Sunday, January 23, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 2


Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius
Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius. Detail of an illustration for the Consolation of Philosophy by the Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1465. Image courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Summary of Book 2:

Their conversation continues. Boethius has let fortune fool him with her former flatteries. Lady Philosophy proposes healing draughts, presumably arguments for why one should not care about or heed things like fortune. Boethius's fortune has not actually changed, because Fortune is inherently changeable, that was always her nature. She brings both good and bad: 

You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess. To the eyes of others she is veiled in part: to you she has made herself wholly known. (17)

It is silly, Lady Philosophy points out, to try to control fortune or limit her change, because that is her nature, and to be upset about it is to be unreasonable.

The text is composed of alternating sections of “prose” (in which the discussion between Boethius and Philosophy take place), and “Metres,” in which Lady Philosophy expounds in poetic language upon the points made in the previous prose section. The translation I am using presents the alternating meters, and prose passages, similarly, as prose; presumably the alternation between the two styles was part of the desired effect, and it is worth wondering what significance or impact this might have had for readers (cf. Bakhtin's insistence that Boethius is in the Menippean tradition, in which such stylistic alternation is common). In Met. 1 of Book 2 (on page 18), Lady Philosophy has just invoked the "art of song" as her aid in convincing Boethius; although she earlier had driven the arts of poetry etc. away from him as worthless. Actually her "song" seems to begin over the last few paragraphs of the Prose 1, beginning with the metaphor "if you set your sails" etc.

Boethius responds that what she has said is pleasing for a moment, but then the memory and feeling of grief returns. Lady Philosophy says the present arguments are just soothing balms, the cure for his sickness will come later. Boethius pleads that 'sorrow's crown of sorrow is remembering happier things,' (20); he says that he is sadder for having previously been happy; she lists numerous reasons why he is still fortunate now, and should still be happy (his sons are alive, etc.). She lists people who are fortunate for one reason but unhappy for another.

So none is readily at peace with the lot his fortune sends him. For in each case there is that which is unknown to him who has not experienced it, and which brings horror to him who has experienced it. (21)

 She mentions people who would be happy to have even a part of Boethius's life share of good fortune.

Thus there is nothing wretched unless you think it to be so: and in like manner he who bears all with a calm mind finds his lot wholly blessed. Who is so happy but would wish to change his estate, if he yields to impatience of his lot?

A happy person must know that their happiness could end (which knowledge makes them sad as well as happy; if they do not know, they are ignorant (and therefore they are somehow unhappy by default or definition: this is typical neo-Platonism), and if they know it, this must always worry them (21-2).

She now embarks upon a stronger medicine. Lady Philosophy discusses wealth, which only has value when spent and given away, and not when hoarded; therefore there is the contradiction that spending makes you poorer, while accruing wealth makes others poorer (22). She asks why we rejoice in the beauty of nature, when it has nothing to do with us (it is not our fortune; presumably she is ironically mocking delight in fortune, rather than delight in nature) (23). She gives more examples of wealth that is not really yours; such as the desire to own beautiful landscapes that would still be beautiful if you did not own them. Humans alone of all animals are not satisfied with their intrinsic possessions, but think they can obtain “happiness” from the superficial and extrinsic:

Other classes of things are satisfied by their intrinsic possessions; but men, though made like God in understanding, seek to find among the lowest things adornment for their higher nature: and you do not understand that you do a great wrong thereby to your Creator. (23)

Humans make themselves lower than the beasts with this attitude. Nothing can be a good thing which harms its possessor; yet wealth often does just this (for instance, the wealthy are robbed or live in fear of being robbed). Political power and high office should not be seen as causes of honor or status, because in truth any good qualities of the people holding these offices were theirs before they took office, and have nothing to do with the offices themselves. She laughs at the ridiculousness of the supposed right, or even ability, of one person to exert power over another:

How can any exercise right upon any other except upon the body alone, or that which is below the body, whereby I mean the fortunes? Can you ever impose any law upon a free spirit? Can you ever disturb the peculiar restfulness which is the property of a mind that hangs together upon the firm basis of its reason?

She provides examples of the powerful who fell from power. She tells the story of Anaxagoras who bit off his own tongue to avoid speaking under torture, as an example of the true freedom of will, and why it is impossible to exert power over such a truly free person.

She relies frequently on that kind of reasoning from assumed principle, so common in ancient philosophy (even Aristotle); for instance, like is attracted to like, so anything experienced by bad people must be bad in itself:

Further, if there were any intrinsic good in the nature of honours and powers themselves, they could never crowd upon the basest men. For opposites will not be bound together. Nature refuses to allow contraries to be linked to each other. Wherefore, while it is undoubted that for the most part offices of honour are enjoyed by bad men, it is also manifest that those things are not by nature good, which allow themselves to cling to evil men. (25) 

She provides an interesting insight into the astronomical knowledge of the time: 

As you have learnt from astronomers' shewing, the whole circumference of the earth is but as a point compared with the size of the heavens. That is, if you compare the earth with the circle of the universe, it must be reckoned as of no size at all. And of this tiny portion of the universe there is but a fourth part, as you have learnt from the demonstration of Ptolemæus, which is inhabited by living beings known to us. (25)

Although good fortune is a deceiver, bad fortune is an educator; thus it is actually better to experience bad fortune, than only to have experienced good fortune. 

And do you think that this should be reckoned among the least benefits of this rough, unkind, and terrible ill fortune, that she has discovered to you the minds of your faithful friends? Fortune has distinguished for you your sure and your doubtful friends; her departure has taken away her friends and left you yours. At what price could you have bought this benefit if you had been untouched and, as you thought, fortunate? Cease then to seek the wealth you have lost. You have found your friends, and they are the most precious of all riches. (27)

 The last meter (VIII) of the chapter gives a view of the world ruled by love (vs strife) in a sort of non- sequitur.

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