A Rare And Varied Consolation
Boethius's "The Consolation of Philosophy" is a rare and unusual philosophical work in that it continues to be read by many people who are not philosophers or students of philosophy. This is witnessed by the thoughtful reader reviews here on Amazon. The work continues to be read, I think, because Boethius placed his philosophy in the context of his own experience. The book has a personal and immediate tone. Boethius also broadened the book to make his own experience speak to many people of his own and later times. Most readers will find at least some of Boethius's philosophical teachings valuable and persuasive. The book also combines philosophy with a beautiful literary style. Poetry alternates with and supplements philosophy. Philosophy is personified and speaks to Boethius in the form of a beautiful woman. The book is full of allusions to classical Greek and Roman literature.
Boethius (480 -- 524 A.D.) wrote this book near the end of life that was both active and scholarly. He had occupied a high position in the Roman Empire before he was imprisoned for treason. He wrote the book in prison in the months before he was brutally tortured and killed. At the beginning of the Consolation, Boethius is morose and grieving over the injustice of his imprisonment and impending fate. He feels that his life has been meaningless.
When she enters, the figure of philosophy largely recalls Boethius to himself. The discussion proceeds in layers, moving from the concrete and specific to the abstract. Philosophy tells Boethius that she must take him and his situation as she finds them and move gradually to help Boethius understand himself. As the book proceeds, it becomes more of a teaching by philosophy than a dialogue between philosophy and Boethius. Prose and argument take the place of poetry as the book becomes heavily Neoplatonic and theistic in tone.
I understood best the earlier parts of this short works, largely books I -- III of the five books in which it is divided. Here, with philosophy's guidance, Boethius meditates on what makes life worthwhile. He comes to understand that what he had primarily valued in life -- things such as pleasure, power, money, success -- are evanescent and pass away. They do not produce true happiness because they are not part of what a person is and can be taken away. They are inherently changeable and fickle. In an important passage in Book II, philosophy says (p.31):
"Why then do you mortal men seek after happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within you? You are led astray by error and ignorance. I will briefly show you what complete happiness hinges upon. If I ask you whether there is anything more precious to you than your own self, you will say no. So if you are in possession of yourself you will possess something you would never wish to lose and something Fortune could never take away. In order to see that happiness can't consist in things governed by chance, look at it this way. If happiness is the highest good of rational nature and anything that can be taken away is not the highest good- since it is surpassed by what can't be taken away -- Fortune by her very mutability can't hope to lead to happiness."
Boethius introduces the figure of the wheel of fortune which, apart from the personification of philosophy, is the most striking figure of the book. He was not the first to use this metaphor, but he made it his own. The figure of the wheel and the emphasis of change and suffering in life reminded me of Buddhist teachings which I have been studying for the past several years. Boethius does not take his philosophy this way but instead develops a Neoplatonic vision of the One or of God which culminates in a beautiful poem at the conclusion of Book III section 9 of the Consolation (pp 66-67). In the remaining portions of the Consolation, Boethius seeks for further understanding of happiness and of the good. Philosophy's answer becomes more difficult and theological. If focuses on the claimed non-existence of evil, the difference between eternity and time, and the nature of Providence.
In rereading the book, I thought Boethius convincingly presented what people today would call an existential or experiential situation -- he was imprisoned far from home and awaiting a gruesome death. He learns some highly particular and valuable ways of understanding that help him -- and the reader -- with his condition. As he develops his understanding, Boethius and philosophy adopt a Neoplatonic synthesis of Plato and Aristotle that contemporary readers are likely to reject or not understand. There is a further difficult question whether Boethius's teachings are exclusively Neoplatonic and pagan, or whether they are Christian as well. (Christianity and Jewish-Christian texts go unmentioned in the Consolation.)
Thus, I think the Consolation continues to be read and revered largely because of the situation it develops in its initial pages and because of Boethius's poetically moving teaching of the nature of change, suffering and loss. It is valuable to have the opportunity to see these things. With change in times and perspective, not all readers will agree with or see the necessity for the Neoplatonic (or Jewish-Christian, given one's reading of the work) underpinnings with which Boethius girds his teaching of change and suffering. As I mentioned, it is tempting to see parallels with Buddhism. But it is more likely that modern readers will try to work out Boethius's insights for themselves in a framework which is primarily secular. I thought that much of the early part of the book, for example, could well have been written by Spinoza. The Consolation remains a living book both because of what it says and also because it allows the reader to take Boethius's insights and capture them while moving in somewhat different directions.