Classic Review — The Consolation of Philosophy (523AD)

Book Cover 2

Overview

Synopsis Boethius seeks help from Lady Philosophy to understand why misfortune comes upon virtuous men.

Author Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
Genre Philosophy

Length 175 Pages

Release Date 523AD

There is an age-old question that has haunted and confused millennia of Christians since far beyond when the church father Tertullian asked “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” And that is the question of syncretism. It is a very real and meaningful thing to ask what philosophy has to do with religion and if they can even be combined in the first place. Early Christians struggled with the question. While Paul the Apostle repeatedly speaks to stoics and epicureans throughout the Roman Empire, he doesn’t addresses their ideas as meaningfully sufficient.

In the centuries that would follow, considerable efforts would be made to banish the ideas of Aristotle and Plato from the church to avoid heresies like those of the Gnostics, who applied Plato’s ideas to Christian cosmology. This created a truly perverted scripture that rejected the Old Testament and added new fake scriptures like the Gospel of Judas and Gospel of Peter to retroactively justify itself. Augustine of Hippo would famously distance himself from the Greek philosophers as he struggled throughout his adult life to escape heresy.

It wouldn’t be until the writing of Thomas Aquinas’s works in the 13th century that there would be a serious effort to reevaluate and fully attempt to resolve Aristotle and Plato’s ideas into Catholic theology. Even then, the Reformation would bring back the stigma in full force, with many prominent Protestants condemning the Paganizing influences of the Greek, saying that it corrupted Rome and its understanding of Scripture over the millennia.

The most successful and important student of syncretism remains one of the most important thinkers of the Christian faith. In the aftermath of the fall of the Roman Empire, one philosopher and martyr worked harder than anyone else — desperately scribbling his ideas in a prison cell in the final months of his life — to offer a logical explanation of how the works of philosophy can point to Christ.

The work would become, as C.S. Lewis writes, one of the most influential works in the history of Europe, saying, “To acquire a taste for it is to almost become a naturalized in the middle ages… until about two hundred years ago it would have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it.”

Content Guide

Spiritual Content: A philosophical examination of Neoplatonist Christianity and how true happiness can be found through a right understanding of fortune and providence
Violence: None 
Language/Crude Humor: None
Sexual Content: Discussions of carnal pleasures and that they are unfulfilling
Drug/Alcohol Use: None
Other Negative Themes: None
Positive Content: One of the most influential and historically important philosophical dialogs in the history of the west

A manuscript of Consolation of Philosophy
A manuscript of Consolation of Philosophy

Review

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, better known simply as Boethius or St. Severinus Boethius, was a 6th-century Roman senator living after Constantine Christianized the Roman Empire and after Rome had been rendered part of the Ostrogothic Kingdom. He was born in 480 AD and died in 524 AD. Boethius dedicated much of his adult life to the study of philosophy and worked hard to translate the works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin for contemporary readers. While he was viewed favorably by the heretical Arianistic king Theodoric the Great, he eventually fell out of favor with the royal court and was — rightly or not — charged with conspiracy, thrown into prison, fell into a deep depression, and eventually sentenced to a brutal execution.

Spending the better part of a year imprisoned, Boethius poured what energies and time he had into a single volume of philosophy and theology. In this volume, he worked through every thought of despair and despondency and poured them into his understanding of the world as his Neoplatonist and Christian teachers taught him to view it. The result was The Consolation of Philosophy, a brisk Socratic dialog that stands to this day as one of the most important works of Christian moral philosophy in history.

Understanding The Consolation of Philosophy

The first time I ever read Consolation of Philosophy several years ago, my primary takeaway was merely its similarity to another book about the meaning of suffering, the Biblical Book of Job. Both are fundamentally dialogs and explore the question of why bad things happen to good people.

The Bible is far more cryptic in its answer, though. As Chesterton notes, the book’s genius functions by inverting all of Job’s questions. In the final chapters, God appears before him in the form of a whirlwind and asks Job his own questions, showing him the fullness of reality and Job’s place in it. God asks him who he is to question a creator who shapes the world, wrestles chaos demons, and controls everything. Job submits, refusing to curse and abandon his creator, and his righteousness is dually rewarded.

