Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, Book I

The Consolation of Philosophy was one of the best known works of the Middle Ages and beyond. Originally written in Latin, it was translated into Old English at the direction of King Alfred (ninth century), into medieval French by Jean de Meun, one of the authors of the equally famous Romance of the Rose (thirteenth century), into Middle English by Chaucer, and into Elizabethan English by Queen Elizabeth herself (sixteenth century).

Boethius's life is almost as interesting as his work and intimately bound up with it. The story of his rise to fame and fortune, sudden fall, and "redemption" through philosophy provided medieval and Renaissance readers with a tale both moral and entertaining, and one that accorded with (or perhaps provided) one common model of the shape of man's life. I have not used the words "moral and entertaining" loosely. Early writers (through the eighteenth century and beyond) saw the purpose of literature as twofold. Chaucer called these two purposes "sentence and solas"; you might call them use and delight, or lessons and pleasure. Do not be put of by the word "philosophy." You yourself philosophize, but you don't call it that. We think of literature as having only one purpose: entertainment--but philosophy and literature (poetry) fit together easily and naturally.

The Consolation was also written in a very influential form: alternating sections of prose and poetry. (For this reason, if you cite the text in a paper you must indicate whether you are referring to, say, prose 6 or poem 6; thus Boethius III.pr6, p. 52, sends you to Book 3, prose 6.)

These remarks are not intended to replace the introduction in your book but to prepare you for it. It would be wise to read the introduction twice: once before you read the Consolation and once after. The work starts out as a "story" but turns into a "treatise" or discussion. Pay equal attention to both. If you have not read a work like this before, you may find it heavy going at first. It is worth it. (Most students come out liking it very much.) The editor has provided a "road map" for you in the back of the book.

Poem 1

In your translation, this is represented as prose. Keep in mind that in the original it is in verse. The poetry sections read very differently than the prose sections do.

The narrator is named for the author, but the work is fictional, and so cannot be Boethius. Notice that the narrator does not say that he fell asleep and dreamed this, but that it actually happened. (Nevertheless, many authors in the Middle Ages treated it as a dream vision.)

Who are the muses? (Look it up.) Why does he call on them to tell him what he must write?

Note that he is not old but has been aged by misery. Note also the mention of "faithless Fortune" and "her worthless gifts," which will play a large part in the work later.

Prose 1

Here you see that the poem you have just read has been composed in the writer's mind but not yet written down--and presumably it never does get written down.

Read the description of the lady carefully. Her age is indeterminate. Her height is indeterminate. She is Philosophy. From what you know of philosophy, why is the description (here and in the remainder of the paragraph) appropriate?

Why does she denounce the muses, calling them "whores from the theater"? Do you know anything of the "usual" opinion of actresses in the theater? (You may not be able to answer such questions at this point, but you should come back to them after you have read more and answer them before you come to class.)

Notice the medical imagery. The "cure" that Lady Philosophy offers, however, comes through "my Muses," so the illness is clearly not physical.

What of Boethius's eyes? If his illness is internal, his eyes might give a clue to the problem.

Poem 2

Do you see a link between the previous paragraph and the first "stanza" of this poem?

What is this lament or complaint (a literary form, not a whine--look it up) about? It is "about" something different from Boethius's point of view (and it is he who utters it) than it is from Philosophy's point of view. Can you tell yet why?

Prose 2

Lady Philosophy and Boethius (the narrator) see things very differently. He thinks complaint is appropriate; Lady P., in a very businesslike way, calls for medicine.

What weapons has Lady P. given the narrator? Why doesn't he recognize her?

Lady P. diagnoses the narrator's illness as "lethargy" and says he has forgotten himself a little--what does that mean?

Poem 3

What can it mean that Lady P.'s wiping his eyes gives him strength?

Prose 3

Note well the imagery in this first paragraph: clouds, physician, nurse, lonely desert, exile, prisoner.

What is the burden he carries? (See introduction.)

What journey?

Do you know anything about Plato and Socrates? If you are an English major you ought to. Plato's works are great reading, many of them not at all difficult--good reading for a summer vacation, and readily available. Now do you see why her robe is torn?

Pay attention to these "stormy winds." You will see them again and again in English literature.

Poem 4

The philosophy found here can also be found in literature and in common speech from the days of Homer to our own, but seldom more succinctly expressed than here.

Prose 4

For the ass and the lyre, look at Chaucer's Troilus, Book I, lines 729ff.

Boethius is impatient with Philosophy. Don't you think he is right to be? After all, he has taken her advice and that is what got him into the fix he's in, right? Why does he enumerate his "good deeds" here? Why does he appeal to her judgment? Why is he bent on proving himself innocent?

Near the bottom of page 12 we get to the heart of the matter with a pair of questions about God (though Boethius doesn't know it).

Not only has Boethius done the right thing, but he has had the right motives (not the same thing).

If the spirit of philosophy is alive within Boethius, what's the problem?

On page 14, he seems almost to lay the blame for his miserable situation on Philosophy! Why? Is he passing the buck?

Here comes that loaded word "fortune" again. Watch it.

He summarized his "charge" against the universe in the final paragraph. What do you think of it? Is he right?

Poem 5

This is a magnificent poem and one of the most famous in the whole work, often imitated and paraphrased. Do you agree with Boethius here? (There's that stormy sea again, but this time linked to fortune. Keep your eye on the ball.)

Prose 5

Philosophy does not respond the way Boethius wants her to, here or elsewhere. In fact she's downright irritating in her lack of sympathy for his plight.

What is Boethius's "true country"--his "true city"? St Augustine wrote a profoundly influential work entitled The City of God, parts of which we will read. In what sense has he "wandered" away from his "homeland"?

What disturbs Lady P. about Boethius's plight? Does she disagree with his account of the facts?

How does that "stormy" or "windy" image come back in her words? She in effect offers to act as his physician. Do you think that he feels he is in any sense "sick"? Is he?

Poem 6

Spoken by Lady P.
Boethius talked about God; Lady P. talks about God. Why?

Prose 6

If you don't know what a "Socratic dialogue" is, find out. What diagnosis of his illness does she give here (two slightly different ones)? Man was traditionally defined as a "rational animal." The narrator offers that definition, but in Lady Philolophy's eyes, it is incomplete. On the basis of this incomplete definition, in the long paragraph on page 19 she concludes that he is sick--why? She then gives three reasons for his illness and outlines the consequences of each. How serious is his illness? What medicine will cure him?

Poem 7

The poems often cast strong light on the argument (in the prose sections), but it is often hidden in symbols and riddles. Try to make sense of each poem in light of the preceding prose section. Why joy and fear? hope and sorrow?

Rev. 1/96