Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy has been one of those "Eureka!" books for me (along with The Sacrament of the Present Moment and Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives). This was my third reading and I know I need to read it again (thankfully it's not large!). On every page there's something that stirs the soul and delights the mind. It opens on a scene of sorrowing. Boethius has been falsely accused and imprisoned for only ever doing good. His muses are assisting him in his mourning when Lady Philosophy makes her appearance.

'Who,' she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, 'has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? They have no medicines to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. (p.4)

Excuse the aside here, but I think Jane Austen would heartily approve of how Lady Philosophy takes all in hand at this point. She reminds Boethius that It is hardly surprising if we are driven by the blasts of storms when our chief aim on this sea of life is to displease wicked men.(p.8) (This is one I come back to and remind myself of.) As Boethius laments his banishment, she tells him something that would be well if we all kept it in mind:

'The moment I saw your sad and tear-stained looks, they told me that you had been reduced to the misery of banishment; but unless you had told me, I would not have known how far you had been banished. However, it is not simply a case of your having been banished far from your home; you have wandered away yourself, or if you prefer to be thought of as being banished, it is you yourself that have been the instrument of it. No one else could ever have done it. For if you remember the country you came from, it is not governed by majority rule like Athens of old, but, if I may quote Homer, One is its lord and one its king; and rather than having them banished, He prefers to have a large body of subjects. Submitting to His governance and obeying His laws is freedom. You seem to have forgotten the oldest law of your community, that any man who has chosen to make his dwelling there has the sacred right never to be banished.' (p. 17)

She begins to question him so as to find the root of his problem to know the proper cure. She concludes from his answers that he has been upset by the change of Fortune, and she must point out to him that change is Fortune's normal behavior, her true nature. (p. 23) Lady Philosophy tells Boethius stop thinking of yourself as plunged in misery (p. 27) and reminds him of the good fortune he has had all of his life: the love of his adopted family, his modest wife, his successful sons, his former rank, but this, Boethius says, makes his current state even harder to bear, In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy. (p.29) But what Boethius begins to realize is that the joys of nature are not something he owns or controls.

She contrasts Providence and Fate, and discusses whether or not there is a such thing as Chance. (102-116). She explains God's foreknowledge and man's free-will in the light of time and Eternity. (119-137). She talks about time in a way that will make your head spin like a top. The span of a single second can be compared with ten thousand years, but a minute though it may be, it still has value in proportion because each is a finite measure of time. But ten thousand years, or any multiple of it however great, cannot be compared with unending eternity. For while finite things can be compared with one another, the finite and the infinite can never be compared. (42)

Homer sings with honied tongue
How the brightly shining sun
All things views and all things hears.
And yet with rays too weak to pierce
Far within he cannot see
The bowels of earth or depths of sea.
Not so the Founder of the world
To Whose high gaze is all unfurled,
Matter's dense solidity,
And cloudy night's obsecurity.
What is, what was, what is to be,
In one swift glance His mind can see.
All things by Him alone are seen,
And Him the true sun we should deem.

Lady Philosophy speaks of the remedies as bitter [tasting] to the tongue, but grow sweet once they are absorbed. (47) She sees that Boethius is growing eager to understand the destination, which she tells him is true happiness. Your mind dreams of it, she says, but your sight is clouded by shadows of happiness and cannot see reality. (47) They discuss the different things that men commonly see as happiness: wealth, power, admiration, bodily pleasure, and Boethius conclude that True and perfect happiness is that which makes a man self-sufficient, strong, worthy of respect, glorious and joyful. (65) Lady Philosophy tells him that he must add one thing, replying, Do you think there is anything among these mortal and degenerate things which could confer such a state? (65) Her argument is logically and beautifully stated, and the gist of her conclusion several pages later is that God is the essence of happiness (70), and that when we become happy we participate in the divine. (71) They then go on to discuss goodness, and how God is the supreme good who mightily sweetens and orders all things. (80)

Whoever deeply searches out the truth
And will not be decoyed down by false by-ways,
Shall turn unto himself his inward gaze,
Shall bring his wandering thoughts in circle home
And teach his heart that what is seeks abroad
It holds in its own treasuries within.
What error's gloomy clouds have veiled before
Will then shine clearer than the sun himself.
Not all its light is banished from the mind
By body's matter which makes men forget.
That seed of truth lies hidden deep within,
And teaching fans the spark to take new life;
Why else unaided can man answer true,
Unless deep in the heart the touchwood burns?
And if the muse of Plato speaks the truth,
Man but recalls what once he knew and lost.

This light, whimsical (ha!) book then discusses what is commonly referred to as "the problem of evil". Lady Philosophy is again the voice of Wisdom, teaching that sin never goes unpunished or virtue unrewarded (86), and that Men who give up the common goal of all things that exist, thereby cease to exist themselves. (91) And that when the wicked go unpunished they acquire some extra evil in actually going scot free, which you have agreed is bad, because if its injustice. (98) Boethius sees the truth of her argument, but knows that ordinary men would not believe her. She explains that their eyes are used to dark and they cannot raise them to the shining light of truth. They are like birds whose sight is sharpened by night and blinded by day. So long as they look only at their own desires and not the order of creation, they think of freedom to commit crimes and the absence of punishment as happy things. (99)

One of my ways of thinking that was shaken and dethroned by reading Consolation is the Calvinistic belief of Total Depravity, at least the way I've always heard (and read) it presented. In contrast, she clearly states that There is nothing, therefore, which could preserve its own nature as well as go against God. (80) She recalls the story of Odysseus and his men stranded on Circe's island and Odysseus' men drinking the potion that changed them into animals where

There voice and body changed;
Only the mind remains
To mourn their monstrous plight. (95)

She contrasts the story of Odysseus and his men with

Those poisons, though, are stronger,
Which creeping deep within
Dethrone a man's true self:
They do not harm the body,
But cruelly wound the mind. (96)

Lady Philosophy argues that when a man abandons goodness and ceases to be human, being unable to rise to a divine condition, he sinks to the level of being an animal because it was by falling into wickedness that they also lost their human nature. (94) Thus, wicked people may retain the outward appearance of the human body, [but] change into animals in regard to their state of mind. (96)

Do yourself a favor and read this book as soon as possible. It's necessary.

(Consolation of Philosophy must be read in full to truly grasp and appreciate the beautiful flow of reason as this brief summary cannot substitute for that.)  

A few notes from the introduction written by Victor Watts:

King Alfred translated Consolation into Old English and Chaucer into Middle English.

Dante found Boethius one of his greatest consolations after the death of Beatrice, and set Boethius among the twelve lights in the heaven of the Sun.

Boethius speaks of philosophy as at once the pursuit of wisdom, the pursuit of divinity and the friendship of that pure mind.

Page numbers correlate to this edition.

You may also like:

The Sacrament of the Present Moment

plus potuit, quia plus amavit

"Die before you die. There's no chance after."


During his recent visit, PopPop brought what is now my kids' favorite movie, Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines. It's all the rage at my house just now, and my son goes about quoting his favorite line spoken by the Brit. It's something like, "We rule the seas, but dammit we should rule the skies too!" This is their favorite part at the very beginning. Nothing I do will convince them that you do not pronounce his name Red Skeleton. Oh well.