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.


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


Plato on Love – 18/04/2016

Plato on Love in The Symposium

Love, it seems, is important to human existence. We bend over backwards to be loved, we are willing to kill and die for love, or love makes us do extremely stupid or heroic things. We usually know without a trace of doubt when we love someone or something. But what is love? That question is harder to answer. And is it possible to be mistaken in love? To love the wrong kind of persons or things? Questions like these are addressed in Plato’s Symposium, a short and beautifully written dialogue.

Setting: a drinking party (symposium) at Agathon’s house, the day after Agathon won a prize for one of his tragedies. Those present agree to not drink too much (because they are hungover) and to give a speech in honour of Love (the god Eros).


Phaedrus, an Athenian aristocrat

Pausanias, a legal expert

Eryximachus, a physician

Aristophanes, a comic playwright

Agathon, a tragic poet and playwright

Socrates, philosopher and Plato’s teacher

Alcibiades, statesman and general, young, handsome and in love with Socrates.

Diotima, a woman who taught Socrates all he knows about love. Not present at the party, but quoted by Socrates.



Paedrus concludes that Love is the most powerful and ancient god, because for the sake of Love people are willing to make the greatest sacrifices, sometimes – like Achilles and Alcestis – even their lives.

Pausanias distinguishes common love – sexual desire – from heavenly love – affectionate, life-long paederastia* relationships. He discusses laws and customs in various citystates and concludes that Athens’ custom, with its paederastia arrangements, favours heavenly love best.

Eryximachus discusses the workings of love in the body. He concludes that “Love has total power and is the source of all happiness.” It enables the connection between humans and gods, as well as among humans.

Aristophanes tells a satirical creation story: people used to be round creatures with four arms, four legs and two heads. They angered the gods, so to punish them, Zeus split them all in half so each human had to live their life as only half a person. Ever since, love is the desire to find our other half back. Pleasing the god Love thus leads to wholeness.

Agathon gives a poetic and rhetorical speech. He complains that previous speakers have described how Love works in humans, or how humans enact love, but failed to praise the god Love himself. To correct this, Agathon describes Love as young, beautiful, dainty and wise, and that the object of Love, the thing Love cares about most, is beauty (because everything that is good is truly beautiful).

Socrates departs from Agathon’s speech and asks Agathon a few questions: isn’t love always love of something? And if so, isn’t it contradictory to say that love is already that which it is a love of? A tall person can’t desire to be tall, because he already is. So Agathon must be mistaken that love is beautiful and wise. Love is love of beauty and wisdom, therefore it cannot itself be beautiful and wise already. Socrates then quotes a dialogue he once had with Diotima, who explained to him the same thing. Love cannot be a god, nor can he be powerful, beautiful, good or wise. Instead, Diotima explains, Love is a spirit, child of Poverty and Resourcefulness, who moves between ignorance and wisdom, ugliness and beauty, always directed at that which it wants but does not have. What mortals desire most is immortality, but they cannot have it. Therefore, they aim for the closest alternative: reproduction. Love enables this. There is bodily reproduction: a man and a woman who are pregnant with a human child. Then there is paederastia, homosexual love, which leads to another kind of pregnancy: they give birth to wisdom and virtue. The latter is a higher form of love than the former.

How to master the art of love in this latter sense? Diotima explains to Socrates that there are several stages. First, the lover must love one particular boy. Sexual attraction draws the lover to the boy, who thereby represents beauty to the lover. This leads to discussions about beauty between the two. Those discussions lead to the second phase: the lover comes to understand that the beautiful boy is only one among many. The lover becomes a lover of beauty more generally, and less obsessed with one particular boy. The third step occurs when the lover realises that beauty goes beyond physical beauty, to include beautiful souls and virtues that make young men better men. Finally, the lover understands that he loves the beautiful (i.e. the good) itself. Once he realises this, he will ‘give birth’ to beauty by mentoring the young beloved to ensure he grows up virtuously.

Finally, Alcibiades enters the symposium, drunk. He is handsome and he knows it, and tells the group that he initially sought to seduce Socrates with his beauty. However, once he caught a glimpse of Socrates’ hidden beauty, he found himself in love with Socrates rather than the other way around. He leaves with a group of Bacchian revelers, as usual seeking approval from the crowd. It illustrates why he is so in love with Socrates, because he loves what he does not have: Socrates’ virtue.


*Paederastia: Athenian custom whereby an older man (the lover) has a relationship with a teenage boy (the beloved). The older lover is attracted by the boy’s beauty and the fulfilment of his sexual desires, and in turn teaches the boy virtue. These relations existed alongside marriages between men and women. Homosexual love relations (for men as well as for women) were the norm.

Aristotle’s Teleology – 29/02/2016

Aristotle famously claimed that “all men by nature desire the know”. To understand something is to know the answer to the question “why?”, and to be able to do so, we have to understand what the puzzle really is.

Why? Why? Why? Why am I a philosopher, and someone else a baker or guitarist or athlete? Why do birds fly and why are mountains high? Aristotle contends that the answer to questions like this is fourfold. Today, I’ll explain Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Four Causes.

Aristotle discusses theories of his predecessors, among whom the presocratic atomists. They reduced the cause of all movement, change or phenomena to the mechanics of atomic elements, processes which were seen as purposeless by nature. These thinkers had a mechanistic worldview.
Aristotle thought that these philosophers were fundamentally confused about something, which led to their inability to offer satisfying explanations of phenomena: they confused four different kinds of causes.
To understand something, Aristotle believed, you have to understand each of the four causes of that thing. These four causes are:

Material Cause: that out of which a thing comes to be and which persists.
Formal Cause: the pattern, structure of form that the matter realises in becoming a determinate thing.
Efficient Cause: the agent or cause responsible for the thing’s coming into being.
Final Cause: that for the sake of which a thing is done.

