Big Questions Answered
A New Translation Of Boethius
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
Edited and Translated by Scott Goins and Barbara Wyman. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012. (Ignatius Critical Editions). 278 pages. $7.95
A Review By Brad Goins
Two Latin scholars have produced the latest translation of one of the masterpieces of Medieval thought. Like almost all Western books of the time, The Consolation of Philosophy was originally written in Latin. The brand new English translation is on shelves now. Before we delve into it, let’s take a brief look at the story of the book’s hero: Boethius.
Boethius came from a family of Roman leaders. He became a Roman consul in 510 and lived to see both his sons become consuls. It was the first time in more than a century that two or more people from the same family had been consul simultaneously.
Boethius served king Theodoric, one of the Goths who’d conquered Rome after invading from the north. Goths were usually considered barbarians by those Romans whose ancestral roots were in Rome. With his brutal violence and opportunistic behavior, Theodoric certainly lived down to the stereotype.
In the beginning of his great book, Boethius begins by making the claim that he’s the rarest of things: an honest politician. He says he went into politics “for the sake of keeping my conscience clean … I have preserved the law and never been afraid to offend the powerful … I risked myself by using my authority to protect the unfortunate, as they suffered countless attacks from the unchecked greed of the barbarians!” (page 17; note the not-so-little dig at Theodoric in the last word).
Boethius has reason to be angry — and frightened as well. Theodoric had charged Boethius with conspiracy and treason and had imprisoned him.
It was in prison that Boethius imagined he was being visited by Lady Philosophy. She was a personification of the philosophy that Boethius found so comforting before loss of power and harsh punishment left him in a state of anxiety that drove all philosophy from his mind. “Deprived of possessions, stripped of honors, and disgraced in the eyes of man, I have suffered punishment for doing good” (page 22), he says.
The Consolation of Philosophy is divided into four books (each about 40 pages long). In each book, Boethius asks Lady Philosophy to answer a big question that’s troubling him. His first big question can be phrased like this: Why have I suffered misfortune when I’ve tried to do good? From this big question follows a subsidiary question: Why do the wicked prosper? Another, smaller, question is perhaps good evidence of Boethius’ strained nerves and state of mind: “Shouldn’t fortune have been ashamed” for the way it’s treated him (19)?
At first, the shaken Boethius puts his questions in a loud and aggressive manner: “Fortune has raged against me” (16), he says, and he returns the favor.
Lady Philosophy slowly begins to calm him. She says he’s “dazed” (10) by his fortune. And though she promises to be gentle with him, she can’t resist a little tough love: “I can’t bear your childish self-indulgence,” she says (42).
Lady Philosophy As Therapist
At his point, Lady Philosophy begins a fairly elaborate psychological analysis of the suffering Boethius. She begins her diagnosis by directing to Boethius one of the book’s most famous lines: “You no longer know what you are” (28). She says, reasonably enough, that he is suffering from a “storm of passions” (26).
“You are pulled about by conflicting feelings of pain, anger and sorrow … your wound … has hardened and grown scarred by the constant pricks of your anxieties,” she says (26).
This is the first time Lady Philosophy demonstrates her unerring ability to detect the role of anxiety in extreme human suffering. Just two pages later, she’ll say, “this is the nature of anxiety. It has the strength to make a man lose his footing, yet it can’t overthrow him completely” (28). Anxiety is strong enough to cause pain; not strong enough to stop thought, fixation or obsession.
Lady Philosophy elaborates on anxiety’s apparent ability to bring about a near paralysis of response and initiative. ”Every sudden change in circumstances seems to overcome a soul, almost like a flood” (31).
It’s not that Boethius is especially neurotic. Nor is he overreacting to any extreme degree. Anxiety is inescapable. “Man’s condition produces anxiety,” says Lady Philosophy (42). Although her analysis of the role of anxiety in human life and action precedes the analyses of anxiety by Kierkegaard and Freud by a millennium and a half, it’s thorough and realistic. It certainly anticipates modern ideas about anxiety.
As Lady Philosophy is aware of Boethius’ delicate condition, she tells him she’ll start with gentle philosophical cures for his condition. One home truth, though, that’s not all that gentle is a common sense conclusion that one wouldn’t necessarily have to be a philosopher to reach: “Don’t be surprised when we’re tossed about … when we ourselves have chosen to be displeasing to the wicked” (13). And if she’d said “wicked and powerful,” she wouldn’t have been wrong. Philosopher or not, she knows if you’re going to mess around with a brute such as Theodoric, you’ve got to expect something worse than a bark.
