Consolation of Philosophy, The

Consolation of Philosophy, The
(Consolatio Philosophiae)
   by Boethius
   BOETHIUS’s Consolation of Philosophy is a short philosophical tract composed when the author was in prison, awaiting execution for treason by Theodoric the Ostrogoth. The text deals with the basic question of why, in a universe governed by divine providence, innocent people suffer and the wicked go unpunished. Boethius, an orthodox Christian, never alludes to a Christian God or Christian doctrine in his text, choosing instead to try to work out the problem strictly through human reason. The sentiments and teachings of the Consolation, however, proved compatible to medieval Christianity, and the book became one of most popular texts in Europe for 1,000 years. The form Boethius uses in the Consolation is an ancient classical genre called Menippean satire, which consists of alternating sections of prose and poetry. In the Consolation the poems generally either sum up points that Philosophy has argued or give Boethius a chance to reflect upon whatever point has just been made. In effect the poems also enable the reader to ponder and digest the rather dense prose arguments. Structurally, the text is a dialogue between Philosophy and the persona Boethius has created of himself. As such, it is not unlike a Platonic dialogue, with Philosophy taking the part of Socrates and Boethius in the position of the character whom the philosopher draws out in order to instruct. In fact, the text of the Consolation owes a great deal to Plato—whose work Boethius knew well—though it also draws significantly from Aristotle, as well as from the Stoics, Plotinus, Cicero, and St. AUGUSTINE.
   The Consolation opens with the character Boethius in his prison cell, lamenting his downfall. Lady Philosophy enters and, seeking to cure him, begins questioning him to find the nature of his mental distress.He complains to her that God’s providence seems to govern all things except the affairs of human beings. She responds that he is the cause of his own misery, having strayed too far from her wisdom, his true country. In Book II Philosophy reminds Boethius that he should not complain about Fortune’s treatment of him, since it is her nature to be fickle. Nothing on earth actually belongs to us, Philosophy argues, and therefore Fortune can take nothing that is truly ours. Wealth, power, honor, fame—all of these are transient. Bad fortune, in fact, is advantageous, since it teaches us not to depend on the things of this world and shows us who our true friends are.
   It is the nature of all human beings to seek the Highest Good (i.e., God), Philosophy continues in Book III, and true happiness lies in attaining what we truly seek. Those things in the power of Fortune are partial goods, and cannot bring true happiness. But Boethius stresses the question, in Book IV, of why good people suffer and why evil goes unpunished. Philosophy’s answer is that the wicked are weak and unhappy, since true happiness lies in seeking the Good, and power is defined as attaining what one seeks. The Good, therefore, are happy, since they have what they desire. Further, what seems unjust from our earthly perspective can be seen as justice from the eternal perspective of divine providence. In his fifth book Boethius addresses chance, free will, and providence. Boethius cannot reconcile human free will with God’s foreknowledge. Philosophy explains that God sees all from eternity—defined as timelessness rather than endless time. From the eternal view, past, present, and future are witnessed as a single instant. The temporal vantage point sees things as changing, sees moments as occurring one after another. Since God sees all things as we see the present, he does not cause all things—the actions of human free will are seen but not caused by him.
   Boethius was executed in prison, shortly after he completed his text of the Consolation, and the work was little known in the decades immediately following. However, it became hugely popular in the succeeding centuries. A large number of Latin manuscripts and commentaries by scholars like William of Conches, Nicholas TRIVET, and Pierre d’Ailly were made. In addition the text was one of the first Latin texts to be translated into vernacular European languages. King ALFRED THE GREAT made a translation into OLD ENGLISH, believing it to be, after the Bible, the one book he thought his people should read. Translations were also made into German, Dutch, and Italian. Later JEAN DE MEUN translated it into French, and Maximus Planudes into Greek. In the 14th century Geoffrey CHAUCER translated it into MIDDLE ENGLISH, and the Consolation proved to be a significant influence on his subsequent works, in particular The KNIGHT’S TALE and TROILUS AND CRISEYDE. Through the prestige of its being perhaps the last document of classical antiquity passed on to western Europe, as well as its sheer popularity evidenced by the plethora of manuscripts, commentaries and translations, the Consolation of Philosophy exerted a profound influence on medieval European literature, and, ultimately, on the entire Western literary tradition.
   ■ Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by P. G.Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
   ■ Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
   ■ Gibson,Margaret, ed. Boethius: His Life, Thought, and Influence. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.
   ■ Marenbon, John. Boethius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
   ■ Reiss, Edmund. Boethius. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
   ■ O’Daly, Gerard. The Poetry of Boethius. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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