The Condensed Edition of
The Consolation of Philosophy
… in 3,100 words
“The good are always strong”
INTRODUCTION to Severinus Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy
Born of Rome in AD 480 from a family of leading burghers, the mathematician, musicologist and polymath Anicius Manlius Severinus BoÃ«thius became an advisor to the Theodoric the Great, but, suspected of tipping-off the enemy Byzantines, was imprisoned. It was in Ticinum (Modern Pavia) gaol that he wrote what was to become one of the most influential books of the Middle Ages, translated by both Chaucer and Alfred the Great- The Consolation of Philosophy. The Chronicle of Valesii tells that he was, ‘tortured for a very long time by a cord that was twisted round his forehead so that his eyes started from his head. Then at last amidst his torments he was killed with a club.’ CS Lewis said of The Consolation, that “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.”
Although it is unclear whether he was a devoted Christian or not, the brave and reflective way in which he faced death led the Roman Church to accept popular devotion and acknowledge him as St Severinus Boethius, his feast day is observed on October 12th.
THE VERY SQUASHED VERSION
Brooding over my sadness and old age, it seemed to me that I saw a woman before me, plainly not of my time or age. She dried my eyes all swimming with tears, my clouds of melancholy were broken, I saw the clear sky and I beheld my nurse, Philosophy. “I desert thee not, my child,” said she, “Wisdom hath often been assailed by peril, as Socrates found. Thou hast found out how changeful is the face of the blind goddess fate. Come, reckon up thy blessings! Thy wife with her gentleness and virtue, thy sons and their consular dignity. As for riches, money is only precious when it is given away, and it can only fall to one man’s lot by the impoverishment of others. And as for rank and power, these have often fallen to the worst of men, and then did ever an Etna work such mischief? True happiness is the perfect good; therefore, true happiness must dwell in the supreme Deity. By the will of God the good are always strong, the bad always weak and impotent; that vices never go unpunished, nor virtues unrewarded. The good must be happy, for because they are good.” But I was perplexed by the chance falls of fortune; “There is no place for chance in this universe,” she said “for nothing can arise without a cause- but you have a free will within that. Honour the God, for all things are as they should be”
ABOUT THIS SQUASHED VERSION
This Squashed Edition is adapted from the 1902 translation by WV Cooper and the earlier condensed version by Sir John Hammerton. It reduces some 45,000 words to about 3,000
The Consolation of Philosophy
by Severinus Boethius, c520AD
Squashed version edited by Glyn Hughes Â© 2005
I – THE SORROWS OF BOETHIUS
I WHO knew happy days, sat brooding over the sorrows which have come on me in my old age, and I had written in sad verses some complainings over my misfortunes, when it seemed to me that there appeared above my head a woman of a countenance exceeding venerable. Her eyes were of fiery glow, her complexion was lively, her aspect was vigorous and she seemed plainly not of my time or age.
Her stature was difficult to judge, for at one moment it exceeded not the common height, at another her forehead seemed to strike the sky; and when she raised her head higher, she began to pierce the very heavens, and to baffle the eyes of those who looked upon her. Her garments were of an imperishable fabric. On the lowermost edge was interwoven the Greek letter II, which stands for political life, the life of action. On the topmost edge was the letter e, standing for the theoretical life, the life of thought; and between the two were to be seen steps, like a staircase, from the lower to the upper letter. The robe, moreover, had been torn by the hands of violent persons, who had each snatched away what he could clutch.
When she saw the muses of poesie standing by my bed, dictating the words of my lamentations, she was moved to wrath, her eyes flashed sternly and she addressed to them such words of upbraiding that the whole band dolefully left the chamber. I, dumbfounded, silently awaited what she might do next. Then, drawing near my couch, she bewailed the disorder of my mind, but presently declared that the occasion called rather for healing than for lamentation; that the symptoms were of lethargy, the usual sickness of deluded souls. Then, with a fold of her robe, she dried my eyes all swimming with tears.
Even so the clouds of my melancholy were broken up. I saw the clear sky and regained the power to recognise the face of my physician. Lifting up my eyes I beheld my nurse, Philosophy, whose halls I had frequented from my youth up.
