The Consolation of Philosophy - Review by Carole

The decisions we make set us on a trajectory that determine the course of our lives. I ultimately chose to go to college and study journalism, but I almost chose studying letters with the Jesuits—a classic education. I’m not sure what employable skills I would have gained in this pursuit, but I do occasionally wonder what schools of thought I would have been exposed to and how they would have affected my life. These seem like weighty reflections for a blog post, but as I read BoethiusThe Consolation of Philosophy, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would have had a better basis for understanding him. I also wonder what Boethius would have thought of my trajectory comment in my opening line--I imagine we would have had a rather lengthy conversation about what is influenced by free will and what is predestined.

As it is, I’m amazed that we don’t find Boethius’ story more awe inspiring than we do. Considered to be a great influence on Chaucer and Dante, Boethius is little known today. In his own time, Boethius was a powerful and successful man. Having himself been a Consul of Rome in the latter days of the Empire, Boethius found great favor under Theodoric the Ostrogoth. Boethius’ two sons were named Consuls—a great honor to him. His reputation as a scholar and a philosopher made him a superstar in his time. The fact that we here in the West know anything about Aristotle is due to his translations.

But as often happens, he became embroiled in some political intrigue and chose the losing side in an argument. This led to Boethius’ fall from favor. He was imprisoned and then brutally executed.

During his incarceration for which he felt himself falsely accused, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. I’m not sure how I would react to facing my own mortality, but Boethius used the opportunity to examine all that he learned in his life to study why he came to be in his current situation. The book is a conversation between Boethius and his nurse Philosophy. Boethius is in despair and Philosophy comforts him.

“In your present state of mind, which this great tumult of emotion has fallen upon you and you are torn this way and that by alternating fits of grief, wrath and anguish, it is hardly time for the more powerful remedies. I will use gentler medicines.”

She proceeds to show him through a series of geometric theorems and proofs that his assessment of his situation is incorrect—he should not despair, he is in God’s hands, all evidence to the contrary.

I never thought of using geometry to prove anything other than the mathematical, but many times throughout the book Philosophy proves to Boethius that some philosophical idea, such as the notion of happiness, is true because the steps leading up to it are true.

I recently reviewed A Confederacy of Dunces, and I noted that the main character, one Ignatius J. Reilly, was fascinated with this book. I came across one passage that I think would have appealed to Reilly:

“For think how puny and fragile a thing men strive to possess when they set the good of the body before them as their aim. As if you could surpass the elephant in size, the bull in strength, or the tiger in speed! Look up at the vault of heaven: see the strength of its foundation and the speed of its movement, and stop admiring things that are worthless. Yet the heavens are less wonderful for their foundations and speed than for the order that rules them. The sleek looks of beauty are fleeting and transitory, more ephemeral than the blossoms of spring.”

I suspect now that John Kennedy Toole was himself a big fan of Boethius’ work, and he projected that onto his protagonist. The translation I read explained that this passage particularly referred to an understanding of the Ptolomaic understanding of the universe—a geocentric theory. Each planet rotated because of its contact with the orbit of the other planets. When I wrote about Dunces, I noted that Toole spun his story circles in such a way that I was intrigued to see what happened when those circles collided.

I was particularly drawn to certain concepts in the book, such as:
“If events of uncertain occurrence are foreseen as if they were certain, it is only clouded opinion, not the truth of knowledge; for you believe that to have opinions about something which differ from the actual facts is not the same as the fullness of knowledge.

The cause of this mistake is that people think that the totality of their knowledge depends on the nature and capacity to be known of the objects of knowledge. But this is all wrong. Everything that is known is comprehended not according to its own nature, but according to the ability to know of those who do the knowing.”

I don’t claim to understand all of the ideas that Boethius puts forth, but I was enthralled at the concept of a condemned man, who is left alone in despair, using his weighty thoughts and ideals to comfort himself. The fact that he wrote it all down is his gift to us—we too can be comforted by Philosophy, if we have the “ability to know.”

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