Text: Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated with an Introduction by Victor Watts. Penguin Books, 1969;1999.
Summary of Part I
Boethius alternates poetry and prose to tell the first-person story of his grief at being in prison awaiting execution. It begins with his tearful “elegiac verse” in which he laments that once he wrote “songs with joyful zeal” but now must write in “weeping mode.” He had a happy youth, but old age came suddenly, making his hair turn white. He is now a “worn out bone-bag hung with flesh” and would welcome Death (p. 3). Fortune once favored him, but she is false, since now he has been thrown down into disgrace.
As the poet ends this song of grief, he notices a woman standing over him, “of awe-inspiring appearance” (p. 4), a supernatural being holding books in one hand and a scepter in the other. She becomes angry when she sees the Muses at the author’s bedside dictating sad poetry to him. She calls the Muses “hysterical sluts” (p. 4) who have poison for his sorrow, not medicine. Instead of curing men, the Muses make men addicted to sorrowful songs. She does not want them to spoil Boethius who has been raised on the philosophies of Plato and Zeno. The Muses are shamed by the authority of this woman, who sits on Boethius’s bed and begins to recite her own philosophical verse to him about why he is confused by his misfortune.
Commentary on Part I
In the middle of his sorrow at being imprisoned, while he is writing sad poetry, a mysterious and supernatural woman (Philosophy) appears to the author. She chases away the Muses, the Greek goddesses of poetry, accusing them of making him a slave to his unhappiness through beautiful song. Boethius has been raised on philosophy and deserves better than this. She mentions the Greek philosophers Plato (428-348 BCE) and Zeno (ca. 490-430 BCE). Zeno is credited for inventing the form of philosophical argument that Boethius employs in this work, and Plato, the founder of western philosophy and science, used the philosophical dialogue between two speakers, as Boethius does here, as a way to illuminate his teachings.
The character of Philosophy asserts that philosophical knowledge is much higher than poetry, which is merely a sort of emotional self-indulgence. Poetry did not have as high a reputation in the ancient world as it does today. Plato felt it was a distorted form of knowledge, while philosophy aims at pure truth. Boethius describes the clothes of Philosophy as having a dusty appearance, showing the neglect given to this highest pursuit. As is traditional in ancient, medieval, and Renaissance works, Philosophy is a personified abstraction, a divine woman or goddess, pitted against the Muses and Fortune, who are pictured as devious women, out to distract men from truth.
The whole work is a dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy. She attempts to console him for his impending death and reminds him of his superior training in philosophy. A philosopher should never fear death or misfortune. As Boethius had mentioned in his beginning poem, he had been favored by Fortune in his early life, but now Fortune is no longer his friend, “For falling shows a man stood insecure” (p. 3). This will become a major point of the book. Life is full of ups and downs. Where can security be found?
Summary of Part II
Philosophy recites her own poem to Boethius, explaining why he is downcast. His mind sinks at “the storms of life” and “forgets its inward light/ And turns in trust to the dark without” (p. 5). Yet Boethius was the same man who “once was free,” who could contemplate the planets and who “sought out the source/ of storms” (p. 5). The one who investigated Nature’s deepest secrets is now a prisoner of the dark.
She tells him it is time for healing, for he was the man fed on the milk of philosophy. The author does not respond to her because he is depressed, and so she lays her hand on his breast and tells him his situation is not serious. He only has “amnesia” (p. 6). She will wipe the dust from his eyes.
Commentary on Part II
Philosophy does not seem to think poetry is bad when she speaks to Boethius of truth, and knowing he is fond of meter and music, she persuades him half through poetry and half through logic that he is miserable because he has forgotten who he is and what he once knew. The Platonic notion of remembering the truth that the soul has always known from eternity (the doctrine of recollection) will be delved into more deeply later on. She tries to get his attention here by diagnosing his problem.
Summary of Part III
Boethius responds with a verse of hope: “The night was put to flight, the darkness fled,/ And to my eyes their former strength returned” (p. 7). Suddenly he recognizes the divine woman as Philosophy and asks her why she has come. Is it to share “false accusation” with him? (p. 7). She replies she has come to share his burden since he is hated because of her. It is not the first time “wisdom has been threatened with danger by the forces of evil” (p. 7). She mentions the case of Socrates who was unjustly put to death for telling the truth. His death was a victory for philosophy, and after he died, though the Epicureans and Stoics tried to carry on the legacy, the mantle of philosophy was torn to pieces, each trying to hold on to a separate piece.
She mentions the fate of other philosophers. Anaxagoras was banished from Athens; Socrates was put to death; Zeno was tortured; Romans like Canius, Seneca, and Soranus suffered because they were contemptuous of human corruption. The majority of men are carried along by ignorance into pleasing those who are wicked. The wise withdraw to a citadel of philosophy to watch the common men pursue “useless booty” (p. 8).
Commentary on Part III
Now Boethius begins to take part in the dialogue with Philosophy. She reminds him he is in the company of all the illustrious philosophers who have been attacked by the mobs of ignorant men. He should feel glad he is not one of the common mob swept to doom, distracted by wrong ends. Philosophy is a refuge from whose heights the wise man can look down on immorality. Boethius could not know as he wrote this book on his deathbed that he too would join the famous group of virtuous philosopher martyrs, celebrated by history, especially in the medieval age to follow, for upholding the truth.
Socrates (469-399 BCE), the teacher of Plato, is of course the most famous example of the philosopher who is not tolerated by the status quo. He was called the “gadfly” of the state in that he fostered critical discussion of the Athenian government among the citizens. The government sentenced him to death for corrupting youth, and he was forced to drink poison hemlock. His noble death for philosophic principles is recorded in Plato’s Crito and Phaedo. Philosophy implies that Socrates was one of her best champions, and after his death, other philosophers could not hold his place.