Why? Radio episode “Consolation, Solace, and Leadership” with Guest Michael Ignatieff
1:06PM May 17, 2023
Jack Russell Weinstein
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The original episode can be found here: https://wp.me/p8pYQY-k0v
Why philosophical discussions about everyday life is produced by the Institute for philosophy and public life, a division of the University of North Dakota's College of Arts and Sciences. This season is made possible in part by a grant from the Knight Foundation and the Community Foundation of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks. Visit us online at why radio show.org
Why philosophical discussions about everyday life is produced by the Institute for philosophy and public life, a division of the University of North Dakota's college of arts and sciences. Visit us online at why radio show.org
Hi, I'm Jack Russell Weinstein host why philosophical discussions about everyday life. Today we are asking what it means to offer consolation with our guest, Michael Ignatieff.
Human beings live in our own imaginations. What happened yesterday, what happened five minutes ago, the beginning of this sentence, they don't really exist anymore. They're just memories imperfect and fleeting. We can try to preserve them through language or art. But these are analogies and metaphors, approximations that we and others must interpret, and that no one will ever get exactly right. We lose what happens to us we are a species born to say goodbye. A lot has been said by philosophers about human mortality. Heidegger famously called us beings unto death, creatures who are defined by awareness that we will die. I get his point. But it's not enough. Yes, we will die, so will our loved ones. But we'll also never again be surprised that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker is father or eat that unimaginably good gnocchi in Rome, or hold our children as newborns. The human experience is bittersweet at best, and we are constantly looking for consolation to make ourselves feel better about it. One way we take solace is by telling ourselves that the fleeting nature of life makes it more valuable, that our experiences are special precisely because we can't go back. This feels like a pretty capitalist mentality. To me. Rarity gives precious metals value. But that's not why I loved snuggling my daughter, I'd be five times as happy if it were five times less rare. Then we console ourselves by accepting that we say goodbye to some things so we can say hello to others. We learned Darth Vader's secret, so we could have a more cinematic closure. We give up holding newborn so that we can see who these children grow into. If they remain kids perpetually, then they themselves will never get to hold their own newborns. And sure, this makes sense. But again, if I could go back and forth in time to experience both at Well, I would do so without a moment's hesitation. A third way we find solace in the fleeting nature of human experiences by defining ourselves as the product of what happens to us. As Alistair McIntyre explains it. We are the narrative story we tell to connect our own experiences. I am the person who learned about Luke Skywalker, his dad then became a dad myself. And then somewhere after that had that great gnocchi, while wishing I could share it with my then middle school daughter. Our experiences don't really leave us they make us personally, I find this the most persuasive constellation, but it is still a constellation nonetheless. And what works on one person in one time period may not work on someone else somewhere else. Like all philosophical terms. Constellation has a history, it has evolved, grown more sophisticated and been passed on generation to generation. Both Cicero and Abraham Lincoln had to find solace in the face of civil dissolution. Job and primo levy were tortured for no good reason, and Khumbu and all of us had to make peace with a plague laced with fascism. Each describe constellation differently and each ended up using language to take on the mantle of moral leadership, to guide humanity to the next step of understanding in a world unto impermanence. On today's episode, we're going to explore the history of constellation together, Lascaux literature, correspondence, politics, art and philosophy have combined to create a unique tradition overlapping the individual and collective needs of those who grieve. But we'll deal with a twist, we are joined by Michael Ignatieff, a historian, political philosopher, public intellectual and the former leader of the Canadian Labour Party. This means that he is in a particular position to discuss with us not just the intellectual evolution of consolation, but also the burdens that imposes on leadership, a weight that both D personalizes the experience of grief and makes it more intimate. To illustrate my point, Barack Obama famously cried during his speech describing the first graders who were massacred at Sandy Hook. First, he lists examples of mass shootings, mentions the kids starts to cry, tries to compose himself wipes a tear from his eyes and then says, Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad. He pauses and then adds almost contemptuously. And by the way, it happens on the streets of Chicago every day. The crowd applauds. What we witnessed there in real time as a human being faced with human horror, whose leadership and masculinity risk being undermined by exp Questions of grief. America is a culture where men, especially black men are not permitted to cry in public. So the President converts it to anger and addresses the unspoken accusation of hypocrisy, that he only cares about white kids from Connecticut. As we shall see, an analogous scene was played up by Cicero with the loss of his daughter. His grief destroyed his political power, Obama's did not even though Obama has been as useless to solve the underlying issue as Cicero, the President was never able to make any headway in the gun epidemic no one has. And thus we returned to constellation, the process of helping all of us come to terms with that which will not change, the ephemeral nature of human experience will never go away. Even if we were to suddenly become immortal, it would still be the case that our endless lives would still be the products of our endless memories. It is for this reason, that constellation can also only be a mental phenomenon, we accepted or rejected in our mind, as we shall see, we can never be compelled to constellation, we must decide to be consoled. Each of us must accept when and how it is right.
