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Topic #J74
Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book I I
3 April 2002

Scribe: Antony Hanson



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



                  For Boethius, philosophy is the consolation for the loss of himself.  Prose IV, Book I, thinly disguises his autobiographical sketch.  He is praised by the mouth of philosophy contrary to the way Alcibiades is criticized by Plato.  This work is not a will, it is a last testament, a type of literary or philosophical death mask.  Therefore, it includes a catalogue of his achievements.  Similarly, David Hume had a predictable death.  He wrote in My Own Life the memorable phrase: “A man cannot write about his own life without vanity; therefore I shall be brief.”  Hume also had the challenge of writing about himself in an interesting but yet moderate manner. 


                  The first theme in the first meter of the ‘wheel of fortune’ poem reads, “With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel, like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro.”  This is a depiction of the unreliable nature of Fortune.  The second meter of ‘cornucopia’ poem reads, “Once such largess has fanned the flames of lust to have and hold: no man is rich who shakes and groans, convinced that he needs more.”  The horn of plenty, in cornucopian season, comes in abundance or not at all.  Variability of Fortune has been commented upon as early as Homer and later throughout Latin poetry.    This alteration of good and bad is not a new image offered by Boethius, rather, he recycles these images into his work.  His argument is an abstract one.  Everything that is held under Fortune’s sway is nothing of our concern.  Anything that could count as happiness under Fortune will necessarily be unstable.  Therefore, this can be seen as a Stoic view, with some relation to Socratic and Platonic philosophy.  Therefore, this radical reversal from the height of prosperity to the depths of despair should be of no concern to us.  True happiness does not consist in achievements, rather in those who matter to us.  Despite this being a Christian work there are only a couple of allusions to God.  The issues of the Trinity are in the background.  However, this text speaks with most of the meaning intact even to Jews and Muslims because it is monotheistic, and makes no reference to the divinity of Christ.


                  There is some rejection to the view that Fortune is equivalent to happiness.  Book II, Prose I states,  “Do you really value the presence of Fortune when you cannot trust her to stay and when her departure will plunge you into sorrow?”  A student responded to this passage in a position paper by suggesting that Fortune is an expression of the universe and not a negative force constructed to play with humankind.  The student identified this “presence” as a vulnerable type of happiness and posed the question, “have you so much to lose that it will not be worthwhile in the end?”  Professor Hutchinson suggested it highly worthwhile to take the good along with the bad.   A second student responded in another position paper to the topics of passion and pity in Book I.  The student posed the question: “can one who lives primarily by reason rejoice at unexpected pleasures?”  The student’s conclusion was “no,” because it is a potentially harmful practice that may come to dominate one’s life.  Professor H. reminded the class Boethius was a prisoner requesting to understand and control his emotions.      


                  A student then asked a two part question: one, what is the difference between a person who lives by reason and a digital computer?;  two, how can something that always acts according to reason be happy?  Professor H. first answered by disagreeing with the student’s premise.  He stated that a machine can perform certain operations, but cannot actually reason.  If reason were like a functioning machine then the question is appropriate, although not in this particular case.  Reason is a complex abstraction, not a simple computable function.  Real reasoning involves a combination of operational and non-operational qualities such as distinguishing relevance, self-awareness, physiology, sexuality, mortality, and passion.  The model of the digital computer is narrow because it possesses no laws of relevance, and it is only with corresponding content can we achieve relevance.


                  Another student asked the question: can emotions be reasonable? Professor H. suggested we examine the emotion of anger.  It is a bad condition to be excessively irritated or to be known as having a ‘short fuse,’ because this is a vice and a potentially dangerous liability.  Then, what is the proper response to an outrageous provocation?  Aristotle holds that people who do not get sufficiently angry about what they should resent possess a weakness of character, and therefore a vice.  However, this is debatable.  The Christian view, which tends to follow the Stoic view, holds that the best degree is the least degree. The Stoics suggest one would have stern thoughts, but would have the resolve to resist the foolish instigator, thus, remaining calm.  Aristotle’s approach appeals to Professor H. on two levels.  One, he thinks it is sensible to train oneself or groom one’s emotions.  On the other hand, he claims people with no ‘triggers’ are often exploited by others.  Therefore, it is healthy to be strong, not too strong or too weak.  In a similar and related contrast, Aristotle holds that one can possess too little or too much pride.  On the other hand, the Christians and Stoics hold that pride, like anger, is best minimized.  Aristotle thought that having too little pride is commoner and worse then having too much pride, the Christians and the Stoics think the reverse. 


What about hatred? Aristotle believes it is an irrational emotion.  Similarly, Boethius believes there is no room for hatred in philosophy.  Here, Professor Hutchinson agrees.  He believes hatred is a dysfunctional emotion.  It always is a mistake to feel hatred because it is a prevention of the appropriate relationship.  The response should not be hatred it should be pity or solidarity because the instigator is suffering from some type of frustration or shortcoming. Intense pleasures often lead to the most intense complications. 


A student then asked: what about love?  Respect and solidarity are love’s rational counterparts.  Would it be better to have love as well?  Epicurus says no, love is an illusion, confusion, and a physical contradiction.  The Stoic would answer only the wise man knows how to love.  The wise man is the true lover because he possesses the comprehension and apprehensions strong enough to ward off love.  Professor Hutchinson referred to love as a roller coaster, exhilarating, always expensive, and highly sickening.  However, there is always a line up.  The intense curiosity about love is part of human nature and is evident in our youth.  Being asexual is highly uncommon.  Love is well worth experiencing, just for the common sense reasons.  It is not that love overwhelms us, it is the thrill of the ‘roller coaster’ that seduces us.  Perhaps this is why people do not love seriously enough, meaning they keep falling in love because they are addicted to excitement.  Affairs most often occur because of the anticipation of the feeling of falling in love not because of the state of being in love.  Enjoying falling in love, and staying in love for a time is normal; working things out and staying in love is better.  Love is unhealthy if it is the falling portion of love that is repeated and valued.  This is a type of vain thrill seeking.  When dealing with love one should be selective, piecemeal, like eclectic philosophers.