Friday, January 29, 2016

On the ancient art of consolation

The poets of ancient Greece loved to remind everyone of the levelling effect of death, "the sleep that is due to all" (Callimachus), the destiny that "no man or woman born, coward or brave, can shun" (Homer's Iliad), "let him remember that the limbs he clothes are mortal and that in the end he will put on a garment of earth" (Pindar). In a world of so many unknowns death was a stark certainty. Nor did the poets hold back in expressing their grief at such an unwelcome visitor:

So he spoke, and a black cloud of grief covered Achilles;
with both hands he gathered up the sooty dust and
poured it over his head, disfiguring his handsome face,
and the black ashes settled all over his fragrant tunic.
Mightily in his might, he lay stretched out in the dust,
and with his own hands tore and disfigured his hair.
The maidservants captured by Achilles and Patroclus
cried aloud in agony of heart and all rushed out of doors
to stand around war-minded Achilles, and with their hands
they beat their breasts, and each one’s limbs were loosened.
On his other side Antilochus grieved, weeping tears and
holding Achilles’ hands and groaning in his noble heart,
terrified that he might cut his throat with the iron.
Achilles gave a terrible cry, and his revered mother heard him,
sitting in the depths of the salt sea near her father the ancient,
and in turn screamed in grief, and the goddesses gathered round,
all the daughters of Nereus who lived in the deeps of the sea
[from Homer's Iliad, translated Anthony Verity]

In actual fact, in the mid 6th century BCE, Solon, chief magistrate of Athens, was concerned enough about uncontrolled expressions of grief that he introduced regulations to restrict mourning practices he felt were getting out of hand: "Laceration of the flesh by mourners, and the use of set lamentations, and the bewailing of any one at the funeral ceremonies of another, he forbade" [Plutarch, Life of Solon].

[Terracotta funeral plaque from Attica, c.520-510 BCE (courtesy Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York). Possibly used as a tomb decoration the plaque shows mourners gathered around the deceased, crying lamentations and tearing their hair out. The chariot race below is also highly symbolic, evoking the funeral games that honoured departed heroes (as depicted in Homer's Iliad).]

With the rise of the Stoic philosophies of the 3rd century BCE self-control came to be seen as an asset in Greek, and later in Roman, culture. Consolatory orations became popular to ease bereavement. By the time of Cicero, in 1st century BCE Rome, the consolatio had become almost a form of medication for the treatment of grief (Cicero even wrote his own consolatio in the hope that it would quell his own grief following the death of his beloved daughter).

Regarded as a gift from the gods, music held a preeminent position in ancient Greek culture and naturally was called into service to provide lamentations and comfort at funerals. According to Aristoxenus, a pupil of Aristotle, "the Pythagoreans used medicine to purify the body and music to purify the soul".

[A drawing on a drinking vessel from 480-470 BCE, found in a Delphi tomb (courtesy Delphi Archaeological Museum). The image shows Apollo (a god of music), wearing a laurel or myrtle wreath, holding a tortoise-shell lyre in his left hand, while pouring a libation with his right hand. The crow facing him possibly represents Coronis, one of Apollo's lovers (the word Coronis translates as crow or raven).]

Plutarch described how "during the early period the aulos [a reeded wind instrument] was drawn to mournings and performed on these occasions a public service — though neither a highly prized nor cheerful one". Sextus Empiricus, in the 2nd century CE, wrote "in general, music is heard not only from people who are rejoicing, but also in hymns, feasts, and sacrifices to the gods. Because of this, it turns the heart toward the desire for good things. But it is also a consolation to those who are grief-stricken; for this reason, the auloi playing a melody for those who are mourning are the lighteners of their grief".

[Images on an oval ceramic container from Greece, 460-450 BCE (courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). The illustrations possibly depict the poet Archilochus being called to his art by the Muses, one of whom can be seen here playing a double aulos (a reeded wind instrument).]

The Roman philosopher Boethius, born in the year that the Roman Empire finally collapsed (480 CE), was concerned that important aspects of Greek and Roman culture might be lost to future generations (which of course they were for several hundred years); in his De Institutione Musica Boethius wrote "why is it that those mourning in tears express their lamentation through music?... Nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites... there is no age at all that is not delighted by sweet song. Thus we can begin to understand that apt doctrine of Plato which holds that the soul of the universe is united by a musical concord. And someone who cannot sing particularly well will nevertheless sing to himself, not because it is pleasant for him to hear what he sings but because it is a delight to express certain inward pleasures which originate in the soul, regardless of the manner in which they are expressed... It appears beyond doubt that music is so naturally united with us that we cannot be free from it even if we so desired."

