Skip to comments.The Consolation of Philosophy (Book III)
Posted on 03/08/2002 7:30:49 PM PST by primeval patriot
Heath Readings in The Literature of Europe
By D. C. Heath and Company
PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
(ca. 470-525 A. D.)
Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius, celebrated philosopher and statesman, was born of a family to high rank and educated at Rome and at Athens, Early in life he made the acquaintance of the Greek Classics, many of which he translated. His abilities as a scholar and politician rapidly brought him into public prominence, and in 510 he was selected by King Theodoric as his counsellor. Boethius carried on his work with great success and was granted all possible honor by Theodoric. He used his influence over the ruler to bring about many reforms and corrections. At length as Theodoric became old and infirm, the enemies of Boethius succeeded in having the great philosopher accused of treason and thrown into prison, where he died without ever regaining his liberty.
Boethius forms an important connecting link between pagan and Christian learning. Although there is no evidence that he actually embraced the new faith, his writings are full of the tender and forbearing spirit that characterized the philosophy of Christianity. He translated some of the writings of Aristotle and Nichomachus, and produced numerous works on mathematics. His most famous work is The Consolation of Philosophy, which he composed in prison (ca 500 A. D.). It is written as a dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy, which comes to him in prison in the form of a woman. The lofty strains of his discourse echoed down through the the whole course of the Middle Ages. Almost all readers felt his influence, and many wrote commentaries upon him, translated him or imitated him. Perhaps the two greatest English writers thus to show his influence were Alfred the Great and Chaucer, both of whom translated extensively from his works.
The following excerpt from The Consolation of Philosophyis translated by W.V. Cooper, London, G. M. Dent & Co. (Temple Classics), 1902.
THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY
When she finished her lay, its soothing tones left me spellbound with my ears alert in my eagerness to listen. So a while afterwards I said, 'Greatest comforter of weary minds, how have you cheered me with your deep thoughts and sweet singing too! No more shall I doubt my power to meet the blows of Fortune. So far am I from terror at the remedies which you did lately tell me were sharper, that I am longing to hear them, and eagerly I beg you for them.'
Then said she, 'I knew it when you laid hold upon my words in silent attention, and I was waiting for that frame of mind in you, or more truly, I brought it about in you. That they remain are indeed bitter to the tongue, but sweet to the inner man. But as you say you are eager to hear, how ardently you would be burning, if you knew whither I was attempting to lead you!'
'Whither is that?' I asked.
'To the true happiness, of which your soul too dreams; but your sight is taken up in imaginary views thereof, so that you cannot look upon itself.'
Then said I, "I pray you shew me what that truly is, and quickly.'
'I will do so,' she said, 'for your sake willingly, But first I will try to picture in words and give you the form of the cause, which is already better known to you, that so, when that picture is perfect and you turn your eyes to the other side, you may recognise the form of true happiness.'
'When a man would sow in virgin soil, first he clears away the bushes, cuts the brambles and ferns, that the corn-goddess may go forth laden with her new fruit. the honey, that the be has toiled to give us, is sweeter when the mouth has tasted bitter things. The stars shine with a more pleasing grace when a storm has ceased to roar and poor down rain. After the morning star has dispersed the shades of night, the day in all its beauty drives its rosy chariot forth. So thou hast looked upon false happiness first; now draw thy neck from under her yoke: so shall true happiness now come into thy soul.'
She lowered her eyes for a little while as though searching the innermost recesses of her mind; and then she continued: --'The trouble of many and various aims of mortal men brings them much care, and herein they go forward by different paths but strive to reach one end, which is happiness. And that good is that, to which if any man attain, he can desire nothing further. It is that highest of all good things, and it embraces in itself all good things: if any good is lacking, it cannot be the highest good, since then there is left outside it something which can be desired. Wherefore happiness is a state which is made perfect by the union of all good things. This end all men seek to reach, as I said, though by different paths. For there is implanted by nature in the minds of men a desire for the true good; nut error leads them astray towards false goods by wrong paths.
