The Inferno

Locked-Boethius - The Consolation of Philosophy

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Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy

Author’s Notes/Introduction

This is a particularly long and somewhat well* detailed account of a very intriguing work, but one which receives little weight in the DS courseload. Therefore, I suggest that the reader only read the Class Notes and skim the Plot Summaries, or vice versa: the two overlap to a large degree. Only if an excess of time allows should one read this entire packet.

Author and Context

Boethius, a Christian philosopher born in the late Roman Empire (ca. 480 A.D.), had devoted his life to the service of the Emperor. In addition, he had been brought up in the household of Symmachus, a particularly rich and well* respected man; as proof of his faith in Boethius, Symmachus let him marry his own daughter. Boethius’ life was filled with public service (to the people as well as the emperor) and luxury. However, being suspected of having become disloyal to Rome, Boethius was imprisoned and awaiting trial during the time that he wrote the Consolation. In that work, the reader sees the struggle of a man of faith to reconcile that which he has experienced with the ideal nature of the world that he believes his faith allows to exist. (further suggested reading: <>)

Class Notes

  • Books 1, 2, and 3 of the Consolation are united in theme: in them, Boethius points out exactly what happiness is not
    • Boethius decries wealth and power as bringing true happiness, saying that, as they are not self-sufficient (highly reminiscent of Aristotle), such material things that are within the domain of Fortune cannot be depended on.
  • At the middle of book 3, the point of the work shifts from talking about happiness to discussing how to attain happiness.
    • In the end, Boethius’ logic leads to the fact that happiness is closeness to God, an end that is approached by the practice of religion.
    • This is accomplished by two arguments:
      • (a) The existence of God
      • (b) the happiness of God
  • Books 4 and 5 answer two objections to the existence of God:
    • Book 4 addresses the Problem of Evil, a central question which most of the philosophy of religion attempts to answer: to wit, if God is good, and God is all- powerful, how does God allow the existence of evil?
      • Kierkegaard also addressed the same question
    • Book 5 addresses the Free Will Objection, another central question of the philosophy of religion: that is, as God is all-knowing, how is free will possible?
      • Boethius addresses this by emphasising God’s omniscience while showing that foreknowledge of an event is compatible with the free will associated with that event.
  • From the very beginning of the work, the embodiment of Philosophy often speaks of “curing” Boethius of his mistaken ideas, using medical terminology.
    • Philosophy was thus seen to be curing Boethius of his mental illness by debunking the false beliefs causing him misery
  • Boethius sees false beliefs or uncomfortability with their beliefs as the primary cause of people’s sadness.
    • By accepting appearances, instead of searching for the true nature of things, people suspend judgment on contentious issues. Sextus Empiricus would say that this brings peace, but Boethius sees it as the cause of even more trouble. He suggests that, instead of doing so, people should replace troubling beliefs with the truth (which he implies will bring peace). To Boethius, all false conceptions of happiness will be non-self-sufficient, and thus unpleasant to the believer.
  • Reminiscent of his hero, Plato (and Socrates), Boethius tried to do the right thing, but was ultimately penalized for doing so: just as Socrates’ friends in the Phaedo, he views this disjoint between his beliefs and the outcome of his actions as utterly devastating.
    • As there has been a reversal of fortune for him, he begins to realize that the things for which he was relying on fortune are actually philosophically useless, and – thus stripped of all seeming importance – his misery is able to be dispelled by Philosophy.
  • He strips such material concerns of importance by saying that, as there commonly exist reversals of fortune, one should not attach significance to such easily lost things. He uses this argument to counteract the valuation of anything that fortune offers.
    • Therefore, the only way to be happy is to never be in a position to lose it.