Aristotle explains this using the example of a statue. The material cause of the statue is the bronze it is made of, the formal cause is the body of Hercules, the efficient cause is the artist making the statue or the art of bronze-casting, and the final cause is to honour Hercules.

The final cause of each thing is intimately related to its formal cause, and these causes play an important explanatory role that Aristotle’s predecessors ignored.

It is easy to identify these four causes of artefacts, but Aristotle believed that they apply to nature as well. This means he replaces the mechanistic worldview of his predecessors with a teleological worldview: everything in nature has a purpose. Telos is the Greek word for purpose.

But this raises difficulties. Aristotle did not believe that the purpose of everything in nature was determined by an external agent or creator, a “divine craftsman”. Instead, he believed that the purpose of nature is immanent: a thing’s purpose is part of it’s nature. In the words of Jonathan Lear in Aristotle: the desire to understand:

“Real purposefulness requires that the end somehow govern the process along the way to its own realization … it is not, strictly speaking, the end specified as such that is operating from the start: it is form that directs the process of its own development from potentiality to actuality…
Of course, the existence of potential form at the beginning of the developmental process is due to the antecedent existence of actual form. … Ultimately, it is actual form which is responsible for the generation of actual form. So in this sense the end was there at the beginning, establishing a process directed toward the end: actual form.”

This brings us to two more distinctions: form v. matter and actuality v. potentiality. These can be explained thus for a certain form F:

Form: that which makes some matter that is potentially F, actually F.
Matter: that which persists and which is for some Fs, potentially F.

So, I have matter and I have form. It is because of my actual form that I have certain potential. I am, for instance, cut out to be a philosopher. That potential to become a philosopher guides my development to become an actual philosopher. What is your potential, your final cause, your telos?

Confucius – 08/02/2016

Confucius (551?-479? BCE) is one of the oldest and best known ancient Chinese philosophers (that is to say: he was born in the state of Lu in what is now called China.) Many ideas that might sound familiar to you can already be found in his collection of writings: the Analects. The Golden Rule, for instance: “what you do not wish for yourself, do not do to others.”, or does the idea that the key to moral living is compassion sound familiar to you? Well, Confucius said it well before any Western thinker did. Indeed, he said it before the history of Western philosophy even started. Although some might find his philosophy too conservative for their taste, it is impressively rich and remarkably current today.


Students and followers of Confucius have collected some of his sayings and writings in a book that is now known as the Analects, or Lunyu. From this work, it is clear that Confucius was mostly interested in the question: What is needed for a society to be a healthy society?

To answer this question, Confucius appealed to the Heavens and the Ancestors. That was conventional in his day. The Heavens were a central notion in ancient Chinese religion, but what philosophers mean when they refer to the Heavens is not like anything we in the West know. The Heavens can mean a Supreme Being, but it is also used to refer to nature or natural laws, or fate, or the realm of the spirits. Confucius says he had a special relationship with the Heavens, and that he understood what the Heavens wanted from him and mankind. In his days, saying this lends extra credibility to a philosopher. It’s like a modern scientist saying: “I understand the laws of nature, so trust me, I’m a good scientist.” A philosopher who understood the ways of the Heavens was trusted to be a good philosopher. The Ancestors were also a central notion in ancient Chinese historical awareness. These weren’t ordinary Ancestors. They weren’t somebody’s great-great-great granddads. They were legendary figures. The ancient Chinese people believed that their societies were the messy remnants of much earlier, much more harmonious societies, ruled by legendary rulers with superhuman abilities and extremely long life spans: the Ancestors. Confucius claimed that he appealed to the values and ethics that made one of those societies – the kingdom of Zhou – flourish. This is another move of Confucius to make himself look better: a philosopher who says: “I’m not making this philosophy up, I’m just reminding you of what worked in the good old days.” shows not only modesty, but also reassures his audience that what he proposes is not some weird radical idea. Since an appeal to the Heavens and to the Ancestors makes a philosopher look more credible, it was conventional for philosophers of the time to do so. It may also be that Confucius never made these appeals himself, but that his followers credit these statements to him as a form of respect.

In this class, we’ll discuss a central in Confucius’ philosophy: the idea of ren, which is often translated as ‘compassion’, which is to be achieved by looking at roles within the family and by cultivating the rituals.

We will also discuss two criticisms of the Confucian model at the time: that of the Mohists and that of Zhuangzi.

Plato’s Cave, and CAKE! – 04/01/2016

platos caveDo the thoughtless comments people make about matters of justice leave you feeling hopeless? Are you frustrated by party politics when those who should be ruling the country in fact care more about their own power? If you answer ‘yes’ to these questions, you might be sympathetic to what Plato is trying to convey in his most famous book, The Republic.

But, as with all meaningful philosophy, Plato’s view is controversial. Plato is vehemently anti-democratic…

The first West London Philosophy School class on Monday the 4th of January 2016 will be about Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. It is the most famous allegory in the history of philosophy, which appears in the dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon in book VII of The Republic. In the dialogue, Socrates and Glaucon are discussing the question: what is justice? But along with that question, Plato – through the character of Socrates – tries to teach us something about education and insight: how do we learn the truth?

To celebrate the opening of the West London Philosophy School, cake will be served during the break!

Plato’s Cave 2007 by Ken Stout


An old but good translation of Book VII of the Republic is Paul Shorey’s (1935-1937). You can find it here.

Tim Wilson made this wonderful animated mini lecture on Plato’s Cave.