The Wheel Of Fortune
Book 2 continues Boethius’ notion that he’s somehow been betrayed by fortune. Gentle or no, Lady Philosophy is quick to tell Boethius that Fortune is essentially “fickle.” She says he’s foolish to rely on or expect fairness from fortune. Fortune has “endearing friendliness to those she tries to deceive … until she leaves them … and overwhelms them with unbearable pain … She … brings grief when she departs” (33).
The idea for which Boethius is certainly best known is that of the Wheel of Fortune. Unfortunately, in our time, this idea has been pretty much entirely associated with a game show. But in earlier centuries, the Wheel of Fortune was a powerful metaphor that represented the way in which people obtain good fortune only to lose it in a matter of a few years. It’s a little as if one is going up and down on a Ferris wheel that moves very slowly.
Lady Philosophy sees this approach to, and interpretation of, human life, as a sort of game. “This is the power, this is the game we always play,” she says. “We turn our wheel on its flying course; we delight in changing the low to the high and the high to the low. Rise up, if you wish, but on this condition: don’t consider yourself injured when you descend, as the rules of the game demand” (36).
In Book 3, Lady Philosophy moves toward the stronger philosophical medicine she promised Boethius. Since the earthly gifts of fortune don’t give lasting contentment, something else may. This source of contentment, it turns out, is “blessedness,” which, says Lady Philosophy, every human being seeks.
While the concept of blessedness may seem impossibly vague, Lady Philosophy does in fact say some surprisingly concrete things about it. For starters, it “is not anxious” — it is free of the human anxiety Philosophy has made so much of (67).
It is “a state that needs nothing belonging to anybody else, but rather is sufficient in itself” (67). It is “simple and indivisible” (82). It can be discerned by human reason. And it is God. “Reason shows that the Good is God,” says Philosophy. “God is blessedness itself” (91).
Some aspects of blessedness (its self-containment, indivisibility and simplicity) seem to this reader to give The Consolation a distinctly mystical flavor. It’s made all the more mystical (again, to this reader) when Boethius seems to connect to the notion that “The kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21). For instance, Lady Philosophy asks, “O mortals, why do you seek outside yourselves for the happiness that has been placed within you” (44)? And in a verse passage, she says “reason finds that what is labored for without / can be discovered — from a treasury within” (100).
Why Do The Evil Prosper?
Boethius’ big question in Book 4 is this: “If the ruler of the universe is in fact good, how can evil exist or go unpunished” (109)? Why are the wicked rewarded and the good punished? How can a good God be in charge of such a situation?
Some of Boethius’ philosophical arguments — such as the one that evil is nothing or doesn’t exist — may not seem especially compelling in our time. But Boethius is careful to make sure that all his arguments are logically consistent. For instance, he argues that “evil is nothing since the one who can do everything [that is, God] is unable to do it” (104). Such arguments can lead to very entertaining paradoxical statements, such as the following: “Now it might seem strange to say that evil men, who make up the majority of mankind, don’t exist, but this is the way the situation is” (115). It’s a delightful philosophical exercise to imagine that the person who seems to be standing next to you simply doesn’t exist.
What Boethius means when he asserts that evil doesn’t really exist is something like this: it is the nature of man to seek the highest good. And when something doesn’t follow its nature, it’s as if the thing isn’t really alive. A man who doesn’t seek the highest good isn’t really a man (Boethius argues).
As for the apparent prosperity of the wicked, providence provides hardships to those who will learn from them and keeps hardships from those who will be overwhelmed by them (137). Events “reward or test the good” and “punish or correct the bad” (141).
Again, all the arguments in this section are cogent and logically valid. It’s just that, with a little work, one can construct equally strong arguments in opposition. But that is true of any philosophical text worth reading.
Can People Have Free Will?
Although The Consolation of Philosophy is a work of philosophy, it’s one of the most accessible ones ever written. A person with no experience in philosophy can enjoy the book with little difficulty.
Having said that, I’ll note that book 5 presents a few passages that may be a bit tough for the absolute philosophical novice. But I suggest sticking with it to get to the moral and ethical advice that The Consolation offers in such an eloquent and comforting form.
In the fifth and final book, Boethius’ question is this: How can human beings have free will if God knows beforehand what will happen?
Although the answer is a little tricky, the gist is that for God, what’s called “foreknowledge” is simply seeing all things — past, present, future — happen as if they were happening in the present. We already know that the human mind can see things happen without at the same time making them happen. Why couldn’t God’s mind operate in the same way?
