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While in prison awaiting a brutal execution at the hands of the Gothic king Theodoric, the Roman philosopher and statesman Boethius produced arguably the most famous work of early medieval philosophy and literature, the celebrated The Consolation of Philosophy. In alternating sections of prose and poetry, Boethius describes the circumstances of his rapid fall from the upper echelons of society and power. Part autobiography, part philosophy, and part literature, The Consolation of Philosophy presents a dramatic narrative in which the character Boethius discusses his plight with lady Philosophy. As his teacher, Philosophy leads him to a discussion of the perennial questions of human existence, and their conversation covers such topics as the possibility of human happiness, the problem of evil, the vicissitudes of fortune in living well, the question of whether there is order in the universe, and the possibility of human freedom. While it is unknown how the author Boethius managed to have his manuscript safely smuggled from prison before his untimely death, The Consolation of Philosophy has survived as a brilliant work of Latin literature, and early English translations done by King Alfred the Great, Geoffrey Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth I are still extant. This classic has earned high marks from readers throughout the ages, and Dante in his famous poem honors Boethius by placing him next to the great contemplatives Thomas Aquinas and Albert the Greatin the Paradiso.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (ca. 475-525 AD) was born in Rome to an eminent aristocratic family whose members included two Roman emperors. When his father died early in Boethius’ childhood, Boethius was adopted by the powerful, cultured, and noble family of Symmachus. Symmachus was a descendent of the great defender of classical paganism by the same name who famously, yet unsuccessfully, debated with St. Ambrose over the restoration of the Altar of Victory at the senate house in Rome. Boethius would later marry the younger Symmachus’ daughter, Rusticiana, and they would have two sons who, like their father and the younger Symmachus, would eventually become Roman consuls. In the household of Symmachus, Boethius was educated in Latin literature and Greek thinking and benefited from the best schooling of his day. He gradually ascended to political power, with the political pinnacle occurring with his appointment as Magister Officiorum or “Master of Offices” for Theodoric around 522, establishing Boethius as the overseer of the major affairs at court in Ravenna. He was not only a man of book learning and political power, but he also had his hand at designing a sundial and water clock for a Burgundian king at the request of Theodoric. Shortly after his appointment, however, his political troubles began. He was accused of engaging in treasonous activities, though these charges are considered to be fabrications in the apologetic portions of The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was tried and found guilty in absentia and then was mercilessly tortured and bludgeoned to death, not before, however, having finished the work for which he is most famous.
Although Boethius is indeed best known for The Consolation of Philosophy, this late work was by no means his only scholarly output. The diverse subject matter of his earlier works indicates well the depth and breadth of his learning; in addition to philosophical commentaries on some logical writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Porphyry, he also produced books on mathematics, music, logic, astronomy, and theology. Arguably the most educated man of his age, and certainly one of the few men of his time to be master of both the ancient Greek and classical Latin languages, Boethius would come to be regarded as “last of the Romans, first of the scholastics,” because his works are rooted in the best of classical Latin and also prefigure developments that would only be made explicit in later medieval writers. Two of Boethius’ theological treatises, On the Trinity and On the Hebdomads, would be enormously influential in the western Latin theology of the later Middle Ages, even eliciting detailed commentaries by the thirteenth-century philosopher and theologian Thomas Aquinas. Although Boethius’ premature death prevented the completion of his self-proclaimed projects of both translating the entire corpus of Plato’s and Aristotle’s works from Greek into Latin and showing that Plato and Aristotle were in agreement on the fundamentals of philosophy, nearly all of his writings (and The Consolation of Philosophy is no exception) show him to be a masterful appropriator, preserver, and transmitter of Greek Aristotelian, Platonic, and Neoplatonic themes to the Latin world. Boethius is credited with having coined the term quadrivium (literally, “four ways”) to cover the four arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music, and in doing so helped to fashion the way liberal arts would be studied and organized in the later Middle Ages. Indeed, his definition of person as an “individual substance of a rational nature” would be canonical throughout the Middle Ages and would serve as a starting point for discussions of divine as well as human personhood. Above these other works, however, The Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most widely-read and widely-available works in medieval Europe starting in the late eighth and early ninth centuries, and its popularity would continue in the later Middle Ages and Renaissance.
