The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy Themes

Denial of the pleasures of the flesh

During the early books of The Consolation of Philosophy Boethius makes it clear that the pursuits of the flesh - even ones that would appear to have a spiritual aspect of them, such as aesthetic pleasure of the body - are worthless and meaningless. Through explaining the wiles of Fortune, and her capricious and unpredictable nature, Lady Philosophy explains that nothing on earth can give true happiness. Happiness can only be attained through the contemplation of spiritual or philosophical things. Nothing attainable on earth, such as wealth, power, or prestige, can ever be truly called one's own, and therefore cannot be the path to true happiness.

Classical references

The poems in The Consolation of Philosophy are thick with references to classical literature and poetry. The epic poems of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey, provide a large number of the allusions, especially the image of the "jars of good and bad" kept in heaven by God, from which all the vicissitudes of Fortune come. The writings of Greek philosophers, especially Plato and the Neo-Platonist Porphyry, are often quoted, as are Romans such as Cicero, Seneca, and Ovid. The remarkable thing is that, while writing The Consolation of Philosophy in prison, Boethius had no access to his library, and these references were composed completely from memory.

In general, the references are used to support Lady Philosophy's points about turning away from earthly distractions. Some of the references, such as Stymphalus (referring to a lake of mythical birds) in Book IV are obscure, but would have been immediately meaningful for Boethius's contemporary readers. However, many of the references are easily recognizable today, such as Phoebus the sun-god, and Odysseus from Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.

Honor of Rusticiana and Symmachus

It is brought up that Rusticiana and Symmachus, Boethius's wife and father-in-law/adoptive father, were the paragons of virtue in Boethius' life. As a child he was orphaned and brought up in Symmachus' house, and he later married Symmachus' daughter Rusticiana. In prison, Boethius is comforted by the thought of their virtue, and the fact that they, and his and Rusticiana's sons, are for the moment safe from harm.

Goodness of the world

The goods of the world, explained fully in Book II, are not really "goods" at all. They are simply inferior goods masquerading as decoration on what is the highest good on earth, the intellectual capacity and soul of human beings. This idea of all the so-called goods of the world - even intangible goods like the love of one's family, or the beauty of Nature - are merely temporal and therefore not able to satisfy the eternal soul, is one of the main "consolations" in the Consolation of Philosophy. The loss anything material or temporal should not be cause of for sorrow, because the only things of value are within yourself and eternal, and can never be taken away.

Evil has no substance

Book IV addresses evil in the world, and the argument is that evil has no substance because it doesn't participate in the pursuit of the supreme good. Because the wicked pursue things that cannot possibly give them what they truly desire they have no power. Even when wicked people have power over the virtuous, their power is only ever over their bodies or possessions, never their minds or souls, so in the end it is not really power. Since evil people cannot participate in the ultimate goal, they have, Boethius says, descended to the level of animals.

God as the attainment of perfect happiness

Book III is taken up with the proof of God's existence based on the inadequacy of human desires to produce true happiness. The standard by which all humanity judges perfect happiness is innate, and no human beings attain it through earthly goods. Therefore a being capable of perfect happiness - in fact the source of that perfect happiness - must exist outside of the earthly realm. This is the overarching theme of the entire book, but the proof of God is not the focus. The emphasis is on the futility of seeking happiness through earthly desires.

Providence and Happiness (Felicity)

Providence, a difficult concept to understand, is explained roughly as the reason of God ordering the universe. It is the overall plan that God has for the world, even when Fate (the ordering of events on earth) seems to be disordered. Lady Philosophy concedes that this is indeed a mystery, for everything takes place simultaneously for God, and we in our temporal world cannot understand this.

True happiness (in some translations Felicity) is the pursuit of God through intellectual and spiritual means. It is considered the supreme good by Boethius, and the only good worth pursuing. All earthly goods are false goods, and only our spirit and intellect can lead us to the true good of the soul: God.