Boetius, Consolation of Philosophy, 1546
Boethius is probably one of the most interesting figures of the early Migration Period. As a high-ranking official he had made it all the way to chief of administration of the Western Empire under Theoderic the Great – and then he fell, was thrown into prison and sentenced to death. His “Consolation of Phislosophy” is believed to have been composed in prison after his arrest, which bestows Boethius’ most famous work with an authenticity and truthfulness that only few books can match.
Although the book was a pretty common type of Roman literature in terms of its form. It falls in the category of consolation literature, a text meant to raise the spirits of those haunted by bad luck. Faced with the loss of a beloved person, the educated people often wrote letters of consolation to each other. Today’s letters of condolences, although the cannot, of course, match the artful composition of their Roman predecessors, are reminiscent of this tradition.
Boethius’ text is both a consolation addressed to himself and a protrepsis, a call to turn to philosophy because life’s ups and downs can only be mastered when philosophy gives the courage to lead a happy life.
Considering Fortuna’s unpredictability – just think of Carmina Burana of the countless pictures of the wheel of fortune which symbolizes the eternal rise and fall of human fortunes, no one but the Lady Philosophy can save man from the irrelevance of earthly possessions and the meaningless of man’s pursuits.
Boethius’ “Consolatio Philosophiae” became a favourite text in Medieval monasteries because it apparently consoled ancient philosophy with Christian religion. Even if Boethius, himself a baptized Christian, never once mentions a word about his Christian god, he explains how a philosopher could attain bliss. And Boethius asks and answers the big questions which still interest theology today: Why does evil exist in the world? And what about the question of free will?
Just how important the “Consolation of Philosophy” was shows in the fact that there hardly any Latin, non-Christian, texts that were translated earlier and more often. In the late 10th and early 11th century Notker of St Gall translated it into old German. Alfred the Great and Geoffrey Chaucer, the author of the Canterbury Tales, took care of the English translation. Boethius had a significant influence on Medieval thought with his consolation. The young monks must have felt the same way we do today: is there anything we remember better than the books we read in school as young adults? Whether or not they agreed with him in their later works, it was his thoughts that Medieval philosophers worked through first.