# 352: BOOK OF THE WEEK — “Trost der Philosophie”


Boethius (2016/523). Trost der Philosophie.

Story behind the Passage

Today, I was really torn which language to write in. But somehow, even though I read the book in German and the original was in Latin, I still decided to write in English. There is no rational reason for this, I guess. And I doubt that this is a reasonable decision. But we will hear more about the impact of reason on faith and providence as I write more about the book below. The very idea of writing about it came when I first heard about it. It was in a documentary about a Medieval philosophy in which someone mentioned Boethius in the context of prison writing. “Consolatio Philosophiae,” as the original Latin title states, the consolation of philosophy, was something that I just had to read and blog about.

As I read Boethius now, I have to reveal that the ultimate consolation as a result is quite limited in the end. He knew he was going to die for a crime that really was none on his part. And experiencing this kind of fate after living such a candid life is more than devastating. There is nothing that helps him in this darkest moment of his life as he is sitting in his dark cell, not even the faith in God itself. Then, Philosophy, personified as a woman, visits him and walks him through all the arguments in order to find consolation in the fact that the good exists in God. And that, even though his experience might be the ultimate proof that God does not punish the “right” people, he can find peace in the fact that God’s workings are always towards directed towards the good as the ultimate end and order of all things.

My Learnings

  1. Consolation
Boethius 20

This passage is from the comprehensive and very informative introduction by Friedrich Klingner. It sketches the ultimate benefit the reader can get from Boethius, namely: healing in a situation in which ultimate recovery, i.e., convalescence, is impossible, at least for the physical and morbid body. The author puts Boethius alongside many other souls who turned the most devastating moments into something “helping and healing” — not only for themselves but for their readers. Indeed, as you follow Boethius’ conversation with Philosophy, you suffer with him through all his questions and his devastation as he tries to find out how God could punish him in this way — even more so: If God can even exist if he allows such injustice to happen (theodicy).

One insight, which is something that is very revealing, fairly at the beginning of the actual book is that the Goddess “Fortune” does not only spin its wheel into one direction. Fortune itself does not know the ultimate judgement of something being “good” or “bad” in the profane sense that human beings perceive of phenomena. Rather, there is only one ultimate “good” which is God himself and this equals happiness. This Aristotelian thought that all human beings are striving towards happiness as the sole end of their doings, is the major thread in the book. One of Boethius’ outstanding achievements was that he passed on Aristoteles and Plato’s works. This is why the core pillars of their philosophy also appear explicitly throughtout the five books.

2. Self-Forgetfulness

Boethius 58

This is from Book I and it nicely shows how Philosophy appears like a doctor for Boethius. She analyzes his “illness” and promises to heal him with clearly defined steps. The ultimate diagnosis or the consequence of her anamnesis is that Boethius has forgotten “who he really is.” This “self-forgetfulness” has led to him the mistaken and confused state of mind that sees the bad and lost souls as the truly happy ones. Interestingly, Philosophy also tells him that this is due to a lack of seeing the goal. Hence, her very determined suggestion is to show him the way back to himself which will ultimately also clear all the darkness and dust from his sight.

Even though this passage is from the beginning, it already signals most of the elements that are essential for the entire process Boethius goes through with his visitor. Nature as the God-given and holistic order of the world is repeatedly referred to, and so is the use of rational thinking. Overall, and this was particularly surprising to me, Philosophy really challenges Boethius in a question and answer game which is mostly about following a strict line of logical argumentation. Boethius’ consolation, the healing power of the conversation, this is what Philosophy makes very clear, lies in his ability to think through all his questions and the answers Philosophy gives him.

This also, as the introduction already explains, is written with reference to Plato’s Cave allegory by using the terminology of walking from darkness to light, whereby light means seeing the truth as it really is. All this, every question, gradually leads him out of his self-built prison towards understanding that this misery he is suffering from is really caused by his own self-pity and his questioning of the existence of God. As Philosophy teaches him, only the return to his “true” self by means of using reason will enable him to see his error. Part of this is about first realizing again that all his previous achievements and all the good he was blessed to experience, including his successful career and the birth of healthy and successful sons, were God’s workings. But he also learns that all this will not console him — that true consolation will only be found in finding the good in God. This also means that all wordly “possessions,” including honor and fame, even public office, are worth nothing.

3. Free Will

Boethius 150

After this long logical back and forth and the “conclusion” that God is good and that ultimately no truly good person is not happy, the ultimate question of “free will” is what keeps Boethius from finding consolation. It is in these passages in the last two books in which he really gets frustrated and angry again, no matter how much comfort Philosophy might have helped him to find in the previous books. If God steers everything, if his providence is the ultimate fate, then there is no room for free will, according to his conclusion.

Given the fact that he sits in prison and is about to be executed, this is, of course, the ultimate problem which might already kill him mentally. And the answer Philosophy gives is even more devastating in some way. She clearly states that there is such a thing as free will. In her explanation, argues based on the difference between providence and fate, whereby providence is more or less the masterplan and fate is the more pragmatic implementation of the plan. Hence, fate depends on free will and decision making because only the decisions themselves are dictated by providence, not their singular outcomes.

These last parts about free will are the most moving and challenging for me. And for Boethius, they rightfully stand in the way of consolation while also, at least it seems like this, bringing him back to himself. The only conclusion I have to offer is that he did contribute his share to the misery he now finds himself in. Still, consolation sets in because he learns that happiness is not bound to any of the things he misses at this point— not even his life. So, in sum, it is reason that triumphs over any non-logical or sentimental sense of happiness. God equipped human beings with reason to make sane decisions. These only lead to happiness if the human has found himself in God. This takes us back to the beginning — the ultimate beginning and end. Philosophy stands for the rational way of getting there.

For me, The Consolation indeed is a comforting but challenging book, especially because the conclusion is not truly consoling after all. All there is is the hope that for the good and faithful, God opens up doors in the here and now because, as the reader also learns from Philosophy, providence is not really a future-oriented concept. Instead, past, present, and future are here, simultaneously, in the now — at least for God. So, prayers can help change whatever human beings think will be their future. For Boethius, this future meant death. For all of us, we can ask this question and might not find easy answers even after having read the book. But there is one consolation I can definitely pass on. Reading a book like this means peace of mind to lovers of philosophy. That is consolation in the here and now.

Reflection Questions

1) Could philosophy ever be comforting to you? Why/not?

2) How can reason be a means for coming closer to God?

3) Do you agree that honorable deeds for the state are worth nothing compared to finding inner freedom and happiness completely independent of tangible “goods” or reputation?