Of late, the number of events that send us reeling and looking for comfort, solace, and, too often, just distraction seem to be increasing and intensifying. I will leave it for future generations to debate whether or not this is objectively true-the feeling of being under siege is enough to require some type of response.
I was in my first semester of graduate school in lower Manhattan on September 11th, 2001. I am uncomfortable claiming any sort of trauma as my own since many others lost loved ones and many more saw their worlds overturned. Nevertheless, the first weeks after were surreal. I can say without a doubt that when I decided to stop reading for my classes and just read-the Iliad from opening to close in Greek—I found some solace and comfort in a ragged world.
I still turn to Classical texts for context and understanding. The comfort they bring, however, is not a warm one. A twitter friend today asked for some classical topoi on solace in a time of suffering and I am embarrassed at the poverty of my offerings when I can rattle off words for excrement and flatulence with no effort. Here are some meager words for a mean world. I will happily post better ones when they are offered.
From the Suda
“Pharmakon [medicine]: conversation, consoling, it comes from pherein [bringing] akos [relief/cure]. But it is also said to come from flowers.”
Φάρμακον: παραμυθία, ὁμιλία, εἴρηται δὲ ἀπὸ τοῦ φέρειν τὴν ἄκεσιν: εἴρηται δὲ ἀπὸ τῶν ἀνθέων
Euripides, Helen 698-699
“if you find good luck in the time that is left
Perhaps it will be solace for the things in the past”
εἰ καὶ τὰ λοιπὰ τῆς τύχης εὐδαίμονος
τύχοιτε, πρὸς τὰ πρόσθεν ἀρκέσειεν ἄν.
Basil, Letter 131
“Since we both need consolation, may we be solace to one another.”
ἐπεὶ οὖν ἀμφότεροι χρῄζομεν παρακλήσεως, ἀλλήλοις γενώμεθα παραμυθία
“Since he has left you a memory of his particular virtue, believe that this is a sufficient solace for your pain.”
Ἐπεὶ οὖν κατέλιπέ σοι τὴν μνήμην τῆς οἰκείας αὐτοῦ4ἀρετῆς, ἀρκοῦσαν νόμιζε ἔχειν παραμυθίαν τοῦ πάθους.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 9
“If you want a private passage at hand to soothe your heart, the knowledge of the world around you will give you some solace at death, the world you leave and the kind of people your soul will no longer be associated with…..”
Εἰ δὲ καὶ ἰδιωτικὸν παράπηγμα ἁψικάρδιον ἐθέλεις, μάλιστά σε εὔκολον πρὸς τὸν θάνατον ποιήσει ἡ ἐπίστασις ἡ ἐπὶ τὰ ὑποκείμενα, ὧν μέλλεις ἀφίστασθαι, καὶ μεθ᾿ οἵων ἠθῶν οὐκέτι ἔσται ἡ <σὴ ψυχὴ> συμπεφυρμένη…
Thucydides, book 5
“Hope is indeed a comfort in danger: it may harm people who use it from abundance it does not destroy them. But for those who risk everything on one chance—since hope is expensive by nature—they will only know her nature when they suffer…”
Ἐλπὶς δέ, κινδύνῳ παραμύθιον οὖσα, τοὺς μὲν ἀπὸ περιουσίας χρωμένους αὐτῇ, κἂν βλάψῃ, οὐ καθεῖλε, τοῖς δὲ ἐς ἅπαν τὸ ὑπάρχον ἀναρριπτοῦσι (δάπανος γὰρ φύσει) ἅμα τε γιγνώσκεται σφαλέντων…
Plutarch, Dion, 53
“…for whom daily feasts and distractions provide are a consolation for their labors and risks.”
οἷς αἱ καθ᾿ ἑκάστην ἡμέραν πλησμοναὶ καὶ ἀπολαύσεις παραμυθία τῶν πόνων καὶ τῶν κινδύνων εἰσίν
This last bit reminds me of Thetis’ words to Achilles (24.128-132)
“My child, how long will you consume your heart
Grieving and mourning, thinking little of food
Or of sleep? It is good too to join a woman in love—
For you will not live with me long, but already
Death and strong fate loom around you.”
