The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy

by

Boethius

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The Consolation of Philosophy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Boethius

Boethius was born to an aristocratic Christian family in Rome, sometime between 475 and 477. Although the Roman Empire fell around the same time, in 476, his family’s privilege and the internal dynamics of Roman society were not drastically affected, and Boethius had many doors open to him from early childhood. He went on to spend his entire adult life as a bureaucrat in the service of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric, who presided over a hollowed-out version of the previous Empire. Boethius became a Senator at 25 and a consul—one of the Senate’s two leaders—at 33. Nevertheless, Boethius likely passed most of his days reading and translating philosophy, and made it his personal project to translate all of Aristotle and Plato’s works from Greek to Latin. He also sought to demonstrate that their schools of thought “in every way harmonize.” However, a set of political conflicts cut his life tragically short. When one of Boethius’s colleagues, Albinus, found himself accused of treason, Boethius stepped in to defend Albinus and was accused of the same crime. He was subsequently arrested and executed. During the year between his arrest and execution in 524, Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, which remains his most popular work. However, Boethius is arguably more important for his role in popularizing and translating Ancient Greek philosophy in Rome and the early Middle Ages.
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Historical Context of The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius lived and wrote in the shadow of the long-dominant Roman Empire. After reaching its greatest extent under Trajan in 117, the Empire gradually declined for a variety of reasons over three centuries. Germanic tribes sacked (pillaged and plundered) Rome in 410 and 455 C.E., and officially conquered the Western Empire in 476, roughly the same time as Boethius was born. This event is usually interpreted as marking the beginning of the Middle Ages. Boethius grew up mostly under the reign of Ostrogoth King Theodoric, who controlled all the territory formerly under the Western Roman Empire. He left in place most of Rome’s class hierarchies and the political structures that used to govern the empire, like the Senate and the Consuls who ran it, but completely deprived them of power. Accordingly, Boethius played a largely symbolic role in a rapidly-disappearing form of government. Meanwhile, Theodoric dedicated his energies to overthrowing the Eastern Roman Empire, too. This is why the paranoid Theodoric persecuted Boethius for purportedly corresponding with the Eastern Roman Emperor, Justin I, and executed him for his role in an alleged conspiracy involving the Eastern Empire. Understanding the motivations for and effects of Boethius’s Consolation also requires an outline of Roman philosophy and its relation to its predecessors. While Greek ideas were incredibly influential in Rome and retain their place at the foundation of Western philosophy today, very few Roman scholars were capable of reading Ancient Greek directly, and this made Boethius—one of the last to learn the language—all the more important as a translator and interpreter of the “original” Greek philosophers. After his death, most Greek primary texts became inaccessible to scholars in present-day Europe for several hundred years, until at least the 12th century, and so Boethius’s Consolation can be seen as a means of both pointing out and attempting to remedy the gradual disappearance of Greek philosophy in the Roman world after the Western Empire’s collapse.

Other Books Related to The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius references Aristotle’s Physics in his Consolation, but his book is actually far more indebted to the works of Plato, particularly the Timaeus, in which Socrates sets out a theory of the physical and eternal words, put in place by an eternal God (or demiurge). He also cites the Gorgias (which portrays evil as a weakness and sickness) and the Meno (which theorizes education as the recovery of innate knowledge). Moreover, Boethius’s personal justification for entering government service comes straight from Plato’s Republic. Throughout Boethius’s Consolation, Lady Philosophy frequently mentions Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, as well tales from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Boethius also cites a select few fellow Romans, especially Cicero, who invented the “wheel of fortune” metaphor, and to whose Dream of Scipio and De Officiis Boethius repeatedly turns for historical examples. Boethius’s arguments about evil resemble his Christian predecessor Augustine’s in the Confessions, and Boethius significantly influenced innumerable Christian thinkers after him, including Thomas Aquinas (Summa Theologica) and Sir Thomas More (whose prison memoir A Dialogue of Comfort was largely modeled after Boethius’s Consolation). Poets like Chaucer and Dante also took inspiration from Boethius: Chaucer translated and based his Trolius and Criseyde on Boethius’s Consolation, and Dante put Boethius in heaven in The Divine Comedy. In contemporary literature, one of the most noteworthy references to Boethius appears in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces, in which the main character, Ignatius Reilley, bases his worldview on Consolation and the “wheel of fortune” concept. 
Key Facts about The Consolation of Philosophy
  • Full Title: The Consolation of Philosophy (De consolation philosophiae)
  • When Written: 523-524
  • Where Written: Pavia (present-day Italy)
  • When Published: 524
  • Literary Period: Classical Roman Literature; Medieval Literature
  • Genre: Medieval Philosophy; Philosophical Dialogue; Prison Writing; Prosimetrum (combination of prose and poetry)
  • Setting: Boethius’s room or prison cell
  • Climax: At the end of Book III, Lady Philosophy convinces Boethius that “true happiness” and “perfect good” are the same thing as God. This means that Boethius must stop dwelling on his misfortune, and instead dedicate himself to prayer and the contemplation of God.
  • Antagonist: Fortune; Evil; Ignorance
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for The Consolation of Philosophy

Famous Translators. Boethius’s importance as a translator of Greek philosophy to Latin, combined with the notorious circumstances surrounding his death, made The Consolation of Philosophy a very influential and widely-read text in the thousand years after his death. As a way to prove their wisdom and fitness to rule, numerous monarchs, including England’s King Alfred (886-889) and Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1603), translated the Consolation from Latin into vernacular languages.

Long-Awaited Revival. The poems that comprise an important portion of Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy were originally intended as songs, to be performed with accompanying music. However, in the medieval tradition, directions for how to perform such songs were mostly passed down orally, and only vague outlines were written down as memory aids. However, using these aids and a lost document discovered by chance in 1982, a Cambridge University researcher managed to reconstruct the music that would have accompanied Boethius’s poems. In 2016, he finished his reconstruction and an ensemble performed the songs, for the first time in more than a thousand years.