17 Jan -The Consolation of Philosophy (WARBURTON)
Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius (475—525), to give him his full name, was one of the last Roman philosophers. He died just twenty years before Rome fell to the barbarians. But in his lifetime Rome was already going downhill. Like his fellow Romans Cicero and Seneca, he thought of philosophy as a kind of self-help, a practical way of making your life go better as well as a discipline of abstract thought. He also provided a link back to the Ancient Greeks Plato and Aristotle whose work he translated into Latin, keeping their ideas alive at a time when there was a risk that they might be lost forever. As a Christian, his writing appealed to the devoutly religious philosophers who read his books in the Middle Ages. His philosophy, then, made a bridge from Greek and Roman thinkers forward to Christian philosophy that would dominate the West for centuries after his death.
Boethius’ life was a mixture of good and bad luck. King Theodoric, a Goth who ruled Rome at the time, gave him the high office of Consul. He made Boethius’ sons consuls too as a special honour, even though they were too young to have got there by their own merit. Everything seemed to be going right for him. He was rich, from a good family, and showered with praise. Somehow he managed to find time for his philosophical studies alongside his work for the government, and he was a prolific writer and translator. He was having a great time. But then his luck changed. Accused of plotting against Theodoric, he was sent away from Rome to Ravenna where he was held in prison, tortured and then executed by a combination of strangulation and being beaten to death. He always maintained that he was innocent, but his accusers didn’t believe him.
While in prison, knowing that he was soon to die, Boethius wrote a book that, after his death, became a medieval bestseller, The Consolation of Philosophy. It opens with Boethius in his prison cell feeling sorry for himself. Suddenly he realizes that there is a woman looking down at him. Her height seems to change from average to higher than the sky. She is wearing a torn dress embroidered with a ladder that rises from the Greek letter pi at the hem up to the letter theta. In one hand she holds a sceptre, in the other books. This woman turns out to be Philosophy. When she speaks, she tells Boethius what he should believe. She is angry with him for forgetting about her, and has come to remind him how he should be reacting to what has happened to him. The rest of the book is their conversation, which is all about luck and God. It is written partly in prose and partly in poetry. The woman, Philosophy, gives him advice.
She tells Boethius that luck always changes, and that he shouldn’t be surprised by this. That’s the nature of luck. It is fickle. The wheel of Fortune turns. Sometimes you are at the top; sometimes you are at the bottom. A wealthy king can find himself in poverty in a day. Boethius should realize that’s just the way it is. Luck is random. There is no guarantee that because you are lucky today you will be lucky tomorrow.
Mortals, Philosophy explains, are foolish to let their happiness depend on something so changeable. True happiness can only come from inside, from the things that human beings can control, not from anything that bad luck can destroy. This is the Stoic position that we looked at in Chapter 5. When people describe themselves as ‘philosophical’ about bad things happening to them today, this is what they mean; they try not to be affected by things outside their control, like the weather or who their parents are. Nothing, Philosophy tells Boethius, is terrible in itself — it all depends on how you think about it. Happiness is a state of mind, not of the world, an idea Epictetus would have recognized as his own.
Philosophy wants Boethius to turn once again to her. She tells him he can be truly happy despite being in prison waiting to be killed. She is going to cure him of his distress. The message is that riches, power and honour are worthless since they can come and go. No one should base their happiness on such fragile foundations. Happiness has to come from something that is more solid, something that can’t be taken away.
Throughout the book Philosophy reminds Boethius of what he already knows. That is again something that comes from Plato, since Plato believed that all learning is really a kind of recollection of ideas we already have. We never really learn anything new, just have our memories jogged. Life is a struggle to recall what we knew earlier. What Boethius already knows at some level is that he was wrong to worry about his loss of freedom and public respect. Those are largely outside his control. What matters is his attitude to his situation, and that is something he can choose.
A Little History of Philosophy