The Consolation of Philosophy

views updated

The Consolation of Philosophy

by Boethius


A prose-poetry work (prostmetrum) set in Rome; written in Latin in 524 ce and published c. 536 ce.


A high official under Theodoric, ruler of the Western Roman Empire, experiences a sudden reversal of fortune and languishes in prison under a death sentence. The prisoner wallows in self-pity until Lady Philosophy arrives, bringing instruction, comfort, and the key to control over one’s inner equilibrium no matter what happens.

Events in History at the Time of the Prose-Poem

The Prose-Poem in Focus

For More Information

Born c. 480 ce into a distinguished Roman aristocratic family, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius achieved success in politics, along with his other accomplishments; he was made consul in 510, and in 523 became Master of the King’s Offices, the highest post in the administration of Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king who since 493 had governed the western half of the Roman Empire. Now better known for his philosophical and theological writings, Boethius translated a number of the works of Aristotle into Latin, wrote commentaries on Cicero, and authored original treatises on music, logic, and theology. Among his theological works, the De Fide Catholica(On the Catholic Faith) was valued throughout the succeeding Middle Ages as a masterful explication of Christian teachings on (especially) redemption. He also wrote other tractates on the Trinity and against the heretics Nestorius and Eutyches, whose teachings about the relationship between the divine and human natures in Christ had been condemned by the Church. But Boethius is best known for The Consolation of Philosophy, a work he wrote in prison in 524 after his sudden arrest on charges of conspiracy and treason. Though he knew he would soon meet his death (he was executed in 525 or 526, never having regained his freedom), his final work teaches that the truly philosophical man must be indifferent to shifting fortunes. To the limited human intellect, it seems paradoxical that God presides over a universe in which the good suffer and the wicked prosper. In the face of a necessarily transcendent and beneficent divine providence, however, the only rational response to this apparent paradox is a humble (even worshipful) acceptance of the divine will.

Events in History at the Time of the Prose-Poem

The later Roman Empire and the Germanic invasions

Originally a local power, centered around the city of the same name, Rome grew into master of the ancient Mediterranean world in the last few centuries bce. Through conquest and assimilation, it amassed an empire that ultimately included most of Europe, North Africa, and the Near East. The Romans had long looked eastward to Greece for cultural inspiration, when in the second century bce, they began finding themselves master of more and more territory where Greek was the language of the people. Greece itself numbered among the conquests of Rome, as did much of the land formerly conquered by the Greek-speaking Alexander the Great. In fact, virtually the entire eastern Mediterranean was Greek, and had been for some time. While this was in many ways to the advantage of Rome (Greeks were highly valued as teachers, civil servants, doctors, and the like), it created a situation that was never resolved: the eastern Roman Empire became less Romanized than the western provinces (of today’s Spain, France, and England), retaining the Greek language and culture. This situation sowed the seeds of a political controversy that would eventually cost Boethius his life.

Since Rome’s empire was too large to be governed directly by one man, the emperors delegated local and regional power to administrators and provincial governors. The strategy went awry in the third century, however, when Roman power was besieged on a number of fronts; foreign invasions, rebellions by ambitious generals, and a series of weak emperors all took their toll. This crisis prompted the emperor Diocletian to establish in 293 a “tetrarchy,” a system whereby one emperor ruled the West from Rome, one ruled the East from Constantinople, and both (bearing the title Augustus) would have a second-in-command, called a Caesar. Since each emperor would be responsible for only half the empire, he could respond more quickly and decisively to military threats. Further, he could effectively be in two places at once, with his Caesar handling one crisis while he handled another. This new system of government was taken a step further in 395; upon the death of Emperor Theodosius, the empire was formally divided into two. Instead of one empire having two emperors, there were simply two separate Roman Empires—one in the East and one in the West. Within the next several decades, disaster struck the West. A series of invasions by Germanic peoples quickly shattered Roman power in the Western Empire; Spain, Gaul, Roman North Africa, and ultimately Italy itself all fell to the invaders. In 476, the Germanic general Odoacer (or Odovacer) deposed and exiled Romulus Augustulus, the last emperor in the West, and proclaimed himself king of Italy.

