The Department of English
Student Essay of the Month
On Faith and Philosophy: Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy
In a time of great need, religion may be one of the few sources of comfort available. The solace that can be found in faith is perhaps one of the driving forces behind mankind’s perpetual fascination with the divine—the omniscience of God and His providence, as well as knowledge and reason. It is thus perplexing that in his darkest hour—while awaiting execution—Boethius writes The Consolation of Philosophy as an ode to spiritual transcendence and reflection on classical knowledge. This he achieves by literary and philosophical means while not once mentioning Christ or the doctrine of grace, the only fully meaningful consolation for a Christian. This willful omission in his work does not necessarily imply that Boethius was not a Christian. Far from it, Boethius is what may be called a proto-Christian. While by modern conceits of Christianity Boethius’s work seems unexpected, the allusion to Christ in Book I and again in Book II as a spiritual physician through the appearance of Lady Philosophy, references the ascent of the soul to God, and Boethius’s reflections on the forgiveness of the wicked and the supreme good are indicative of his Christian faith.
Boethius further articulates the sentiments of his Christian faith through his discussion with Lady Philosophy about the existence of evil and wickedness in Book IV. She implores Boethius to pity the wicked rather than hate them, “For just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind” (Consolation IV.IV.101). This is indeed one of the core foundational beliefs recurrent throughout the New Testament—to forgive the wicked for they are grievously mistaken in their attempts to find happiness. _________________
When Lady Philosophy first appears to Boethius in his cell in Book I, he is understandably in a state of turmoil and despair. It seems odd, then, at first reading, that it is the incarnation of Philosophy, rather than of Christ, who appears to offer him comfort. Lady Philosophy’s initial assessment of Boethius is clinical, like that of a doctor: she tells him, “’ (…) it is nothing serious, only a touch of amnesia (…) the common disease of deluded minds’” (Consolation I.II.6). Her determination is one based on Boethius’s spiritual health, though, not of his physical status: “’You seem to have forgotten the oldest law of your community (…) And so it is not the site of this place [prison] which gives me concern but (…) the seat of your mind’” (Consolation I.V.17). Her analysis of his ailments and subsequent course of action that leads to a remedy is a direct allusion to Christ as the spiritual physician (Cook and Herzman 171). By ascertaining the nature and cause of Boethius’s malady—primarily, that he has forgotten his true nature (Consolation I.VI.20), Lady Philosophy illuminates a treatment plan conditional to his needs. In any modern Christian text, it would certainly be unheard of to create such an association between the Savior and any other figure, particularly one that would be associated with paganism. However, it makes perfect sense in a late-antique philosophical treatise, and given Boethius’s framework and understanding of Christianity, that his beliefs would have intrinsically been rooted in the pagan: “He belonged to an age in which the ancient classical culture had become assimilated to Christianity, but not absorbed by it” (Consolation xxxiv).
Lady Philosophy’s appearance to him is not entirely unlike a Marian apparition or theophany, which is a reoccurring theme in the classical tradition (Fr. Roten, “Basics on Apparitions”). Her goals are akin to those of a spiritual teacher who seeks to guide her pupils on the journey from ignorance to knowledge and from exile to acceptance (a return home—the soul’s ascent to heaven) (Consolation IV.I.86). The very function of Marian apparitions and theophanies is to bring about a return to God; Lady Philosophy’s purpose here thus solidifies Boethius’s writing as being that of a Christian (Fr. Roten, “Basics on Apparitions”). Lady Philosophy, in her role as physician, identifies not only that Boethius has forgotten his true nature, but that he has also forgotten where he is going—his ultimate destination: “’For I have swift and speedy wings / With which to mount to mount the lofty skies / For here the King of kings holds sway / If there the pathway brings you back / “I remember,” you will say, “My home, my source, my ending too.”” (Consolation IV.I. 86-87). The ascension of the soul to heaven resonates both with modern Christian ideology, and with the medieval metaphor of the faithful as a pilgrim and Christ as the Good Shepherd (Cook and Herzman 171).
Boethius further articulates the sentiments of his Christian faith through his discussion with Lady Philosophy about the existence of evil and wickedness in Book IV. She implores Boethius to pity the wicked rather than hate them, “For just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind” (Consolation IV.IV.101). This is indeed one of the core foundational beliefs recurrent throughout the New Testament—to forgive the wicked for they are grievously mistaken in their attempts to find happiness: “’So long as they look only at their own desires and not the order of creation, they think of freedom to commit crimes and the absence of punishment as happy things. (…) those who commit and injustice are more unhappy than those who suffer it’” (Consolation IV.IV.99). Here, Lady Philosophy echoes the very words of Christ in the Gospel according to Luke, after Jesus had been crucified: “Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do’” (Luke 23:34 KJV).
Perhaps the best evidence that indicates Boethius’s regard for Christianity occurs when Lady Philosophy reminds him that, “’It is the supreme good, then, which almighty and sweetly orders all things’” (Consolation III.XII.80); he responds, “‘The conclusion of this highest of arguments has made me very happy, and I am even more happy because of the words you used. I am now ashamed of the stupidity of all my railing’” (Consolation III.IXX.80-81). The reference to the Book of Wisdom is most apparent: “Wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things” (Wisdom of Solomon 8:1 KJV). But what is most telling is Boethius’s response in that by recognizing and embracing the very words Lady Philosophy choose to use, he makes blatant reference to his identity as a Christian (Marenbon, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius”). It is thus readily apparent through the author’s reaction that he was a Christian who believed, in alignment with the framework of Christianity, that there is one God, who is just and sovereign, omniscient and omnipotent, infinite, eternal, and immutable.
While Boethius’s methods of expressing his teleological beliefs in this philosophical meditation may seem out of place in contemporary discussion of Christianity, they nonetheless reflect his faith in philosophy, reason, and spiritual transcendence. It is apparent, of course, through his Consolation, that much of Boethius’s framework for Christianity is rooted in classical philosophy and Neoplatonism, in particular. This in no way detracts from a reading and appreciation of The Consolation as a philosophical and spiritual consolation—the work of a Christian writer and philosopher whose potent, inspirational theodicy is indeed relevant to readers of all beliefs.
Boethius, Anicius. Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts. London:Penguin Classics, 1999. Print.
Cook, William R. and Herzman, Ronald B. The Medieval World View: An Introduction. 3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 2012. Print.
The Holy Bible, King James Version. Cambridge Edition: 1769; King James Bible Online, 2015. 11 Feb. 2015 http://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/.
Marenbon, John, "Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.).
Fr. Roten, Johann G. “Basics on Apparitions”, The Mary Page: University of Dayton The Marian Library/ International Marian Institute 5 Jan. 2012. 11 Feb. 2015 http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/apparitions.html.
(This essay was originally submitted for a class on Medieval Literature)