4/30/21 — This Week’s Reading Review

Michael Ducker
13 min readApr 30, 2021

The Consolation of Philosophy is a sixth-century treatise written by the Roman politician and philosopher Boethius during his imprisonment on the orders of Theodoric the Great. Boethius was born to a patrician family in Rome sometime around 480. His grandfather had been a Roman senator and his father a Roman consult. The latter died while his son was still young. It is at this point that Boethius was adopted by Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, an aristocrat who wrote a now-lost seven-volume history of Rome. It is Symmachus’ daughter whom Boethius would eventually marry. The actual substance of the charges against Boethius is somewhat vague. He seems to have been accused of plotting to overthrow Theodoric on behalf of the Byzantine emperor Justin I. Symmachus was ultimately brought up on similar charges and executed in 526, one year after Boethius’ execution.

The Consolation of Philosophy is divided into five books, throughout which the personification of Philosophy appears to a prisoner — presumably Boethius himself — and moves him from despair and confusion to consolation and clarity. Each book is divided up into chapters organized around individual points in Philosophy’s argument. In keeping with the Neoplatonist essence of her arguments, the style of Philosophy’s argument is highly reminiscent of the Platonic dialogues. The poems which either begin or conclude each chapter, on the other hand, are reminiscent of various Roman poets in either form or diction. The Consolation of Philosophy is more a summation of Boethius’ learning than a piece of highly original writing. Although its presentation is artful, its art is that of the skilled connoisseur imitating his masters.

The first book begins with a bitter poem composed by Boethius at the lowest point of his despair. Upon hearing this verse, Philosophy appears to him and expels the Muses of poetry for furthering rather than remedying his despair. Philosophy rouses Boethius with her verse, accusing his mind have “abandoning its native light” whereas once it attended to astronomical and philosophical matters (5). The appearance of philosophy revives Boethius from his despair, though bitterness still defines his assessment of his situation. He angrily denounces Fortune for having brought him low and defends himself against the accusation that others have made against him. In his speech, he puts forth a question that appears to prepare the reader for a theodicy: “Doubtless evil intentions are a feature of human frailty, but it is quite outrageous that a criminal’s plot against an innocent man should prevail while God looks on. There is certainly justice in the question posed by one of your devotees [P.G. Walsh gives this as referring to Epicurus]: ‘If God indeed does exist, what is the source of evil? But if he does not exist, what is the source of good?’” (11). Hearing the depths of despair that Boethius still harbors, Philosophy responds that she will proceed by a course founded on a medical metaphor: “So in your present state of mind, you are not as yet fit to face stronger remedies. For the moment, then, I shall apply gentler ones, so that the hard swelling s where the emotions have gathered may soften under a more caressing touch, and may become ready to bear the application of a more painful treatment” (15).

This metaphor tracks with her medical assessments of Boethius in Chapter 2 of Book 1 (“But his condition is not dangerous. He is suffering from loss of energy, a weakness common to duped minds”) and Chapter 6 of Book 1 (“So will you first allow me to ask you a few simple questions, so as to probe and investigate your mental state? By this means I can decide upon your cure”) (6, 16). I bring this up as it contrasts quite decidedly with the major metaphor for philosophical ignorance that Boethius would undoubtedly have been familiar with, i.e., the Allegory of the Cave. I don’t want to make too much of this as I lack the familiarity with Boethius’ era needed to contextualize his conflation of philosophical enlightenment with medical treatment. After asking Boethius a series of questions, Philosophy concludes that he has forgotten his own identity and clarifies the severity of this condition in vitalist medical images (“this tiniest of sparks will cause life’s heat to be resuscitated in you”) (17). A final verse that echoes Homer, Horace, and Virgil closes out Book 1.

