Boethius Part IV, Book II, poem VIII

The eighth poem of Book II of the Consolation announces a turn in the work. Up until this point, Philosophy has been engaging Boethius in way that is imprecise, but rhetorically effective by speaking about Fortune and her wheel. The rhetoric was effective there, presumably because the image of Fortune as the cruelly indifferent, “blind power” disposing human affairs would seem very appropriate to the morose Boethius.

However, Philosophy now begins to speak of Love rather than Fortune as the power that rules the cosmos. Love is a cosmic force the causes the movement of the celestial spheres. Love arranging the social order of humanity through marriages and friendships and whole peoples. Without Love, Philosophy asserts, all of this would fall into chaos and warfare.

This strong medicine is not easy to accept. On an emotional level it just seems like sentimental nonsense. But there seem to be two theoretical problems here as well. First, in what sense is the Love which moves the celestial spheres the same as the love that unites people in a marriage or that organizes a political community? This question is about the identity of Love. How is it that we are talking about the same causal principle in all three instances?

Second, even if we grant Philosophy for a moment that the heavenly bodies are moved by Love, the mortal world seems to be ruled by the “war of all against all”. How will Boethius prove to us that the political order is founded on Love rather than fear? It is perhaps easier to persuade us to believe that true friendships and good marriages are based on love, but the harmony between the microcosm of the family and the macrocosm of the state cannot be simply taken for granted.

A partial solution to these problems can perhaps be found in Aristotle’s interpretation of friendship. For Aristotle, the true friendship is one which arises when two good people love one another precisely insofar as they are good, rather than because they are useful or pleasant to one another. In this sense it is love of the good causes them to be friends. Perhaps a similar account could be given for marriages and political states, even though what it would mean for a marriage and a friend and a nation to be good would all be different (though presumably related) things, the causal principle at work would be the same in both instances. This same answer would also allow Philosophy to agree that some marriages and political states and friendships exist for other less virtuous reasons as well. If fascist political parties are based on fear rather than real love of the good, this does not necessarily defeat her argument because she can always say that the fascist party is bad precisely insofar as it is grounded on a passion rather than on Love.

In fact, this feature also resolves the worry that Philosophy’s discourse on love is just sentimentalism. It is not a necessary part of her account that Love be equated with emotions or sentiments. Presumably a virtuous marriage produces a lot of positive feelings as well, but the emphasis already given in the Consolation to rejecting passions like hope and fear should defuse our worry that Boethius is interpreting the whole world through Rusticiana the way an 18th century English poet might have.

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