Last Updated on June 19, 2019, 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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1742
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 out his good intentions and by complaining about the prosperity of the wicked. Philosophy answers him with an argument that true freedom and well-being come with the submission to God’s will. Therefore, she says, the source of Boethius’s illness lies not in having been abandoned by God but in having forgotten his own true, rational nature, which is not subject to the winds of fortune.
In book 2, Philosophy follows up her remarks with a discussion of the evils of turning to fortune as a basis for our understanding of ourselves and the world. It is not bad fortune that is at the root of his suffering, she explains to Boethius, but misguided belief (a principle held by the Stoic thinker Marcus Aurelius). To be happy, then he must alter his belief, for example, that the good amounts to good fortune. In order to do that, he must determine that happiness is to be found only within, not outside, himself. For Boethius, this “within oneself” means within one’s rational nature as it comes from God. It is impossible to be happy without being who one is, a rational being created in the image of God. Since fortune pertains to what is external to one and external to one’s nature, it is a false source of happiness.
The question of what characterizes genuine happiness is pursued further in book 3. Here, Philosophy affirms that the good and only the good distinguishes true happiness, since the good alone is inherently valuable. Neither money nor power, neither fame nor security, falls into the category of the good, because all of these derive their value from their relation to something else in the world; they are a means to something else, while the good is an end unto itself. As for the value of the good, it is determined by the God who alone is good and who alone is the source of all that is good. If the perfect good is true happiness, then, says Philosophy, true happiness is to be found only in God, who is the perfect good: God is the essence of happiness. From this claim it follows that happiness is possessed through the possession of divinity; where the divine image is manifest in the human being, happiness also is manifest. Therefore “the good itself and happiness are identical,” and anyone who is happy is in possession of the divine image.
While Boethius is receptive to these arguments of Philosophy, in book 4 he is still unsettled by the fact that evil often goes unpunished. Philosophy assures him, however, that evil never goes unpunished or virtue unrewarded, suggesting that the world that has come from God’s hand is the best of all possible worlds. She demonstrates her claim by arguing that all human activity derives from a combination of will and power and that all people will the good, since all people desire happiness. Those who fail to obtain the good do so because they lack a certain power; people who succumb to the lures of pleasure and vice, for example, do so because they are too weak to exercise self-control. Since to be good is to be who one is, those who are too weak to be good are too weak to be: To lose one’s goodness is to lose one’s being. Hence those who are so weak that they sink to doing evil are punished with non-being; similarly, those who have the power to do good are rewarded, for to be good is to be happy, and happiness is the greatest of all rewards. Philosophy thus responds to Boethius not by appealing to an external system of behavior modification but by positing a universal, internal, and necessary condition in which the soul suffers what it inflicts.
Having determined that reward and punishment are part of the inescapable condition of rational beings, Philosophy goes on to show that a good power rules the world, since, with the inevitable punishment of evil and rewarding of good, everything happens in a just and good manner. This design according to which all things transpire she calls providence, which is “divine reason itself.” Providence, she explains, is the plan that derives from God’s understanding, whereas fate is the unfolding of that plan through the order of things in the world. Human beings, according to this conception, may escape the rule of fate by divorcing themselves from the things of the world and using their own reason to draw near to divine reason. Those who cling to providence are free from ill fortune, since their happiness depends not on the twists and turns of fate but on the tranquillity and truth of reason.
In book 5, Boethius concludes The Consolation of Philosophy with a discussion of free will that arises from Philosophy’s earlier remarks on fate and providence. Boethius begins by suggesting that there is a contradiction between God’s foreknowledge and freedom of the will. Worse than a contradiction, he maintains, there is an injustice at work here, since it is unjust to punish people for doing evil when they cannot do otherwise. In addition, argues Boethius, such a condition renders prayer useless and hope pointless, since there is no hope of changing what is preordained. Philosophy replies by pointing out that foreknowledge does not result in predestination; to know what will happen is not to make it happen. Because God is eternal, she adds, all things and events from all times are simultaneously present; since God is above the realm of cause and effect, which is the realm of time, he does not cause anything to happen. What God knows, he knows necessarily, but the necessity of his knowing about the course of events does not imply the necessity of their happening.
Boethius ends his work by declaring that the key to understanding everything that Philosophy sets forth is the cultivation of virtue, for the cultivation of virtue takes people beyond the material world and into the realm of reason and divinity, where they become who they are by becoming good. The one necessity that God imposes upon humanity is the necessity to be good. In this, Boethius tells himself, lies the essence of humanity’s being.