Until fairly recently, the invasions that destroyed Roman power in the West were called the “barbarian” invasions because the “barbarians” (i.e., the Visigoths, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals, the Huns, and so on) were from outside the boundaries of the Roman Empire; in the eyes of some, this made them uncivilized and hence barbaric. The term “barbarian” is falling into increasing disuse because it is now realized that the invaders were in many ways quite similar to the Romans themselves. (The preferred term now is “Germanic,” from the language group to which the invading groups all belonged.) Also, contact with such peoples was far from new to the Romans. Their empire had long since ceased to have an army made up entirely of Roman citizens; for centuries, it had made use of “barbarian” troops who fought not out of patriotism, but for money, or even in the hope that they might eventually be offered citizenship. These troops hailed from outside peoples who had long maintained commercial and cultural relations with Rome; some of the noble families among these outside peoples even sent their sons to Rome to be educated.

The “Fall of the Roman Empire” is often spoken of as if it were a great watershed in history; yet for many Romans very little changed with the transfer of power to the new Germanic kings. Rome had been weak for generations, a mere shadow of its former greatness. Its new ruler was a king rather than an emperor, to be sure, but Odoacer knew Rome and its people very well—he and his people (the Scirae) had in fact served with distinction in the Roman army for several years. To the old senatorial class in Rome, the change in rule meant more. These men came from illustrious families, and to serve a foreign king went against everything they cherished as Roman citizens. But the shock soon wore off, and prominent Romans continued to serve in the Roman government under Odoacer and his successors just as they had served the emperors.

Italy’s new Germanic kings appeared to be a suspicious and volatile lot, however, for a number of reasons. First, they were well aware of how they were seen by the old Roman aristocracy—as uncultured foreign interlopers—and they never fully trusted their Roman subjects. Second, they had the ambitions of their own highly competitive countrymen to contend with; Odoacer himself was murdered in 493 by Theoderic, the Ostrogoth king who employed Boethius and had him executed. Third, the Eastern Roman Empire was alive and well, and the Germanic kings knew that the emperors in the East would like nothing better than to re-take the West. In 565 the Emperor Justinian did just that, conquering (though only briefly) all of Italy, most of North Africa, and parts of lllyria and Spain. Thus, Theoderic’s suspicions about a possible collusion between Boethius and the Eastern Roman Emperor Justin 1 (518–527) were not outlandish, especially since he himself had originally come to power at the expense of Odoacer, with the blessing of the Eastern Roman Emperor, Zeno; like his successors, Zeno liked nothing better than to sow dissension among the various Germanic factions. Finally, there was the question of religion. As noted, the Germanic peoples were generally Arian Christians, whereas the Romans (in both the East and the West) were orthodox Christians. This was important because by this time the Roman world had become almost entirely Christian, and the unity of the state largely depended on religious consensus. Now that Christianity was by far the majority religion, what used to be small-scale internal disputes over theology developed into matters of state.

The Christianity of the Romans held that the three persons of the Trinity—God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, and the Holy Spirit—were each God: three persons, but only one divine being. Thus, God could in no way be considered the creator of Jesus, since they were coeternal, and they were both equally God. Arians, on the other hand, believed that the Son was created by the Father, and that therefore Christ (as a creature) could not be God. Named after a priest from the city of Alexandria, Arius (c. 250-c. 336), Arianism gained many adherents (and provoked much controversy) until it was formally condemned by the Church at the Council of Nicea (325). While it soon died out within the Roman Empire, it gained many converts among the Germanic peoples. Christians outside the empire were far more apt to embrace heterodox dogmas, which explains why Arianism ran unchecked throughout the various Germanic nations in the fifth and sixth centuries. Gradually the Germanic peoples abandoned Arianism, but during Boethius’ lifetime the divide was more or less absolute: Germanic peoples were Arians, and Romans were not (rather they were orthodox Christians). Within the con-fines of Rome, Theoderic knew that his Arianism was regarded as heretical and dangerous by orthodox Christians like Boethius and the Emperor Justin, which must have added to Theoderic’s suspicions about Boethius’ loyalty to him.

Historians remain in disagreement about whether, or to what extent, Boethius was guilty of the conspiracy attributed to him by Theoderic. Like most ancient rulers, Theoderic had many enemies, and he was well aware of this. Boethius was Master of Offices for Theoderic’s court at the capital city of Ravenna; this was a position of power second only to the king himself. Thus, Boethius was in a position that made it uniquely possible to do Theoderic harm, and even if Theoderic had indefinite suspicions, perhaps he thought it better to be safe than sorry.

