on October 20, 1998
I didn't know exactly what to expect when I first picked up a modern-English translation of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius' _The Consolation of Philosophy_. I knew that Boethius was held to be one of the greatest thinkers of his time--a child prodigy from a distinguished Roman family, a distinguished student of Greek, who essayed to translate all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin, and reconcile their philosophies (a task which he never completed). I knew that _The Consolation_ was held to be one of the most influential books of the middle-ages: translated into English by Geoffrey Chaucer and no less than two English monarchs.
I didn't expect the fusion of allegorical tale, platonic dialogue, and lyrical poetry (the genre is officially called the Menippean Satire)that I found. The issues _The Consolation of Philosophy_ addresses were already the time-worn province of philosophical thought by the time that Boethius essayed to address them: the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men often prosper and good men (as Boethius thought himself) often fall into ruin, the nature of the relationship between time and eternity. And the answers are mostly not new with him either: long chains of sophistical reasonings that prove, among other things, that evil men do not wholly exist, and that by allowing them to obtain their evil desires, God is punishing them more terribly than if he had stopped them. The answers are familiar, in tone, if not in exact content: a mystic-based neoplatonic vision of God as an eternal oneness, to which the soul rises through the layers of being. A somewhat recursively defined and unworldly 'good,' to which all souls aspire. Long passages on the vanity of worldly gain, the fickleness of fortune--all of them are familiar to readers who've read much classical or medieval philosophy.
But much of what feels familiar in _Consolations of Philosophy_ is not familiar from its sources, but from the many works for which it is the basis. It is in Boethius that much of the thought of the the Classical period was made available to the Western Medieval world. Thus, you find things in _The Consolation_ that echo throughout the Western Canon--the female figure of wisdom that informs Dante, the ascent through the layered universe that is shared with Milton, to say nothing of the ideas of the reconciliation of opposing forces that find their way into Chaucer in _The Knight's Tale_, among others.
But beyond the influence of the ideas, what _The Consolation of Philosophy_ has that is lacking in most other philosophical texts is a feeling of the importance of these ideas: Boethius wrote this book while awaiting trial and execution (he was ground to death in a mortar) on charges of treason, and though the book isn't explicitly autobiographical, the problems that it deals with were of the utmost importance to him at the the time, and he didn't have time to spare on superfluities. What results, then, is a philosophy made explicitly to deal with suffering: compact and full of emotion. Whether you read this book as a key to Medieval thinkers, an introduction to Classical thought, or simply as a way of looking at the problems that still concern us to this day, you should, by all means, read it.
on March 9, 2000
This is a must for any student of philosophy. Boethius is the transition from Roman and Neo-Platonic philosophy into the Medieval Period.
I would also recommend this book to those facing doubt in their studies, or college students thinking of quitting. It is a short work, easy to read and great in its comfort.
"Be not overcome by your misfortunes, for the gifts of fortune are fleeting and happiness is not to be found in temporal goods. Only by being like God, who is the highest good, can lasting happiness come to man." Lady Philosophy counsels.
Although the work is neo-Platonic Aristotle and Porphyry are heavily drawn from - so the advanced reader could consider those volumes too.
Axel Boethius wrote this book under the most horrifying circumstances imaginable; while awaiting his own rather grisly execution. What surfaces from these extreme and morose circumstances is a true masterpiece of philosophy.
The book is told in the same general style as a Platonic dialogue, with two interlocutors; Boetheius and the personification of Philosophy. Boethius chooses a Lady figure to represent the avatar of Philosophy. Its construction reminds me very much of Diotema's parlance with Socrates in Plato's "Symposium."
In the book, Boethius does a Christianizing interpretation of many classical myths and allegories. My favorite was the spin he put on the myth of Orpheus in the underworld.
This is a fine book in the history of philosophy and religion; a must read for medieval scholars.
on May 16, 2005
Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy
Translation and Introduction by V.E. Watts
There is no excuse for anyone to *not* read this book: it is a quick read, with a very thorough and enlightening introduction by V.E. Watts. However, it is profound, and Boethius, with his gentle tone and elegant style, by means of a Socratic dialogue thoroughly and irrefutably answers the most troubling questions we have about life and God.
As mentioned earlier, Boethius wrote this while unjustly imprisoned. His life prior had been spent in the study of the great philosophers. From what historians gather, he later died a death of torture. His situation was the gravest imaginable; he went from a position of wealth and respect to the worst fate possible. Ironically, that makes his argument that much more persuasive: that a man suffering the worst of life could still come to the conclusions that he does gives comfort and hope to anyone who has ever suffered.
