The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius's Impact on Medieval Europe

Two very important English medieval figures - King Alfred and Geoffrey Chaucer - considered Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy to be a work of the utmost importance. King Alfred, who advanced the cause of English learning to a great extent during his reign in the ninth century, translated and dispersed copies of the book. He wrote a life of Boethius as a preface to his translation. Alfred considered the work a companion to the Bible, and its study almost as important as Scripture. During his life Alfred experienced bouts with a mysterious illness, and during these times he found personal comfort in the Consolation.

During the Middle Ages in Europe, The Consolation of Philosophy was the most translated and copied secular work. Jean de Meun translated it in the thirteenth century, and this French version was very influential. It was the equivalent of a centuries-long medieval bestseller.

Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of Canterbury Tales and called the father of English literature, translated this work from the Latin into Middle English in the 14th century, with help from Jean de Meun's version. While his translation is considered by scholars to be occasionally faulty and awkward, the importance of the Boethius's work on his own and other authors' works is profound. The concepts of Providence and Felicity were adopted by Chaucer, and appear in his poems Troilus and Crisede and The Knight's Tale particularly. The work was equally influential outside of England. The Consolation of Philosophy is directly referred to in Dante's Divine Comedy.

The translation, from the Late Latin (Boethius's work was considered the very last of the philosophical productions of the Classical world) was undertaken by another monarch of England, Queen Elizabeth I. The story is that she completed the translation (though the work is short in length, the Latin is dense and erudite) in the astonishingly short period of either twenty-four or twenty-seven hours. It was considered by her, and the learned people of her court, to be a indispensable text, and its lack of overt Catholicism made the text accessible to many of the new Protestant religion.

Boethius's influence on medieval thought did not end with The Consolation of Philosophy. He espoused the idea of the quadrivium, the subjects which were taught in schools and which were considered necessary to make a person learned. These four subjects, arithmetic, music, astronomy, and geometry, were taught as a sort of "upper form" or "high school" after the trivium of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These idea of education held sway for hundreds of years, and was only slowly discarded after the Renaissance. For example, Boethius's text on music De institutione musica libri quinque was used as a textbook at Cambridge until the 18th century, and used as reference even later than that.

Some scholars have even gone so far as to say that "Boethius saved the thought of the Middle Ages." It is true his translations of Greek philosophical texts were, for centuries, the only access Medieval Europe had to Classical philosophy. Boethius's introspective denial of the needs and pleasures of the flesh, and his wholehearted belief in the achievability of completely spiritual satisfaction for humankind fit well with the monastic and ascetic slant of medieval Christianity, and his influence on the thought and writing of the Middle Ages was enormous.