The ancient philosophical tradition

The ancient Greeks are commonly held to have “invented” philosophy, and, if the discussion is limited to the Greco-Roman world of classical antiquity, this is not far from the truth. The Greeks spent leisure time wrestling with questions about the nature of reality, the good life, and the like, developing a culture of rational inquiry. Socrates, for one, preferred to discuss the nature of beauty in general rather than the beauty of a specific work of art. The ancient Greek world also greatly valued (and enjoyed) argument. The mark of a cultivated and intelligent man was his ability to employ finely-honed rhetorical and logical skills in conversational speculation about ethics, politics, the nature of man, the nature of god (or the gods), and so forth. This highly intellectualized culture gave rise to many different “schools” of philosophy based on the teachings of their supposed (or actual) founders. Major schools of philosophy included

  • The Cynics, inspired by Diogenes (c. 400-c. 325 bce), who held that to be happy one must disdain material wealth and property, and feel no shame about one’s body or its functions
  • The Epicureans, founded by Epicurus (341–270 bce), who held that there is no providential god, that the universe is an accident, and that the goal of life should be philosophical pleasure, which is promoted by limiting bodily desires
  • The Stoics, founded by Zeno of Citium (335–263 bce), who held that the good man maintains philosophical self-possession in all circumstances, however dire or painful, and that the only duties of man are to avoid vice and practice virtue, which is based on knowledge
  • The Peripatetics, who followed the teachings of Aristotle (384–322 bce), and valued scientific inquiry, the rational classification of fields of knowledge, and the usefulness of observation and empirical inquiry
  • The Platonists, who followed Plato (c. 429–347 bce) and through Plato, Socrates (469–399 bce), who taught that the material world is a shadowy and insubstantial reflection of the true, immutable, and eternal world of ideas.

Other schools of thought existed as well and within each school substantial variations in teaching over the years. In short, there was a great variety of philosophical beliefs in antiquity. Also philosophy was of general interest at the time; people cared deeply about the “big questions” and saw the life of the mind as a noble calling.

In inheriting the Greek cultural patrimony, Rome faced questions that had preoccupied Greek philosophers for centuries. Most educated Romans identified with one school or another. For example, Lucretius (94–55 bce, the author of the didactic poem De Rerum Natura [On the Nature of The Universe , also in Classical Literature and Its Times]) was an Epicurean; Cicero (106–43 bce) and Seneca (c. 1–65 ce) were both Stoics; and Boethius was influenced by Stoicism, as indicated by his calm acceptance of the loss of power, position, wealth, and even his life. With the long, steady rise of Christianity in the ancient world, the influence of the ancient philosophical tradition did not dwindle. Many of the early Christians were adults when they converted and those with formal educations had in earlier years been steeped in the teachings of one or more ancient schools of thought. Not surprisingly, many doctrines of the pagan philosophers were absorbed into the work of the Christian theologians. A devout Christian could retain his earlier philosophical beliefs, as long as they did not contradict the teachings of his new faith.

By the early sixth century, the gulf between the West and the Eastern Roman Empire had widened indeed. In the West, knowledge of Greek had been quickly dying out among the Romans; Boethius was one of the few who could still read the language. Though a Christian, he valued the thought and writings of Aristotle and endeavored to translate Aristotle’s complete works into Latin for the benefit of his fellow citizens. Much as a patriotic American now might revere the writings of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson while repudiating their slave ownership, Boethius saw the irreplaceable good in pagan philosophy while repudiating its paganism. Christianity could provide salvation, but Boethius would not abandon the texts that gave him (and Rome) civilization.