This reasoning seems to go as follows:

  1. People can be very happy with a material metric for happiness.
  2. Material wealth and power relies on external things
  3. There exists a possibility of losing external things.
  4. People can also be very happy with a spiritual metric for happiness.
  5. Spirituality is self-sufficient.
  6. Self-sufficient goods can never be lost
  7. Therefore, happiness may be obtained more reliably with spirituality rather than materialism.
  • However, this argument is weak. While spiritual and philosophical happiness may be obtained more reliably, it may be that material happiness outweighs spiritual happiness to such a degree that it is worth risking losing one’s happiness to seek material goods.
    • Risk, in and of itself, is not a sufficient argument.
  • Boethius then also shows the costs of a material lifestyle
    • Pursuing a material good requires much sacrifice, while pursuing philosophy requires few
  • The argument for God proceeds along three lines:
    • Pg. 73, he sets forth a Platonic* sounding argument that there cannot exist imperfection without there also being some extant standard of perfection.
      • i.e., that which is the best must be Good; an ontological argument
    • Pg.84 provides an argument that has hints of both the cosmological and teleological arguments
    • Teleological: As there is ideal order in the universe, there must exist Someone to have put everything in order. Somewhat like Aristotle’s Function Argument.
    • Cosmological:
  1. Everything that exists has a cause of its existence.
  2. The universe exists. Therefore:
  3. The universe has a cause of its existence.
  4. If the universe has a cause of its existence, then that cause is God. Therefore:
  5. God exists

Plot Summaries

Book 1

  • Opens with Boethius contemplating his misery in prison. Philosophy appears to him, in the form of a beautiful woman, and reproaches him for having lost sight of her; as she nurtured him in his early years, so she would if he were to awaken to her again. She shakes the Muses of poetry away from him (poetry being seen in the Republic light, as detracting from the truth) and proceeds to question him on what ails him.
  • Boethius answers that Fortune has stolen his happiness away from him, even though he was living a wise and moderate life, following God. He asks Philosophy why her teachings have failed him.
  • She responds that he has wandered far away from the truth indeed: while he was going through the proper steps to attain happiness, he had been defining happiness in the completely wrong light: as he was using his physical and material excesses as a metric for success, he was opening himself up to Fortune.
  • She goes on to say that Fortune, in fact, is not actually random chance, but the actions of God in the lives of men; as such, it is not Boethius’ place to bemoan the actions of chance, but rather he must find a way to find consolation within God’s complete control.

Book 2

  • Philosophy, disappointed in Boethius, continues to belabour Fortune; As Fortune is by definition fickle, Boethius has no right – having put his faith in her – to have questioned Fortune when she stole away all his investments in her.
  • She puts forth the rhetorical question, “do you reckon that a happiness that will withdraw is valuable?”
    • Boethius-the-author here presents a possible counterargument to his argumentation: it is possible that a happiness that will withdraw can be valued, so long as the person holding the value system accepts that it is temporary.
  • As Boethius has “handed himself over” to the rule of a new mistress – Fortune instead of Philosophy – he should be ready to bend to her demands.
  • Philosophy also tells Boethius that he has not lost everything: his sons both sit as consuls, and (though they too are subject to Fortune’s whims) they still prosper. In this triple blessing to father and sons, he has “stolen” from Fortune “a gift that she had never before given.”
  • Most compellingly, Philosophy makes this point: Even if one retains all the gifts that Fortune presents, without losing a single thing to her whim, when a man dies, he relinquishes everything that Fortune gave him. “So what difference does it make if you abandon her by dying, or she abandons you by running away?”
  • Agreeing, Boethius then says that the saddest thing is for Fortune to have made sad that which was once happy. To this point, Philosophy replies that Boethius’ views of Happiness are skewed: he should never be truly happy about something that can be taken away from him. “this is a punishment that you suffer because of your false opinions about things.”
  • Philosophy says that they have now made some progress: Boethius realizes that he has no place being unsatisfied with the whole of his lot in life. He still has far to go, however, to discover the true nature of happiness: “why do you mortals look outside yourselves for the happiness that has been placed inside of you?”
  • The case of martyrs disproves Fortune* birthed happiness as being true happiness: they are able to be happy even seeking death, which would seem to bring an end to all Fortune* based happinesses. Therefore, the form of happiness must not be linked to Fortune.
  • Philosophy suggests a religious argument against materialism: God placed man to “stand above all earthly things.” However, if one places weight in that which is possessed (material objects), instead of that which possesses (man), then one makes the latter subordinate to the former, which goes against the first premise.
  • Boethius answers that he actually has had no or little desire for “mortal things;” however, he has desired to gain glory (mirroring the Greek kleos). Philosophy agrees that this is the one thing that often has the power to seduce minds that are able to resist even the allure of material wealth; however, even the grandest of humans only possesses glory known to an infinitesimal fraction of the entire universe, and it is glory insignificant compared to that of the immortal beings. Therefore, it is foolish to seek glory among our mortal fellows.
    • The accolades of mortal men and the mighty deeds sought by such men are likened to nothing more than idle gossip in the universal scale
  • Philosophy finally admits that Fortune can be useful in revealing man’s failings; for, when Fortune reveals itself to actually be Bad Luck, man may be persuaded (as Boethius has been) to seek after the true definition of happiness.
    • Just as Good Fortune drags man off the path, Bad Luck sends them fleeing back

