Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy: A Review

Imagine you have been unjustly arrested and then put under house arrest.  Now imagine you have been told that you will be executed within the year.  Then, imagine you are able to write your deepest reflections about the world and life in this year.  What would you write?

We have such a writing; it is called The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (written around 523 AD), and it one of the deepest, most reflective works ever written, and at the same time it is very easy to understand.  These two elements have caused this work to become one of the most influential works in Western civilization.

C.S. Lewis, in his final book, The Discarded Image, which is a masterful introduction to Medieval and Renaissance literature, describes this book as “one of the most influential books ever written in Latin” (75).  Then he says, “Until about two hundred years ago [from 1962], I think, it would have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it.”

 

What is the literary style of this book?

The book is set up as a dialogue with philosophy personified as Lady Philosophy.  This is why the book is called The Consolation of Philosophy because Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius about his current circumstances.

In addition the most interesting stylistic feature of the book is that it is written in prosimetrum meaning the book switches from prose into poetry and back and forth until the end.  Bear in mind, whoever reads this book in English is reading in translation from its original Latin, so it will not resemble English poetry but it is poetic nonetheless.  (I read the translation by David Slavitt, which I highly recommend, and he does a masterful job of retaining the spirit of the poetry in the poetic sections of the book).  The alternating poetry and prose and the dialogue makes this book extremely fresh and engaging to read.

Since I read the book, it has come up in many of my discussions with my friends.  I was speaking to a friend (and I recommended that he read the book), and as I was describing it, he said it seems similar to Ecclesiastes in its themes, and as I read further in the book, I agree with that judgment.  However, there is an exception because The Consolation of Philosophy takes a more positive tone than Ecclesiastes does (indeed, Ecclesiastes is unique in its outlook in the Scriptures because of its pessimistic outlook on things: “All is vanity.”).  But what is interesting in that comparison is that Ecclesiastes is also written prosimetrically with some parts in poetry (Hebrew style) and other parts in prose; [to understand what Hebrew Poetry is like you can read my article on the Psalms here; the same rules apply to Ecclesiastes].

Its Influence

Many kings of the past thought it worth their time to not only read this book but to translate it themselves so their people could read it too, and to have it in their languages for future generations.  Examples include King Alfred the Great and Queen Elizabeth I.  C.S. Lewis, in The Discarded Image, says that this book through the Middle Ages and the Renaissance was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, Greek, and French.  In English, it was translated more than three times: Into Old English, Middle English, and Early Modern English.  King Alfred the Great translated it into Old English in the 10th century.  Geoffrey Chaucer (the author of The Canterbury Tales) translated into Middle English in the 14th century, and Queen Elizabeth I translated it into early modern English in the late 16th century.  In addition, there were others who re-translated it into early modern English.  That is only by the Renaissance!  Can you imagine the influence and impact of this book that it moved such people across many different countries to translate it?!

As I read it, its influence was clear; I saw stylistic elements that I had earlier seen in The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings: the frequent switch from prose into poetry, a clear sign of its influence, and a feature that has made those books immensely beautiful.  I also saw elements of it in Dante’s epic poem The Divine Comedy [which does not mean comedy in the way we understand it today] like the person of Beatrice (a woman) who guides him through his journey like Lady Philosophy.  I also saw thematic elements of it that occur in C.S. Lewis’s fiction and nonfiction.  I saw themes and the ways that they were expressed that I have seen all over the cinema, television, and modern literature.  No doubt, its influence has been large.  But other than those influential stylistic elements, what about the content?  In other words, why should we read this book?

There are three reasons.

1. Boethius has insightful reflections on:

Fortune (luck)

Wealth,

Fame,

Ambition,

The nature of goodness and the virtuous person,

Happiness.

 

Then it asks questions like:

  1. Whether (not why) bad things happen to good people
  2. Are we predestined or do we have freewill and how does this work with the omniscience of God?

To get a better understanding of the book (without giving too much of it away) and how it approaches the points listed above, I will apply his line of reasoning to our modern life.

Boethius talks about ambition, and we see that today.  For example, the ambitious pursue careers in medicine, law, or business.  Others simply go to college with hopes of having a good paying (although not like the above three) jobs.  The focus on going to school is really on building wealth and not on education and self-development.  I have met very few people who have gone into medicine, law, or business who really went into it because of deep interest and because they really wanted to help other people.  More often than not, these people have been pushed by their parents, community, or friends to go into these fields in order to gain wealth, prestige (a type of fame), and ultimately to achieve happiness.

Even those who pursue other professions pursue them for similar reasons. Yet, the ironic thing is that almost all the time everything except happiness (and wealth and fame) is achieved.  The amount of debt is skyrocketing, the amount of time for personal interests non-existent, the amount of time for family not there, and the health conditions that develop are debilitating.  Where exactly is the happiness?  Most people I know hate their jobs, and those that don’t are at best indifferent.  Only a few truly love their jobs.  Where is the happiness that everyone was pursuing?  It seems to have run away from them, and it continues running, and they never catch it by the prescribed ways they were taught by their parents, communities, and friends.

Boethius asks the same questions when he wonders about wealth, fame, ambition, and whether they lead to happiness in the first three chapters of this book, and for the most part, he concludes that they do not, at least not in the manner most pursue them.  He provides brilliant reasons to show us why, and that is one of the main reasons you should read this book.  In this sense the book has a very similar tone to the Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament.  Again, I do not want to give away too much of what he says because that is where the richness of this book is, and why it is worthy to be read.