And now our guest Michael Ignatieff is a trained historian, a professor, author, broadcaster and the former leader of the Canadian Liberal Party. He has written fiction, history, philosophy and public commentary, and currently teaches at Central European University in Vienna, Austria, where he has served as rector He is the author most recently of on constellation finding solace in dark times. Michael, thank you for joining us on why.
Nice to be here, Jack.
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I don't know that envy is consoling, doesn't it sounds like a bad constellation to me.
Well, it may not be an ideal partnership. But you know, you work with what you have. Right? I guess I want to just start off by asking, why constellation? What is it that brought you to that question? And after such a varied and storied career? Why did you settle on telling the stories of so many other people struggling with the same issue?
It's a good question. And often the sources of the books you write are a little mysterious to you. I mean, I've had a happy and lucky life in many ways. But I have had moments of paralyzing grief when my mum and dad died. So there's personal sources. I've also tried to console others, and discover that it is the ultimate test of human solidarity. You know, when someone loses their partner of many years or loses their mom or dad, Words fail us. And so I was particularly interested in a moment of human life where words fail us. And I wanted to find some words that wouldn't fail us when we need to do what we should be doing with other people, which is trying to help them through grief and suffering and loss.
This is a theme that runs through all of the accounts that you present, which is there's this tension between the loneliness and isolation of those needing constellation. And the poll of the people providing constellation, how much is that tension, a part of the central idea of the the social versus the individual, the isolated versus the community oriented? Is that Is that ever present?
I think it is I think any of us and maybe the folks listening to this will know what I mean it when you suffer loss or failure or grief. You feel alone your first experiences of solid Dude, when you get a little carried away, you think no one has ever been in this situation before no one has ever lost a mother like I have no one has ever failed at a job like I have you. It's the solitude that strikes you. And when people come to console you, one of the things they're trying to say is, you're not alone. I've been there, I know what you're going through, I know what you're feeling. And that's the essential performance of consolation, which is just to end the solitude that surrounds us. When we experience grief, or failure or loss,
this is the definition that you offer. In the beginning of the book, the Latin comes from consular to find solace together. So the first question I'm going to ask, which is actually a manipulative question to lead to a second question. Does this definition really help us? I mean, it when you present sort of the Latin roots, does that really clarify what the idea is? Or is it I don't know, just a seed for the growth of the further conversation?
Well, I think you can define constellation in contrast to comfort, that helps to clarify a bit. That is Jack, if you if I knew you will, and I wanted to comfort you, I'd simply sit with you maybe put my arm around you, if we knew each other really well share a beer, if that's what you like drinking, we wouldn't need to say very much, I wouldn't offer you any words, we just be together. And you would talk or not talk or whatever. But if I console you, I need to give you meanings. To make your suffering bearable. I need to say if you failed at something, something like Jack, you gave it your best shot. If you've lost a loved one, I have to talk about the loved one you've lost and try and and try and say essentially, that person is not entirely dead they live on in your memory. And those memories will eventually be consoling. In other words, I have to provide some meanings, some words that allow you to reframe what you've been through in such a way that you can endure it with comfort, I don't need to say a word. But with constellation, I've got to put some propositions out there. And that's why constellation is so difficult. Because, frankly, there are a lot of propositions that don't make any damn difference. I mean, what I'm interested about constellation is that it's so hard words, as I say, fail us. And, and yet, we can't do without it. We really do need consolation in the form of propositions. And we often don't get it.
I'm struck by how common although that's not the right word. It is for people to struggle with the idea of constellation because one of the things I was going to mention is that is that not a lot of people are writing about this, there's not a lot of explicit discussion of constellation called constellation in the philosophical literature. But one of my favorite books and a book that many people know when bad things happen to good people. That struggles from the sauce start with the same place you do the horribleness of the job story, the
N successful attempts that people have around us to, to define to explain to actually offer a constellation, why is it so hard? Why is constellation such a difficult concept? If it's so central to our experience? Why do we have such a hard time with it?
Well, I think first of all, it constellation is essentially a religious word and a religious concept. And when people believed in the whole thing that is believed in an afterlife believe that there was a life after death. Constellation had a whole structure, it had a whole system. And our difficulty now in the 21st century, and the reason constellation is so difficult is all that is for many people, possibly not for some of your listeners, but for many of your listeners. This simply dropped away. We can't say to someone who's lost their mom or dad, you're going to see Him in heaven. It just doesn't doesn't work for us anymore. So that's one element of the difficulty. The other element of the difficulty is the question of truth. If I say to you, Jack, you gave it your best shot. When you failed at something, you're asking yourself, did I really give it my best shot? Did I really not leave anything on the table? Is this failure? excusable, because I did everything I could. That's an example where the problem we have with constellation is the question of truth. Are we being truthful to the person we're trying to console? And are we being truthful to ourselves, and consolation raises nagging, difficult questions about whether we're fooling ourselves just to make ourselves feel better?
