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.