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Topic #J73

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book I   

1 April 2002
Scribe: Madeleine Macdonald


These minutes were spoken on 3 April; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes



This was Professor Hutchinson’s first reading of this edition of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, and he was suitably impressed.  Among its qualities is its scrupulous use of the work’s indigenous reference system.  For example, III.m9.10, refers to Book 3, meter 9, line 10.  For the prose sections, a ‘p’ would be used instead of an ‘m’.  This system can only be used with this text, as the text alternates between meter and prose during the books.  


This literary form of alternating prose and poetry is quite complex, and is important to the reader’s understanding of the text.  There are three voices in this text:  Boethius the prisoner, Philosophy visiting him in prison, and Boethius the author of the text. Boethius as author wished to make the reader think about what he had written, and so his conclusions are not immediately obvious.  Cicero took a similar approach. 


Boethius was raised in a Roman noble family, and was considered by many to be a genius.  He was multi-talented, excelling at languages and logic in particular.  He was recruited to politics, where he served with distinction, but was constantly under suspicion because of his keen interest in philosophy. 


Through machinations at the highest levels of politics, Boethius fell victim to a conspiracy.  He was arrested and imprisoned.  His property was confiscated and he was prevented from seeing his family.  During his imprisonment, he was tortured, at the end of which it is said he was taken outside to the courtyard, and beaten to death.  The Consolation of Philosophy was written during his confinement and so allegedly was written from memory.  This claim is almost unbelievable.  However, there are no literal word-for-word quotations from of the sources Boethius mentions, but rather, paraphrases and summaries.  Professor Hutchinson is of the opinion that it was indeed the case that this text was written entirely from memory, making it an achievement to rival those of Plato and actually higher than that of Socrates, who only managed to write a few pious verses while Boethius wrote a masterpiece while awaiting death. 


It is said that The Consolation of Philosophy was written while Boethius was in the depths of despair, as he was in solitary confinement, under threat of death, and in public disgrace.  Professor Hutchinson disbelieves the claim that Boethius was in the depths of despair while writing this work, as he feels that it is impossible to be creative and productive while in that condition.  While in prison, Boethius met radical and unpleasant despair, managed to conquer it with the aid of philosophy, achieved some sort of equanimity, and then created this work.  This is a narrative of healing, in which Philosophy uses ‘medicine’ to ‘cure’ Boethius. 


Over the course of this work, the primary character undergoes a significant transformation.  This is similar to Seneca’s letters to his friend, Lucilius, whose needs get more specific and complicated over the course of the letters, as presumably, his understanding of philosophy grows.  The difference is that Boethius is writing to advise himself, rather than dispensing advice to someone else.  It appears that Philosophy is dispensing wisdom and Boethius the prisoner is receiving it, but this makes him a passive participant.  However, both Boethius and Philosophy sing in meter, make arguments, and control the agenda of topics.  Boethius raises points that would not otherwise have been addressed.  Philosophy is being challenged to make herself relevant to the prisoner.  Philosophy must change and react to Boethius’ situation and challenges, just as Boethius must change and react to the wisdom of philosophy.


The Consolation of Philosophy is an almost inexhaustible work of genius.  It begins in verse, with the first book containing the greatest amount of verse.  Each book has the same alternating pattern of verse and poetry, but the proportion of verse decreases as the work progresses.  The quality of the verse also improves.  For example, Prof. Hutchinson read a quote from Book I :


My hair untimely white upon my head,

And I a worn out bone-bag hung with flesh.

Death would be blessing if it spared the glad

But heeded invocations from the wretch.

But now Death’s ears are deaf to hopeless cries,

His hands refuse to close poor weeping eyes. (I.m1. 11-16)


This is horrible poetry.  Boethius wrote this bad poetry deliberately, but much of the rest of the verse is of the highest quality.  It uses every single known meter in Latin poetry up to that date.  We are less able to appreciate the meter properly today, but it is deemed to be of excellent quality.  A prime example is found in I.m7.  By skipping from prose to prose, and overlooking the metrical sections one misses a good part of the story.  There is interplay not only between Boethius and Philosophy, but also between the meter and the verse, and the ideas found therein. 


When Philosophy arrived, she chased away the muses, who were helping Boethius  compose (bad) poetry and music.  She had an impossible physical presence, and she attacked the other women.  “’Who,’ she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, ‘has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man’s bedside? gone, and leave him for my own Muses to heal and cure.”(I.p1.)  Philosophy accuses the muses of being modes of communication that encourage the pains of the suffering.  Philosophy then reproaches Boethius for having forgotten her, but Boethius reproaches her as well, calling her reproach to Poetry and Music excessive.  Philosophy herself uses Poetry and Music to convey her messages. 


Professor Hutchinson didn’t focus much on the 500 years between Cicero and Boethius.  During this time two new philosophies arose.  The first was Neoplatonism, which took Platonic ideas and emphasized their spiritual nature.  It competed with Christianity, the second new philosophy.  Christianity spread and was at times tolerated, despite being thought rather strange.  However, when the Christians would not declare allegiance to the emperor, they were persecuted.


Boethius was influenced by both of these religions.  In the third prose of book I, there is a reference made to, or an imitation of, the language of a Gospel.  Christ dies with God at his side, like Boethius with Philosophy at his side.  Christ’s death and apparent resurrection caused his followers to believe all the more earnestly in the prediction that the world would end shortly.  But, these claims did not materialize, and so they were forced to look for a new explanation for the Christian teaching of the immortality of the soul.  They borrowed Platonic ideas from Neo-Platonic Alexandrian thinkers.


Boethius was both a philosopher and a Christian, and felt that the fundamental mystery was God’s relationship to the temporal world.  Does God suffer in time, and over time?  Does he send out a human version of himself to do the suffering for him?  The doctrine of the Trinity is very difficult, as each of the three persona of God have different relationships to time and temporality.  The Trinity is indecipherable, but people do try.  The Church split over this question with the Monophysites believing that the incarnate God had one nature, while the Orthodox Church believed that he had two natures.  This split of the church led to the schism of the Empire.  As we have seen, few things move people more to intolerance and violence than religion. 


Prose #4 is a thinly disguised autobiography, and forms our first description of Boethius.  Seneca, in Letter 53 of his Letters From a Stoic, imagines Philosophy to be a godlike woman, dressed in robes, but she must be one’s fulltime mistress.  When Boethius appropriates this image, Philosophy is a little worse for the wear, her robes are tattered.  She needs to be brought back from a position of ancient reverence to current relevance.  Philosophy helped Boethius out of his despair, and in return, Boethius used strategy to make Philosophy more contemporary.  When appearing to the next despairing prisoner, Philosophy will now appear in repaired robes.