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This guide is one of a column series that invites Adventist readers to reflect on classics important to the Christian spiritual tradition. Each guide provides 1) A brief biography of the classic’s author and a section on historical context 2) A short outline of the classic 3) Reflection and analysis of the classic 4) Questions for personal spiritual reflection.
1) Biography of Boethius & Historical Context for the Book
Boethius is one of the most famous people no one’s ever heard of anymore. He was born in Rome around 480 AD to an aristocratic family, and orphaned at an early age. Shortly thereafter he was adopted by an equally important Roman leader whose daughter he later married. The marriage was a happy one and they had two sons. Boethius’s privileged societal position provided education, wealth, leisure and involvement in Roman Senatorial politics. Fluent in Greek and familiar with Greek philosophy, he began an ambitious attempt to translate all extant works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin and to provide corresponding commentaries.
The Western Roman Empire ended with a whimper in 476 AD, and by Boethius’s adulthood Italy and more was under the rule of Theodoric – king of the Ostrogoths. While Theodoric was nominally viceroy to the Roman emperor in Constantinople, in practice he was autonomous. His court was in Ravenna and generally he allowed the Roman Senate to oversee Rome’s own governmental operations.
Boethius was heavily involved in city and provincial government, having been made consul in 510. In 523 he was caught in a political crossfire defending another senator from a conspiracy charge. This provided the occasion for his enemies to accuse him of treason. Theodoric believed the accusation. Boethius was arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to die. The man who had everything found himself going from first to worst. This is the backdrop against which The Consolation of Philosophy was written.
2) Outline of The Consolation of Philosophy
Samuel Johnson quipped, “The prospect of being hanged focuses the mind wonderfully.” The Consolation is a short book (105 pages in my edition) in the form of a dialog between Boethius and an allegorical figure – Lady Philosophy. Beginning with a summary of his situation and its injustice, the focus quickly turns to how unfair fortune is and Lady Philosophy’s proposed “cure” for Boethius’s faulty perspective. This generalizes further, in the latter part of the book, to a consideration of what is often called The Problem of Evil. Here Boethius wrestles with the contrast between God’s presumed fairness and the undeniable fact that good is often not rewarded and evil not punished in this life. At first it may seem odd for a person, placed into miserable circumstances, to reflect on an abstraction – life’s unfairness. But this is a bedrock question for anyone who wants to believe in a beneficent God. Atheism has no such problem. Christianity does.
3) Reflection and Analysis
The Consolation was one of the few books of Antiquity that was in (relatively) wide circulation during the Middle Ages. It was very popular. These centuries, in Western Christendom, were often oppressive. War, disease and famine were evils that stood in stark contrast to what God’s character was supposed to be like. Boethius addressed this problem. And the book had the added relevance of an author writing from the perspective of personal crisis – not as an armchair philosopher. Indeed, in 524 Boethius was executed by Theodoric.
This summary may perhaps help locate the Consolation in history and explain why its initial readership would find it helpful. But what about us? Is reading a 1500 year-old book, even given the centrality of its topics, worth our time? I’d say yes and no. It really depends on the mindset of a potential reader.
Working against it is the somewhat antique literary structure employed and its formal, even poetic language. Today we are more comfortable with a conversational style and breezy exposition. And while the book is constructed as a dialog, it has more affinity to Plato than Michael Crichton. Also, not every temperament is reflective. And there is nothing wrong in that. Asking the questions Boethius does is not interesting or comfortable for everyone.
However, for those who are more reflective and are willing to try to cut through a somewhat unfamiliar prose style, there are substantial rewards. Some of the key issues are expressed wonderfully. Consider these passages:
"The judgment of most people is based not on the merits of a case but on the fortune of its outcome; they think that only things which turn out happily are good."
"You have merely discovered the two-faced nature of this blind goddess [Fortune] … For now she has deserted you, and no man can ever be secure until he has been deserted by Fortune."
"I [Fortune] spin my wheel and find pleasure in raising the low to a high place and lowering those who were on top. Go up, if you like, but only on condition that you will not feel abused when my sport requires your fall."
"The memory of it [prosperity] is what causes me most pain; for in the midst of adversity, the worst misfortune of all is to have once been happy."
"Happiness cannot depend on things which are uncertain … clearly unstable Fortune cannot pretend to bring happiness."
"Many men who were famous during their lifetime are now forgotten because no one wrote about them, but even written records are of limited value since the long passage of time veils them and their authors in obscurity."
"I am convinced that adverse fortune is more beneficial to men than prosperous fortune. When fortune seems kind, and seems to promise happiness, she lies. On the other hand, when she shows herself unstable and changeable, she is truthful."
"The beauty of your person passes swiftly away; it is more fleeting than spring flowers. … You may esteem your bodily qualities as highly as you like as long as you admit that these things you admire so much can be destroyed by the trifling heat of a three-day fever."
On good and evil:
"Since there is a good governor of all things, how can there be evil, and how can it go unpunished? Think how astonishing this is. But it is even more amazing that with wickedness in full control, virtue not only goes unrewarded, but is trampled underfoot by the wicked and is punished instead of vice. That this can happen in the realm of an all-knowing and all-powerful God who desires only good must be a cause of surprise and sorrow to everyone."
"The wise can do what they want to do; the wicked can follow their desires, but they cannot accomplish what they want. For they do what they feel like doing, and they suppose that they will find among their pleasures the good they are really looking for. But they are bound to fail, since shameful behavior does not bring happiness."
"If a man should find his happiness in a reward received from someone else, then either the one who gave it, or some other person, could take it away."
"Whatever strays farthest from the divine mind is most entangled in the nets of Fate; conversely, the freer a thing is from Fate, the nearer it approaches the center of all things."
"There seems to be a hopeless conflict between divine foreknowledge of all things and freedom of the human will. For if God sees everything in advance and cannot be deceived in any way, whatever his Providence foresees will happen, must happen. Therefore, if God foreknows eternally not only all the acts of men, but also their plans and wishes, there cannot be freedom of will. … Finally, and this is the most blasphemous thought of all, it follows that the Author of all good must be made responsible for all human vice since the entire order of human events depends on Providence and nothing on man’s intention."
I hope it is evident, from these selected quotes, how wide is the scope of topics considered by the Consolation. Beginning with Boethius’s personal circumstances we eventually reach a discussion of good and evil, then free will. Now I wish I could say that Boethius had great answers to these difficult questions. But I think he does far better stating the problems than he does with solving them. That should not be surprising as he addresses the most vexing issues we humans face. If Boethius comes up short in his answers we can still, I believe, find much of value in his clear exposition of the problems.
4) Questions for Personal Personal Spiritual Reflection
How would you define happiness? Is it really impossible for success via wickedness to produce happiness? Can we dissociate earthly success and comfort from happiness?
Is there any adequate theodicy to defend God from the problem of evil?
Do you believe we have free will? If so, how do you refute the Consolation's argument against freedom?
Rich Hannon is a software engineer and an avid Medievalist. He is also on the board of the Association of Adventist Forums.