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A Tribute to Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy

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posted on Jan, 7 2010 @ 05:46 AM
This thread will not give Boethius Justice, as I will take some of his statements out of context in order to illustrate some of the mastery skill he possessed. The book really needs to be read start to finish, because it is a running Platonic dialogue that contains many important Philosophical truths, written in ~524 AD yet still resonates powerfully today. (I might add more lines if the thread continues). I am using the Penguin Classics edition of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, translated by Victor Watts. I recommend Victor Watts because his version is not so Shakespearian sounding as the other editions (not as many thou and thine's, but a few).

"That joy who strips the world's hypocrisies
Bare to whoever heeds his cogent phrases."

-Dante, in The Divine Comedy, speaking of Boethius' writings.

Book I

"It is hardly surprising if we are driven by the blasts of storms when our chief aim on this sea of life is to displease wicked men. And though their numbers are great, we can afford to despise them because they have no one to lead them and are carried along only by ignorance which distracts them at random first one way then another. When their forces attack us in superior numbers, our general conducts a tactical withdrawal of his forces to a strong point, and they are left to encumber themselves with useless plunder. Safe from their furious activity on our ramparts above, we can smile at their effort to collect all the most useless booty: our citadel cannot fall to the assaults of folly."

"Do you understand this," she went on. "and have my words penetrated your mind?-or are you like the proverbial donkey, deaf to the lyre?

"Do you believe that this life consists of haphazard and chance events, or do you think it is governed by some rational principle?"

"How can it be, that you know the beginning of things but don't know their end?"

In dark clouds
The stars can shed
No light.
If boisterous winds
Stir the sea
Causing a storm,
Waves once crystal
Like days serene
Soon turn opaque
And thick with mud
Prevent the eye
Piercing the water.
Streams that wander
From high hills
Down descending
against a rock
Torn from the hillside.
If you desire
To look on truth
And follow the path
With unswerving course,
Rid yourself
Of joy and fear,
And banish grief.
The mind is clouded
And bound in chains
Where these hold stray."

Book II

"After this she fell silent for a while and the very forbearance of her silence made me turn my attention to her. At this she began to speak again."

"What is it then, O mortal man, that has thrown you down into the slough of grief and despondency? You must have seen something strange and unexpected. But you are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behavior, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess."

"If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning, you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance."

"So nothing is miserable except when you think it so, and vice versa, all luck is good luck to the man who bears it with equanimity."

"Why then do you mortal men seek after happiness outside yourself, when it lies within you?"

"If I ask you whether there is anything more precious to you than your owns self, you will say no. So if you are in possession of yourself you will possess something you would never wish to lose and something Fortune could never take away. In order to see that happiness can't consist in things governed by chance, look at it this way. If happiness is the highest good of rational nature, and anything that can be taken away is not the highest good, since it is surpassed by what can't be taken away, Fortune by her very mutability can't hope to lead to happiness."

"The man who is borne along by happiness which can at any time fail, either knows or does not know its unreliability. If he does not know it, what kind of happiness can there be in the blindness of ignorance?"

"The applications of reasoning that I have been using on you are beginning to penetrate, and the time has come, I think, for something rather stronger."

"What makes riches precious, the fact that they belong to you or some quality of their own?"

"Perhaps you think that beauty means being resplendent in clothing of every variety: but if the clothing catches my eye, my admiration will be directed at either the quality of the material or the skill of the tailor."

"If you take pleasure in having a long line of attendants to wait on you, there are two points to consider: either they are rogues, in which case your household is nothing less than a dangerous burden and a positive threat to its master; or they are honest, and other men's honesty can scarcely be counted among your possessions."

"My contention is that no good thing harms its owner, a thing which you won't gainsay. But wealth very often does harm its owners."

"Then I spoke to her and said that she was well aware of how little I had been governed by worldly ambition. I had sought the means of engaging in politics so that virtue should not grow old unpraised.

"And that,' she replied. 'is the one thing that could entice minds endowed with natural excellence though not yet perfected with the finishing touch of complete virtue, the desire for glory, the thought of being famed for the noblest services to the state. But just think how puny and insubstantial such fame really is. It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. The surface of the world, then, is small enough and of it, approximately one quarter is inhabited by living beings known to us. If from this quarter you subtract in your mind all that is covered by sea and marshes and the vast area made desert by lack of moisture, then scarcely the smallest of regions is left for men to live in. This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or spendour."