Plato did indeed place music very highly in the overall scheme of things: "Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful" [Plato, De Republica, c.380 BCE]. These words were echoed 300 years later when Cicero wrote (in his Tusculanae Disputationes of c.45 BCE): "Honour nourishes art, and glory is the spur with all to studies; while those studies are always neglected in every nation which are looked upon disparagingly. The Greeks held skill in vocal and instrumental music as a very important accomplishment, and therefore it is recorded of Epaminondas [4th century BCE Theban statesman], who, in my opinion, was the greatest man among the Greeks, that he played excellently on the flute; and Themistocles [5th century Athenian statesman], some years before, was deemed ignorant because at an entertainment he declined the lyre when it was offered to him. For this reason musicians flourished in Greece; music was a general study; and whoever was unacquainted with it was not considered as fully instructed in learning."

In another example of the extraordinary power that the ancient philosophers felt was vested in music Cicero, in his De Re Publica, creates an imaginary scene involving the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus dreaming that he can hear the music of the spheres (Pythagorus's music of the spheres theory was based on the idea that the movement of celestial bodies created an imperceptible sound measurable by mathematical formulae):

As I looked at these things I was dumbfounded but when I recovered myself I asked: "What is this great and so alluring sound which fills my ears?" He replied: "It is the sound which is produced by the motion of the spheres themselves. They are separated by unequal intervals but they are arranged in an exact proportion and the treble is moderated by the bass to produce variable sounds equally. Movements cannot be performed in silence and nature brings it about that at one end of the universe they sound in the treble, at the other end in the bass. As a result the highest star-bearing circuit of Heaven whose movement is swifter moved with a treble, lively sound, the lowest, that is the lunar circuit, with the deepest bass... Learned men have imitated it on strings and in songs and thereby have opened a passage-way for their return to this place like those others who devoted during their human lives themselves and their intellectual genius to the study of the divine."
[from Cicero's Somnium Scipionis translated by Niall McCloskey]

[Marble statue of Atlas holding the celestial sphere, 2nd century CE Roman copy of a 2nd century BCE Greek sculpture (courtesy Museo archeologico nazionale di Napoli). This is believed to be the oldest existing statue depicting the Greek god Atlas and the oldest representation of the celestial sphere (to which Pythagoras refers in his music of the spheres theory). It is believed that the statue's celestial sphere was based on the star catalogue or celestial globe of the Hellenistic astronomer Hipparchus, completed c.129 BCE, showing the constellations.]

Cicero's Dream of Scipio even inspired a 15-year-old Mozart to write a mini opera, Il sogno di Scipione, K.126.

[Painting of 14-year-old Mozart by Saverio Dalla Rosa (private collection). The painting was created about a year before Mozart composed his mini opera Il sogno di Scipione, based on Cicero's Somnium Scipionis.]

Though most of the music of Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome has not survived (since the notating of music was still very much in its infancy), literary examples of consolation from the same period have survived. The consolatio orations of ancient Rome usually had a clearly defined form: according to Menander Rhetor (a 3rd century CE rhetorician) a typical consolation of the period might consist of several parts, portraying very different emotions, such as praise (laudatio) and lamentation (lamentatio) as well as consolation (consolatio) — the overall context being important to the effectiveness of the consoling: "Having ampified the lamentation as far as possible, the speaker should approach the second part of his speech, which is the consolatory part". Sadly Cicero's consolatio, written for his own bereavement, has not survived, but we can get a sense of Cicero's struggles with his sorrow from his personal correspondence. Here is a note of consolation offered to Cicero by his friend the legal scholar Servius Sulpicius Rufus, followed by Cicero's response:

When I received the news of your daughter Tullia’s death, I was indeed much grieved and distressed as I was bound to be, and looked upon it as a calamity in which I shared. For, if I had been at home, I should not have failed to be at your side, and should have made my sorrow plain to you face to face. That kind of consolation involves much distress and pain, because the relations and friends, whose part it is to offer it, are themselves overcome by an equal sorrow. They cannot attempt it without many tears, so that they seem to require consolation themselves rather than to be able to afford it to others....
[letter from Servius Sulpicius to Cicero, March, 45 BCE]

Yes, indeed, my dear Servius, I would have wished — as you say — that you had been by my side at the time of my grievous loss. How much help your presence might have given me, both by consolation and by your taking an almost equal share in my sorrow, I can easily gather from the fact that after reading your letter I experienced a great feeling of relief. For not only was what you wrote calculated to soothe a mourner, but in offering me consolation you manifested no slight sorrow of heart yourself.
[letter from Cicero to Servius Sulpicius, April, 45 BCE]