You mentioned believing in the whole thing, which is a phrase I love. And in the book, you identify the 16th century as the place where that stops having the same kind of impacted the way that you describe it is people stop believing as readily in a paradise afterlife what's happening in the 16th century that causes that? And why does that Mark such a desperate moment in the history of the idea of constellation?
Well, I think some of it is just the 16th century is the century of civil war and religious violence, two contending versions of the truth of the Christian faith, Protestant and Catholic. And they slaughter each other, and they slaughter each other for the better part of the 16th century. And the person I look at hard in the book is Michel de Mille Chan, the French essayist who lives in on his estate near Bordeaux. And he spends his entire adult life in the middle of a vicious Civil War, and on top of that plague, which breaks out, in some sense, in consequence to the Civil War. So he lives a period of horror. And what he sees is men slaughtering each other, for the sake of competing visions to the Christian religion, and he, he ends up hating both of them. I mean, he's, uh, you know, he's a Catholic, he goes to church. I mean, he, you know, he's not jettisoning at all, but he, he realizes these languages, which are killing each other, or leading people to kill each other, are simply not a source of consolation that he can believe. And he begins to go back and ask himself a different question, which is, what gets me through my life? What what is it that gives me despite all the horror around me, such a love and appetite for the simple business of living. And he begins to think about his own body, he thinks about his own habits, he thinks about the things that give him pleasure, and begins to tell a story to himself, that is very secular, that is basically based on a simple, almost biological love of life that propels him forward. And is then also the other thing he loves, is thinking about himself and thinking about his life and trying to give shape and meaning to his life. And these are the consoling activities that he believes in not the constellations offered by warring faiths.
I want to revisit Montaigne and some of the other figures in the book shortly. But I want to go back to a question I had in mind that that comes out of what you just said. But Montaigne is an exemplar of something. Why our intellectual history is so important. You know, we're raised in America, at least we're raised with a sense that history is events that happened, and the stories that we tell to justify the events and we'll look at texts, like the Declaration of Independence, but we don't have a sense of, of the history of ideas in school. What is it that intellectual history is provide and as a historian yourself, how do you make the case for that kind of approach to the human story?
What a good question. I, I think it's, you know, all I can do is and explain why I did it, which is, I try to locate all the texts, the stuff I work on, by locating them in lives real lives. You can read more intense essays without thinking about his life, but I know Think you really understand those essays until you understand he's living in the middle of a brutal civil war. So my sense is that the reason you want to do intellectual history is to reconnect ideas, to the flesh and blood lives that created them. And when you do that, you get a tremendous sense of kinship. The past is not another country, the past is, your brothers and sisters in time, you have a strong sense that Michelle on on 10 understands things about life that you don't, and so you want to sit with him, and kind of in his study and spend time with him, and I felt that with all the people in my book, I, because a lot of what I think is, the nature of our suffering is that we feel we're alone, we have, we have no one to share the burden of our pain. And this book is kind of saying, Look, just reach on, go go to your shelf, pull down that book, read it. And, and if you entered deeply enough into the life of the person who wrote it, you will find that someone has had exactly the feelings you've had before, has been in exactly the same hole that you're trying to dig yourself out of. And this kinship across time is important to me emotionally, I just think we're not. I absolutely disbelieve the idea that we're kind of marooned in the 21st century, not knowing where to turn, how to turn, how to orient ourselves, we have 2000 years of human experience behind us. And all we have to do is use it and use it to guide us and oriented. It's possibly a conservative view of things. But I'm unrepentant about it. It's something I believe, passionately. And that's why I do the history of ideas, just to connect to minds greater than my own, and to understand how the ideas came out of their lives. And that's what intellectual history means to me. And that's why I do it.
When we come back from the break, I want to pull this thread about ideas a little more, and the ideas present in texts as well, because that's going to set the foundation for us looking at some of the figures in the books and the way that the their lives, connect with their writings, but also music and visual art, too. It's not just literature. But for the moment you're listening to Michael Ignatieff and Jack Russell Weinstein on why philosophical discussions about everyday life, we'll be back right after this.
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You're back with why philosophical discussions with everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Russell Weinstein. We're talking with Michael Ignatieff about consolation and solace and the history of the concept and the different ways that it manifests itself in different people's minds. Now, I may have told the story on the show before it's been 15 years. But when I first started grad school, I wasn't actually an a PhD in Philosophy program was an interdisciplinary program at Boston University called the university professors program. And there was a seminar that we had to take, which each week was a different professor's research. And I remember very vividly that there was this guy who was talking about metaphors, and he was talking about the problem with metaphors is that they try to tell the truth through a lie, that a metaphor is describing something that it's not in order to explain what it is. And so the idea behind metaphor is that, that you take something similar analogous, metaphorical, for lack of a better term, and you use it to explain a difficult concept. And I remember at the time thinking, This is dumb, this is a waste of my time. This is you know, just Silly academic nonsense or whatever. And it is not an understatement to say that this is probably one of two or three things that I talked to my students more about, or talk or mentioned more often than anything else, I have come back to that concept in class in conversation hundreds of times since 1991, when I taught that seminar. And Michael, I use that just as a personal example to ask you, I think, what might be a difficult question, which is, is it possible to know in advance which ideas will play when we read the history of consolation, and we read these famous figures David Hume, primo Levy, El Greco, we have these ideas that, in retrospect, seem inevitable. Can you go the other way? Can you see an idea on paper and say, this is going to make a difference? This is going to be something we're going to be talking about in 200 years? Or is that just impossible?
