Boethius The Consolation Of Philosophy Essay Research

Boethius: The Consolation Of Philosophy Essay, Research Paper

Literary Patterns of European Developement

Trinity College

The Consolation of Philosophy was written in the early 6th century by Boethius.

A statesman and intellectual, well educated in liberal arts, Boethius fell from the favor of

the Gothic emperor Theodoric, under false charges of treason by his enemies. He was

imprisoned in Pavia, and while there used his time to reflect on his situation and attempt

to answer many of the questions which have plagued human kind throughout history.

The text is written in the form of a dialogue with Philosophy, who appears in the form of

a woman and represents that part of Boethius? mind which has strayed during his difficult


One of the possible enigmas of this text surrounds the title. Boethius wrote this

piece during his confinement, and was certainly very aware of the fate which awaited

him; he knew he would be executed. We know that Boethius was at least to some

degree, a religious man, and several works of Christian writing are ascribed to him. ?He

is also accredited with five small works…of theology, the authenticity of at least four of

which is beyond a doubt. They are completely orthodox in doctrine…?(p.13) One may

reasonably ask why Boethius chose philosophy, and not his religion, to console him in

those final months of his life. It seems that a Christian would find the most comfort in

his religion and his God, rather than exercises in logic and reason. But I would contend

that the reason Boethius finds consolation in philosophy is for the very reason that

philosophy leads him back to the God from which he has strayed.

While it may seem quite unreasonable that the basic logic of philosophy would

lead a person to that which by its very nature is illogical, Boethius has no problem using

philosophy as a conduit to God. From several statements made within The Consolation,

one might safely assume that Boethius saw a very strong relationship between reason and

belief in God. The beginning of the book depicts a Boethius who is so enamored by the

Muses of Poetry that he has forgotten his own sense of reason, and thus fails to even

recognize Philosophy when she comes to his aid. In Book II, Boethius explains the

importance of philosophy in life. ?So soon as your words stop sounding in our ears, the

mind is weighed down again by its deep seated melancholy.?(p.59) This is to say that

when philosophy leaves us, things tend to seem quite desperate.

Philosophy diagnoses Boethius? problems as a fixation on the loss of good

fortune. ?…you are wasting away in pining and longing for your former good fortune. It

is the loss of this which, as your imagination works upon you, has so corrupted your

mind.?(p.54) The mention of the imagination here is somewhat of a foreshadowing of

the conclusions drawn later in the book concerning the nature of Fortune. Philosophy

reminds Boethius that in better times, he would never have submitted himself to the

friendship of Fortune. ?It used to be your way whenever she came near with her flattery

to attack her with manly arguments and hound her with pronouncements taken from the

oracle of my shrine.?(p.54) This would suggest that Boethius sees philosophy, that is

reason, to be somewhat opposed to Fortune.

The portrayal of Fortune by Philosophy is all-together unattractive. In his

discovery of the ?changing faces of the random goddess,? Philosophy explains that

Boethius has perceived Fortune?s true nature. ?…To you she has revealed herself to the

full.?(p.55) Philosophy reminds Boethius that it is by virtue of her perpetually changing

behavior that Fortune, in fact, does not change but always stays the same. Thus we

should expect nothing more from her than complete capriciousness. Philosophy

concludes her discourse on Fortune with the following sentiments: ?She has nothing

worth pursuing, and no trace of intrinsic good; she never associates with good men and

does not turn into good men those with whom she does associate.? (p.72)

Now, assuming that Boethius normally subscribes to philosophy, which is reason,

and thus in this subscription denounces Fortune, which is chance, he thus rejects chance

and embraces an ordered reality. In Book IV, Boethius tells Philosophy that she is truly

the guide to ?the light.?

?You,? I said, ?who are my leader towards the true light, all

that you have poured forth in speech up to now has been

clearly both divine to contemplate and invincibly supported

by your arguments. You have spoken of things I had

forgotten because of the pain of what I had suffered…? (p.116)

The light which Boethius speaks of is God, whom he associates with perfection and

order. ?I could never believe that events of such regularity are due to the haphazards of

chance. In fact I know that God the Creator watches over His creation.? (p.50) Thus it

should not seem altogether strange that Boethius, through the character of Philosophy,

attacks Fortune and everything she stands for. He realizes that belief in Fortune has lead

him away from the philosophic reasoning which helps him to maintain his sanity and


All of these ideas imply another truth which Boethius clearly came to

understand while he was imprisoned. The idea that mental stress and anxiety causes us

to stray from philosophy and thus reason relates well to the idea that humans often forget

God in the face of tribulation. Belief in the ideals of fortune, subscribing to the belief

that our lives are little more than a collection of haphazard transpirations, has the

potential to drive a person quite mad. Without the conviction that all things happen for a

reason, an idea which comes from a belief in the existence of some divine orderer, a

person will easily forget the precepts of philosophic reason and loose sight of himself and

his reality.

