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.


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.

The Stoic Way of Life – 25/01/2016

The Stoics are a group of philosophers ranging from Zeno of Citium (344-262 BCE) in Cyprus to the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius (121-180). Other famous Stoics are Epictetus, Seneca and Cicero, but there were many more. Their philosophy covers various domains, including ethics, logic, and cosmology, and academic philosophers may or may not agree with the Stoics on these points. However, even when they disagree, many philosophers today admire the Stoics for one thing: they viewed philosophy not as merely an academic discipline, but as a way of life. The point of doing philosophy was to become a wise person: a sage.

And who doesn’t want to be wise?

I know I do. And I must admit, Stoic philosophy rubs off on you. In stressful times, it sounds very appealing! Last year, I was preparing a lecture on the Stoics for philosophy students at university. So I had read a chapter on their famous advice to exercise not having any emotions. If you think about it, the Stoics argue, any negative emotions are irrational: if you have control over the circumstances that cause a negative emotion, then you can fix it, and if you don’t have control over the circumstances, then there’s no point in worrying about it anyway.
So on my way to the lecture hall I met a colleague, who was winding himself up over the failing IT systems we were having to work with at university. He used many expletives to explain how frustrating it all was. Then he said: “Marthe, you seem unaffected by any of this.” I answered: “Oh, that’s because I’m lecturing about the Stoics today.” He said: “I can tell! You are very Stoical!”

When people say that someone responded very “Stoically” or “philosophically” to a particular situation, they often mean that this person remained calm, didn’t show signs of emotional distress and was able to preserve enough emotional detachment to be able to think clearly. A “Stoical” person remains emotionally unaffected when misfortune strikes. I think the stereotype many people think of when they think about a wise philosopher is someone like that: someone who can remain calm and reasonable when others might flip.
Today, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy – a therapy designed to help people ‘train’ their thoughts so they might suffer less from anxiety – owes very much to Stoic philosophy.

But where does this idea come from? And what is the argument with which the Stoics support this idea? That is what we’ll discuss in this class.


There is a very good podcast about philosophy, with interviews with experts about almost every topic within philosophy you can think of, all made very understandable for those who have no background in philosophy: Philosophy Bites. This Philosophy Bites podcast is about living Stoically, with philosopher William B. Irvine, who aims to live Stoically.