Detail of a miniature of Boethius lying in bed, with Philosophy standing beside him, from the beginning of Book I of The Consolation of Philosophy. Harley 4355 f.27. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Library


Why read Boethius today?

Written while awaiting execution, the Consolation of Philosophy poses questions about human reason that remain urgent today

by John Marenbon + BIO

Detail of a miniature of Boethius lying in bed, with Philosophy standing beside him, from the beginning of Book I of The Consolation of Philosophy. Harley 4355 f.27. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Library

For nearly a millennium, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius was a bestseller throughout Europe. It was read not only by those who could understand its 6th-century Latin original but also those who studied it in any of a multiplicity of translations, into Old and Middle English, Old French, Old High German, Italian, Spanish and many other languages, including Greek and Hebrew. Although Aristotle’s texts shaped the university curriculum, and Augustine’s thought was ubiquitous, in the period from 800 until about 1600 no other philosophical text could compete with the Consolation in its appeal – not just to the intellectual elite but to a much wider audience too. Yet now the work is the preserve of scholarly medievalists. Unlike Plato’s dialogues, for instance, or René Descartes’s Meditations, it no longer seems to carry a broad philosophical appeal. But, if read carefully, in its historical and literary context, it should do. The Consolation is a far more subtle work than it at first seems to be. While the medieval audience, for the most part, responded to its more obvious features, its hidden complexities and subtleties are what can open its appeal to readers now.

The Consolation is the product of the dramatic circumstances that ended its author’s life. Born around 476 CE, Boethius belonged to a rich, prestigious Roman family, and he lived most of his life enjoying the privileges of his class, participating in the ceremonies of the Senate, writing works and commentaries on mathematics, music and logic with the help of his education in Greek culture, and, though not a priest, taking part in theological controversies. But his birth had coincided with the beginning of Ostrogothic rule in Italy. Theodoric, the Gothic king, wanted good relations with the native Roman aristocrats, but they remained a threat to him. In the early 520s, he invited Boethius to become Master of Offices, his most important official. Boethius accepted, but his determination to root out corruption soon made him enemies, and Theodoric was willing to believe that Boethius was plotting against him. Found guilty of treason and other charges, Boethius was imprisoned, awaiting execution. This was when he wrote the Consolation, with his own circumstances as a condemned prisoner providing the setting.

The work is a dialogue between Boethius the Prisoner and a personification of Philosophy, in the shape of a beautiful woman who appears to him in his cell. The discussion is in prose, but it is interspersed with poems that summarise, comment on, take forward or provide another perspective to, the main line of the argument.

At the beginning, Boethius the Prisoner can do nothing but lament his sudden fall from prosperity and explain at length to Philosophy the injustice of the charges against him. Philosophy is not at all sympathetic. She tells him that, if he remembered her teachings, he wouldn’t be complaining, as he does, that God has no concern for humans, and that the good suffer and the wicked prosper. She sets out to answer both charges.

In its obvious outlines, her argument has this shape. Like a doctor, Philosophy begins with gentle remedies and then, when her patient is ready for them, uses stronger medicine. She begins by arguing that the Prisoner shouldn’t blame fortune for taking away the gifts she had happened to give him and that, anyway, these goods of fortune are not true goods at all. The Wheel of Fortune turns ineluctably, and no one can expect to be forever at the top enjoying the best that life has to offer. Gradually, she leads the Prisoner to see that all goodness comes from one source, the highest good, which is identified with God. Only by adhering to this good can a person be truly happy.

Following the line of argument in Plato’s dialogue the Gorgias, she goes on to explain that by acting well we achieve what we wish and make ourselves happy, and that we make ourselves miserable when we are wicked. The good are not therefore truly oppressed, nor do the wicked prosper genuinely. God does care for humanity: he has set himself as an end, and by striving to reach him they can gain happiness. But God also, she adds, exercises a providential control over humans, although his purposes in doing so are often hidden.

