One of the classics of Western literature, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy was written while its author awaited execution. As it seems likely Boethius’ charges were exaggerations or even outright fabrications, it’s no surprise that he’s needing consolation during his imprisonment. His misfortune yielded a great gift for those of us who were to come after him, however, as the work has been read and reread now for more than a millennium. Boethius’ life before he was accused seems pleasant enough; while his father died when he was young, he was adopted by a learned patrician and became well-educated himself. He also later married the patrician’s daughter, and they had two sons, both of whom would follow in their father’s footsteps and serve in the government. Boethius wrote a number of other works, too, including mathematical works, translations, and commentaries.
But it is Consolation of Philosophy for which he is best known. The work is written as a dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy. Their conversation covers a number of topics, but one of the most significant is the nature of happiness and how all things but virtue are transitory. Because things like wealth and power can be lost at any moment, virtue is the only thing which we keep and thus the only thing true happiness relies on. Another interesting discussion in the book concerns justice. Boethius brings up the point that wicked men often seem to be rewarded while good men suffer, and Philosophy replies that this is just an illusion. Because wicked men find themselves further and further from God, and good men seek closer and closer and closer to God, justice is essentially served by default, as it is better to be closer to God, and worse to be further away from him. While not all of his readers are religious anymore, the idea of virtue being its own reward and wickedness being its own punishment is still a powerful one.
I just ran into Boethius and Consolation of Philosophy most recently in a Great Courses course on Great Minds of the Medieval World, which was a fantastic course. It definitely seems like a worthwhile piece; who couldn’t use a little consolation now and then? À la prochaine!
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
SuperSummary: Consolation of Philosophy Summary
My grandfather died five years and a few days ago