The Consolation of Philosophy Analysis



(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

This classic of prison literature bears all the marks of great Roman philosophical writing. Formulated as a dialogue between the prisoner Boethius and Lady Philosophy, it exhibits the unique Roman quality of combining literary appeal with technical philosophy. Philosophy in Greece was for the most part academic and theoretical, but when transplanted to Rome, it became the basis for a way of life, as did Stoicism. It is often said that philosophy in Rome was eclectic and unoriginal; it is more accurate to say that the original Roman element was to mold philosophy into forms that could deal effectively with serious and perennial human problems. Like other philosophical writers of the era, Boethius took full advantage of his knowledge of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Neoplatonism, blending classical sources as the means to develop his own views. His attempt was not to construct a novel metaphysics but to apply philosophical views to the solution of pressing problems—particularly his own need to reconcile his fall from prominence into political imprisonment that would eventually result in his death.

Boethius opens with a lament about the sudden reversal of his circumstances, a lot that has reduced him from the role of a consul to that of a prisoner in a dungeon near Milan. As he accuses Fortune of being fickle, Philosophy, in the form of a fair lady, appears to him in his cell and attempts to answer his doubts about the justice of the world. She joins him in lamenting his present plight but tells him it is time to search for healing rather than to complain. She chides him for his lack of courage in his present state, reminding him of Plato’s struggle and of Socrates’ valiant death. Philosophers, she tells him, have always been at variance with the ways of humankind and therefore have always been subject to attack. To oppose evil people is the chief aim of all philosophers, a course that cannot help leading them into trouble repeatedly. Therefore, philosophers must learn to reconcile their lives to fate, to conquer the fear of death, and to show themselves unyielding to good and bad alike.

The Question of Justice

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Ever since human beings have been able to speak, they have complained that their just lives have not been properly rewarded, either by God or by their fellow humans. Boethius continues this complaint, that his prison sufferings prove the injustice of the world when they are considered as the reward for the just life he has lived. Wicked people make attacks on his virtue, and all because he is too honest ever to have engaged in deceit. Why does God allow a wicked person to prevail against innocence? Echoing the biblical Job and a chorus of others, Boethius questions God, whose ways are unnatural to him. “If God is, whence come evil things? If he is not, whence came good?” Thus Boethius phrases the age-old question of why evil exists. Why should he be exiled, condemned to death without an opportunity to defend himself, because of his too great zeal for the Roman senate?

Furthermore, Boethius argues, Philosophy has also been dishonored in this process, for Boethius has never sought perishable riches but has instead “followed after God.” Thus, in his misfortune, Philosophy’s wisdom is also brought under question. In return for kindness he has received persecutions. Even his reputation has been stained. Honest people are crushed with fear; wicked people oppress good people and prosper by doing so. At this point, Philosophy scolds Boethius mildly: She tells him that his mind is so beset by passions that nothing can come close enough to him to bring...

(The entire section is 442 words.)

Fortune, Change, and Death

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

What needs to be considered first, Philosophy urges, is the way of Fortune. Life cannot stand still; change must be understood. Anyone who complains over lost possessions has mistakenly assumed them to be his private property rather than the gift of Fortune. To rise to the top is not a guarantee that the next phase may not be to sink to the bottom. Fortune, not one’s own just deserts, may bring one alternately high and low. These are the rules of the game, and understanding them prevents unnecessary misery. If one is violently attached to one’s position and possessions, they do not really bring satisfaction but cause one to desire more. If one is not so attached, then one will not be so disturbed by the loss of position and possessions.

Nature constantly changes. Why, then, should humans alone wish to be exempt from cyclical flow? One thing alone is certain: Nothing that is brought to birth is fixed or constant. Because these are nature’s ways, nothing is wretched unless one thinks it so. On the other hand, if one bears everything that comes with a calm mind, then one will find one’s lot blessed. Why seek happiness without, when it really lies within? If one is the master of oneself, then one possesses all that it is important not to lose, and even fickle Fortune cannot take that from one. Fear alone prevents a person from being happy. Self-mastery excludes fear, and only a life based on inner calmness can ignore the raging passions that always...

(The entire section is 521 words.)

The Reason for Evil

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Next comes the age-old question: If there exists a good ruler of the world, why do evils exist and, what is worse, seem to go unpunished? Philosophy answers: Power is never lacking to the good, while the wicked are weak. Yet all people, good and bad alike, seek to arrive at the good, although by different means. Bad people seek the same ends that good ones do, but they do it through cupidity. Such is the weakness of wicked people that it is hard to allow that they are human beings at all. The power of evil is no power at all, especially because nothing evil ever reaches happiness. The wicked person is oppressed by passions; all good people become happy by virtue of the very fact that they are good. Therefore, as honesty is itself the reward of the honest, so wickedness is itself the punishment of the wicked. The person who loses this inner goodness ceases to be a human being and turns into a beast.

