A favourite text during the Middle Ages was The Consolation of Philosophy, written by the medieval philosopher, Boethius. In it, we get an unusual style of philosophy that was accessible for a wide audience and contrasts greatly to the rest of Boethius’ writings, which consisted of logical texts. In a personal voice, written in a confessional style, Boethius tells us his life story as he tries to understand the fate that has befallen him. Here we find philosophical dialogue dramatised through the use of poetry, personification and symbolism. His is an incredible tale of riches to rags.
Boethius led a privileged life. He was born into the Roman aristocracy in approximately 475 AD and lived most of his life under the rule of Emperor Theoderic. Boethius lost his father early in life but was adopted by an even wealthier family, whose daughter he later married. He became consul in 510 AD, with his two sons following suit in 522. Boethius eventually becoming Theoderic’s ‘Master of Offices’, one of the most senior administrative officials.
In The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius outlines how he finally gained the prestigious position of ‘Master of Offices’, but did not hold it for long. Accused of treason, Boethius fell under suspicion of correspondence that urged the emperor Justin at Constantinople to invade Italy. Thus, he was imprisoned in a tower in Pavia and condemned to death by the senate in Rome. Prior to his execution, probably in 526, he wrote the work for which he is best remembered, The Consolation of Philosophy.
When printing first began, The Consolation was one of the books which was produced for both scholars and layman with at least 70 re-issues demanded before 1500. Alfred the Great translated the work into Old English in the middle 800s and claimed that it was one of the books which was “the most necessary for all men to know.” A German translation was made around the turn of the 11th century by Notker Labeo, a monk. At around 1380 a new version was translated by Chaucer, and, at the same time, a Byzantine version was also produced. A later translation followed in the 16th-century by Queen Elizabeth I. C. S. Lewis said that anyone who acquires a taste for The Consolation becomes truly at home in the middle ages.
As a prosimetrum (a prose work with verse interludes), The Consolation recounts, in a literary style, an imagined dialogue between the prisoner Boethius and a lady who personifies Philosophy. The literary style of this work allows Boethius’ voice to be incredibly earnest and authentic. He is suffering in the soul and seeking a cure, looking inward after everything externally valuable has been taken from him.
Considering the time in which he was writing, it may be asked, why does a Christian author turn to philosophy rather than faith in his darkest hour when needing consolation? Some theorists argue that Boethius was never more than superficially Christian, while others interpret the imagery used in the book as Christian and even describe Lady Philosophy as an ‘angel of God’ who brings Boethius back to God by means of philosophical argument.
A third mediate view is that Boethius set out to write a work that sets out to show what the Christians have in common with Philosophy and Classical thought by means of reasoned argument. This reasoned argument contrasts to the method by which the Barbarians used to falsely accuse, charge and imprison him.
Lady Philosophy plays an exceptionally important role in this work. She diagnoses the disease from which Boethius suffers; that of turning to ‘false goods’ such as material goods. She then proposes the means of deliverance from this affliction; that of turning towards the true good. The true good is a love of wisdom, reminiscent of the Socratic and Platonic argument that the good we truly seek is Truth and all other goods are in service to this one true good, or derivatives of it.
The personification of Lady Philosophy as a woman is interesting. Lady Philosophy is a healer and a nurturer – but not in a soft or passive manner. If we recall that Philo-sophia literally means ‘the Love of Wisdom’ and that the Ancient Greek word for wisdom here is the word ‘sophia’ – which is feminine – we see the idea that perhaps wisdom is akin to the intuition. This intuition of the mind would usually be understood as our rational intellect. This wisdom, then, is something internal that one may turn to when seeking truth.
Yet I would argue that it is a balance between the rational mind and the emotions that we are seeking. When the emotions need soothing and the head needs to understand in order to find calmness, or wisdom, neither can do so alone. Arguably this wisdom or intuition then is not purely rational intellect, but also accompanied by the right kinds of emotions. Rational emotions, such as compassion, for example.
This line of argument seems to fit Boethius’ dialogue. Boethius was a great Aristotelian scholar, having previously translated Aristotle’s logical works into Latin and written commentaries on them. Aristotle speaks about the importance of virtuous action that is accompanied by the appropriate emotional dispositions. For instance, I must do the right thing at the right time for the right reasons. If I act kindly without the relevant emotional attitude, am I actually being kind? It seems to me wisdom requires the heart as well as the head – the wise heart, if you will.
One way of looking at this dialogue is that it is between two aspects of Boethius: his rationality which is personified as the ‘masculine’ aspect of ourselves, the head, alongside or guided by the feminine intuitive aspect that is also a part of him. These two parts of each person work together to integrate the message of The Consolation – that in order to discover and value the true good of wisdom, and not to be led astray by false goods – we need to use both our intellect and our intuition or faith.
This theory is still relevant to our world today as it was back then. Lady Philosophy tells us that we seek happiness through wealth (because we think it will lead to self-sufficiency), we seek happiness through public office (because we think it will lead to respect), we seek happiness through kingship (because we think it will lead to power), we seek happiness through celebrity (because we think it will lead to renown) and we seek happiness through pleasure (because we think it will lead to joy). Yet fortune is fickle and the only things that cannot be taken away from us is our understanding, or wisdom and our heart.