Boethius (1): On the blessings of bad fortune

In my down time these days I am reading and really enjoying Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy as part of my pre-reformation church history reading project.  Boethius (c. 480-524) was a Christian philosopher and statesman who lived in Italy in the early sixth century right as the classical world was dissolving away and the medieval world was beginning to crystallize.  He is often recognized for his role in transmitting Aristotle’s work on logic into the medieval period (his Latin translations and commentaries were the only Aristotle many a medieval monk ever knew), and for the literary influence of The Consolation, which has been absolutely massive.  David Slavitt in the introduction to my copy calls it “one of the most influential and most widely copied, translated, and commented upon works in Western literature” [Harvard University Press, 2008, xix]).  In The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis’ academic work on medieval and renaissance literature, Lewis said of The Consolation: “until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it.”

Boethius was executed by the Ostrogoth (and Arian) Theodoric the Great, who suspected him of sympathies to the Byzantine Empire during a time when East-West tensions were very high.  He most likely wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in prison awaiting execution, which I think gives its overall tone an honesty and an urgency that books written in leisure often lack.  While he is in despair at having lost everything, Lady Philosophy comes to him and reasons with him to think wisely about his misfortune.  The book basically consists of his dialogue with Lady Philosophy, alternating between poetry and prose.  Here is a sample quote, when Lady Philosophy to Boethius is demonstrating how fickle fortune is:

“Ill fortune is better for men than good.  When fortune smiles, she is always false.  But when she is inconstant and whimsical, she shows her true self.  The first aspect of fortune will deceive people, but the second is instructive.  The first blinds while the second opens men’s eyes to how fragile the happiness of mortals really is.  The man who enjoys good fortune is driven frantic, running this way and that and trying to maintain what he has.  The other is steady and, if he learns from his experience, even wise.  Good fortune can lead men astray, deceiving them about what to expect from life and how to think of themselves.  When Fortune is unkind, she draws men back to an understanding of what the world is like, and who their friends are.  Surely, in your time of trouble, you must have learned who were your real friends.  The honest ones have been winnowed out from that crowd of associates and companions, all of whom have deserted you.  What would you have paid them back then to know which were which and whom to trust?  Here you are, complaining of the wealth that you have lost, and you fail to recognize the wealth you have gained – knowledge of your true friends” (pp. 56-57 of Slavitt’s work).

More on Boethius to come, especially his discussion of how divine foreknowledge and human freedom relate, which is what I find most interesting about his thought.

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