Boethius alternatively casts himself as the nominal protagonist in a drama between himself and “Lady Philosophy,” a beautiful woman we’re told is the physical incarnation of the concept of philosophy. As we meet our narrator, he is alone and despairing in a jail cell for what he claims is a wrongful prosecution, and he is struggling to understand why a good God would cast a loyal servant into such horrible conditions. Lady Philosophy appears before her servant to console him. She probes his mind, attempting to understand why he despairs so deeply and how his understanding of the world betrayed him.

If the book has simple points, they are merely that: God is good, God is just, creation is good, God is in control of everything, the wages of sin is death, and the worldly Greek philosophy offers us a way to understand God more fully. This understanding starts with the reality that our suffering is not something cast upon us but is the logical result of corruption and a fallen world. By changing our perception of the world, we can eliminate our despair and live in true godly happiness in the midst of misfortune.

Book 1 – Despair and Devotion to Philosophy

Boethius is quick to distinguish between the fruits of philosophy and theology. As he describes her, Lady Philosophy is a woman with a torn dress, for the philosophers — the stoics and epicureans — were only working with mere shreds of her full philosophical truth.

As part of their loot, they dragged me off, in spite of my protestations and resistance; they ripped apart the gown that I had woven with my own hands, and they departed bearing the ragged pieces which they had torn from me. They had imagined that all of me had passed into their hands; and because they bored traces of my clothing about them, foolish men regarded them as my devotees.

This opening acknowledges that the old philosophers were insufficient to answer the most difficult questions of life. The narrator is a true devotee of philosophy, and for his devotion, she offers him an answer to the challenging questions that plague his mind. Why has this fate befallen him? What had he done to deserve this and why would God abandon him to such a fate? Why is a virtuous man punished for a wicked crime he did not commit?

Lady Philosophy responds by asking the narrator about his understanding of the world. Is the world not orderly? Is it random and chaotic? He answers no, the Christian God would not allow that. So how do we imagine God in control of the reins of the world? Confused by the question, she deduces that his despair is caused by his confusion. He is mistaking his material misfortune for divine punishment. Coming to terms with the knowledge that the world is divinely created will offer nourishment and resuscitation to his soul.

The Wheel of Fortune
The Wheel of Fortune
Book 2 – The Wheel of Fortune

As the book progresses, Lady Philosophy begins to slowly identify and peel back the layers of the narrator’s confusion, beginning with his misunderstanding about the concept of fortune. This brings the book to one of its most enduring images, that of the “Wheel of Fortune,” which echoes the idea expressed in Matthew 5:45 that God allows the “sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

As Lady Philosophy reveals, Lady Fortune had favored Boethius with material success in his life until now. He was famous, intelligent, and powerful, and he raised his sons to follow a similar path of success. Now, that fortune had departed him. As she says, “you will realize that you neither had nor have lost anything of worth.”

Fortune is like a whirling ocean, rising and falling, turning “my wheel on its whirling course.” The good things and bad things that happen to you are not righteous judgments against your character. A person can be favored by good fortune and then unfavored by her, but all things are ultimately the decisions of God and work to our benefit. Bad fortune can shake the hearts of people who are too contented, and good fortune can validate poor behavior. Bad fortune, in fact, can be the best source of humility.

We must not forget “the number and extent of [our] blessings,” lest we forget that they can accumulate and be taken away all at once. But even so, all fortune is ultimately good fortune because it serves our good, even as “the unhappiest aspect of misfortune is to have known happiness.”

Fortune does not yet direct her hatred against all your household. The storm which has gathered over you is not too hard to endure, for your anchors still hold fast, and their grip is such that they do now allow present consolation or future hope to disappear.

Lady Philosophy and God
Lady Philosophy and God
Book 3 – Finding True Happiness Beyond The World

With that in mind, true happiness cannot be dependent on good fortune. The things that truly make life happy and meaningful are not things that can be taken or given to us, lest the poor be the least happy among us — yet the poor are quite often happier and fulfilled in this world than the rich. Fame cannot impart immortality. False paths to happiness only slow us down and make us more miserable.