Christian Neoplatonism

Of all the ancient philosophical schools, that of Plato was perhaps the most influential on early Christianity. This is not surprising, given the sometimes startling similarities between Plato’s teachings and the Christian faith. In a polytheistic culture, Plato reasoned his way to the notion of a single, eternal god, an achievement remarkable enough to prompt some ancient commentators to speculate that he borrowed the idea from the Jews. Neoplatonism originated with the teachings of Plotinus (c. 205–270 ce), who adapted the teachings of Plato to provide the basis for a life of the mind centered on religious devotion. Plotinus and his successors were mystics, seeking through mental exercise a degree of union with the “One,” the source of all being. Like the Christian God, the One is beyond human comprehension. All that we know and experience falls far short of the One, and our bodily sensations act as especially dense barriers to true philosophical contemplation. This holds true for the entire material world; the One is the source of being, but the most perfect being is immaterial, and the sensible world (including our bodies) prevents us from coming closer to the One. In fact, all creation is hierarchical, extending from the One down through increasingly imperfect categories of form, spirit, and matter. (This notion draws on Plato’s original notion of ideas, his teaching that a flower, for example, may be beautiful but does not embody the perfect “idea” of beauty, which exists beyond time and space, and which—unlike a flower’s beauty—can never change.)

It is easy to see why Christians were attracted to Neoplatonism; with a few changes, the One can be seen as the Christian God, the source of all creation, who is beyond human understanding. Neoplatonism also can be accommodated to the hierarchy of creation in the Christian system; it explains the hierarchy of the angels, the relation of the soul to the body, the superiority of man over animals, and so forth. The rigidly moral dimension of Neoplatonism was also attractive to Christians. For the Neoplatonist, the moral life was a way to rid one of distractions and prepare the way for eventual union with the One; this aligns well with the Christian notion of sin as a barrier on the path to eventual union with God in heaven.

This is not to say that the fit was perfect, how-ever. Most Neoplatonists were quite hostile to Christianity, largely because of the dogma of the Incarnation (the idea that God became a human being in the person of Jesus Christ); it was in-conceivable to them that God (which they saw as the One) could (a) be three (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), and (b) live on earth as a man, in a corruptible body. Further, while the Neoplatonic idea of creation (which they called emanation, in the sense that all things emanate from the One) is more or less consonant with the Christian idea of creation, Neoplatonists taught that all things (including individual human souls) would eventually return to the One and be absorbed by that singular perfection. Intrinsic to Christian teaching is that humans retain their individuality in the afterlife, and live forever in blissful contemplation of the divine. There were other difficulties as well, but for many Christians they were readily overcome. Neoplatonism provided a solid philosophical and intellectual foundation for Christian belief, something that Christianity (based, as it was, on the revelation contained in Scripture) lacked.

In Book 3 of The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius is taught by Lady Philosophy that God is not only the supreme and perfect good, but also simultaneously the source and fulfillment of man’s happiness. True happiness cannot be found in things of this earth, nor can it be found on earth; true and complete happiness can be achieved only by a full encounter with the divine (the highest good) after all other, lesser goods are stripped away, including our material bodies. This is a recognizably Neoplatonic idea, one that few Christians would argue with, though it is expressed not in religious but in philosophical terms. Many readers of The Consolation of Philosophy are surprised to discover that its author was a Christian: there is no explicit Christian doctrine in the work, no mention of Jesus or even of an identifiably Christian God. Seeing it as a Christian Neoplatonic work removes this problem—Boethius seemingly intended his work to be useful to both pagans and Christians who find themselves confronted by adversity, and made use of a philosophical tradition that by then had come to be acceptable to both.

The Prose-Poem in Focus

Contents summary

The Consolation of Philosophy is divided into five books, each containing a series of passages in alternating prose and poetry. The prose passages are generally straightforward narrative, made up mostly of the instructional dialogue between the character Boethius (who must be distinguished from the author, Boethius) and Lady Philosophy. The verse passages provide a commentary of sorts on the prose passages they accompany.

The work opens with a poem: a woeful lament in which Boethius bemoans his fallen fortunes. His enemies have prevailed, all his wealth and worldly honors have disappeared, and he languishes in prison. While before he wrote happy songs, now he composes poetry of sorrow and despair. Engulfed in misery, and attended only by the muses of the poetry he writes, he is suddenly confronted with an awe-inspiring sight: a serious and noble lady, who at one moment is of normal height and at the next towers to the heavens. She is Lady Philosophy; just as the muses personify the poetic arts that Boethius practices, so she personifies the philosophic mindset, which he has recently lost due to his present condition. He has allowed his grief to overwhelm him, which has robbed him of his philosophical abilities. His grief, she tells him, stems not from his unfortunate circumstances but from his failure to react to them wisely. He used to possess such wisdom; to regain it he must be cured of the mental illness that imprisons his thoughts just as securely as prison walls confine his body. Lady Philosophy chases away the muses, and his lessons begin.