Book 2 begins with a discussion of Fortune. Boethius employs the image of the Wheel of Fortune here. At the time of its writing, this would have unremarkable as (I confess I am citing Wikipedia here) the image was something of a cliché by the time Boethius used it. Nevertheless, the popularity of The Consolation of Philosophy with Medieval scholars and readers seems to account for the revival of the image in Medieval art. Anyway. Philosophy has charted a pseudo-medical route of enlightenment for Boethius, declaring that she will begin with “sweet-sounding rhetoric” that will “alternate with music” so that Boethius may gradually, safely be led back to truth (19). It is worth noting the ambiguous relationship between Boethius’ text and the classic anti-poetry of Plato. While Consolation begins with the Muses of Poetry being banished for encouraging Boethius to wallow in his misery and untruth, Philosophy then proceeds throughout to employ poetic form to her end. I am not entirely sure when or where the intellectual separation of verse form from poetic essence took place, but it seems to be implicit throughout the majority of Consolation, at least insofar as poetic form allows Philosophy to, as Dickinson says, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.”

Philosophy ventriloquizes on behalf of Fortune, arguing that she can rightfully do as she wishes with the gifts of society. Riches, position, and power are all possessions that belong to Fortune rather than to any man. Reproaching Fortune for exercising her right over her possessions is as foolish as condemning nature for the vicissitudes of weather. Philosophy then, in her own voice, seconds the arguments of Fortune before consoling Boethius with reminders of his family’s continued wellbeing, the comparative privilege of his imprisonment, and the futility of seeking happiness in material realities. The first of these consolatory points (the continued wellbeing of his family) raises the question of who is speaking to whom in and through the text. As was the case with Boethius’ defense of his political innocence against his contemporaries, Philosophy’s description of the goodness of the prisoner’s family seems to direct the consolation not only inward to the prisoner-author but also outward to the author’s relations. If not expansively public, this appears to be one of the moments that Consolation takes on the role of a text intended to be read by others. These questions of intention and audience could be carried out at some length. Nevertheless, I will once again plead humbleness and say that I am not very familiar with the Latin text, its author, or its world to speculate on the topic meaningfully.

Amid Philosophy’s consolatory words, we also see her advance an argument that shimmers with a truth she will later expound in a straightforward argument. When she argues that the prisoner should grasp happiness in a manner proper to a rational nature, we are indeed hearing a slanted version of her later argument that truth concerning all things should be grasped according to both the nature of the things observed as well as the observing faculty. In addition to preparing the way for truth with emotionally palliative arguments, Philosophy also seems to be clearing away false ideas. Thus, she is not only tying truths to a discussion of Boethius’ previous worldly happiness so that he will not be overwhelmed by the later truth of the matter. She is also clearing away false arguments in advance so that she will not have to deal with them when making her points later. In this manner, she tries to detach the prisoner from the sentimental bonds tying him to earthly concerns. By the end of Book 2, she has successfully argued against locating happiness in wealth, political ambition, fame, and all other narrow concerns. Philosophy closes out Book 2 by arguing that, at any rate, bad fortune can be more beneficial than good, as the former grants knowledge that the latter obscures.

Having cleared away the temptations of false happiness, Book 3 sees Philosophy concern herself with reminding the prisoner where true happiness lies. Philosophy directly invokes Plato’s allegory of the cave: “You to dream of it [true happiness], but your mind cannot focus on it because of the shadowy figures obtruding your sight” (40). Philosophy begins her argument by asserting that “happiness is the state of perfection achieved by the concentration of all goods within it” (41). This seems to be a rather geometric notion of the truth concerning happiness. Some lazy research led me to a paper called “Boethius and the Consolation of the Quadrivium” by Michael Fournier, a Canadian classicist. Fournier’s article is primarily concerned with the relationship between the form of Consolation and the classical quadrivium of learning: “Book 1 presents sensation with the astronomical circle of the stars, book 2 presents the musical circle of Fortune’s wheel to the imagination, books 3 and 4 present the circle of geometry to reason, and book 5 considers the paradigm of these forms in the simplicity of unity itself, which is the principle of the circle” (2). We can see this geometric, rationalistic approach embodied in the somewhat strained argument concerning the composite nature of happiness. There may also be an echo of geometrical thinking in Philosophy’s argument that all things in nature follow an essentially circular route and seek as their end a reversion to their origins (“All things in nature […]/[…] seek as end their starting-place/And make the world a stable zone”) (44).