The Consolation of Philosophy is divided into five books, and each book is further divided into alternating sections of prose and poetry. Thus, the work structurally blends genres in a way that hearkens back to the tradition of Menippean satire. The title of the work itself presents a double entendre, since it simultaneously describes the setting of the work and indicates the scope of its subject matter. First, the title describes the setting, where the character of Philosophy offers her consolation to a grieving Boethius, who, depicted as imprisoned at the end of his life, grieves over his lost fortunes and sullied reputation. She appears in the role of a philosophical doctor, tending to the weakness of a patient, ready to dispense philosophical cures between poetic preparations. Boethius the author thus stands in a venerable tradition first initiated by Plato in his dialogue Gorgias, in which philosophy is presented as cure for sicknesses of the soul. Secondly, the title captures the issue that every careful reader of the work must deal with, namely, whether philosophy does, in fact, console. At issue is the question of whether philosophical activity affords a genuine remedy to the ills of human existence. The prospect of a purely philosophical consolation, distinct from competing claims, say, in revealed theology, has been a puzzle for commentators who reflect on the fact that Boethius is the author of the influential theological treatises mentioned above. In earlier times, Boethius was revered as a saint, and he was commonly considered a martyr for some centuries, though there have been more recent attempts to discredit this version of his demise. Yet the question remains why the historical Boethius, known for theological subtleties and author of a work called On the Catholic Faith, would turn strictly to philosophy in a time of need. There is little, if anything, that is particularly Christian in The Consolation of Philosophy; rather, the work seems to limit itself to the best of Greek and Latin secular thought. It is not difficult to agree with the estimation found in Samuel Johnson’s often-quoted remark that Boethius in his last work seems magis philosophus quam Christianus or “to a greater extent philosopher than Christian.”
The first book of The Consolation of Philosophy is largely autobiographical. In the setting of the work, Philosophy appears to the imprisoned character Boethius and finds him weeping and vainly trying to compose verses. Boethius complains that he has lived a life devoted to philosophy, and in his capacity as a public servant he has always championed the causes of justice and the common good. It is nothing less than monstrous, Boethius contends, that despite his righteousness in the sight of God such evil would be allowed to befall him. He wonders how God and evil can co-exist. Perhaps God merely orders the heavens, and lets the good man suffer down in the sublunary sphere. By broaching these issues, Boethius establishes himself firmly within the tradition of a strictly natural or philosophical theology, as opposed to revealed theology. These discussions raise the question of whether human reason, apart from religious faith or revelation, is able to provide answers to these inquiries. Philosophy is quick to rebuke Boethius, alleging that he has failed to remember many of her doctrines, not the least of which includes teachings about what he is, the end or goal of all things, and his native country. Regarding the last item, it seems that Philosophy is not reminding Boethius of his Roman citizenship, but referring to a philosophical citizenship in an intellectual community spanning the ages, perhaps comparable to citizenship in the famous city “in speech” described in Plato’s Republic or even the Civitas Dei of Augustine.
The second book of the Consolation contains Boethius’ celebrated discussion of the role of fortune in happiness. Philosophy diagnoses the cause of his spiritual sickness as a longing for his previously possessed good fortune. She resurrects the ancient Herodotean image of fortune as a turning wheel, where those who rise with fortune’s graces are bound to fall in turn. The discussion turns to an analysis of the alleged necessity of external goods (e.g., friends, wealth, money, honors) for happiness. The author Boethius seems heavily indebted to the philosophical tradition in this part of the work, for one can detect the traces of arguments found in Plato’s dialogues and the sayings of Epictetus when Philosophy champions the irrelevance of external goods to human happiness. If happiness exists, it cannot be extrinsically bestowed, but must be found in oneself as an internal good. External goods cannot truly be one’s own, for what is truly one’s own is presumably what can never be taken away. If Boethius’ wealth, honors, and good reputation were really his own, he never would have lost them. The author Boethius thus stands in concert with a Socratic and Stoic tradition that attempts to extricate fortune from an account of human flourishing or happiness.
