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Topic #J76

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy Book IV            

8 April 2002
Scribe: Muhammad Athar Lila


These minutes were spoken on 10 April.


Before Monday’s lecture began, Professor Hutchinson briefly reviewed the sample exam he handed out during last Friday’s class.  The exam will have two parts:  The first is designed for students to bring together different ideas and philosophies and will require a broad knowledge of themes we have dealt with throughout the year, while the second section requires more specific knowledge and deals exclusively with philosophers and ideas that we have studied in the second semester.


Professor Hutchinson then began the lecture with a discussion about the immutability of Fortune.  He pointed out that fortune is a double-edged sword, i.e. it can hurt as well as heal.  Two recent examples illustrate this on a world scale.  The first was in 1989 when the Berlin Wall came down.  This turn of fortune caused great happiness and joy for the German people as East and West Germany were finally united.  A consequence of this union, however, was that East Germans were given the freedom to purchase powerful Western cars.  Unfortunately, it proved to be a disastrous recipe to combine powerful automobiles with fine German beer and a new 0.10% blood alcohol level (raised from the former East German limit of 0.01% blood alcohol level, a safer standard).  In the month following the fall of the Berlin Wall, more Germans died in automobile accidents than had died because of the Berlin Wall during its entire history.


The second example the professor mentioned happened a week ago after a women’s school in Afghanistan opened its doors for the first time since 1994.  This was a joyous occasion attended by many foreign dignitaries, and it even brought the leader of Afghanistan to tears.  But, just this morning (April 8), BBC World News reported that several Afghanis were shot dead after peacefully protesting the low compensation they received (approximately $25) for after destroying all of their opium crops under American orders.  So, while on the one hand the country is celebrating its road to recovery, on the other it is still suffering the brutal consequences of foreign policies.  Both of these examples show how the same stroke of fortune can have two opposite effects.


We then turned to the last poem of Book Three of the Consolation of Philosophy.  Orpheo was a pioneer of ancient Greek music and drama.  During the renaissance, Monteverdi helped popularize a new art form called “Opera,” which was a conscious revival of ancient Greek drama and incorporated many of its features, like singing, dancing, and chorus lines.  One of the Renaissance’s first and most important operas was Monteverdi’s Orfeo, an excellent play which the Professor saw over fifteen years ago.  As it turns out, that same Opera Atelier Company is putting on another classical opera titled “The Coronation of Poppea” which features Nero, his mistress Poppea, and Seneca.  This opera will be staged at the Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street and will run on April 24th, 25th, 27th, and 28th.


The story of Orpheus was well known during the Middle Ages, as it had been passed down through many different writers.  Orpheus was a legendary Greek figure who fell in love with a woman who later died.  Out of his love for her, he braved the depths of hell to bring her back.  He nearly managed to bring her out, but his excessive love for her made him forget a divine imperative.  Unable to resist the temptation of looking back at her, Orpheus was, in the end, unable to rescue her from fate.  The professor noted that although the name ‘Christ’ is never mentioned, Boethius intended this meter to have a Christian resonance, since it has many parallels with Christian doctrine.  The professor also said that to his knowledge, the Consolation of Philosophy was the first time this story was ever used in a Christian writing.  We then read the following lines from the poem:


Happy the man whose eyes once could

Perceived the shining fount of good;

Happy he whose unchecked mind

Could leave the chains of earth behind.

Once when Orpheus sad did mourn

For his wife beyond death’s bourn,

His tearful melody begun

Made the moveless trees to run,

Made the rivers halt their flow,

Made the lion, hind’s fell foe,

Side by side with her to go,

Made the hare accept the hound

Subdued now by the music’s sound.

But his passions unrepressed

Burned more fiercely in his breast;

Through his song all things subdued,

It could not calm his master’s mood.

Complaining of the gods above,

Down to hell he went for love.   [III.m.12.1-19]. 


At this point, the Professor pointed out that music helping and ordering emotion was a common theme among the ancients.   This part of the meter praises the musical-emotional way of meeting information and contrasts it with the prosaic, purely logical way.


We then turned to a quote at the end of prose VI in Book IV, in which Philosophy says,


But I see that you have long been bowed down by the weight of this question.  You are worn out by the prolixity of the reasoning and have been looking forward to the sweetness of song.  So take a draught that will refresh you and make you able to apply your thoughts more closely to further matters.


