The Consolation of Philosophy

by Boethius

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

The Consolation of Philosophy was written by Boethius, in Latin, in approximately 523 AD. Boethius was a well-educated member of the Roman aristocracy who held influential political posts under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric. The work was written while Boethius was imprisoned in Pavia, awaiting his execution on suspicion of treason. Although Boethius himself was Christian, and the book was seminal within the Christian tradition, the work is purely philosophical, presenting a generalized philosophical understanding of God rather than a specifically Christian one.

The strongest influence on the work is Plato, specifically the Phaedo, in which Socrates, in prison and awaiting execution, discusses how a philosopher approaches death. Plato is interpreted through the lens of such Neoplatonic commentators as Porphyry and Proclus, and Stoic influence may also be discerned in the work.

The Consolation of Philosophy is written as a dialogue between Boethius and a vision of the Lady Philosophy, i.e. philosophy personified in female form bearing some resemblance to Diotima of Plato's Symposium. The work is divided into five major sections, or books, and mainly written in prose. However, it also contains thirty-nine poems, which serve almost as the choral odes of Greek tragedy.

Rather than offering sympathy, the Lady Philosophy criticizes Boethius for abandoning his philosophical principles under duress and argues that, if he were true to his philosophical education, he would not be unhappy about being imprisoned, enduring torture, or awaiting execution. She emphasizes in Book 1 that Boethius's misfortune lies not in his external circumstances but in his forgetting the lessons he learned about the true nature of happiness, which does not lie in external circumstances.

In Book 2, Philosophy raises the Stoic notion that happiness is under our control, in that it does not reflect external events but rather our emotional reaction to those events. Although we cannot control what is outside us, we can control our responses to external events. She also points out that Fortune is by its nature fickle, and thus one should not delight in good fortune or mourn bad fortune, as it constantly changes and is outside our control.

Book 3 defines the good as God and happiness as closeness to or union with the divine. Book 4 addresses the problem of evil in the world by distinguishing between Providence, the plan of an omniscient, omnipotent benevolent God, and Fortune, which is the world as humans see it. Evil does not actually exist, but is a way we incorrectly perceive the world due to the limits of human reason. In the final book, Boethius reconciles free will and divine foreknowledge, and is consoled by the realization that true happiness lies in pursuit of virtue.

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