Boethius didactically addresses:
How do we know God exists?
How do we know God is Divine?
What is the meaning of life? (And for all of you Adams fans, no, the answer is not 42. :-)
If God is good, how can evil exist?
What is the nature of evil?
If God is good, how come bad things happen to good people, and good things happen to bad people?
Why do so many in the world suffer?
How can God be omniscient and humans still have free will? Why is foreknowledge not equated with predestination?
I came to this precious book for more understanding in Medieval study. When I discovered that this book is also appropriate--nay, necessary--to life today, I became greatly annoyed that it is not more well-known and more widely read. This book is a great comfort, and one worthy of lifelong meditation.
Each time I teach Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy in my Medieval and Renaissance Philosophy course, I'm struck by what a wonderful text it is. There are at least three reasons for this.
First, it's as good an introduction to the worldview of the late antiquity/early medieval periods as one's likely to find. That worldview is likely to strike contemporary ears as foreign--Boethius' conflation, for example, of the good, happiness, and God in Book III--but it's well worth attending to.
Second, reading Boethius is an education in good argumentation. One can disagree with the premises upon which his arguments rest while still admiring and profiting from the rigor of the arguments themselves. Boethius himself tells us that his method is to "unfold" conclusions "without the help of any external aid"--tradition or authority--"but [instead] with one internal proof grafted upon another so that each [draws] its credibility from that which preceded" (p. 82). And he lives up to his word.
Finally, the existential questions Boethius explores in the Consolation are astoundingly vital today. Here's a guy who was once one of the most powerful men in the Roman empire fallen from grace and facing a very messy death. In writing the Consolation, he tries to come to terms with the fickleness of fortune, the problem of evil (why do bad things happen to good people), the secret of happiness, the issue of free will, and the meaning of human existence. Boethius finally concludes that he, like most humans, had been suffering from what might be called philosophical amnesia. He'd allowed his fast-paced lifestyle to induce forgetfulness of who he was and the way he should live his life. In those final months of his life, living in a solitary jail cell and pondering his own mortality, Boethius begins to remember. Reading his wonderful little book can help us, fifteen hundred years later, to awaken from our own amnesias.
Of all the translations of the Consolation I've read, Victor Watts' is my favorite. But be forewarned: his Introduction to the book will tell you almost nothing about the contents and issues of Boethius' book.
on May 26, 2000
The Consolation of Philosophy is the last work that can be described as classical. Boethius, a Christian scholar (De Tractes)and public servant, penned the Consolation while awaiting death by torture on the orders of Theodoric, Ostrogothic King of Italy. Boethius consoled himself by writing an allegory in which Philosophy, in the bodily form of his nurse, comes to him to clarify his mind, weighed down with unhappieness over his misfortune. The style is called the Menippian Satire, which alternates prose sections with short verse stanzas that serve to reinforce the points made in the subsequent prose. Philosophy shows Boethius that he is not abused by Fortune because, as Boethius agrees that God exists, that He is good, and all-powerful, that nothing can happen which God does not permit. His treatment of divine foreknowledge and free will is sublime, as is his discourse on Time and Eternity. Boethius is heavily indebted to Plato for much of his natural theology. This book became the bedside companion of many people, and was translated by Alfred the Great and Elizabeth I. All this, in a work that runs less than 100 pages, depending on the edition.
on June 15, 2007
The Consolation is a philosophical treatise written by Boethius (c. 480-524 A.D.) while awaiting his execution after being imprisoned by the Gothic emperor Theodoric. The first time I heard of Boethius and his most famous composition was, as so often is the case, when I was reading another work. The work in question is A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy O'Toole. The main character of O'Toole's novel, one Ignatius J. Reilly, had based his entire life and worldview around the philosophy of Boethius and his assessment of Fortune. A great work in its own right, A Confederacy of Dunces left a lasting impression in my mind and, when by chance I came across a copy of the Consolation in the used bookstore I jumped at the opportunity to see for myself what Boethius had to say.
The work is composed of five books beginning with Boethius struggling to make sense of his imprisonment and pending execution. Confronted with a fate that is seemingly at odds with the virtue and faith with which he has conducted his life, Boethius is about to succumb to the sorrow that is filling his thoughts. Just then he notices the presence of a woman in his cell, the awe-inspiring Philosophy. She bemoans that Boethius, once such an avid student of hers, is now about to abandon all that he had previously gained. Thus begins a journey of reason and contemplation between the two until Boethius in the end finds the consolation that he had almost given up upon. Interspersed between the dialogues of Boethius and Philosophy are a number of poems that range in subject matter and content. More numerous at the beginning of the work, the poems often times serve as transitions between arguments or help to put difficult concepts into a clearer light. Thus a remarkable harmony is reached between prose and poetry that can be appreciated even in an English translation, a rare feat indeed.
