Philosopher specialising in Business Ethics - ESSCA

In the previous article, we discussed the idea that consolation is not only the expression of natural feelings: in Sigmund Freud’s words it can be based on a philosophy of life. This idea assumes that he who is consoled and the consoler adhere to the same philosophical framework. For the former, the consolation is all the greater. It strengthens him in his beliefs. For the latter, however, the impetus towards the other that constitutes consolation is the result of a choice. This seems surprising, inasmuch as feelings of pity or compassion should be communicated to the afflicted person without expectation of a return, i.e. unconditionally. But it may be hypothesised that, in order for the friend, relative, or stranger to agree to console a person – rather than to show indifference, neutrality, or, worse, to sadden or torment them – certain conditions must be met. For example, Adam Smith asserted that the compassion of the spectator (in this case, he who is in a position to console) is conditional in the sense that it depends on the ability of the person experiencing grief to control the expression of their emotions. In this article, we examine three conditions that might be required by a potential consoler: the necessity of grief, the exercise of sympathy, and, in the case of a person experiencing distress because of a wrong they have committed (an example proposed by Adam Smith), the importance of remorse.

The necessity of grief

The first condition of consolation is grief, pain, or affliction. One does not console without a reason that lies in the situation of others, and one does not console someone for the joy they experience (1). But this condition, which seems to go without saying, deserves a brief development. The reasons for consoling and the arguments used for it are present in the literary genre of consolation. Having its origin in antiquity, it took various forms, for example, dialogical, epistolary and poetic. In so far as its preferred subject is mourning, the discourse of consolation is closely related to philosophy. “As a genre and as an existential question, consolation brings us back [...] to the very sources of philosophy, to the most essential questions, those that lead to the use of reason and knowledge, but also the exercise of this rationality in order to put them at the service of the creation of a life that is as free as possible,” Claudie Martin-Ulrich observes in her introduction to an issue of the review Exercices de Rhétorique devoted to this theme (2). The reasons for consolation are twofold. They are both particular – it is a matter of comforting a person: thus, in his Consolation to Helvia, Seneca (4 B.C.-65 ) consoles his mother, who has lost her husband and other members of her family; François de Malherbe (1555-1628) wrote a poem for a friend who had lost his daughter Marguerite, in which we find this famous verse: “And, a rose, she lived as roses live, the space of a morning” (3) – and exemplary, therefore general. Manfred Kern considers this double nature to be typical of consolation literature:

“[The consolation literature] proposes to deal with an individual case which, at the same time, it stylizes as an exemplary case. This apparent discrepancy culminates, on the one hand, in the intimate tone of consolation literature and, on the other hand, in a virtually exemplary rhetorical and topical organization of the genre. The dialectical step from the individual to the exemplary, which is to be understood as a fundamental literary strategy and which is responsible for the process of identification, was carried out in an exemplary way in consolation literature.” (4)

The “exemplary” character does not imply that consolation can only be a form allowing its author to expose his own philosophical conception – some works seem to lack the intimate and empathetic part necessary for comfort, such as the Consolation to Appolonius attributed to Plutarch (46-125), judged to be “cold and formal” (5). It is necessary that the aim of the subject matter is first of all to relieve the person to whom it is addressed. In the words of Julius Caesar Scaliger (1484-1558):

“A ‘consolation’ is a speech bringing the soul of one who is grieving to a state of tranquility, and it can only come from a friend.” (6)

The intervention of sympathy

The second condition of consolation is sympathy. It seems to go without saying. When Adam Smith, at the beginning of his Theory of Moral Sentiments, states that “we sympathize even with the dead,” he takes it for granted that sympathy is a necessary condition of consolation – even though, in this case, all comfort seems useless:

“That our sympathy can afford them no consolation seems to be an addition to their calamity; and to think that all we can do is unavailing, and that, what alleviates all other distress, the regret, the love, and the lamentations of their friends, can yield no comfort to them, serves only to exasperate our sense of their misery.” (7)

The sympathy to which Smith refers is a psychosocial mechanism that allows one person, through imagination, to place him or herself in the situation of another, to “enter as it were into his body,” in Smith’s words, to become the other “to some measure” (8). But this mechanism does not automatically lead to an affinity of feelings. Here is an example, proposed by Smith, where a criminal perceives (out of sympathy) the hatred that others have for him. When his crime is done, he feels regret, horror and solitude:

“The violator of the more sacred laws of justice can never reflect on the sentiments which mankind must entertain with regard to him, without feeling all the agonies of shame, and horror, and consternation. […] By sympathizing with the hatred and abhorrence which other men must entertain for him, he becomes in some measure the object of his own hatred and abhorrence. The situation of the person, who suffered by his injustice, now calls upon his pity. He is grieved at the thought of it. […] He dares no longer look society in the face, but imagines himself as it were, rejected, and thrown out from the affections of all mankind. He cannot hope for the consolation of sympathy in this his greatest and most dreadful distress. The remembrance of his crimes has shut out all fellow-feeling with him from the hearts of his fellow-creatures.”