2. Boethius makes some very important observations on humanity: the Virtuous and the Wicked

Here he explores the characters of different people, specifically those who are virtuous and those who are wicked.  Wicked does not simply refer to those who are actively working evil against others, but it also refers to people who are absorbed in themselves, who gratify their sensual desires such as being materialistic, sexually indulgent, focused on wealth, fame, or ambition solely.  Yet, amazingly, he points out that they all are oriented toward happiness and goodness, yet the way they pursue these is wrong.

He points out that the virtuous person also seeks happiness and goodness, but the difference is in their characters, and they pursue these in the right manner.  All throughout this discussion, he points out that one cannot be separated from God and truly achieve happiness and goodness.  He makes a great analogy saying that those who pursue justice become just, and those who pursue wisdom become wise (Book III).  In the same way, when we pursue the Good (who is God), we become good and achieve happiness.

Then he moves on to the problem of evil, and here is where the book truly becomes groundbreaking in its clarity.  He comes to the conclusion that for the good person, that is those who have pursued God, nothing bad can really happen to them.

This may seem insane to many of you reading right now, as it would have seemed to me before I read the book, but he comes to a fairly convincing argument, and that it the third reasons why you should read this book.

3. How to view and think about God’s work in the world and in our lives and the problem of evil

The Consolation of Philosophy helps us clarify our thinking to see the goodness of God in what may appear to be randomness or even evil in the universe.  Indeed, the entire focus of the book is that it asks what things are good and what are evil, and how God is involved in these.

Book IV of The Consolation (what we can think of chapter 4) discusses at length the problem of evil, and Boethius presents a very fresh yet profound answer to the question.  For some it will not be convincing, yet when you truly think about it deep down after following his logical argument, there’s not much of a case against it.  It will require reflection on the part of the reader in order to grasp and accept this argument.

The argument essentially says that the good person cannot really have evil happen to him because the good person will learn from that evil and this will result in a good effect.  But some of you are thinking now, “What if that evil results in the death of the good person?  Or at irreparable harm?”  Boethius answers that the virtuous person will deal with what appears to be evil courageously [think about the martyrs for example], and in the end all things will work for good for those who pursue goodness, that is God.  This has a real application, especially for those who are deeply conscious of the martyrs’ lives.  Those who died as martyrs have edified the church and have come closest to God in His Kingdom.  Even Tertullian, writing centuries before Boethius, observed that “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.”  The result from what appeared to be evil was goodness for the martyrs because they now reign with Christ, and for us here below the spread of the Gospel.

These observations cause Boethius to have an extremely positive outlook on the world, and again remember this is a man who was writing from a prison cell awaiting his unjust execution.  This is why his viewpoint is so powerful, because it is written by a man personally and immediately experiencing evil.  Most of Book IV (think chapter 4) deals with this argument.

For all these reasons and many, many more, I have been recommending this book to all my close friends and acquaintances.  Click here to purchase a copy.

The Oddity

There is an oddity with this book: Boethius was a Christian, yet the book never mentions nor alludes to our Lord Jesus Christ.  There is nothing that makes the book without a shadow of a doubt Christian, yet there are parts of it that appear to be alluding to the Scriptures, calling God Father and praying to Him as creator of the universe and time (a Christian concept), and theosis.  With all these Christian elements, Boethius often alludes to ancient Greek myths in the songs that Lady Philosophy sings, yet he does not believe in the Greek gods but simply personifies forces of nature and interprets some myths allegorically to apply to his circumstances.

Later historians, philosophers, and theologians understood him as Christian.  Even Dante in the third part of The Divine Comedy, the Paradiso Book 10, Line 120, says so, saying that he saw Boethius’s soul in Heaven:

 

“Within it rejoices, in his vision of all goodness,

the holy soul who makes quite plain

the world’s deceit to one who listens well.

 

The body from which it was driven out

lies down there in Cieldauro [the church where he is buried], and he has

risen from martyrdom and exile to this peace.”

-Dante’s Paradiso Canto X

 

In addition, his children were Christians and even his descendants corresponded with Pope Gregory the Great later in the 6th century.  A way to think about this work then is that he saw all truth as one and unified written by the same Author whether it is coming from the Scriptures or Philosophy; certainly this attitude was present in the earliest centuries of the church like in the writings of St. Justin Martyr, but it was not this pronounced.  It was not until the Scholastics that it was heavily emphasized, and for this reason some have called Boethius “the Last Roman and the First Scholastic.”

That he was a Christian is not doubtable; he wrote other works of a theological nature discussing the doctrine of the Trinity, but The Consolation of Philosophy does not contain crystal clear references to Christian teaching, but regardless, this book is spiritually instructive, and this is why Christians preserved it.  In fact, it is was the third most copied theological work in the Middle Ages following the Bible and the Moral Reflections on the Book of Job of Pope Gregory the Great.

There is nothing about his outlook that a Christian can reject.  On the contrary, it will deepen your understanding of God and your life with Him, and this is why the book is a Christian book.

A Real Life Example of This Book’s Edifying Power

Rarely do books challenge me these days, but this one did in a very positive way.  A little over a week after I finished the book, I was having a quick dinner with a priest who is a friend of mine along with two of his friends.  One of them had serious questions that were raised by atheists, and it was like the book had prepared me for this moment: they were questions on the perfection of God, His goodness, and our freewill, all topics that the book addressed in detail.  I answered all three of his questions quoting the book, and he admitted that there was nothing he could object to in these answers.  It began to affect his thinking positively.  This all happened without raising my blood pressure too!  Glory be to God!

This book will change your lives; it will elevate your thinking beyond the traps we often fall into when thinking about things like money, fame, and power; and it will deepen our understanding of the goodness of God so much so that we will see it everywhere we look and turn.

I highly recommend the book in the translation by David R. Slavitt.  It is easy to read all while communicating the depth of the work.  Click here to get a copy.

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