Boethius’s Consolatio (Part I Prefatory Remarks)

This series will focus on Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, the philosophical masterpiece of one of the foundational thinkers of the medieval period. There is a nice short life of Boethius available on wikipedia. I’ll add a few comments of my own to supplement what you find there. For the record, this project is part of a series of reading responses for a class I am doing. Not everything I will say will be original to me because I will also incorporate interesting insights that arise from class discussions and the comments of professor S. For convenience’s sake I won’t try to separate out which comments are my own contribution and which belong to others. (In general, if I claim X and X is a brilliant insight which illuminates the history of neoplatonic philosophy, you are safe to assume that I got X from Professor S.)

Setting

Boethius is imprisoned, awaiting execution. He was tried and condemned in absentia for treason against the Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. Theodoric was an Arian, and presumably Boethius was involved in some plot with the Byzantine emperor, who was orthodox against Theodoric. (Boethius himself attributes his miserable condition to the unjust plots of his adversaries.)

The first book opens with an elegiac poem from Boethius bemoaning his fate. Just as he finishes the last line, Philosophy, personified as a supernatural woman appears to him and begins the dialogue.

Notes on the text as a whole

1. Beside being a philosopher, Boethius also authored several excellent theological treatises, including works on the trinity and christology.

2. In the light of this fact, it is significant that the text makes no reference to specifically Christian themes such as resurrection or the reward of heaven. Why would a Christian theologian turn to philosophy for consolation? Former generations of scholars took the Consolation as evidence that this Boethius could not have been the same Boethius that wrote the dogmatic theology. Or that this text was evidence that Boethius rejected christianity during his imprisonment and returned to the stoic and neo-platonic philosophy of the cultivated Roman world. This is now known to be false because of the discover of a letter from Boethius’s friend Cassiodorus who mentions Boethius as their author. For more information see the introduction in the Loeb Classical Library edition.

3. To be sure, God’s providence enters the discussion, but not in a specifically christian way. However, it is also the case that there is nothing anti-Christian in the book either.

4. Boethius’s attitude towards neo-platonism should be compared to Augustine and Dionysius and to the pagan neo-platonists. For the pagan Proclus, neo-platonism was an ideological defense of paganism against the christianizing of the Roman world. Dionysius and Augustine coopt and christianize neo-platonism (perhaps to offer an intellectually satisfying response to pagans like Proclus). Boethius eliminates the parts of neo-Platonism unacceptable to Christianity, but he does not christianize it. What Boethius offers is a version of neo-platonism that stands on its own without requiring faith in the Christian God, but not precluding such faith either.

In our next installment we will begin working the through the text itself.

One Response to Boethius’s Consolatio (Part I Prefatory Remarks)

  1. wtm1 says:

    I’m looking forward to this!

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