Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy – Lewis’s List #7

 

#7 on C.S. Lewis’s List: The TEN Books that Influenced Him Most , this book by the Roman philosopher Boethius (480-525 A.D.), in which he considers the whims of Lady Fortune after suffering ruin in fortune, society and name (and possibly anticipating his punishment of death) for trumped up charges of treason, Lewis cites as one of the most influential books in medieval literature, as well as one of the ten books that influenced Lewis the most.  The most translated book of the Middle Ages (Alfred the Great, Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I all did so), Lewis claimed “until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it.” [1]

Despite being considered a Medievalist of no mean rank (having authored The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, and the still highly regarded and much used, A Preface to Paradise Lost), Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy  on Lewis’s list of 10 books that most deeply influenced his “vocational attitude and philosophy of life” represents the sole work remotely connected to the Medieval era. But it was held in such high regard that Lewis declared “to acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.”[2]

Boethius, Lewis and the Pagans

Boethius paralleled Lewis in many ways, as Chris Armstrong, in C.S. Lewis’s List, introduces Boethius (seventh on Lewis’s list) with 

 “He was a philosopher first, and then a master of literature, with his Christianity            informing both. He grew up surrounded by and saturated with books, and his greatest work demonstrates his amazing capacities of recall. He was perhaps the greatest educated man of his generation … his greatest pedagogical work he did not do in the classroom, but in writing fiction, poetry, allegory. He was at heart a popularizer. HE wrote accessible theological works of an orthodox sort, content to pass on, to those less erudite than he, the wisdom of tradition. For him, however, that tradition most certainly included the best of the pagan philosophers; he wove their wisdom into his writings; and indeed, he revered Plato, Aristotle and their ilk so highly that some questioned his commitment to the Christian faith. Nonetheless, many devout Christians who came after him called his name blessed … and tried to repeat his arguments and make use of his literary techniques.  

     He valued happiness highy, but he knew better than to rest his hope in earthly happiness or believe the world owed it to him. But he was no fatalist: he knew that what from a human perspective looks like bad fortune is often, indeed always, the guiding, correcting, disciplining hand of God… And when this great Christian philosopher-poet cane to the attention of C.S. Lewis, it changed Lewis’s life.” [3]

     Just as Lewis mastered several (ancient and modern) languages himself, and could translate complicated philosophies into clear pieces of wisdom for his public, so did Boethius translate many of the Greek philosophers into the Latin of his day.   And not only did Lewis declare, while accepting the post of Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at Cambridge University in 1954, that “The Renaissance never happened” but also declared that “I myself belong far more to the Old Western order than to yours … I read as a native texts that you read as a foreigner … That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen.” [4]  Lewis in fact felt a similar affinity for the pagan world that Boethius did with his Greek forbears: “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not.” [5]  And when confronted with arguments that the world was lapsing into paganism, Lewis would retort with “If only we would!”

Lewis devoted fifteen pages to Boethius in The Discarded Image, and noted that Boethius drew on the philosophical writings of Plato and the NeoPlatonists in statements like “Man, by his reason, is a divine animal; the soul is fetched from heaven, and her scent thither is a return” though Boethius also contradicts Plato’s assertion that “the Divine and the human cannot meet except through a tertium quid, (as) prayer is a direct commercium between God and man.”[6]. ON matters such as Hell and Purgatory, the Christian Boethius draws back, having Lady Philosophy defer such issues for other conversations.

csl 10

Lewis’s Top 10 List, from Lewis’s List

BoethLewis I : Desire

Lewis’s own path to faith shows evidence of his profound debt to the Ancients.  His first major publication after coming to faith, Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), describes the allegorical travels of John to an island where he finds the answers to his deepest desiring. Characteristically, Lewis prefaces the story with a quote from Plato (“This every soul seeketh and for the sake of this doth all her actions”) as well as one from Boethius (“Whose souls, albeit in a cloudy memory, yet seek their good, but, like drunk men, know not the road home”).[7]  While Lewis paid homage to Plato, Aristotle, and a case for “natural law” spread across all cultures in his Abolition of Man (1947), his argument that emotions need to be trained (Aristotelian habit) to guide our moral behavior in fact stems from his reading of Boethius from before he came to the Christian faith. Boethius argued for the central role of desires, just like Lewis would do for his unique argument for God – argument from desires. 

“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probably explanation is that I was made for another world” Lewis would argue in Mere Christianity.[8] 

In Consolation, Boethius laments the apparent “wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy” (I.IV)  But it is in Book 3 that Boethius more fully explains the nature of this desiring (or, has Lady Fortune, who guides him throughout, explain):

“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.” (Book 3.2.4) When Boethius inquires “”of those mortal and transient things, do you think there is any which can endow such happiness?” she replies plainly “they cannot bestow the true and perfect good.” (3.9.30).

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) and that “the good is that which is desired by all things.” (Book 3.11.38).

