Alfred Searls's Reviews > The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
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's review
Jun 06, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: reviewed

Are you interested in the nature of time, or parallel universes? Do you find yourself wondering about the unknowable nature of the cosmos? If so then this medieval treatise on philosophy, life and the nature of God is just the book for you. No, seriously, I’m not joking … you’ll see. But for now let us begin at the beginning. It is AD524 and the Roman philosopher and civil servant Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius is under house arrest on charges of treason. The charges are almost certainly more a matter of political expediency rather than of substance, but in any event he uses his time, his education and his formidable mind to write a book that will profoundly influence the intellectual course of medieval and renaissance Europe.

The book is a dialogue between Boethius himself and a mythical figure he calls “Lady Philosophy” who visits him in his confinement to offer him the consolation of virtue and intellect. Prose for the most part, interspersed with the occasional verse, it can be a slow going for the modern reader, but it’s worth persevering with as Boethius rewards you regularly with timeless little sound bites such as;

“High position bestowed on scoundrels does not merely fail to make them worthy of it; indeed it betrays and flaunts their unworthiness.”


“I consider mass popularity to be not even worthy of mention. For it does not proceed from ripe judgement, and never remains consistent.”

There you go, you’re starting to like the sound of him already, aren’t you?

The early part of the book is an interesting exploration of the concepts of good and evil, but it really began to fascinate me when it started to touch on the nature of God and man, and notions of free will and foreknowledge of the future. For Boethius Providence, or the mind of God, is simply unknowable by man and “the total clarity of the divine intelligence is … established in the citadel of its own oneness”. God exists outside of time, and thus as a non-liner force experiences time in a fashion wholly different to we creatures of the eternal now, who have relinquished forever our hold on the past and have yet to possess the future.

“God discerns all things not as a sort of foreknowledge of the future but as knowledge of the unceasing present moment. For this reason it is better to term it providentia (looking forward spatially) rather than praevidentia (looking forward in time).” In other words God looks out upon a plain of existence in which everything that was, is and shall be is simultaneously displayed and experienced.

Ah ha says the philosopher and reader, in that case free will is indeed a myth, for if God can already see what I’m going to do, before I do it, then it’s clear I never really had any choice in the matter in the first place. Boethius explicitly examines this vexing question;

“… is foreknowledge the cause of the necessity of future events, or is the necessity of future events the cause of Providence?” And in answer to this; “… for even if things are foreseen because they are about to happen, they do not in fact happen because they are foreseen”.

In fact when in the text he invokes the prophecy of Tiresias “Each utterance of mine will come to pass- or not!” he appears to be suggesting that God, existing outside of time and free from notion of the supposed liner consequences of free will, can see all the possible outcomes that our choices may engender, and thus we are free to exercise our God given free will as we please. So, in essence God sees the outcome of every possible choice.

Doesn’t this seem familiar? Aren’t there backward echoes here of the fierce scientific debates around the idea of the multiverse, and the possibility of a parallel universes for everything that does exist and can exist? What about the debate about foreknowledge versus free will, doesn’t that contain the genesis for every time paradox theory from Heinlein to Novikov? And doesn’t the idea that man will never arrive at an answer to life’s most fundamental questions, because he is simply incapable of knowing the mind of God, sound prescient when we consider the contemporary position of those who say we will never solve the great questions of the cosmos, because our minds are simply not capable of holding the answers.

Time and again the book reminds us that the great questions in life never go away and that all we really do is change the terms in which we frame them, so that we might confirm ourselves in a state of blessed originality and bask in our superiority over all those who have thought before us. The ideas Boethius bequeathed to the world had been advanced before him by the likes of Plato and Augustine, and would later be taken up by countless scholars and theologians such as Aquinas and Calvin, and the truth is that we have been reproducing these arguments in different forms for millennia. Or perhaps rehearsing them might be a better way of putting it, in preparation for the day when we finally discover to whom, or what, they should properly be addressed.

Either way they have seldom been so eloquently framed.
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Alfred Searls ADDENDUM: ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’ is often called the last book of antiquity, and Boethius himself referred to as the last Roman, but I’m afraid that is a romantic view and not a rational one. Whilst the both book and man are deeply influenced by the lights of the classical era they are both firmly located in the early medieval period. The honour of writing the last book of antiquity must certainly go to Augustine of Hippo (‘The City of God’) who incidentally can also be said in many ways to be the author of the first post classical work-‘Confessions’.

message 2: by Northcat75 (new)

Northcat75 Excellent review, thank you - I'm inspired to exercise my free will to read it now.

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