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Topic #J77

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book V

10 April 2002
Scribe: Jamieson Hunter


These minutes were spoken on 12 April.


Professor Hutchinson opened the lecture with some more analysis of Book 4 of Consolation of Philosophy.  In Book 4 the discussion between Philosophy and Boethius becomes more equal; Philosophy accepts more of the role and value of poetry and music in the presentation of ideas.  The prisoner also accepts more of the wisdom of Philosophy and her perspectives concerning his situation.  In so doing he recovers more of himself; we see the prisoner, in a way, turning into Boethius, becoming fully himself.


In the latter part of Book 4, and especially in Book 5, we recognize Boethius the scholar.  Hutchinson pointed to the fact that Boethius was an accomplished scholar and translator of the works of Aristotle.  In fact, as a technical logician he translated Aristotle's works on Logic from Greek to Latin - a unique and sophisticated achievement.  We see Boethius truly becoming himself with his power of reason, a sort of marriage of spirit with reason.


The narrative in the latter part of Book 4 acts as an overarching metaphor for the Platonic, Neo-Platonic and Christian transformation that Boethius is undergoing.  The narrative imitates the Christian salvation motif of dying to the temporal limits of mortality and becoming alive again to the immortality of the Good, God and the Saviour.  Boethius is accepting Christian philosophy and therefore moving into a higher state, becoming more himself.


There has been some debate amongst scholars as to whether Boethius actually believed that a person can grasp Christian truths with reason, or whether the difficult struggle to grasp these truths in Book 5 actually exemplifies the fact that these truths cannot be mastered entirely by reason.  Some Christians believe that because the questions surrounding Christian doctrine are some of the most complicated, thorniest inquiries, a leap of faithful will is essential for Christian understanding and belief.


For Hutchinson, it needs to be repeatedly stated to young, bold atheists that some of the most profoundly wise thinkers are, and have been, believing Christians.  But of these great thinkers, generally speaking, few admit to arguing themselves into a conviction to the truth of Christian doctrine.  Kierkegaard, for example, suggests that one of the most significant things about Christian doctrine is that it is strictly unbelievable; it requires a great deal of irrational commitment and enduring faith.


According to Hutchinson, Boethius clearly believes that 'Christian truths' can be grasped.  Christian philosophy holds so much in common with Platonic, Stoic and Neo-Platonic philosophy, philosophy that has been battered around into truth and endured over so much time.  Boethius believes that established truths are there for people to wrap their minds around – it requires only the right perspective.  Boethius makes use of pagan, pre-Christian schools of philosophy hoping to show how all of them coincide and speak in support of Neo-Platonic, Christian Philosophy.


In order to understand the complicated problem of fatalism (free-will, causation, chance) in Book 5 it is essential that the reader have in mind Philosophy's speech in Prose 6 of Book 4, sections 7 – 11. 


Then, as if beginning from another starting point, she <Philosophy> presented the following discourse:

The coming-into-being of all things, each and every development of natures that are subject to change, whatever is set in motion by whatever means – all these things are allotted their causes, their order, and their appearances from the immutability of the divine mind. This divine mind, securely settled in the citadel of its own simplicity, has established for the carrying out of things a complex mode of operation.  When this mode is viewed in the unmixedness of the divine intelligence, it is called Providence.  However, when it is referred to those things that the divine intelligence sets in motion and arranges, it has, according to the ancients, received the name of Fate.  Should one look at the force of these two terms in one’s own mind, it will appear quite easily that they are different; for Providence is the divine reason itself, established in the highest ruler of all things, which arranges all things; Fate is the arrangement that inheres in the things that have motion, the arrangement through which Providence weaves all things together in their proper orders.  Providence embraces all things equally, despite the fact that they are different, and despite the fact that they are infinite; Fate sets out individual things into their motions, things that are apportioned to specific places, appearances, and times.  As a result, this unfolding of the order of things in time, which is unified according to the divine mind’s seeing of it in advance, is Providence; this same unification, when set out and unfolded in specific times, is called Fate.

Though it be granted that these are different, nevertheless the one is dependent on the other; the order of fated events proceeds from simplicity of Providence.



This speech is the key and solution to the main problem of fatalism in Book 5.  In this speech Boethius is exploiting the Stoic idea that Fate and Providence are two sides of the same coin and he is trying to identify which two sides the coin actually has.  The two sides are: an objective view, sub specie æternitatis (meaning in Latin: under the aspect of eternity), and a subjective view. 


