Overview of The Consolation
The Consolation was written while Boethius was in prison awaiting execution. The work is cast in the form of a dialog with Philosophy, who explains to him the true nature of happiness, why the wicked appear to prosper while the good suffer, and many other difficulties. By the end, Boethius sees clearly the goodness and sovereignty of God. (Section numbers follow those in Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, New York: Penguin, 1969.)
Things to Think About as You Read
1. Boethius constructs a harmony between classical and Christian ideas about God and human nature, showing in part the unity of truth and philosophy (classical and Christian wisdom being so similar) and in part the support that classical philosophers provide for Christian truth.
2. Similarly, Boethius carefully bases his argument on reason rather than Christian revelation, to show first how reasonable a base Christianity ultimately rests upon and second to show that there are rational, intellectually satisfying answers to the sufferings of the human condition. (Perhaps this work could be considered as "pre-evangelism" for intellectuals.)
3. Boethius relies substantially on Platonic and Neoplatonic thought. If you are familiar with the ideas of Plato, look for echoes here.
Notes and Questions
Poem 1 through Prose 5: Boethius' complaint to Philosophy. He tells her about his unhappiness.
Poem 1. The poem reflects Boethius' complaint: a hopeless, self-absorbed grief, because Fortune has turned against him.
Prose 1. Boethius says that entertainment is not a medicine for sorrow. Is he right or wrong? Note also the startling reversal from our typical mindset, influenced by romantic-era thinking in his comment that opposes "the fruitful harvest of Reason" to "the barren thorns of the Passions." Comment?
Prose 3. Note that Philosophy says that opposition to and even hatred of wisdom and the truth are normal. What reason does she give for this?
Prose 4. Boethius here raises one of the principal questions of the Consolation, and a major question in Christian apologetics: "If there is a God, why is there evil? And if there is no God, how can there be good?" Note that Boethius is constructing his argument by quoting classical philosophers rather than Biblical texts. For example, he quotes Epicurus and Pythagoras. The question is, Why do the wicked prosper while the virtuous suffer?
Prose 4. Boethius says (in another translation) that "most people . . . think that only things which turn out happily are good." Can you think of some things in your own life that have turned out "unhappily" that were good?
Prose 5. Philosophy tells Boethius that in his true country "one is its lord and one its king." If you interpret this on more than one level, who might this king be in each case?
Prose 6. This is the diagnosis following the complaint in the sections above. Philosophy tells Boethius why he is confused and unhappy....