Book 2 details Boethius’ philosophical difficulties with the notion of a benevolent and providential God. Essentially, his problem stems from a dissatisfaction with the workings of “Fortune,” or chance, like the muses, whom Lady Philosophy calls “harlots” because they distract Boethius from the pursuit of wisdom by giving him pleasure of another sort, Fortune was traditionally viewed as a harlot. Some even viewed Fortune as worse than a harlot, as a whore who distributed favors indiscriminately, regardless of the moral stature of the recipient. A wicked man may have good fortune, while a just man, like Boethius, may face ruin and undeserved execution. The power of Fortune seems absolute to Boethius, and he cannot reconcile this with any rational concept of God. If God is perfectly good and all-powerful, then why does he allow those who follow his will to suffer? Why does he allow evil to triumph over good? Lady Philosophy is amazed that Boethius has allowed himself to fall so deeply into error. Why, she asks, does he regard the gifts of Fortune as his? She quotes Fortune herself:

Why, good man, do you indict me day after day with your complaints? … When nature brought you forth from your mother’s womb, I adopted you; you were naked then, and bereft of everything. I nurtured you with my resources, and—this is what now makes you so angry with me—I bent over backwards to spoil you, and to give you a pampered upbringing.... It now suits me to withdraw my gifts. You owe me a debt of gratitude for having enjoyed possessions not your own; you have no right to complain as if you have lost what was indisputably yours.... Wealth and position and all such things are at my discretion.

(Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, p. 21)

Lady Philosophy then proceeds through the remainder of Book 2 and halfway through Book 3 to review the gifts of Fortune, and to investigate whether any of them can lead to true happiness. Wealth, honor, power, health, physical plea-sure—none can bring the perfect happiness that can be found in God. At the midpoint of The Consolation, we learn that it is only through and with God that this happiness may be found. Even the most fortunate of men eventually dies; his power and honors disappear, and his wealth stays in this world while he passes to the next. The gifts of Fortune are indeed good (as long as we do not let them blind us to their limitations), but they are by definition temporary and imperfect. And it is this limited quality of their goodness that points beyond the material:

The universe does not take its rise from things which were curtailed or incomplete; rather, it issues from things which are intact and fully developed, and it disintegrates into this parlous and sterile world of ours. Now if… there is what we may call imperfect happiness in a good that is brittle [fragile, temporary] there can be no doubt of the existence of some unalloyed and perfect happiness.

(Consolation, p. 57)

God is perfection in all things, including not only goodness and happiness, but also power; the universe must necessarily be ordained according to his will. Book 3 closes with a restatement of Boethius’ original paradox: how can this sort of divine providence govern a world in which evil exists? Lady Philosophy’s answer is both puzzling and unsatisfactory to Boethius. If evil exists in a world subordinate to the providence of an all-powerful and benevolent God, she argues, then there is only one way to avoid concluding that God commits evil. This is to realize that “evil is a nothing, for there is nothing that he cannot do, but he cannot commit evil” (Consolation, p. 68).

Book 4 is a sustained explanation of the above point. Boethius cannot bring himself to accept it; the suffering of the good and the prosperity of the wicked seem so very real to him, and he is unable to conclude that they are both illusions. Lady Philosophy admits that the problem is a difficult one, but she maintains that this is because humans rarely see the world without emotion. By banishing the muses at the beginning of the treatise, she was attempting to rid Boethius of this blinding emotion. Poets celebrate the joys and triumphs of this earth; they mourn disasters such as the deaths of loved ones and defeat in battle. To a philosopher, though, all aspects of worldly existence, good and bad, must be accepted with equanimity. This process of philosophical resignation is in itself a good that is ultimately greater than any material possession or worldly achievement, since it leads directly to God. Thus, the good are rewarded, without fail. Similarly, the wicked are always punished, since their apparent prosperity prevents them from attaining the good that just men invariably possess through their wisdom and virtue. If evil is not a thing, but rather a nothing or a privation, then the wicked do not truly gain anything through their vice, but are in-stead diminished; they are not only less good, but less real as well. Evil, in other words, is an absence rather than the presence of something. To explain by comparison, cold is not a thing; rather cold is the absence of heat. In much the same way, the dark is not a thing—one does not place darkness into a room but rather prevents light from entering the room. Like cold, darkness is a privation. So is evil. Boethius accepts the logic of this argument but remains unhappy with it; the sufferings of good people are too real to be explained away by simple argument. Sympathetic to his state of mind, Lady Philosophy suggests that he not expect to be able to understand this subject fully. Divine Providence (the eternal will of God that orders the affairs of creation) is beyond human understanding. We see its effects in the world (this is what we call Fate), but our inability to know what God knows prevents us from seeing that all things, even apparent evils, are ordained by God and necessarily are directed toward an ultimate good.