Boethius the Prisoner responds by raising a logical problem: if God foresees all future events (as the account of his providence implies), how can any events be contingent? If they are not, and everything takes place of necessity, then, he says, there will be no moral responsibility for acting well or badly: if everything is already fixed there is no room for choice. Philosophy answers with a complex argument: using the idea that God exists in an eternity not measured by time, she claims that future events can at once be contingent, and yet known as necessary by God.

The most striking feature of this whole discussion is not anything said, however, but an absence. Boethius is a Christian, facing death, but there is nothing in the Consolation specifically Christian. Philosophy represents, and sticks strictly to, the tradition of pagan philosophy, which went back to Plato, Aristotle and earlier, and was still practised in Boethius’s day at the Platonic Schools of Athens and Alexandria; and the Prisoner doesn’t stray outside her perspective. The medieval readers of the Consolation noticed this feature but, for the most part, they didn’t let it complicate their understanding of the text.

Thinkers of the time always had the tendency to assimilate the deity of Aristotle and the ancient Platonists with the God of Christianity. Some readers of the Consolation, such as its earliest editors in the years after Boethius’s death, and Alcuin at the turn of the 9th century, gave it an explicitly Biblical character, by identifying Philosophy with the Solomonic figure of Wisdom. Most were content simply to take its teaching as unproblematically compatible with Christianity, though not overtly Christian. To them, the cultural world of the Consolation seemed misleadingly familiar, and they attributed to its author an easy accommodation between ancient philosophy and Christian belief, possible at their distance from antiquity but not in Boethius’s own, more conflicted times.

There were exceptions, however. Bovo, the 10th-century abbot of Corvey, denounced the pagan teaching in the work. More subtly, late in the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer employed the Consolation (which he clearly loved, and had translated into English) as a source for how distinctively pagan characters – such as Theseus in The Knight’s Tale and Troilus in Troilus and Criseyde – use or, more frequently, abuse philosophy. Chaucer seems to have been one of the rare writers of his time to notice that Boethius was making an important point by choosing the pagan figure of Philosophy as his figure of authority. To readers now, under no illusion of cultural familiarity and with the benefit of modern scholarship, the significance of this choice should be obvious.

We know that, to Boethius and his envisaged contemporary readers, pagan philosophy was still a reality and, although all Christians, they were also self-consciously guardians of the ancient, pre-Christian tradition of learning, law and civility. For them, the choice of a figure representing pagan philosophy as the authoritative speaker, who sets the parameters of discussion for the Christian Prisoner, would have moulded how the Consolation was to be understood. It would have been seen as a work about the relationship between the tradition of ancient philosophy and Christian faith and, more challengingly, as one that, like Plato’s dialogues on Socrates’s trial and execution, asks how someone can give meaning to life in the face of rapidly approaching death, with the help of philosophical training, but without the obvious consolation of Christian religious belief.

This question is one that still troubles us. Believers and non-believers alike seek answers about how to live in relation to our mortality. But the way in which Boethius the author answers these has a complexity and many-sidedness that brings the Consolation even closer to today’s readers than it did to his contemporaries.

On a straightforward reading of the Consolation, Philosophy’s argument is taken as authoritative, accepted by both Boethius the Prisoner and by the author. If so, the Consolation, like Plato’s dialogues on Socrates’s execution, is a bold assertion of the power of unaided human reason even in the face of death. But – and the same objection might be made to Plato’s Phaedo – the central philosophical arguments are likely to seem too weak, especially to modern readers, to support such a claim. There is, however, reason to think that this straightforward reading doesn’t do the Consolation justice.