It's impossible. I mean, I think we have no way of, of knowing. It's one of the reasons we use the past, because looking backwards, we see much more clearly than we can possibly see looking forwards. And I have a feeling that right out there right now, among people listening to this show, there are sources of consolation in their lives, of which I have absolutely no idea at all. And those sources of consolation, they might be religious, they might be love of nature. They might be social and family connections. They might be a book that I don't even know about that in 200 years will be in some book, like the one I've written. And I can't imagine what that book will say, I can't imagine what it will include. And that's essentially why we we care about the past, because these are works that have stood the test of time. They've been tried, they've been tested, they've been found worthy. The best example of this are the Psalms. I'm not a religious person. But somewhere in some hotel, somebody's picking up a Bible from next to their bedside, who may be as irreligious as I am. And deriving insight, comfort and even consolation from the Psalms. And so I'm a, I'm a big believer in, in refusing this idea that as I said before, we're marooned in the present. We're not marooned in the present. We've got all these resources just behind us. And we need to turn to them. But there's no doubt that somebody right now is developing new languages of consolation that in 200 years will be what consoles them.
Is there anything on the list that you encountered that surprised you that you thought not just I didn't think anyone would use this tool, but also would ask would say to yourself, I can't believe anyone. This seems to prurient or this seems to biological or this seems too fanciful. Was there something that that took you by surprise?
I think I was most surprised Jack by Cicero's tears. I've always had this image of Cicero in his toga. I've read some Cicero, Cicero declaiming. Cicero, pontificating Cicero, seeming to know everything Cicero, the prophet of stoicism. And then I came upon letters that he wrote after his daughter died. And Cicero is just completely disabled by grief. And I found that very surprising, is almost a parody of male stoic self command. And people have been reading Cicero for 2000 years, and imbibing this message of stoic self command. Big Boys Don't Cry, you know, that kind of stuff. And here's a man losing his only daughter and being for six months absolutely unable to function at all except to pour his heart out in letters to his male friends. And so I'm much more interested check in The Cicero who's weeping in the Cicero who's sitting on his high horse giving me lessons. And a lot of the book is like that I'm very interested in people at the end of their 10th, finding the strength, and the resilience and the resources to go on. And, and Cicero does eventually find his way back. But it's the struggle to get some control over this inner darkness. That made him a much more attractive figure than I imagined.
And let's talk a little bit about this because of course, in the book, you set the scene beautifully, and he loses his adult daughter. And he becomes so grief stricken that he can't take the leadership role as as, as as as a Caesar as as a leader of Rome. And the whole time he's grieving. The other people in his life are saying, you're going to destroy your leadership. Why should you be so upset about your private grief when when Rome is falling apart, step up. Before it's too late, and ultimately, it becomes too late. Right? Ultimately, he can't get past the Gree fast enough to protect the room that he is supposed to be representing. This is actually part of what I had in mind when I mentioned Barack Obama in the beginning of the monologue, what struck me as so shocking about the story is that nobody seemed to give weight to the loss of his daughter, that what why he was so upset, in part was, no one was willing to give him consolation, that they were all saying focus on more important things, distract yourself, your daughter isn't as important as Rome. And, you know, as a father of a daughter, I, I don't like to use the word offensive. But I was really I mean, that really bothered me that that he had to fight
for, you know, this is this is deeply coated in our culture. I mean, your story about Barack is, is it's the same story in a way that is, you know, the the President doesn't cry, the you know, men in authority and leadership Do not cry. Women don't either. The public realm has very strict rules. I used to be in the public room realm you don't. You don't share private grief in public. It's what goes with being a dignified person. And a lot of this we get from the Romans, we get it from Cicero. And it was it is appalling to look back at the letters that people, Cicero's male friends wrote back to him saying, Shape Up, Cicero, get your act together. Stop blubbering about some woman who you've lost. It's very sexist. It's very coated with a certain kind of masculine idea of how men should overcome grief. And I find it interesting because I think this doesn't end with the Romans. He was Cicero, in fact, creates this stoic complex of ideas, that is imprisoned men for 2000 years. And, and as you say, I find it fascinating that a man who created a language of consolation that is the language of stoic self command, stoic resilience, stoic reserve, when he turned to the language he had himself created, it was of no use. And so this is a book that showing when languages constellation break down altogether, and Cicero is, in some sense, the most surprising, and I think, important example of that breaking down. And I think that we have the same issues about male self control to this day, in part because of this 2000 year old heritage.