In the fifth and final book Lady Philosophy discusses the last remaining problem—the reconciliation of divine foreknowledge with human free will. How can God reward the good and punish the wicked if, by virtue of his perfect knowledge, he knows what they are going to do before they do it? For Boethius, God’s foreknowledge of human actions makes nonsense of any system of reward and punishment. Lady Philosophy’s solution is again to make a distinction between human and divine knowledge. It is a mistake, she says, to regard God’s knowledge as “foreknowledge.” God exists outside of time, and all things


“Father of earth and sky, You steer the world By reason everlasting. You bid time Progress from all eternity. Yourself Un shifting, You impel all things to move. No cause outside Yourself made you give shape To fluid matter, for in You was set The form of the ungrudging highest good. From heavenly patterns You derive all things. Yourself most beautiful, You likewise bear In mind a world of beauty, and You shape Our world in like appearance. You command Its perfect parts, to form a perfect world”

(Consolation of Philosophy, p, 56)

are present to him. Our futures seem uncertain and our actions seem free to us because they are so, to us. We exist in time, and our actions are freely chosen because to us the future has not happened yet. God’s knowledge includes all events in time, and also the freely chosen dimension of events:

[A] future happening which is necessary when viewed by divine knowledge seems to be wholly free and unqualified when considered in its own nature. In fact, there are two kinds of necessity. One is simple; for example, it is necessary that all men are mortal. The other is conditional; for example, a man must be walking if you are aware that he is walking.

(Consolation, p. 113)

This notion of conditional necessity allows for both free will and divine omniscience. According to this notion, if I know something, then that thing must be true; it cannot be otherwise. If I know a man is walking, then he must be walking. It would be nonsense, however, to claim that my knowledge somehow causes him to walk. A man can take a walk of his own free will. God’s knowledge works the same way.

Free will vs. divine foreknowledge

Boethius concerned himself with the philosophically well-ordered life as a system of ethics. To give an ac-count of this philosophically well-ordered life, he needed to address the issue of human freedom. The subject required explanation because human freedom, on the face of it, seemed incompatible with God’s absolute knowledge, and with his nature as the cause of all things. It has never been easy for philosophers, theologians, or scientists to make sense of the idea of free will. For the materialist (one who does not believe in the supernatural), human activity is just a more complicated version of balls ricocheting off each other on a pool table. Things move because they are moved by something else, and nothing can move itself. How then is free will possible, given that we can only do what we are caused to do, and nothing else? Adding God and spirit to the mix makes for a more complicated scenario, but it does not solve the problem. The Christian doctrines of sin, virtue, punishment, and salvation depend for their sense on the concept of free will. God, the religion teaches, gave Moses the Ten Commandments; implicit in this is the idea that people are free to obey or violate these commandments. Why tell people not to steal if whether they steal is not up to them? Likewise, Jesus taught that if a person is struck, he or she must turn the other cheek. Clearly, this person has a choice: turn the other cheek or strike back. If people had no free will in the matter, it would make no sense for Jesus to say do the former in-stead of the latter.

This all seems self-evident, until we consider the element of divine foreknowledge. Among the traditional attributes ascribed to God is omniscience; the belief is that God knows everything—all that has happened, and will happen. For God, there is no past, present, and future; he exists in the eternal now. Since God knows everything, God also knows things that have not happened yet. To God, these things are not in the future, they simply are. Now we return to being struck on the cheek. A man stands there, his face stinging with pain. Despite his anger, he recalls Christ’s injunction to turn the other cheek. He considers his options—should he do the right thing, or should he hit back? But to God, he has already done one or the other. The man does not know yet what he is going to do, but God does. And when that man finally acts, he will do precisely what God knew he was going to do all along. In fact, he can do nothing else, since God’s knowledge cannot be faulty.

