Boethius & the Consolation of Theo-Philosophy

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Betrayed, having played the Roman Empire Wheel of Fortune to an ill end, Boethius is visited by Lady Philosophy as he seeks meaning to his days, however few of them may be left.

A few snippets of Boethius’ tale are given here, until the fullness of time allows a more thorough treatment …

Book 1: Yelps of Pain and Forgotten Identity

While Boethius “never shirked offending those with greater power, in the defence of what was right” (1.4.11-12), nevertheless this pursuit of classical virtue and ‘the true’ landed him afoul of ‘Fortune.’ Following Augustine, Lady Philosophy tells Boethius “you have forgotten your own identity.” (1.6.18)

Elaborating, she states “it is the nature of the human mind, once it dispenses with true beliefs, to adopt false ones, from which there develops a cloud of emotional disturbance which distorts the true vision previously held.”

 

Book 2: The Vagaries of Fortune and “What is good in life, Conan/Socrates/Harry Potter ?” 

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In Book 2, Lady Philosophy begins her disabuse of Boethius’s false conceptions of happiness (she is more thorough in the first 8 chapters of Book 3).

Much of Book 2 is disabuse heaped upon disabuse of the notion of Fortune (chance) vs. that which is truly good and worthwhile.

What she finally offers as the answer goes back to Aristotle’s Chapters 8 and 9 of Nich. Ethics: Friendship! The friendship of family -wife and children – and, a la Homer, of one’s home community:

“though now you lament the loss of your wealth, you have found your true friends, the most precious of all riches.” (2.8.7)

The true good so seems to a) be the opposite of Conan the Barbarian’s answer: ‘to crush your enemies,’ b) be like Socrates hemlock finale speech, ‘evil men can not harm true good’ and c) be nearly exactly what Harry Potter offers – the joy of fellowship and friendship (as claimed in Film, Art & Apologetics text Shows about Nothing chapter 6 “Defense against the Dark Arts: Se7en, Dark Knight and Harry Potter,”   in which author Thomas Hibbs states “Harry Potter does more than simply avoid falling into nihilism; it exhibits a vision of what a purposeful life in common with others might look like”[1]

We can also cite Jesus on this score here:

“‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matt. 22:37-40).

Or, CS Lewis:

“There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations – these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub and exploit – immortal horrors or everlasting splendors. This does not mean that we are to be perpetually solemn. We must play. But our merriment must be of that kind (and it is, in fact, the merriest kind) which exists between people who have, from the outset, taken each other seriously – no flippancy, no superiority, no presumption.” [2]

  1. Thomas Hibbs,  Shows about Nothing (Waco: Baylor University Press, 2012), 185.
  2. C.S. Lewis “Weight of Glory” in The Weight of Glory and other Essays(New York: Collier, 1980), 19.

Fortune itself contains some useful notions for us today: <may need to be paraphrased rather than quoted … >

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“It’s worth noting that the medieval figure of Fortune, with her wheel, was used in medieval literature very frequently – for instance, in the Middle English poem “The Fall of Princes” by John Lydgate, and in poems and prose drawing on the Arthurian legends, such as the Alliterative Morte Arthur, [the Death of Arthur] where King Arthur over-reaches himself in conquering Europe, and falls, or the Stanzaic Morte Arthur, where Arthur has a prophetic dream featuring the Wheel of Fortune.

 

Boethius’ idea of Fortune applies to both the great and the low, but medieval writers become most interested in the fall of the great. Those who were at the top could, when the wheel turned, be cast down. This idea served as a corrective to the pride of rulers and the wealthy and powerful. The “Wheel of Fortune” emphasized that it was not by any of their own merit that a prince was “on top” and a lowly worker “on the bottom”: all are equally subject to Fortune’s turning of the wheel.

Thus it was an image used to encourage a sense of humility and intrinsic equality. It’s worth noting that this is a very clear example of the way that equality can and should coexist with hierarchy. Medieval people, for the most part, thought it was right and good that people kept to their station, whatever it happened to be — today, we have difficulty grasping that they also (for the most part) believed that both high and low had equal dignity and value as men and women made in the image of God.

