Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy

ANCIUS MANLIUS SEVERINUS BOETHIUS was born at Rome about A.D. 474. Elected sole consul in 510, through false accusations he was deprived of his offices, imprisoned at D. . . . and finally executed in 525. Boethius is the last Latin writer of ability who thoroughly understood the Greek language and literature. His chief aim was to transplant Greek learning into the Roman dominion, and he published translations of and commentaries on the works of Aristotle, Pythagoras, Ptolemy, Euclid and Archimedes. His De Consolatione Philosophiae was produced in captivity, and on the strength of it Boethius ranked high as a philosopher until the end of the Middle Ages. King Alfred and Chaucer translated parts of the Consolation of Philosophy.


I WHO knew happy days, sat brooding over the sorrows which have come on me in my old age, and I had written in sad verses some complainings over my misfortunes, when it seemed to me that there appeared above my head a woman of a countenance exceeding venerable. Her eyes were of fiery glow, her complexion was lively, her aspect was vigorous and she seemed plainly not of my time or age.

Her stature was difficult to judge, for at one moment it exceeded not the common height, at another her forehead seemed to strike the sky; and when she raised her head higher, she began to pierce the very heavens, and to baffle the eyes of those who looked upon her. Her garments were of an imperishable fabric. On the lowermost edge was interwoven the Greek letter II, which stands for political life, the life of action. On the topmost edge was the letter e, standing for the theoretical life, the life of thought; and between the two were to be seen steps, like a staircase, from the lower to the upper letter. The robe, moreover, had been torn by the hands of violent persons, who had each snatched away what he could clutch. [The Stoic, Epicurean and other philosophical sects which Boethius regards as heterodox.]

When she saw the muses of poesie standing by my bed, dictating the words of my lamentations, she was moved to wrath, her eyes flashed sternly and she addressed to them such words of upbraiding that the whole band dolefully left the chamber. I, dumbfounded, silently awaited what she might do next. Then, drawing near my couch, she bewailed the disorder of my mind, but presently declared that the occasion called rather for healing than for lamentation; that the symptoms were of lethargy, the usual sickness of deluded souls. Then, with a fold of her robe, she dried my eyes all swimming with tears.

Even so the clouds of my melancholy were broken up. I saw the clear sky and regained the power to recognise the face of my physician. Lifting up my eyes I beheld my nurse, Philosophy, whose halls I had frequented from my youth up.

"Ah, why," I cried, "mistress of all excellence hast thou come down from on high and entered the solitude of this my exile? Is it that thou, even as I, mayst be persecuted with false accusations?"

"Could I desert thee, child," said she, "and not lighten the burden which thou hast taken upon thee through the hatred of my name, by sharing this trouble? Thinkest thou that now, for the first time in an evil age, Wisdom hath been assailed by peril? The stories of the fate of Socrates, of Anaxagoras, of Zeno, of Arrius, of Seneca, of Soranus are not unknown to thee. These men were brought to destruction for no other reason than that, settled as they were in my principles, their lives were a manifest contrast to the ways of the wicked. Dost thou understand, or art thou dull as an ass to the sound of my lyre? Why dost thou weep?"

Then I, gathering what strength I could, began, "Is there any need of telling? Is not the cruelty of fortune against me plain enough, and all because I have faithfuily followed thy precepts? Thou has enjoined by Plato's mouth the maxim that states would be happy, either if philosophers ruled them, or if it should so befall that their rulers should turn philosophers. I have tried to apply in the business of public administration the principles I learnt from thee. For this cause I have become involved in bitter and irreconcilable feuds. By baulking Conigastus in his assaults on the weak, and by thwarting the vile schemes of Trigguilla, and by rescuing the consul Paulinus from the gaping jaws of the court bloodhounds, and by saving Albinus from the penalties of a prejudged charge, I have laid up for myself a great store of enmities. And now that by lying informers I have been struck down, what is thy counsel, O, my mistress?"


PHILOSOPHY, after an interval of silence, thus began.

"If I have thoroughly ascertained the pining with regretful longing for thy former fortune. But thou thinkest that the siren called Fortune hath changed her ways towards thee. But rather in her very mutability hath she preserved towards thee her true constancy. Thou hast found out how changeful is the face of the blind goddess. If thou likest her, take her as she is and do not complain. If thou abhorrest her perfidy, turn from her in disdain and renounce her!"

"Thine admonishings are true," said I. "But in adverse fortune the worst sting of misery assuredly is to have been happy."

"Well," said she, "if thou art paying the penalty of a mistaken belief, thou canst not rightly impute the fault to circumstances. Come, reckon up how rich thou art in thy blessings! Thy wife yet lives with her gentleness and virtue. Think of thy sons and their consular dignity. Think how many other men are lacking in such blessings as are preserved to thee. As for riches, what are they but mere gold and heaps of money? Money is only precious when it is given away, and it can only fall to one man's lot by the impoverishment of others. And as for rank and power, these have often fallen to the worst of men, and then did ever an Etna work such mischief?"

"Thou knowest," I answered, "that ambition for worldly success hath but little swayed me. Yet I have desired opportunity for action, lest virtue, in default of exercise, should languish away."

Then said she: "This is that last infirmity which is able to allure noble minds. But how poor and unsubstantial a thing is glory. The whole of this earth's globe is as compared with the expanse of heaven no bigger than a point, and of this insignificant world only a fourth part is inhabited by living creatures, and vast portions of that part are usurped by sea, marsh and desert, so that little space is left for human beings. And of this how narrow is the area for human fame! Why, in Cicero's days, the fame of the Roman Republic had not yet crossed the Caucasus. Can the fame of a single Roman penetrate where the glory of the Roman name fails to pass? Moreover, what concern have choice spirits--for it is of such men we speak, men who seek glory by virtue--what concern have these with fame after the dissolution of the body in death?"

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