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).
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Aristotle’s view of the human good in the Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle is absolute in stating “Every craft and every investigation, and likewise every action and decision, seems to aim at some good; hence the good has been well described as that at which everything aims” (1094a). However, this does not mean that everything aims at the same ‘goods’. As he says, “there is an apparent difference among the ends aimed at” (1094a). Whereas humanity shares the characteristics of plant and animal life, and whereas the same things which are good for the wellbeing of plants and animals are also good for us (nourishment, health, etc) the good at which we aim is different and greater than the good at which a plant, for example, aims in growing and reproducing. This is because of the specific difference between humans and other living things, plant or animal.

What makes humans unique? What is our function that differentiates our good from other goods? “The human function is the soul’s activity that expresses reason, or requires reason” (1098a5). This expression and requirement of reason is for the human “a certain kind of life” which when completed well expresses “proper virtue” (1098a10). As this is regarded as the right function of the human being, the virtue of living well according to reason is the human good. “The human good turns out to be the soul’s activity that expresses virtue” (1098a15).

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A basic comparison between the thought of Plato and Aristotle, in similarity and difference.

“Now for such general conceptions as that of manhood, or triangular shape, or any other abstraction that exists in a number of concrete things but nowhere by itself, Aristotle usually adopts the same word that Plato had used for his self-existing realities, namely “kind” or “kinds.” But just as Plato, in addition to this term which he shares with Aristotle, had a synonym which is peculiar to himself, namely “idea,” so Aristotle too has his own special synonym, namely “form.” And in expounding the doctrines of the two philosophers it has, very naturally, been usual to avoid the term “kind” common to them both, and to adopt for each the synonymous term characteristic of himself. Thus we speak of Platonic “ideas” and Aristotelian “forms.” It is a practice which has an undoubted convenience and is conducive to clearness from one point of view, but it has the great disadvantage of always suggesting the difference between the two thinkers and never their common ground, and also of severing the technical language of both of them, from the common matrix of natural, and naturally significant, phraseology out of which it grows and with which it always remains in connection. It is easy, however, to discern this common ground. “Idea” and “form” are mere variants on “kind.” And Plato and Aristotle both investigate such problems as these: What is meant by saying Socrates and Sophroniscus are both “men”? What does it really tell you of them? What does it enable you to understand? When you ask “what” a thing is and get your answer:–It is a cart, a horse, a tree–what really is that “whatness” or “thatness” that makes it the thing it is and not some other thing? And why can you never give any explanation of a thing except by determining some “kind” or “kinds” which it is or to which it belongs? But Plato is always trying to get at something behind the concrete and Aristotle to get at something in it. The Platonic “kinds” or ideas  exist apart from individual things and are the perfect prototypes of which they are the imperfect imitations or reflections; the Aristotelian  “kinds” or forms are abstractions of the human mind that have no actual existence except in transient and concrete individuals.” (Philip H. Wicksteed, Dante and Aquinas, pps 18-19 [bold emphasis mine]).

The Trinitarian anthropology of St. Augustine

“Who can understand the omnipotent Trinity? We all speak of it, though we may not speak of it as it truly is, for rarely does a soul know what it is saying when it speaks of the Trinity. People wrangle and dispute about it, but it is a vision that is given to none unless they are at peace. There are three things, all found in a person , which I should like people to consider. They are far different from the Trinity, but I suggest them as a subject for mental exercise by which we can test ourselves and realize how great this different is. The three things are existence, knowledge, and will, for I can say that I am, I know, and I will. I am a being which knows and wills; I know both that I am and that I will; and I will both to be and to know. In these three–being, knowledge, and will–there is one inseparable life, one life, one mind, one essence; and therefore, although they are distinct from one another, the distinction does not separate them” (Augustine, Confessions, XIII, 11).

‘My name is John Daker’ as a theological parable about the relationship between eros and agape and the virtue of perseverance. ;)

Recently I was reminded of the video ‘My name is John Daker’ and it got me thinking… Initially, I was a bit baffled by the medley of two songs, one a classic Christian hymn celebrating the resurrection and the other a 1950s hit song by Dean Martin celebrating romantic love. However, I now think John Daker was making a profound (though subtle) theological point in crafting his performance into a parable.