Philosophy continues her argument that wealth, political office, the exercise of power, fame, and bodily pleasure are all false sources of happiness. Admittedly, I find this part a bit tedious as it seems to merely be a more rationalistic, geometric recapitulation of the arguments made in Book 2. The added clarity of form does not substantially add content to the argument. Chapter 9 of Book 3 is the precise midpoint of The Consolation. It is the point at which Philosophy’s negative argument concludes, and her positive one begins. The five false goods (“sufficiency, power, renown, respect, and pleasure”), although they differ in term, “do not differ at all in substance” (55). Although they are false goods unto themselves, they all share of a substance that is contained within the geometric whole of the true good. Before attempting to discover this substance, Philosophy insists on an invocation of “the Father of all things” that will serve as “the appropriate first step” of their investigation. This invocation takes the form of a poem that summarizes the basic articles of Neoplatonist philosophy. The poem draws on Aristotle’s notion of the unmoved mover (“Yourself/unshifting, You impel all things to move”), the Neoplatonic reinterpretation (i.e., the Forms are thoughts in God’s mind) of Plato’s theory of the forms (“From heavenly patterns You derive are all things./Yourself most beautiful, You likewise bear/In mind a world of beauty”), and the notion of Being as a middle term between Sameness and Difference from Plato’s Timaeus (“The soul which stirs all things You intertwine/In threefold nature as its middle part”) (56). The movements of the world and soul, we are told, imitate according to their own nature the unique nature of God. The poem concludes by beseeching God to allow Philosophy and the prisoner to understand as far as they can “the source good” (57).

Philosophy proceeds to argue that the theory of Forms implies that any class of objects that includes imperfect, incomplete objects must necessarily include a perfect, complete object which is the Form from which the imperfect, incomplete object take their form. Thusly does the existence of imperfect, false happiness deriving from imperfect, false goods necessitate the existence of the Forms of Happiness and the Good. However, perfect things cannot exist separately, as separation would imply a lack that constitutes an imperfection. The result of this is that since God, Happiness, and the Good are perfect, complete objects, they must be selfsame. So, Philosophy tells us, “we must acknowledge that God is happiness itself” (59). Therefore, when men achieve or strive for happiness, they strive to share in the divinity and perfect of God. The poem that closes this chapter tells men that they must abandon the “wanton chains” that shackle them to earthly, imperfect pursuits of happiness and seek the absolute happiness of God instead. To do so, men must not search for happiness in the world, but by turning inward, which is the part of them that is most like God and in which they will recollect as far as they can the truth that the form of their souls knew before being embodied in the forgetfulness of flesh (65). This latter notion is taken, of course, from Plato’s Phaedo.

The final chapter of Book 3 is concerned with the orderliness of the entire universe. Philosophy incites Boethius to argue that things are harmoniously ordered according to the plan of God. Philosophy then summarily states that “God is highest good which governs all things powerfully, and orders them sweetly” (67). Boethius willingly agrees but expresses bafflement at her following remark that “evil is a nothing, for is nothing that [God] cannot do, but [God] cannot commit evil” (68). He then summarizes the course of the argument so far while at the same time laying the groundwork for the topic of the following book: evil does not exist.

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Philosophy begins her argument to this end by listening to Boethius expound upon “the consuming cause of” his “depression:” “that in spite of the existence of a good ruler over the world, it is at all possible for evils to exist, or to go unpunished” (71). Philosophy responds to this by informing the prisoner that he is mistaken, for “power always lies with the good, whereas all strength forsakes the wicked” (73). In support of this point, Philosophy produces a typical argument that — despite appearing to possess power — evil men are really enslaved to baser realities than the higher reality of God and His goodness, and that wickedness and goodness are, respectively, forms of punishment and reward in and of themselves. From this, it follows that when men seek the good, they move towards divinity, while evil men move towards bestiality. In service of this latter argument is a poem that draws heavily on Greco-Roman poetry about metamorphosis.

