The Consolation of Philosophy is one of the key works in the rich tradition of Western philosophy, partly because of the circumstances in which it was written. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c480-c524) was of aristocratic Roman birth and became consul and then master of offices at Ravenna, one of the highest posts under the Ostrogothic Roman ruler Theodoric. But Boethius was unjustly charged with treason in 524, and this led to house arrest, then torture and execution. It was while he was imprisoned and anticipating his fate that he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, a remarkably personal document in which, through alternating passages of poetry and prose, he considers the lot of humankind. He draws on classical Greek and Roman philosophy, emphasising the fragility of worldly position and that true happiness can only come from within. As a practising Christian, he placed this within a Christian perspective. The work is all the more effective because it is presented as a dialogue between the despairing Boethius and a figure known as Lady Philosophy, who constantly questions, guides and supports the former statesman, leading him to a place of understanding and equilibrium. The work has proved a continuing influence through the ages, having been translated by figures as disparate as Alfred the Great, Chaucer, Elizabeth I and many others. The translation by H. R. James has been revised and modernised for this recording.
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As you probably know, this slim little volume has had an impact way out of proportion to its physical dimensions. Called the Last of the Romans and the First of the Scholastics, Boethius hails from a time when philosophy, rather than the plaything of graduate seminars, was the “handmaid of theology”, a serious tool for the attainment of essential wisdom.
Perhaps the most amazing aspect of this book is the circumstances of its composition. Personally, I can’t imagine having this degree of poise in the shadow of the executioner. But then, that’s the point, and probably a key reason for Boethius’ enduring appeal: unlike most philosophers who concoct their view of life from their study, this is an up close and personal look at the theoretical rubber meeting the actual road. In the face of immanent death, what sort of consolation can philosophy give? Lots, provided that philosophy is the handmaid of theology and a serious tool for the attainment of essential wisdom.
Translated by King Alfred the Great, Geoffrey Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I, this Medieval and Renaissance bestseller is also (unless I’m utterly mistaken) the origin of a trope that has been in use ever since: the Wheel of Boethius, whereon the great fall and the lowly rise, all at the whim of capricious Fortune. (Imagine if that name had stuck: we’d have studio audiences chanting “Wheel…of…Boethius!”) He makes an appearance in Dante’s Paradise, where he is pointed out by no less a luminary than St Thomas Aquinas. Today he is recognized as a martyr. And, of course, this essential book is the lynchpin of one of the greatest American comic novels.
So we’re dealing with a Monument of Western Civilization, a keystone in the arch of our culture. And the temptation here is to try to write something profound—something that will make you say, “Wow, this guy is smart!” But I’ve heard what Lady Philosophy has to say about the pursuit of Glory, so I know better than to try that (see Book 2, Prose 7).
But I will suggest that, for guidance in life, it’s best to trust books that have passed the cultural sniff-test for a few centuries. Maybe even a millennium or two. For spiritual instruction I favor Augustine’s Confessions or Thomas a Kempis’ Imitation of Christ. The Consolation, though it takes a little patience, hasn’t disappointed for some 1,500 years and it doesn’t disappoint now.
Can I illustrate that here? Not really. The dialogue format doesn’t lend itself to those quotable zingers that tickle the intellect. Yes, great points are made, but each rhetorical pinnacle is reached only after a patient, logical ascent of questions and answers. The best I can do is a passage I jotted down because (fittingly) I found it so consoling:
“…the wise man ought not to take it ill if even he is involved in one of Fortune’s conflicts, anymore than it becomes a brave soldier to be offended when, at any time, the trumpet sounds for battle. The time of trial is the express opportunity for the one to win glory, for the other to perfect his wisdom.”
Again, remember that these words are being written shortly before their author will be executed—some say by swords, others say more slowly. This is philosophy in the trenches. I don’t claim to be a wise man, but in the shadow of an impending job loss I find that passage consoling and, even more importantly, strengthening. True, toward the end the extended discussion of Divine Foreknowledge vs. Human Free Will starts sounding like all that “How-do-we-know-what-we-know” stuff that has been so popular since the 18th Century. It may seem like there’s little consolation being offered, but stick with it. There really is.
No, I didn’t grasp all the ins and outs of every argument, but I did grasp the conclusions. Some of the philosophical jargon got by me (Boethius’ real-world examples often bring his speculative language into sharper focus). And yes, I will be going back to the printed version for footnotes. Be that as it may, if you’re interested in the Western Tradition and seek to more fully comprehend our Classical and Christian roots—and especially how ancient philosophy helped Christian thinkers explore and articulate their faith—this book will be nothing short of illuminating.
Added goose: David Rintoul’s reading is nothing short of masterful. He acts the book, which makes sense, as this is essentially a Platonic dialogue. Though a late-Victorian translation and therefore somewhat stilted, the text has been modernized here and there and Mr. Rintoul does the rest, understanding the shape of each sentence and putting the emphasis where it needs to be for Boethius’ meaning to be clear.
This translation of “The Consolation of Philosophy” impresses all who listen to it because of the beauty of Boethius’s writing and Rintoul’s narration. Though one may either agree or disagree with Boethius’s religious philosophy, the juxtaposition of his poetry with chapters of Socratic dialog are a pleasure to hear.
Boethius is born into a rich aristocratic Roman family and achieves high office and continued wealth, even when Rome is conquered by an Ostrogothic King, Theodoric the Great. In the beginning of Theodoric’s reign, Boethius is a court favorite but in 524 AD, he is arrested and imprisoned for (according to Boethius’s writings) defending the poor and powerless from the new Roman Ostrogothic government. During Boethius’s imprisonment, just before his execution, he writes and completes “The Consolation of Philosophy”.
Boethius creates a Socratic dialog between himself and the “Lady of Philosophy” to question how God allows evil to exist, and whether man can have free will when God is omniscient and knows each human being follows a known path in life. Boethius asks “…is there not chance in every person’s life that leads them in one direction or another?”
Boethius implies these questions are answered to his satisfaction. He accepts God’s omniscience. Every listener will have their own opinion after completing Boethius’s story. To some, the answers are the machinations of a man who rationalizes his bereft state; to others, the answers are a guide to life in this world.
What ever you believe, “The Consolation of Philosophy” is a literary work of art.