As Origen states (echoing St. Ignatius of Antioch), ‘my eros has been crucified’. However, it is because of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and Pentecost that our eros may be redeemed and gathered up into agape and thus be directed towards the Lord in worship (a total repudiation of Nygren’s thesis in ‘Eros and Agape’ (with a h/t to Dante) doubtless both these works influence this parable). In our ‘now and not-yet’ reality none of us can give clear expression to this truth. We forget, falter and get things wrong (sometimes even embarrassing ourselves). The key is to persist under the grace of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit in allowing the resurrection power of Christ to sanctify all our loves. One of the key virtues in this spiritual warfare is the virtue of perseverance. This virtue is called to battle especially when it appears that what we are doing is futile, ridiculous or failing. As John Daker indicates through the clever use of his eyebrows, he gets all of this perfectly. Also, by recording his parable and stating his name at the outset he indicates that this ‘treasure’ is held in jars of clay and must be joyously incorporated into our witness. ‘God’s strength is made perfect in our weakness’.

Introductory Essay concerning Accidie – Francis Paget.

Introductory Essay Concerning Accidie.

Yea, they thought scorn of that pleasant land, and gave no credence unto His word; but murmured in their tents, and hearkened not unto the voice of the Lord

Most men may know that strange effect of vividness and reality with which at times a discoloured of character and experience in some old book seems to traverse the intervening centuries, and to touch the reader with a sense of sudden nearness to the man who so was tried, so felt and thought, so failed or conquered, very long ago. We are prepared, of course, for likeness and even for monotony, in the broad aspect of that ceaseless conflict through which men come to be and to show what they are; for the main conditions of a man’s probation stand like birth and death, like childhood, and youth, and age awaiting every human soul, behind the immense diversity of outward circumstance. We expect that the inner history of man will go on repeating itself in these general traits; but when out of an age whose ways imagination hardly represents to us with any clearness, there comes the exact likeness of some feature or deformity which we had thought peculiar to ourselves or our contemporaries, we may be almost startled by the claim thus made to moral kinship and recognition. We knew that it never had been easy to refuse the evil and choose the good; we guessed that at all times, if a man’s will faltered, there were forces ready to help him quietly and quickly on the downward road; but that centuries ago men felt, in minute detail, the very same temptations, subtle, complex, and resourceful, which we today find hiding and busy in the darker passages of our hearts, is often somewhat unreasonably surprising to us. For we are apt, perhaps, to overrrate the intensive force of those changes which have extended over all the surface of civilized life. We forget how little difference they may have brought to that which is deepest in us all. it is, indeed, true that the vast increase of the means of self-expression and self-distraction increases for many men the temptation to impoverish life at its centre for the sake of its ever widening circumference; it may be harder to be simple and thoughtful, easier to be multifariously worldly now than once it was; but the inmost quality, the secret history, of a selfish choice or a sullen mood, and the ingredients of a bad temper, are, probably, nearly what they were in quieter days; and there seems sometimes a curious sameness in the tricks that men play with conscience, and in the main elements of a soul’s tragedy.

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Aldous Huxley on Accidie (aka, melancholy, boredom, ennui, despair)

From: “On the Margin”

The cœnobites of the Thebaid were subjected to the assaults of many demons.  Most of these evil spirits cam furtively with the coming of night.  But there was one, a fiend of deadly subtlety, who was not afraid to walk by day.  The holy men of the desert called him the dæmon meridianus; for his favourite hour of visitation was in the heat of the day.  He would lie in wait for monks grown weary with working in the oppressive heat, seizing a moment of weakness to force an entrance into their hearts.  And once installed there, what havoc he wrought!  For suddenly it would seem to the poor victim that the day was intolerably long and life desolatingly empty.  He would go to the door of his cell and look up at the sun and ask himself if a new Joshua had arrested it midway up the heavens.  Then he would go back into the sade and wonder what good he was doing in that cell or if there was any object in existence.  Then he would look at the sun again and find it indubitably stationary, and the hour of the communal repast of the evening as remote as ever.  And he would go back to his meditations, to sink, sink through disgust and lassitude into the black depths of despair and hopeless unbelief.  When that happened the demon smiled and took his departure, conscious that he had done a good morning’s work.

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