Perhaps no man has influenced the great medieval writers quite as much as Saint Boethius.
His great work of philosophy, the Consolation of Philosophy, inspired the likes of Dante and Chaucer. Dante himself went so far as to place Boethius within the Circle of the Sun and considered the Consolation to be a great source of comfort after the death of his beloved Beatrice. As someone who has and continues to study Dante for her personal enrichment, the Consolation became an important read, second only to Aristotle’s Ethics.
I went into The Consolation of Philosophy for the purpose of expanding my own understanding of The Divine Comedy, I came out with a better understanding of the medieval mind, and by extension, the human animal itself.
Its difficult to write about a book like this, I can’t really review it—I’m not equipped too; I know only that I know nothing. What I can do is frame why—especially conservatives—should read this book. To do that, I need to set the stage with a little history lesson on the life of Boethius.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born in or around 480 AD. His wealthy, aristocratic family converted to Christianity fairly early in the 4th Century. His father was a consular for the barbarian King Odoacer and died while Boethius was still a boy. Boethius was then adopted and fostered by Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, a member of the famous Symmachi.
It was his foster father who introduced Boethius to philosophy and literature. With an early passion for study, Boethius was considered a prodigy by many family members. His zeal earned him the attention of King Theodoric—the Ostrogoth king who defeated King Odoacer in 493. Theodoric commissioned Boethius to construct a water clock and sundial for Gundobad, King of the Burgundians; to find a lyre player for Clovis, King of the Franks; and was further contracted to investigate a case of coin debasement. In 510, at the age of thirty, he was made a consul.
Later on, although history has lost the year of occurrence, Theodoric made Boethius magister officiorum which made him both head of the whole civil service and chief of the palace officials. The bestowing of this enormous responsibility, however, is far from what Boethius himself would call his greatest moment of happiness; that moment came in 522 when both his sons were appointed as consuls together.
We know little about the time following his consulship, only that he continued to pursue his studies despite long trips away from Rome and her library. Despite all his dedication to public life, his true passion, his summum vitae solamen, was philosophy. It was his greatest wish to translate all the works of Aristotle. Although he didn’t fulfil this dream, he was able to translate some works like Porphyry’s Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle and some of Aristotle’s works on logic. In fact, it is only through Boethius’ translations that Aristotle’s works on logic survived in the West.
So how does a man of such high honors and intellectual passion fall from grace? Why did he have to console himself with Philosophy?
Theodoric, while a Christian, was like most Goths—an Arian. Arianism is a heresy which I will clumsily boil down to Father created Son and are not of “one substance” rendering the Christ a mere demigod: simply put, denial of the Trinity. Theodoric was happy to rule Rome, the Seat of Orthodoxy, and completely supported freedom of Christian worship and remained friendly with the clergy.
Boethius was not an Arian. Meaning, he was Catholic, although that term didn’t really exist at the time. At this point, it’s worth remembering that there were two (sorta) Roman Empires—the Western, seated in Rome, and the Eastern seated in Constantinople and later known as Byzantine Empire (see also the Greeks).
When Odoacer disposed of the last western Emperor and sent the royal insignia to Constantinople, it was understood that Odoacer would preserve Roman administration and recognize Emperor Zeno of the east. Therefore, Odoacer and later Theodoric were seen as viceroys to Constantinople.
Then, in 484, there was a doctrinal breach called the Acacian schism and it strengthened Theodoric’s independence from the East. He welcomed Rome’s vitriol towards Constantinople. For Boethius and his foster father, Symmachus, and their circle of friends, the unity of the empire was paramount. Because he was a man of principle, Boethius sided with the East, with the continuation of the imperial culture and against the Gothicizing of the empire.
Its in these tumultuous circumstances that Boethius’ enemies rose up to cut him down. He was implicated in a plot regarding the election of a pro-east pope (John I) and then, just to be extra careful, was also charged with sorcery. He was arrested and sent into exile in Pavia where he would await execution. Boethius would be tortured and then bludgeoned to death, where he would join the ranks of the Blessed Martyrs. His Sainthood was confirmed on Dec. 15th 1883.
Although we don’t know the conditions of his imprisonment in Pavia, we know that it’s during this time, between exile, imprisonment, and martyrdom, that he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy. He could have had access to books, but we can’t know, although he did live in a time when memory was sharper and more retentive then modern men. It’s possible he knew his philosophers off the top of his head. I personally believe that he wrote the Consolation alone, in prison, under the shadow of execution.
