Any man who has fallen never stood securely (I poem 1)
I think of the variegation of human lives I think of Boethius in his
cell drafting and commiserating his own misfortune.
was born 476CE around the time that the last Western Roman
Emperor was being overthrown. In 493 the leadership changed again as
the Ostrogoths took over under Theodoric the Great, whom Boethius
came to serve as Master of Offices.
his writings Boethius never mentions the fate of his heritage,
although it must have been important to him: both his
parents came from families that had included Emperors. Boethius must
have been proud of his people's history, dismayed at their downfall,
and all the while dedicated to preserving the remaining vestiges of
the Roman senate's power.
To some extent it was his dedication to the senate that was
finally responsible for Boethius' death. After attempting to protect
a Senator from accusations of treason, Boethius was charged too, and
put into prison. He expected the rest of the Senate to speak up in
his defence but was thoroughly disappointed.
imprisoned Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy
for which he is most famous. He was executed in 525.
Consolation of Philosophy in brief:
by itself, The Consolation
harkens back to the Neoplatonists and their Stoicism imbued ethics
which taught that happiness should not depend on fortune. The tract
is written as a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy who
consoles Boethius, first by showing him that he should not feel
betrayed by Fortune, and later by explaining to him that the world
is ultimately justified by an infinite and good god.
it contains discussions of god and although Boethius was a Christian, The
Consolation at no time mentions
any Christian particulars. The book is obviously theistic, but echoes
the Neoplatonists' One, which was an infinite but utterly depersonalized being.
Boethius, alone at night in his cell:
We mostly hover through life somewhere in
the middle. Even if we catch glimpses of life's extremes, we
normally continue our Brownian motion; pass on to the next status
the reason, I suspect, why we find the Job's of history so
fascinating (especially those, like Boethius, who are never saved by
a dues ex machina):
Boethius started life on the top, collapsed, lost everything;
lingering only to be executed. Unredeemed.
much of the 18th
century Boethius was read as the Christian who, in a time of true
need, turned away from a faith he didn't truly care about, seeking
solace in a pagan past. The image is all the more poignant when it is
reminded that Boethius is imprisoned and facing death, and somehow
finds peace in a non-denominational, rational, philosophy.
not clear how much of that story can be retained. Certainly not all
of it. It is no longer accepted that Boethius' faith was a merely superficial blind: today
it is known that Boethius wrote many important theological works (some
of which may have contributed to his political woes). What's more,
it's not even clear that at the time of writing Boethius was
facing death: The Consolation
suggests that its author is a man ruined, perhaps with no hope of
regaining his former successes. But a man on death row? Maybe not.
If so then what remains?
Lady Philosophy explains what god's
perspective must be: atemporal and utterly depersonalized. It contrasts with the temporal perspective which is quagmired
in the shifting present, unable to go back and change the past its
already seen nor glance ahead forward to predict its next steps.
On the surface the aim is to explain the relationship between prescience and the possibility of free will. But I can't help feel that
maybe Boethius means to say something else: that maybe his life feels
cursed only when seen in the present, that it is enough to know that
god can see Boethius on an atemporal stage, where perhaps it makes
for a happy show.
But even so, the consolation
Boethius is offering himself is a not a whole one. I find it
conceivable that Boethius could learn to step outside his own
perspective and become witness to the unity of a life. What I find
harder to conceive is that Boethius could use the same technique to
assuage the knowledge of an upcoming death.
Fortune is a turning wheel, and
Boethius tries to assure himself that life is the wheel's entirety,
and not merely its present spoke. The fortunes of life may rise and
fall, but life is not a momentary fortune; life is the background
against which all fortunes press themselves.
That is the consolation Boethius
offers himself, but it is a consolation for life, not for death. A
consolation for death would require that Boethius look outside the
wheel. Boethius would need a perspective which lies beyond the passing of a wheel; an atemporal and utterly
depersonalized perspective. I am not sure whether such a perspective
is possible, and anyway, suspect that it might be better not persued.
...to forsake the common goal of existence is to forsake existence itself (IV prose 2)
References: "The Consolation of Philosophy" edited by Douglas C Langston; Wikipedia.