Moreover, the true reward for wickedness is to be punished, since in being punished, wicked men attain some goodness. When the prisoner points out that this is not the prevailing opinion among men, Philosophy rebukes him for elevating popular belief above reason and then argues that men should look with pity upon evil men and consider victims. I will note here that there is a theory of practical justice — that is, a theory of how prisoners and wrongdoers should be punished — here, one that relies on assuming that punishment is inherently just if it does in the spirit of correcting evil. Moreover, wrongdoers are considered pitiable entities within the social body which should be punished with a stern but loving hand. Boethius stops short, however, of saying what method of punishment should be involved in correction.

The prisoner then asks Philosophy to explain why it is that evil and wickedness are allowed to institute themselves on earth despite the goodness of God’s designs. Philosophy responds to this question at considerable length. She explains that while the rough outlines of the relationship between Providence — the divine, “unchanging oneness” in reason of God — and Fate — the “shifting chain” of realization of Providence in the world — can be grasped broadly, there is an epistemological limit on human knowledge of the inner workings of Providence (89). Men must, for this reason, be content with simply knowing that God is an essentially good being whose works are all oriented towards goodness. The chapter ends with the prisoner returning to his feeling that good men sometimes suffer evil fortunes. Philosophy repeats her argument and adds that what seems like a bad fortune is, in fact, a way of increasing the goodness of good men. Their overcoming makes their goodness all the better of adversity, which has the added effect of not allowing them to be overcome by the faulty goods of worldly existence (95). Book 4 with a poem reflecting on the various ways men — in mythological or poetic texts — have dealt with challenges to their goodness.

The concluding book of The Consolation of Philosophy turns its attention to the problem of free will and divinity. The book opens with a discussion on the question of chance, in which Aristotle’s argument that “chance” is simply the name we give to unintended consequences of intended actions. Thus, no event can rightly be said to lack a cause: “we can define chance as the unexpected outcome of a conjunction of causes in actions carried out for some purpose. “What causes the conjunction and the coincidence of these causes is that order which unfolds in an irresistible chain, descending from its source in Providence, and allocating all things to their due place and time” (98). Upon hearing this, the prisoner asks Philosophy whether or not men have free will. She answers in the affirmative, that there is free will “for no rational nature could exist if it did not possess freedom of will” (99). However, Boethius is satisfied by this answer and raises the classic question of how free will can exist without it contradicting God’s foreknowledge of all things. The prisoner’s questioning of the reconcilability of free will and foreknowledge is the most significant philosophical contribution in The Consolation. Philosophy’s course of treatment has been successful, and the prisoner now participates as an adequate dialectical partner in philosophical argumentation. The remainder of the book will be directed towards answering this question.

Philosophy begins her rebuttal by laying out a fourfold epistemological division of cognition. Sensation, imagination, reason, and understanding all have a mode of apprehending being and objects that are proper to them. Certain truths are only fully understandable through specific modes of cognition and apprehension. Moreover, certain types of beings lack certain modes of cognition. Immobile life has access only to sensation, while non-human animals possess sensation and imagination. Humans possess sensation, imagination, and reason but lack understanding, the latter being proper only to God. This divine understanding has the cognitive capacity to reconcile the apparent contradiction between free will and foreknowledge. Human reason cannot fully comprehend the reconciliation of these two. It must, instead, turn towards God and apply itself to understanding Him in a mode proper to its epistemological limitations. Doing so will allow the reasoning human to it grasp the non-contradiction between foreknowledge and free will. As Philosophy puts it, “human reason should defer to the divine mind” (109). God, she continues, exists eternally (which she defines as “the total and perfect possessions of life without end”) and is always in the unchanging present (110). For this reason, He possesses knowledge of future events in a way that transcends the temporal nature of the world, i.e., he comprehends them according to his own nature. If, however, the temporal events of the world are comprehended according to their own temporal nature, it becomes clear that they lack no internal necessity. Thus, grasped according to Philosophy’s cosmological epistemology, there is no contradiction between free will and God’s foreknowledge. This point having been made, The Consolation of Philosophy suddenly concludes without closing verse.

Until next week,

Michael Ducker