Saturday, January 22, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 1

Boethius and Lady Philosophy
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.

I was teaching a philosophy class at our little art college in Tucson when the announcement was made that the school would close due to the pandemic. I wrote this little text about Boethius for the class:

Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius (AD 477 - 524) was a Roman senator and philosopher who lived at just about the worst time in history to be a Roman senator and philosopher – to wit, just after Rome had been sacked and conquered by German barbarians, who proceeded to battle each other over whatever was left. If Boethius were alive today, he would not be impressed by all of our complaints about 2020.

Boethius tried to do the best he could, so he became an advisor to the Ostrogothic king Theodoric. Boethius hoped that he could civilize Theodoric by example, rein in his more barbaric impulses, and at the very least, make life in Italy a little more peaceful and predictable. One day, when Theodoric was threatening to arrest another Roman on a false charge of treason, Boethius jumped up and said, "My King, this man is no more guilty of treason than I or any other man. If you arrest him, you should just as well arrest me." So Theodoric arrested Boethius, too. He was kept in prison for some time and eventually executed.

While he was in prison waiting to be executed, Boethius wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy. In the book, he is visited in prison by "Lady Philosophy," and they have spirited discussions about Free Will, Justice, and the existence of God. One consolation of philosophy is that, although he is imprisoned, his mind is still free. But even more, a philosophical point of view allows him to get past his current suffering, and see the bigger picture.

The most lasting idea by Boethius is the "Wheel of Fortune," which, always turning, brings people good and bad fortune in cycles, always changing, never lasting.

Some quotes:

"It's my belief that history is a wheel. 'Inconstancy is my very essence,' says the wheel. Rise up on my spokes if you like but don't complain when you're cast back down into the depths. Good times pass away, but then so do the bad. Change is our tragedy, but it's also our hope. The worst of times, like the best, are always passing away."

"Nothing is miserable unless you think it so; and on the other hand, nothing brings happiness unless you are content with it."

"All fortune is good fortune; for it either rewards, disciplines, amends, or punishes, and so is either useful or just."

"The good is the end towards which all things tend."

The truth is, when I wrote that, I had not read Boethius, but had only read what others had written about him. Now that I have, I realize most of the points reiterated above were from the first chapters of the book, as if my sources had not bothered to read the whole thing. Although the early part is interesting for its discussion of Fortune and the historical circumstances of Boethius’s imprisonment, it is really toward the end that more impressive feats of philosophical and theological argumentation come into play. I read a translation by W.V. Cooper, in the public domain and thus available freely online.

Summary of Book 1:

Boethius is in prison, or possibly house arrest in some part of Italy away from Rome; his surroundings are not described to any extent, except that they are much unlike the fine library in his home. He is bewailing his fate and writing poetry. Lady Philosophy appears and drives away the poetic muses which had been leaching off him and driving him to despair. She upbraids him for his miserable appearance and demeanor; he tells his story, detailing how good he has been and how he was betrayed and victimized. Lady Philosophy tells him to shape up, and pay attention as she will tell him what is what. Much of the metaphor of philosophy as a kind of cure or treatment for confused feelings and sickness, is used.

At one point Boethius points out, "Wherefore not without cause has one of your own followers asked, ‘If God is, whence come evil things? If He is not, whence come good?’" (12)

This was Epicurus; however, earlier on Boethius (as author, I mean; he is also a character) has had Lady Philosophy state that after the golden ages of Plato and Socrates, the Epicureans and Stoics had fought over her, with little or no understanding of philosophy. So perhaps, having criticized Epicurus (or at least Epicureans) earlier, Boethius cannot now admit that he is the one whose poignant and key question is being cited, and which will lead to one of the primary subjects of the book: the problem of evil.


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