Book 3

  • Opens with Boethius finally coming around, admitting, “Yes, you are the greatest consolation for lethargic hearts.”
  • Having cheered him up, she then initiates a dialogue about the nature of true happiness, so that Boethius might have something to replace the vacuum that the loss of Fortune has created.
  • Everyone is striving towards one thing: true happiness. This is the Good.
    • Is this necessarily true? Or is it possible that everyone strives for truly different ends?
  • Therefore, happiness is obviously that towards which all good things go, or are associated with.
    • Philosophy then runs through a long list of that which could appear to be the Good: power, intimacy with kings, the pleasures of the body, &c., arguing specifically against each of them as being the Good.
  • Therefore, she concludes, all these paths to happiness are simply “detours” from the true path towards fulfillment, and are simply “deceitful happinesses”
  • Boethius then begs her to show him – seeing no other routes to happiness – what the true path is.
    • Question: Why does he not consider God? Is Boethius-the-character really that fallen from the path of Christianity (which he equates with philosophy), or is he simply lazy?
  • Philosophy: “the common conception of human minds grants that God… is good; since nothing can be imagined that is better than God, who could doubt that such a thing is good than which nothing is better?”
    • This is the Ontological proof of God. It follows that, since God is the best, God is Good, and perfect Good lies in closeness to God.
  • Philosophy: “The world could hardly have come together into a single form out of components so different and so opposed to each other if there were not one who could join together such different things.”
    • This is the Teleological proof of God.
  • Philosophy then raises and answers an objection to God: that is, if God is Good (and only Good), He is incapable of doing evil. However, this means that God is not omnipotent. This question leads into…

Book 4

  • Generalising from the argument in the last prose passage of Book 3, Boethius proposes to Philosophy the following: how does she propose to answer “the face that evil things can exist at all… when the helmsman of all things is good?”
    • She responds that the evil things are nothing; those who seek after them (evil people) are incompetent. That is: based on the true definition of happiness, the only actions that can bring happiness are those that lead towards God. By definition, evil leads away from God, and is thus incapable of “seizing that for which they crave”. Therefore, though they may gain material wealth, evil people are incapable of seizing true happiness, and therefore avail themselves naught.
    • Another counterargument is that it may improve the state of things to have evil present: simply because God is not evil does not mean that evil cannot exist and enhance that which is good.
  • In addition, Philosophy says that evil men, in the pure and simple sense, do not exist: simply normal men who have forgotten how to find happiness, or been corrupted.
  • Boethius also raises the question, “why are good people punished?”
    • To which Philosophy replies that, as God sets in order the affairs of the entire world, what may appear to man to be an unjust persecution of someone is really just one movement in the grand machination of things.
    • In addition, just as adversity revealing herself may lead a man to the right path again, so the workings of “evil men may make evil men good;” that is, one injustice might drive an injust man to seek justice.
    • Additionally, she makes the point that it is impossible to judge the workings of another man’s heart: therefore, we can never tell whether someone is receiving their just reward or is being tested.
  • Therefore, “absolutely every fortune is good,” for Fortune is subordinated to the will of God; moreover, good happening to good people is a reward; evil happening to good people is a trial that fits into the overall scheme of things; evil happening to evil people will drive them towards the good; and seeming good happening to evil people is not really good at all, but only the temporal appearance of it.