“Ah, why,” I cried, “mistress of all excellence hast thou come down from on high and entered the solitude of this my exile? Is it that thou, even as I, mayst be persecuted with false accusations?”
“Could I desert thee, child,” said she, “and not lighten the burden which thou hast taken upon thee through the hatred of my name, by sharing this trouble? Thinkest thou that now, for the first time in an evil age, Wisdom hath been assailed by peril? The stories of the fate of Socrates, of Anaxagoras, of Zeno, of Arrius, of Seneca, of Soranus are not unknown to thee. These men were brought to destruction for no other reason than that, settled as they were in my principles, their lives were a manifest contrast to the ways of the wicked. Dost thou understand, or art thou dull as an ass to the sound of my lyre? Why dost thou weep?”
Then I, gathering what strength I could, began, “Is there any need of telling? Is not the cruelty of fortune against me plain enough, and all because I have faithfuily followed thy precepts? Thou has enjoined by Plato’s mouth the maxim that states would be happy, either if philosophers ruled them, or if it should so befall that their rulers should turn philosophers. I have tried to apply in the business of public administration the principles I learnt from thee. For this cause I have become involved in bitter and irreconcilable feuds. By baulking Conigastus in his assaults on the weak, and by thwarting the vile schemes of Trigguilla, and by rescuing the consul Paulinus from the gaping jaws of the court bloodhounds, and by saving Albinus from the penalties of a prejudged charge, I have laid up for myself a great store of enmities. And now that by lying informers I have been struck down, what is thy counsel, O, my mistress?”
II – THE VANITY OF FORTUNE’S GIFTS
PHILOSOPHY, after an interval of silence, thus began.
“If I have thoroughly ascertained the pining with regretful longing for thy former fortune. But thou thinkest that the siren called Fortune hath changed her ways towards thee. But rather in her very mutability hath she preserved towards thee her true constancy. Thou hast found out how changeful is the face of the blind goddess. If thou likest her, take her as she is and do not complain. If thou abhorrest her perfidy, turn from her in disdain and renounce her!”
“Thine admonishings are true,” said I. “But in adverse fortune the worst sting of misery assuredly is to have been happy.”
“Well,” said she, “if thou art paying the penalty of a mistaken belief, thou canst not rightly impute the fault to circumstances. Come, reckon up how rich thou art in thy blessings! Thy wife yet lives with her gentleness and virtue. Think of thy sons and their consular dignity. Think how many other men are lacking in such blessings as are preserved to thee. As for riches, what are they but mere gold and heaps of money? Money is only precious when it is given away, and it can only fall to one man’s lot by the impoverishment of others. And as for rank and power, these have often fallen to the worst of men, and then did ever an Etna work such mischief?”
“Thou knowest,” I answered, “that ambition for worldly success hath but little swayed me. Yet I have desired opportunity for action, lest virtue, in default of exercise, should languish away.”
Then said she: “This is that last infirmity which is able to allure noble minds. But how poor and unsubstantial a thing is glory. The whole of this earth’s globe is as compared with the expanse of heaven no bigger than a point, and of this insignificant world only a fourth part is inhabited by living creatures, and vast portions of that part are usurped by sea, marsh and desert, so that little space is left for human beings. And of this how narrow is the area for human fame! Why, in Cicero’s days, the fame of the Roman Republic had not yet crossed the Caucasus. Can the fame of a single Roman penetrate where the glory of the Roman name fails to pass? Moreover, what concern have choice spirits – for it is of such men we speak, men who seek glory by virtue – what concern have these with fame after the dissolution of the body in death?”
III – TRUE HAPPINESS AND FALSE
FOR a little space Philosophy was silent, and then she thus began again.
“I would now lead thee to felicity. The supreme good which men seek is happiness; at this they aim in various ways. Some seek it through wealth. Now, wealth cannot make its possessor independent and free from all want; yet this is what it seems to promise. Every day the stronger wrest it from the weaker without his consent. So the wealth which a man thought would make him independent, actually puts him in need of further protection.