[Marble bust of Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 BCE - 43 BCE), philosopher, lawyer, writer and politician, 1st century CE (courtesy of Museo Capitolino, Rome)]

Cicero describes his grief in even more personal terms in his letters to his close friend Titus Pomponius Atticus:

You are as kind as usual in wishing that I could get some relief from my grief; but you can bear witness that it is no fault of mine. For every word that has been written by anyone on the subject of assuaging grief I read at your house. But my sorrow is beyond any consolation. Why, I have done what no one has ever done before, tried to console myself by writing a book. I will send it to you as soon as it is copied out. I assure you no other consolation equals it. I write the whole day long, not that it does any good, but it acts as a temporary check: not very much of that, for the violence of my grief is too strong; but still I get some relief and try with all my might to attain some composure of countenance, if not of mind. In so doing sometimes I think I am doing wrong, and sometimes that I should be doing wrong if I were not to do it. Solitude helps a little, but it would have much more effect if you at any rate could be with me... However even the idea of seeing you upsets me: for now you can never feel the same towards me. I have lost all you used to love.
[letter from Cicero to Atticus, 8 March, 45 BCE]

In this solitude I don't speak to a soul. In the morning I hide myself in a dense and wild wood, and I don't come out till the evening. After you I have not a greater friend than solitude. In it my only converse is with books, though tears interrupt it. I fight against them as much as I can: but as yet I am not equal to the struggle.
[letter from Cicero to Atticus, 9 March, 45 BCE]

I have lost the one thing that bound me to life. Accordingly, I seek solitude
[Cicero to Atticus, 19 March, 45 BCE]

* * * * *

In a modern equivalent of Cicero's personal 'consolatio’, the writer C.S. Lewis wrote a deeply moving account of his own grief in the hope it would help him in his loss following the death of his wife Joy Davidman in 1960. Eventually published as "A Grief Observed", but under a false name, N.W. Clerk, the book was then recommended to C.S. Lewis by his concerned friends, who were unaware it was Lewis's own work. In this extract C.S. Lewis describes the fear that he might eventually replace the memory of his wife with his own version of her (Lewis uses H. in place of his wife's name):

Slowly, quietly, like snow-flakes — like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night — little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her. The real shape will be quite hidden in the end. Ten minutes — ten seconds — of the real H. would correct all this. And yet, even if those ten seconds were allowed me, one second later the little flakes would begin to fall again. The rough, sharp, cleansing tang of her otherness is gone.

[C.S. Lewis with his wife Joy, photographed at their Oxford home, The Kilns.]

* * * * *

At his residences at Tusculum, Antium, and on the Palatine in Rome, Cicero had extensive libraries of literature — when his library in Antium was being restored, in June 56 BCE, Cicero wrote to Atticus: "Tyrannio has made a wonderful job of arranging my books... Now that Tyrannio has put my books straight, my house seems to have woken to life". Cicero’s libraries were well stocked with the works of his favourite Greek writers. And just as we today might look back 400 years to the glorious era of Shakespearian England, so too would Cicero have looked back 400 years, to the glorious days of Classical Greece and the era of Aeschylus, Pindar, Sophocles, Euripides, Pythagoras, Socrates, Cicero's beloved Plato and so many others earlier and later (Homer was as far removed in time from Cicero as Chaucer is from us today!). Today we have all the benefits of modern technology, not only printed books but now digitalized libraries on the internet from where we can access all this material at the touch of a screen. The complete surviving works of Cicero are freely available on the internet for all to read and enjoy. Cicero’s influence on history is of course immeasurable: he has been credited with introducing western Europe to Greek philosophy, being the main inspiration behind the Italian Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the birth of the United States, and the French Revolution! Yet spare a thought for those who helped to create Cicero’s libraries: every single parchment scroll would had to have been laboriously written out by hand.

As well being an admirer of the ancient Greek poets and philosophers, Cicero also had an appreciation of the art of Classical Greece, his homes were enthusiastically decorated with artifacts and pieces of sculpture, and in his writings he mentions the “admirable sculptures” of Phidias, Polyclitus, Praxiteles, Scopas and others, and the paintings of Apelles, Zeuxis, Parrhasius and many others.

Despite the fact that music was more highly esteemed in Greek culture than any of the arts, Cicero never mentions any specific musicians (apart from a couple of poets who also wrote songs) though he refers to music often in his writings. The inability to record music for posterity prevented individual composers (who did exist in ancient Greece and Rome) from becoming as well known as their painter and sculptor colleagues, and most of the music particularly as far back as Classical and Archaic Greece can now only be reconstructed using careful scholarship and a fair amount of guess work, with varying degrees of success.

