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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.