Friday, October 12, 2007

Warren T. Reich on the Consolation of Phronesis?

Boethius (480-524/5) Teaching Students Consolation
Folio 4r in 1385 Manuscript of Consolation of Philosophy
MS Hunter 374 (V.1.11), Glasgow University Library
(Image from Wikipedia)

Because I'm even more pressed for time this morning, I'll just paraphrase the summary that I've prepared of Professor Reich's paper, "Consoling the Dying and Those Who Mourn: Reviving an Ancient Tradition," which he presented yesterday and which I'll be commenting upon in a session of the conference today:
Reich informs us that the most fundamental and proper form of care that we can show to those who are dying or mourning is by consoling them, which offers an active, direct, and practical approach to these problems, in contrast to the virtues of empathy and compassion, which are also important but which are not essentially connected to action. Consolation thus fills a need that no other virtue can, and Reich turns to the lengthy, 3000-year-old 'European' tradition of consolation for 'new' sources to draw upon in care for the dying. Among these sources are pagan, Jewish, and Christian ones. Common to all three is an understanding of consolation as aiming at anxious care, which consolation attempts to alleviate. Of particular interest is that Reich extends the consolation to be provided far beyond an art of dying to an art of living, an extension that he also finds in late antiquity and that he suggests may be needed even in our present, anxious times, for the various sorts of anxiety can be depicted as a single, unified object of consolation: anxious worry. Reich notes three approaches within the Christian tradition toward alleviating anxious worry: a belief in security, especially divine security; a willingness to let God be God; and a trust that one can cast one's cares upon God and be cared for in return. Reich calls this third sort a care-care dialectic and treats it as something that human beings can also provide, offering consoling care for the anxious care. In the ancient practice, consolation meant not to share grief but to remove it by appeal to reason and exhortation. This practice entails an art of living well, of knowing the telos of human desire and action, and of seeking happiness. Reich goes on to note the stages that a sufferer undergoes cases of severe health problems and in cases of dying, and he suggests that at a stage where the consoler and the one being consoled are communicating, the consoler should cite and comment upon aphorisms, for these resonate with the larger traditions of practical wisdom (phronesis) from which they stem and have been used in the past to console because they draw upon a broader, richer ground of moral understanding. Reich concludes by calling for a broad-based effort to recover the long tradition of consolation and bring it again into use. In my opinion, he has made a good case for this need, and he has even raised the central question that I would raise, namely, how to develop consolation for a pluralistic society of competing beliefs and values.
That last point is the tough one. In our fragmented, postmodern world of competing values, can a caregiver console the dying if their values are fundamentally different? Some religious traditions are exclusivistic and offer no consolation to those outside. A caregiver belonging to an exclusivistic religion might believe that consolation follows from conversion and that the means toward converting the outsider would first involve raising the outsider's level of anxiety about what to expect after death before extending the only hope of consolation.

That sounds like an issue for discussion at the conference today.

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At 7:52 AM, Blogger Alex said...

Quite frankly, I don't see how it's possible to offer consolation across religious boundaries, as the core of most religions is life-after-death and the immortal soul based on beliefs.

I asked a group of Korean Christians, for example, about their opinion on where all of the Koreans from 0 A.D. until the introduction of Christianity in Korea went after death. The group agreed that, ufortunately, all of those Koreans (their own ancestors) went to hell.

Also, it's not uncommon for Christians to ask if a person recently deceased was a Christian themself. When the answer is 'no', I've heard on numerous occasions a comment like, "Oh no, that's really a shame." I don't think you can get any further from the opposite of consolation with the implication that non-Christians, no matter how good a life they led, will from death on exist in an eternity of hell.

I don't mean to pick on Christianity in particular, but that's just what I've been exposed to the most, especially in Korea. I'm of Jewish blood myself, but I don't have an education in the religion. I'd also like to be able to comment on Buddhism, but I don't know much more than the bare basics of the belief system. (Lead a good life, be reborn on a higher social ladder, and the other way around for leading a bad life)

At 2:03 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I wonder if Korean Catholics would have a different response. Since Vatican II, the Catholic Church has had a rather open view on the salvation of non-Christians.

I suspect that you've spoken mainly with Korean Protestants, who are strongly influenced by conservative North American Protestantism.

Some Calvinists, or so I'm told, allow for grace outside of Christianity (though not outside of Christ), among pre-Christian people and among those who have not heard the gospel, but Calvinists generally limit the Elect to a fairly small number anyway, so there's not much consolation in that, I suspect.

Anyway, I think that you're right. Consolation across religious boundaries is blocked by various obstacles.

Jeffery Hodges

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