[edit on 7-1-2010 by ancient_wisdom]

posted on Jan, 7 2010 @ 05:54 AM
Some background on the book, Boethius was imprisoned in ~524 AD for treason charges against King Theodoric. Boethius wrote the Consolation of Philosophy supposedly in prison awaiting execution, in which he has a dialogue with his Nurse/Teacher, which he calls Philosophy, a feminized embodiment of the science of Philosophy. A type of Angel of Philosophy. Philosophy delivers her lecture to Boethius in under 130 pages, which is very small compared to other philosophy words (Plotinus the Enneads is about a 1000 pages). In the book, Boethius says that his charges of treason were false, and that corrupt senators plotted his downfall because they were jealous of Boethius' honesty and virtue (sounds kind of like modern politics). Boethius, in prison, turns not to his Christian faith (though he was one at the time), but to the Greek science of Reason. It is here that Boethius raises himself from a decrepit state in prison to a transcendental awareness of mind, all through dialogue format. Reading this book, you can see the different dimensions of the mind through the philosophy employed, as the beginning of the book focuses on the material gains, whereas the later parts of the book talk about higher truths such as Goodness, Unity, and Eternity.

Some of the high marks of the book is that Eternity is defined as a complete perfection of life, combining both past, present, and future at the same time. God sees this Eternity as his divine Vision, which sees all things but does not interfere with their individual freedoms. In this sense, Boethius creates a Seeing and Knowing Creator but one that does not intervene in the world. God's knowledge, according to Boethius, is based on a self-awareness, which makes one god-like.

Some Christian organizations view Boethius as a saint, other more orthodox sects viewed him as a blasphemer because he did not acknowledge the divinity of Christ within his consolation. Regardless, Boethius does touch upon some major Christian beliefs while also penetrating the realm of Hindu mysticism to a certain extent. While not completely Buddhist, the Consolation does acknowledge a personal witness to the world rather than a random or metaphysical entity.

posted on Jan, 7 2010 @ 06:58 AM
"But I don't want you to think I am rigidly opposed to Fortune, for there are times whens he stops deceiving and helps man. I mean when she reveals herself, when she throws off her disguise and admits her game. Perhaps you still don't understand what I'm saying. What I want to say is a paradox, and so I am hardly able to put it into words. For bad fortune, I think, is more use to a man than good fortune. Good fortune always seems to bring happiness, but deceives you with her smiles, whereas bad fortune is always truthful because by change she shows her true fickleness. Good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightens."

Book III

"In all the care with which they toil at countless enterprises, mortal men travel by different paths, though all are striving to reach one and the same goal, namely, happiness, beatitude, which is a good which once obtained leaves nothing more to be desired. It is the perfection of all good things and contains in itself all that is good; and if anything were missing from it, it couldn't be perfect, because something would remain outside it, which could still be wished for. It is clear, therefore, that happiness is a state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good, a state, which, as we said, all mortal men are striving to reach though by different paths."

"So you have before you the general pattern of human happiness: Wealth, position, power, fame, pleasure."

"So first I will ask you a few questions, since you yourself were a wealthy man not long ago. In the midst of all that great store of wealth, was your mind never troubled by worry arising from a feeling that something was wrong?

'Yes, it was,' I replied. 'In fact I can't remember when my mind was ever free from some sort of worry.'

'And that was either because something was missing which you didn't want to be missing, or because something was present which you would have preferred not to have been present.'


'You wanted the presence of one thing and the absence of another?'


'Now a man must be lacking something if he misses it, mustn't he?'


'And if a man lacks something he is not in every way self-sufficient."


'And so you felt this insufficiency even though you were supplied with wealth?'

'yes, I did.'

'So that wealth cannot make a man free of want and self-sufficient, though this was the very promise we saw it offering.'"

"So, if so far from being able to remove want, riches create a want of their own, there is no reason for you to believe that they confer self-sufficiency."

"But it is said, when a man comes to high office, that makes him worthy of honor and respect. Surely such offices don't hold the power of planting virtue in the minds of those who hold them, do they? Or removing vices? No: the opposite is true. More often than removing wickedness, high offices brings it to light, and this is the reason why we are angry at seeing how often high office has devolved upon the most wicked of men."

"Can being a king or being the friend of a king give a man power? What is this power, then, which cannot banish the nagging of worry or avoid the pin-prick of fear? Kings would like to live free from worry, but they can't. And then they boast of their power! Do you think of a man as powerful when you see him lacking something which he cannot achieve? A man who goes about with bodyguards because he is more afraid than the subjects he terrorizes, and whose claim to power depends on the will of those who serve him?"