And this is enhanced, of course, by this overall historical sense that men are somehow more valuable than women to begin with the number of people who asked my wife if I was disappointed because I had a daughter, or the woman who was oh, oh, yeah, absolutely. In fact, when did you know this? I still get furious at this. But when a Tina was born, we were in a shop she was it was the next day we would get In towels, and we put the newborn carriage on the on the counter, and the woman said, oh, a newborn? And we said, Yeah, daughter, and she said, Oh, that's too bad. She said, Girls are so complicated. I have four boys, all I treat them like cattle, all you have to do is feed them and let them run around, and they'll be fine. But girls are just so tough emotionally. And I'm still angry about that. Right? But that is the language of this masculinity that Cicero is describing. So so the first question I have before I fall down that hole of angry of, you know, Dad, a father of daughter, is, which of these How do we know which texts we can trust? We've got the letters, these intimate accounts of Cicero's grief, which are clearly authentic in some important ways. But then we have d officious write the his book on the offices and the roles of politics of the citizen. And we thought one was Cicero. But it turns out the other was Cicero, at least for six months. How do you know when an author's text is authentic and accurate to who they are, as opposed to the world that they're trying to engage for rhetorical or other reasons?
It's another great question I, I think in. In Cicero, we're just lucky. We're lucky because he had a slave who preserved his letters. And because Cicero is the most famous man of his time, they've they've survived. And they allow us to toggle between his intimate letters and his public performances, his public, his public lectures, and writings. And that's rare in the ancient world to be able to see behind the stage of this public masculine performance to see the grief and the sorrow that was suppressed. And I'm fascinated by the ways in which the letters reveal this kind of naked, miserable. Cicero who wanders is his estate, unshaven, unkempt, you know, with all of his friends saying, you know, shape up, and then he manages to pull himself back together and begin to recreate the public facade of, of Cicero, because he concludes, I think that this is the only Cicero he knows how to be the commanding, authoritative, whatever. And he throws himself into the struggle against Julius Caesar, and then eventually dies in the wars of the that end, the Roman Republic. So you're able through the letters and through his public books, to kind of chart the whole process, both of grief and his recovery, but his recovery is essentially becoming Cicero again, the man in the toga the man with the stern, public face, and you're, then you're entitled to ask, Was that really genuine? Was it an act? Was it a performance? And I think all of us who've been in situations of grief know that, when we're in the process of recovery, we're often performing. We're not really well, we're not really right with the world. We're performing a certain kind of persona. And that's a great strain and it was for him certainly was for Cicero, you can feel the cracks in the in the public persona throughout.
Is there two questions? I'm gonna ask the both at the same time, which isn't fair to you. But the first question I want to ask is when leaders hold this person up, are they lying? Are they being inauthentic? But But the second question, and I think that's a little more interesting to me, is, we live in a time now that's, that's governed by self deception, that we have the conscious and the subconscious, and we have therapy, and we have medicine, we have all these things, because there's this cultural conflict, that global conflict really about who the real Self is, and that therapy is supposed to find the real self underneath this lie of illness or distortion. So many of the people you mentioned in the book are struggling with depression, even if they call it something different. And do you think that Cicero is lying to himself as if he's if he's lying to others? Is he lying to himself with this Same time, or are we just playing different roles in different contexts? And it's all equally, maybe even authentic isn't the right word.
Why you don't make it easy here is why they pay me that much sure. How to answer that. I think all I can see in the Cicero cases the the insufferable conflict between what his friends want all them which is come back Cicero come back to the public life and be the Cicero we need which is the tough, stoic, male, masculine. And, and the Cicero who feels he just can't, he can't do it. The question you're asking is whether when he does resume that public role, he's lying to himself, and I suspect, you know, I suspect he, he is. And I have a feeling that the process of recovery from grief does involve a lot of lying, but I don't know whether we should call it lying. Exactly. You persuade yourself. If you've lost somebody you loved, that you're okay. People say how you doing? And you say, Well, I'm doing okay. And maybe you actually are doing okay that day. And then you take two more steps and fall into a hole of depression, right? The question of whether you're lying here is very complicated. You may be telling the truth at that moment. But the force of grief is such that it can just disable you at the next moment. And so I think the process of consoling yourself is a process of discovering the truth about your feelings, I don't think you can console yourself with lies. But you, for public purposes, you tell other people, you're doing fine, when often you're not doing fine. And I think we should be charitable about that. I think anything that gets you through the day, even if it is a kind of lie, is fine, long term, you can't keep lying about how you are. Because you're going to collapse, basically. I do think there's a connection between consolation and truth. And that's why constellation is so hard. telling yourself that you that you're over it when you're not, is not going to be helpful to you. But there does come a moment, I think and grief is like that, when things just don't hurt as much. And you and you, you can feel the truth of that it doesn't hurt as much as it did. And you can truthfully say I am getting better. The issue of truth also is very centrally raised with a question of failure. Every time you fail at something, your question is, did I do everything I could, in a certain situation. And it's very hard to be truthful about that. Because when you fail, it's obvious that what you gave it your best and your best wasn't good enough. And that's excruciatingly painful to admit. And but you in order to console yourself for failure, you have to have an honest, truthful reckoning. You know, I've, I've, I've had many failures in life. And at the first stage, I'm always saying things like, I did my best, I left nothing on the table. I was, you know, it's not my fault, all that kind of stuff. And all of that is the structure of lies, which you have to kind of dismantle. And it finally admit, actually, you could have done better you didn't do as well as you could you weren't any good at that particular thing. You should never have tried it. It was a mistake. You just have to learn and learn and learn. And you can only learn when you're speaking truth to yourself, and that's agonizingly hard. And sometimes you need therapy to even get close to the truth.
