24 January 2007

Wisdom and Reason in the Consolation

I won't quite claim it as confirmation that sapientia disponit omnia suaviter, yet I was very pleased to find in today's NDPR a review by John Marenbon, which, as it happens, takes up some of the themes I raised in my very last post about Boethius' Consolation.

Marenbon's review raises two questions for me:

(1) Is he right to hold that there is some serious difficulty left hanging at the end of book V of the Consolation? Marenbon uses strong language to describe the problem: "changes of direction, incoherencies and ultimate failure" (in his SEP article), "tensions" and "inconsistency" (in his review).

(2) How is this difficulty handled by the book under review (Eileen Sweeney, Logic, Theology, and Poetry in Boethius, Abelard, and Alan of Lille: Words in the Absence of Things)?

Since the review is just out, I'll consider the second question first. What Marenbon says is this:

The end of Boethius's Consolation presents a puzzle to interpreters. The most obvious way of reading the text is to take Boethius as having been successfully consoled by the personification of Philosophy: he now sees that the world is governed justly in accord with the highest good, that the wicked do not really prosper and the virtuous are always rewarded; he is ready to raise the difficult question of whether divine prescience precludes contingency in human affairs, and to accept Philosophy's explanation of why it does not. Yet there are definite tensions within the text that tell against this straightforward interpretation, and there is the overarching problem of why Boethius, a Christian facing his death, limits himself to a purely philosophical consolation. Earlier scholars speculated, unconvincingly, that Boethius had abandoned Christianity for pagan Platonism. Recently, the tendency has been to ask, rather, whether Boethius is really aiming to present a successful philosophical consolation. Joel Relihan, for example, contends that the need for a Christian consolation is made clear because of Philosophy's failure. I have argued, more modestly, that Philosophy's overall argument is not coherent, and that, in her own, pagan terms, the personification of Philosophy is aware of her own limitations -- the limitations, that is, of human reasoning even raised to the highest level. Sweeney sees the matter a little differently (pp. 58-61). The inconsistency in Philosophy's arguments is a matter of pedagogy, 'moving her pupil ahead and, at times, coming back down to meet him when he cannot quite move higher with her.' In her view, Boethius the author is fully aware of the limitations of 'reason, Philosophy's instrument' in grasping the divine order, and it is here, she says, that the poetry of the Consolation -- which is, therefore, far more than ornamental -- has its role. This is a subtle reading, which carries a good deal of conviction.
The paragraph to me seems confused by Marenbon's changing of the question. What is the problem that Sweeney's interpretation helps resolve? Is it "the overarching problem of why Boethius, a Christian facing his death, limits himself to a purely philosophical consolation", or rather the unnamed but "definite tensions" that are said to persist in the text?

But I'm most interested in the highlighted sentences, which, for me, raise more questions than they answer. Why should a teacher's 'moving a pupil ahead' and 'coming back down to meet him' (by the way, hardly a coherent image), imply inconsistency in what is taught? I suppose that all teachers lead their pupils in the sense intended, but typically without contradicting themselves.

Also, I take it that Sweeney distinguishes Philosophy from human reason ('Philosophy's instrument'). Thus a limitation in an argument offered by human reason, need not be a limitation in Philosophy, which might reasonably be understood more broadly to include such things as intuition, insight, intellectual vision, and understanding. This seems a useful distinction--even though I'd like 'human reason' to be explained better.

But then, what role exactly (that is, according to Sweeney) is the poetry of the Consolation supposed to play? Marenbon's review does not tell us. To be sure, its role is 'more than ornamental'. That we might have supposed. (At least: it is meant to appeal to emotions, as argument appeals to reason.) But what 'far more than non-ornamental task' does Sweeney think it accomplishes?

Is the poetry, for instance, meant to provide reasons 'of the heart' que la raison ne connait point? Does it pretend to give independent insights, an ineffable 'grasp of the divine order', which could not in principle be expressed in philosophical argument? Does it offer 'divine' rather than 'human reason'? And how would it do so?

Marenbon does not say, and hence I as a reader have no idea whether I should agree with him, that Sweeney's is indeed "a subtle reading", and follow him in recognizing that it "carries a good deal of conviction". In fact, I haven't the slightest idea how Sweeney offers a viewpoint different from Marenbon's or Relihan's. It has something to do with the poetry, I gather.

(You will perhaps say: "Read the book." Yes, I'll look at it, at least. But a review is meant to save work, and give us key ideas and considerations prior to our reading it.)