Some men believe the highest good is to lack nothing, and so they are at great pains to possess abundant riches. Others consider the true good to be that which is most worthy of admiration, and so they strive to attain places of honour, and to be held by their fellow-citizens in honour thereby. Some determine that the highest good lies in the highest power; and so they either desire to reign themselves, or try to cleave to those who do reign. Others think that renown is the greatest good, and they therefore hasten to make a famous name by the arts of peace or war. But more than all measure of the fruit of good by pleasure and enjoyment, and these think that the happiest man is abandoned with pleasure.
'Further, there are those who confuse the aims and causes of these good things; as those who desire riches for the sake of power or pleasure, or those who seek power for the sake of money or celebrity. In these then, and other things lies the aim of men's action's and prayers, such as renown and popularity, which seem to afford some fame, or wife and children, which are sought for the pleasure they give. On the other hand, the good of friends, which is the most honourable and holy of all, lies not in Fortune's but in Virtue's realm. All other's are adopted for the sake of power or enjoyment.
'Again it is plain that the good things of the body must be accounted to those false causes which we have mentioned; for bodily strength and stature seem to make men more able and strong; beauty and swiftness seem to give renown; health seems to give pleasure. By all these happiness alone is plainly desired. For each man holds that to be the highest good, which he seeks before all others. But we have defined the highest good to be happiness.
'Wherefore you have each of these placed before you as the form of human happiness: wealth, honours, power, glory, and pleasure. Epicurus considered these forms alone, and accordingly determined upon pleasure as the highest good, because all the others seemed but to join with it in bringing enjoyment to the mind.
'But to return to the aims of men: their minds seem to seek to regain the highest good, and their memories seem to dull their powers. It is as though a drunken man were seeking his way home, but could not remember the way thither. Can those people be altogether wrong whose aim it is to lack nothing? No, their is nothing which can make happiness so perfect as an abundant possession of good things, needing naught that belongs to others, but in all ways sufficing for itself. Surely those others too are not mistaken who think that what is best is also most worthy of reverence and respect. It cannot be any cheap or base thing, to attain which almost all men aim and strive. And is power not to be accounted a good thing? Surely it is: can that be a weak thing or forceless, which is allowed in all cases to excel? Is renown of no value? We cannot surrender this; that whatever is most excellent has also great renown. It is hardly worth saying that happiness has no torturing cares or gloom, and is not subject to grief or trouble; for even in small things, the aim is to find that which it is a delight to have and enjoy. These, then, are the desires of men: they long for riches, places of honour, kingdoms, glory and pleasure; and they long for them because they think they will find satisfaction, veneration, power, renown and happiness. It is good then which men seek by their different desires; and it is easy to shew how great a force nature has put therein, since, in spite of such varying and discordant opinions, they are agreed in the goal they seek, that of the highest good.
'I would to pliant strings set forth a song of how almighty Nature turns her guiding reins, telling with what laws her providence keeps safe this boundless universe, binding and tying each and all with cords that never shall be loosed. The lions of Carthage, though they bear the gorgeous bonds and trappings of captivity, and eat the food that is given them by hand, and though they fear their harsh master with his lash they know so well; yet if once blood has touched their bristling jaws, their old, their latent wills return; with deep roaring they remember their old selves; they loose their bands and free their necks, and their tamer is the first torn by their cruel teeth, and his blood is poured out by their rage and wrath.
'If the bird who sings so lustily upon the high tree-top be caught and caged, men may minister to him with dainty care, may give him cups of liquid honey and feed him with all gentleness on plenteous food; yet, if he fly to the roof of his cage and the shady tree he loves, he spurns with his foot the food they have put before him; the woods are all his sorrow calls for, for the woods he sings with his sweet tones.
'The bough which has been downward thrust by the force of strength to bend its top to earth, so soon as the pressing hand is gone, looks up again straight to the sky above.
'Pheobus sinks into the western waves, but by his unknown track he turns his car once more to his rising in the east.
