Much of the roman Boethius’ work The Consolation of Philosophy speaks of luck, or Fortuna. However, as The Consolation of Philosophy continues, the reader is brought to Boethius’ inevitable conclusion. That it is self-examination which provides humans with lasting happiness. The Consolation of Philosophy is not necessarily a Christian work or just about suffering but instead the power to choose happiness while powerless. Despite everything being predetermined by providence or even luck, human beings have the freedom to determine how they will deal with existence. Boethius provides a very similar view of free will to that of Augustine’s, a view of death and happiness like that of Socrates and like the poem The Seafarer, God is the goal human beings must all set their sight upon ultimately. Human beings, despite suffering and anguish, have self-determination even when events negatively affect one’s life and must choose whether or not to be happy. For a good person, ‘right living’ brings the consolation of a life well lived, and death without regret. This is the primary message of The Consolation of Philosophy.
Section 2. Reliance on Fortune as Reliance upon the World
In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius begins by laying out his grievances with the world because he feels wronged. One can only assume that Boethius is about to write very sad songs and poems regarding his situation as Lady Philosophy approaches; he is surrounded by the Muses of Poesies. She drives them away accusing them of feeding Boethius’ unhappiness with “sweet poison, “Who said she, ‘has allowed yon play-acting wantons to approach this sick man – those who, so far from giving medicine to heal his malady, even feed it with sweet poison? These it is who kill the rich crop of reason with the barren thorns of passion, who accustom men’s minds to disease, instead of setting them free” (Boethius 3). This reference is to the nine Muses, which include Tragedy and Passion. One should assume that Boethius was being fed the sweet poison of self-pity. Boethius has accepted his situation at this point, and rationale is returning to him, and he begins to change from emotion-laden writing to philosophy. For Boethius, Philosophy is more than just wisdom. Philosophy is also about God and understanding how to be a good Christian. “In short, for Boethius as for St. Augustine, philosophy is the pursuit and love of God” (Maurer 23).
It is here also that a subtle reference to Socrates is made regarding his plight and death. Socrates won with the help of philosophy the victory of an unjust death (Boethius, 5). This is a reference to Socrates position that no evil can happen to an unjust man. “Wherefore, O Judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has his own approaching end happened by mere chance” (Douglas, Loc 434). The reference to both of these works shows early on where Boethius means to take the reader and what position that Lady philosophy represents. She is telling Boethius that death will not harm him and that he is a good man and that he should stay strong in his faith in God.
Boethius response to her is to lay out that false charges have been brought against him, and that if he were to lie in order to escape the false charges, it would be wrong but by not lying, he lost his freedom and possibly his life. Even here at the early portion of the work, Boethius struggles with the idea of free will. In Boethius’ eyes, this is the conundrum. He can attempt to avoid punishment, but in doing this, he will sin by lying, or he can be honest, avoid the sin, and probably lose his life. He laments the unfortunate choice fate has placed before him. At this point, it is becoming clear that Boethius is making the case that Fortuna represents the earthly realm and brings sorrow and suffering, but Lady Philosophy, which entreats him to pursue God is not a part of the world. “Verily this is the very crown of my misfortunes, that men’s opinions, for the most part, look not to real merit, but to the event; and only recognize foresight where Fortune has crowned the issue with her approval. Whereby it comes to pass that reputation is the first of all things to abandon the fortunate” (Boethius 10). Boethius contrasts this with Lady Philosophy and her pursuit of God, “And yet thy spirit, indwelling in me, had driven from the chamber of my soul all lust of earthly success, and with thine eye ever upon me, there could be no place left for sacrilege. For thou didst daily repeat in my ear and instill into my mind the Pythagorean maxim, “Follow after God” (Boethius 10).
Boethius ties fortune with worldly things and worldly-minded people and philosophy with God, goodness, and wholesomeness. He is certainly saying that philosophy teaches us to find happiness in ourselves. “For whenever a man by proclaiming his good deeds receives the recompense of fame, he diminishes in a measure the secret reward of a good conscious” (Boethius 9). This is very much like Augustine’s concept of interiorism. To find the truth, one must first look inward, and by doing this, you will know what is right and wrong, and you will know God because God is the truth (Maurer 8-9). Thus, we find that happiness is philosophy, which for Boethius is the pursuit of God. Augustine explains that one finds the truth within and in so doing finds God. “We are sure then, that truth exists above the human mind and that it is necessary, immutable and eternal. Now, these qualities are attributes of God. To prove the existence of truth is thus at the same time to prove the existence of God, who is truth” (Maurer 8).
Thus, the truth of Lady philosophy is self-examination, and like Socrates who won the reward of an unjust death for living an examined life, so Boethius must face death in order also to earn his reward for being truthful to himself and living an examined life. A life of philosophy and the pursuit of the truth which is none other than God.
Human beings, according to Boethius, cannot be happy except by staking one’s happiness in God. True happiness cannot be achieved by placing one’s faith in the world, which is fortune or luck. This is Boethius’ explanation of why he cannot lie even to save himself from false charges because it is better to die happy in the pursuit of God than miserable with a wrecked conscious and at the whims of the world. “Have ye no good of your own implanted within you, that ye seek your good in things external and separate” (Boethius 26)?
