Boethius: the Consolation of Philosophy 25/04/2016

Imagine the following situation: you have worked diligently for the Ostrogoth King Theoderic as his Master of Offices, when some of your more corrupted colleagues feel threatened by your integrity and decide to conspire against you. They falsely accuse you of treason and before you know what’s happening, you are imprisoned. You spend a year in prison, awaiting trial, and you have no illusions about how that is going to end: execution. What do you do? You feel sorry for yourself.

Boethius in his prison
Boethius in his prison

That’s exactly what Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius did. He was a Roman aristocrat from a powerful family and used to live a life of comfort and leisure, reading and translating philosophy. He had a wife and two sons (both consuls), political power, lots of status, and now he had lost it all. The only thing he had left was his philosophical mind. So he wrote a book in an attempt to console himself.

The book he wrote that year is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of prison literature. In it, he introduces the character Lady Philosophy, who appears in his prison cell. He complains to her that he is unhappy because of the injustice done to him, the loss of everything he once had and his imminent execution. But Lady Philosophy doesn’t accept this. She kindly but decidedly convinces him that money, status and power, and even family, health and longevity are not really the things that cause happiness. These things are transitory and fickle, mere whims of fortune. The only thing one can really have is virtue, and even though Boethius is in prison, his virtue cannot be taken away from him. Boethius does not readily accept what Lady Philosophy tells him, and they proceed to discuss various other philosophical problems, including the relation between free will and God. Whilst monotheism is accepted throughout, it is a neoplatonist rather than a Christian text. There is no mention of Jesus Christ, which is not trivial, considering the fact that Boethius was a Christian, faced with his own death. Why did he think he’d find more consolation in Lady Philosophy than in Jesus Christ?

Boethius’ influence

Boethius was born when the last Roman Emperor was deposed. Around that time, aristocratic families were already Christianised, including Boethius’. Boethius played an instrumental role in preserving Greek philosophy for medieval European readerships: he translated many philosophical texts, mostly by Plato and Aristotle, from Greek to Latin. In addition, he wrote commentaries and text books on logic and some treatises on theology. If it wasn’t for Boethius, we would probably not have had access to many of these ancient texts today.

Resources

You can read The Consolation of Philosophy here. It’s an old 19th century translation by W.V. Cooper, but very beautiful and readable.

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