'All things must find their own peculiar course again, and each rejoices in his own return. Not one can keep the order handed down to it, unless in some way it unites it rising to its end, and so makes firm, immutable, its own encircling course.
'And you too creatures of the earth, do dream of your first state, though with a dim idea. With whatsoever thinking it may be, you look to that great goal of happiness, your natural course does guide you, and from the same your various errors lead you. For I would have you consider whether men can reach the end they have resolved upon, namely happiness, by these ways by which they think to attain thereto. If money and places of honour and such-like do bring anything of that sort to a man who seems to lack no good thing, then let us acknowledge with them that men do become happy by the possession of these things. But if they cannot perform their promises, and there is still lack of further good things, surely it is plain that a false appearance of happiness is there discovered. You, therefore, who had lately abundant riches, shall first answer me. With all that great wealth, was your mind never perturbed by torturing care arising from some sense of injustice?'
'Yes,' I said; 'I cannot remember that my mind was ever free from some such care.'
'Was it not because something was lacking, which you missed, or because something was present to which you did not like to have?'
'Yes,' I answered.
'You desired, then, the presence of the one, and the absence of the other?'
'I acknowledge it.'
'Then,' said she, 'such a man lacks what he desires.'
'But while a man lacks anything, can he possibly satisfy himself?'
'No,' said I.
'Then while you were bountifully supplied with wealth, you felt that you did not satisfy yourself?'
"I did indeed.'
'Then,' said she, 'wealth cannot prevent a man from lacking or make him satisfied. And this is what it apparently professed to do. And this point to I feel is most important: money has in itself, by its own nature, nothing which can prevent its being carried off from those, who possess it, against their will.'
'It has not,' I said.
'No, you cannot deny that any stronger man may any day snatch it from them. For how come about the quarrels of the law-courts? Is it because people try to regain money that has been by force or fraud taken from them?'
'Yes,' I answered.
'Then,' said she, 'a man will need to seek from the outside help to guard his own money.'
'That cannot be denied,' I said.
'And a man will not need that unless he possesses money which he can lose.'
'Undoubtedly he will not.'
'Then the argument turns round the other way,' she said. 'The riches which were thought to make a man all-sufficient for himself do really put him in need of other people's help. Then how can need be separated from wealth? Do the rich never feel hunger nor thirst? Do the limbs of the moneyed man never feel the cold of winter? You will say, "Yes, but the rich have the wherewithal to satisfy hunger and thirst and drive away cold." But though riches may thus console wants, they cannot entirely take them away. For, though these ever crying wants, these continual requests, are satisfied, yet there must exist that which is to be satisfied. I need not say that nature is satisfied with little, greed is never satisfied. Wherefore, I ask you, if wealth cannot remove want, and even creates its own wants, what reason is there that you should think it affords satisfaction to a man?
'Though the rich man with greed heap up from ever-flowing streams the wealth that cannot satisfy, though he deck himself with pearls from the Red Sea's shore, and plough his fertile field with oxen by the score, yet gnawing care will never in his lifetime leave him, and at his death his wealth will not go with him, but leave him faithlessly.'
'But,' I urged, 'Places of honour make the man, to whom they fall, honoured and venerated.'
'Ah!' she answered, 'have those offices their force in truth that they may instill virtues into the minds of those that hold them, and drive out vices therefrom? And yet we are too well accustomed to see them making wickedness conspicuous rather than avoiding it. Wherefore we are displeased to see such places often falling to the most wicked of men, so that Catullus called Nonius "a diseased growth." though he sat in the highest chair of office. Do you see how great a disgrace high honours can add to evil men? Their unworthiness is less conspicuous if they are not made famous by honours. Could you yourself have been induced by any dangers to thinks that being a colleague with Decoratus, when you saw that he had the mind of an unscrupulous buffoon, and a base informer? We cannot consider men worthy of veneration on account of their high places, when we hold them to be unworthy of those high places. But if you see a man endowed with wisdom, you cannot but consider him worthy of veneration, or at least of the wisdom with which he is endowed. For such a man has the worth peculiar to virtue, which it transmits directly to those in whom it is found. But since honours from the vulgar crowd cannot create merit, it is plain that they have not the peculiar beauty of this worth. And here is a particular point to be noticed: if men are the more worthless as they are despised by more people, high position makes them all the worse because it cannot make venerable those whom it shews to so many people to be contemptible. And this brings its penalty with it: wicked people bring a like quality into their positions, and stain them with their infection.
