Study Guide

The Consolation of Philosophy

by Boethius

The Consolation of Philosophy Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius is the most significant and final work to come from the thinker known as the last of the Romans, the first of the Scholastics. It is the author’s most significant work because it draws on a lifetime of studying the writings of Plato, Aristotle, Porphyry, Proclus, Plotinus, and other classical figures; it is a piece, therefore, that proved to be critical to medieval philosophers of Christianity throughout Europe, as well as to such literary figures as Dante Alighieri and Geoffrey Chaucer. For, while The Consolation of Philosophy contains elements of Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Neoplatonism, it is also ruled by the concept of a personal God to whom one can pray and from whom one might seek salvation.

It is Boethius’s final work, written during his imprisonment in Pavia as he awaited execution under the authority of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric for the crime of treason against Pope John I. The Consolation of Philosophy, then, belongs to the ancient genre of Greek and Roman philosophy known as the consolatio, which is designed to provide the soul with a kind of moral and spiritual medication in times of distress. This aspect of the work had an influence on a number of literary masterworks of the Middle Ages, including Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) and the fourteenth century Middle English Piers Plowman. Boethius’s distress of the soul was extreme, since he had fallen from a position of favor in the Roman court to a position of disgrace after being unjustly accused of treason. This context of the work’s authorship lends it an aspect of urgency and seriousness that many philosophical and literary texts do not have.

Divided into five books, with thirty-nine poems interspersed throughout the discourse, The Consolation of Philosophy is written in the form of a dialogue between Boethius and the feminine spirit of Philosophy, who visits him in his cell. The poems serve a purpose similar to that of the chorus in Greek tragedy: They summarize and at times advance the discussion between Boethius and the figure of Philosophy. In his commentaries on Porphyry, Boethius had maintained that philosophy, being the love of wisdom, brings to the mind the “reward of its own divinity” and thereby returns it to its own nature. This is the role of Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy as well, where Philosophy opens up to the author the path to God that belongs to the soul of the rational being. Philosophy conceives God to be the rational Being of all beings, belonging to the invisible and infinite realm of reason that transcends the finite realm of the material world. The soul that ascends to the realm of reason frees itself from the confines of matter—including the confines of prison walls—and therefore from suffering to enjoy the true freedom of the good that inheres in God alone.

Philosophy allows the soul to ascend through a process not only of education but also of remembering. This feature of the work reflects the influence on Boethius of Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis, or recollection. Other important influences seen in the work include the idea of fate, as developed by Proclus, and the notion of God as the center of all things, which was expounded by Plotinus. This combination of Proclus and Plotinus proves to be especially important in Boethius’s discussion of the distinction between fate and providence. Both of the earlier thinkers maintained that essential to the soul’s approach to God is its divorce from material things: The movement toward is a movement inward, which philosophy reveals to be a movement upward.

Book 1 of The Consolation of Philosophy opens with a poem about the despair into which Boethius had fallen after fate robbed him of worldly power and position and cast him at death’s door. The poem no sooner ends, however, than the awe-inspiring figure of Philosophy appears and casts out the muses of poetry. Boethius describes Philosophy as a “physician” who comes to heal him of the sickness in his soul by showing him who he truly is. He tries to justify himself before Philosophy by pointing...

(The entire section is 1742 words.)