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The Consolation of Boethius

by Sanderson Beck

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born into a Christian aristocratic family, learned Greek and translated many works into Latin, wrote books on arithmetic, geometry, music, and theology, became Consul of Rome under King Theodoric in 510, had the honor of his two sons becoming joint Consuls in 522 when they were chosen by Theodoric and the eastern Emperor Justin, after which he was selected for the high position of magister officiorum, when suddenly he was accused of treason for defending the Roman Senate and the falsely accused Albinus and put in prison in 523 by Theodoric's command. In the context of this situation of his drastic fall from the heights of fortune, Boethius wrote while in prison the Consolation of Philosophy. After about a year's time in which the work was completed, he was brutally executed. The chronicle Anonymous Valesii states in articles 85-87:

The king began to show anger against the Romans whenever there was opportunity. Cyprian, who was then Referendarius and afterwards Count of the Sacred Largesses and Master of Offices, driven by greed, laid an information against Albinus the Patrician that he had sent letters to the Emperor Justin hostile to Theodoric's rule. Upon being summoned before the Court, Albinus denied the accusation and then Boethius the Patrician, who was Master of Offices, said in the King's presence: "False is the information of Cyprian, but if Albinus did it, both I and the whole Senate did it with one accord. It is false, my lord, Oh King. " Then Cyprian with hesitation brought forward false witnesses not only against Albinus but also against his defender Boethius. But the King was laying a trap for the Romans and seeking how he might kill them; he put more confidence in the false witnesses than in the Senators. Then Albinus and Boethius were taken into custody to the baptistery of the Church.

But the King summoned Eusebius, Prefect of the city of Ticenum, and without giving Boethius a hearing, passed sentence upon him. The King soon afterwards caused him to be killed on the Calventian territory where he was held in custody. He was tortured for a very long time by a cord that was twisted round his forehead so that his eyes started from his head. Then at last amidst his torments he was killed with a club.1

Something of Boethius' and his father-in-law Symmachus' characters and the consequences of Theodoric's action are described in the History of the Wars V, i, by the Byzantine historian Procopius who lived at the time of their death.

Theodoric reigned thirty-even years and after having inspired terror in all his enemies died leaving among his subjects a keen sense of regret at his loss. And he died in the following manner.

Symmachus and Boethius his son-in-law, both of noble and ancient lineage, were leading men of the Roman Senate and had been Consuls. Their practice of philosophy, their unsurpassed devotion to justice, their use of their wealth to relieve the distress of many strangers as well as citizens, and the great fame they thus attained caused men of worthless character to envy them. And when these laid false information against them to Theodoric, he believed them and put Symmachus and Boethius to death on the charge of plotting a revolution, and confiscated their property. And when Theodoric was dining a few days afterwards his servants placed before him the head of a large fish. This seemed to Theodoric to be the head of Symmachus newly slain. Indeed with its teeth set in its lower lip, and its eyes looking at him in a dreadful frenzied stare, it had a most threatening appearance. Greatly alarmed at this extraordinary portent and shivering with cold, Theodoric hastened to his bed, and bidding his servants pile clothes upon him he rested a while. But later he revealed all that had happened to his physician Elpidius and wept for his sin against Symmachus and Boethius. Then having lamented and felt great sorrow for the calamity, he died not long afterwards---this being the first and last act of injustice he had committed against his subjects---and the reason of it was that he had not, in the case of these two men, made the thorough examination he as accustomed to make before passing judgment.2

Boethius' contribution and skill in translating Greek works into Latin is implied by Cassiodorus in a letter to him in the name of Theodoric in which he also requests a sundial.

