Wheel of Fortune
The most famous metaphor from Boethius is the Wheel of Fortune, which throws humans randomly around, one minute at the top, and then, without warning at the bottom. The idea of the caprice of worldly life dominated the medieval literature that took its inspiration from Boethius. There was no hope for those who relied on wealth or power or position because these gifts were temporary. The mutability of human life was pictured as its main attribute, and the only remedy was to turn the attention to the divine world, the only realm with stability and hope.
Fortune is personified in Boethius and in medieval literature as a cruel “random goddess” (II. i., p. 23). She plays “dangerous games” while men are beneath “her yoke” (II. i., p. 23). Throwing in your lot with Fortune is like committing “your boat to the winds and you must sail whichever way they blow” (II. i., p. 23).
Philosophy uses the image of the Wheel of Fortune to explain the nature of worldly life to Boethius. He is grieving for his lost possessions and status, but she reminds him that they never belonged to him in the first place. Change is the nature of Fortune, and if you are lucky enough to ever get to the top, as Boethius did, just wait a while, and you will find yourself at the bottom. She gives many examples of both good and bad people who lost their position and lives—both evil rulers and good philosophers. It makes no difference. Life is like a roulette wheel, a gamble. One must understand it is a game of chance. Humans are not in control.
Concentric Circles of the Divine
The Wheel of Fortune is a circle or cycle out of control. An opposite image of the divine nature, however, uses the circle as a symbol of order. God is at the center of the universe, a force of goodness and order that radiates out from the center like a sun. The closer one is to the center, the happier one is. As the distance increases, so does the misery and confusion. The outer circles are more imperfect and yet they hold some pattern of perfection in them, though diluted. Salvation for humans consists in making the journey back towards the center. In this way, the human soul can participate in the goodness of God, found at the center of the soul.
This image of concentric circles is a powerful symbol of the unity of life. Evil is explained as an absence of goodness, not as a force in itself. Evil people are simply in the outer circles, far from God’s essence. They are blamed for being there, because humans have free will to turn in whatever direction they desire, no matter what their circumstance.
The author comments: “Imagine a set of revolving concentric circles . . . whatever moves any distance from the primary intelligence becomes enmeshed in the ever stronger chains of Fate” (IV. vi, p. 105). God or the supreme intelligence is also pictured as a “fountain-head of all good things” (III. x., p. 68). This perfection is what gives rise to all of creation, and so humans have everything they need to participate in divine goodness. They cannot claim they have been abandoned by God. They can only abandon themselves from God.
Evil as Sickness / Philosophy as Medicine
Boethius, through the character of Philosophy, insists that the world is ruled by Providence. Everything is working out in a benign way for everyone, no matter what it looks like. There is thus only good, and evil does not exist.
How can this be, when we see evidence of evil around us, both within people, and externally, as misery? The author says “evil is not so much an infliction as a deep set infection” (IV. iii, p. 94). God is seen as “the mind’s guide and physician” (IV. vi, p. 107) who knows exactly how to treat each individual. Thus, one person may require something sweet to be healed, while another person needs something bitter. Sometimes a piece of good fortune will bring a person closer to health and goodness, while another time, it is through some bitter fortune that the soul wakes up and is healed of evil.
Philosophy is a doctor. Philosophy constantly says she has come to the prison cell of Boethius to heal him of his grief. He is suffering because he has forgotten himself and God. Philosophy is the discipline that turns the attention around, away from the outer darkness to the center where light is. She accuses the Muses of poetry as being “sweetened poisons” for Boethius because they make him wallow in his sorrow. Philosophy’s use of Reason, however, is the mind’s medicine that can make it appreciate how God rules the world (I. i., p. 4). She uses logic and stories to get his mind to understand once again that his nature and the nature of the universe are divine. No matter what happens, goodness cannot be taken away from him.
The metaphor of evil as a sickness thus implies that it is a temporary and abnormal condition. It is not the definition of life or of a person. This metaphor also implies there is a cure. Apply the right remedy, and health is restored. It is an optimistic view of the nature of the universe, insisting there is an underlying order and harmony.