“The Consolation of Philosophy” by Boethius reviewed

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. Penguin Classics. Victor Watts trans. 164 pp.

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Penguin Classics edition shows Philosophy talking to Boethius while Fortune turns her wheel in the background

The Consolation of Philosophy is a fairly well-known little work.  Wikipedia has good background information on it and it’s author, Boethius.  He was a sixth century Roman patrician who’d lost the king’s favor and wrote the book while in prison in 524 or 525 awaiting execution and musing on his fall from grace.  Though a Christian, he drew on classical themes and motifs for the work, which is fundamentally a theodicy.

The book is a dialog between Boethius and Philosophy, who is personified as a woman and contrasted with Fortune (cf. the image of Wisdom as a woman and Folly as a harlot in Proverbs—the work isn’t wholly uninformed by the Christian tradition).  Boethius, who had previously served as Consul and in other high positions while he had the king’s favor, complains to Philosophy that he had “never been moved from justice to injustice by anything.”

You and God, who has sowed you in the minds of wise men, are my witnesses that the only consideration to impel me to any office was a general desire for good.  This was the reason why I had no alternative but grimly to resist evil and why in the struggle to defend justice I have always been indifferent to the hatred I inspired in men who wielded greater power than mine—an indifference inspired by the knowledge that I had freely followed my conscience. (10)

He feels betrayed by Fortune, which had previously blessed him with respect and success.  “I cannot deny the speed with which I rose to prosperity.  It is the very thing, in fact, which makes me burn with grief as I remember it.  In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy.”  Philosophy consoles him that Fortune hasn’t changed her attitude towards him, she is the same as always: changeable.

The author goes on to examine the things that he had lost and why he ought not to lament his dispossession of them.  He looks at wealth, and how people who pursue it above all else never have enough and end up serving their money and stuff rather than vice versa.  “No good thing harms its owner … but wealth very often does harm its owners.” (36)  Power likewise is not the summum bonum; it doesn’t bring happiness or safety, but frequently the reverse.  His insights on those topics is good, but I most enjoy his analysis of fame:

Just think how puny and insubstantial such game really is.  It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. … This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour. (41)

I can’t help but wonder if Carl Sagan was thinking of that passage when he wrote Pale Blue Dot.  Beothius further comments out that

Many men have been famous in their time but their memory has perished because there were no historians to write about them.  And yet the very histories are of little use when like their authors they become lost in the depths of time which make all things obscure. … If you think of the infinite recesses of eternity you have little cause to take pleasure in any continuation of your name. (42)

He then analyses the good, identifies it as the summun bonum that all people desire and are drawn to, and identifies it with God.  These passages owe much to Plato and need little explanation for anyone familiar with his concept of the good.

The passages in the work on the problem of evil (or the problem of undeserved suffering) are interesting.  He states the problem quite well:

The greatest cause of my sadness is really this—the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished. … But there is something even more bewildering. When wickedness rules and flourishes, not only does virtue go unrewarded, it is even trodden underfoot by the wicked and punished in the place of crime.  That this can happen in the realm of an omniscient and omnipotent God who wills only good, is beyond perplexity and complaint. (85)

Later, he calls the problem of evil “the greatest of all questions, a question that can never be exhausted.”  He says that “when one doubt has been removed, countless others spring up in its place, like the hydra’s heads.”  While the statement of the problem is excellent, The Consolation hardly the definitive solution.  Philosophy answers Boethius much as God answered Job out of the storm: “It is because you men are in no position to contemplate this order that everything seems confused and upset. … It is not allowed to men to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work or expound them in speech.  Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the author of all natures, orders all things and directs them towards goodness.” (106, 109)  As for suffering that the good endure, “in the very short space of a human life, nothing can be so late in coming as to seem to the mind long to wait for, especially as it [the mind] is immortal.” (97)

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune, from a 15th century manuscript

Another image of the Wheel of Fortune (Rota Fortunae), from a 15th century manuscript

But Boethius goes beyond this; he offers arguments that all things, both those apparently good and those apparently bad, are for the better, because “all fortune whether pleasant or adverse is meant either to reward or discipline the good or to punish or correct the bad. … [therefore] all fortune is good.” (111)  While there is a bit more to his argument, it is unconvincing and few readers will accept his claim that “evil is [only] thought to abound on earth. … if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there was evil anywhere.” (110)  The arguments he adduces to prove the nonexistence of evil are sophistical and detract from what preceded them.

The last matter dealt with is divine foreknowledge as it relates to free will, a topic which I normally find it useless to discuss, an opinion that Boethius does nothing to modify.  The penultimate sentence of the work reminds me of the verses appended to the end of Ecclesiastes: “Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope and put forth humble prayers on high.”

The Penguin Classics edition contains the 1960s translation by Victor Watts, who adds a 26-page introductory essay that provides context and interpretive help for The Consolation. The poetic passages that intersperse the dialog parts don’t seem particularly skillful, and only a few lines stand out for their beauty, images, or form.  I don’t particularly recommend this edition above any other, but the work as a whole is well worth reading for anyone familiar with classical philosophy.

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