In your translations Pythagoras the musician, Ptolemy the astronomer, are read by the Italians; Nicomachus the arithmetician, Euclid the geometer, are heard by the Ausonians; Plato the theologian and Aristotle the logician dispute in Roman voice; nay, you have given back the mechanician Archimedes in Latin to the Sicilians. And whatever disciplines or arts the eloquence of the Greeks has taught through various men, Rome has received on your authority alone in the speech of the fatherland. These you have rendered clear with such luminous words and marked with such propriety of expression that anyone who had learned them both might have preferred your work.3

Boethius wrote in one of his own books that his goal was to translate and make commentaries on all of Plato and Aristotle to show their essential agreement, but due to his early death only some of the Aristotle was he able to pass on to the Western world which for seven centuries had very little other knowledge than his work on logic. If we take the view of Boethius' Philosophy we could say that by Providence and his fate he had to write without the use of his library his own version of philosophy. He wisely used his own circumstances of exalted fortune contrasted with wretched misfortune to show the transcendental character of Philosophy over the changeable nature of the human world. In doing so he gave to the Middle Ages the Consolation of Philosophy from a Christian which shows by philosophical reasoning and divine intelligence the highest good to which all things move in spite of and beyond the trials and tribulations of temporal fortune. While barbarians were gradually civilizing western Europe and many Christians were retreating into monasteries, the spirit of the times produced the Consolation of Philosophy so that they could understand that fortune was a changeable illusion and that they could go within to find the highest good and realize that they were moving in that divine direction.

Boethius' Consolation was destined to become one of the most popular books of the Medieval period. In the twentieth century Schepss and Engelbrecht recorded that there is close to four hundred manuscripts. This is more than the very popular Roman de la Rose and Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia. Beginning in 1471 the Consolation was printed apparently at Savigliano and followed with editions at Nuremberg, Toulouse, Cologne, Louvain, Ghent, Lyons, Venice, Basel, Strassburg, and other places. The translations through the ages are numerous and often accompanied by commentaries and occasionally charts and diagrams.4 English translations were done personally by such notable people as King Alfred, Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth I. Dante called Boethius, "The blessed soul who exposes the deceptive world to anyone who gives ear to him."

In looking at the Consolation of Philosophy from the viewpoints of history and education, two important questions arise. Why was Boethius' work read so much for so long, and what did it have to teach these people? And secondly, why has the work been so ignored in recent times? To answer these we must examine the message of the book.

Boethius is bewailing his fate in prison after his fall from fortune, when Philosophy makes her appearance in a gown made of her own hands which shows a Pi on the lower border and Theta on the upper with rungs in between to how one may ascend from the Practical to the Theoretical or divine (Theos ). Boethius complains of his unjust sufferings, and Philosophy promises to cure him using a gentler means until he is ready for the sharper remedy. She uses a dialectical method to determine his disease, for the Philosophy of Plato stated that the remedy for the ignorance of not knowing is teaching while the remedy for the double ignorance of thinking that one knows when one does not is therapy. When questioned as to the guidance of the universe, Boethius responds that he does know that God overlooks His work, but he does not know how the universe is governed or to what end. Philosophy seems surprised to find that he who knows the beginning of all things should not know their end. Boethius is able to remember that he is a man, which he defines as an animal, reasoning and mortal. This Philosophy diagnoses as the chief cause of his sickness, that he has forgotten who he is, what the aim and end of all things is, and how the universe is guided; but thanks to the "Giver of all health," he still has a "true knowledge of the hand that guides the universe," and "from this tiny spark the fire of life shall forthwith shine upon you."5

The gentler remedy begins as Philosophy shows how changeable Fortune herself owes Boethius nothing just because she has withdrawn what she had loaned to him. This does not really console him, and Philosophy indicates that "these are not the remedies for your sickness, but in some sort are the applications for your grief which chafes against its cure."6 Philosophy suggests that it is his attitude which makes things appear wretched while the one who endures all with a calm mind finds oneself blessed. She chides him, "Why, then, O mortal men, do you seek that happiness outside, which lies within yourselves?"7 She teaches him that happiness is found by mastering oneself, which fortune can never take away.

