25 February 2005

The Consolation of Pagan Philosophy?

Okay, a blog is a place to try out ideas, right? (And if they're dumb, I can delete them.)

The problem: The Consolation of Philosophy is a work of 'prison literature' by a man who at least earlier in his life was a devout Christian, and yet it contains, apparently, not even any allusions to Christian ideas. One can't dispel the problem by saying that it's meant, after all, to be a work in philosophy, because why ever should Boethius have taken philosophy alone to be a sufficient consolation (cp. Thomas More)?

Proposed solution: Boethius as a young scholar, imagining that he will live an 'intellectual life', sketches out a plan for his life's work:

I wish to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom ... Everything Aristotle ever wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretative explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato's Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict each other. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I will dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me.

But circumstances require him to follow an 'active' life (not even a 'mixed' life, as with Thomas More), as senator and eventually Magister officiorum. When he is thrown in prison and realizes he has only a few months to live (and 'leisure' of a sort, at last), he writes the Consolation to give a sketch of the synthesis of Platonism and Aristotelism that he had in mind. It's the best he can do, given the circumstances, to realize his goal.

So the work is not really a consolatio at all, either for himself or for others. That's merely a device, to allow the unfolding of the synthesis.


Victor Caston said...

So the work is not really a consolatio at allExcept for all the parts of it which really belong to a consolatio:

1. The tumult caused by emotions and the false estimation of what is good and bad.

2. The worthlessness of worldy goods & aspirations, and the consequent imperviousness of the wise man to changes in fortune such as B. has undergone.

3. The existence of a perfect good, God, who is all-powerful, and evil is nothing but the failure of other things to attain such goodness.

4. The absolute pervasiveness of divine providence and absence of any randomness or chance.

5. The compatibility of such providence and with widespread evil, and the fully commensurate reward/punishment intrinsic to each virtuous/vicious action.

That is, it's no consolation, with the exception of the main themes of pretty much every book. ;-)

It might be better to try CS Lewis' line in The Discarded Image: B. doesn't mention Christian themes because it is not the Consolation of Theology.

(Recall the passage (4.4) where Boethius asks about justice meted out after death; Philosophy affirms this, but says it is not required to establish the point at issue: natural reflection on vice and virtue is sufficient to do that.)

Anyway, it doesn't look much like a synthesis of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, but much more a blend of Stoicism and Platonism, with a little Aristotelian logical fiber added in for good measure.


Michael Pakaluk said...

I don't think Lewis' remark is successful because, again, it begs the question of why a devout Christian should have regarded philosophy alone as a sufficient consoler. (Take a look at Lewis' own A Grief Observed, written after his wife's death from cancer. No philosophy there.)

Here's how the 'consolation' is in fact a device:

Books I-II are protreptic, an elaboration of what one finds in the Euthydemus, among other dialogues, and (perhaps) the Protrepticus. Of course one needs this sort of thing as an introduction to a Platonic-Aristotelian synthesis.

Book III begins putting forward positive doctrine, that the Good is the goal of all things, along the lines of the Symposium (and even De Anima). "I am in utter agreement with Plato", B. exclaims after this at the beginning of prose 12. Then we have the Platonic doctrine of evil as privation. These would be the fundamental doctrines of the synthesis.

Book IV, Prose 6, looks like a synthesis of the Timaeus account of creation with an Aristotelian understanding of natures. Through the nature that each thing has, God 'orders all things sweetly.' It's a sketch of a natural philosophy.

Book V looks clearly inspired by De. Int 9 and aims to vindicate human freewill within such a conception.

Thus the sketch given us is: Good as the goal of all that exists; a complementary natural philosophy; and human freewill as providing the basis for a treatment of ethics and political philosophy.