A work by Boethius, written c.A.D. 475-525. Boethius was a Greek scholar imprisoned in Pavia, and during the long period leading up to his execution, he found comfort in his own written discourse with his “nurse,” Philosophy. Philosophy offers Boethius insight on the nature of man, fortune and happiness, fate and free will, helping to restore him from his sickness and bestow onto him enlightenment.

There had been nothing written previous to The Consolation of Philosophy, or the De Consolatione Philosophiae, that could compare in its clarity and wealth in philosophical discussion. Boethius’ consolation while in prison inspired both Chaucer and Dante and he is considered one of the most eminent of Middle-Age writers. The dialogue alternates between prose and verse, and Boethius makes references to and quotes from literary figures such as Catullus, Euripides, Homer, Ovid, Sophocles, Virgil and more. While a certain amount of beauty in the piece is lost in translation, the inherent quality and profundity of the work remains quite clear. Boethius wrote an amazing book in the attempt to justify the work of God to man. This was my favorite book read in my Medieval Literature class in college, and I still peruse it on occasion.

When Philosophy comes to Boethius at the start of the book, they begin a conversation in which she explains the primary goal in her visit:

"'Now,' said she,' I know the cause, or the chief cause, of your sickness. You have forgotten your true nature. Now therefore I have found out to the full the manner of your sickness, and how to attempt the restoring of your health. You are overwhelmed by this forgetfulness of yourself: hence you have been thus sorrowing that you are exiled and robbed of all your possessions. You do not know the aim and end of all things; hence you think that if men are worthless and wicked, they are powerful and fortunate. You have forgotten by what methods the universe is guided; hence you think that the chances of good and bad fortune are tossed about with no ruling hand. These things may lead not to disease only, but even to death as well. But let us thank the Giver of all health, that your nature has not altogether left you. We have yet the chief spark for your health's fire, for you have a true knowledge of the hand that guides the universe: you do believe that its government is not subject to random chance, but to divine reason. Therefore have no fear. From this tiny spark the fire of life shall forthwith shine upon you."

She goes on to speak to him of false paths such as fame, wealth, and office, and attempts to show Boethius the true path to happiness. They argue about free will and whether or not it exists, as well as whether or not chance is actual- and Philosophy says neither exist- to a certain extent. After arguing about chance, for example, Philosophy says, “We may therefore define chance as an unexpected event due to the conjunction of its causes with action which is done for some purpose.”

Philosophy also, among numerous other issues, discusses the heirarchy of knowledge: The base would be sense only, found in animals without backbones; next would be imagination, in animals like dogs; then reason, found in the human race; and finally intelligence, of which only divinity knows.

I could go on, but it’d be better simply to read “The Consolation of Philosophy.” Here are a few other passages, simple but eloquent, I enjoy in this work:

On the false path of “office”:
“The only way one man can exercise power over another is over his body and what is inferior to it, his possessions. You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of inner tranquility a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason.”

”There is no need for me to mention that nature is satisfied with little, whereas nothing satisfies greed.”

“Everything that is known is comprehended not according to its own nature, but according to the ability to know of those who do the knowing.”

I have been studying philosophy casually and academically for many years, and it is only recently that I have read Boethius' work, The Consolation of Philosophy. I now wonder why none of my mentors in Philosophy pointed me to this book and told me to read it and memorize it and understand it. Among all the books of philosophy I have read, this jumped to the top of the pile to become perhaps the one short primer on early Western philosophy.

There are a few reasons why this short book is so excellent. Actually, the fact that it is short is perhaps the first of these. At a little over a hundred pages in most editions, it can be finished in a weekend, easily. Its easy prose style (in the translations I am familiar with) make it something that can be read on the bus. Other than its brevity, it has a few other good points to recommend it:

  1. This book is inspired by, or inspires, almost every school of premodern philosophy. Boethius is a student of speculative Greek philosophy, was raised and played an important part in the Roman Empire and its ideas of political and social virtue, and lastly was one of the earliest Christian philosophers, who would help shape later scholastic philosophy. There is some hints, such as the obvious presence of a Sophia figure, that Boethius knew his way around various gnostic or mystery systems, as well. This book is relevant to any discussions of philosophy in the 1500 year span from Socrates to Thomas Aquinas.
  2. The second reason this book is such a good guide is it is very readable. It tells a dramatic story, of how a despairing Boethius was rescued by the spirit of Philosophy. Although the exact political stand he was taking might not seem so relevant today (or, indeed, it might, since he was trying to stand up for the role of the Senate in restraining the power of a somewhat barbaric monarch), the drama surrounding the text strengthens the conviction projected. Boethius wrote this book while awaiting a death sentence. He had been reduced from being a very important political figure, with wealth and social status, to being in prison, awaiting execution. The book then, is not merely an academic work, but an emotional one. Although such things are, of course, very subjective to judge, I do feel that the spiritual quality of Boethius comes out in the writing, beyond merely the intellectual writing. The reader wants to pay attention to Boethius' reasoning because they sympathize with him.
  3. The third aspect of what makes this such a great book for me is a little more complicated, and requires some knowledge of contemporary philosophy. Martin Heidegger believed that Western philosophy turned away from engagement in Being to indulge in nihilism hidden in metaphysics. This confuses most people, but the popular application of it: that Western thought has been used to prop up authoritarian and (seemingly) patriarchal systems. Boethius is a good Catholic, and a good Platonist. Is this book, seemingly a heartfelt plea for a higher level of wisdom and morality, actually a tricky way to either install a militant hierarchy over us all, or a way to close the primal openness of being in a series of metaphysical conundrums? At times, as with the now notorious proof of the existence of God, I do get the feeling that Boethius is straying off into logical thickets. But for some reason, even though Boethius claims he is a Platonist, I feel an authenticity in his thought that I don't feel in Plato, or many other Western philosophers, for that matter. My own feeling is that Boethius is using philosophy to communicate spiritual insights, not using the veil of spirituality to hide an analytic mindset. This is, of course, very open to debate.

These are a few reasons why I consider this book to be such a great book. Much like I recommend the Mencius for its ability to explain in short anecdotes a wide range of history and thought, I recommend this book. It is exciting and thought provoking. It is a greatly underused and understudied work.

Any man who has fallen never stood securely (I poem 1)


Whenever I think of the variegation of human lives I think of Boethius in his cell drafting and commiserating his own misfortune.


Background:

Boethius 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.

In 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.

While imprisoned Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy for which he is most famous. He was executed in 525.


The Consolation of Philosophy in brief:

Read 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.

Although 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 quo. 

That's 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.

For much of the 18th and 19th 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.

It's 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.

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