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Consolation of Philosophy

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This early printed book has many hand-painted illustrations depicting Lady Philosophy and scenes of daily life in fifteenth-century Ghent (1485)

Consolation of Philosophy (Latin: Consolatio Philosophiae) is a philosophical work by Boethius written in about the year 524 AD. It has been described as the single most important and influential work in the West in medieval and early Renaissance Christianity, and is also the last great work that can be called Classical.1 7

Contents

Consolation of Philosophy

"A golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully." Edward Gibbon 2

Consolation of Philosophy was written during Boethius' one year imprisonment by Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great while awaiting trial, and eventual horrific execution, for the crime of treason. Boethius was at the very heights of power in Rome and was brought down by treachery. It was from this experience he was inspired to write a philosophical book from prison reflecting on how a lord's favor could change so quickly and why friends would turn against him. It is "by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen." 3

Boethius writes the book as a conversation between himself and the Queen of Science, Lady Philosophy. She consoles Boethius' failed fortunes by discussing the transitory nature of earthly belongings, and the ultimate superiority of things of the mind, which she calls the "one true good". She says happiness comes from within, something that Lady Fortune can never take away: "Why, then, O mortal men, do you seek that happiness outside, which lies within yourselves?"

Boethius discusses time-worn philosophical questions such as the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men often prosper and good men fall into ruin, what is human nature, and to define virtue and justice. He speaks about the nature of free will versus determinism when he asks if God knows and sees all, or does man have free will. To quote VE. Watts on Boethius, God is like a spectator at a chariot race; He watches the action the charioteers perform, but this does not cause them.4 On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to "wickedness" do they "sink to the level of being an animal." On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between criminal and prosecutor.

Boethius sought to answer religious questions without reference to Christianity, relying solely on natural philosophy and the Classic Greek tradition. He believed in harmony between faith and reason. The truths found in Christianity would be no different than the truths found in philosophy. In the words of Henry Chadwick, "If the Consolation contains nothing distinctively Christian, it is also relevant that it contains nothing specifically pagan either...[it] is a work written by a Platonist who is also a Christian, but is not a Christian work." 5

Influence

"To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages." C.S. Lewis 6

From the Carolingian epoch to the end of the Middle Ages and beyond, this was the most widely copied work of secular literature in Europe. It was one of the most popular and influential philosophical works, read by statesmen, poets, and historians, as well as of philosophers and theologians. It is through Boethius that much of the thought of the Classical period was made available to the Western Medieval world. It has often been said Boethius was the "last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics". 7

The philosophical message of the book fit well with the religious piety of the Middle Ages. Readers were encouraged not to seek wordly goods such as money and power, but to seek internalized virtues. Evil had a purpose, to provide a lesson to help change for good; while suffering from evil was seen as virtuous. Because God ruled the universe through Love, prayer to God and the application of Love would lead to true happiness.8 The Middle Ages, with their vivid sense of an overruling fate, found in Boethius an interpretation of life closely akin to the spirit of Christianity. The Consolation of Philosophy stands, by its note of fatalism and its affinities with the Christian doctrine of humility, midway between the heathen philosophy of Seneca the Younger and the later Christian philosophy of consolation represented by Thomas Aquinas.9

The book is heavily influenced by Plato and his dialogues (as was Boethius himself). Its popularity can in part be explained by its neoplatonic and Christian ethical messages, although current scholarly research is still far from clear exactly why and how the work became so vastly popular in the Middle Ages. Notably, the book has not received much attention in the recent modern era, possibly in part because of its foreign inward looking virtues and rejection of the modern values of outward productivness (material and wealth).10 As Sanderson Beck says of the Middle Ages:

"Who can say that this inward period of humanity did not prepare the way for the productiveness of the Renaissance like a person quiets one's consciousness in contemplation and prayer before creating a great work of art or literature or science? The Middle Ages were difficult times politically and economically, but who can estimate how much happiness they inwardly received from the Consolation of Philosophy?".11

Translations into vernacular were done personally by famous notables, to list a few: King Alfred (Old English), Jean de Meun (Old French), Geoffrey Chaucer (Middle English), Queen Elizabeth I (Early Modern English), Notker Teutonicus (Old German).

Found within Consolation are themes that have echoed throughout the Western canon: the female figure of wisdom that informs Dante, the ascent through the layered universe that is shared with Milton, the reconciliation of opposing forces that find their way into Chaucer in The Knight's Tale, the Wheel of Fortune so popular throughout the Middle Ages.

Citations from it occur frequently in Dantes Divina Commedia. Of Boethius, Dante remarked "The blessed soul who exposes the deceptive world to anyone who gives ear to him."12

Boethian influence can be found nearly everywhere in Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry, e.g. in Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Clerk's Tale, The Franklin's Tale, The Parson's Tale and The Tale of Melibee, in the character of Lady Nature in The Parliament of Fowls and some of the shorter poems, such as Truth, The Former Age and Lak of Stedfastnesse. Chaucer translated the work in his Boece.

Many 19th century poets reference Boethius.

Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-Earth says how "Boethian" much of the treatment of evil is in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Shippey says that Tolkien knew well the translation of Boethius that was made by King Alfred and he quotes some "Boethian" remarks from Frodo, Treebeard, and Elrond. 13

Boethius and Consolatio Philosophiae are cited frequently by the main character Ignatius J. Reilly in the Pulitzer Prize winning A Confederacy of Dunces (1980).

It is a prosimeter (and probably the most famous one), written in sections alternately of narrative prose and more contemplative verse, which display a virtuosic command of the forms of Latin poetry. It is classified as a Menippean Satire, a fusion of allegorical tale, platonic dialogue, and lyrical poetry.

In the 20th century there were close to four hundred manuscripts still surviving, a testiment to its once great popularity.

Wikisource has a Latin text of Consolatio Philosophiae..

See also

References

Footnotes

  • Note 1: The Consolation of Philosophy (Oxford World's Classics), Introduction (2000)
  • Note 2: Edward Gibbon's The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
  • Note 3: Catholic Encyclopedia. The quote is commonly seen in a number of sources, but without attribution; the Catholic Encyclopedia article is the oldest "known" citation found.
  • Note 4: The Consolation of Philosophy (Oxford World's Classics), Introduction (2000)
  • Note 5: Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy (1990)
  • Note 6: The Discarded Image (1964), pg. 75
  • Note 7: Dante placed Boethius the "last of the Romans and first of the Scholastics" among the doctors in his Paradise (see The Divine Comedy).
  • Note 8: Sanderson Beck (1996).
  • Note 9: De Consolatione Philosophiae (1907-1921)
  • Note 10: Sanderson Beck (1996).
  • Note 11: ibid.
  • Note 12: Dante The Divine Comedy. "blessed souls" inhabit Dante's Paradise, and appear as flames. (see note above).
  • Note 13: Tom Shippey, The Road to Middle-Earth, pg. 140, ISBN 0395339731, (1983).
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