The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy Study Guide

A work considered a combination of Menippean satire and apocalyptic dialogue, the Consolation of Philosophy is a philosophical work similar in structure to a classical Greek dialogue (such as the Dialogues of Plato) but with a more personal, religious, and mystical significance. Boethius wrote the Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting his execution, and, while it is controlled in style and emotion, the personal nature of the philosophical quest is evident. The work is comprised of five Books, the majority of which consists of a dialogue between Boethius and the earthly incarnation of Philosophy. Lady Philosophy appears to Boethius in prison, and shows him the way to true comfort in philosophical inquiry.

The book is prosimetrical, meaning that it is written in both verse and prose. The thirty-nine poems, of varying length, are interspersed throughout the Books, and are hymns of praise and musings on philosophy. The poems vary in quality, but a few are of the highest order of Latin verse. The poems often serve to sum up the overall meaning or point of each Book.

A dialogue that discusses the merits of philosophy and its practical application is a Latin form called a consolatio. This old Greek and Latin literary form was a popular branch of the genre of diatribe. All the schools of philosophy used the consolatio form to justify their points of view. Readers tended to understand consolatio as moral or philosophical medications, able to assuage moral, philosophical, or spiritual ailments.

When Lady Philosophy first visits Boethius in Book I, she finds the disgraced Roman official trying to write poetry to assuage his grief. He is accompanied by the Muses of Poetry, whom she sends away. She immediately begins to lecture Boethius on the folly of placing his trust and hope in earthly honors, comforts, and pleasures. This includes even a too-strong attachment to his own physical life. She reminds him that he is a spiritual being in addition to a corporeal one, and that the spiritual truths and pursuits are the only ones which give any real or lasting happiness. She perceives that Boethius is "ill" - preoccupied with his fear and too attached to earthly things - so she begins her "cure" slowly, by asking him questions about what he truly believes about God and the nature of humankind.

Throughout the work, Lady Philosophy and Boethius agree that the universe (a product of God) is full of good, and evil is therefore without substance. Though the products of God are good, ultimate good is not to be found in earthly things, for all of these soon pass away. All earthly good, Boethius argues, is an illusion and the only reality worth knowing is that of the mind and spiritual and philosophical pursuits.

This work has been translated by many scholars throughout history. It had particular influence on the Middle Ages, and was considered necessary reading for all educated people. The philosophy is wholly orthodox with Boethius's Christianity, but the proofs within it are mostly logical. Certain arguments, such as free will and Providence, are very famous and are referred to by other authors, especially Christian writers of the medieval Europe.