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A Review of The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius, Folio Society

{Ed Note: Information and pictures about this outstanding specific edition by Folio Society follows the review, so if your interest is limited to that, scroll down.}

Consolation of Philosophy (Consolatio Philosophiae), written by Boethius around 524, is considered one of the most important works on Medieval and early Renaissance Christianity.  Through the end of the Middle Ages, this work was the most widely copied work of secular literature in Europe, being both popular and enormously influential. Boethius wrote this during the year he spent in prison, at the end of which he was executed for treason against King Theodoric the Great who suspected him of conspiring with the Eastern Empire.

Boethius (480-524) reflects on many things, including how evil can be explained in a world in which God rules, human nature, the true path to happiness, justice, and the nature of free will and predestination.  This is not a religious book in the strict sense of the word, with no reference made at all to Jesus or to any specific religion.  Boethius relies solely on philosophy and dialogue, similar to reading a work of Classical Greek philosophy (especially Plato).  As stated in the preface, “reason is the liberator and protector… Consolation is an attempt to unite faith and vision by the instrument of human reason.” This actually makes the book more intellectually interesting and theologically powerful.

You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of inner tranquillity a mind at ease with itself and firmly founded on reason.

Much of the book is a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy. As Boethius had been powerful and wealthy, she consoles Boethius teaching him the transitory nature of fame and wealth.  Boethius therefore encourages readers to avoid desires for worldly goods, such as money and power. Lady Philosophy argues effectively that true happiness can only come from within, not from wealth or praise or fame.  One’s virtue is all important, it is the only thing not constantly at risk by the inevitable swings of fortune.

Rather than try to have a deep philosophical treatise that would both bore you and stretch the limit of my capabilities, allow me to just share some of his writing that I found particularly interesting or thoughtful. The text alternates between prose and verse (though is mostly prose, with some short verses usually to start or end a chapter). Here is a flavor of the verse, that all people of reason and freedom should keep in mind:

If you first rid yourself of hope and fear
You have disarmed the tyrant’s wrath:
But whosoever quakes in fear or hope,
Drifting and losing mastery,
Has cast away his shield, has left his place,
And binds the chain with which he will be bound.

in Book 1, Boethius tells Lady Philosophy that “It may be part of human weakness to have evil wishes, but it is nothing short of monstrous that God should look on while every criminal is allowed to achieve his purpose against the innocent.”  He goes on, in verse:

…All things obey their ancient law
And all perform their proper tasks;
All things though holdest in strict bounds —
To human acts alone denied
Thy fit control as Lord of all.
Why else does slippery Fortune change
So much, and punishment more fit
For crimes oppress the innocent?
Corrupted men sit throned on high;
By strange reversals evilness
Downtreads the necks of holy men.
Bright virtue lies in dark eclipse
By clouds obscured, and unjust men
Heap condemnation on the just;
No punishment for perjury
Or lies adorned with speciousness

Of this great work is man so mean
A part, by fortune to be tossed?

Lady Philosophy provides a detailed and reasoned response, with starts with:

..it is because you don’t know the end and purpose of things that you think the wicked and criminal have power and happiness. And because you have forgotten the means by which the world is governed you believe these ups and downs of Fortune happen haphazardly.

Speaking of fortune:

I know the many disguises of that monster, Fortune, and the extent to which she seduces with friendship the very people she is striving to cheat, until she overwhelms them with unbearable grief at the suddenness of her desertion…Do you really value the presence of Fortune when you cannot trust her to stay and when her departure will plunge you into sorrow? And if it is impossible to keep her at will and if her flight exposes men to ruin, what else is such a fleeting thing except a warning of coming disaster…Commit your boats to the winds and you must sail whichever way they blow, not just where you want.

One statement in particular seem apropos when it comes to elected officials, or worse, those who hold un-elected power:

But it is said, when a man comes to high office, that makes him worthy of honor and respect. Surely such offices don’t have the power of planting virtue in the minds of those who hold them, do they? Or of removing vices? No: the opposite is true. More often than removing wickedness, high office brings it to light, and this is the reason why we re angry at seeing how often high office has devolved upon the most wicked of men.

Boethius does a great job summarizes the problem with seeking false ends:

If you try to hoard money, you will have to take it by force. If you want to be resplendent in the dignities of high office, you will have to grovel before the man who bestows it: in your desire to outdo others in high honor you will have to cheapen and humiliate yourself by begging. If you want power, you will have to expose yourself to the plots of your subjects and run dangerous risks. If fame is what you seek, you will find yourself on a hard road, drawn this way and that until you are worn with care. Decide the lead a life of pleasure, and there will be no one who will not reject you with scorn as the slave of that most worthless and brittle master, the human body.

Where is the punishment of the wicked?  Boethius goes to great lengths to describe how “just as goodness is its own reward, so the punishment of the wicked is their very wickedness.

The discussion on Providence and Fate is especially good.  I like this summary of the difference between the two:

So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole in the foresight of God’s mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate.

Why faith? Where are the limits of reason?  Perhaps, “Human reason refuses to believe that divine intelligence can see the future in any other way except that in which human reason has knowledge.” The discussion on eternity is probably the best part of the dialogue, but I can only give a flavor of it:

Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life…Whatever lives in time exists in the present and progresses from the past to the future, and there is nothing set in time which can embrace simultaneously the whole extent of its life: it is in the position of not yet possessing tomorrow when it has already lost yesterday. Whatever, therefore, suffers the condition of being in time, even though it never had any beginning, never has any ending and its life extends into the infinity of time…is still not such that it may be properly be considered eternal…That which embraces 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.


About the Edition

This is a ‘standard’ edition from Folio Society (meaning not a limited edition). It is an excellent example of just how nice standard publications of Folio Society can be. I find the design perfect for the content, with deep classical elements combined with a sort of Medieval feel.  The cover and endpapers are great, the paper is substantial, the type crisp and the illustrations providing nice imagery, putting one in the mindset of the setting.

Pictures

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The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Book in Slipcase
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Front Cover
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Front Cover Detail
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Cover and Spine
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Endpapers
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Frontispiece and Title Page
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Copyright and Colophon
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Introduction Text and Illustrations
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Sample Text
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Second Sample Pages with Text and Illustration
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Sample Pages with Text
The Consolation of Philosophy, Folio Society, Sample Text from Extensive Notes Section
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