What happens when you have to speak that truth to large groups of people? I'm thinking about Abraham Lincoln, who you obviously talked about in the book. And you start off by giving the picture that that we often have of him where he's writing a lot of letters to family members who've lost sons in the war. But then you make this claim that surprised me. I never just I just never thought about it that his second inaugural address was an address that refused to offer consolation that he was faced with a situation where both sides thought they were backed by providence, and that he refused to pick one side or the other because he chose reconciliation and possibly forgiveness, as opposed to consolation. Why do you see the second inaugural address as part of this tradition? And why do you think Lincoln decided to take the route that he took, as opposed to offering this sort of emotional support which he didn't do?
Well, in some of it is Lincoln sublime, devotion to truth, he will not engage in false consolation.
What Lincoln understands as a politician is that he has, he's just won reelection. And he has to lead a country where half of the people believed God was on their side. And the other half believed God was on their side to both the North and the South, as he says, Pray to the same God. And they both came to believe through their suffering. They were serving God's providence. And both sides, north and south consoled themselves with the belief that they were serving God's providence, and that it when they lost a son in battle, either north or south. It was serving some providential design. This leaves a president with an absolutely agonizing problem. How do you speak to two sides of a national community, who each believe that God is on their side, and each enlisted Providence to console each other from the horrendous losses that they're suffering in the Civil War. And what he does, it seems to me is to make it extremely important use of the Psalms. And he quotes the psalms at one point, to say, basically, in politics in the world here below. As a practical politician, I don't get to know who side God was on. The ways of provenance are entirely mysterious and beyond human understanding. When we do politics, we do it in a state of ignorance, which cannot be fixed. I, as a practical politician have to work in this world. And in this world, we don't know which side God favored. So my job is, to follow the injunctions that are clear. It's not clear whose side Providence is on, but it is perfectly clear that both sides have widows and orphans, both sides have suffered. Those are facts upon which I can't work as a politician. And that means my job is to, you know, comfort, the widow, support the orphan and create a new time future with malice towards none and charity for all. And this is, to me the greatest political speech ever given because it's, as you say, It refuses the conventional and expected constellations that you would expect from a victorious president at the end of a war in which his side is one. He doesn't take that route at all. He he understands that his problem is to deal with two human communities who believe the same thing but derive radically opposed conclusions from it. And, and it is a vision I think of politics which is crucial, which is to take confident judgments about whose side God is sawn out of politics all to gather. And to do that in 1865 is a hell of a lot more difficult than it is to do today, although it's still pretty difficult. And so I, you know, it's it's a, it's a, it's a great speech that says Our job is to comfort each other. Not to provide the false constellations of believing we were serving a Providence we can't possibly understand. That's a deep thought.
What happens when, instead of God being unknown, there is the conviction that God isn't there or has abandoned you? Would you set up the situation in your chapter on witness and talk a little bit about on Akhmatova? Primo Levy? And because red naughty, because I think that's really important as the next step.