In his confinement, Boethius began questioning all of those things in life which

are the most nebulous and confounding. One of those issues concerns the idea of good

and evil, and in the end it boils down to the most basic question, namely “If there is a

God, why do bad things happen to good people?” Boethius questions the justice of the

universe, and in doing so prompts philosophy into a justification of such seemingly unjust


Why this is all turned upside down, why good men are

oppressed by punishments reserved for crime and that

men can snatch the rewards that belong to virtue surprises

me very much, and I would like to know from you the

reason for this very unjust confusion. (p.133)

From earlier discussions regarding happiness, we can gather that Boethius has

somewhat dealt with this problem. Philosophy points out that all men, good or bad,

attempt to find happiness through their actions. She then reasons that happiness is good.

“…Happiness is a state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good.”(p.79)

Thus men who desire happiness also desire God, and the most supreme and perfect good

is God. “Since nothing can be conceived better than God, everyone agrees that that

which has no superior is good. Reasons shows that God is so good that we are convinced

that his goodness is perfect.”(p.99) Thus, God is the essence of happiness. But since men

desire things for happiness and happiness equals goodness, then trying to obtain

happiness through evil goes against nature, and so the evil are never really happy.

Furthermore, it thus follows that since good and evil are opposed, and God is Supreme

goodness and happiness, there is no true happiness for the evil because they are in

constant opposition to God.

This argument is far from convincing. It is difficult to accept that those people

who rob and steal from others and get away with it do not derive some happiness from

their actions. Furthermore, the idea of false happiness, which Boethius attributes to both

the gifts of Fortune and such material concerns as wealth and power, is difficult to

distinguish on the most basic levels from any other sort of earthly happiness, especially

when the end of both types is a satisfaction of sorts. With this separation between true

and false happiness, Boethius reasons that life is indeed fair, since the bad never really

find true happiness, but instead only false happiness if any at all. ?…riches are unable to

quench insatiable greed; power does not make a man master of himself if he is

imprisoned by the indissoluble chains of wicked lusts; and when high office is bestowed

on unworthy men, so far from making them worthy, it only betrays them and reveals their


Boethius takes all of this step further when he deduces that evil does not exist.

“Evil is nothing, since that is what he cannot do who can do everything.”(p.112) He

makes no attempt, however, to answer the next logical question, namely, “If evil is

nothing, and evil men are powerless, then why do men do bad things and how is it that

such people have the power to affect the lives of others?” Similarly, after Boethius has

reasoned that evil is nothing, he tells us that the bad people should be pitted because

divine justice does, in fact, cause them much suffering. “…For just as weakness is a

disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind. And if this is so, since we

think of people who are sick in body as deserving sympathy rather than hatred, much

more so do they deserve pity rather than blame who suffer evil more severe than any

physical illness.” (p.132)

The book ends with a discussion of fate verses free will, a topic on which I feel

Boethius is not altogether convincing. He clearly creeps around the topic, carefully

deducing certain aspects while contriving others. By nature of his earlier statements

concerning the nature of the divine, we know that Boethius believes that the world is

ordered in some way, and that things don?t just happen purely at random. This still

leaves the question of how ordered things are, in other words, it is just the nature of the

universe that is ordered, or are the lives of human beings also ordered in some way?

To some degree, it seems somewhat unreasonable that such an omnipotent God as

earlier described by Boethius would not have some type of knowledge of earthly events,

most probably foreknowledge of future events. While Boethius admits that this must be

a truth, he seems rather uncomfortable with the implications of such a truth. Clearly, it

seems that if God has foreknowledge of future events, there cannot be any free will on


Well, the two seem clean contrary and opposite, God?s universal

foreknowledge and freedom of the will. If God foresees all things

and cannot be mistaken in any way, what Providence has foreseen

as a future event must happen. So that if from eternity Providence

foreknows not only men?s actions but also their thoughts and

desires, there will be no freedom of will.(p.150)

Boethius also reasons that in light of universal foreknowledge, prayer and hope are rather

useless, because the reason behind people?s prayers and hope is the desire to influence

the course of some future event. Furthermore, since prayer is in many respects the only

link between the divine and humanity, ?the one and only means of communication

between man and God is removed…?(p.153) The implication here follows as such: if

prayer and hope have no power to influence the future, then prayer has no power at all,

and if prayer has no power, then it is useless to pray, and so humans are basically cut off

from the divine.

I do not find that divine foreknowledge makes hope and prayer completely

powerless. Earlier in the book, Philosophy reminds Boethius that although humans do

not understand God?s plan, this fact should not lead to doubt concerning the inherent

goodness of all things. ?But even if you don?t know the reasons behind the great plan of

the universe, there is no need for you to doubt that a good power rules the world and that

everything happens all right.?(p.133) And while many believers subscribe to the idea

that God is good and that everything eventually works out in the end, this does not keep

people from continually asking God for the very thing which they basically accept will

happen anyway. It seems to me that knowledge of divine foreknowledge does not tell us

anything about the future, only that everything will definitely happen precisely according

to plan. While this makes it impossible to change the future through prayer, people will

continue to hope and pray that the outcome of events plays in their favor, just as people

who took a test three weeks ago hope they got a good grade as they open the envelope to

see the results. This is not prayer to influence the outcome, but rather a hope that the

outcome is favorable.

