The book is both a narrative and a work of philosophy. The narrative begins with the author being attended to by the Muses in his weary ruminations, and then being confronted by Lady Philosophy (exemplifying the hostilities which actually existed between the ancient philosophers and the poets). The lady questions why the Muses are there, for they cannot be of any help, and then proceeds to offer her consolation.
As the setting and the title imply, the book is written with the goal of what comfort may be found by way of philosophy in such a circumstance as prison, a theodicy of sorts examining good and evil, fate and free will, God and man.
One thing that must be said straight away as regards the book is that although it is a philosophical text – loosely styled after a Socratic dialogue – The Consolation of Philosophy is also very poetic and very accessible.
The philosophy Boethius presents is one in which Fortune gives and takes away, and therefore there can be no cause for grief either way, one in which evil is a negation (similar to Augustine), and in which true happiness is found through striving after the supreme good. While his discussion of evil as a lack of power seems a little forced, his discussion of the two types of necessity and their relation to God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will is superb.
In a day when the merits of philosophy fall ever under question, The Consolation of Philosophy is a great text to show just how practical the theoretical can be.
-“Such notions are enough to cause not only sickness but death… For you have the best medicine for your health in your grasp of the truth about the way the world is governed. You believe that the world is not subject to the accidents of chance, but to divine reason. Therefore, you have nothing to fear. From this tiny spark, the living fire can be rekindled… It is the nature of men’s minds that when they throw away the truth they embrace false ideas, and from these come the cloud of anxiety which obscures their vision of truth.”(p18)
-“If you try and stop the force of her turning wheel, you are the most foolish man alive. If it should stop turning, it would cease to be Fortune’s wheel.”(p22)
-“Whatever can be given up without regret is indeed a thing of little worth.”(p30)
-“Honor bestowed upon wicked men does not make them honorable; on the contrary, it betrays and emphasizes their dishonor. And why does this happen? It happens because you choose to call things by false names, even though the things in question may be quite different, and then things are then found to contradict their names by their effects.”(p36)
–“I would answer that the same future event is necessary with respect to God’s knowledge of it, but free and undetermined if considered in its own nature. For their are two kinds of necessity: one is simple, as the necessity by which all men are mortals; the other is conditional, as is the case when, if you know that someone is walking, he must necessarily be walking… NO necessity forces the man who is voluntarily walking to move forward; but as long as he is waling, he is necessarily moving forward. In the same way, if Providence sees anything as present, that things must necessarily be, even though it my have no necessity by its nature. But God sees as present those future things which result from free will. Therefore, from the standpoint of divine knowledge these things are necessary because of the condition of their being known by God; but, considered on in themselves, they lose nothing of the absolute freedom of their own natures.”(p118)
There are a few small criticisms I have of this text, most of which simply revolve around the fact that Boethius gets much of his thought from Neo-Platonism. For instance, he states that “the essence of God to be found in the good” (p65), which in effect reverses what would be the orthodox Christian view of the matter and causes Boethius to fall back into the dilemma of Euthrypo. In another place he asks “why should uncertain Fortune rule our lives?” (p15) yet if it is Fortune – and especially if it is God’s fortune – then it is anything but uncertain, nor arbitrary, which the question would imply.
Finally Boethius picks up the Platonic notion that all men strive towards the good with evil being unsubstantial (p76). While the latter part of this notion can be found and supported by Augustine with a fair handling, I don’t think Boethius does quite the job, and the former part is simply untenable.