Tag Archives: consolation of philosophy

Fortune favours the bold (but does she?)

Wheel. Of. Fortuune! (Carmina Burana, page with ‘O Fortuna’; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Clm 4660, f. 1r)

One evening, my wife and I were walking with a friend who needed to catch a bus. As we waited to a cross a mildly busy street, we saw the bus on approach. I called out, ‘Fortune favours the bold!’ and ran across the street to hold the bus for them. This event stands out as one of my ‘loud in public and never to be forgotten moments’ (up there with ‘Gandalf is just a wizard’).

But I’m not sold on Fortune’s favour. The famous instance of someone making this proclamation is Pliny the Elder on his approach to Pompeii during Vesuvius’ eruption. He directs the ships towards the volcano:

‘Fortes’ inquit ‘fortuna iuvat.’

They evacuated some people (so maybe Fortune did favour him?), but, after strapping pillows to his head to keep the rocks from hurting him, Pliny the Elder stayed behind to observe this natural phenomenon. You can read about it in his nephew’s letters, Pliny the Younger, Letters, 6.16.

I will have the joy of teaching Vergil’s Aeneid at UBC this Autumn, and I’ve been rereading it preparation. Here we see, Book 10.284, Turnus:

‘audentis Fortuna iuuat.’

Unfortunately for Turnus, the fates are against him. He and the other Italians may do very well in the ensuing battle, but by the end of Book 10, Aeneas has essentially become a giant, an elemental force of destruction. And at the end of Book 12, Turnus will lose his life.

If Turnus had been prudent, had not slain Pallas, he may have lived long enough to gain some sort of reprieve, or a treaty, or something. Instead, his daring (Latin audeo means ‘to dare’) brings destruction on many of his people and ultimately his death. The Trojans win this war, ultimately, and make marriage alliances with the people of Ausonia.

How much easier it would have been for everyone without Turnus’ boldness.

Not, one hastens to add, that this exonerates Aeneas of his Incredible Hulk-style ragefest of slaughter.

Ultimately, Fortune favours … no one. This is a main theme in Beothius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Fortune smiled on him for a time — a good marriage, the joint consulship of his sons. That sort of thing. But now he’s rotting in prison, doomed to die. This is the way the Wheel of Fortune turns. One may be king, at the top, one day, and a peasant at the bottom the next.

Fortune is fickle. Fortune may favour the bold Turnus today, only to have him slaughtered at the hand of his enemy the next.

In order to attain a state of lasting felicity, one must fix one’s attention on things beyond the domain of Fortune, fixing one’s heart on things above. This is what philosophy is for, and this is what Boethius is taught in the Consolation.

Reading Vergil, and seeing forces driven by Fate or the gods, this is worth thinking about.

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Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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What ‘Dark’ Ages?

As promised, here is a post about what follows late antiquity (and if the debate about ending ‘late’ antiquity interests you, be sure to read the comments of the post thereon).

A week or two ago, I was at a conference about the Middle Ages. My paper was about Justinianic hagiography because I think the later bits of Late Antiquity also count as the early bits of the Early Middle Ages. Anyway, one of the people commented during a tea break that she doesn’t think the Middle Ages begin until the year 800. Another delegate remarked, ‘So you’re a believer in the Dark Ages?’

I know this is non-controversial in many circles, and has been for many years, but it is worth saying: The Dark Ages Never Happened.*

There are people who still use the term, such as an evangelical woman who once asked me if there were any Christians in the ‘Dark Ages’. Thunderstruck, I didn’t really have much of an answer; I also wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘Dark Ages’. Did she include the entire Middle Ages? I know that not everyone who uses the term includes the whole 1000-year period typically designated ‘mediaeval’, such as a friend who once remarked in a blog that Muslims dragged western Europe ‘kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages.’ Usually, when the term crops up, it means something from the Fall of Rome until sometime in the Carolingian era or the 1000s or 1100s.

No one’s really sure what the Dark Ages are, I guess; that’s a worse range of dates than we had for Late Antiquity.

The Dark Ages are imagined to be a period of internecine warfare across ‘Europe’, an age when ‘barbarians’ took over the Roman Empire and everything went to pieces. Christianity was turned into superstition (if Constantine hadn’t already done it; it all depends whom you ask). Trade disappeared. People lived brutal, hard, short lives, plagued by fear of the supernatural and of Vikings. Learning was lost, shunned even. It was a dark time in western Europe, and was saved possibly by the Carolingian ‘Renaissance’ or by Islamic learning or by the Irish. Depends whom you ask.

This, quite frankly, is not exactly the case. The change from Empire to barbarian kingdoms is a gradual one, and the movement from a Mediterranean-wide economy of exchange to local economies in the West is very slow, indeed. True, the aristocracy became landed warriors, one of the hallmarks of mediaeval civilization, but they still ruled by Roman Law, still levied Roman taxes, still wrote in Latin, for a very long time.

Indeed, all sorts of Roman learning and aspects of Roman culture were preserved throughout western Europe, even in places where Roman administrative culture completely evaporated, such as Britain. How ‘dark’ can an age be if it gives us Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Adamnan of Iona, the Venerable Bede, Alfred the Great, Alcuin? How ‘dark’ can a world really be that gives us the epic poem Beowulf or the Icelandic Sagas? Or Romanesque architecture and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

Any survey of Early Mediaeval literature should disabuse the notion that, say, 400-1000 was a ‘Dark Age’ for western Europe. Sure, there was a lot of local warfare. This didn’t really let up until 1945, so that can’t really count against the period. Sure, there was some political instability. Sure, a lot of manuscripts were lost. And, yes, Vikings would occasionally come to raid your village. Or found Dublin. Or conquer and settle Normandy. Or become members of the Emperor’s guard in Constantinople.

Even the example of the Vikings, so archetypically ‘Dark Ages’ shows us that the image of the Early Middle Ages as ‘dark’ is off the mark.

This was a transitional period, probably more unstable than some, but not so bad. Many imperial institutions persisted. The Church kept doing her thing. Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede gave us voluminous Latin output that includes Bible commentary, saints’ lives, and the history of their peoples. Worth reading. The Insular culture gave us the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and other exquisite examples of book production. The continent gave us very important texts of secular and canon law as well as the beauty of early Romanesque art.

Perhaps what is darkest about this period is our ignorance of it. Most ignorant are those who still call it ‘Dark.’ Yet in many other ways, historians have far less material from this period to work with. So it is harder to illuminate this age than those that precede and follow it. Nonetheless, it is worth illuminating yourself if you can. You’ll find that the Early Middle Ages are an interesting bit of history.

So, check out these; I list only four so as not to weigh you down. Feel free to recommend others in the comments!

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham; pub. Penguin. The introductory chapter deals with a lot of the reasons the Early Middle Ages are snubbed, and not just the ‘Dark Ages’ issue. I’m about 1/3 through, and it’s very illuminating.

Romanesque by Norbert Wolf. This is one of those wonderful introductory volumes of art history produced by Taschen, full of colour illustrations demonstrating the subject at hand. Romanesque is the style of art and architecture most common in the Early Middle Ages. It is beautiful.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology ed. and trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, including the entirety of Beowulf. This Oxford World’s Classics volume gives the reader an initiation in the varied literature from the world of the Anglo-Saxon people until 1066, including poetry, sermons, chronicles, spells, riddles, letters, and land grants.

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. This piece of Latin philosophy, written primarily in verse, is a tour-de-force of late antique/early mediaeval philosophical writing that will make the reader rethink the allegedness ‘darkness’ of the 500s.

*Neither did the Renaissance.