THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY
While I was pondering thus in silence, and using my pen to set down so tearful a complaint, there appeared standing over my head a woman’s form, whose countenance was full of majesty, whose eyes shone as with fire and in power of insight surpassed the eyes of men, whose colour was full of life, whose strength was yet intact though she was so full of years that none would ever think that she was subject to such age as ours. One could but doubt her varying stature, for at one moment she repressed it to the common measure of a man, at another she seemed to touch with her crown the very heavens: and when she had raised higher her head, it pierced even the sky and baffled the sight of those who would look upon it. Her clothing was wrought of the finest thread by subtle workmanship brought to an indivisible piece. This had she woven with her own hands, as I afterwards did learn by her own shewing. Their beauty was somewhat dimmed by the dullness of long neglect, as is seen in the smoke-grimed masks of our ancestors. On the border below was inwoven the symbol π, on that above was to be read a θ. And between the two letters there could be marked degrees, by which, as by the rungs of a ladder, ascent might be made from the lower principle to the higher. Yet the hands of rough men had torn this garment and snatched such morsels as they could therefrom. In her right hand she carried books, in her left was a sceptre brandished.
Wisdom has always been sought, but it is slippery. The sin nature of man drives him to capture and possess, but wisdom is more of a journey’s companion whose voice grows more evident in time. Just as Boethius learns, the dress of his Muse has been torn by those who have run off with remnants of her wisdom and claim for themselves great understanding, but what indeed remains is tattered patchwork.
As John Mark Reynolds wrote in his book The Great Books Reader:
Boethius’s little book Consolation of Philosophy has never stopped selling since he wrote it, even in ages when books were rare and each copy cost a fortune. Men paid the price for his book because it gives a real answer to human suffering. Boethius faced his own death but, more important, the death of everything he loved. He was miserable, and only “Lady Philosophy” offered him any consolation. Tough love, but it helped him.
In Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius moved from considering history from an actor’s point of view to a “timeless” eternal view. From that divine perspective, nothing is ever utterly lost, because all of life is possessed by God in an eternal now.
Though time was gnawing away at Boethius and stealing all he valued, God was beyond time and loss.
How does knowledge become wisdom?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
A TRUE SELF-HELP GUIDE FOR HAPPINESS
If, when you hear the word philosophy, you do not jump to the edge of your seat, eagerly expecting your life to be changed in one sonorous, rhetorical sweep, then you’re not alone. Much of the philosophical tradition is marked by careful, nuanced distinctions, more often soporific than salvific.
So we might be surprised when Boethius, in his hour of need—tired, distressed, chained—is greeted by Lady Philosophy. What is more, though Boethius is a Christian, with all the host of heaven supposedly by his side, he is provided with an earthly guide in a tattered robe.
Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy is not what we would expect, but it is what humans, Christians included, oftentimes need. When we are grieving, depressed, or anxious, our culture either tells us to placate our wounds by escaping into entertainment or deceives us into thinking there is an easy solution. Lady Philosophy does not discount his pains, but she, the “physician,” asks him to “lay bare [his] wound” so that she can clear his tear-shrouded eyes and get to the bottom of things. The Consolation is indeed a self-help book, but one without compromise.
In terms of literary merit, it’s Boethius’s masterpiece, weaving together poetry and prose, Christian and non-Christian allusions, into a graciously didactic narrative. Historically, it has been read by scholars, clergy, and laymen alike. In terms of morality, it is realistic but staunch. Lady Philosophy believes that the truest goods are internal (not found in the accoutrements of this world), so she will not let Boethius think he has lost the ability to be happy merely by being enslaved.
And this is the central question of the Consolation: How can we obtain happiness?
One easy way not to obtain happiness is by following Boethius’s example at the outset. We come upon him reciting a poem that may appear artful to modern ears, but his call for the “maimed Muses to guide [his] pen” is the ancient equivalent of an emo-pop angst-ridden melody.
Boethius attributes the pride of his earlier days to these Muses, and now he sees them as his only comfort. The Muses can be taken to represent any kind of overbearing sentimental force, and it’s clear what Lady Philosophy thinks of them: “Sirens, seductive unto destruction!”
He has sunk so low that he not only looks to the Muses for comfort in distress, but he sees his journey from bliss to exile as due to nothing more than the Muses and “Fortune’s fickle bounty.”
If Boethius is going to obtain happiness, he needs to break free from the influence of the Muses and find a way to guard himself from the shrapnel of fortune’s whims. Lady Philosophy eventually probes him with two further questions: “What is the object to which all nature tends?” and “What is a man?” His failure to answer these interrelated queries properly shows Lady Philosophy the “chief cause” of his sickness.
Boethius remembers that all things were created by God, but he cannot name God as the end to which all things tend. Without an overarching sense of providence guiding the world, all we’re left with is fickle fortune at the reins, and there’s no telling whether good will lead to good, or vice versa. As an aside, this is the same predicament in which today’s popular naturalistic, materialistic worldview seems often to land.
But even if Boethius could name God as the cause and end of all things, he could not obtain true happiness while still holding that man is merely an “animal, reasoning and mortal.” This was the standard ancient definition of humanness, but the only powers of the soul it delineates are the passions (which we share with animals) and rationality.
Now, someone who has reason guiding his passions is better off than someone whose passions run wild, but logic cannot give access to true happiness. Boethius, even in his prison cell, has not forgotten the arguments of his predecessors for why the universe had a Creator. This logical truth is the “tiny spark” from which Lady Philosophy will fan the flames of his soul’s health. But he needs to go beyond logic if he is to be happy—he needs to possess the divine.
As Lady Philosophy catalogues the variety of things humans pursue in order to be happy, she notes that they all dissipate, run out, and require other goods to be sustained. This constant quest for new goods to fill in the gaps leads her to conclude that what all humans really want is “an abundant possession of good things . . . in all ways sufficing for itself.” We pursue happiness in various and misguided ways, but the intended end is always the same: a condition of self-sufficiency.
Truly, the only good thing that’s entirely self-sufficient is the divine itself, so the divine is the only thing that truly is happiness. In the Consolation, as is shown in later sections, the divine, goodness, and happiness are all different ways of referring to the same thing.
This means that if we’re to obtain happiness, we must possess the divine. We must have some way of literally having supreme goodness inside us and of transforming into little gods ourselves.
Many scholars conclude that Lady Philosophy never completely answers the questions of how we can possess the divine. She does offer some thoughts, and they are robust enough to be well worth reading, but in the end, Boethius (the author, not the character) seems to suggest that while philosophy can set us on the right track—performing the invaluable task of reigning in our passions and pointing us in the direction of the divine—more, ultimately, will be necessary.
Even so, since most of us, on introspection, are likely still shrouded by our own particular clouds of grief, we would do well to sit at the feet of Lady Philosophy, whatever her shortcomings.
Michael Fatigati is the assistant to the director and adjunct professor at Biola University’s Torrey Honors Institute.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).