Summary of Part I
Philosophy speaks to Boethius explaining he is pining away for his former good fortune, and his imagination has distorted his mind with longing for what he lost. Philosophy knows the many guises of Fortune and how she seduces people with friendship and then overwhelms them with grief when she deserts them. Fortune was not his true friend.
He is wrong if he thinks Fortune has changed towards him, because change is Fortune’s normal behavior. Fortune is a “random goddess” (23). She is unreliable and dangerous and gives false happiness. The kind of happiness that passes away is not true happiness. Once you enter Fortune’s playground, you must bear with patience whatever she gives you, like a farmer who has to bear good years and bad years with his crop.
Commentary on Part I
Philosophy begins her cure by helping Boethius understand the true nature of Fortune, a random goddess, who gives and takes away at her whim. She is never a true friend and completely unreliable. Philosophy speaks of Fortune’s Wheel, always turning and turning. When a man is on top, he is happy. When the wheel turns, and a man is on the bottom, he is miserable: “Such is the game she plays” (p. 24). She has a heart of steel and laughs even at kings. She does not respond to the misery of men. Humans cannot keep the wheel from turning. It is a wheel of chance.
This description of Fortune became famous in the medieval writers influenced by Boethius. His own life was a perfect example of the cruel game of Fortune. He was a patrician in Rome, of ancient and royal family, who also happened to be a virtuous and scholarly man, hoping to benefit humanity with his wisdom and learning. He had a good wife, two sons who were Roman consuls; he had wealth and fame and a comfortable home. He was still young enough (in his forties) to have his health. He had produced voluminous translations of precious Greek texts, preserving them for future generations. Without warning or just cause, he was thrown into prison and executed on the pretext he had committed some treason. How can Boethius think of Fortune as a friend or pine after her gifts? It is a game that cannot be won by humans.
Summary of Part II
Philosophy now plays the part of Fortune, speaking in Fortune’s voice to show humans how they misunderstand her.
Fortune argues that she has not stolen any gifts from Boethius because none of them belonged to him in the first place, nor to any humans. He came naked from the womb, and Fortune fed him from her own resources. She was indulgent, and when she withdrew her hand, he cried out as though she had stolen something from him. Everything else in creation is allowed to be itself. All Fortune’s gifts come and go with her. Are humans so greedy that they demand Fortune to be constant, when inconstancy is her nature?
Fortune gives examples of humans who fell from her wheel. Croesus, king of Lydia, went from wealth to misery. Perses, the last king of Macedonia, was also a tragic figure. Tragedy is a literary form that acknowledges these reversals of Fortune.
Commentary on Part II
Philosophy in Fortune’s voice reminds Boethius of the story in Homer about the two jars in God’s house, one full of evil and one full of good. Boethius has had more than his share of the good, and now it is time to taste the bad. Fortune’s very changefulness should give him hope, because nothing stays the same. She sings a song about the greed of humans, always wanting more, never satisfied, no matter how much they get. They will always complain.
Summary of Part III
Now Philosophy invites Boethius to reply.
He says her words are sweet but do not help the mind weighed down by “deep seated melancholy” (p. 27).
Philosophy counters that Boethius has forgotten his many blessings as “the luckiest man in the world” (p. 27), adopted by Symmachus, married to a modest wife, having two sons and worldly honors. The culmination of his fortune, however, was the day his two sons became consuls together, and the senators appreciated the glorious oratory of Boethius on this honor. This is the only time Fortune has been unfriendly to him. The things he moans about are passing away, that is all. He knows there is no permanence.
Commentary on Part III
Philosophy speaking for the goddess Fortune tries to explain to Boethius that it makes no difference whether Fortune deserts him at some point, or that he deserts her by dying. These honors and gifts are never permanent. She sings a song about the instability of the world: “In law eternal it lies decreed/ That naught from change is ever freed” (p. 29). He has been one of the lucky ones in life, but he cannot expect to be exempt from change, when it is the whole way Nature functions in different cycles; in spring, winter, storm, and calm.