Let Lady Philosophy Chase Away the Doomscrolling Muse for Awhile
“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,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.”
Lewis was speaking of The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius (d. AD 524). The book’s former popularity is a bit surprising, since Boethius is essentially unread today outside an extremely niche literary subculture. Part of the problem, of course, is that people just don’t read as many old books as they used to. Another factor is that Boethius was a harmonizer of Christian and Platonic philosophy, two frameworks no longer so widely accepted as they once were.
Yet there must be something else at work here. Most mildly educated people at least know who Plato, Aristotle, St. Paul, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and so forth were, even if they don’t read their books. In contrast, many people (young people, certainly) of above-average literacy have never even heard of Boethius.
Why is that?
Why Nobody Reads Boethius
I believe the answer lies in something C. S. Lewis said through his fictional devil Screwtape:
Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true… To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge—to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or your behaviour—this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.
In the case of Boethius, this attitude (which Lewis called “chronological snobbery”) might not only prevent casual students of philosophy from understanding him, but even from picking up his book in the first place.
Why? Well, if you are only interested in old books as a historian of ideas, you will tend to look at the main examples of each thought tradition. Boethius did not originate a major tradition; he was working within the frameworks of Christian theology and Platonic philosophy, drawing out newly articulated truths by weaving them together. Because he is neither the quintessential Classical thinker, nor the quintessential Christian thinker, nor even the quintessential Medieval thinker, but merely a great harmonizer of Christian and Classical thought in the early Middle Ages, he is doomed to be ignored by those who only read Classical, Christian, and Medieval philosophy for historical interest. Why read some cobbler of ideas, when you could read the original geniuses themselves?
But if you thought that there were truths in both Christian theology and Platonic philosophy, then you would expect that a Medieval writer who effectively wove together the wisdom of two traditions might have a lot to teach you indeed.
I think there are, and I think he does. And so I think Boethius is worth reading.
If you agree that an old author might have something to say worth hearing, it can still be hard to actually make yourself go and read the book. In Lewis’s opinion, this hesitancy comes from humility combined with a mistaken premise. He wrote:
The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator.
That was exactly my experience encountering Boethius. When I first opened The Consolation of Philosophy (the 1897 H. R. James translation), I did so with some trepidation. I expected it to be dense, perhaps impenetrable – at the very least dry.
I was surprised—but not encouraged—by the beginning. The book opens with an overwrought and melodramatic poem, in which Boethius laments his fall from fortune and his current sufferings.
After a few lines I was beginning to doubt that I could read a whole book of the stuff.
But then the poem suddenly breaks off, and Boethius begins his narration:
While I was thus mutely pondering within myself, recording my sorrowful complainings with my pen, it seemed to me that there appeared above my head a woman of countenance exceeding venerable. Her eyes were bright as fire, and of a more than human keenness; her complexion was lively, her vigour showed no trace of enfeeblement; and yet her years were right full, and she plainly seemed not of our age and time.
The woman wears an old, torn robe, “torn by the hands of violent persons, who had each snatched away what he could clutch.” The first thing the mysterious figure does is notice the Muse of Poetry standing at Boethius’ bedside and drive her away, accusing her of giving Boethius “sweet poison.” Then (a bit ironically, perhaps, since she had just told the Muse of Poetry off), she sits down on the edge of his bed and begins to sing to him in poetry, lamenting his sorry state—not his outward circumstances, but his loss of inner peace and enlightenment that these circumstances had caused. After singing awhile, she breaks off:
“But the time,” she says, “calls rather for healing than for lamentation.”
What follows is a lively and winding discussion between Boethius and the woman (who switches back and forth between poetry and prose throughout the book) as they search for faith and meaning in the face of suffering. In the course of this search, they have to cover a wide territory. By the end of the book, Boethius has learned about the true nature of time, chance, free will and divine foreknowledge, good, evil, hate, love, and much more.
Consolation in Love of Wisdom
An old critique of philosophy is that it is all well and fine in theory, but that it doesn’t offer any real guidance or “consolation” in the face of real life tragedy. But this writing project wasn’t the least bit theoretical for Boethius. In real life, he was writing it from prison in the days leading up to his execution at the hand of Theodoric, the Gothic king who had taken over Rome. It seems that the real-life prisoner Boethius did find consolation in philosophy – that is, “love of wisdom.”
Boethius was executed, but his book survived and served as a major source of transmission of Classical philosophy and Christian wisdom in the chaotic centuries of the Early Middle Ages that followed.
The Consolation of Philosophy is not difficult to read, even in the 1897 translation. And its wisdom will never be out of date as long as there is suffering and injustice in the world.
So allow the Lady Philosophy to chase the Muse of Browsing the Web away for a while, and go find a copy of Boethius.Daniel Witt
lives in Amman, Jordan, and has worked with asylum seekers and migrants from across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. He has a B.S. in Ecology and a B.A. in History and enjoys playing mandolin and foraging.• Get SALVO blog posts in your inbox! Copyright © 2023 Salvo | www.salvomag.com https://salvomag.com/post/bring-back-boethius