[Fresco wall painting from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor Boscoreale (nr Pompeii), c.50-40 BCE (courtesy Metropolitan Musuem of Art, New York). Cicero valued music, and possibly kept slave musicians to provide music for his Rome households. In his famous defense speech Pro Roscio Amerino from 80 BCE, Cicero writes of the defendant Sextus Roscius: "he has so many slaves to gratify his mind and ears, that the whole neighbourhood resounds with the daily music of voices, and stringed instruments, and flutes".]

It's a mind-boggling thought to imagine how the odes of Pindar must have sounded when they were first performed (Pindar wrote them to be sung by a "sweet-singing band of revellers" as he put it). Pindar's odes were commissioned to celebrate the victories of athletes at the various games of ancient Greece, and one in particular has become very well known, the 8th Pythian ode, written to celebrate the victory of the wrestling athlete Aristomenes in the Pythian games of 446 BCE. In addition to praising his athlete, and weaving in heroic legends, Pindar makes several references to the ephemeral nature of mankind, the need for the athlete to step up and earn his place in destiny, and the importance of good fortune. The line "man is the dream of a shadow" was well known enough in 1547 to be quoted by a 14-year-old English princess, later Queen Elizabeth I, writing to her 9-year-old half-brother Edward VI, as she consoled him following his recovery from illness by reminding him of the frailty of human existence.

[Lady Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) painted in c.1546/7 possibly by William Scrots (courtesy Royal Collection Trust). The painting, first recorded in a 1547 inventory as "the picture of the Ladye Elizabeth her grace with a booke in her hande her gowne like crymsen clothe", would have been created shortly before Elizabeth sent her 9-year-old half-brother Edward VI the letter quoting Pindar.]

ἐν δ᾽ ὀλίγῳ βροτῶν
τὸ τερπνὸν αὔξεται: οὕτω δὲ καὶ πίτνει χαμαί,
ἀποτρόπῳ γνώμᾳ σεσεισμένον.
ἐπάμεροι: τί δέ τις; τί δ᾽ οὔ τις; σκιᾶς ὄναρ
ἄνθρωπος. ἀλλ᾽ ὅταν αἴγλα διόσδοτος ἔλθῃ,
λαμπρὸν φέγγος ἔπεστιν ἀνδρῶν καὶ μείλιχος αἰών

Men's pleasure swells in a brief space of time,
and likewise falls to the ground,
shaken by an adverse judgement.
Creatures of a day. What is man? What is he not?
He is the dream of a shadow.
Yet when Zeus-sent brightness comes
a brilliant light shines on mankind and their life is serene

[from Pindar’s Pythian 8, translated by Anthony Verity]

[Discobolus (Discus Thrower). 1st century CE copy of c. 460-450 BCE original by Myron (courtesy Museo Nazionale Romano).]

The American classics scholar Gregory Nagy offers a rather different interpretation of "man is the dream of a shadow" to the one the young princess Elizabeth offered her brother. In his book Pindar's Homer Nagy suggests that these words present an interconnection of the past, present and future: to Pindar the word "shadow" most likely would have meant the spirit of ancestors (the "shades" that occupy Hades) and the "dream" is possibly a vision, already alluded to earlier in the ode, presaging future victories, "as if we the living were the realization of the dreams dreamt by our dead ancestors". To illustrate the point Gregory Nagy quotes a passage from Walt Whitman's poignant 1856 poem Crossing Brooklyn Ferry:

I am with you, you men and women of a generation, or ever so many generations hence,
Just as you feel when you look on the river and sky, so I felt,
Just as any of you is one of a living crowd, I was one of a crowd,
Just as you are refresh’d by the gladness of the river and the bright flow, I was refresh’d,
Just as you stand and lean on the rail, yet hurry with the swift current, I stood yet was hurried...

I too many and many a time crossed the river of old...

Closer yet I approach you,
What thought you have of me now, I had as much of you—I laid in my stores in advance,
I consider’d long and seriously of you before you were born...

Who knows, for all the distance, but I am as good as looking at you now, for all you cannot see me?

[Left: Walt Whitman photographed in 1891 by Thomas Eakins.
Right: Fulton Ferry Boat (Brooklyn, New York), July 1890]

* * * * *

Cicero offered a similar sentiment to Pindar when, in February 43 BCE, he requested a lasting memorial for his old school friend Servius Sulpicius Rufus (the same man who, two years earlier, had so kindly offered Cicero consolation on the death of his daughter):

Vita enim mortuorum in memoria est posita vivorum
[For the life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living]

[Jack Gibbons performing his Consolation, Op.88, composed February 2011 (filmed Oxford, August 13 2021)].