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Topic #J74

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book II 

3 April 2002
Scribe: Evelyn Kam


These minutes were spoken on 5 April; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


The focus of Wednesday’s lecture was on Book II of the Consolation of Philosophy.  The text is not a will but a last testament.  It is a version or the image in which Boethius would like to be remembered.  Naturally, it includes a catalogue of achievements, although he does in fact flirt with vanity and self-promotion.  Professor Hutchinson reminds us here that Hume, who also lead an accomplished life wrote an autobiography entitled My Own Life that he completed before dying of cancer.  In it, the philosopher writes, “It is difficult for a man to speak at length of himself without vanity; therefore I shall be brief.”  Boethius had the same approach as Hume in that he too wanted to lay down an account of his life while avoiding excessive vanity.  Thus, the description of the merits of his life is in the mouths of others.   


There has seldom been a case of such a radical reversal of fortune from heights to depths as in the case of Boethius.  This radical reversal is in fact the main image evoked in Meter 1 of Book II.


When with haughty hand she turns things upside-down,

Like wild Boeotian straits she rushes back and forth;

Then she, inhuman, topples onetime fearsome kings,

And slyly lifts the lowly head of the downcast man.

She does not hear the wretched but rejects their tears;

She laughs to scorn the wailing that her hard heart brings.

These are the games she plays, the ways she shows her strength.

Thus to her own she shows a wondrous sign, one hour

Revealing one man both unhorsed and riding tall. (Book II, Meter 1)


Commenting on a few interesting features, Professor Hutchinson told the class that it is one of the more famous meters of this work and inspired many medieval versions. Furthermore, it deals with the unreliability of Fortune, therefore its halting rhythm illustrates Fortune’s shifting nature.     


The professor then proceeded to read Meter 2 of Book II:


Count the sands that the sea churns from abyssal depths,

Lashed by swift-footed storm winds;

Count the lights in a sky carpeted thick with stars,

Night-begotten in splendor.

If Abundance’s horn poured out such wealth, if she

Never drew her own hand back,

Still not reason enough for humankind to quit

Whining desolate sorrows.

If the god would receive willingly all your prayers,

Free and lavish with the fine gold;

If he crowned with high rank heads of ambitious men—

Once gained, these would seem worthless.

Brute voracity gulps down what it once desired,

Once more opens its jaws wide.

Are there reins that can check precipitate desire,

Guide it toward a set object,

When, despite ample gifts, overabundant, still

Burns that thirst for possession?

He can never be rich who in despair and fear

Thinks that he is a pauper. (Book II, Meter 2)


First, he noted that the lives are deliberately long and drawn out.  The reference to the reins is borrowed from the idea of the charioteer in Plato’s Phaedrus.  Furthermore, the question beginning on line fifteen is a rhetorical one.  It states, “Are there reins that can check precipitate desire,/ Guide it toward a set object,/ When, despite ample gifts, overabundant, still/ Burns that thirst for possession” (Book II, Meter 2, Lines 15-18)?  It is a rhetorical question because the answer is that there are no such reins.  The final two lines of the meter states, “He can never be rich who in despair and fear/ Thinks that he is a pauper”(Book II, Meter 2, Lines 19-20).  These lines express an Epicurean thought.  It also reflects the philosophy of Seneca and Lucretius but it is more likely that Boethius drew directly from the former.         


                  The depiction of the variability of Fortune is not the first.  In fact, it has been a theme ever since Homer and probably before.  We find that Boethius actually recycles many of his images and thoughts. The use of the cornucopia, a horn overflowing with abundance or sometimes nothing at all is actually a traditional figure.  So too is the mill wheel image of Fortune, where the continual filling and emptying of water demonstrates Fortune’s unstable nature.  


                  The argument here is an abstract one.  Everything is variable and under the control of Fortune and thus not a possession of ours.  If it is not something of our own, then the argument is that it should not be a concern of ours whether we have it or not.  In other words, it is not in our zone of control.  Clearly, this is mainly a Stoic, but also a Socratic and Platonic idea.  Anything that counts as true happiness, according to this argument, is something that we can actually achieve, own and enjoy.  The medicine applied in this particular part of the text for the Prisioner is that this radical reversal of Fortune from the heights of prosperity to the depths of despair, as drastic as it is, should be of no concern at all.  When Philosophy speaks to the Prisioner, she is making room for the idea that happiness is constituted by a relationship with a permanent being. This being is intended to mean God, the source of all love and goodness, timelessness and unity. Thus, true happiness does not consist in achievements, degrees, honours and income but by this relationship with a permanent being who matters.


