation alike will find the examples studied and the analysis offered rewarding to consider.

In his insightful contribution, David Konstan analyzes one of the metaconsolatory texts, discussing Lucian’s Περὶ πένθους as a “comic critique” of consolation. This critique suggests that consolation misses the cause of grief: one’s shared sense of self with the deceased. Konstan argues that texts from the philosophical tradition show an awareness of this true cause, and that Epicurus (and the Epicureanism of Philodemus in particular) allows for mourning in his psychology. Indeed, Konstan’s most provocative claim is that Epicurus—and not Crantor—may have invented the consolation genre to address this very concern. Lucian, however, develops no positive account of the value of mourning, but instead reduces the consolatory commonplaces that appear in his text ad absurdum. In one instance, he introduces a captious speech by a deceased son, who relies upon Socratic arguments about the advantages of dying before old age to berate his mourning father. Such hyperbole, Konstan holds, indicates that Lucian recognized limitations on the force of consolatory arguments. The satirical use of these arguments could point, though, toward common ground with the Epicureans and a more profound understanding of the need for grieving.

The last two contributions discuss the reception of ancient consolation in medieval traditions of philosophical thought. Josef Lössl revisits consolation in Augustine’s writings, demonstrating best how Scourfield’s inclusive conception of consolatory literature improves upon earlier research. Buttressing Scourfield’s position with Pierre Hadot’s well-known account of ancient philosophy as a “form of life,” Lössl offers an appropriate paradigm by which consolations may be defined as philosophical: each mode of consolation is appropriate to a different form of life.4 Lössl goes on to claim that, beyond the recognized consolatory epistles (92, 203, 204, 259, and 263), Augustine’s Confessiones may be understood as a transformation of philosophical consolatory practice (especially as it was transmitted to him by Manichaean contemporaries). An intelligent analysis of epistle 92 demonstrates how Augustine appropriates the consolatory motifs shared across virtually all modes of consolation in order to serve his Christian theological instruction, and how in this context this instruction becomes consolatory by attraction. Such analysis illustrates how work on Augustine’s longer, more involved texts may proceed.

Peter Adamson focuses on the Arabic reception of consolation, commenting upon three ethical texts: al-Kindī’s On the Method of Dispelling Sorrow, al-Rāzī’s Spiritual Medicine, and Miskawayh’s Refinement of Character. He shows how these authors supplemented the tripartite soul of their Platonic psychology with an Aristotelian emphasis on habituation. Adamson highlights in these texts what he calls the “vulnerability argument:” that someone or something’s impermanence is a strong argument against investing affection in that person or thing. Acknowledging that for all but the rare few it is impossible to do entirely without loved ones, these authors advise that one must settle for a balance between vain attachments to corruptible things and secure withdrawal from them. A preventative habituation through exercises, such as imagining in advance the loss of loved ones, may nevertheless moderate grief. Adamson claims, further, that although the authors boast a further curative therapy for unanticipated grief, each still tends to fall back to counseling preventative treatment by habituation, even for the unprepared. Adamson concludes his contribution with humane wisdom, observing that, although these philosophers may demand of their audience the extremes of philosophical self-discipline, by leaving room for human frailty’s dependence upon others they ultimately counsel a moderation that knows sorrow, but tries to check it.

Baltussen’s collection ought to provoke rich scholarly discussion. The contributors have established terms and pursued themes that may be extended to other consolatory texts not treated here, such as the fragments of Crantor, Dio Chrysostom’s Charidemus, or Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae. Scourfield and Baltussen’s theoretical reflections in the introduction and their respective essays helpfully conceive of consolation as an ancient social practice, and welcome further theoretical consideration from other perspectives, such as feminism, psychoanalysis, and discourse analysis. Above all, these essays will act as enlightening guides to further scholarship on the consolation. They will also be important references for scholars studying the role of emotion in ancient ethics, Greek and Roman mourning practices, lamentation and mourning in Greek and Latin tragedy, and, not least, ancient philosophy and its later reception.

Table of Contents

Introduction – Han Baltussen
1 Towards a Genre of Consolation – J. H. D. Scourfield
2 Mourning and Consolation in Greek Tragedy: The rejection of comfort – James H. K. Chong-Gossard
3 Cicero’s Consolatio ad se : Character, purpose and impact of a curious treatise – Han Baltussen
4 Seneca the Consoler? A New Reading of his Consolatory Writings – Marcus Wilson
5 The Consolatio ad Apollonium : Therapy for the dead – George Boys-Stones
6 The Grieving Self: Reflections on Lucian’s On Mourning and the consolatory tradition – David Konstan
7 Continuity and Transformation of Ancient Consolation in Augustine of Hippo – Josef Lössl
8 Arabic Ethics and the Limits of Philosophical Consolation – Peter Adamson


1. See the essays collected in Concepción Alonso del Real, ed., Consolatio: Nueve Estudios, (Pamplona: EUNSA, 2001). From Germany, see Bernhard Zimmermann, “Philosophie als Psychotherapie : Die Griechisch-Römische Consolationsliteratur,” in Stoizismus in der Europäischen Philosophie, Literatur, Kunst und Politik, 1 (New York: de Gruyter, 2008): 193-213.

2. The scholarship in English offers only partial treatments: Sister Mary Evaristus, M.A. “The Consolations of Death in Ancient Greek Literature” (Catholic University of America, 1917); Sister Mary Edmond Fern, The Latin Consolatio as a Literary Type (Saint Louis: The Abbey Press St. Meinrad, Ind., 1941); Robert Clark Gregg, Consolation Philosophy: Greek and Christian Paideia in Basil and the Two Gregories (Cambridge, MA: Philadelphia Patristic Foundation, 1975).

3. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and David Kessler, On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief through the Five Stages of Loss (New York: Scribner, 2005).

4. Hadot, Pierre. What Is Ancient Philosophy? Trans. by Michael Chase. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002.