Yeah, I think one of the I spend a lot of time thinking about three figures anok motto, the great Russian poet who is basically silenced in the 1920s forbidden to publish. Her son is arrested in the Stalin purges and persecutions of the 1930s. She then famously queues outside one of the prisons in Leningrad in the 1930s. With a line of mute women all covered in rags to keep from freezing to death. They're all queuing up to see their children or their husbands who may be in prison. And she, one of the people in the queues, turns to her and said, can you possibly describe this? And anok Madiba, the poet turns around said, Yes, I can. And then she went on to do so to write one of the greatest poems in the Russian language, Requiem, which is a kind of memorial to all the people who were persecuted and murdered. So violate by Joseph stone, and the constellation she derived from living through you know, a realm in which God had definitely wasn't there, God had definitely died to pick up your, your suggests suggestion. The constellation she'd arrived was to be a witness for a whole generation to provide words for all the silent victims who couldn't speak and couldn't cry out. And she makes herself their voice and I think derive enormous sense of consolation from, from being a poetic witness for a whole generation. The second person in the same period, but enduring a different kind of horror, was primo Levy, a young Italian chemist who is swept up by the Italian and German police and shipped off to Auschwitz in 1944. And survives because he's a trained chemist, and so they take him out of the the gas chambers and make him work for one of the German industrial companies and he survives, but he very nearly doesn't, because I'm sure it's it's a machine for killing. And at one point, he's walking to pick up soup for the people who live in the barracks with him. And as he's walking along with a fellow prisoner, he suddenly remembers lines from the poet Dante, which run something like, man, you are not burden. Men, you are not built your men you are not created for toil and suffering, but for knowledge and wisdom, words to that effect, and they're very famous words in Dante's paradise regained and somehow those words, give him a sense that there's a world outside of this infernal concentration camp where he can. Where people believe that human beings exist for knowledge and wisdom, and that one day he will returned to that world. And so that's an example where poetry provides resilience, hope and consolation, that is, I am not destined to be permanently in this infernal world, there is another world and I will, I will reach it. And these two examples of Madiba with the Stalinist tyranny and levy with the Nazi tyranny, I think, remind us of the consoling power of great art and literature, and the ways in which both of these people pulled inspiration out of absolutely total darkness. It inspired them to continue, but it also I think, inspires us to continue and never let the, you know, the darkness, claim us, those two figures were have been, you know, kind of figures of inspiration for me my whole life. And that's why I wanted to write about them.
And primo levy is particularly difficult because of course, he survived Auschwitz, but he never really left it. And he ended up killing himself, many years later, which led VSL basically, I can't remember the exact quote, but it was something like the Nazis, or Hitler has taken another victim, and you don't leave things like that. And, and I, I bring that up, in part to sort of move backwards, because one of the themes that we've been discussing is the lack of religious constellation lack of solace. And you and you describe in the book, the task is as findings constellation when there is no meaning to life. And the religious folks may say, well, but I have solace, I have God and if then if that works for them, more power to them. But if we go back to Job, there really isn't any distinction between what happened, say in the camps and what happens to job that that the presence of God or the lack of presence of God doesn't seem to make any distinction. And so, the question want to ask, I often tell my students, I have a theme that I that I've put in some writing, and I say my students all the time, which is the first question that humanity asks in the Western tradition is, Am I my brother's keeper? And that moral philosophy is an attempt to answer that question. I wonder, would it have been possible to write this book without starting with job because the story it is the definitive account in our tradition of what senseless suffering is, and wild Jobe is in some sense at the end right after the torture of his life and and God does all these cruel things God quote, you know, rewards job with more children and more wives and more riches as if these things are interchangeable. Can you tell the story of this traditional
job is a terrible story. And I you know, I put it at the beginning of the book for some of the reasons you describe. Is it the case that the first question our tradition, ask is, Am I my brother's keeper? Or is the question Why Am I Suffering? My for job? The question is, why am I suffering? Why are you doing this to me? God, I've been faithful. I've been obedient. I have made sacrifice I have loved you as best I can. Why are you deliberately choosing to ruin my life cover my body was sores, kill, kill those I love. The reason I put the job at the front of the story is not simply that it's a parable about senseless suffering. But it also says something incredibly important about the human response to suffering, which is job eventually gets up on his feet and shakes his fist at the sky, and says, Why are you doing this to me? That is, instead of mutually accepting God's irrational violence. Job defies God and insists that he be answered. It's one of those stupendous moments in in our tradition, this this little guy shouting at the sky. What are you doing? And the fascinating thing obviously in the it's a myth is that God replies, God's replies very difficult to accept, he says, basically to job. Who the hell do you think you are you little creeper. I'm the man who created the universe i in the man who created everything you know, and you're daring to ask me why I do what I do, you know, to say the least, it's above your paygrade. But there's some curious way in which there's a moment of recognition between God and job as if God acknowledges the dignity of Job's question of Job's insistence that life have meaning that life have some sense to it, instead of being senseless, pointless violence and suffering. And I, I do think that's the meaning of job that I take away. It's not all that consoling. But it it states very clearly that, that human beings do never just endure pain. They never just endure suffering. They are constantly constitutionally created. To ask the question, why is this happening to me? Why do I deserve this? What is the meaning of it? And Job is the is the first great myth in our tradition to define human nature in this way. And in in that sense, to put constellation at the center of the human enterprise itself.
In in the great television show, the West Wing, a president Bartlet, who's a religious Catholic at one key moment calls God a feckless thug. And Joe bears that out. There is no more feckless thug than than the God of job. So I guess, as we start to conclude, I want to ask, Did you yourself find a somatic meaning that you could walk away from this work with each of the people that you talk about? And there's so many that we haven't mentioned? And I really encourage everyone to read the book. It's it's wonderful book. And it's not. It's not depressing. It's really inspiring in some very important ways, and it's challenging and all of the right ways. Did you find any kind of unifying constellation that works for you in the project? Or is it really sort of pick and choose what works for you, if any of them actually speak to you?
