The Consolation of Philosophy Summary and Analysis

Book I

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Summary

Book I of The Consolation of Philosophy begins with a poem which explains why the writer has begun this work. He says "I who once composed with eager zest/Am driven by grief to shelter in sad songs." This lament echoes a classical form of Greek poetry (though Boethius is a Latin writer imitating an old Greek style) and gives us information about the poet's situation as well as an introduction to his outlook and purpose for the ensuing dialogue. The lament is a conventional form of grief poetry, and the reference to "song" in the second line is also traditional for beginnings (though more often seen in epic poems than in philosophy, such as The Aeneid, or Homer's Iliad).

The sorrowful writer is visited by a vision of a woman standing over him. A mystical vision, she is "full of years" yet with undiminished color and vigor. She appears to him of varying height, sometimes of normal human dimensions and sometimes scraping the heavens. Boethius carefully notes her robe, which he says consists of an "imperishable material" woven by her own hands. This magical dress, however, is covered with the dust of long neglect. She bears written on her hem the Greek letter Pi, and on the top of her gown the letter Theta. Between these letters is a ladder of steps going from the bottom to the top.

Another feature of the woman's dress is that it has been "torn by the hands of marauders who had each carried off such pieces as he could get." She also carries some books in her right hand, and in her left hand a scepter.

Before the woman arrived, Boethius tells us that standing at his bedside were the muses of Poetry, who dictated to him as he wrote poetry and wept. At the sight of the Muses the woman becomes angry. She calls the muses "hysterical sluts," and tells them that they have no medicine to cure Boethius's sickness, and they will steal his Reason away and make him worse. Boethius is not an ordinary man, she says, for he has been nourished by the philosophies of "Zeno and Plato". She further insults them, and the Muses blush and leave.

The mysterious woman, now alone with Boethius, sits down on his bed and recites a poem to him, articulating his grief, and again lamenting his fall from grace. And the woman now says that the time has come for healing rather than lamentation. She says, Are you not the man who was raised on my learning? Why do you not recognize me? Continuing in the doctoring tone, she says that Boethius' grief is nothing serious - only a bit of amnesia. At this she takes a fold of her dress and wipes the tears from Boethius's eyes. His reaction is detailed in a poem, which says that Boethius's eyes were then cleared.

Boethius looks upon the woman, and realizes that she is Philosophy, his nursemaid of old. She has come to succor him, and make his imprisonment easier. She details that she, like Boethius, has undergone many trials, and in the latter years the various philosophical sects had struggled to "seize for their own the inheritance of wisdom" by trying to carry her off. They only got parts of her robe, and each went away thinking that they had obtained the whole of philosophy. These traces of her clothing had given these Epicureans and Stoics a reputation of wisdom among the ignorant. Again, Philosophy recites a poem, extolling the virtues of men who are not moved by the vagaries of fortune. She asks Boethius why he weeps at this, and tells him to explain to her his "illness" or wound so that she may heal him.

Boethius then details his list of woes. He reminds her that he is in prison, rather than studying her wisdom in the library of his home. He complains that such is the lot of her followers, and that he had gone into politics because Plato had written that any state was best run by "philosopher-kings". He explains how his gravity and honesty made him no friends in the political arena, and incited the jealousy and hatred of powerful enemies. He had campaigned for just laws and fair taxation, and had resisted and tried to uproot corruption. He explains the various charges brought against him, but the crux of the matter is that he was accused of having desired the safety of the Senate. Because of the crooked politics of the day, and because he had prevented an informer from producing evidence of the Senate's treason, he was judged by that same body has having commited a crime. Boethius cries out to Philosophy - Was this justice? He was also accused of unchecked ambition, but he says that he had always followed her recommendation of the Pythagorean maxim "Follow God" in all things. He is angry and saddened that, while he was faithful to Philosophy, his reward is imprisonment and, soon, execution. Boethius then recites a longer poem, extolling God but asking why the world is ruled by fickle Fortune.

Philosophy responds, saying that it is not important that he is no longer in his ornate library. Her teachings are the only things of value, and those are still inside him. She diagnoses him as "swollen and calloused" under the influence of disturbing emotions, and she will begin with a gentle cure, working up to stronger medicine when he has begun to heal. She then questions Boethius to discover precisely the state of his mind. She wants to know if he believes in a directed universe, or if he is convinced of the haphazard nature of fate. Boethius responds that he believes that God the Creator watches over his creation. Continuing the questioning, she discovers that he is confused about how fate and fortune do not control the final, most important destiny of man. Philosophy says that Boethius has forgotten his true nature, and that he is a spiritual being, a soul in communication with God, rather than just a rational animal existing in the material world. Boethius weeps because he is in mortal peril and his possessions and honors have been taken away from him; Philosophy reminds him he still has his most important, and, in fact, his only true possession - his soul. She stops here, however, because the patient is still too ill to take the full "cure" she offers. The Book ends with a poem extolling the virtue of rejecting emotions and ignoring the dictates of fortune.

