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the consolation of philosophy

Since today is the memorial day of Saint Severinus, better known as Boethius, it seems fitting to take a look at his masterpiece 'The Consolation of Philosophy' ('De Consolatione Philosophiae'), one of those classic works whose content is inseparable from the context of its creation.

Living in sixth century Rome, Boethius was a classically educated, Christian scholar who made a career in politics. Rising to the position of first consul and then 'magister officiorum' under king Theodoric the Great, his career was crowned by the appointment of his two sons as consuls. Soon after, however, Boethius was arrested on suspicion of treason, thrown in prison and executed a year later. (Boethius himself said his arrest was the result of slander. After his death the Church concluded he had been imprisoned for his Catholic faith, and Boethius was made a martyr.)

While in prison, Boethius wrote 'The Consolation of Philosophy', in which he is visited in his cell by Lady Philosophy, just when he is giving himself over to despair, composing poetry to lament everything he has lost. But Philosophy takes matters in hand, starting by chasing away the Muses.

"Who has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These are the very women who kill the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the barren thorns of Passion. They habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them."

From here, a dialogue unfolds between Boethius and Philosophy, who helps him clear the "fog of distraction" caused by false beliefs, in order to attain true insight. She first shows him the inconstancy of Fortune and the danger of relying on good fortune.

"...bad fortune, I think, is more use to a man than good fortune. Good fortune always seems to bring happiness, but deceives you with her smiles, whereas bad fortune is always truthful because by changing she shows her true fickleness. Good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightens. With her display of specious riches good fortune enslaves the minds of those who enjoy her, while bad fortune gives men release through the recognition of how fragile a thing happiness is."

In the same way, power and fame are fragile as well, not to be relied upon because they are only outward qualities.

"The only way one man can exercise power over another is over his body and what is inferior to it, his possessions. You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of tranquility a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason."

Philosophy continues to reveal all the things Boethius once had for what they really are, false sources of happiness. And she teaches him how to find a self-sufficient source of happiness within himself. (Or, if we step out of the discourse, Boethius manages to find peace with his own dire situation in prison.)

Whoever deeply searches out the truth
And will not be deceived by paths untrue,
Shall turn unto himself his inward gaze,
Shall bring his wandering thoughts in circle home
And teach his heart that what it seeks abroad
It holds in its own treasure chests within.

The entire second part of the book is then dedicated to proving that this happiness within is God. The way Boethius introduces this theme is telling: "For this power, whatever it is, through which creation remains in existence and in motion, I use the word which all people use, namely God." It is only here that Boethius' Christianity becomes apparent, in a book which reads like a Socratic dialogue and which is thoroughly Neoplatonic in its philosophy.

This is why Boethius, who is sometimes called Last of the Romans, and whose Christian beliefs have been the subject of some debate, is best viewed as a kind of linking pin between the Classical and Medieval age, and between Neoplatonic and Christian philosophy. The fact that it was only through Boethius' translations that knowledge of Aristotle's philosophy survived in Europe for many centuries only adds to his historical importance.

As an indication of his influence, Dante placed Boethius in the heaven of the Sun, abode of the wise, calling him:

That joy who strips the world's hypocrisies
Bare to whoever heeds his cogent phrases.

The text of 'The Consolation of Philosophy' is online: complete translation (by Cooper) or a selection (by Watts).

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