Oh, that's another great question. That leaves me kind of shaking my head a little bit, I think I've told a history of constellation is what I've tried to do. I've tried to charge the evolution of a language constellation that begins in our religious traditions in the Judeo Christian tradition. And then, encounter is a secular challenge in the 16th century. And then the secular challenge has to invent a replacement for the religious constellations of belief in an afterlife. And, and yet doesn't abandon the religious vernacular altogether at all. I mean, the, the puzzle I found in doing this book is that religion is not over religion is never over, even for non believers, like myself, religion, and religious language, continue to define the ultimate questions of human life that we have to have to answer. And so one of my conclusions was, we're in such big trouble, Jack, with life, that we need all the help, we can find. And it's just dumb. To say, I'm not going to touch religious language, because I don't believe in God. It's dumb to say, I'm not going to look at these sources. We need it all. And I've laid out, you know, 18 of these texts, but there's an almost infinite number of other ones. And I think the overall message is, once you come to that conclusion, that we need all the help we can get. There is plenty of help to be found. And we are not alone. I think that's the key thing that the human experience of suffering and grief is very universal. When a Cicero is weeping when mon 10 is wondering why, why the human beings around him are slaughtering each other, when primo levy is in that Auschwitz camp, wondering how he's going to survive, we can feel a deep affinity and closeness to them. They are, they are our brothers and sisters. And that feeling in itself is I think the only constellation that book wants to offer. They're right there. They're very close there. They are our brothers and sisters, and we can turn to them when we need them.
And I think that that is that is meaning enough the the book felt like it was speaking to me some things I felt more believable than others, of course, but but it was definitely a search that I myself found familiar and that I feel that I'm taking a part of. And I think that our listeners will probably feel the same if they pick it up. So Michael, thank you so much for joining us on why this conversation has been just wonderful.
It's been a pleasure Jackie put me through my paces and made me think about some things I had. I hadn't thought about clearly. So it was a it was a pleasure from my point of view.
Oh, I'm so I'm so glad I always want this to be at least as pleasant for the guests as it is for the audience. And for me always. It's it's just something to celebrate. So, thank you so much. Again, you have been listening to why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Russell Weinstein. We're saying goodbye to Michael Ignatieff and we'll be back with a few more thoughts right after this.
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And you're back with why philosophical discussions about everyday life. I'm your host, Jack Russell Weinstein, we were talking with Michael Ignatieff about constellation, and the history and evolution of it as an idea and the way that we find solace in the tragedies of human life. And Michael said something which I thought was really powerful and beautiful. At the end, he said, we are not alone. And that all of these people who came before us are right there with us. And that that for him was the unifying theme. I think there's another theme as well, that's important to call attention to and that's the intellectual curiosity of all of the people he discusses. In the midst of turmoil in the midst of suffering. These folks quoted poets, they painted paintings, they wrote treatises, they wrote letters to one another. In the midst of all of their tragedies. They asked why, and they look towards others and towards history and towards the arts. To find solutions. There's a great moment in the movie contact, where Jodie Foster's character sees deep space for the first time and she's a scientist and she catches her breath and says, they should have sent a poet. She says this because poetry describes things that literature can't, the way that paintings describe things that symphonies can't. And symphonies describe things the way that photography can't. The point is, we have this intellectual tradition that pulls our ideas and our histories together, and it's there for our help. So if you are out there needing consolation, and we all will at one point or another, take a look at this book. It's not going to give you definitive answers, but it's going to give you a shopping cart of possibilities. You're going to find someone who speaks to you. You're going to walk alongside Abraham Lincoln and Cicero and job and many, many other people. They have been there before us, and they teach us and they invite us in. Human constellation is a social rather than an isolated experience. We feel alone, but when we want to be consoled, we want to be pulled back into the fold. Hold. That's the thing that makes us connected with other people in our times of tragedy. In our times of sadness. We think we don't want anyone but what we need is everyone, and that includes everyone that came before us. The history of constellation is the history of humanity. It's the history of asking why. With all of that said, if you've been listening to this episode on Sunday evening on Prairie Public, please know that a longer version with almost 30 more minutes of discussion is available online and as a podcast visit why radio show.org To listen or subscribe for free. For everyone else rate us on iTunes and Spotify to help spread the word about the show. Follow us on all of our usual social networks. Our handle is always at why radio show and please help us continue broadcasting by making your tax deductible donation at y radio show.org Click donate in the upper right hand corner to go to UND alumni is donation portal. We exist solely on the money you provide. I'm Jack Russell Weinstein signing off for why radio thanks for listening as always, it's an honor to be with you.
Why is funded by the Institute for philosophy and public life Prairie Public Broadcasting in the University of North Dakota is College of Arts and Sciences and Division of Research and Economic Development. Skip wood is our studio engineer. The music is written and performed by Mark Weinstein and can be found on his album Louis Sol. For more of his music, visit jazz flute weinstein.com or myspace.com/mark Weinstein philosophy is everywhere you make it and we hope we've inspired you with our discussion today. Remember, as we say at the institute, there is no ivory tower