'Now I would have you consider the matter thus, that you may recognise that true veneration cannot be won through these shadowy honours. If a man who had filled the office of consul many times in Rome came by chance into a country of barbarians, would his high position make him venerated by the barbarians? Yet if this were a natural quality in such dignities, they would never lose their effective function in any land, just as fire is never aught but hot in all countries. But since they do not receive this quality of veneration from any force peculiar to themselves, but only from a connexion in the untrustworthy opinions of men, they become as nothing as soon as they are among those who do not consider their dignities as such.
'But that is only in the case of foreign peoples. Among the very peoples where they had their beginnings, do these dignities last for ever? Consider how great was the power in Rome of old of the office of Praefect: now it is an empty name and a heavy burden upon the income of any man of Senator's rank. The praefect then, who was commissioner of the corn-market, was held to be a great man. Now there is no office more despised. For, as I said before, that which has no intrinsic beauty sometimes receives a certain glory, sometimes loses it, according to those who are concerned with it. If then high offices cannot make men venerated, if furthermore they grow vile by the infection of bad men, if changes of time can end their glory, and, lastly, if they are held cheaply by the estimation of whole peoples, I ask you, so far from affording true beauty to men, what beauty do they have in themselves which men can desire?
'Though Nero decked himself proudly with purple of Tyre and snow-white gems none the less that man of rage and luxury lived ever hated of all. Yet would that evil man at times give his dishonoured offices to men who were revered. Who then could count men blessed, who to such a villain owed their high estate? 'Can kingdoms and intimacies with kings make people powerful? "Certainly," some may answer, "in so far as their happiness is lasting." But antiquity and our times too are full of examples of the contrary' examples of men whose happiness as kings has been exchanged for disaster. What wonderful power, which is found to be powerless even for its own preservation! But if this kingly power is really a source of happiness, surely then, if it fail in any way, it lessens the happiness it brings and, and equally causes unhappiness. However widely human empires may extend, there must be still more nations left, over whom each king does not reign. And so, in whatever direction this power ceases to make happy, thereby becoming powerlessness, which makes men unhappy; thus therefore there must be a greater part of unhappiness in every king's estate. That tyrant had learnt well the dangers of his lot, who likened the fear which goes with kingship to the terror inspired by a sword ever hanging overhead. What then is such a power, which cannot drive away the bite of cares, nor escape the stings of fear?
'Yet these all would willingly live without fear, but they cannot, and yet they boast of their power. Think you a man is powerful when you see that he longs for that which he cannot bring to pass? Do you reckon a man powerful who walks abroad with dignity and attended by servants? A man who strikes fear into his subjects, yet fears them more than himself? A man who must be at the mercy of those that serve him, in order that he may seem to have power?
'Need I speak of intimacies with kings when kingship itself is shewn to be full of weakness? Not only when king's powers fall are their friends laid low, but often even when their powers are intact. Seneca, to choose how he would die. Papinianus, for a long while a powerful courtier, was handed over to the soldier's swords by Emperor Antoninus. Yet each of these was willing to surrender all his power. Seneca even tried to give up all his wealth to Nero, and to seek retirement. But the very weight of their wealth and power dragged them down to ruin, and neither could do what he wished.
'What then is that power, whose possessors fear it? in desiring to possess which you are not safe, and from which you cannot escape, even though you try to lay it down? What help are friends, made not by virtue but by fortune? The friend gained by good fortune becomes an enemy in ill fortune. And what plague can more effectually injure than an intimate enemy?