Philosophy discusses the various desires of men for riches, gems, beautiful clothes, servants, which are really only good in themselves and do not actually extend their goodness to their possessor. All other things of God are satisfied by their own intrinsic good; only human who should be above other creatures lowers themselves to seek value in worthless things. Yet humans unlike animals have the ability to know themselves. Philosophy shows the vicissitudes of power, position, and fame, and how they have no intrinsic good since they are often used for evil. Philosophy now suggests that Boethius let Fortune and her friends depart for he has found his most precious friends, as she reveals that it is through Love that the natural and human forces of the universe are guided:

"All these are firmly bound by Love, which rules both earth and sea, and has its empire in the heavens too. If Love should slacken its hold, all mutual love would change to war; and these would strive to undo the scheme which now their glorious movements carry out with trust and accord. By Love are peoples too kept bound together by a treaty which they may not break. Love binds with pure affection the sacred tie of wedlock, and speaks its bidding to all trusty friends. O happy race of mortals if your hearts are ruled as is the universe, by Love."8

Now Boethius has received the greatest comfort and is eager for the sharper remedy. Philosophy indicates her transcendental awareness and causative relationship to Boethius' mind when she says, "I knew it when you laid hold upon my word in silent attention, and I was waiting for that frame of mind in you, or more truly, I brought it about in you."9 Philosophy is leading him to the true happiness of which his soul dreams, but first must show it in a picture of words "so that, when that picture is perfect and you turn your eyes to the other side, you may recognize the form of true happiness."10

Philosophy reveals the true goal of humans as "the highest good" whereas people usually only seek partial aspects of the good:

The trouble of the many and various aims of mortal men bring them much care, and herein they go forward by different paths but strive to reach one end, which is happiness. And that good is that, to which if any person attain, one can desire nothing further. It is that highest of all good things, and it embraces in itself all good things; if any good is lacking , it cannot be the highest good, since then there is left outside it something which can be desired Therefore happiness is a state which is made perfect by the union of all good things. This end all people seek to reach, as I said, though by different paths. For there is implanted by nature in human minds a desire for the true good; but error leads them astray towards false goods by wrong paths.11

Then Philosophy shows the vanity of riches, honorable positions, political power, fame, noble birth, desires of the flesh, and how they lead people astray from what is their true good. Through dialectic it is determined that the highest good includes happiness, satisfaction, power, glory, and veneration.

As Philosophy's pupil Plato in his Timaeus suggests always calling upon God at the beginning of any enterprise, Philosophy and Boethius agree to call upon the Father of all in order to be able to find out what is the highest good. The prayer concludes:

Grant them, O Father that this mind of ours may rise to Your throne of majesty; grant us to reach that fount of good. Grant that we may so find light that we may set on You unblinded eyes; cast You from there the heavy clouds of this material world. Shine forth upon us in Your own true glory. You are the bright and peaceful rest of all Your children that worship You. To see You clearly is the limit of our aim. You are our beginning, our progress our guide, our way, our end.12

In examining the relationship between God, the good, and happiness in this light it is found "that the highest Deity must be full of the highest, the perfect good. But as we have laid down that true happiness is perfect good, it must be that true happiness is situated in His Divinity."13 God as the fountain-head of all things has not received Its good from outside, but it is the essence that comes from It. God rules the universe for the highest good, and all things move toward that good according to their own will be being obedient to the helmsman of good.

Book IV discuses the question that if God is good, then what is evil and where does it come from since it can't come from God. Philosophy shows how those who are good are strong because everyone seeks the good, and the ability to attain it is evidence of power while the evil are weak because they have not attained it. Those who are called evil are not capable of all, because they have limited themselves by their desire to a partial reality, and thus do not attain happiness or the highest good. From God's viewpoint everything is really good, because those who are called evil and who suffer punishment for their actions are really receiving the correction that is good for them, and good actions even in spite of adversity receive their reward in the strength of virtue which is a lasting good. Philosophy explains to Boethius that whereas Fate is the order of temporal things, these are a result of Providence where they are "unified in the intelligence of the mind of God."14

