A friend recently passed away from as-yet unknown (to me) medical causes. He was 37, going on 38. Lots of thoughts and responses have been going through my mind and heart, of course. At the same time, professionally, I am starting to work on a book chapter about ancient letters and the science of historical study, so various thoughts about ancient letters have been emerging.
These two facets of my reality meet in the ancient letter of consolation, unsurprisingly simply called consolatio in Latin. These letters and the philosophical themes they bring up dance on the periphery of my existence. I feel that they are a good reminder of two things:
- Ancient people are different from us.
- There’s very little anyone can say to console you in the midst of the loss of a loved one.
Typically, the author of one of these expresses his own grief at the death in question. Then, if the dead person was known to the writer, he expresses his admiration for a life well-lived. At some point, there is some consolation in the fact that we all die, and a reminder that the person in question has been removed from the toils of this mortal life — whether of illness or that person’s particular misfortune or political circumstances.
I cannot, for the moment, find the specific letter from Cicero, but in one of his Ad Familiares (given by D R Shackleton Bailey in English as “To his friends”), Cicero consoles someone on the loss of a son by saying that at least the poor boy didn’t have to live through the evident troubles awaiting the Roman Republic.
Seems cold comfort to me.
Pliny writes a letter (1.12) lamenting the death of a friend who had committed suicide at age 67, asking for some consolation better than the fact that Corellius had lived a good life, was old, and had been ill with gout in his feet since age 32.
In the 400s, Sidonius Apollinaris writes consolatio to the effect that one should not weep for someone whose great and good name lives on after him (Ep. 4.11.6). He also strikes a Christian tone that good deeds buy heavenly reward. This is the new addition, found in Gregory the Great (Ep. 1.11) and Ruricius of Limoges (Ep. 2.3).
One of the new tones besides the hope of heaven is finding comfort in Christ, expressed by Gregory in Ep. 1.11 and Ruricius in 2.3 and 2.39. Ruricius also points out that bodily death is not a true cause of grief but, rather, spiritual death (2.46).
When I first had news of my friend’s death, my position was far more Plinian than anything. What does it matter that he does not have to live through whatever fresh hell COVID-19, racial unrest, and a tanking economy have to offer? What does it matter that he lived a good life and will be fondly remembered by his family, friends, and colleagues? He is gone, never to return.
As time passes, though, and especially as I see some of the strength of his sister’s posts on Facebook, there is comfort in Sidonius, Gregory, and Ruricius, that Andrew lived a good life, that he had fled to Christ for his trust in the resurrection.
Knowing that Andrew will be with us at the resurrection day, St Ambrose’s funeral speech on his brother Satyrus now comes to me, infusing the themes of consolatio with abundant Christian theology and the great solace that comes of knowing what awaits him. Change a few details, and this can apply as well:
He had no need of being raised again for time, for whom the raising again for eternity is waiting. For why should he fall back into this wretched and miserable state of corruption, and return to this mournful life, for whose rescue from such imminent evils and threatening dangers we ought rather to rejoice? For if no one mourns for Enoch, who was translated when the world was at peace and wars were not raging, but the people rather congratulated him, as Scripture says concerning him: “He was taken away, lest that wickedness should alter his understanding,” with how much greater justice must this now be said, when to the dangers of the world is added the uncertainty of life. He was taken away that he might not fall into the hands of the barbarians; he was taken away that he might not see the ruin of the whole earth, the end of the world, the burial of his relatives, the death of fellow-citizens; lest, lastly, which is more bitter than any death, he should see the pollution of the holy virgins and widows. (On the Death of Satyrus, ch. 30)