38 pages • 1 hour readBoethius
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The Consolation of Philosophy by Roman senator and philosopher Boethius is considered the last great philosophical work of the classical era and one of the foundational texts of medieval Christian thought. Anicius Boethius (c. 477-524 CE) was a philosopher and statesman in late Roman times, acting as advisor to the Gothic king Theodoric. Around 523, he was convicted of conspiracy and treason and sentenced to death. While in prison, and prior to his trial, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, which takes the form of a dialogue between himself and Philosophy, personified as a woman. The work alternates prose with verse and is organized in five books, which are further subdivided into chapters. The conversation between Boethius and Philosophy is carried out in prose, while the short poems illustrate or comment upon the subject matter of the dialogue, much like a Greek chorus.
Boethius's dialogue with Philosophy brings him comfort in his predicament, leading him back to the philosophical path from which he had strayed. He is reminded that fortune and human glory are transitory, and that the all-seeing providence of God rightly orders all human affairs. True happiness comes not from external things (money, power, fame, honor, or pleasure) but from loving God and living a life of virtue. Although in this life it often appears that the good suffer misfortune while the wicked prosper, this is only an illusion; from God's perspective, everything happens for a reason, either to discipline the wayward or reward the just.
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Boethius and Philosophy also engage such questions as predestination and free will. Can man freely choose his actions, or does God ordain everything that will happen? Philosophy convinces Boethius that even things in life that seem to be due to chance are controlled by the rational plan of God, yet human beings still have freedom of will.
Although Boethius was a Christian, Consolation contains no mention of Christ or Christian doctrine; instead, Boethius develops his argument on a strictly philosophical basis, using intellectual categories derived from Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoic philosophers. The verse sections also contain references to Homer, Virgil, and Greek mythology, making Boethius's links with the classical past even more apparent.
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Because of the transitional place he holds in the history of thought, Modern scholars have described Boethius as the “last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics.” Admired for its fine Latin style, Consolation became the most widely read book in the Middle Ages after the Bible, exerting a strong influence on such thinkers as St. Thomas Aquinas. The book continued to be widely admired during the Renaissance and long after, with the English historian Edward Gibbon describing it as a “golden volume.” The Consolation of Philosophy was translated many times into English, including by such notables as Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I.