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.


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. 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.