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Topic #J75

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book III             

5 April 2002
Scribe: Mark Renneson


These minutes were spoken on 8 April; for another version, go to the unspoken minutes


The lecture began with a review from Book II of The Consolation.  Professor Hutchinson suggested that the poem found on page 72 of the Penguin edition is one of the best-known passages written by Boethius.  It is a criticism of the Roman Emperor Nero, who not only killed his mother and then admired her beauty, but also torched his own city to achieve political power.


Professor Hutchinson went on to talk more about Nero.  Apparently, he was one of the first political figures to gain the attention of the contemporary media.  While other leaders focused primarily on their military and political influence, the Roman Emperor was concerned about the influence gained by his public image.  For this reason, Professor Hutchinson suggested that Nero could be considered more canny than many of his contemporaries, not more crazy. 


He then explained that a parallel can be drawn between Socrates and his student Alcibiades, and Seneca and Nero.  In the same way that people thought Socrates was responsible for his pupil’s obnoxious and opportunistic tendencies, Seneca was thought to have a heavy influence on Nero.  Of course, Socrates didn’t order the death of Alcibiades.


Still looking at Book II, Professor Hutchinson explained the significance of Boethius’ second most renowned poem.  On page 76 of the Penguin edition (found after prose VIII) the author performs a merger of Empedoclean philosophy with the Christian tradition:


“The world in constant change / Maintains a harmony, / And elements keep peace / Whose name is to clash. / The sun in car of gold / Draws forth the day, / And evening brings the night / When Luna holds sway. / The tides in limits fixed / Confine the greedy sea; / No waves shall overflow / The rolling field and lea. / And all this change of things / In earth and sea and sky / One ruler holds in hand: / If Love relaxed the reins / All things that now keep peace / Would wage continual war / The fabric to destroy / Which unity has formed / With motions beautiful. / Love, too, holds people joined / By sacred bond of treaty, / And weaves the holy not / Of marriage’s pure love. / Love promulgates the laws / For friendship’s faithful bond. / O happy race of men / If Love who rules the sky / Could rule your hearts as well!


The idea that there is a limit and a control over what appears chaotic is the theme.


It was at this point that the lecture turned to Book III of The Consolation.  The great poem of meter 9, suggested the Professor, functions as a “geometrical turning point of the 5 books”.  It has symbolic, mystical and mathematical significance that unites the early books with the latter.  Of particular importance is the hymn to Zeus, the Father.  As all the future books build upon this idea, the poem sufficiently ties them together.


O Thou who dost by everlasting reason rule, / Creator of the planets and the sky, who time / From timelessness didst bring, unchanging Mover / No cause drove Thee to mould unstable matter, but / The form benign of highest good within Thee set. / All things Thou bringest forth from Thy high archetype: / Thou, height of beauty, in Thy mind the beauteous world / Dost bear, and in that ideal likeness shaping it, / Dost order perfect parts a perfect whole to frame. / The elements of harmony Thou dost constrain, / That hot to cold and wet to dry are equal made, / That fire grow not to light, or earth too fraught with weight. / The bridge of threefold nature madest Thou soul, which spreads / Through nature’s limbs harmonious and all things moves.  The soul once cut, in circles two its motion joins, / Goes round and to itself returns encircling mind, / And turns in pattern similar the firmament. / From causes like Thou bringst forth souls and lesser lives, / Which from above in chariots swift Thou dost disperse / Through sky and earth, and by Thy law benign they turn / And back to Thee they come through fire that brings them home. / Grant, Father, that our minds Thy august seat may scan, / Grant us the sight of true good’s source, and grant us light / That we may fix on Thee our mind’s unblended eye. / Disperse the clouds of earthly matter’s cloying weight; Shine out in all Thy glory; for Thou art rest and peace / To those who worship Thee; to see Thee is our end. / Who art our source and maker, lord and path and goal  


In the middle poem, Philosophy addresses the Father of the World.  There are references made to both Plato’s Timaeus and his Phaedrus.  Boethius’ ideas about the nature of the soul (that it has the tendency to rise upon leaving the body) is a common factor in both Christian and Stoic philosophy.  Further analysis of the relationship between this poem and Plato can be found in the footnote made on page 98 of the Penguin edition.

Professor Hutchinson then explained the similarity between Christian beliefs and Stoicism when it comes to the soul. While the Christians perceived the soul rising to heaven, where a feeling of autonomy remains, the Stoics believed that the soul mixed with other elements in a large cloud.  It is within this poem that we find a unity of Platonic, Neo-Platonic and Christian philosophy.


The lecture then turned to the 5th and 6th prose of The Consolation.  The Professor briefly mentioned that the idea of self-sufficiency is dominant in these sections.  The 7th prose is, for Professor Hutchinson, the least convincing of the book.  He protested against the idea that every pleasure, when it slips away, bruises and stings the person who previously had it.  Commenting on the Boethius’ comparison of pleasure seekers with animals, the Professor said that this criticism is not new.  Philosophers have often sought to criticize men by calling them animals.  The response, for Professor Hutchinson is that indeed, human beings are a type of animal, so it is not a surprise that we enjoy bodily pleasure. 


A criticism that can be made of Boethius is that the scope of his argument is too narrow: his rejection of pleasure is limited to sex.  In doing this, he is not addressing the full spectrum of what constitutes pleasure.  This is dangerous, as it gives weight to a broad criticism that is narrow in focus.  There is an influence of Christianity in Boethius’ ideas.  The ethical side of the religion (which is based on Christian philosophy) supports abstinence from sex.  This is why, for instance, originally asexual terms such as virtue and morals have been have been given a sexual connotation, e.g. “she is a woman of easy virtue”; “he has loose morals.”