The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy Summary and Analysis of Book II


At the beginning of Book II, Lady Philosophy has grown silent. She has become quiet so that Boethius, in his weakened spiritual state, entreats her to speak. She says that she has fully diagnosed the cause and nature of his condition, and will prepare the "persuasive powers of sweet-tongued rhetoric," a power often abused by those who do not properly understand Philosophy, to gently heal him of his illness. Again, she reiterates that Boethius is pining away for his former good fortune, and the loss of which has corrupted his mind. She says that Boethius has been seduced by Fortune (sometimes called Lady Fortune), and that in her many guises she has lured other people to their undoing, too. Again, Philosophy describes the capricious nature of Fortune, pointing out how the workings of Fortune are not to be considered tragic when they cause reversals for her former beneficiaries. Fortune's "gifts" are really loans, Philosophy reminds Boethius, and to return something that was only lent to you is not a loss and not something about which to grieve.

Philosophy also implies that, while Boethius enjoyed Fortune's favors, he must have known that her gifts were not very important anyway. Boethius is reminded not only that he came into this world with none of Fortune's gifts, and he should never have become so attached to any of them that he could not lose them without grief.

While Boethius acknowledges the logic of Philosophy's argument, he is not yet in a fit state to receive comfort from it. Here Philosophy reminds Boethius, somewhat to his pain so she does not dwell on it, that he was in this earthly life the luckiest of men. Though orphaned, he was adopted into the home of a very aristocratic and well-respected man, and he married into that same family. He has been blessed not only with a worthy and modest wife, but also two good sons. And he had the privilege of seeing those sons raised to the office of consul together.

Boethius then complains that the worst part of this is the memory of his past good fortune. "In all adversity of fortune, the most wretched kind is once to have been happy." Philosophy counters that the most precious gift from Fortune, Boethius's family, still exists unharmed. Compared to many, Fortune says, Boethius is still a very fortunate man.

A debate ensues on the way happiness can be attained by a human being, for, it seems, even if a person has all the gifts of fortune, there is still anxiety and disquiet in his or her heart. Philosophy says that human happiness is impossible to achieve in earthly life. Happiness is not found in the temporal gifts of Fortune - not even in those most precious gifts of family. The discussion continues onto the nature of "good" in the things that the world considers "good fortune," which are wealth, material possessions, power, and honor. Each of these things is said by Philosophy to be incapable of bestowing true happiness. Wealth is only of value when being transferred, and such has no value in itself. In addition, any acquisition of wealth is the taking away of wealth from someone else. The power of wealth is not something that is your own, but rather a function of that wealth, so then how can it make you happy? Honor and power can be bestowed upon you by someone who is not a fair judge of either, so these are not the path to happiness either. The beauty of Nature, too, is incapable of giving true happiness because we cannot take credit for Nature. It is entirely the construction of God, and therefore we can only admire it but cannot claim it for our own. If one desires fancy clothing, or a long line of servants, the good of either (the skill of the tailor, or, if they are honest, the honesty of the servants) cannot be truly owned by the possessor, so they are not the path to happiness either. "From all this it is obvious that not one of those things which you count among your blessings is in fact any blessing of yours at all." Philosophy says.

The only things which a person may truly possess are the blessings of his or her own intellectual inquiry and soul. Since these are internal blessings, it is argued, they can never be taken away, and are wholly owned by the thinker. God, Philosophy says, made human beings to rule the Earth, but not to attempt to adorn themselves with inferior things. God has given humankind an intellect by which to inquire into philosophical things, not to concern themselves with goods which can only be inferior to the worth of their own minds. Add to this that the human soul is immortal, and cannot and never will be satisfied by a temporal happiness from earthly things, which would only last until the death of the body.

Boethius counters that he never wanted any of the temporal blessings for his own sake. He is not an ambitious man, but only entered public life out of a sense of duty. But Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that he did enjoy his honors, and, while they were well-deserved, it is important that everyone remembers that the gifts of Fortune are inconstant and can be easily taken away. After death, the soul will look back on what was so important in life and consider it to be insignificant. In this life, it is probably better for the soul to have bad fortune, for that does not enslave the soul as much as good fortune does.

Philosophy relents slightly from her strict censure of Fortune's gifts near the end of Book II, when she says that bad fortune gives another great gift; the knowledge of one's true friends, the ones who truly love you. This wisdom, she says, could not be bought for any price while one had good fortune. She ends the book with a hymn about how love binds the earth together.


