The Consolation of Philosophy
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|Genre(s)||Philosophy; Medieval and Early Renaissance Christianity|
Boethius may have written his book, The Consolation of Philosophy, from prison in the year 524 AD, but the issues he addresses are every bit as relevant to modern life as they were to life in the 6th century. A philosopher, statesman, and theologian, Boethius was imprisoned by Germanic King Theoderick on trumped up charges. In his Consolation, Boethius creates a dialogue between his imprisoned self and Lady Philosophy to examine the true nature of happiness.
Philosophy initially finds Boethius despondent because of his changed circumstances. A respected scholar and politician, he has lost everthing: his wealth, his position, his friends and even all contact with his family. He is bemoaning his fate and the false charges that have put him in prison. Lady Philosophy diagnoses his illness: he has forgotten who he truly is and exactly what is his nature and purpose. She reminds him that the world was not created by chance but by a divine creator. She then turns her attention to human happiness. Fortune she asserts, cannot bring true happiness because the things fortune brings are transient: wealth, power,and honor. She reminds Boethius that although he is not with his family they are still alive. She then goes on to examine the ways in which people seek happiness and shows that when humans have those things they tend to become slaves to them for fear of losing them. She further asserts that bad fortune is actually good because it frees one from bondage to transient, earthly things.
All people are seeking happiness, Philosophy asserts, but most of them are seeking in the wrong places. She then equates happiness with the good and further asserts since God the creator is the Supreme Good, all people are actually seeking him even if they do not know it. Boethius counters with the questions: how then can there be evil in the world with if it has a Good and Perfect creator? Philosophy says that evil is really nothing because it has no power over good, because all men seek good and those who are evil cannot achieve that which they seek. Every action she says, requires will and power. Those men who seek good but do not achieve it thus have no power. Boethius still questions this because he is unable to understnd why it often seems that the evil prosper and the good suffer. This is a one of the most difficult problems a philosopher will face, Lady Philosophy admits. She then explains that what we see as fate, God sees as Providence. We cannot always understand what God intends but his intentions are always good for the correction of evil and the reward of good. However, this only brings Boethius to another question: If God knows all things and his Providence guides all actions, then how can man possibly have free will? Philosophy explains this by showing that just because God knows what will happen does not mean he wills what will happen. She says that man cannot put our own limitations on God. He is outside of time so all times look the same to him and his view is different: he sees a never changing present.
Thus Lady Philosophy provides consolation to Boethius for his situation. God foreknew it and it is part of his providential plan. Boethius happiness can be based in his virtue and in his knowledge of truth rather than in the ups and downs of circumstances. And indeed, good did come out of Boethius' imprisonment even though he never left his prison save to escape to death, he left us this book to help us learn to rise above our circumstances and never to let our circumstances controll us. Boethius may have phisically died in prison but in addition to a place in paradise, he gained immortality through his message which is still providing consolation to readers today.