The Consolation of Philosophy | Boethius

Summary of: The Consolation of Philosophy
By: Boethius


Delve into the wisdom of ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ as Boethius grapples with the puzzling questions of life, morality, and the nature of true happiness. Under arrest and despairing, Boethius finds solace in dialogues with the goddess Philosophy, seeking answers to topics like free will, divine providence, the role of fortune, and virtue. The philosopher explores the insufficiency of earthly pursuits like wealth, power, and fame, ultimately realizing the true path to happiness lies within – in self-mastery and self-knowledge.

The Wisdom of Philosophy

Boethius receives a visit from the goddess of Philosophy while in confinement, who guides him towards realizing his true identity, attaining inner peace, and understanding God’s plan.

Boethius finds himself hopeless and dejected while imprisoned for treason, with only poetry providing a semblance of solace. However, a mysterious apparition appears that rebukes the muses and chastises Boethius for his self-pity and lack of recognition towards her. She is revealed to be none other than the goddess of Philosophy, who offers him counsel and guidance. Philosophy reinforces the concept of free will being an essential characteristic of rational beings. Boethius is surprised to hear that she is here to support him through his ordeal. Philosophy urges him not to succumb to physical harm and to resist his emotions, by recognizing his true identity. She offers him a remedy that will ease him of his suffering, which stems from his perception of chaos in human affairs. Philosophy enlightens Boethius towards understanding that the affairs of men are not random and nonsensical, instead, everything is guided by God’s plan, which is impossible for human eyes to see. Boethius, at first skeptical, begins to be at peace with his situation.

The Illusion of Material Wealth and True Happiness

Philosophy explains to Boethius that his unhappiness stems from his attachment to the material wealth and stature he once had. She uses the Wheel of Fortune as a metaphor for the transience of luck and how what it gives, it takes away. Fortune speaks in her own voice and questions Boethius’ resentment towards her for taking away the things she had once given him. She reminds him that his good luck was not permanent and that he should not have been surprised when it turned. Philosophy tries to make Boethius understand that his good luck outweighed his bad luck by listing all the blessings he had received in his life.

Boethius still feels miserable and suggests that he would have been better off being unhappy from birth than to be unhappy while remembering his previous good fortune. Philosophy reminds him that true happiness comes from within, from self-knowledge and self-mastery. Material possessions do not survive death and people’s desires often surpass their needs. Philosophy also dismisses the notion that fame, rank, and power lead to happiness since they only cater to man’s physical side and are transient. Bad luck keeps people virtuous, and true friends stay even in bad times.

Although Boethius is not fully convinced, he comes to understand that his current situation is his first real setback. He realizes that his previous success was due to chance, and the pursuit of true happiness lies in the inner self.

Finding True Happiness

Philosophy and Boethius discuss the nature of happiness and the misguided paths people take in pursuing it. They explore the pitfalls of seeking happiness through material goods, power, fame, and bodily pleasures, highlighting their fleeting nature and the anxiety they bring. Instead, Philosophy argues, true happiness can only be found in returning to one’s original nature and submitting to God, the source of all goodness and the highest good. Through a series of open-ended questions, she leads Boethius to see the right answers for himself, concluding that all things seek the highest good, and man should do the same by submitting to God.

Boethius and Philosophy’s dialogue centers on the topic of happiness, examining the natural inclination of all men to seek it. However, a problem arises in the means by which people pursue happiness. The pursuit of power, material goods, fame, and bodily pleasures seems to be common among people, but Philosophy asserts that these paths do not lead to true happiness. Rather than providing lasting contentment, they create an insatiable thirst for more, leading to anxiety and melancholy.

Philosophy questions Boethius about the material comforts he once enjoyed. Did they bring him happiness or merely make him hungry for more? She uses this line of questioning to emphasize the importance of returning to one’s original nature, free from materialism and avarice. Furthermore, Philosophy argues that public office, though it may make one famous, cannot provide true happiness, nor is it necessarily connected to virtue. Public officials may be scoundrels, and their positions may be fickle or geographically limited, leading to continual anxiety.

Philosophy then delves into the issue of bodily pleasure, which she claims is not a source of lasting happiness. Although it may feel great in the moment, overindulgence leads to feelings of melancholy, as well as anxiety and worry about satisfying desires. Philosophy argues that if bodily pleasure were the way to true happiness, then animals would be the happiest of all creatures since they engage in it all the time. Additionally, sexual indulgence often leads to children who may bring immense grief, and it is not a guarantee of lasting happiness.

Philosophy summarizes her previous arguments by asserting that fame, station, and noble birth are not sources of true happiness either. Although local fame may bring excitement, it does not guarantee happiness, as distant anonymity can bring melancholy. Furthermore, bodily pleasure and good health are fleeting and not lasting sources of contentment. Philosophically speaking, pride in one’s physical gifts leads to disappointment since there is always someone stronger, faster, or superior in some way.

Finally, Philosophy moves on to the positive argument of what happiness is and directs her focus on the good. She asserts that God is the source of all goodness in things, and since happiness is the highest good, God is happiness. They work through a complicated chain of reasoning to arrive at the conclusion that all things seek the highest good for themselves, with this highest good being God. Therefore, Philosophy encourages Boethius to submit to God, emphasizing that it is not a scary thought since God, as the highest good, can never be evil.

In conclusion, the pursuit of happiness through materialism, power, fame, and bodily pleasure only leads to fleeting contentment, anxiety, and melancholy. The true path to happiness rests in returning to one’s original nature and seeking the highest good, which is God. Philosophy calls on Boethius to submit to God, assuring him that submitting to the highest good can never be the wrong choice since it leads to true happiness.

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