Analysis

This Book sets up of Boethius' situation and introduces the mysterious personage of Philosophy. Some of Boethius' conventions are specifically Classical in origin, and do not necessarily make sense when read by a reader today unless some historical context is included. It was common for philosophical discussions and arguments of any type be presented in a dialogue format. The apocalyptic nature of this dialogue (meaning that one of the speakers is imaginary, spiritual, legendary, allegorical, or divine) is necessary because of the solitary imprisonment of the writer. He is alone in his cell, and has conversations only with himself. He must imagine a speaker, or be visited by the incarnate spirit of Philosophy, in order to carry on a conversation and thus present his "consolation" of philosophical principles in the Platonic dialogue form.

The varying height of Philosophy is significant; it is symbolic of the various guises of philosophical study. When she is of average height, she offers the practical advice for the down-to-earth pursuit of moral, or ethical, philosophy. When she is piercing the heavens, she is showing her capacity for metaphysical thought, which is considered by Boethius to be speculative or contemplative philosophy. The Pi and Theta on her gown represent the two Greek names for these types of philosophy, which begin with those letters. The division is between the practical and the contemplative forms of philosophy, the practical including moral philosophy and ethics, the contemplative or speculative includes theology, metaphysics, and the natural sciences such as physics. The impermeable fabric of the gown represents the permanence and objective reality of Philosophy in its true form, and the scraps torn by the factions of lesser philosophers a metaphor for Boethius' opinion of those schools of thought.

At the beginning of Part V, there is a line in the poem that reads "swifter hours of the night". Roman timekeeping had much in common with how it is done today, but in their system of reckoning hours, by means of a water clock, there is a significant difference. The Romans changed the length of the nighttime hours to coincide with the shortening and lengthening of days by the seasons. During the winter, the nights were longer, so the same number of hours were used for nighttime as during the summer, but the length of the "hours" were lengthened. The reverse was true for summer, with the nighttime hours being "swifter" and shorter.

Boethius was imprisoned on what he called "false accusations". Politically, Boethius had made no friends, for he was above corruption and graft during one of the most corrupt times of the Roman Empire. He had formerly been a high official for the emperor Theodoric, and his fall from the heights of Roman patrician power to imprisonment was almost as great as any fall for a man of his time could be. For a man of his culture and refinement, the irony of losing everything because of his own virtue, and in an arena, (politics) which he didn't enter willingly but rather chose out of duty, must have been acute. Boethius says in Book I that he mourns the fact that he is no longer in his library, with its ivory decorations, reading his beloved books. So he creates, in his prison cell, under threat of imminent execution, a fantasy of philosophical discourse with the Lady Philosophy herself. It is an academic conceit not unique to Boethius, but is also telling of his state of mind and emotional needs. He needs comfort - consolation - and finds it in carefully constructing in his mind a person representing his most cherished pursuit of Philosophy. To this authority he appeals for comfort and for answers to his questions, and make an attempt to formulate a theodicy, or theory of good and evil.

After reading this first book of The Consolation of Philosophy, perhaps two things strike the modern reader. Why doesn't Boethius, a Christian, appeal to God or Jesus or the Virgin Mary for his consolation in his time of mortal peril, rather than Philosophy? Boethius was a Christian, and people often pray to God when they are in trouble or think they are going to die. Boethius wrote a consolation of Philosophy, not Theology, and we could assume that at least part of his motivation was coldly stylistic rather than personally applicable. Boethius carefully imitated the Platonic dialogues, and to have the Christian God intrude into what was a pagan form would have offended his sensibilities. It is more likely, however, that Boethius, while a Christian, may not have been particularly religious. But even if Boethius was devout, it also bears considering that his culture was still pagan in many ways. He may have had an overlay of Christianity, and truly believed in it, but as a Neo-Platonist and Roman his appeal to reason and philosophy was perhaps closer to his heart. He does, however, refer to a personal God, and reminds us to pray humbly to God at the end of this book.

The second oddity is the inclusion of verse in a philosophical text. Boethius was not exactly writing a dry philosophical treatise - this is a consolation (the Latin literary form consolatio) and meant to be a balm or medicine for a troubled soul. This book, though definitely philosophical in nature, was meant to be a sort of instructional self-help book for the late Roman Empire. Such consolations of philosophical thoughts were written by other writers and widely read.

The divorce from emotions, and the shunning of the honors and cares of the material world are main themes in The Consolation of Philosophy. This Neo-Platonist, and what would become later medieval philosophical idea is central to Boethius's thinking, and what he found most comforting in his prison cell.