BoethLewis II : Dehumanizing Sin

Just as by Book 3, the role of desire that played such a central role in Lewis’s argument can be seen in Boethian guise, in Book 4 another of Lewis’s novel insights appears: that of the dehumanizing role of sin.  In Screwtape Letters #8 (Chapter 8), Screwtape advises Wormwood that “We want cattle who can finally become food; He wants servants who can finally becomes sons. We want to suck in, He wants to give out.”  Lewis further emphasized the point with the imagery of his imaginary bus ride from hell to heaven,  The Great Divorce, as the pale, weightless ghosts from hell only obtain substance when they deny themselves and follow God.  Tolkien even uses the theme as ring bearers Bilbo and Frodo find themselves weighed down and weakened by the burden of the One Ring (“like jam spread over too much toast”) and the land of Mordor where evil reigns is nothing but a craggy, sulpherous wasteland.

But this point is found a millennium and a half earlier in Boethius:

“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).

Tolkien ‘s Gollum perhaps embodies this as well as any, or the Ents who become perverted into Cave Trolls and the Elves turned Orc. But, Tolkien and Lewis alike, found this theme first in Boethius.

Dome_Cappella_Chigi_from_inside,_Santa_Maria_del_Popolo,_Rome,_Italy

The Dome Capella Chigi, from Santa Maria del Popolo

BoethLewis here at the End of All Things

Finally, Lady Fortune offers to Boethius a vision, an ethic, beyond that of mere human flourishing, or eudaemonism (right makes happy) of the Greek philosophers.  “Your enthusiasm would grow white-hot if you realized the goal to which I intend to lead you” Lady Fortune offers: “the goal of true happiness.” (Book 3.I)  It is a purpose, a telos, a Christianized Platonism, that will ultimately comfort the otherwise fate-despised Boethius.  “It is surely that which is desired by all, and because we have concluded that this is the good, we must now proclaim that the end of all things is the good.” (Book 3.11).  It is not only our “end,” it is also our greatest good: “So, nothing which conforms with its own nature tries to oppose God? Nothing at all” (Book 3.12.19).

But it is in Book IV that the issue of Divine PRovidence is most fully addressed. TO Boethius’s complaint that justice (and ‘poetic justice’) is not obvious, Philosophia replies with two answers. First, justice does as justice is, in effect: the good and the wicked are punished simply by virtue of what they thus become through their actions: “Just as goodness itself becomes rewrd for good men, so wickedness itself is the punishment for bad man … 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 it has dislodged from the human condition.” (Book IV.3) Shades of Lewis’s Abolition of Man, and the pale ghosts (and their fully fleshed and robust counterparts) of The Great Divorce!

Further, Lady Philosophy instructs, the wheel of Destiny, or Fortune (Providence) is cruellest to those most removed from its center, He who spins it – from the center – offers the greatest good (the Good), the happiness that the Greeks sought through virtue.  “And as in a wheel the nearer we get to the centre the less motion we find, so every finite being, in proportion as comes nearer to participating in the Divine (unmoving) Nature, becomes less subject to Destiny, which is merely a moving image of eternal Providence.” [9]

Lewis notes that Lady Philosophy had previously sidestepped “the view, common to vulgar Pagans and vulgar Christians alike, which ‘comforts cruel men’ by interpreting variations of human prosperity as divine rewards an punishments … an enemy hard to kill; latent in what has been called ‘the Whig interpretation of history.” Continuing, Lewis emphasized that “no one who had read of Fortuna as (Boethius) treats her could forget her for long. His work, here Stoical and Christian alike, in full harmony with the Book of Job and with certain Dominical sayings, is one of the most vigorous defences ever written against” [10] that justifying view of history.


But Lewis illustrates the point with an image, with which we conclude here.  “the noblest descendant of this passage, however, is not in words.  At Rome in Santa Maria del Popolo the cupola above Chigi’s tomb sets the whole Boethian image of the wheel and the hub, of Destiny and Providence, before our eyes. On the utmost circumference the planets, the dispensers of fate, are depicted. On a smaller circle, within and above them, are the Intelligences that move them. At the centre, with hands upraised in guidance, sits the Unmoved Mover.” [11]

References

[1] C.S. Lewis, “Ex Libris,” Christian Century 79 (June 6, 19620:719. In Chris Armstrong,  “Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy” in C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books that Influenced Him Most , ed. David Werther, Susan Werther, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), 137.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 1964 CAnto Edition, rep. and ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 75.

[3]  Chris Armstrong,  “Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy” in C.S. Lewis’s List: The Ten Books that Influenced Him Most , ed. David Werther, Susan Werther, (New York: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2015), 136.

[4] C.S. Lewis, “Descriptione Temporum,” in Selected Literary Essays , Canto Classics Edition, 1969, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)14.

[5] Ibid., 5.

[6] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, 79.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Pilgrim’s Regress (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974), 19.

[8] C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 136.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, 87.

[10] Ibid., 82.

[11] Ibid., 87.

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