The importance of remorse

The third condition applies specifically to the case of a person experiencing distress as a result of an injury they have caused to another person. The criminal situation imagined by Smith is a typical example. The suffering of one who has violated the most sacred laws of justice does not end with the reprobation he is subjected to. His moral pain leads him to solitude. This solitude seems even more unbearable to him than social condemnation. So he ends up seeking not redemption, forgiveness, and consolation, but some kind of support, some recognition of his punishment, which Smith calls “protection:”

“But solitude is still more dreadful than society. His own thoughts can present him with nothing but what is black, unfortunate, and disastrous, the melancholy forebodings of incomprehensible misery and ruin. The horror of solitude drives him back into society, and he comes again into the presence of mankind, astonished to appear before them, loaded with shame and distracted with fear, in order to supplicate some little protection from the countenance of those very judges, who he knows have already all unanimously condemned him. Such is the nature of that sentiment, which is properly called remorse; of all the sentiments which can enter the human breast the most dreadful. It is made up of shame from the sense of the impropriety of past conduct; of grief for the effects of it; of pity for those who suffer by it; and of the dread and terror of punishment from the consciousness of the justly provoked resentment of all rational creatures.” (9)

If the criminal can hope to gain some protection from his fellow criminals, it is because of the remorse he eventually feels. This “dreadful” emotion can be felt by others through sympathy and give the criminal a chance to retain a place in society. Similar comments can be found in contemporary psychology. For example, if the perpetrator admits responsibility, shows remorse, and testifies that he is paying a psychological cost for the act, others may judge that his conduct helps to restore justice, that his immoral act will not happen again, and that it is possible to maintain social relations with him (10). However, remorse is not without moral ambiguity. Applied to Smith’s criminal, it does not logically imply the forgiveness for his fault. Remorse can be understood as a selfish feeling, in the sense that it is not accompanied by an intention to make amends and a promise not to do wrong again. The criteria proposed by Smith – shame, grief, pity, terror of punishment – do not guarantee that remorse will lead to remedial action. This is an issue that deserves special development, including the distinction between remorse and repentance. We will discuss this in our next article, which will conclude our journey on consolation.

Alain Anquetil


(1) But one of the meanings of consolation is “a kind of joy.” This sense is similar to that of compensation, which we mentioned in the previous article, or “counterbalance.” Here is what René Bailly wrote in the Dictionary of Synonyms of the French Language (edited by Michel de Toro, Paris, Librairie Larousse, 1947):

“Counterbalance, [in a figurative sense], applies only to affections, to good or bad qualities, and, in general, to all moral, political, etc., things that serve to counterbalance others.

Consolation is a rather familiar synonym for counterbalance taken in a good sense, to which it adds the idea of a certain relief and even a kind of joy, e.g.: A child who gives great consolation to his parents.”

(2) C. Martin-Ulrich, « Présentation : consolation et rhétorique », Exercices de rhétorique, 9, 2017.
(3) Francois de Malherbe, in a letter of condolence to M. du Périer on the loss of his daughter, Hoyt’s New Cyclopedia of Practical Quotations, 1922, art. “Roses.”

(4) See also J. H. D. Scourfield , “Towards a genre of consolation,” in H. Baltussen (ed.), Greek and Roman consolations: Eight studies of a tradition and its afterlife, Classical Press of Wales, 2013. He quotes Wilhelm Kierdorf’s definition:

“What is specifically meant by consolatio as a literary genre […] are writings of a philosophic bent, whose authors either try to dissuade individuals from grieving in the face of misfortune, or proffer general counsel on overcoming adversity.” (“Consolatio as a literary genre,” in H. Cancik and H. Schneider (eds.), New Pauly Online: Encyclopaedia of the Ancient World, Leiden, Brill, 2005.)

(5) See R. Flacelière, revue de Jean Hani, Plutarque. Consolation à Apollonios, L’antiquité classique, 42(1), 1973, p. 251-253.
(6) From Anna Carrdus, Classical rhetoric and the German poet: 1620 to the present. Study of Opitz, Burger and Eichendorff, Routledge, 2017.
(7) A. Smith, The theory of moral sentiments, 1759, D. D. Raphael and A. L. Macfie (eds.), Oxford University Press, 1976.
(8) See my recent text on Adam Smith: “The free liberalism of Adam Smith,” in T. Hoerber & A. Anquetil (eds.), Economic theory and globalization, Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.
(9) A. Smith, The theory of moral sentiments, op. cit. :

(10) See for instance R. F. Baumeister, A. M. Stillwell and T. F. Heatherton, “Guilt: An interpersonal approach,” Psychological Bulletin, 115, 1994, p. 243-267, and M. O’Malley and J. Greenberg, “Sex differences in restoring justice: The down payment effect,” Journal of Research in Personality, 17, 1983, p. 174-185.

(11) C. Bernat, « Désolation, vocation, exemplarité : les lettres de consolation de Théodore de Beringhen (1686-1700) », Exercices de rhétorique, 9, 2017.

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