Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius

I am quite proud of myself; I've always wanted to read Boethius and now I've done it. Of course, it turned out not to be nearly as difficult as I'd always thought it was going to be, so maybe it's not such an amazing accomplishment.

C. S. Lewis has a whole section on Boethius in The Discarded Image, and he says that it "was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin...Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been difficult to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages."

Anicius Manlius Severinus Bo√ęthius (~480-525) lived in Rome just as the Western Roman Empire was crumbling into the last little bits. He belonged to an eminent family, served as consul, and worked for Theodoric the Ostrogoth. He wound up on the wrong side of a power struggle and Theodoric imprisoned and finally executed him. (This capital letter from a 14th-century manuscript shows him teaching students, but of course no one knows what he looked like.)

The Consolation of Philosophy was written while Boethius sat in prison. It starts with him feeling sorry for himself--his wealth is gone, he's worried about his family, his name is mud. (He doesn't seem to be terribly worried about execution, though, so maybe he wasn't expecting that.) A woman appears to him, introduces herself as Philosophia, and by using the tools of reason and philosophy, she proves that things are, in reality, very different than they seem. As he learns to see the world through philosophical eyes, he becomes calmer and better able to deal with his imprisonment.

Each section of the book delves deeper into why people experience bad and good fortune, why the wicked prosper while the virtuous are trampled, why there is evil in the world, and how free will can exist. Although Boethius is not talking religion, he uses the tools of philosophy to come to conclusions that sound pretty Christian. That seems to be the task he set himself.

I enjoyed this one a lot and am very pleased that I read it. Next up in medieval literature--The Book of Beasts! (I've owned it for years but have never read it properly, though my 6th-grader daughter did this year for her medieval history studies.)


Amy said...

How interesting these people who write works of history and philosopy while imprisoned are. I'm thinking of Sir Walter Raleigh, who apparently wrote a History of the World while held for some number of years in the Tower of London. I didn't realize Boethius was one of them, too. :)

Jean said...

Don't forget Malory! He wrote that in prison. Hm, maybe someone should come up with a books-written-in-prison challenge...