In his attempt to explain the forces which govern the universe, Boethius considers

the idea that ?foreknowledge does not necessarily impose necessity upon the future, and

that freedom of the will is not infringed by foreknowledge.?(p.155) And while Boethius

is clearly uncomfortable with the idea that free will does not exist, he seems equally

unsettled by the separation of divine foreknowledge and necessity of events. On page

151, Philosophy attempts to illustrate that foreknowledge does impose a kind of necessity

on the future. ?But what I am trying to show is that, whatever the order of the causes, the

coming to pass of things foreknown is necessary even if the foreknowledge of future

events does not seem to impose necessity on them.?(p.151) Then on page 155,

Philosophy tells Boethius that he should not discredit this idea that foreknowledge and

necessity can be separated. ?Take the case of those who believe that foreknowledge does

not impose necessity upon the future…I would like to know why you consider their

reasoning ineffective.?(p.155)

We must try to keep in mind that Boethius is, in reality, debating with himself, or

more specifically, his philosophic reason. But at this point, the character in his mind

appears to be contradicting herself. This would indicate that Boethius reasons both

concepts as somewhat true, and in response, formulates a conclusion which incorporates

both divine foreknowledge and human freedom of will. While this might not make much

sense to most people, (I don?t believe it made much sense to him) Boethius circumvents

this problem in one statement. ?…human reason refuses to believe that divine

intelligence can see the future in any other way except that in which human reason has

knowledge.?(p.162) In other words, we cannot know the mind of God.

One might reasonably think that with this revelation, Boethius would stop trying

to figure things out, but he perseveres, and begins to discuss the nature of God?s


…since the sate of God is ever that of eternal presence, His

knowledge, too, transcends all temporal change and abides

in the immediacy of His presence. It embraces all the infinite

recesses of past and future and views them in the immediacy

of its knowing as though they are happening in the present….


This leads to the explanation that God?s knowledge should not be thought of as

foreknowledge of the future, but instead as ?the knowledge of a never ending

presence.?(p.165) It seems to me that since human beings don?t live with regard to a

perpetual presence, the fact that God may view time in that way has no bearing on us.

What is eternal presence to Him is the most definitely the past and future in this realm of

existence. Consequently, while God may consider His knowledge to be in the present,

that knowledge is of our futures, and thus translated brings us right back to the idea of

divine foreknowledge.

On this point, Boethius and I concur. He agrees that the knowledge of the divine

is in fact foreknowledge and that all things which the divine foresees happen necessarily.

If you say at this point that what God sees as a future event

cannot but happen, and what cannot but happen, happens of

necessity, and if you bind me to this word necessity, I shall have

to admit that it is a matter of the firmest truth, nut one which

scarcely anyone except a student of divinity has been able to

fathom. I shall answer that the same future event is necessary

when considered with reference to divine foreknowledge, and yet

seems to be completely free and unrestricted when considered

in itself…(p.166)

This is to say that while things may have the appearance of being the products of free

will, they are in fact all part of the plan, foreseen by God and occurring in accordance

with that which only He knows. While Boethius must admit that free will exists only in

the minds of humans, he maintains that things are not deprived of their true nature by the

necessity of their happening. ?In spite of the fact that they do happen, their existence

does not deprive them of their true nature, in virtue of which the possibility of their

non-occurrence existed before they happened.?(p.167)

The major themes of The Consolation of Philosophy can be summarized as

follows. While it is true that the upright often suffer and the corrupt often take much

pleasure in their lives, justice is always served by virtue of the fact that goodness is its

own reward, while the wicked never find true happiness, because happiness is goodness

and goodness is God. Evil is nothing and has no power, but the wicked derive their

power from weakness. Fortune is a fickle goddess whom is neither to be trusted nor

associated with. God views time as a perpetual presence, and consequently does not

foresee the future, but rather always knows the present. But the present time of God is

sometimes the future of humans, so God knows the future and thus things happen out of

necessity. But just because all things happen out of necessity doesn?t mean that their

ability to not happen is taken away; it just couldn?t possibly happen.

One may reasonably conclude that many parts of the book seem confused and

contradictory. His logic often seems to manipulate reason, and the conclusions drawn

from such logic may appear contrived and largely unbelievable. But one must consider

the fact that Boethius was facing the eminence of death as he wrote this, and certainly

felt the necessity to find the answers to those philosophical questions he?d been asking all

his life. Even if the answers he found may not be convincing to a reader of this work, it

does propose some very interesting solutions and is certainly worth reading if only for the

fact that it will inevitably lead the one questioning his own convictions on such obscure

topics. One might safely assume that Boethius was writing this largely for his own

benefit. If this is true, then clearly the most important thing is not that he convinces his

audiences through time, but that he himself believed these things and found peace and

consolation in his thoughts and words.


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