Consolation of Philosophy is not a title to inspire confidence for new readers. If you are not already inclined to philosophy, the book sounds oxymoronically neither comforting nor the best approach to philosophy. Keep moving, there are other books to read.
But Boethius’ work was actually something of a bestseller for nearly a millennia. Historians have noticed that Consolation was a major force in later theology, which in the middle ages will turn to arguments about the existence of God, debates about hard doctrines, and wrestling with the limits of human speech. But Boethius was also a poet, who wrote in a voice familiar to Greco-Roman culture. In a way, he embodies the passing of the old world and the rise of the medieval world.
Plenty of people over the years, though, have loved Consolation of Philosophy. When C.S. Lewis wrote a list of his ten favorite books that everyone should read, Consolation was listed as number seven. ‘To acquire a taste for it,’ he later wrote, ‘is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.’
The book is great (and short) and everyone should put it on their bucket list.
Why Boethius Wrote Consolation
The story behind Consolation of Philosophy is tragedy. Boethius was one of the best educated men of his generation. In a world where learning was on the decline—especially Greek learning—Boethius was a fossil. He was an example of a world on the verge of collapse.
It was only years before his birth that the western side of the Roman Empire fell in 476 AD. The Ostragothic tribes had finally overthrown the old ties to the past. East and West were unhinged and would never again be united.
In his career, Boethius had the world on a string. He was a senator by 25 and by his 40s he was placed, under the king, over all of the government and court. He married and had two sons, and since they too were educated, they eventually joined their father in government service.
‘Friends, why did ye once so lightly Vaunt me happy among men? Surely he who so hath fallen was not firmly founded then.’ – from Boethius’ opening poem
But then, in 523, he fell from power. He was arrested on suspicion of treason, imprisoned, and a year later executed. We are not certain, but the charges almost certainly were fake. Boethius fell, not for being a conspirator, but because he represented the old world of Rome, and this was offensive to the new world of the Ostragoths. No matter his loyalty, there were always whispers about him being an informer to the enemies of the West.
It is from prison that Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy. So the book is not written in a moment of leisure, but while Boethius lay in chains. He is not puzzling the mysteries of the world in a vacuum but crying out to God, using his education as a tool for exploring the mystery of evil. He needs answers and he needs his Christian faith to make sense of his fate.
What Should I look for in Consolation of Philosophy?
The book is simply a reflection on God’s sovereignty over evil—in this case, though it’s not evil in the abstract but the evil done to Boethius. The book shows a man on fire, weeping for the loss of his prestige and the good he did as a public servant. But it also gives us a glimpse of Boethius’ training in the classics.
The power of the book is that we can almost—almost—agree that Boethius is an honest man who has suffered tribulation wrongly. The story is so heartbreaking we almost forget he is a sinner. This is not a man making excuses for his faults, but a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. But as quickly as Boethius lets us believe he is virtuous he applies his theology and concludes that everything he had was undeserved. Losing the things of this world, then, should not make him doubt God’s goodness.
The content of the book is rather straightforward. Boethius sits in prison and begins to weep for his loss. Just then the personification of ‘Philosophy’ comes to him in order to set him straight. In this context, Philosophy represents all of Boethius’ education and study, and Boethius uses this to remind himself that he knows the truth of the Christian faith. We might say today: he knew these things through books, but he needed to apply them to his heart.
God’s Sovereignty and Evil
Given the emotional freight of Consolation of Philosophy, there are a few highlights that readers should notice.
- The central theme of the first half of the book exposes the way humans place their joy in this world. ‘Philosophy’ is the voice of wisdom in this case, and she repeatedly pulls the rug out from Boethius’ complaints.
- Boethius then turns to the question of God’s sovereignty over evil events. Consolation is not the first theology book to cover this subject, but it is perhaps the most emotionally poignant. Boethius’ answer, like Augustine’s, is that God is not to be blamed for evil, though he is not without power and authority over these events. Men work evil because they are evil, not because Fate or some cosmic force makes them do evil. In this way, Boethius avoids falling into pagan Fatalism.
- Boethius then reflects on the difference between our understanding of this world and God’s sovereignty. He offers an extended analogy, or a way of conceiving the difference in our minds: God is not subject to time but stands outside it. Because of God’s sovereignty over time, he is not subject to the events of this world. He is the Creator and not bound by the creation. In this way, Boethius defends the sovereignty of God over evil events.
Not all of Boethius’ ideas are clear and nuanced. Plenty of modern readers will have questions he will not address. But he is one of the pioneers who first wrestled with these complex issues, so we can forgive him for not anticipating everything that came after.