The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy Summary

The Consolation of Philosophy is a short work of literature, written in the form of a prosimetrical apocalyptic dialogue (i.e. a dialogue with a mythical, imaginary, or allegorical figure). It contains five Books, which are written in a combination of prose and verse. The dialogue is between Ancius Boethius, a prominent and learned official of the Roman Empire, and the person of Philosophy.

The work opens with a scene between Boethius and the (imaginary) Muses of Poetry, who are attending him in his sorrow while he writes poetry of his woe. They are interrupted by the entrance of a strange and otherwordly-looking lady, Lady Philosophy. She explains that she has come to him in his hour of need, for he suffers from the sickness of being far too attached to material and earthly things. While Boethius protests that he is the victim of injustice, Lady Philosophy begins his "cure" by showing him the error of his ways.

She begins by explaining that the vagaries of Fortune visit everyone, and he is by no means the worst of her victims. Even though he is imprisoned and due for execution, he has still the faculties of his mind and soul to comfort him. She explains that the gifts of Fortune were never his at all, but merely lent to him and taken away as easily as they were given. Health, wealth, honor, and power are things that never truly belong to any human being, and are visited on them by the wheel of fortune and quickly snatched away. Therefore it is unwise to become attached to any temporal thing.

The "cure" continues as Boethius begins to see the logic of Philosophy's argument. They continue their dialogue and discuss the nature of earthly goods, and how they are not the path to true happiness. The thing the temporal world considers good, says Philosophy, are only inferior decorations on the ultimate earthly good, the soul and the intellectual capacity of humanity.

Boethius offers a partial proof for God, a negative one based on the inadequacy of earthly attainments (wealth, power, etc) to satisfy the desire for perfect happiness ("felicity" - sometimes translated as blessedness). Therefore, since all humanity desires it, the standard for perfect happiness must exist, and that self-sufficient, powerful, and revered being who has attained perfect happiness is God.

Evil has no substance, according to Philosophy, because it cannot participate in the ultimate pursuit of mankind: the supreme good. Therefore people who inflict their wickedness on the good are not truly powerful, since they have no capacity to stop the good people's attainment of the one thing that matters. God orders the world through Providence, and the order of things that happen on earth is called Fate. Though people on earth cannot understand the ways of Providence, they must nevertheless accept whatever Fate sends, for all fortune, good or bad, is good. Bad fortune can instruct the recipient in the ways of virtue, and, often is better for the soul.

God does not interfere with free will, Philosophy concludes. Though God knows all things past and present, this knowledge doesn't preclude the freedom of choice of human beings. God's knowledge is not like our knowledge, and doesn't happen over a period of time. God had one act of knowing the world, and in that act knew all things, including all the free choices of all the people throughout the entire history of the world.

Finally, Boethius, through this long conversation with Philosophy, has been comforted. Philosophy leaves him with the advice to cultivate virtue, for the Heavenly Judge sees all things.