Book 5

  • Therefore, Chance is really not random at all, but is that which is unexpected to the human mind, but already known by God.
  • This predicates the question of foreknowledge and free will: How is it possible that mortals have free will when God already knows what choices it is we will carry out?
    • In answer, Philosophy says: things that are foreseen are not contingent by necessity, but rather, the things that are going to be are necessarily foreseen.
    • God does not foresee things and thus force them to happen; as He is out of time, they have always happened in the future for Him, and He simply observes them.
  • In addition, as humans are vastly inferior to God (who is literally omnipotent… think about that for a while), we cannot hope to comprehend all of His powers (as He, being omnipotent, possesses all powers that we cannot even imagine to imagine).
  • Lastly, Philosophy argues that foreknowledge is not predestination, but simply knowing the result of free will interacting with the universe.
    • That is to say: if someone sees a dog fall from the top of the Empire State Building, they do not have to be omniscient or omnipotent to say that the dog will die. Nor do they predicate the dog’s death by knowing that the dog will die; it is simply a matter of adding up facts.


There is a sense, mainly in the beginning of the work, that Philosophy is the “cure” to Boethius’ ailing spiritual, mental, and emotional self. Boethius viewed his false beliefs about religion and material wealth as the root cause of his misery; Philosophy was the medicine that provided him relief from these illnesses.

The robes of Philosophy are “perfectly finished of the most microscopic threads, of cunning manufacture and of indecomposable material,” but are unfortunately “obscured by a sort of gloom of untended antiquity.” The robes of Philosophy are a symbol for Boethius’ view of his contemporaries’ treatment of philosophical discourse and theory: while it is infinitely complex and perfect, it has fallen out of public life, and is consigned to the antiquated past.

Boethius’ mental prison parallels the context of his writing the Consolation. Just as he was locked in a dank prison, so his mind was in a cage of despair. By breaking free of his mental borders (by philosophizing and thus writing the Consolation), Boethius was able to symbolically break out of his physical prison as well, as those boundaries no longer meant anything to him: by rejecting materialism, he successfully consoled himself.


  • The reconciliation of Plato with Christianity; Boethius was the first well-known Neoplatonist. While never explicitly stated, there is a recurring introduction of Platonic ideas into Boethius’ dialogue with Philosophy; the mere fact that he structures the Consolation as a dialogue is an homage to Plato’s Socratic dialogues. He also brings up the concept of Forms, and the form of Good as existing within God.
  • The theme of philosophy as the cure for all of life’s moral and mental issues: Boethius has an explicitly stated ideal that all of man’s misery is caused by his forgetfulness of that which is truly good. By seeking that which will bring real happiness (which is the Good), man will return to his uncorrupted state.
  • Philosophy vs. poetry: Boethius views poetry in much the same way that Plato does in his Republic. When Philosophy comes to Boethius, she has to shoo away the Muses of poetry that have been distracting him from his God-given task of contemplation.
    • The juxtaposition of prose and poetry imply that it is possible to subjugate the Muses of poetry to their proper usage; however, this must be done with the proper mind, attitude, and goals.
  • In God’s complete control over earthly things, Boethius was able to find peace. Peace is not found in suspension of judgment, but rather in the acceptance of the truth of Christianity.
    • Note: Boethius never attempts to prove that Christianity is the truth, but simply proves monotheism in his “It is better to be one than multiple” arguments. His arguments hold up equally well for many other major religions.
  • Boethius-the-author often provides multiple arguments for all the points which Philosophy sets forth before Boethius-the-character comes around to agreement. This suggests that it might take different routes to get someone to come around to the truth, and that different approaches may work for different audiences.

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