For the narrator, this realization is revelatory. Lady Philosophy’s words have been the medicine he needs to cure his despair, a pain so deep that she warns would carry him down a path of death. Now the bitter medicine must be prepared. She must carry the narrator deeper and help him understand what true happiness really is—and to start out she must first make it clear what happiness is not.

Happiness does not come from wealth, for wealth does not cure want. Happiness does not come from power, for power does not beget meaning or safety. Happiness does not come from glory, for it is neither wise nor consistent. Happiness cannot come from bodily pleasures, for these blessings do not even edify beasts. Additionally, all of these things can be taken away and therefore do not provide true happiness.

Lady Philosophy notes that true happiness is something larger than this, something more holistic and Platonistic in nature. She says, “we must allow that the highest God is totally full of the highest and perfect good. Now we have established that the perfect good is true happiness, so true happiness must reside in the highest God.” This is what our Catholic friends would call “Divine Simplicity,” that the nature of God is equivalent to his attributes — meaning that God IS Love or God IS Happiness.

Boethius and Lady Philosophy
Boethius and Lady Philosophy
Book 4 – The Moral Degradation of the Sinner

Even with this greater perspective, the narrator begins to be haunted by the implications of these realizations. He still feels grief and sadness at the reality that evil and misfortune must exist in the world at all. Why does evil still go unpunished in this world?

As Lady Philosophy impresses though, free will accounts for this reality. All humans have a will of their own. When that will is in unity with the divine will, it creates goodness and happiness. Derivations from ultimate goodness are the cause of evil, even well-intentioned derivations. She goes as far as to claim that there is no such thing as ultimate evil in the universe for this reason. Evil is an outgrowth of weakness, not power, and it is unfulfilling in the end. The cost of evil thus becomes wickedness itself.

Good exists, and evil decays into nothingness. The good becomes like unto gods, and the evil becomes like an animal. Evil men do not truly prosper in the long run but progressively decay in their wickedness, or even bring about their own demise in the end in extreme cases. “Therefore just as goodness itself is the reward for good men, so wickenedness itself is the punishment for bad men.”

Boethius and the Wheel of Fortune
Boethius and the Wheel of Fortune
Book 5 – Free Will and Providence

These questions do provide an answer to the narrator’s troubles, and a resolution to his despair, but they do raise a complicated theological question. How can a God that is fully in control of fate and fortune be reconciled with free will?

If God fully knows and controls the fate of the world, does he not already know what decisions we made? Did he not create us with the knowledge of that decision? Is free will even possible if God has predestined us for what he knows we will do? If there is no such thing as chance and God controls everything, what free will can we possibly have?

Such questions continue to be troublesome even to this day. There is a reason why prominent early Protestants like Martin Luther and John Calvin both downplayed the importance of free will in their grappling with the nature of salvation.

As Lady Fortune answers, though, these questions betray humanity’s limited perspective and understanding of the divine mind. Classical Theism regards the unmoved mover, the creator God, as a being outside of time and space, viewing all of creation in an eternal moment of connective chains and consequences. Humans lack the full perspective of this connectivity though, riding the seas of fortune from a perspective of momentary pain and comfort. This makes us little more than “mollusks” clinging to the side of a rock.

Free will is not diminished by the providence of God because his divine foreknowledge “imposes no necessity on events.” God lacks no knowledge of all creation, for he experiences it all at once.

But how hard it is to say all this is though I were a god? For it is not right for a man either mentally to grasp or explain in words all the workings of God’s creation. It must be enough merely to realize that God, the author of all things in nature orders all of them and guides them to the good.

Seeing The World Through Boethian Eyes

It is sometimes easy in philosophy to say that something is LIKE a philosopher because of how specific their claims are. Something is Aristotelian when it is focused on the improvement of the self or Platonic when it references something idealistic or perfect. If I had to do the same, to say what a Boethian Idea is, I would have to say that Boethius is a model of orderliness. All things have a place in the world and our happiness and meaning are tied to our ability to rightly align ourselves with that order.

This stands in deep contrast to our own age, where the assumption of most is that we live in a world of random chance and chaos without reason. It is harder for the modern mind to believe that misfortune happens for a good reason than to believe that a creator might use misfortune for our spiritual benefit.