Ancient readers were very conscious of a work’s genre. It guided their expectations of how its author intended it to be understood. By writing the Consolation in alternating prose and verse, Boethius signalled that the work is a Menippean satire. As Joel Relihan showed in Ancient Menippean Satire (1993), this genre of satire ridicules figures of authority. Readers of the Consolation might therefore expect Philosophy’s teachings not to be treated with complete respect. From this starting point, Relihan develops in The Prisoner’s Philosophy (2007) a reading that is diametrically opposed to the straightforward one. Philosophy, he argues, is shown as failing to provide the Prisoner with consolation, and this failure was Boethius’s way of revealing the weakness of any sort of human reasoning. The implicit message is that Christian faith alone provides the type of consolation that Boethius the Prisoner was wrongly seeking from Philosophy.

When evil people apparently prosper, there is a divine purpose to it

Such a reading treats all the Consolation’s philosophical argumentation as if it were mere rhetoric, devised by Boethius the author just in order to show its inadequacy, with its main message delivered by indirect means. This is hard to accept. Would Boethius, who had devoted his life to philosophy, really have treated arguments in this way? Why, in particular, elaborate the intricate argument at the end of the work about divine prescience and contingency, certainly his finest and most original piece of reasoning, if his purpose were just to show the inadequacy of philosophy and not its power to console? Although it raises important questions, Relihan’s reading is ultimately unpersuasive.

A more plausible view is that Boethius the author did in fact intend Philosophy’s arguments to be taken seriously and tried his very best to put well-constructed reasonings into her mouth. At the same time, however, he wanted to indicate that such arguing fell short of uncovering the whole truth, and he did so by leaving tensions within the argumentative structure of the Consolation as a whole. There are three main, interlinked areas of tension: about human happiness; about providence and the suffering of the good; and about human freedom.

Over a long stretch of the Consolation, not just during the time she is putting forward her initial, easier remedies, Philosophy develops a complex view of human happiness. She dismisses the value of many of the goods of fortune, which are what most people seek – riches, high office, kingdoms, public praise and sensual pleasures. She sees the pursuit of any of these as a misguided attempt to gain the true goods of sufficiency, respect, power, enduring fame and joy. Having these true goods, which can’t be taken away even from someone in the Prisoner’s position, is central to happiness, but some goods of fortune, such as the people one loves, are also accepted as being genuinely valuable. However, from the middle of the work onwards, Philosophy proposes a very different view of happiness. It is gained, she argues, not through having a complex set of goods, but through the supreme good, which is presented monolithically and identified with God. Any of the individual goods people usually value are worthless in themselves and distract from the pursuit of the true good.

The explanation, based on the Gorgias account of why the good don’t suffer and the wicked fail to prosper, fits well with this approach. According to it, God doesn’t intervene in the course of events or arrange them. Rather, by adhering to God, the supreme good, as their end, people can gain happiness, and by turning away from him, in a wicked life, they punish themselves and even, so Philosophy insists, are in danger of ceasing to exist at all. But here Boethius the Prisoner, who so far has willingly accepted the whole train of Philosophy’s reasoning, comes forward to object to the massively counterintuitive consequences of her position. ‘Which wise person,’ the Prisoner asks, ‘would prefer to be a penniless disgraced exile rather than stay in their own city and lead there a flourishing life, mighty in wealth, revered in honour and strong in power?’

Although Philosophy could easily have replied by reasserting her position and blaming the Prisoner for missing her point, she chooses to abandon her previous arguments and, as already mentioned, she develops a different account of divine providence. According to it, the entire course of history has been arranged by God’s reason, to preserve goodness and eliminate wickedness. When evil people apparently prosper, there is a divine purpose to it – perhaps to help them repent, perhaps to use the harm they inflict on others as punishments for those who deserve it, or as a trial to make the good even better.

Philosophy excepts human free will from the control of the providence she describes here. This is why the next and final objection made by Boethius the Prisoner – that divine prescience is incompatible with future contingency – is so important. God’s perfection requires that he be omniscient. Therefore, he knows not just what has happened and is happening, but what is going to happen, including the future movements of my will. But if God knows how I am going to will tomorrow – for example, that I am going to will to have a cup of coffee when I wake up – then it seems that I am not free to will the opposite.