When Boethius wonders about chance, Philosophy declares that there is no such thing since God controls everything in order. Boethius then questions about free will. Philosophy states that the reasoning of human nature indicates freedom of judgment. Boethius cannot reconcile God's omniscience with human free will and gives a long argument over this common perplexity. If God knows what is going to happen, then how can human choice be free since it appears to be predestined. To answer this Philosophy must go beyond human reason to divine intelligence and explains how something can be known without the knowledge being the cause of it. In sum God knows what will happen because It is aware of all the possibilities of human free choice no matter which ones are takes. I liken this to an ant crawling up a tree . God is the tree and a human is the ant who chooses which route of branches to follow. God is able to know beyond the fleeting temporal dimension through the consciousness of the Eternal Present from which vantage point one can see all the past, the present, and future possibilities and probabilities, so once the choice is made God knows the results. "It is constant in preceding and embracing by one glance all your changes. And God does not receive this ever-present grasp of all things and vision of the present at the occurrence of future events, but from Its own peculiar directness."15

The conclusion is that human free will is validated, that life is ethical in that there is the responsibility of accepting the consequence of actions, that prayer is efficacious because God does constantly act in the world through Providence, and that the highest good is worth striving for because it is the only true happiness.

Thus, therefore, mortal humans have their freedom of judgment intact. And since their wills are freed from all binding necessity, laws do not set rewards or punishments unjustly. God is ever the constant foreknowing overseer, and the ever-present eternity of Its sight moves in harmony with the future nature of our actions, as it dispenses rewards to the good, and punishments to the bad. Hopes are not vainly put in God, nor prayers in vain offered: if these are right, they cannot but be answered. Turn therefore from vice: ensue virtue: raise your soul to upright hopes: send up on high your prayers from this earth. If you would be honest, great is the necessity enjoined upon your goodness, since all you do is done before the eyes of an all-seeing Judge.16

Thus the piety of the Medieval times was given the philosophical reasoning for its faith. They were encouraged to seek the intrinsic good rather than worldly goals. Evil was seen to be a corrective lesson while suffering from wrong was virtuous. Since God rules the universe through Love, prayer to the source of all good was found to lead to true happiness. How often do historians look back to see what artifacts they can find to judge an epoch of humanity by its extrinsic wealth? Who can say that this inward period of humanity did not prepare the way for the productiveness of the Renaissance like a person quiets one's consciousness in contemplation and prayer before creating a great work of art or literature or science? The Middle Ages were difficult times politically and economically, but who can estimate how much happiness they inwardly received from the Consolation of Philosophy?

In our own times the build-up of extrinsic products and wealth has become so burdensome that we are polluting ourselves with its waste. Yet a shortage of food and economic difficulties are bringing a change of fortune to many people. The good in this is that it is awakening people to their responsibility. Many people are suffering from the disease of materialism and will be realizing their lack of happiness. This is just a personal point of view, but it seems to me that the cure i soon going to be applied through therapy and teaching as people realize that divine Love does rule the universe and that they can live in harmony through this consciousness of Love, that the ever constant goal is the highest good and that by asking God for the highest good of all concerned continuous blessings are experienced. In times of adversity consolation from Philosophy is much appreciated.


1. Barrett, Boethius, pp. 58-59.
2. Ibid., pp. 59-60.
3. Patch, The Tradition of Boethius, p. 2.
4. Ibid., pp. 22, 26, 27.
5. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, I, p. 18.
6. Ibid., II, p. 24.
7. Ibid., II, p. 28.
8. Ibid., II, pp. 40-41.
9. Ibid., III, p. 42.
10. Ibid., III, p. 42.
11. Ibid., III, p. 43.
12. Ibid., III, p. 60.
13. Ibid., III, p. 61.
14. Ibid., IV, p. 91.
15. Ibid., V, p. 119.
16. Ibid., V, p. 120.

Copyright 1996 by Sanderson Beck


Book I Philosophy's Diagnosis
Book II Fortune and Happiness
Book III Philosophy and Happiness
Book IV Good and Bad
Book V Freedom and Omniscience

BECK index