As I go back over my copy of Consolation of Philosophy for this review, these summaries of the five books of the story are as much for me as they are to you. The book is eminently readable and surprisingly brisk, and easy to discuss for those who have the patience to do so. I recently hosted a virtual Bible study that discussed the book over five weeks. There is little in the book a diligent notetaker can’t work around. And I can already tell that this is a book that one must return to again and again, parsing through its details and structure and letting its ideas coalesce.

This doesn’t make Boethius without controversy, of course. Plenty of Bible scholars dislike the implications of classical theism because of how far-reaching some of its conclusions are. There are plenty of individual verses of the Bible that might poke holes in Boethius’s claims about God’s unchanging nature and such (one can certainly debate how poetic a verse like Exodus 32:14 is). Boethius’s vision for creation, though, is rightly compelling and reflects the consensus of Orthodox Christian thought for the first 1700 years of the church.

The book does not leave us with easy answers, however. In my last Bible study, I joked that Book 5 is the point where Boethius DESTROYS Calvinism with facts and logic. And there is some truth to that. Predestination is a theology compatible with Classical Theism. On the other hand, the Calvinist idea of double predestination, that God creates people specifically to be damned for all eternity, is not compatible with Boethius’s explanation.

One might suspect that the Calvinists who chafe against Paganizing influences would dislike Boethius’s Neoplatonic theology for this reason. At the very least, Boethius’s ideas force us to evaluate the concept of “total depravity” and ask how we understand the nature of God. (C.S. Lewis was famously disinterested in Calvinism for this reason, both because he liked Greek philosophy and found double predestination to be irrelevant to a classical understanding of the divine mind).

Conclusion

There is a reason why this book has been translated more than almost any other text in the Western canon — by Alfred the Great, Queen Elizabeth, Chaucer, and more. There is a reason Dante writes that Boethius lives among the Saints in the 10th Canto of Paradiso. There is a reason C.S. Lewis cited the book as one of the ten most influential on his intellectual and spiritual development, and why the University of Wyoming Professor Jason Baxter declares him the “British Boethius.”

More than anyone else, Boethius poured his despair and uncertainty in the world into his love for Christ and found the answers he desperately needed — that a God of love hadn’t cursed him and wrongly cast him into despair and death. In The Consolation of Philosophy, he left us his blueprint for how to do it.

Boethius’s great insight was using the works of the Greek philosophers to point to Christ, showing the insufficiencies of Aristotle and Plato but finding that their categories and logic are revelatory in nature. As Louis Markos writes, “Consolation marks a hinge point in the dialogue between general and special revelation, paganism and Christianity, Plato and Christ.” Aristotle’s virtue ethics and Plato’s obsession with truth become ways to grapple with our limited perspective on the universe, respecting the limitations we face and understanding the Neoplatonic implications of our creator and that he remains eternally good in all of life’s present woes.

Wrapped in the vision of all good, rejoices the sainted soul who makes most manifest the world’s deceit to one who read him well. The body that was torn form him below Cieldauro now possess; to this peace he came from exile and from martyrdom.

Paradiso, Canto X, Lines 125-129, By Dante Alighieri

Positives

+ Beautiful Prose
+ Some of the Most Influential and Historic Philosophy in Christendom
+ Powerful Revelations About Suffering

Negatives

- May Be Dense or Inaccessible for First Time Readers

The Bottom Line

Boethius wrote a masterpiece with his philosophical treatise on suffering that has rarely been matched, even by its imitators like Dante and Lewis.

 

Story/Plot 9

Writing 10

9.5

Tyler Hummel

Born into the unexplored residential backwater of Chicago, Tyler Hummel is a graduate of Tribeca Flashpoint College where he studied Sound Design for Film and Interactive Media. When he isn't hosting his public access talk show The Fox Valley Film Critics or collecting DragonBall Z figurines, he enjoys writing and directing short films. As with Rick from Casablanca, "he's a man like any other man, just more so!"

1 Comments

  1. Thomas McConnon on February 23, 2023 at 6:21 am

    Extremely well presented. An excellent introduction to Boethius. Thank you!!!

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