The Consolation is written in the form of pagan Greek/Roman dialogue called a consolatio wherein the writer is seeking the cure to an ill through questioning various remedies. In the Consolation, Philosophy is a character itself—she is Boethius’ nurse. She diagnoses Boethius and applies “medicines” through each of the five books.
Boethius belonged to a strange era when Christianity hadn’t totally absorbed the classically pagan traditions of the West. This is the period before the Middle Ages, when Christianity was the dominate religion and wrapped up in the zeal of this new religion. As such, Greek philosophy (that of Plato and Aristotle) was being neglected.
Philosophy comes to Boethius in tattered clothing, she tells him how she has been mistreated and misused by various “mobs of Epicureans and Stoics and the others” that grabbed at her “to seize for themselves the inheritance of wisdom that [Socrates] left.” The marauders ripped off little pieces of her dress and “went away in the fond belief that they had obtained the whole of philosophy.” Boethius himself has neglected her, and because of this, he suffers. Philosophy reminds him that others like him have suffered—Socrates, Zeno, Seneca, etc—and “the sole cause of their tragic sufferings was their obvious and complete contempt of the pursuits of immoral men which my teachings had instilled in them.”
Which leads to the theme of the Consolation—why do good men suffer and evil men prosper?
We have to define a few terms, first.
When Boethius speaks about “good” and “happiness” he is not referring to the fleeting, momentary “good” and “happiness” that the modern, secular mind often conjures. “Happiness” and “good” are often confused for momentary comfort. This can be seen most clearly in the consistent misunderstanding of the clause “pursuit of happiness” found in our Declaration of Independence.
What he means is a Christianized version of the Aristotelian idea of “good” and “happiness.” Aristotle defines “good” as that thing which all rational action and pursuit aim at. “Happiness”
is the highest of all practical goods.
For Boethius, a Christian, God is good. Because good is what all things aim at, all things aim at God. Therefore, happiness is the pursuit of God, something like the perfection of beatification.
Philosophy states that “the supreme good is the goal of good men and bad men alike, and the good men seek it by means of a natural activity—the exercise of their virtues—while the bad strive to acquire the very same thing by means of their various desires, which isn’t a natural method of obtaining the good.” Virtue is found within and every man has the ability to use it. The difference lies in habitual use. Desires are ends, not virtue.
Philosophy goes on to explain that wickedness is weakness; men who willingly and knowingly abandon goodness cease to be at all. She says “wicked men, who form the majority of men, do not exist.” She likens the wicked as corpses. A corpse is a dead man, not a man, as in it is missing that natural component which makes a man.
But why do the wicked prosper?
“It is the nature of anything to perform the office proper to it” for “riches are unable to quench insatiable greed; power does not make a man master of himself if he is imprisoned by the indissoluble chains of wicked lusts; and when high office is bestowed on unworthy men, so far from making them worthy, it only betrays and reveals their unworthiness.”
On the flipside, Philosophy says, “goodness cannot be removed from those who are good” despite “all the raging of the wicked.” Their wickedness can never remove the glory of the good because “virtue has her own individual worth.” And, “the only way a man can exercise power over another is over his body and what is inferior to it, his possessions. You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of inner tranquility a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason.”
He cautions the wicked with a reminder, that what they can do can be done to them, and will most likely be done by someone who is likewise, wicked: “Just as there is no agreement between good men and bad men, so even the bad cannot agree amongst themselves.”
Virtue is a reward in and of itself. While the wicked toil to prop themselves up they will never find true succor in the comfort of a self-assured good man. That’s why the wicked must scream and demand you be as miserable as they—they can’t understand why they’re so unhappy. Because no amount of clout is enough, no amount of shadow banning, no amount of legislation, no amount of proper pronouns, of cancelling, and submission will ever satiate them.
This lesson must be understood by conservatives.
Main-stream conservatives spend far too much time worrying about what the left thinks of them. They’re going to call you racists no matter how untrue that is. They’re going to call you homophobic, regardless of the facts. They’re going to call you stupid no matter how many PhDs, certificates, or honors you have. Conservatives must find peace in the self-assuredness of our own virtue.
This is just one aspect of the Consolation of Philosophy. I haven’t even touched Fortune’s wheel, which was my original point of interest going into this book. For such a short book it packs a lot of content. However, it’s very nutrient dense; it took me several weeks to digest.
Like most classical works, some background in Plato and Aristotle is helpful. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them required. Consolation may even whet your appetite for more.
Saint Boethius’ the Consolation of Philosophy gets my highest marks and should be required reading for any dissonant righter.