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Abstract

Secular consolation literature has been inadequately studied, particularly with regard to its conceptual foundations. In this dissertation, I argue against two dominant scholarly perceptions: on the one hand, that consolation constitutes a moribund genre that has been completely described in terms of defined rhetorical effects and staid philosophical arguments, and on the other, that consolation is essentially a social practice with contingent literary traces. Instead, I advance a conception of the consolatory as a vital, productive literary idea that provides unique approaches to moral questions of loss, grief, resilience, self-transformation, and value formation. In three chapters of the dissertation, I develop a broad philosophy of consolation. First, I analyze the consolatory in terms of its rhetorical occasion, its complex audiences, the role of the consoler, and the central presence and function of empathy. Second, I analyze the first of two core consolatory functions, the therapeutic program, in terms of grief therapy and psychological resilience, and I draw on contemporary clinical research to establish a firm evidentiary basis for my claims. Third, I analyze the second core function, the moral development program, in terms of its roots in classical notions of preparation and habituation, and I describe a theoretical model of consolatory moral education that includes perspective adjustment and training in moral precepts, ethical analysis, self-critique, and moral resilience. In the remaining two chapters, I critically examine philosophical consolations from pagan antiquity in order to both substantiate and challenge the theoretical model. The first critical chapter argues that Plutarch's Consolation to His Wife enacts an oscillatory rhythm of shifting address from audience to audience to manage the disparate needs of the complex consolatory audience. The second critical chapter argues that Seneca's Consolation to Marcia mobilizes dialogic techniques like exempla and sermocinatio not only to structure a model of grief therapy, but especially to enact a curriculum of moral education achieved through incremental adjustment of readers' perspectives. In both cases, I use the critical vocabulary synthesized by consolatory theory to advance scholarship about the particular consolations under consideration, but also to demonstrate how the consolatory plays a unique role in the formation of self-identity and the construction, or reclamation, of moral agency in consolation literature. Finally, I conclude the dissertation by reflecting on the ontological, epistemological, and moral status of the idea of the consolatory itself, which I characterize as an ideological system that advances a comprehensive, normative vision of human life and that continues to arise in disparate literary genres, traditions, and modes.

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