'The man who would true power gain must needs subdue his own wild thoughts: never must he let his passions triumph and yoke his neck by their foul bonds. For though the earth, as far as India's shore, tremble before the laws you give, though Thule bow to your service on earth's farthest bounds, yet if thou canst not drive away black cares, if thou canst not put to flight complaints, then is no true power thine.
'How deceitful is fame often, and how base a thing it is! Justly did the tragic poet cry out, "O Fame, Fame, how many lives of men of naught hast thou puffed up!"' For many men have got a great name from the false opinions of the crowd. And what could be baser than such a thing? For those who are falsely praised must blush to hear their praises. And if they are justly won by merits, what can they add to the pleasure of a wise man's conscience? For he measures his happiness not by popular talk, but by the truth of his conscience. If it attracts a man to make his name widely known, he must equally think it a shame if it not be made known. But I have already said that there must be yet more lands into which the renown of a single man can never come; wherefore it follows that the man, whom you think famous, will seem to have no such fame in the next quarter of the earth.
'Popular favor seems to me to be unworthy of mention under this head, for it comes not by any judgement, and is never constant.
'Again, who can but see how empty a name, and how futile, is a noble birth? For if its glory is due to renown, it belongs not to the man. For the glory of noble birth seems to be praise for the merits of a man's forefathers. But if praise creates the renown, it is the renowned who are praised. Wherefore, if you have no renown of your own, that of others cannot glorify you. But if there is any good in noble birth, I conceive it to be this, and this alone, that the highborn seem to bound in honour not to show any degeneracy from their father's virtue.
'From like beginning rise all men on earth, for there is one Father of all things; one is the guide of everything. 'Tis He who gave the sun his rays, and horns unto the moon. 'Tis he who set mankind on earth, and in the heavens the stars. He put within our bodies spirits which were born in heaven. And thus a highborn race has He set forth in man. Why do ye men rail on your forefathers? If ye look to your beginning and your author, which is God, is any man degenerate or base but him who by his own vices cherishes base things and leaves that beginning which was his?
'And now what am I to say of the pleasures of the body? The desires of the flesh are full of cares, their fulfilment is full of remorse. What terrible diseases, what unbearable griefs, truly the fruits of sin, do they bring upon the bodies of those who enjoy them! I know not what pleasure their impulse affords, but any who cares to recall his indulgences of his passions will know that the results of such pleasures are indeed gloomy. If any can shew that those results are blest with happiness, then may the beasts of the field be justly called blessed, for all their aims are urged toward the satisfying of their bodies' wants. The pleasures of wife and children may be most honourable; but nature makes it all too plain that some have found torment in their children. How bitter is any such kind of suffering, I need not tell you now, for you have never known it, nor have any such anxiety now. Yet in this matter I would hold with my philosopher Euripides, that he who has no children is happy in his misfortune.
'All pleasures have this way; all those who enjoy them they drive on with stings. Pleasure, like the winged bee, scatters its honey sweet, then flies away, and with a clinging sting it strikes the hearts it touches.
'There is then no doubt these roads to happiness are no roads, and they cannot lead any man to any end whither they profess to take them. I would shew you shortly with what great evils they are bound up.
Would you heap up money? You will need to tear it from its owner. Would you seem brilliant by the glory of great honours? You must kneel before their dispenser, and, in your desire to pass other men in honour, you must debase yourself by setting aside all pride. Do you long for power? You will be subject to the wiles of all over whom you have power, you will be at the mercy of many dangers. You seek fame? You will be drawn to and fro among rough paths, and lose all freedom from care. Would you spend a life of pleasure? Who would not despise and cast off such servitude to so vile and brittle a thing as your body? How petty are all the aims of those put before themselves the pleasures of the body, how uncertain is the possession of such? In bodily size will you ever surpass the elephant? In strength will you ever lead the bull, or in speed the tiger?
