Consolation of Philosophy: Essay & Questions

1. What is the historical background of Boethius’s life?


Ancicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born in fifth century Rome, a member of the aristocratic family of the Anicia. Brought up by the famous Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, the Head of the Roman Senate, and married to Symmachus’ daughter, Rusticiana, Boethius mastered the liberal arts under his mentor’s direction. Boethius took public office under the Visigoth King Theodoric who ruled the Western Roman Empire at that time. 


The Roman Empire reached its greatest expansion under the Emperor Trajan in the second century CE, and Roman government and institutions influenced all of Europe and Asia Minor.  By the third century CE the Empire was so large, it was divided into eastern and western empires governed jointly by both an eastern and western emperor in Constantinople and Rome. In 476 the barbarian Odoacer deposed the last Emperor of the West, and Constantinople became the sole capital of the Empire. Odoacer was killed by Theodoric. 


There was tension between the old Roman Senate and Roman aristocracy and the Germanic rulers of the Western Empire. Theodoric the Visigoth had his court at Ravenna not Rome but kept harmony by employing a Roman civil service (people like Boethius). In matters of religion, however, Theodoric’s Christianity differed from that of Boethius. Theodoric was an Arian, part of the heresy that did not believe Christ was equal to God the Father, but Theodoric allowed tolerance of worship in Italy for a while. 


Boethius sided with Constantinople and the Empire in theology as did the Roman Senate, and Theodoric began to feel threatened. Boethius was caught in the political undertow and imprisoned on charges of treason, executed in 524 or 525 at Pavia. Symmachus and the Roman Pope were also killed by Theodoric, and this was the end of the Roman aristocracy and the study of philosophy that Boethius prized above all. Boethius was venerated as a saint in a medieval Italian cult at Pavia.


Boethius’s  main importance to later ages was his prolific scholarship. His leisure time was given to his great work of translating Greek philosophy into Latin and explaining it to his Roman countrymen. He finished Aristotle’s works on logic and Porphyry’s Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle to serve as a student’s introduction. He also wrote five of his own works on logic. Aristotle only survived in the West from Boethius’s translations. Boethius set the stage for medieval education with his work on philosophy, mathematics, music, theology, and astronomy


2. What ideas of Plato does Boethius use?


Plato (428-348 BCE) was the greatest Greek philosopher, a student of Socrates. The character of Philosophy tells Boethius in The Consolation that Socrates was the embodiment of philosophy itself. With his mentor, Socrates, and his student Aristotle, Plato laid the foundation for western education with the first institution of higher learning in Athens, the Academy, the pattern for western universities. Plato wrote down what he claimed was the oral teaching of his master Socrates, in the form of dialogues between Socrates and his students. 


Among the distinctive Platonic ideas in The Consolation of Philosophy is the turning of the gaze from the false knowledge of the senses to the truth known to reason; namely, that God is the supreme good. This story of the ascent of the soul occurs in the Allegory of the Cave in the seventh book of Plato’s The Republic. Plato illustrates the state of ignorance as like a prisoner chained in a cave merely able to see shadows on a wall and mistaking them for reality. If the person turns around and walks out of the cave to see the sun, the clear light will actually present quite a different reality, just as reality is different for the philosopher who uses reason to know truth. Boethius deals with the levels of knowledge in V. iv. describing the senses, imagination, reason, and pure intelligence each as creating a different experience of the world. Humans can approach the knowingness of God through reason, though God’s pure intelligence surpasses any other knowledge. 


Boethius also speaks of the Platonic doctrine of recollection. It is the rational soul, not the senses, which remembers the good. Boethius in prison, for instance, has forgotten his true nature and the nature of the good. He knew it once but must remember it again. Similarly, it is the soul that always knows the truth from before its birth but forgets in the material world. The soul must be awakened again through education, as Philosophy awakens the sorrowful Boethius. 


Boethius constantly refers to the Platonic notion that the material world is not real; it is an imperfect copy or shadow of the Ideal world of pure forms. The philosopher is the enlightened man who has seen the patterns of perfection in his contemplations of the good and tries to infuse this perfection into the world we live in. Boethius believed he had been doing this when he worked for King Theodoric and complains to Philosophy how hard a task this is when the world is run by evil men.


3. What ideas from the philosopher Plotinus are important to The Consolation?


Many philosophers after Plato used and developed Platonic ideas in their philosophies. Plotinus (ca. 205-270 CE) was one of the most important of a group of philosophers called Neoplatonists in the third century influencing later Christian, Jewish, and Islamic thinkers. Other Neoplatonists were Porphyry, Iamblichus, Hypatia, and Proclus. 


