524 AD Consolation of Philosophy

by Boethius c. 524
29 September 2009

This book was written by Boethius, a Christian Roman philosopher.  He lived around 480 – 524 (the exact years are unknown).  He was born to a prominent family; his father, himself, as well as two of his sons were all consuls in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths (basically one of the next groups to come along after the fall of the Roman Empire).

Boethius was falsely accused of conspiring against his country, imprisoned, and eventually executed.  During his time in prison, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy.  It is a conversation between himself (imprisoned unjustly) and the Lady Philosophy, who comes to visit him.  She explains to him a number of things, proving certain points and building on them as she goes.

She starts by kicking the Muses of Poetry out of his jail cell, saying that they cannot help him, but only allow him to wallow in self-pity.  Philosophy takes Boethius on as her pupil, and reminds him of the habits of the Goddess Fortune.  She has no loyalty to anyone, and cannot be counted on.  Anything Fortune gives to a man, she can take away, so it’s best not to see those things as truly belonging to you.  Philosophy reminds him that he should not feel as though he were treated unfairly by Fortune’s desertion of him (hard, I think, when rotting in jail unjustly).  She ends with a quote that I like: “You live in the world which all men share, so you ought not desire to live by some special law.”

Philosophy suggests that men need to remember the good things in their lives.  Too many focus on the few things that are not perfect.  ”It takes very little to spoil the perfect happiness of the fortunate,” she says.  She goes on to say that material possessions are not what bring happiness or safety.  ”Desperate men…think that possession alone is enough to make a man worthy of riches and jewels.”  Fame, glory, and public honor are transitory, Philosophy continues, and not good in themselves.

Philosophy proves the point that the goal of all men (however they choose to seek it) is happiness.  She goes on to review that happiness cannot be found in the transitory pleasures aforementioned, (and several others of the same vein), though they are often thought to hold such, and that true happiness can only be found in God.  They discuss His nature and His goodness.

This pretty much constitutes the first half of the book.  It was interesting, but pretty straightforward.  Boethius then jumps into some hard questions.

How can evil exist, and even succeed against good men, in a world that is ruled by a loving and good God?

How is it that evil is always punished and good always rewarded when, in many cases, the evil seem to have all the power?

If God is in control, than what role does chance play?

If God has divine foreknowledge, then how is this not fate?  How can free will and divine foreknowledge coexist?

This second half (the book is a dense 108 pages) is where things really got interesting.  I enjoyed it a lot, and it really made me think.  I pulled thoughts I had gathered from other sources, both religious and not, and I liked how everything fit.  The questions were all answered very completely, but in the question of the power of the evil vs the power of the good, I would have liked to have Philosophy’s definition of the different types of power.  There seems to be a distinction between different forms of power, but she does not articulate it.  She does differentiate and define terms important to the other questions, such as chance, eternity, knowledge, and necessity.  I suppose Boethius may have thought the differentiation of the term ‘power’ unnecessary, or obvious, but for us philosophical beginners, it would have been helpful!

Overall, I really enjoyed this book.  I have read in a few different places that The Consolation of Philosophy is ‘the most’ or ‘one of the most’ influential books in Western thought.  I think it is a book that should be read more often.  The ideas of how happiness (i.e. your life’s pursuit) is attained, the power that good men have to make a difference, the power we each have over our own lives and destinies despite sometimes feeling powerless, I think are questions everyone at some point wonders about and I think everyone could come away from this book with a greater understanding, even if they did not agree with everything in it.