It is perhaps significant to understand the time in which Boethius lived a bit better to gain a more accurate reading of his work. Living long after Constantine's conversion to Christianity in the 4th century A.D., it is widely accepted that Boethius was a Christian and believer of the tenants of the Catholic Church (at a time when the Gothic emperor Theodoric, also a Christian but belonging like all Goths to the heretical Arian sect that believed that the father and son were not of one substance). One must find it a bit peculiar than that at no point in Boethius' text is Christianity mentioned in any overt context. To find a believer in his last days before death turning not to theology for comfort, as one might expect, but rather to philosophy has raised many questions about the nature of Boethius' belief. But one only has to look to the title of the work to see that Boethius is choosing philosophy for the subject of his work and could very well indeed have thought theology a better consolation, although one that would be and should be treated in an altogether separate treatise. With this in mind, Boethius draws on the works of the great philosophers and thinkers of antiquity; Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Seneca, St. Augustine, the Stoics, and the Neo-Platonists. This feat being all the more remarkable because Boethius apparently relied on his own memory to produce the arguments and passages seeing as he had no access to any literary sources while imprisoned.
Boethius has rightly been called the last classical man. Indeed his thoughts and works can be seen as forming a bridge etween the classical world and the Middle Ages. The Consolation influenced countless numbers of theologians throughout the Middle Ages and direct references are to be found in the works of masters such as Dante and Chaucer. His lonely contemplation of good and evil, fate and free will, fortune and the nature of happiness certainly still have an allure to inquisitive minds to this day.
on November 12, 2005
I don't read a lot of philosophy texts, but I read this one after my father died and was surprised to find it very meaningful and truly consoling.
Boethius's "The Consolation of Philosophy" is a rare and unusual philosophical work in that it continues to be read by many people who are not philosophers or students of philosophy. This is witnessed by the thoughtful reader reviews here on Amazon. The work continues to be read, I think, because Boethius placed his philosophy in the context of his own experience. The book has a personal and immediate tone. Boethius also broadened the book to make his own experience speak to many people of his own and later times. Most readers will find at least some of Boethius's philosophical teachings valuable and persuasive. The book also combines philosophy with a beautiful literary style. Poetry alternates with and supplements philosophy. Philosophy is personified and speaks to Boethius in the form of a beautiful woman. The book is full of allusions to classical Greek and Roman literature.
Boethius (480 -- 524 A.D.) wrote this book near the end of life that was both active and scholarly. He had occupied a high position in the Roman Empire before he was imprisoned for treason. He wrote the book in prison in the months before he was brutally tortured and killed. At the beginning of the Consolation, Boethius is morose and grieving over the injustice of his imprisonment and impending fate. He feels that his life has been meaningless.
When she enters, the figure of philosophy largely recalls Boethius to himself. The discussion proceeds in layers, moving from the concrete and specific to the abstract. Philosophy tells Boethius that she must take him and his situation as she finds them and move gradually to help Boethius understand himself. As the book proceeds, it becomes more of a teaching by philosophy than a dialogue between philosophy and Boethius. Prose and argument take the place of poetry as the book becomes heavily Neoplatonic and theistic in tone.
I understood best the earlier parts of this short works, largely books I -- III of the five books in which it is divided. Here, with philosophy's guidance, Boethius meditates on what makes life worthwhile. He comes to understand that what he had primarily valued in life -- things such as pleasure, power, money, success -- are evanescent and pass away. They do not produce true happiness because they are not part of what a person is and can be taken away. They are inherently changeable and fickle. In an important passage in Book II, philosophy says (p.31):
"Why then do you mortal men seek after happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within you? You are led astray by error and ignorance. I will briefly show you what complete happiness hinges upon. If I ask you whether there is anything more precious to you than your own self, you will say no. So if you are in possession of yourself you will possess something you would never wish to lose and something Fortune could never take away. In order to see that happiness can't consist in things governed by chance, look at it this way. If happiness is the highest good of rational nature and anything that can be taken away is not the highest good- since it is surpassed by what can't be taken away -- Fortune by her very mutability can't hope to lead to happiness."