Section 3. Boethius’ Defense against Determinism
Boethius, after identifying Fortuna or worldly passions as the source of human unhappiness, he finds there are questions and arguments yet to be dealt with regarding the nature of a human’s future. For instance, what about the idea that the outcome of one’s life is predetermined by God and that it matters not what one thinks or feels. Here we see agreement between Augustine and Boethius: God has divine foreknowledge, and human beings have free will. Both exist simultaneously, and neither exists in opposition or contradiction with the other.
The idea is that God has foreknowledge of what humans will choose with their free will. It is not any less the human’s choice, but instead, Augustine maintains that God is omniscient and so he knows in advance what human beings will choose. “If God foreknew a future will that turned out not to be a will at all, things would indeed happen otherwise than as God foreknew them…. [If one’s] willing is necessary, how does he will, since there is no will” (Augustine 57)? Hence, Augustine is in agreement regarding a human’s ability to find and choose happiness during his life irrespective of whether God knows the outcome of one’s choices because they are still that person’s choices.
Regarding Boethius position, it is somewhat more nuanced on both God’s divine foreknowledge and the possession of free will by human beings. God is outside of time, and therefore, his existence is past, present, and future. For God, all of eternity is laid out like an unfolded map on a table. God experiences all things simultaneously, and for him, every event has happened already, is happening currently and is to happen.
“For this world carries with it a revelation alike of the Divine nature and of the Divine Knowledge. Now, eternity is the possession of endless life whole and perfect at a single moment. What this is becomes more clear and manifest from a comparison with things temporal. For whatever lives in time is a present preceding from a past to the future, and there is nothing set in time which can embrace the while of space of its life together. Tomorrow’s state it grasps not yet, while it has already lost yesterdays; nay, even in the life of today ye live no longer than a brief transitory moment. Whatever, therefore, is the subject to the condition of time, although, as Aristotle deemed of the world, it have neither beginning or end, and its life be stretched to the whole extent of times infinity, it yet is not such as rightly to be thought eternal. For it does not include and embrace the whole space of infinite life at once but has no present hold on things to come, not yet accomplished” (Boethius 102).
As one can see, Boethius differentiates between the eternal and the everlasting and then makes a more direct statement about the nature of God versus the nature of the world. “So, if we are minded to give things their right names, we shall follow Plato in saying that God is indeed eternal, but the world is everlasting” (Boethius 103). Thus, human beings make decisions that are both in God’s future, past and present simultaneously, and because of this, man is afforded free will, and God still possesses divine foreknowledge (Copleston 103). Therein, Boethius has put forth a plausible defense for the idea that human beings may choose how to live their life even though God has divine providence (Boethius c.475-526). This is necessary to dispel the idea that some people are destined to be miserable while others are happy.
Showing that human beings have free will is important because it gives hope that happiness can be found and demonstrates there are decisions one may make which can result in a better life and lessen ones suffering and despair. It demonstrates that there is such a thing as right living and that it is up to men to live this way. But what is just as important is the notion of happiness even in death. This is where one finds the similarities between Boethius and Socrates.
Section 4. Happiness in Death
Socrates almost seems out of place when discussing a medieval philosopher. However, Boethius himself mentions Socrates early in The Consolation of Philosophy. To the point, Lady Philosophy states that Socrates earned the victory of an unjust death. It is mentioned in connection with the statement that Lady Philosophy had waged war on foolishness. The ideas of Socrates fits neatly within Boethius’s work. Like Boethius and Augustine, Socrates pursues the idea of right living. He looks for answers to things like knowledge and settles on the idea of the examined life and to live one’s life without such an examination is not worth living (Plato 374). Which is, without a doubt, what Augustine calls interiorism (Maurer), as mentioned in this paper earlier, and what Boethius terms the pursuit of philosophy (Boethius).
Socrates also makes it clear that death is not a bad thing for those who have lived rightly. “Wherefore, O judges, be of good cheer about death, and know of a certainty, that no evil can happen to a good man, either in life or after death. He and his are not neglected by the gods; nor has my own approaching end happened by mere chance” (Plato 434). And as we see with Boethius, he states, “That absolutely every fortune is good fortune” (Boethius 85). One can surmise that what is being said is that every fortune brings justice or usefulness; fortune always serves God in some way. Lady Philosophy tells Boethius it should not surprise him that the wicked waste their time pursuing valueless things, such as power, wealth, and beauty (Boethius 6). The Consolation of Philosophy ends by saying that God sees and judges all things in the world as if to remind Boethius that his faithfulness to the truth and righteousness will not go unrewarded. Thus, no evil may come to a good man neither in life nor death.