By this time in the book, we find poetry (and song) being presented as a drink that refreshes and restores one’s strength.  It is no longer seen as something negative.  Over the course of the book, the status of philosophy has also risen.  The book began with the figure of Philosophy in rags and torn clothing, but by the end of the book she has undergone a period of convalescence as a result of being cared for properly by Boethius. 


We then continued with the meter in Book Three:


There on sweetly sounding strings

Songs that soothe he plays and sings;

All the draughts once drawn of song

From the springs the muses throng,

All the strength of helpless grief,

And of love which doubled grief,

Give their weight then to his weeping,

As he stands the lords beseeching

Of the underworld for grace.

The triform porter stands amazed,

By Orpheus’ singing tamed and dazed;

The Furies who avenge men’s sin,

Who at the guilty’s terror grin,

Let tears of sorrow from them steal;

No longer does the turning wheel

Ixion’s head send whirling round;

Old Tantalus upon the sound

Forgets the waters and his thirst

And while the music is rehearsed

The vulture ceases flesh to shred

At last the monarch of the dead

In tearful voice, “We yield,” he said:

“Let him take with him his wife,

By song redeemed and brought to life.   [III.m.12.20-43]


The Professor summarized that here, Orpheus successfully used his music to subdue the caretaker(s) of hell, and as a result, all the tortures and sufferers of hell are released (a promise also offered by Jesus Christ).


But let him, too, this law obey,

Look not on her by the way

Until from night she reaches day.”

But who to love can give a law?

Love unto love itself is law.

Alas, close to the bounds of night

Orpheus backwards turned his sight

And looking lost her twice to fate.

For you the legend I relate,

You who seek the upward way

To life your mind into the day;

For who gives in and turns his eye

Back to darkness from the sky,

Loses while he looks below

All that up with him may go.   [III.m.12.44-58]


The professor pointed out that for Neo-Platonists, the “upward path” alluded to in this poem is a metaphor for the true way, while the downward path represents the way to destruction and despair.


The professor then offered a source that the class would find useful when researching Greek mythology.  The first is called The Greek Myths by Robert Graves.  It is a 2-volume collection that has references to all the primary sources for Greek mythology in ancient texts (such as Ovid, Plato, Aristotle, etc.). 


Another recommendation was a film directed by a modern German director Wim Wenders entitled “Wings of Desire.”  The film is about the life of an angel who become mortal and chose to remain so after falling in love with a woman.  The underlying premise of the movie is that true love is the exclusive domain of mortal beings.


The Professor then pointed out that in the 2nd prose, we see the influence Plato had on Boethius.  The prose is written as a kind of Platonic dialogue and is derived completely from Plato’s Gorgias.  Here, Boethius (like Plato) argues that the worst thing in the world is to be bad, and that since punishment is help for being bad, punishment is therefore good.  The idea that true goodness lies within the reality of the self is taken directly from Plato.  Boethius’ discussion also revolves around the concepts of Will and Power, both of which are prominent themes in Plato’s Lesser Hippias, and elsewhere.


We concluded the class by looking at the beginning of Prose V of Book Four, in which Boethius wonders why there is both good and bad in fortune:


Yes, I can see there is a kind of happiness and misery which are inseparable from the very actions of good and bad men.  But I believe that there is both good and bad in the actual fortune of ordinary people.


In Prose VI, near the beginning, Philosophy answers:


Then, as if she were starting a fresh argument, she spoke as follows:  The generation of all things, the whole progress of things subject to change and whatever moves in any way, received their causes, their due order and their form from the unchanging mind of God.  In the high citadel of its oneness, the mind of God has set up a plan for the multitude of events.


The answers Boethius gives to this question are essentially the Neo-Platonic interpretation of Plato’s Timaeus.  The professor pointed out that trying to explain why all fortune is good is the most difficult challenge Philosophy faces throughout the whole book.  She tries to answer this question in different ways but fails to get the complete satisfaction of the prisoner, and later she has to break off her speech to go get a drink.  The professor concluded the lecture by pointing out that Boethius was trying to show that, at the end of the day, the goodness of fortune (the divine plan for the universe) is a fundamental belief, something that all Christians are forced to accept.