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Medieval writers would have had no difficulty whatsoever in seeing our current political cycle in terms of the Wheel of Fortune! ”  – Prof. Holly Ordway, Houston Baptist University, Medieval Culture & Apologetics Course discussion 2016

 

Book 3: Why Lewis liked Boethius – Desire

Early in Book 3, Lady Philosophy states:

“Thus is is clear that happiness is the state of perfection achieved by the concentration of all goods within it. All mortals, as I have said, strive to attain it by different paths; for this longing for the true good is naturally implanted in human minds, but error diverts them off course towards false goods.” (3.2.4) She restates it a little later as “So in their differing pursuits, men seek what is good … all are at one in choosing the good as their goal” (3.2.20).

While echoing Eccl. 3:11 “He has set eternity in their hearts,” this statement also echoes Lewis’s famous apologetic or argument from desire:

The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited. [1]

It is similar to what Lewis cites in Abolition of Man as Augustine’s notion of “‘ordo amoris’ – the ordinate condition of affections in which every object is accorded that kind and degree of love which is appropriate to it;”[2] this also shows up in Surprised by Joy.[3]

This desire ties in Lewis’s Abolition of Man discussion of the role ofthe emotions in with fundamental Christian ontology – a pure God towards which our desires are made, the Creator who knows (and is) the proper end (purpose, happiness) of man.

This longing also shows up in Augustine.

Lady Philosophy ascribes this longing to all men, even those who are evil.  Is this fair? How can she really say that ‘all are at one in choosing the good as their goal?’ when in fact it, as Malcom Muggeridge once stated 

The doctrine of depravity is the most debated doctrine in society, but it is also the most empirically verifiable.”

Is it simply a matter of education and wrong people stupidly pursuing bad means to fulfill their innate desire for ‘the Good,’ or do they in fact simply choose evil? is a question one may want to ponder (or not)

  1. C.S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory” in “The Weight of Glory and Other Essays,” ed. W. Hooper (New York: Macmillan, 1980), 7.
  2. C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man(New York: Macmillan, 1986), 26.

3. C.S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Glasgow: Collins, 1955), 176. “The form of the desired is in the desire” Lewis states, while describing the phenomenon, described in this discussion in terms of ‘Joy:’ “There was no doubt that Joy was a desire” Lewis states on p. 176.

Book 4: Why Lewis liked Boethius – Dehumanizing Sin

One of the most picturesque of Lewis’s works is his Great Divorce, in which bus travelers from Hell to Heaven are shown to prefer their own sin, and their own will, when presented the clear choice <see Great Divorce post under Lewis & Literature>. The redeemed people and the angels in Great Divorce are shown to be far more physically substantial, while the unregenerate are ghosts who fade even more, or in some cases simply disappear, due to the smallness they embrace when they follow Oscar Wilde’s advice “To love one’s self is to begin a lifelong romance.”  A grumbler eventually loses all personhood, becoming simply ‘a grumble.’

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In Book 4, Lady Philosophy astutely states

“Therefore, just as goodness itself becomes the reward for good men, so wickedness itself is the punishment for bad men… So if wicked men are willing to look at themselves, can they regard themselves as unpunished, when wickedness, the worst of all evils, has not merely attended them but also has harshly devastated them?” (4.3.12-13)

and

“whatever departs from the good ceases to exist, so evil men cease to be what they had been before … thus by resorting to wickedness they have lost their human nature as well. Since goodness alone can raise a person above the rank of human, it must follow that wickedness deservedly imposes subhuman status on those whom it has dislodged from the human condition.” (4.3.15-16).

If indeed all of philosophy is but a footnote to Plato – this would seem similar to Socrates’s hemlock speech when he states that evil men can not really harm good men, i.e. their souls.

Consider “But evil men, you will say, have power. I would not deny this myself, but their power stems not from their strength but from their weakness … the capability which they do have shows more clearly that they have no power; for if, as we concluded a little earlier, evil is nothing, it is obvious that wicked men have no power, because they can perform only evil deeds.” (Boethius, Consolation, 4.2.37-39)   * (and following Augustine’s “evil is the diminishment of good to the point where nothing is left at all” (Augustine, The Confessions,III.7.12)

Book 5: The Undiscovered Country

left as an exercise for the reader …

strek

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