Section 5. Finding happiness in God: The Seafarer versus The Consolation of Philosophy
Like Boethius, the old man in The Seafarer laments the unjustness of his current position in life. Also, like Boethius, he awaits his impending death. Though Boethius is tucked away in a dungeon, and the old man is trapped on land convalescing in old age. The old man speaks of his hard but exciting life of danger. “Bitter breast-cares have I abided, explored in a boat many sorrowful places, the terrible tossing of waves — where the narrow night-watch often seized me at the stem of the ship when it crashes upon the cliffs” (The Seafarer, exp. 4-8). However, it was an exciting life full of adventure and experiences that can only occur at sea. The seafarer bemoans his fortune at having grown old and the loss of what he values in life, much in the same way that Boethius complains of falling out of favor for doing the right thing. And while Boethius may be able to lessen the possibility of his impending death for now, the old man is old and he may not.
The man in The Seafarer had placed his happiness in the strength and vigor of youth, and this is something Boethius also mentions as well. “Therefore, there is no man so proud minded over this earth, nor so assured in his graces, nor so brave in his youth, nor so bold in his deeds, nor his lord so gracious to him that he will never have some anxiety about his sea-voyaging — about whatever the Lord wishes to do to him” (The Seafarer, exp. 39-43). This is one of the failings mentioned in The Consolation of Philosophy, “All Fail, then, to give what they promise. There is, moreover, some accompanying evil involved in each of these aims. Beauty and bodily strength are likewise of little worth. In strength, man is surpassed by the brutes; beauty is but an outward show” (Boethius 35). Likewise, the old seafarer states that he made a mistake placing his happiness in the experiences of the world, and in his youthfulness. He longs for the Kingdom of God where lasting happiness may be found again.
The outline in The Seafarer follows somewhat closely to the outline in The Consolation of Philosophy. The first part is devoted to discussing happiness, which has been lost. The old man has lost his youth and his ability to sail the sea and visit far ports. He is bound down to the land where he can only watch the tide and dream about the past and alludes to his aging by speaking of the end of the summer (The Seafarer, exp. 53-7). Boethius has been confined under guard. He has lost his titles, his wealth, and contact with the outside world. In the middle part, the old man speaks of the ephemeral nature of youth, and the pleasures in the world. In the same way but in a far more detailed manner, Boethius and Lady Philosophy discuss this subject and break down all of the worldly pleasures and the ways in which they cause human beings’ unhappiness.
Finally, the old man tells of how happiness may be better served by finding God and ruminating on the final reward of heaven. A warning is given that God is the mighty measurer or judge of all of one’s thoughts, emotions, and actions (The Seafarer, exp. 103-110). Likewise, Boethius reminds the reader that all fortune is good and serves as either punishment or usefulness. God sees everything, and that righteousness is necessary before the eyes of a judge who sees everything (Boethius 106).
The two works follow a very similar outline, and both start out by telling of the worldly passions they carried and how happiness was tied up in them. They then tell about the sorrow and suffering caused by this and both end with an admonishment to seek God and know that he is watching everything and that you will need to answer to him in the final judgment. Both works, interestingly follow the same formula in order to deliver a warning to the reader. The warning is simple, do not place your happiness in the world but instead in God, which is eternal.
Section 6: Conclusion
There is a recurrent theme throughout the literature of the period. Suffering is a theme that is portrayed in nearly every possible formulation. Thematically, stoic pagan philosophy wedded to Christian ideals of faith, and commitment pervades it all thoroughly. While most see Boethius work as Christian, it is hard to do so. The entire theme of the Christian portion of The Consolation of Philosophy can be summed up in a poem like The Seafarer. Keeping in mind The Seafarer is not a simple poem, but one full of imagery and suggestions. However, it is short compared to 100 plus pages of text in The Consolation of Philosophy. Instead, it should be seen as a rigorous exercise in Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy. Bertrand Russell had the following to say regarding the matter. “Boethius is a singular figure. Throughout the Middle Ages, he was read and admired, regarded always as a devout Christian and treated almost as if he had been one of the Fathers. Yet his Consolations of Philosophy, written in 524 while he was awaiting execution, is purely Platonic; it does not prove that he was not a Christian, but it does show that pagan philosophy had a much stronger hold on him than Christian theology” (Russell, Loc 6814). It is no mistake that similarities are seen between St Augustine, who is an admitted Neoplatonist and Boethius. Nor is it a coincidence that Boethius echoes the Platonic Socrates, in his admonition of worldly pleasure and of the pursuit of philosophy (Russell 6827).
Socrates said the unexamined life is not worth living, and one must use philosophy to examine life. For Boethius, the pursuit of philosophy must lead eventually back to God, or as St Augustine said, all truth is found through exploration of the self and truth is God. The pursuit of truth then is the pursuit of God who is eternal. Therefore, philosophy, truth, and God lead one to eternal happiness. It is a happiness that continues even in death, for as Socrates states, evil can do a good man no harm in life or in death (Plato , Loc 434). Boethius has provided an updated version of the message from Plato’s Apology regarding right living and the formula for happiness irrespective of the suffering and hardship of this life.
Lasting happiness can only be found in God. God is the same as truth. The truth may only be found through self-examination. Therefore, humans must look within to discover lasting happiness. Philosophy is the pursuit of truth and truth, and God is the same. Philosophy is right living, and right living brings one closer to God, and God is lasting happiness. This is the true consolation of philosophy.
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