One should love good people, for it is their due, and show pity for the evil, because to be oppressed by the disease of feeble wickedness is much more worthy of pity than of persecution. Providence is a guide for all, and there is no such thing as chance. Yet all who have reason also have the freedom of desiring and of refusing, although the working of human reason cannot approach the directness of divine foreknowledge. Such foreknowledge does not bring necessity to bear upon things as they come to pass. A person may sometimes rise to see all things as God might see them and sometimes sinks down and fails to grasp such connections at all. That person’s freedom is preserved by a lack of vision.

A Difference in Perspective

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Near the end, having raised the question of a divine vision of all things, Boethius turns to the question of whether there are universals, and it is here that much of the famous medieval controversy takes its start. What is comprehensible to the senses and to the imagination cannot be universal, yet reason holds to be universal what is really an individual matter comprehensible to the senses. It sees from a general point of view what is comprehensible to the senses and to the imagination, yet this is not a knowledge of real universals but only a way reason has of comprehending. Nothing set in time, for instance, can at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. God, of course, sees all things in his eternal present, but human beings do not. Seen from God’s perspective, an event may seem necessary: When examined in its own nature, it seems free and unrestrained.

In this dialogue, Philosophy has the last word, and that refers to the theological problem of the difference in perspective between God and humankind. Consolation comes in trying to raise oneself to see the events of the world as God views them. Dejection, then, is caused by a too limited, a too human perspective; Philosophy’s job is to raise human sights, to give people divine vision. Since Philosophy can accomplish this, she is humanity’s hope of consolation. Any individual’s turn of fortune is not understandable in isolation; it must be placed in the total scheme of things, and to do this is to philosophize. Philosophy does not change events or reverse Fortune, but it does provide the understanding with which the events of life may be not only accepted but also enjoyed. When Fortune reverses itself, the first cry is for restoration. Philosophy teaches that humanity’s chief need is not for change but for understanding.

Impact in the Middle Ages

(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

The Consolation of Philosophy was widely known in the Middle Ages, and Boethius, in fact, was the source of several of the prominent philosophical questions of that later period. It is still debated, however, whether Boethius was himself a Christian. It seems likely that he was, although his writings contain no specific Christian doctrine. Perhaps, like the early writings of Saint Augustine, his intellectual discussions were intended to be strictly philosophical, even though his formal religion was Christianity. As Richard Green put it in his introduction to his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy, “As a Christian, Boethius had to arrive at Augustine’s affirmation of divine omniscience and human freedom; as a logician and speculative philosopher, he formulated a solution, based on the difference between human and divine knowledge, which was to be authoritative for centuries to come.”

Although Boethius’s work has indeed exerted enormous influence for centuries, it is largely neglected today—more often read in the contexts of historical or literary studies rather than within professional philosophical circles. According to the usual standards of philosophical argument, no real argument or analysis supports the points introduced. In some sense, there is not a novel doctrine here; all parts may be traced to preceding classical sources. Nevertheless, The Consolation of Philosophy remains a classic, both because of its historical situation, in that it came to be a source for philosophical argument, and because it raises an interconnected series of important philosophical and theological problems. Its answers are not original, but they are classical and the problems themselves perennial. It is perhaps for this reason that the work’s influence has extended so broadly and has lasted so long; to this day, readers of Boethius’s work extract from it insights that they can associate with their own lives.

Additional Reading

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Barrett, Helen M. Boethius: Some Aspects of His Times and Work. 1940. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. This book, one of the older works on Boethius, provides a solid historical survey, sets Boethius firmly in this context, and interprets the scanty details of his life in a balanced and sensible way.

Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. Unlike other writers, who have tended to concentrate on the Christian, the poet, the philosopher, or the educational theorist, Chadwick aims to show Boethius’s career as a unified whole. He has succeeded in writing the most comprehensive book about Boethius’s life and...

(The entire section is 672 words.)


(Student Guide to World Philosophy)

Additional Reading

Barrett, Helen M. Boethius: Some Aspects of His Times and Work. 1940. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. This book, one of the older works on Boethius, provides a solid historical survey, sets Boethius firmly in this context, and interprets the scanty details of his life in a balanced and sensible way.

Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. Unlike other writers, who have tended to concentrate on the Christian, the poet, the philosopher, or the educational theorist, Chadwick aims to show Boethius’s...

(The entire section is 669 words.)