The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius - Book I

September 24 2018

Background: This collection of books was written in 524 by Boethius, a Roman consul, under the rule of Ostrogothic ruler Theoderic. To get a background of Theoderic, read this summary. Boethius is writing this iconic Neoplatonic work (generally considered the last great work of the Classical Period) while imprisoned for treason. He is condemned to death.

The Consolation of Philosophy - Book I

A poem describing the vows of aging and the shackles of imprisonment. Boethius is surrounded by muses, aiding him in grieving when a woman appears to him. She is clearly magical in nature: draped in a dress embroidered with the letters Π (pi, for practice) and Θ (theta, for theory), with books in her right hand and a scepter in her left.

The mysterious woman is not at all amused about the presence of the muses, they provide but “intemperate passion” instead of reason - an educated man like Boethius does not need emotional turmoil throwing him into depression, he needs reason to heal himself.

Boethius used to be a patron of the sciences and after the woman has dried his tears, he realizes who he is seeing: it is Philosophy. Boethius is reluctant to accept her presence - the charges against him went also against his virtues, against Philosophy itself.

Lady Philosophy is not worried. She has been squabbled over many times, by the Epicureans and the Stoics alike. All tore at her dress and claimed the pieces taken made the whole garment.

“I have been doing battle forever against proud stupidity.”

Anger is helpless, fear pointless and desire delusional. Boethius is fickle in his state and is forging the chains that shackle him.

He is not responsive. He is in a cell, not at home, what good is Philosophy to him?

He had tried to do as Plato modeled and go into politics to implement reason and imprisonment was his thanks! How could he not lament his misfortune, being so falsely accused? Those charged with a crime are presumed guilty, no matter what.

Boethius wonders: if there is a god, how is there evil? And if there isn’t a god, how is there good?

Philosophy listens and makes a diagnosis: Boethius has not just been banished from his home but from himself. He is quite right, she says, in analyzing how the universe works, but he is confused about the Why.

To further the diagnostic so begun, Philosophy asks Boethius the following questions:

Is life but chance, or orderly? There seems to be order, says Boethius, god appears to look over his creation.

How does god govern his world? How would he know? He does not even understand the question!

What is the purpose of things? He can’t remember.

What is the source of all things? God.

Do you remember that you are a (hu)man? Of course.

What is a (hu)man? A mortal, rational creature.

Are you not more? No.

Philosophy pauses. She resumes by underlining her initial diagnosis: Boethius has forgotten who he is. It is what he cannot remember which makes him feel lost. The cure, of course, is the correct understanding of the governance of the world through divine reason.