“Other men imagine that they can secure felicity by means of rank, for official dignity clothes him to whom it comes with honour and reverence. Have, then, offices of state such power as to plant virtue in the minds of their possessors and to drive out vice? Nay, they are rather wont to signalise iniquity than to chase it away. Thus, Catullus calls Nonius ‘an ulcer-spot,’ though ‘sitting in the curule chair.’ And even where high office brings dignity, does their repute last? Why, the prefecture, which was once a great power, is now but an empty name – a burden merely on the senator’s fortune. The commissioner of the public corn was once a personage – now what is more contemptible than this office?
“But you may ask, Boethius, if the happiness of kings does not last? Well, antiquity is full of examples, as are these days also, of kings whose happiness has turned to calamity. There must needs be a balance of wretchedness in the lot of a king. The tyrant Damocles, who had made trial of the perils of his condition, figured the fears that haunt a throne under the image of a sword hanging over a man’s head.”
“Indeed,” said I, “I see clearly enough that neither is independence to be found in wealth, not power in sovereignity, nor reverence in dignities, nor true joy in pleasures.”
“Having set forth the form of false happiness, the next step is to show what true happiness is,” said she. “That which is simple and indivisible by nature, human error separates, and transforms from the true and perfect to the false and imperfect. Happiness must not be sought in these things which severally are believed to afford only some of the blessings most to be desired. That is the true and perfect happiness which crowns one with the union of independence, power, reverence, renown and joy. It now remains that thou shouldst learn from what source this true happiness is to be sought. Since, as Plato maintains in the Timaeus, we ought, even in the most trivial matters, to implore the divine protection, what thinkest thou should we now do in order to deserve to find the seat of that highest good?”
“We must invoke the Father of all,” said I, “for without this no enterprise sets out from a right beginning.”
“THOU sayest well,” said she. “Next, to consider where the dwelling-place of this happiness may be. The common belief of all mankind agrees that God, the supreme of all things, is good. Wherefore, lest we fall into an infinite regression, we must acknowledge the supreme God to be full of supreme and perfect good. But we have determined that true happiness is the perfect good; therefore, true happiness must dwell in the supreme Deity. Remember this, that the good is the sum and source of all desirable things, and that the essence of absolute good and of happiness is one and the same. But we have seen that God and true happiness are one and the same. Then we can safely conclude that God’s essence is seated in absolute good, and nowhere else.”
IV – GOOD AND ILL FORTUNE
AT this point I mentioned to Philosophy that herein lay the chiefest cause of my grief, that, while there exists a good ruler of the universe, it is possible that there should be evil at all, still more that it should go unpunished, that wickedness should reign and flourish, and that virtue not only lacks its reward, but is even thrust down and trampled under the feet of the wicked and suffers punishment in place of crime.
Then said she, “It would indeed be infinitely astounding and of all monstrous things most horrible if, as thou esteemest, in the well-ordered home of so great a householder, the base vessels should be held in honour and the precious left to neglect. But it is not so. Thou shalt learn that by the will of God the good are always strong, the bad always weak and impotent; that vices never go unpunished, nor virtues unrewarded; that good fortune ever befalls the good and ill fortune the bad. For since, as I have already insisted, the absolute good is happiness, the good must be happy, for the very reason that they are good.
“In like manner, wickness itself is the reward of the unrighteous. Unrighteousness degrades the wicked below man’s level. Thou canst not consider him human whom thou seest transformed by vice. The covetous man surely resembles a wolf. A restless, wrangling spirit is like some yelping cur. The secret fraudulent schemer is own brother to the fox. The passionate man, frenzied with rage, we might believe to be animated with the soul of a lion. The coward may be likened to the timid deer. He who is sunk in ignorance and stupidity lives like a dull ass. He who wallows in foul lusts is sunk in the pleasures of a hog.”
Then said I, “This is very true. But inasmuch as the vicious vent their rage in the destruction of the good, I would this licence were not permitted them.”
“Nor is it,” said she. “Yet if that licence which thou believest to be permitted them were taken away, the punishment of the wicked would in great part be remitted. For verily, incredible as it may seem to some, it needs must be that the bad are more unfortunate when they have accomplished their desires than if they are unable to get them fulfilled.”