Neoplatonism is considered a religious philosophy, or theistic monism. Boethius uses this philosophical approach to religion in The Consolation as he speaks of God as the One, but not of Christ or specific Christian doctrines. In his Enneads, compiled by his disciple Porphyry (ca. 270), Plotinus elaborated on the concept of God as the Good or the One, the origin of the unity holding everything together, and the source to which we must endeavor to return. Boethius has Philosophy hold forth on the nature of God and the doctrine of unity as characteristic of the good in Book IV. Neoplatonism, as a developed description of the spiritual unity of the universe, was useful for philosophers like Boethius who tried to reconcile Christianity with ancient philosophy, and Plato with Aristotle.


The image of the concentric circles, with God or the One in the center emanating the rest of the universe in a series of hypostases, manifestations, or lesser degrees of the good outward towards dense matter, derives from the Enneads. Boethius refers to this plan in Books III and IV. Plotinus depicts the afterlife as the soul’s return to the One, just as Boethius writes of the ascent of the soul to the good in Book IV. Boethius spends much time showing that evil does not really exist; there is only the unity of the good. The individual is only closer or farther away from the good. This is also a favorite discussion in Plotinus. Evil for Neoplatonists is not a separate force; it is an absence of the good, an imbalance, a kind of sickness, or absence of health.


The Consolation also retains the mysticism of Plotinus when it speaks of the soul’s return to the Eternal. Philosophy tells Boethius he can directly experience the good by rising on the wings of the mind to the realm of pure goodness (Book III). For Plotinus true happiness cannot be found in the material world but only through contemplation of the One. The soul must make a free choice to turn back to the One through the exercise of retiring into the depths of its own being.


4. How does Boethius make use of the Platonic dialogue and Platonic dialectic?


The Platonic dialogue is a form of philosophical discussion. Plato’s dialogues depict conversations between the teacher, Socrates, and his students. The dialectic method was the way in which Socrates questioned his students to get them to recognize truth. He would begin by finding out their assumptions on topics, and then he exposed their false beliefs, helping them to replace those with more accurate conclusions. 


The basis for this model of finding truth was the belief that everyone has the memory of truth within. Humans have simply forgotten the transcendental realm of absolute truth (the realm of Ideas or forms) by being born into a material world, but proper education can help us to remember what the soul has always known. Socrates, like Philosophy in The Consolation, is the teacher who brings the student to that state of true knowledge.


Thus, Socrates would begin certain topics such as friendship, politics, or love, and through discussion, these topics would be understood in a deeper and more universal way by the process of using dialogue for clarification. The teacher did not tell the student what to think, but drew from the student him or herself what the universal principle was. It is a democratic method of education in certain respects, seeing all participants in the dialogue as equal repositories of true knowledge. The result does not lead to mere opinion, however, because the premises and conclusions must follow logically.


Dialectic is thus a sort of reasoning that leads to truth. The character of Philosophy, for instance, makes Boethius examine his ideas of Fortune and evil. Boethius begins by thinking he has been dealt an unjust blow and that God has allowed this to happen. He is a victim of bad fortune. Philosophy helps him to define Fortune and its attributes, so that he understands he has been expecting the wrong things from Fortune. She does this with other topics as well, such as God, Providence, evil, free will, and happiness. After rigorous examination, Boethius mends the wrong views that have caused him misery. Dialectic was also used in a broader sense to mean the total process of becoming enlightened, or knowing the good directly. 


5. How does Boethius honor the ideas of Aristotle in The Consolation?


Boethius uses Aristotle’s theory of the two kinds of necessity to explain how God can know ahead of time what humans will choose without destroying their free will. For most of The Consolation, Boethius relies on Platonic tradition for answers, but at the end of the work in Book V when he tries to explain free will, he turns to Aristotle. “Simple necessity” means there is no free will, such as in the case of saying a human being is mortal (V, vi, p. 135). A human is mortal and will die, and so he has no free will in the matter. God has ordained it. “Conditional necessity” is the case that if you know someone is walking, then it is necessary he is walking, though the man is not forced to walk, just because you know he is doing it (V, vi, p. 135). In like manner, God can know ahead of time, or watch someone doing something, without causing that to happen. The person still has free will. 


Plato used the dialectic to reason about conclusions, but formal logic is credited as Aristotle’s contribution. Plato believed that deductions would follow from the right premises. An example would be the argument Philosophy puts forth that riches in themselves do not contain any precious attribute; therefore, they are not valuable (III,iii). 


Aristotle devised his Analytics to make sure there was a rigorous method for obtaining proper conclusions. This is the method of constructing syllogisms, or formulas for testing the logic of statements: for example, “All men are mortal; Socrates is a man; therefore, Socrates is mortal.”  The conclusion, “Socrates is mortal” must follow from the other statements.


Boethius had translated all of Aristotle’s works on logic and was impressed with their precision. He uses syllogisms in The Consolation, such as, “God is perfect goodness, and since we have agreed goodness is true happiness; therefore, true happiness is found in God” (III, x, p.69). Logic and reason, he felt, could prove the divine reality of God, and Boethius seems to rely on these more than on Christian faith in The Consolation.  Boethius’s use of Platonic and Aristotelian logic to support theology was the foundation of the scholastic approach to religion that prevailed in the medieval period.