Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy
By Matt McKeown
Though obscure today, Boethius was one of the chief architects of Medieval thought.
In 523, the Ostrogoths had assumed control of the wreckage of the Western Roman Empire, maintaining uneasy ties with the emperors in Constantinople. In that year, a brilliant scholar and state official named Boethius was ruined by his enemies on accusation of conspiring with the Byzantines, and sent into exile. The next year, he was executed, but not before completing a book that was to be beloved for centuries: The Consolation of Philosophy, a short yet profound work, dealing with the turns of fortune, the problem of evil, and the mystery of divine foreknowledge.
Boethius’ prior works were scholarly and often theological; it was principally thanks to him that Aristotle’s writings on logic (though little else) remained available in Latin when the west had forgotten its Greek, and his writings on the Trinity and the Incarnation helped prepare the ground for the Scholastic revival centuries later. He also followed the classical tradition in writing manuals on the quadrivium: music, astronomy, arithmetic, and geometry.
The Consolation is a different beast—classical, certainly, and in the finest tradition of ancient philosophy, but also far more personal. Written in exile (or possibly in prison while awaiting execution), the book depicts Boethius mourning his own ruin, when an angelic woman appears to him, the Lady Philosophy. She rebukes him for his self-pity and bids him to turn his mind to her truths, in order to reconcile him to his condition and find peace in the midst of anguish.
Lady Philosophy corrects Boethius as follows (ruthlessly oversimplified for length). First, that he ought to be practicing detachment from all earthly goods, including not only prosperity but even his good name, because they are all inherently transitory. Second, that everything that happens is to our benefit, if only we will receive it properly: ill fortune strengthens good men and restrains the wicked, if they will recognize it, and (this is inherited from Socrates as much as from the Bible) the real punishment of the evil is that they are allowed to do evil, for the only thing we can finally injure is ourselves; all else lies in God’s hands. Unlike us, he can see the inner condition of men’s hearts and give them what they actually need, while we can only see what seems appealing or proper from a limited perspective.
From here, Boethius turns to the mystery of providence: how can we have free will if God foresees everything? His solution was so complete that the issue was hardly raised again as long as the Consolation remained popular. God, not being bound to time, sees all of time at once; in fact, he does not fore-see at all, but is simultaneously present in all of creation, in time as well as space. His knowledge of what is, to us, the future, no more destroys free will than our knowledge of our own past destroys the free will we then experienced.
I close with a quote from C. S. Lewis on Boethius in The Discarded Image, an introduction to Medieval literature:
The work ends with Philosophia thus speaking; there is no return to Boethius and his situation … Gibbon [an eighteenth-century historian] has expressed in cadences of habitual beauty his contempt for the impotence of such “philosophy” to subdue the feelings of the human heart. But no one ever said it would have subdued Gibbon’s. It sounds as if it had done something for Boethius.