“The aspect of eternity” is what Philosophy and Boethius describe to us in Book 5.  This topic about divine foreknowledge inspired much discussion in later Christian theology.  Christian theologians were able to show, with the help of Boethius, that God has an infinitely complete and immutable plan, which still leaves the individual to be responsible in his or her thoughts and actions, in such a way that it is acceptable for that person to be rewarded in heaven.  Without a clear argument for this problem of pre-destination, theologians would have had trouble encouraging people to think and act responsibly in a world that otherwise seems perfectly determined by an invisible, all-knowing God.


Hutchinson proposed for us a thought experiment for clarification of Boethius' idea of fatalism: Imagine a three-dimensional world which moves in a fourth dimension, second by second.  Imagine a being that could hold that fourth dimension clearly in mind.  For Boethius, at the level of Providence, under the aspect of infinity, God is atemporally aware of the past, present and the future.  From this perspective, God's knowledge of the future does not seem to necessarily make the future happen.  Boethius therefore seems to reconcile the problem of predestination by offering a more subtle and complex explanation.


Hutchinson then brought our attention to Prose 6 in Book 5, pointing to Philosophy's frequent use of the logical indicator 'therefore' in the speech.  There is a certain conclusive quality in the voice of Philosophy in Prose 6; she is reaching what she thinks to be stable conclusions.  We also see Boethius becoming one with Philosophy in this speech – we can see that their voices are merging.  This becomes especially clear at the end of Prose 6 in Book 5 in the very last paragraph, from section 44 and following.  Curiously, at section 47, Philosophy seems to address a plural audience in a single prison cell when she says: "Therefore, all of you …" We are to imagine at this point, Hutchinson said, Philosophy and Boethius merging into one voice, so that Boethius the philosopher speaks directly to us as readers.  We are addressed by a figure who has been healed by Philosophy and who in the process has repaired Philosophy.  Boethius also re-establishes a place for poetry in philosophy.


Professor Hutchinson then responded to a student’s question about necessity.  He brought our attention to Prose 6 in Book 5, section 25 and following.  He reinstated Boethius' position that there is a major difference between simple necessity and conditional necessity.  Or, in logical terms, there is a major difference between: necessarily (if p then q) and if p then necessarily (q).  Certain cause and effect relations occur necessarily, Hutchinson said, but unless the causes are themselves also necessary, then the effects are themselves not necessary.  This is an amazingly easy problem to fall into that Boethius attempts to clarify.


Hutchinson then offered interpretations of Meter 2 and 5 in Book 5.  Meter 2 is a hymn to the sun, which was an important image for Boethius.  The sun was a symbolic attribute attached to certain Roman emperors, printed on their coins and in their propaganda.  The sun is also a crucial symbol for Pythagorean philosophy.  It is a crucial symbol for Plato's analogy of the sun in the Republic and it is an extremely widely significant symbol for the Neo-Platonists.   But the divine One has all the attributes of the physical sun, and more:


But the creator of heaven’s great circle –

There is no mass of earth that withstands him,

As he looks down from above over all things,

Neither can night and its black clouds obstruct him.

He, in a single stroke of his own mind,

Sees what is, what was, and what will be.

Thus you may call him the one and the true sun –

His is the vision of everything solely.  (V.m.2.7-14)


In short, the sun is, and has been, very central to the sensibilities of so many people.  For Boethius, God is the true sun, unimpeded by the absence of worldly light.


In Meter 5 of Book 5, Boethius enters into Platonic territory.  In this poem we see a clear and elegant Platonic repudiation of empiricism.  We also find a mimicking of Plato's Timaeus – where the world is fashioned by an all-knowing being and bears the marks of His rational design.  In Meter 5, the message is that we must keep our heads pointed in the right direction: we must look upward and beyond the scope of our mortal concerns.   Other creatures have downcast postures that focus their attention downwards, but


Not so the race of mortal men, who can lift their upraised heads high,

Stand with body upright and imponderous, look to earth below them.

Be not a creature of earth!  Be not ignorant!  The posture thus reminds you:

You who reach for the heights with your upturned gaze, pointing face to heaven,

You must lift spirit as well to such altitude – mind must not be weighed down,

Must not sink down below where the body is, raised to higher stature.



For Boethius, as for Plato, the body exists to support the head: for Plato the body keeps the head mobile, and prevents it from being stuck in the mud and potholes of this material world; for Boethius the body keeps the head pointed in the right direction, the upward and heavenly direction, the divine one, towards the divine One.




Boethius. Consolation of Philosophy, translated by Joel Relihan

(Indianapolis/Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 2001)