There are several obvious problems here. First, it seems that the man has no free will at all. He has the illusion of deciding, but in reality he is simply running through a mental process that has a foregone conclusion. There is only one thing that he can do, and he is going to do it. Hence, he has no free will. Second, what does this mean as far as Scripture is concerned? The Bible is full of exhortations and prohibitions, but all for naught; people seemingly have no choice in whether they follow God’s commandments or not. Third, what does this do to Christian teachings about salvation and damnation? The belief is that God punishes the wicked with hellfire but rewards the just with eternal life. But if it is not up to people whether they act justly or wickedly, then how can it make sense for God to reward and punish? Even a person’s postmortem destination is believed to be known to God. The person will either be saved or not, and God already knows which will happen. What is the point, then, of telling someone who is bound for heaven to act virtuously? Why warn the hell-bound to avoid evil if it will not do them any good?

Boethius was neither the first nor the last to be troubled by this seemingly insoluble paradox, but his solution was enormously influential. Scholars of his day were familiar with the concept of conditional necessity—the idea that if you know something, then it must exist. By applying this concept to divine knowledge and removing the element of causality, Boethius preserved both God’s omniscience and human freedom. He resolved the paradox in a satisfying way, one that later generations of writers (especially poets) would find especially congenial. First, his resolution neatly encapsulated the mindset of the times. Christian culture was established and stable, but within a still-vital classical tradition that was highly intellectualized, philosophical-minded, and pagan. By framing his discourse around the figure of Lady Philosophy, Boethius accommodated both traditions; Philosophia could be both a pagan goddess and the personification of Christian divine wisdom. The Consolation was not a specialized philosophical treatise; it was meant for a wide readership, and its poetic qualities gave it an immense popular appeal. Few thinking people have remained untroubled by the problem of free will, but Boethius’ solution, while it did not satisfy everyone, gave the West a conceptual vocabulary that would last a thousand years.

Sources and literary context

The Consolation of Philosophy is an example of Menippean Satire, an ancient literary genre of complex and uncertain origins, whose most identifiable quality is that its exemplars are prosimetra. A prosimetrum is a literary work containing both prose and poetry; such works were often satirical, treating philosophical topics in a light vein, usually accompanied by an at least superficially non-serious narrative. A good example of this genre is the Satyricon of Petronius (also in Classical Literature and Its Times), a work detailing the amorous and picaresque escapades of a pair of ne’er-do-wells in early imperial Rome. Obscene even by modern standards, the Satyricon nevertheless addresses in a lighthearted, whimsical fashion a number of topics of perennial philosophical interest, and in the Renaissance came to be regarded as a work of considerable value, despite its licentious con-tent. By the time of Boethius, however, the prosimetrum had lost its essentially flippant character, and was used primarily to treat philosophical (or learned) subjects in a somewhat popular mode, with the prose supplying the serious doctrine and the poetry providing the reader with artistic delight. This is precisely how the prose and verse sections of The Consolation interact. Menippean Satire was no longer identifiably satirical (at least in the modern sense of “satire”), but the formal links of The Consolation to the older tradition gave it a quality that made it appealing to philosophers and lovers of literature alike.

The sources of The Consolation are many and varied. The influence of Neoplatonism is noted above. There are, furthermore, parallels between the works of Boethius and Plato. In Plato’s Crito and Phaedo, the condemned Socrates spends his last hours in the company of his friends, discussing philosophy. The parallels between Socrates and Boethius in this respect are not likely coincidental. In the ancient world, the standards for what constituted a noble or praiseworthy death were fairly exacting. The critical factor was that of control; ideally, one would exercise the maximum degree of control over the circumstances of one’s death. Suicide was praiseworthy, because it showed the subject embracing death, instead of the reverse. Philosophical self-possession and control over one’s emotions (and body, to the extent possible) were always to be maintained. The ex-ample of Seneca was famous in this regard. Stoic