This is why the threat to contingency posed by divine prescience is so serious: it strikes at the freedom of the will, and so, at least on Boethius’s view (shared by many philosophers), at the basis for moral responsibility. Philosophy gives an elaborate answer to this problem, which deals with the objections that Boethius the Prisoner has made to various solutions. Yet, even if her answer is successful, Philosophy faces a further, deeper difficulty.

Boethius the Prisoner comments parenthetically, and Philosophy accepts, that God’s knowledge is unlike ours in a very important way. When we know that something is the case, it is the case independently of our belief. It is because our belief correctly tracks how things are that it is a candidate for being knowledge. However, with respect to God, whatever is the case is the case because he knows it is the case: God’s knowledge doesn’t track reality but, rather, it brings about how things are. If so, then, even if the objection about divine prescience can be solved, it will remain that, given God knows our wills, God, and not we, brings about how we will. Very near to the end of the Consolation, Philosophy claims that her solution to the problem of prescience solves this problem too, but what she offers is an assertion, not an argument: ‘[T]his power of knowledge, wrapping together all things in a present act of knowing, itself sets the measure for all things and owes nothing to things inferior to it …’

This is a principle that relativises knowledge to knowers, according to their cognitive capacities

Perhaps Boethius the author was unaware of these tensions in the argumentative structure of the Consolation – given his impending execution, he might not have had the time to reflect on or revise his work carefully. But, especially given his choice of a genre where authority is questioned, it is more likely that they are deliberate, and that they are designed to show that Philosophy can indeed console even the condemned, Christian Boethius – but only to a certain extent. Purely rational, human speculation can grasp a good deal, but it can’t achieve a fully coherent understanding of how the different elements in the divinely ordered universe fit together. Implicitly, then, the narrative of the author Boethius is designed to make the Prisoner step beyond a purely philosophical consolation, but this move is presented not as a rejection of philosophy, but as a completion of it, and it is foreshadowed, in pagan terms, by Philosophy herself, who refers more than once to her own inadequacy as teacher.

This reading is supported by a feature in the discussion about divine prescience that is often overlooked. From the discussion between the Prisoner and Philosophy, the following emerges as the kernel of the problem: future contingent events are by their very nature uncertain and unfixed, but only what is fixed and certain can be known. Even if God is always right in predicting future events, his claim to know them must therefore be false. Philosophy attacks this conclusion by asserting a very surprising principle: ‘[E]verything that is known is grasped not according to its own power, but rather according to the capacity of those who know it.’ As used in the discussion that follows, this is a principle that relativises knowledge to knowers, according to their cognitive capacities. Our bodily senses, our reasons and God’s intellect grasp a given object in different ways and reach different truths, which would be incompatible unless relativised. A human being is an individual, as grasped by the senses, but a universal, as grasped by reason; the choice I make using my free will tomorrow is a contingent event from my and other humans’ perspective, but a necessary one as seen from the grandstand viewpoint of God in eternity.

Unlike most relativisms today, however, Boethius’s relativism is hierarchical: reason grasps reality better than the senses, and divine intellect grasps it better than reason. Such hierarchical relativism demands from humans an attitude of epistemic humility: we should be diffident about our powers to attain knowledge of the truth. However much we might esteem human reason, we should also realise that, by its very nature, it is limited, and that the ultimate explanation of the universe is open only to a cognitive power superior to ours.

Medieval readings of Boethius’s Consolation tended to smooth the forcefulness of its message, by making its arguments harmonise too easily with the Christian culture that the people of the time shared with its author. Readers today have a distance from the work that enables us to read it more precisely in the context of Boethius’s own times, and to discover how much Boethius’s way of thinking has in common with our own. We can see the Consolation both as a bold defence of human reason in the face of injustice and impending violent death, but also as an uncovering of reason’s inadequacy. Boethius the Prisoner receives some consolation from Philosophy, but more instruction, and the most important lesson that he learns is one about epistemic humility.