Boethius’ “The Consolation of Philosophy”

Here are some thoughts regarding the meaning of the title of the book. I’m using the Penguin Classics, Watt’s translation edition.

Boethius faced a sudden and brutal change in his fortunes, and this caused him to “wander away” from himself (p. 16 – c.f., Dante’s awakening in a dark wood). At the beginning of the book, we see what this wandering away from one’s self looks like. The poetic muses are by his side, feeding him sugary poison, ‘dictating words’ to him and seducing him as a group of “sluts” (or “harlots”) may seduce a lonely man (pgs., 4-5). It seems he is actually out of his mind and then he becomes aware of Lady Philosophy standing over him. Her appearance is extraordinary, but one aspect, in particular, is noteworthy here (I will attempt to unpack her appearance more in a different post). “She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigor” (p. 4). I think this is important as it indicates that she isn’t Lady Philosophy in relation to a particular school of philosophy, rather she indicates what is referred to as Perennial Philosophy (though of course Boethius didn’t use or know this term).

Whereas the poetic muses offer “sugary” and poisonous relief (who doesn’t like to indulge in self-pity and melodrama now and then when we’re going through a bad time?) they will not actually help Boethius. They may provide a shadow of genuine comfort or solace, but not the effective reality of it. Lady Philosophy alone is able to provide Boethius with comfort or solace that is real because she remains unperturbed in the face of passionate excess (p. 16). Furthermore, she reveals to Boethius what the true nature of the Good (and happiness) is. It turns out that the poetic muses are related to philosophy perhaps in the same way that money, high office, fame, nobility and bodily pleasure are related to Goodness or true happiness. These things, while not being intrinsically evil (as evil is “nothing” other than a negation of the Good), are not stable or permanent. They are shadows of higher and ultimate reality. Also, due to the fact that they are negations of the Good, when individuals elevate them to the status of ultimate good, they reap evil and suffering. Also, as people’s circumstances change for good or ill in accordance with Fortune (whose true nature is one of treachery and change), one cannot entrust one’s happiness in life to Fortune. In the midst of Boethius’ very real and terrible suffering, he needs to reap a “fruitful harvest of reason” rather than the “barren thorns of Passion” (p 4). As an aside, the Latin words translated as “passions” are not passio but affectum (p. 4, translated “affections” in Loeb but “passions” in the edition I’m using) and perterbationibis (p. 18, translated “perturbations” in Loeb and “passions” in the edition I’m using). In any case, through recollecting the wisdom he has gained through Philosophy, and not indulging his emotions, he will receive genuine solace or comfort in the midst of his sufferings. Unlike the toxic sweetness of passionate indulgence, he will actually be fortified against his adversity and grow stronger rather than weaker. “The Consolation of Philosophy” shows the process of Boethius coming back to himself and recollecting wisdom he had forgotten, as well as learn new things through his rational contemplation of reality and his circumstances.

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