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Topic #J73
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book I
1 April 2002

Scribe: Jonathan Kim



These minutes were not spoken; for another version, go to the spoken minutes.



                  Monday’s lecture focused on Book 1 of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy.   The Book consists of three voices:  Boethius, Philosophy, and the author.  Boethius is a prisoner in despair while Philosophy is an entity that consoles him through his adversity.  The purpose of Boethius and Philosophy are to carry a dialogue and argument while the voice of the author is to convey a message that is partly disclosed. This work is similar to Plato’s works in a sense that Plato conveys his ideas through Socrates or through constructed conversations between Socrates and his companions.  Boethius conveys his ideas through dialogues between himself and Philosophy.


                  The Book itself has an amazing history.  Boethius was born into a very privileged family of considerable status and heritage.  He displayed excellence in various fields of academics and was seen as somewhat of a genius.  Because of his ability, he was recruited into politics and ended up attaining a high amount of prestige.  However, his enemies accused him of being too involved in philosophy and that it was placing the wrong kind of influence on his work.  For some reason that is unclear, he was accused of some crime that led to his execution by clubbing.


During his time in prison, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy.  This was a spectacular feat due to the fact that he worked in total isolation and without any reference materials or aids.  He was able to access his aids straight from memory.  The Book itself is extremely well done in terms of quality.  This is because he studied extensively in the field of logic and was a man of the highest technical distinction.


                  It may seem that this book was written during his time of despair.  However, this is impossible, since no sort of ambitious literary work can be undertaken in state of grief.  The book is about a prisoner moving from the despair of imprisonment to the acceptance of the situation.  In the story, the character Philosophy guides the prisoner and things begin to get better for him.  Philosophy undertakes the job of healing to prisoner to a normal status.  Professor Hutchinson noted that a wonderful metaphor is used on how Philosophy uses “different strengths of medicine” to nurse back the prisoner to a better mental state.  At first, this aspect of healing seems to be a similar in Seneca’s letters.  However, Seneca was able to relate to Lucilius while Boethius only had himself to help.  This means that during his time in prison, he was able to conquer his state of despair and write his masterpiece.


                  Though this sense of acceptance makes the prisoner seem passive, it is evident from the book that he is not.  The prisoner engages in active dialogues and arguments with Philosophy.  If the prisoner had remained passive within the book, none of the ideas about the temporal world and existence would have arisen in Book 4.  Philosophy is being directly challenged and being brought down to a human level so that there is a direct relationship between the prisoner and Philosophy.


                  The Professor noted that the word and idea index of the Joel C. Relihan edition of The Consolation of Philosophy allows readers to more readily approach the book with close studying and reading.  He feels that the content of the book is inexhaustible and comparable to the works of Plato.


                  The first book begins with a verse.  Book 1 has the most verses within the entire work.  Throughout the entire work, the quantity of the verses dwindles yet the quality rises.  The first verse of Book is the poorest quality.  However, the professor noted that the translation of the verse was exceptionally well done, saying that it is a “beautiful bad translation”.  He also noted that the poem was done intentionally poorly to serve a literary purpose (i.e. to represent the mental state of the depressed prisoner and his occupation with the Muses).  The Professor then read out loud the first verse and the beginning of the first prose that introduces Philosophy.


                  Boethius was a skillful poet.  He uses every single known meter of Latin poetry within the entire work.  It is very difficult to properly convey the meter since Latin is a dead language.  However, the translator Joel C. Relihan does a good job at it.  For example, the 7th verse has a very epic like quality to it, which is a very technical meter that the translator is able to capture.  The Professor read aloud this verse to demonstrate its effect.  He also mentioned that if a reader were to skip from prose to prose, a lot of information and ideas would be missed.


                  In the first prose, Philosophy makes her entrance and chases away the Muses that are occupying the prisoner.  The Muses represent three women (i.e. music, poetry, and fine art) who cause the prisoner to write works of poor taste to merely amuse himself.  Philosophy openly attacks the women in an extremely harsh manner.  The Professor illustrated this by reading the first prose.  At first it seems to appear that the Muses disappear for the book entirely.  However they keep reappearing throughout the entire work.  Thought it seems that Philosophy is accusing the Muses as being inferior forms of communication, she is not doing this and is only making a reproach to the prisoner.  She is saying that his indulgence in the Muses is excessive and that they are useful in portraying ideas when used to a proper degree.


                  The professor mentioned that he had not talked much about the 500 years that existed between Cicero and Boethius since he said he was not an expert in that field.  Yet he managed to give a brief account of the events that took place.


                  The Roman Empire split into two major factions of philosophy: Neo-Platonism (a resurrection of Platonic ideas) and Christianity.  Many thought that the Christian notion of a god dying for the sins of man was completely absurd, which led to the prosecution of Christians in Rome.  Boethius’ work is Christian based in which several of his allusions are Christian ideas.  For example, in Prose 3, the notion of Socrates dying for the sake of Philosophy is parallel to the crucifixion of Christ mentioned by Luke within the Bible.


                  For the Christians, the death of Christ meant the imminent end to all things.  They viewed it as a sign of deliverance and the coming of Judgment Day.  It is not clear whether this end was stated to be literal or metaphorical, yet its followers took it literally.  However, generations passed and the prophecies began to seem false.  Thus the Christians had to modify their interpretation.  A certain type of Christian philosophy was created in Alexandria, which spoke of the immortality of the soul, and other ideas borowed from Platonic philosophy, in order to compensate the unfulfilled prophecies. 


Boethius was drawn to the idea of God coming to earth in the form of flesh and relating to the temporal world.  However this idea brought about controversy.  People argued whether good existed within time during his time on earth, or whether he was an outside observer.  The Doctrine of the Trinity complicated matters even more.  It is impossible to logically prove it.  Yet people attempted to for centuries, even to the extent of mounting military campaigns and expeditions.  The Paradox of whether God suffered or not caused struggle between the Eastern and Western Empires.


The Professor mentioned that nothing causes more violence and strife than religion.  This is why he feels that we should find consolation in philosophy.  He decided that close off the topic by reading Seneca’s Letter 53 in which he describes philosophy as a full time mistress who whips him when needed yet also tirelessly defends him.  The professor found this to be quite an erotic and powerful image.  Boethius described Philosophy in Prose 4 (which the professor read aloud) as being in the height of the heavens yet at the height of man and in between the two.  Basically he is saying that philosophy is approachable at all levels.


One key point that the professor wished to mention was that though Philosophy helped Boethius, Boethius was able to bring Philosophy into light.  It was his hope that though Philosophy appeared before him in a tattered dress, through his work, people would be able to see Philosophy with her dress repaired.