In the first book of the Consolation, Philosophy diagnoses Boethius’s sickness as having forgotten who he really is. In the second book, she explains the cause of the sickness: “you are faint with desire and longing for your previous good fortune” (175). The two guiding themes of the first half of the second book are the insatiability of desire and the inconstancy of fortune.
But Boethius is still not yet emotionally prepared for the strong medicine that will eventually be required to cure his disease. Philosophy begins, then, to use “the sweet persuasiveness of rhetoric” (177) as a poultice, preparing Boethius for the truly philosophical arguments (the strong medicine) that are to follow.
The rhetoric Philosophy adopts is to personify Fortune and begin to speak in her place to accuse Boethius of wanting a constancy from Fortune foreign to her own variable nature. Fortune points out that all the riches and honors Boethius had enjoyed were her own possessions to dispose of as she wished; no mortal can no claim them for his own.
Boethius admits that this argument can charm his worries away for a little while. (“Charm” in English is derived from carmina, poems, but this English word also bears the Latin connotation of magical spells as well.) Philosophy’s poetry is working a sort of magic and rousing Boethius out of his lethargic depression. But the charm wears off as soon as the poetry stops because Boethius asserts that for one suffering as he does, “his sense of his wrongs lies deeper.”
The insufficiency of Rhetoric comes from its inadequacy to answer the problem proposed in the first book: “If there is a God, whence comes evil” (153)? In the first book, this problem arises as a theoretical culmination of a long list of personal wrongs suffered. At the height of his indignation, Boethius simply affirms that God’s providence does not extend to the sublunary world. The rhetorical trick of personifying Fortune must fail because what is really at issue is the goodness and providence of God.
But rhetoric has its use. The sweetness of the music seems to lift Boethius’s lethargy enough that he can engage in proper philosophical discussion. The rhetorical presentation of fortune seems to dull the edge of personal aggravation Boethius’s unjust suffering causes him, preparing him emotionally for the resolution of the theological question his suffering occasions.
Now Philosophy begins one other treatment before the “strong medicine”. First, philosophy upbraids Boethius for misvaluing his possessions. “So if by God’s will that one of your possessions which in the whole reckoning of fortune was most precious is still preserved unharmed and inviolate, can you, keeping all that is best, rightly talk of your misfortune?” (191). Philosophy notes that Boethius’s family remains safe and surely if there is a precious possession, it is this.
The mention of his wife and children cause Boethius to reevaluate his situation. It is not true that his entire life is overwhelmed with misery. Philosophy takes this recognition as an opportunity to call Boethius “peevish”: “For who is so completely happy that he does not find something to quarrel with in his own condition?” (193). If the love of his family were not a sufficient condition for his happiness (even while imprisoned), what would be?
Philosophy gives a list of people in enviable conditions that are nevertheless unhappy because they are unable to master their own insatiable desires. The rich man wishes he were high born and the nobleman wishes he were married. Likewise Boethius enjoys the love of his virtuous family and is unable to be happy because he still is looking for an external source of happiness. The proper response to the insatiability of desire is to look for happiness within oneself rather than in external goods (195). Since the highest good has cannot be taken away, none of the specious gifts of fortune cannot be the highest good. Likewise, the highest good must be connected to the immortal soul rather than the perishable body “since every mortal thing falls into misery in the end, at death” (197).
In the first book, Boethius had forgotten himself and was unable to say whether he was anything more than a rational animal. Now, it seems that Philosophy is beginning to remind him of his true spiritual and immortal nature. Having been reminded of this, Boethius is now fit for the stronger medicine.