The ancients were wont to create gods by simply naming them after abstract terms, or something associated with them, Thus, the Greek god Zeus is easily recognized as a variation on the Creek word theos, which simply means “god,” The goddess Athena is quite naturally named after the city of Athens (though legend has it the other way around), and the Greek god of sexual love (Cupid) was known to the Romans simply as Amor—that is, “love.” Especially in the case of minor deities, their names were often identical with that quality over which they had governance. Thus, for the letter “F ,” we find Flora, the goddess of flowers and vegetation; Fornax (i.e., furnace or oven), the goddess of bread making ovens; Fides (i.e. faith), the goddess of good faith; Fons (spring), the god of springs with drinkable water; Fama (fame), the goddess of fame or reputation; and of course Fortuna, the goddess of fortune, or luck, Though the extent to which these gods and goddesses were ever actually worshipped is a matter of debate, by the beginning of the Common Era most educated Romans considered them to be personified abstractions rather than literal deities. As a Christian, Boethius did not believe such creatures actually existed, but as an educated Roman he would not have believed in them even if he were a pagan. Latin literature for centuries had built narratives around such personified abstractions, and the intent was that they be read allegorically. Reading a poem in which Cupid is described as shooting an arrow into a young man, a reader would immediately understand that what was being illustrated was the sudden crush of romantic love. Neither author nor reader was under any illusion about the actual existence of Cupid. When Boethius wrote about himself in prison, the voice of Philosophy came not from a Lady but from within his own head, and his readers understood this.

philosopher, playwright, and courtier of the tyrant emperor Nero, Seneca finally incurred the fatal suspicion of his master, and was invited to commit suicide rather than being executed (see Seneca’s Moral Letters and Phaedra , both also in Classical Literature and Its Times). Gathering his friends about him, he commended to them as his legacy his pattern of life and death, and proceeded to show them how a true philosopher met his end. He made deep incisions in his arms, and sat in a bath of warm water while his life ebbed away, all the while discussing eternal truths with his friends. A third model was Jesus. By Boethius’ lifetime, the period of Roman persecution of Christians had long ended, but the example of the martyrs as heroes of the faith was ever-present. Of course, the view of death as a public performance and a measuring-stick of ideological fortitude was not just a Christian concept. The entire ancient world was in many ways a cult of martyrs, with each martyr dying in the best possible manner for the sake of the belief system to which he or she ascribed. As he sat in his prison facing certain death, Boethius was in good company; he had the examples of many—both Christian and pagan—to guide him.

Reception and impact

Little is known about the reception or readership of The Consolation in the centuries immediately following its composition, but by the end of the first millennium ce it was part of the literary canon. The Consolation survives in over 400 manuscripts—a very impressive figure for an ancient author—and was regularly quoted by theologians and poets throughout the medieval and early modern periods. It was translated into Old English by King Alfred the Great (c. 897), into Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 1380), and into Modern English by Queen Elizabeth I (mid-1590s); there are also medieval translations into French, German, and Greek. Its popularity actually increased over time; both Catholics and Protestants found it inspiring, and the Renaissance vogue for Neoplatonism ensured its continuing popularity in learned circles. With the advent of printing, The Consolation was reprinted 70 times before the year 1500. Translated into English again and again through the succeeding centuries, it retains its vigor and relevance to the present day, and is easily the best-known work from the sixth century. John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces(1980), a Pulitzer Prize-winning comic novel, centers on The Consolation both thematically and literally—the protagonist is robbed of his copy by a woman of ill-repute, and spends the rest of the novel seeking its return.

—Matthew Brosamer

For More Information

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. P. G. Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Cameron, Averil. The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: AD395–600. London: Routledge, 1993.

Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Fox, Robin Lane. Pagans and Christians. New York: Knopf, 1986.

Lerer, Seth. Boethius and Dialogue: Literary Methodology in The Consolation of Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985.

Moorhead, John. Theoderic in Italy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992.

O’Daly, Gerard. The Poetry of Boethius. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press: 1991.

Relihan, Joel C. Ancient Menippean Satire. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Tacitus, Publius Cornelius. The Annals of Imperial Rome. Trans. Michael Grant. New York: Penguin, 1977.

About this article

The Consolation of Philosophy

Updated About content Print Article


The Consolation of Philosophy