The beginning of Book II contains a subtle hint to the reader that Boethius was a spiritual and philosophical man before his honors and possessions were taken away by imprisonment. When Philosophy says that Boethius, in the favors of Fortune, had "nothing much of value" it is clear that Boethius has always had, or at least affected to have, a disdain for worldly things. A man who was born into a patrician family, with a famous name and extraordinary powers of intellect, who never wanted for money, and experienced royal favor and advancement for much of his life may well have had disdain for worldly possessions, honors, and achievements. This passage seems a little naïve unless considered within the context of Christianity. If Boethius were still a pagan Roman, the gifts of the goddess Fortuna would have been things to pray for, and, if received, things for which he would have given praise to the gods. But the teachings of Catholic Christianity were such that none of the gifts of Fortune (health, long life, a loving and healthy family, as well as honors, wealth, and preferment) were to be valued as much as the love of God and spiritual enlightenment. Boethius is espousing a wholly Christian position here, couched in the language of philosophy.

The psychological progression of Boethius here is plain to see. He slowly allows his emotions to quieten, letting himself rest while he turns his thoughts back to the logic of Philosophy's argument. His sorrow is still acute and not assuaged, but he thinks he has possibly found the way to convince himself that his lot is not so bad. Boethius, throughout his life, was very interested in logic, and wrote several books on the subject. He believed wholeheartedly in its powers, and The Consolation of Philosophy can be viewed as a logical justification for much of Christian doctrine.

The enshrinement of Symmachus, Boethius's father-in-law, and Boethius's wife, Rusticiana, as paragons of moral purity seem to give comfort to Boethius. Again, it is argued, however, that true happiness cannot be found in the temporal gifts of Fortune, not even in the love of one's family. While this idea is not necessarily one that would be agreed upon by modern psychology, it is essential to Christian belief. It is also indicative of the times in which Boethius lived. Not only could family (especially young children) be taken off quickly by disease or accident, but the uncertain political climate of Rome governed by the barbarian emperors also meant that the lives of one's family and friends were by no means assured. Placing total faith in and hanging one's happiness on one's loved ones was an easy way, Philosophy argues, to become quickly unhappy.

The middle and end of Book II is one of Boethius's most powerful passages. He begins with his complaint that to have been happy and then be disgraced is more sorrowful than having never been happy. Boethius, though perhaps feeling this emotion sharply in his miserable imprisonment, surely knows the fallacy of this argument before he begins it. Philosophy sharply reminds him that one of the most precious gifts of Fortune, his family, is still intact, and therefore he should be happier than many men. Philosophy explains that he has lost nothing that he ever truly had, and she then enlightens Boethius on the "good" in earthly good things that was never truly good, because it was never truly possessed. Philosophy argues that even pleasures that seem obvious, such as the pleasure of having many servants to do our hard work, are not necessarily "good" - after all, when our servants do wrong we are responsible, but when they do right we cannot claim credit. This points to Philosophy's essential argument: a person cannot claim credit for the "good" he or she experiences in earthly life. This "good" depends on Fortune and not on human effort. Only attainment of philosophical wisdom in the mind can truly be called one's own.

This argument may or may not convince many readers, but it is sound in many respects. It explains, especially in regard to wealth, the momentary satisfaction but enduring emptiness many people feel upon attaining certain goals of wealth or material possessions. Near the end of Book II Philosophy explains that most people mistake the "good" of inferior things (material possessions, power over other people, honors given by other people) for the true good: the good eternal things of the soul. It is a standard religious tenet of more than one faith, but the way Boethius couches it in terms of ownership is compelling.

He particularly shines in his explanation of how most people attempt to adorn themselves with exterior, inferior "goods" (whether those be clothing, servants, or power and honor) while they neglect the greatest and only real good that they possess: their minds made in the image of their Creator. When human beings recognize their own nature as being Godlike, rather than earthly, that is when they "tower above the rest of creation." All other goods, separate from the mind and the soul, are merely "decoration" that denigrates what it is decorating, because it does not belong to it. Some readers may find the argument about ownership to be too callous, and perhaps the rejection of Nature as a source of happiness is skewed, but the overall construction of the chapter is a convincing argument for spirituality.

Some of this argument is based on Neo-Platonist principles of substance and belonging, which don't directly affect the argument but inform some of Boethius' language. Boethius tosses out phrases such as "If every good is agreed to be more valuable than whatever it belongs to" as if the reader, schooled in philosophy, would not dispute these statements or require explanation. Nevertheless, Book II is intense, convincing, and contains eight beautiful poems which explicate the text.