Look upon the expanse of heaven, the strength with which it stands, the rapidity with which it moves, and cease for a while to wonder at base things. This heaven is not more wonderful for those things than for the design which guides it. How sweeping is the brightness of outward form, how swift its movement, yet more fleeting than the passing of the flowers of spring. But if, as Aristotle says, many could use the eyes of lynxes to see through that which meets the eye, then if they saw into the organs within, would not that body, though it had the most fair outside of Alcibiades, seem most vile within? Wherefore it is not your own nature, but the weakness of the eyes of them that see you, which makes you seem beautiful. But consider how in excess you desire the pleasures of the body, when you know that, howsoever you admire it, it can be reduced to nothing by a three-day's fever. To put all these points then in a word: these things cannot grant the good which they promise; they are not made perfect by the union of all good things in them; they do not lead to happiness as a path thither; they do not make men blessed.'
I probably won't respond to any posts as I couldn't debate my way out of a wet paper bag.
If this is your cup of tea, enjoy.
I believe that Boethius is considered essentially the last light of classical civilization in the West. Certainly not the creative genius of the earlier Greeks and even the Romans of 500 years earlier, his works helped transmit their ideas to thinkers of the medeival period, when many of the earlier works were lost, at least for a time. Of course, thinkers such as King Alfred, and the leaders of the Carolingian court, 3 and 4 centuries after Boethius, still considered that they lived in 'Romania', in the wider sense, the lands of Roman civilization.
People in later times said that these people lived in the 'Dark Ages', and they were well aware of their reduced level of culture. But their writings, and that of Boethius before them, contributed to the continuation of the conception of classical civilization until its revival in the Renaissance. Their continuing influence helped pave the way for this later revival of high culture.
I wasn't aware there was any debate on this. Boethius was widely regarded to have died an orthodox Christian martyr's death at the hands of the Arian Theodoric, for his efforts to reunite the churches. At the time of his birth, Christianity was hardly a "new faith," and indeed was only increasing its dominance of the Empire.
An observation: the only part that seemed "outdated" in any meaningful sense was the observation that fame cannot truly be called fame at all because it's necessarily local. This is no longer the case. Other than that, it defies those who claim that old thoughts no longer matter. Even there, often the things that have to be done to become famous around the world are immoral, degrading, buffoonish, or all three, and, as it says of those who hold office or other honors, "Their unworthiness is less conspicuous if they are not made famous." Just think of what Bill Clinton will be remembered for a hundred years from now, if he's remembered at all. Even here the point still holds.
I tend to think he will be thought of as sort of a junior grade, less violent (because of our political system), Caligula or Nero. Both of these guys were first thought to be the brilliant hopes for a better future for Rome, and both demonstrated the truth that 'character counts' -- the hard way.
Unfortunately, that is all that I have of Boethius. This article was transcribed from a beautifully printed, seventy year-old book.
A few notes on the source:
My guess is that this book was written on a level that would be understandable for the average high school graduate of the 1930's.
All of the readings are short excerpts of the original books, with each reading prefaced by a brief description of the work and author.
There are perhaps four-hundred readings from various sources.
Catallus, Caesar, Seneca, Xenophon, Lucretius, Cicero and many more.
It's definitely one of my prized books, for its content and the craftsmanship of the printer.
Hopefully never to be surpassed by a more senior grade version.
Thanks, Boethius is a very sad figure, the last thinking man at the end of a thousand years of a great civilization, having no intellectual equals, and not able to foresee any successors, since classical theories of history did not assume continuing progress. No wonder he turned, in his final imprisonment, to 'The Consolation of Philosophy'. I am not sure if anything he wrote is still in print (too tired to check Amazon). The odds are that only used bookstores could supply copies of his works. Perhaps our situation is not all that distant from his.
'Never' is a long time, but we can hope.
For from 10 to 25 cents on the dollar, you can furnish a well-stocked home library.
I recently acquired a hardbound century-old six-volume Plutarch's Lives for $45 Canadian.
It's all out there, and available. ;^)