Boethius’s Consolation Part 2–Book I

Two images recur throughout the first book of the Consolation. The first is the image of medicine, which presents philosophy as a therapy for the soul. The second image is the citadel of reason, which presents philosophy as a defense against misfortune. The medical image arises first. In the first prose section, Philosophy ejects the theatrical muses from the chamber the first prose section because “not only have they no cures for his pain, but with their sweet poison they make it worse” (135). Philosophy claims that she and her muses will restore Boethius to health, not them.

Like a doctor beginning an investigation, Lady Philosophy offers a preliminary diagnosis: “He is in no real danger, but only suffers from lethargy . . . He has forgotten his true self” (139). Boethius’s “lethargy” is the languor of depression, but it oppresses him only because has forgotten his own identity as a philosopher. So profound is his confusion and distress that he cannot even recognize Lady Philosophy through his tears. Philosophy wipes his eyes with the hem of her dress and suddenly Boethius’s confusion lifts and he recognizes her.

Philosophy now introduces the image of the citadel of reason. Had Boethius been healthy, i.e. cognizant of his identity as a philosopher, he would have retreated to the citadel of reason and left his enemies to “busy themselves ransacking useless baggage” (143). In the poem that introduces section IV, Philosophy characterizes the philosopher as one who has “ground proud fate beneath his heel” (145). One can presume that Boethius has mistakenly felt that it was fate is trampling him down, not the other way around.

However, now that Boethius has been restored to his right mind, Philosophy can begin to treat his disease. Like a doctor taking a medical history, Philosophy asks Boethius to lay out his complaint: “If you are looking for a healer’s cure you must lay bare the wound” (147). And so Boethius recounts his miserable fortune and raises the problem of evil. How can God allow such evil things happen to the good? In poem V, Boethius suggests that the only way he can reconcile God’s goodness and sovereignty with his own miserable fortune is to imply that God is simply indifferent to the triumph of evil over virtue because he does not constrain the wicked (161).

This poetic complaint does not impress Philosophy. In prose V, she offers her second diagnosis. Boethius is “buffeted by a tumult of different emotions” (165). He has thrown away his philosophical defenses against his passions and allowed grief and sorrow to lead him out of the citadel of reason. Philosophy also suggests that she has “strong medicines” for his sickness, but that he is not ready for them yet, so meanwhile she must use milder ones.

In prose VI the “mild medicine” of philosophical dialogue begins. Philosophy asks whether Boethius believes the universe to be rationally directed and Boethius affirms it is. “But I am really astonished,” says Philosophy, “that you should sicken holding as you do such a healthy opinion” (167). The prognosis sounds good, but then Philosophy dashes our optimism with the next question. She asks if Boethius understands what kind of governance guides the world and he has no idea how to respond. Philosophy draws together the image of medicine and the image of the citadel in response: “I was not mistaken, was I, when I said that something was missing, leaving as it were a crack in a strong wall, through which the sickness of your troubles stole into your mind?” It is clear that this crack is connected to Boethius’s ignorance about providence.

Next, Philosophy asks Boethius about the telos of the universe, but Boethius does not know this either so Philosophy asks whether Boethius is even aware that he is a man. Boethius says he is aware of being a mortal rational animal. Philosophy inquires whether he is anything more? “I am nothing more,” he replies (169). Philosophy calls this “that other, more serious cause of your sickness: you have forgotten what you are.”

Whatever this true self Boethius has forgotten is, it must be something more mere rational animality. Presumably Philosophy has in mind something like a spiritual nature because her question earlier about the telos of all things suggests this true nature is something oriented towards God. Since Boethius has forgotten his true spiritual nature, he has adopted the false opinion that the sublunary world falls outside God’s watchful care. Philosophy says that this is why he believes the wicked are fortunate and powerful (171). Presumably re-educating Boethius about his true nature will be one of the chief objects of the rest of the Consolation, but Philosophy notes that the time has not yet come for the strong medicine of true opinions on these matters. First, she announces, she will refute the false opinions Boethius has held in his delusion.

The first book ends with a final poem from Philosophy addressed directly to the reader. “You too, if you want/Clearly to see the truth . . . Cast out joy, /Cast out fear, /Rid yourself of hope and grief. /The mind is clouded, checked, /Where these hold sway” (173).

Lingering questions:

Why would watching a tragedy make Boethius worse?
Could Philosophy have consoled Boethius if he didn’t already believe the world was rationally directed?
Is her consolation really compatible with Christian understandings of hope, joy and love?


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