Boethius introduces the figure of the wheel of fortune which, apart from the personification of philosophy, is the most striking figure of the book. He was not the first to use this metaphor, but he made it his own. The figure of the wheel and the emphasis of change and suffering in life reminded me of Buddhist teachings which I have been studying for the past several years. Boethius does not take his philosophy this way but instead develops a Neoplatonic vision of the One or of God which culminates in a beautiful poem at the conclusion of Book III section 9 of the Consolation (pp 66-67). In the remaining portions of the Consolation, Boethius seeks for further understanding of happiness and of the good. Philosophy's answer becomes more difficult and theological. If focuses on the claimed non-existence of evil, the difference between eternity and time, and the nature of Providence.
In rereading the book, I thought Boethius convincingly presented what people today would call an existential or experiential situation -- he was imprisoned far from home and awaiting a gruesome death. He learns some highly particular and valuable ways of understanding that help him -- and the reader -- with his condition. As he develops his understanding, Boethius and philosophy adopt a Neoplatonic synthesis of Plato and Aristotle that contemporary readers are likely to reject or not understand. There is a further difficult question whether Boethius's teachings are exclusively Neoplatonic and pagan, or whether they are Christian as well. (Christianity and Jewish-Christian texts go unmentioned in the Consolation.)
Thus, I think the Consolation continues to be read and revered largely because of the situation it develops in its initial pages and because of Boethius's poetically moving teaching of the nature of change, suffering and loss. It is valuable to have the opportunity to see these things. With change in times and perspective, not all readers will agree with or see the necessity for the Neoplatonic (or Jewish-Christian, given one's reading of the work) underpinnings with which Boethius girds his teaching of change and suffering. As I mentioned, it is tempting to see parallels with Buddhism. But it is more likely that modern readers will try to work out Boethius's insights for themselves in a framework which is primarily secular. I thought that much of the early part of the book, for example, could well have been written by Spinoza. The Consolation remains a living book both because of what it says and also because it allows the reader to take Boethius's insights and capture them while moving in somewhat different directions.
on January 25, 2012
The Consolation of Philosophy is Boethius' attempt to wrap his mind and soul around the problem of theodicy. Specifically, Boethius, a philosopher in the 4th-5th cent. AD, is coming to grips with his own unjust suffering and impending death. As he languishes in a prison cell, he writes Consolation, in which Philosophy herself descends to talk with him specifically about his own plight, as well as the problem of evil generally in this world. Boethius divides his conversation with Philosophy into five books, each of which tackles a specific issue, question, or argument.
Book I: Philosophy descends from heaven to meet Boethius in his cell. Boethius airs his complaints to her, culminating his argument by stating, "And now you see the outcome of my innocence--instead of reward for true goodness, punishment for a crime I did not commit." Philosophy lays out the thesis of her response: "Your defenses have been breached and your mind has been infiltrated by the fever of emotional distraction...You have forgotten your true nature."
Book II: Philosophy argues that money, power and fame (collectively called Fortune) are destined to go away, and one's fortune can be reversed at any moment. Therefore, these things cannot bring true happiness--so why worry if they are taken away?
Book III: Philosophy sketches out the true cause of happiness. Namely, true happiness can be found in God alone, because only He completely embodies what it means to be happy. The closer one draws to God, the happier one will be.
Book IV: Philosophy turns to a discussion of good and evil. Today, we might say she is answering the questions, "Why do good things happen to bad people and bad things happen to good people?" Her answer is that ultimately all things that happen to a good person are good (because they are either reward or discipline), and all things that happen to a bad person are bad (because they are either punishment or correction).
Book V: Philosophy wraps up her conversation with Boethius by examining the relationship of free will to God's foreknowledge. She argues that because God sees all things as an eternal present, he necessarily knows the future, though from our vantage point as travelers through time, the choices we make are genuinely free.
Like many people out there, last year (2011) was a rough one for my family and me. We went through a lot of trials, and my faith was stretched to the limit. Admittedly, things in my life were not nearly as bad off as they were for Boethius, but nevertheless I found myself making many of the same complaints and observations that he did. For this reason, I really appreciated The Consolation. As the book progressed, I was able to identify with and internalize Philosophy's overarching argument, which is summarized well by Romans 8:28, "All things work together for good for those who love God." While some of Philosophy's logic is suspect (e.g., the idea that evil is nothing, which unfortunately is just a clever equivocation of terms), there are many, many more nuggets of wisdom that still ring true some 1500 years later.
I highly recommend this book for anyone who needs reassurance in time of suffering.