Consolation of Philosophy:Summary of Book II Part IV-VI

Summary of Part IV


Boethius replies that everything Philosophy has said about Fortune is true, but it is even harder to lose when one has once been happy.


Philosophy says that he is still misguided. He still possesses the greatest gifts Fortune gave him. For instance, his father-in-law, Symmachus, full of wisdom and virtue, for whom he would give his own life, is still alive and vigorous. His noble wife is still alive, the mirror of her father. She is totally devoted to Boethius and weeps for him. His sons do him credit. They are still blessings for him. He cannot be dissatisfied with all his fortune in the world. No man is completely happy with what Fortune sends him. 


It is happy men like Boethius who are the most sensitive anyway, since they have never before tasted adversity. Many would think themselves in heaven to have what Boethius has. It is our opinion about the events that makes us happy or unhappy. One should bear everything with patience because human happiness is at best “bitter-sweet” (p. 31).


Why do humans seek happiness outside when it resides within? Fortune can never take away oneself. Fortune is changeable and cannot lead to happiness. Boethius once believed the human mind could not die, whereas the happiness of the body must come to an end with death.


Commentary on Part IV


Philosophy tries to show Boethius that he is still an enviable man by possessing his virtuous and noble family who are all alive and well. They love and mourn him. He has not lost everything as he thinks. Good fortune is a relative thing, since some would still envy him and think him lucky. Ultimately one can never rely on Fortune since it is changeable, and since the body will die. Only the inner freedom does not die and is not affected by outer luck. 


Summary of Part V


Philosophy says that her reasoning is beginning to penetrate his mind, and now she will do something stronger to help him. She begins to question him about Fortune’s gifts. What is it about riches, for instance, that is precious? Is it something inherent in the riches themselves, or in the power they confer? It seems to be only when money is given away that it becomes valuable, yet then, the giver gets impoverished. Riches are really poor and barren, for if one man has wealth, it means others are in poverty. There is nothing essentially good about riches.


How about the beauty of Nature? You can enjoy it, but it has nothing to do with you. It cannot belong to you. You can satisfy your needs from Nature with very little.


What about having servants? These cannot belong to you. All the blessings of Fortune do not belong to humans. The only thing that makes these things precious is that you think they are. The more possessions you have, the more help you need to protect them from others.


You seem to feel a lack of blessings within you, she tells Boethius. Other creatures are content, but humans, made in the image of God, use external objects to satisfy themselves, thus degrading themselves. You become lower than material goods by using these things to adorn yourself. 


Commentary on Part V


Philosophy goes on to show that there is nothing inherent in wealth to make it desirable. Anything above one’s needs is a burden, for it provokes envy, violence, and care. Wealth does not belong to one, for it can be taken away. One spends one’s life in hoarding and guarding what will be lost anyway


She refers to humans as the highest beings in creation, made in the image of God, an idea characteristic of both Christianity and Greek philosophy. By becoming attached to inferior objects and not prizing the essence of human nature, the human becomes lower than the animals. 


Philosophy ends with a song or poem about the lost golden age when there was no luxury, only what one needed from Nature. She wishes humanity could return to that pure time.


Summary of Part VI


Now Philosophy speaks of power and high office. In the world, honor is not accorded to virtue, and wicked men frequently get high office. Seeing men lord it over other men with power is as ludicrous as seeing a mouse trying to rule over other mice. 


The only way one human can rule another is to exert control over the body. The human body is so weak, it can be killed by a tiny insect. There is no way, however, to control a free mind at peace with itself and exercising reason. Tyrants may appear to have power, but are frequently killed by some other tyrant. 


If power were good, it would not fall into the hands of the evil. This is true of all Fortune’s gifts; they are frequently found among the wicked. Riches do not satisfy; power does not make a man master of himself. High office bestowed on an unworthy person betrays that person as unworthy. She sings a song about the Roman Emperor Nero as an example. He heartlessly killed his brother and mother, and yet he had no control over himself, which is a form of weakness.


Commentary on Part VI


The Roman Emperor Nero (54-68 CE) is a symbol of the corruption of power in the argument Philosophy uses against Fortune’s elusive gifts. Nothing could check Nero’s “frenzied lunacy” (p. 40) as he killed his own family members to consolidate his political power. 


On the other hand, she gives Zeno the philosopher as an example of how a tyrant like Nearchus could torture a man’s body but not violate the sanctity of his inner integrity. Zeno bit off his own tongue rather than inform on other men. Zeno made the torture “an opportunity for heroism” (p. 38), so was this misfortune? Does the tyrant really have power when someone else can do the same to him? 


Power therefore is an illusion. From the lofty height of Philosophy’s vision, it is like watching one mouse saying it has power over another mouse. What the human has inside is infinitely more powerful and worthy because it is not under Fortune’s sway.