“Yet,” said I, “I earnestly wish they might speedily be quit of this misfortune by losing the ability to accomplish crime.”
“They will lose it.” said she, “sooner than perchance thou wishest or they themselves think likely. Their great expectation, the lofty fabric of their crimes, is oft overthrown by a sudden and unlooked-for ending, and this but sets a limit to their misery. And here is a further consideration. If baseness of its own nature makes men wretched, as it does, it is plain that a wrong involves the misery of the doer, not of the sufferer.”
On this I said, “I see how there is a happiness and misery founded on the actual deserts of the righteous and wicked. Nevertheless, I wonder in myself whether there is not some good and evil in fortune as the vulgar understand it. Surely no sensible man would rather be exiled, poor and disgraced, than dwell prosperously in his own country, powerful, wealthy and held in high honour. But now my belief in God’s governance doth add amazement to amazement – for, seeing that He sometimes assigns fair fortune to the good and harsh fortune to the bad, and then again deals harshly with the good, and grants to the bad their hearts’ desire, how does this differ from chance, unless some reason is discovered for it all?”
She answered, “This is what that extra-ordinary mystery of the order of destiny comes to – that something is done by One who knows, whereat the ignorant are astonished. It is the divine power alone to which things evil are also good, in that, by putting them to suitable use, it bringeth them to the end to some other good issue; for order in some way or other embraces all things, so that even that which has departed from the appointed laws of order, nevertheless falleth within an order, though another order, that nothing in the realm of Providence may be left to haphazard.
“Let us be content to apprehend this only, that God, the Creator of universal nature, likewise disposeth all things and guides them to good; and while He studies to preserve in likeness to Himself all that He has created, He banishes all evil from the borders of His commonweal through the links of fatal necessity. Whereby it comes to pass that, if thou look to disposing Providence, thou wilt nowhere find the evils which are supposed so to abound on earth.”
V – FREE WILL AND GOD’S FOREKNOWLEDGE
SHE was about to pass on to other matters, when I broke in, saying, “I am even now experiencing one of the many difficulties which beset the question of Providence. I want to know whether thou deemest that there is any such thing as chance, and, if so, what it is?”
She made answer, “If chance be defined as a result produced by random movement without any link of casual connexion, I roundly affirm that there is no such thing as chance at all. What place can be left for random action when God constraineth all things to order? For ex nihilo nihil is sound doctrine which none of the ancients gainsaid. Now, if a thing arise without causes, it will appear to have arisen from nothing. With our good Aristotle, we may define what men commonly call chance as being an unexpected result flowing from a concurrence of causes where several factors had a definite end. But the meeting and concurrence of these causes arise from that inevitable chain of order which disposes all things in their due time and place.”
“I agree that it is as thou sayest. But in this series of linked causes is there any freedom left to our will, or does the chain of Fate bind also the very motions of our souls?”
“There is freedom,” said she; “nor, indeed can any creature be rational unless he be endowed with free will. For that which has the natural use of reason, of itself distinguishes what is to be shunned or desired. Now, everyone seeks what he judges desirable and avoids what he thinks should be shunned. Wherefore, beings endowed with reason possess also the faculty of free choice and refusal.”
Then I said, “But now I am perplexed by a problem yet more difficult. If God foresees everything and can in no wise be deceived, that which He foresees to be about to happen must come to pass.”
She answered, “Without doubt all things will come to pass which God foreknows as about to happen, but of these certain proceed of free will. The freedom of men’s will stands unshaken and laws are not unrighteous, since their rewards and punishments are held forth to wills unbound by any necessity. God, Who foreknoweth all things, still looks down from above, and the ever-present eternity of His vision concurs with the future character of all our acts, and dispenses to the good, rewards, to the bad, punishments. Our hopes and prayers also are not fixed on God in vain. Therefore, withstand vice, practice virtue, lift up your souls to right hopes, offer humble prayers to Heaven. Great is the necessity of righteousness laid upon you if ye will not hide it from yourselves, seeing that all your actions are done before the eyes of a Judge who seeth all.”
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
The remains of Boethius are probably in the church of San Pietro Ciel d’Oro in Pavia.