The third book of the Consolation is the most Aristotelian part of the work. The argument of the book often hearkens back to the Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle in its systematic presentation of wealth, high offices, power, glory, and pleasure as incapable of securing happiness. Surely wealth can never make one self-sufficient. High offices are merely bestowed by ignorant mobs. Power and kingdoms seem to bring misery to their possessors, as the famous tale of the sword of Damocles makes clear. Surely glory and reputation pale in comparison with self-knowledge. If happiness is physical pleasure, then beasts should be called happy as well. Boethius’ account, however, is not merely a via negativa, in which possible candidates for happiness are systematically rejected on the basis of argument. A positive account follows, which includes a piece of argumentation that in many ways prefigures ontological-style arguments made famous later in the history of philosophy with thinkers like the eleventh and early twelfth century bishop and philosopher Anselm of Canterbury and the seventeenth-century founder of modern philosophy, René Descartes. Lady Philosophy describes God as that which nothing better can be conceived, and as good, God must be the highest good. Using purely rational arguments and never appealing to faith or revelation, Philosophy argues for the uniqueness or singularity of God, and ultimately identifies happiness with God. If happiness exists, it must be identifiable with acquiring divinity by participation. It should be noted, however, that these “theological” discussions between the character Boethius and Philosophy which broach the subject of God and human participation in divinity appear far removed from a religious discussion of the divine, but parallel the discussions of divinity found in Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, God is not described toward the end of the book with attributes such as being loving or caring, but rather is described as the principle by which things remain in existence and have motion. At no point in the work does the argumentation stray from a purely philosophical, or natural, theology.
In its presentation of the classical doctrine of evil as a privation, the penultimate book of the Consolation further explores the theme of metaphysical participation set forth in the previous book. Evil is not something positive; rather, evil designates that something that should be present is lacking or missing. As a counterpart to the argument in the previous book that happiness is the participation of the good human being in divinity, the present book argues that moral evil causes an agent to lose being. Wicked human beings preserve the outward appearance of a human body, but in the quality of their minds they are, essentially, beasts. Rather than adopting the Platonic philosophical myth of reincarnation, where evil human beings are said to be reborn in the next life as the animal that best represents the vice of which they were guilty, Boethius modifies the teaching with a metaphysical account that understands moral evil to be a loss of being, and hence, a loss of nature. Moral failures lead one to move down the chain or hierarchy of being. The lazy man retains the outward appearance of being human, but mentally is only an ass. The lust-filled man keeps his human shape, but mentally is a filthy sow. The deceiving man’s outward appearance is that of a man, though his soul is that of a fox. Loss of virtue is equated with a loss of being, and with a loss of being comes a descent to a lower nature. The doctrine of philosophical deification present in the third book is paralleled with the doctrine of the loss of nature present in the fourth book. These doctrines would become appropriated later among Italian Renaissance philosophers, most notably in the celebrated Oratio of Giovanni Pico della Mirandola.
The final book of the Consolation contains the densest piece of philosophical argumentation in the work. Boethius tackles the age-old question of the compatibility of human free will in the presence of divine foreknowledge. Boethius wonders why God’s knowledge of all things in the past, present, and future does not necessitate the actions of human beings in the present. There would seem to be a need to protect human freedom and choice in the face of the omniscience of God. The solution provided by Philosophy involves a subtle analysis of God’s eternal present, which is shown in significant ways to be different from the human temporal present. The argument of the book is the locus classicus of the philosophical problem of protecting human freedom in the context of divine prescience.
Boethius’s greatest work, The Consolation of Philosophy, survives both as a classic in the canon of great literature and as a major text in the history of Western philosophy. After nearly a millennium and a half its doctrines continue to command attention, and interest in the provocative questions it asks in the midst of the beauty and artistry of its poetry and prose shows no sign of waning.
Michael V. Dougherty is an assistant professor of philosophy at Ohio Dominican University in Columbus, Ohio. His research interests include medieval and renaissance philosophy.