                  At this point, Professor Hutchinson opened his lecture to discussion by reading from two position papers.  The first student resisted the depiction of Fortune as given in Book II.  Philosophy argues that a happiness that can be taken away, and therefore be a cause for sadness, is not worth having.  After all, what fools would allow themselves to be touched by sadness?  The student found this lack of emotion unappealing or even very foolish.  In reflecting upon experiences of lost happiness, the student says that he does not regret them.  It cannot be that an experience is not worth while simply because one feels that there is too much to lose.  The power of passion though sometimes painful is better experienced than passed over for reason’s cold perfection.  Thus, practical experience has shown that it is worth while to accept the bad with the good. 


                  A second position paper provides a response to this opinion.  This student agrees, to some extent, with the argument of the first position paper.  It is true that happiness does sometimes lead to hardship but these experiences can make us stronger.  However, he went on to argue that passions cannot be controlled.  They are greedy and aim to dominate our lives.  Thus, passions are activities to be enjoyed but they are not the sources of true happiness.  This source is in fact reason.  This relates to the dialectic that Philosophy has with the Prisioner.  Philosophy holds reason above passion and wants to show the Prisioner that what is valuable is necessarily permanent.  However, the Prisioner wants her to help him find a context in which he could accept happiness in his life and not in anyway banish it. 


                  A student then asked what the difference was between a person who follows only reason and a robot or a computer.  Can a person who only follows reason be happy? Professor Hutchinson answered that he does not accept the model the student is starting from.  It is true that there are some reasoning calculations that they can do faster than we can, but it does not follow that a computer can reason. Reasoning requires considerations of relevance not only congenial operations.  Nevertheless, the professor said that the student’s question still held significance.  He asked us to imagine a series of people, each with a decreasing degree of emotion but having an equal level of reason.  The question is, to what degree are we to imagine that the person with the lowest level of emotion is the happiest in comparison to all the others?


A second student asked why reason had to be separate from emotion.  Aristotle would have replied that emotions are reasonable when moderately calibrated.  Anger for example is considered a bad condition and is conventionally viewed as something not the ideal nor a virtue but a vice.  However, Aristotle would argue that the person who never gets irritated and thinks that everything is his or her own fault is not any better than the person who is always angry.  The Christian view follows the Stoic idea that the best degree of anger is the least.  Stoics believe that if a person is reasonable he will experience stern thoughts but no anger.  He will resolve to resist the foolishness of anger and be firm but never angry.  Professor Hutchinson feels the force of both models.  On the one hand, the longer one can constrain oneself the better.  On the other, if a person has no trigger of anger, he or she is more likely to be exploited.  Sometimes the expression of emotions is appropriate as long as it is not too strong or too weak.


                  In Book V, we will find a discussion of hatred.  Boethius asserts that there is no room for hatred in philosophy.  Here, the professor agrees.  It is always dysfunctional to hate.  Furthermore, hatred can be replaced with a rational analogue: suspicion.  The hating of a person is always a mistake because it prevents us from experiencing the proper emotion—that being pity.  A person who is so bad that he or she can cause us this kind of grief is clearly confused, frustrated, angry or suffering in some other way.  Thus, there are two negative effects of hatred: the undermining of the self and improper reactions.


                  Another emotion that the class wanted to discuss was love.  Professor Hutchinson told us that respect and solidarity are the rational counterparts of love.  Epicureans would say that love is a snare and a delusion.  The pursuit of love is vain and hopeless.  The Stoics would say that only the wise man knows how to love.  They believe that the comprehensive apprehensions of a wise man can resist the hurricanes of love.  Common sense tells us that love is like a big roller coaster—the biggest and the sickest one.  However, people keep lining up for it again and again.  Clearly, there is an intense curiosity for falling in love and it is in fact human nature to do so.  Professor Hutchinson’s view is that love is well worth experiencing.  The problem about love is not that it overwhelms us;  Instead, the problem lies with people who love the thrill of the roller coaster.  They do not take love seriously enough to cultivate it earnestly and ideally permanently, and have the tendency to fall in love over and over again.  Therefore, the act of loving is not bad; on the contrary it is good, one of the best things in the world.  What’s bad is the addiction to the falling.