Tag Archives: philosophy

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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How do you want to live (truly live) your life?

'Mort de Seneque'

Not actually Seneca, but usually called so. In the Louvre, my pic.

My friend and fellow ancient historian Katie posted a link to an article on brain pickings called ‘The Shortness of Life: Seneca on Busyness and the Art of Living Wide Rather than Living Long.’ Seneca was a very clever guy, and — as often happens when I read Stoics — his words are convicting. A lot of daily life is devoted to toiling at work rather than living in it, and then procrastinating, and then mindless relaxation.

But what is the point of life? And what are you going to do with yours? Are you going to escape your Facebook feed and Netflix to go and live your life, seeking deep and wide living instead of shallow and narrow living?

I fully intend to. So here are my top three goals in living:

  1. Attaining ‘purity of heart’ as discussed by fifth-century spiritual writer John Cassian in his Conferences. This is a goal that requires the study not only of spiritual guides and philosophers but also certain practices in daily life.
  2. Excelling as an academic. This is my ‘day job’.
  3. Becoming a writer.

Each of these requires its own disciplines and attentiveness, but they can all work together. Number 3, interestingly enough, can be worked through 1 & 2 to a degree, and number 1 manifests itself in the totality of one’s life, thus drawing 2 & 3 into its orbit. Because of the subject matter of my interest, 2 feeds into 1, and, when practised well, into 3 as well.

If I wish to write fiction, however, number 3 will require time other than what is spent on 1 & 2. Part becoming a fiction writer is reading fiction, so that part of my training as a writer is well under way. I just need to, well, write fiction!

But what about true leisure? Seneca would say that leisure time should be devoted exclusively to philosophy — that is, in my scheme, number 1. However, I think he is wrong on this point, and his own corpus of writings bears out his inability to live up to such a high, intense Stoic paradigm, given that he wrote tragedies as well as philosophy.

Instead, I follow Dallas Willard’s book The Spirit of the Disciplines wherein he argues that we need real time to just relax if we are going to make it in the rest of our lives. Time to play a sport or make music or watch TV or read a novel or whatever — just because you want to. No ulterior motive.

If, in our leisure time, we were to make a balance between striving for high philosophical ideals and simply relaxing without slipping into entertaining ourselves to death or working ourselves to death, we would probably find a happy place in the middle between these two extremes.

So, now, go read the recommended article. Then go and truly live.


In the most recent episode of the new SyFy programme Alphas, the ability of our antagonist was to overstimulate the penial gland of those whom he inadvertently turned into his victims. The result of such overstimulation was an intense, powerful feeling of happiness combined with visions of lights. The only problem is that eventually, many of those whom he thus affected ended up basically going catatonic (the word encephalitic was involved, but that’s just Greek for brain-related).

This type of happiness is chemically-induced. Your brain produces the happy chemical. You feel happy.

If this happy feeling were the goal of life, the result philosophers and prophets and poets have been seeking for millennia in the pursuit of happiness, then why not seek it whenever you please? I mean, why not find a drug that could make you feel happy all the time? Indeed, imagine if you could get your hands on such a drug that was even safe — no nasty side-effects, no catatonic state, no dead liver, no kidney failure. Just pure bliss. If this happy feeling were perfectly equated with happiness, there should be no problem with such a chemical ecstasy, right?

Most of us do not, of course, seek happiness through drugs, legal or otherwise. Most of us seek circumstantially-induced happy feelings. We are happy and content because we just watched an interesting, action-packed, thought-provoking episode of Alphas. We are happy because we are enjoying a warm cup of tea. We are happy because we enjoy our jobs, our homes, our spouses, our hobbies, our books, our sports, our cities, our arts, our countries, our clothes. Circumstances make us happy or unhappy, even if somehow in the mysterious world of cognitive science these circumstances can make the happy chemical be produced in our brain and thus we feel happy.

The philosophers, from what I have read, would counsel a different approach, neither the chemical nor circumstantial happiness being enough.

They would counsel us to find a form of happiness that reaches beyond our circumstances and is able to be found without the aid of drugs or alcohol. For example, the Stoic philosopher Epictetus taught that we can find happiness in any sphere of life. Regardless of the sorrows of this troublous and transitory life. we can find a deep, lasting contentment. Just because you are a slave does no mean you are not free. Freedom is found within, in your own mind, in your own attitude to the circumstances around you.

Did I mention that Epictetus, unlike the famous Stoic of the next generation, Marcus Aurelius, was a slave?

I’d take his word for it — though I don’t know that he spent time in the death-bearing copper mines.

Still, if you’re reading a blog, neither have you.

Perhaps, though, if we find ourselves grounded in something beyond the mere externals of life, our happiness can run deeper than music, literature, food, warm homes, good tea, even a great marriage alone can bring. I reckon that if we grounded our happiness in such a place, in such an approach to the world, in such a philosophical attitude, in such a quest for equilibrium, that not only might we find happiness more generally, but the pleasures and good things listed above would even deepen.

Where to find this equilibrium? Aristotle, translated into Latin, calls it the summum bonum — the highest good. Aquinas teaches us that the summum bonum is God himself, the Triune God revealed in Scripture. Perhaps there we shall find happiness.

I don’t know where your path to happiness is leading you. But I hope you try to seek it in something bigger and better that chemical ecstasies or the fleeting yet beautiful pleasures of this life.