"Fame, in fact, is a shameful thing, and so often deceptive."

"Many, indeed are the men who have wrongly acquired fame through the false opinions of the people. There is nothing more conceivably shameful than that. And even if the praise is deserved, it cannot add anything to the philosopher's feelings: he measures happiness not by popularity, but by the true voice of his own conscience."

"Of bodily pleasures I can think of little to say. Its pursuit is full of anxiety and its fulfillment full of remorse. Frequently, like a kind of reward for wickedness, it causes great illness and unbearable pain for those who make it their source of enjoyment."

"I have said enough to give a picture of false happiness, and if you can see that clearly, the next thing is to show what true happiness is like."

"Do you consider self-sufficiency as a state deficient in power?'

'Not at all.'

'Of course not; for if a being had some weakness in some respect, it would necessarily need the help of something else. So that sufficiency and power are of one and the same nature."

"If a man pursues only power, he expends wealth, despises pleasures, and honor with power, and holds glory of no account. But you can see how much this man also lacks. At any one time he lacks the necessaries of life and is consumed by worry, from which he cannot free himself, so he ceases to be what he most of all wants to be, that is, powerful."

"But supposed someone should want to obtain them all at once and the same time?'

'Then he would be seeking the sum of happiness. But do you think he would find it among these things which we have shown to be unable to confer what they promise?"

"Then there you have both the nature and the cause of false happiness. Now turn your mind in the opposite direction and you will immediately see the true happiness that I promised.
'Even a blind man could see it, and you revealed it just now when you were trying to show the cause of false happiness."

"Grant, Father, that our minds thy august seat may scan,
Grant us sight of true good's source, and grant us light
That we may fix on Thee our mind's unblinded eye.
Disperse the clouds of earthly matters cloying weight;
Shine out in all thy Glory, for Thou art rest and peace
To those who worship thee; to see thee is our end,
Who art our source and maker, lord and path and goal."

[edit on 7-1-2010 by ancient_wisdom]

posted on Jan, 7 2010 @ 06:59 AM
"The first question to ask is, I think, whether any good of the kind I defined a moment ago can exist in the natural world. This will prevent our being led astray from the truth of the matter before us by false and ill-founded reasoning. But the existence of this good and its function as a kind of fountain-head of all good things cannot be denied; for everything that is said to be imperfect is held to be so by the absence of perfection. So that if a certain imperfection is visible in any class of things, it follows that there is also a proportion of perfection in it. For if you do away with perfection, it is impossible to imagine how that which is held to be imperfect could exist. The natural world did not take its origin from that which was impaired and incomplete, but issues from that which is unimpaired and perfect and then degenerates into this fallen and worn out condition."

It gets rather complicated from here, but I will discuss the later parts of the book with anyone who has read the Consolation.

[edit on 7-1-2010 by ancient_wisdom]

posted on Jan, 7 2010 @ 10:39 AM
"Eternity, is the complete simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life; this will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time. Whatever lies in time exists in the present and progresses from the past to the future, and there is nothing set in time which can embrace simultaneously the whole extent of its life: it is in the position of not yet possessing tomorrow when it has already lost yesterday. In this life of today you do not live more fully than in that fleeting and transitory moment."

Here are some poems I like from the consolation

come hither now all you who captive are
whom false desire enchains in wicked bonds
desire that makes her home in earthly minds
here will you find release from grievous toil,
here find a haven blessed with peaceful calm,
an ever open refuge from distress.
Not all the gold that Tagus' sands bestow,
That Hermus sheds upon his glittering banks,
Or indus, on whose torrid shores are strewn
Green emeralds intermixed with dazzling pearls
may sharpen and make bright the intellect
but wealth in its own darkness clouds the thoughts
for all that thus excites and charms the mind
dim earth has fostered in her caverns deep
while that bright light which rules and animates
the sky, will shun such dark and ruined souls
whoever once shall see this shining light
will say the sun's own rays are not so bright.

My pleasure is to sing with pliant strings,
how mighty nature holds the reins of things
and how she frames her laws in providence
which keep in motions fixed the globe immense
how all things singly she doth bind and curb
with such a bond that nothing can disturb
although the lion wear decorated chains
although he fear the tamer and will stand
to catch at morsels from an outstretched hand,
let blood just once touch his bristling gaws
his latent spirit will return and cause
Him with a roar his old self to recall,
and break the chains that from his neck will fall.

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