People want to make God unnecessarily complex, argues Lady Philosophy. They underestimate God’s simplicity, and in particular the simplicity of God’s mind, which “understands all things simply and considers them as if they were being done now” 169.
Again, it’s an argument that may not seem as attractive now as it did when it was made. But it’s well-reasoned and advanced. And I like the hint of mysticism that I (at least) find in the notion of the simplicity of God’s mind.
Boethius’ book is written partly in prose, partly in verse. Boethius is probably underrated as a Latin poet. At any rate, in this new translation, you’ll find plenty of extremely eloquent and moving lines. Enjoy these few:
Lady Philosophy says “ … night is poured on earth from above” (11).
She adds, “Death tumbles and tangles both lofty and humble” (59).
She tells the story of Orpheus in eight words: “Orpheus his own Eurydice / saw, lost and killed” (108).
And again, she turns to the stars: “From the star-filled shores of the sky / the discord of war is banished” (140).
Boethius was the greatest practical moralist of the Medieval era. He wrote the sort of insightful and useful aphorisms about everyday ethics that had been written in classical Rome by Plutarch and Marcus Aurelius and that would be written after the Medieval era by the likes of Montaigne and La Rochefoucauld.
Boethius’ ethics are often right in step with the stoic ethics that dominated Rome for centuries. Stoicism was Rome’s secular religion. While it may not have had the force of law, it was so widely followed it might as well have.
The stoic influence in Boethius is impossible to miss. It’s there, for example, in Lady Philosophy’s early advice to Boethius: “Fear not, hope not” (15).
Interestingly, stoic discourses in ethics are fairly common in the verse in The Consolation. Consider these stoic precepts:
… to discern truth
with a clear light …
banish fear …
The mind is shackled
when these rule. 30
“… either sorrow exhausts, or / hope, fleeting, torments the captive” (118).
Here is just a taste of Boethius’ practical advice about ethics — advice that’s always easy on the ear and, more important, can be put to use in challenging situations in everyday life.
“You mustn’t waste away in your heart desiring to live by your own law, though you reside in a kingdom inhabited by all men” (Lady Philosophy, page 36).
“Don’t let thoughts weight your mind” (166, also Lady Philosophy).
Some lines are personal favorites. Consider this gem from book 5: “To learn about the things that delight me most will be like finding a place to rest” (Boethius, page 147).
And this: “Make sure we don’t do something completely illogical by following the opinion of the people” (142, Lady Philosophy).
Keep in mind that this is a critical edition. If you read the many detailed and carefully prepared footnotes, it will be as if you are reading a second book: a book about the many figures who influenced or were influenced by Boethius. This illustrious list includes such names as Virgil, Ovid, St. Aquinas, St. Augustine, King Alfred (who translated The Consolation), Chaucer (who prepared a translation as well) and Dante.
Another facet of a critical edition is the selection of critical essays in the back of the book. Space limitations forbid me to do anything more than hit some highlights.
In the essay “The Ladder of Knowledge” by Mitchell Kalpakgian, the author provides a brief catalogue of the fascinating philosophical paradoxes in The Consolation: “Boethius [wonders at] the paradoxes that Philosophy … presents to him: all luck is good luck; there is no such thing as chance; evil is nothing” (180).
The essay “Lady Philosophy as Physician” by Jeffrey S. Lehman makes a striking complement to Lady Philosophy’s evaluation of Boethius’ mental state. Lehman argues that Boethius “begins [the book] in a state of total passivity” (188).
Lehman also advances the interesting argument that Boethius advances from a (passive) poet to an (active) philosopher in the course of the book.
“Natural and Supernatural Responses to Suffering” by Rachel Lu is one of several essays that make the point that Boethius wrote The Consolation with “the realization that he personally was likely to face torture and execution in the very near future” (213).
It’s the same situation in “The Death of Boethius” by Regis Martin, who says Boethius faced “an absolute certainty of being tortured” (253).
Martin writes about the events leading up to this situation in a poignant way: “As we watch him perform at the top of his game, this brilliant and gifted young man, flush with power and wealth and every possible success, we suddenly see it all disastrously fall away” (253).
Lu’s essay also addresses the common argument that because Boethius never mentions Christ in the Consolation, the book’s God is not a Christian God. Lu argues: “the Consolation explores pagan philosophy in a way that seems targeted to underscore its harmony with Christian revelation. This is clearly not an anti-Christian work” (214).
This review offers a brief introduction to the latest translation of a great read and one of the best handbooks for everyday living that’s graced the planet. At a list price of $7.95, it is the publishing bargain of the year.