τέκνον ἐμὸν τέο μέχρις ὀδυρόμενος καὶ ἀχεύων
σὴν ἔδεαι κραδίην μεμνημένος οὔτέ τι σίτου
οὔτ’ εὐνῆς; ἀγαθὸν δὲ γυναικί περ ἐν φιλότητι
μίσγεσθ’· οὐ γάρ μοι δηρὸν βέῃ, ἀλλά τοι ἤδη
ἄγχι παρέστηκεν θάνατος καὶ μοῖρα κραταιή.
Whether we accomplish a little or a lot–as Achilles complains in book 9–we still will die. The modern horror of mass killings is especially disorienting and terrifying because it seems to strip us of agency over what happens between birth and death. And though it may be hard to remember it, the words Athenaeus attributes to the epitaph of Ashurbanipal are still not untrue:
“Know well that you are mortal: fill your heart
By delighting in the feasts: nothing is useful to you when you’re dead.
I am ash, though I ruled great Ninevah as king.
I keep whatever I ate, the insults I made, and the joy
I took from sex. My wealth and many blessings are gone.
[This is wise advice for life: I will never forget it.
Let anyone who wants to accumulate limitless gold.]
εὖ εἰδὼς ὅτι θνητὸς ἔφυς σὸν θυμὸν ἄεξε,
τερπόμενος θαλίῃσι· θανόντι σοι οὔτις ὄνησις.
καὶ γὰρ ἐγὼ σποδός εἰμι, Νίνου μεγάλης βασιλεύσας·
κεῖν’ ἔχω ὅσσ’ ἔφαγον καὶ ἐφύβρισα καὶ σὺν ἔρωτι
τέρπν’ ἔπαθον· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ καὶ ὄλβια πάντα λέλυνται.
[ἥδε σοφὴ βιότοιο παραίνεσις, οὐδέ ποτ’ αὐτῆς
λήσομαι· ἐκτήσθω δ’ ὁ θέλων τὸν ἀπείρονα χρυσόν.]
Terracotta Funeral Plague, Metropolitan Museum of Art
From an Earlier post:
Some Proverbs from Arsenius, Paroemiographer
“Only words [reason] is medicine for grief”
Λόγος μέν ἐστι φάρμακον λύπης μόνος.
“Conversation [ or ‘reason’] is the doctor for suffering in the soul”
Λόγος ἰατρὸς τοῦ κατὰ ψυχὴν πάθους.
Euripides, fr. 1079
“Mortals have no other medicine for pain
Like the advice of a good man, a friend
Who has experience with this sickness.
A man who troubles then calms his thoughts with drinking,
Finds immediate pleasure, but laments twice as much later on.”
Οὐκ ἔστι λύπης ἄλλο φάρμακον βροτοῖς
ὡς ἀνδρὸς ἐσθλοῦ καὶ φίλου παραίνεσις.
ὅστις δὲ ταύτῃ τῇ νόσῳ ξυνὼν ἀνὴρ
μέθῃ ταράσσει καὶ γαληνίζει φρένα,
παραυτίχ’ ἡσθεὶς ὕστερον στένει διπλᾶ.
Menander (fr. 591 K.).
“The man who is sick in the body needs a doctor;
someone who is sick in the mind needs a friend
For a well-meaning friend knows how to treat grief.”
Τῷ μὲν τὸ σῶμα † διατεθειμένῳ κακῶς
χρεία ‘στ’ ἰατροῦ, τῷ δὲ τὴν ψυχὴν φίλου·
λύπην γὰρ εὔνους οἶδε θεραπεύειν φίλος.
Attributed to Socrates (in Stobaeus)
“The sick need doctors; the unlucky need encouragement from friends.”
Τοῖς μὲν νοσοῦσιν ἰατρούς, τοῖς δ’ ἀτυχοῦσι φίλους δεῖ παραινεῖν.