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Discussion -Boethius > Consolation of Philosophy - The Book as a whole

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message 1: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Our final week with Boethius. Discuss anything and everything.

Some questions that occur to me.

Did you find an overall "message" in the text, and to the extent that any message of any great text can be summarized briefly, what did you find it to be?

Why do you think this book had such a profound impact on Western thought for over a thousand years? What about it made it so compelling?

Is the argument persuasive? Does Boethius succeed for you in his thoughts on how to achieve total happiness?

Has it suggested to you any wisdom that might make you look at life in general, or your life in particular, any differently?

Just a few of the many questions this book has raised in my mind. What others did it raise for you?


message 2: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments Does anyone else feel that the book is incomplete? That maybe the executioner came a little too soon? There's no wrap-up or conclusion, and the final chapter does not seem closely related to the putative subject of the work.


message 3: by Audrey (new)

Audrey | 199 comments Yes, it felt incomplete to me, as well.

A couple of threads back, someone (I think Silver) mentioned that Book III is probably where Boethius would have started losing non-Christians. The comment really jumped out at me, because I am a Unitarian, and Book III is indeed where Boethius lost me. So maybe it's just my bias, but I found the work ultimately disappointing. I kept waiting for Philosophy to give some proof for her assertions, and she never did. I often felt that Philosophy's conclusions didn't follow from her premises. Some good examples of that were mentioned in the last thread. I will admit that I very much enjoyed the discussion of free will/predestination after reading Moby Dick. But ultimately, I found her arguments unsatisfactory.


message 4: by Silver (new)

Silver I too was left with the feeling that the work was incomplete, and a bit "anti-climatic" there was no sense of final conclusion nor was there truly the feeling that Boethius himself finally had all of his doubts removed so to answer one of Everyman's questions, I do not feel that Boethius was ultimately successful in the arguments he presented.

Part of that I think is due to the fact that once you get to a certain point it really becomes very unrelatable to non-Christians. The last two books really began to loose me and thought at points I still found it interesting, I was not as invested in it as I was in the first two books.

One of the things I wondered about is that it seems that Historically/Traditionally and particularly within the Christian Tradition reason is usually associated as being a masculine trait and at one point in time women were thought incapable of having reason so I was curious about the portrayal of Philosophy here as being a woman. Is Philosophy often personified in this way? And what possible reasons could Boethius have for this feminine image of Philosophy?


message 5: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Silver wrote: "I was curious about the portrayal of Philosophy here as being a woman. Is Philosophy often personified in this way? And what possible reasons could Boethius have for this feminine image of Philosophy? ..."

In Greek Mythology, Athena is the goddess of wisdom and reason (Minerva is her counterpart in Roman Mythology); In the Bible, wisdom is portrayed as a woman in Proverbs.

"Wisdom has built her house,
She has hewn out her seven pillars;
She has slaughtered her meat,
She has mixed her wine,
She has also furnished her table.
She has sent out her maidens,
She cries out from the highest places of the city,
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
As for him who lacks understanding, she says to him,
“Come, eat of my bread
And drink of the wine I have mixed.
Forsake foolishness and live,
And go in the way of understanding."
Proverbs 9:1-6


message 6: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments The Consolation seems to want the best of both worlds. It starts out as dialogue, but by the end it comes close to being a formal lecture. It argues for predestination but also says we have free will. It relies on pure reason for its argument, but implies that a force beyond human comprehension controls our destiny. It can't even settle on poetry or prose.

To me it does a great job of presenting the difficulties of trying to resolve faith and reason, but it isn't ultimately successful. It's sort of like a Platonic dialogue in that way -- the final result isn't a solution, but a finer understanding of the question.


message 7: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Silver wrote: "Part of that I think is due to the fact that once you get to a certain point it really becomes very unrelatable to non-Christians. The last two books really began to loose me and thought at points I still found it interesting, I was not as invested in it as I was in the first two books. "

I know what you mean. In the margins of Chapter 3 I wrote a note for myself: "what about atheists?" Presumably Boethius never had to contemplate open advocacy of atheism when he wrote, but did he not contemplate the possibility of people who denied the existence of God?

Since Boethius's point is to reach ultimate happiness, and he defines the ultimate Good as God, that raised for me what may be an interesting question, or may be a too controversial a question and shouldn't be asked (but since when did that stop me?): can an atheist believe in ultimate Good?


message 8: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "The Consolation seems to want the best of both worlds. It starts out as dialogue, but by the end it comes close to being a formal lecture. It argues for predestination but also says we have free will. It relies on pure reason for its argument, but implies that a force beyond human comprehension controls our destiny. It can't even settle on poetry or prose. "

I'll go along with those thoughts, though I think they're a bit overstated and there is more complexity there than you allow for (and I think you may not disagree with me there). But I can't go along with the final criticism. I think the blend of poetry and prose is fully validated through the view that the ultimate happiness involves the agreement of both the rational mind and the poetic soul.

Which reminds me of a quotation of, I believe, St. Anselem which I ran across many years ago and has resonated with me ever since: "Faith is the assent of the intellect to that which is believed." There is that which we believe without the use of rationality, but we must bring our rationality to assent to it in order to have true faith. I get the sense that Boethius would approve of this: he seems to me to assume belief in God, but here in the Consolation he seems to be trying to bring the rational, intellectual mind to embrace and encompass the belief.


message 9: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: "may be a too controversial a question and shouldn't be asked (but since when did that stop me?): can an atheist believe in ultimate Good? ..."

When I was an atheist, I always believed in justice and the triumph of good over evil, as well as some lofty ideals, e.g., "Liberty, Equality and Fraternity", "Truth, Beauty and Goodness".


message 10: by Lily (new)

Lily (joy1) | 5057 comments Probably heresy, but I find I am more likely to turn to How to Live in the World and Still Be Happy by Hugh Prather than to Boethius and his Consolations.


message 11: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments For what it's worth, the word "philosphy" is feminine in gender in Greek, so its personification would just about have to be a woman. Come to think of it, abstractions are just about always feminine, not just in Greek but in other languages with grammatical gender, aren't they? I wonder why that is.


message 12: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Everyman wrote: "I'll go along with those thoughts, though I think they're a bit overstated and there is more complexity there than you allow for (and I think you may not disagree with me there)."

I'm overstating a bit for the sake of the discussion -- it is indeed more complex, and that it is the work of a prisoner awaiting execution is astonishing. And I love the poetry, but I think its aesthetic value exceeds its usefulness.

I also do not disagree with your feeling that Boethius assumes belief in God -- that is exactly my problem with his argument. He wants to have it both ways: he wants the consolation of God, but he wants to accomplish it through pagan rationality. He side-steps faith, which I think is impossible to do. Even the good (to address one of your other questions) requires a certain amount of faith, at least if one's conception of it is the Perfect Good, which I think is the case here. The intellect may assent, but faith must come first. Otherwise you get a Prime Mover, which is, I believe, a disappointing consolation prize. ;)


message 13: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nemo wrote: "When I was an atheist, I always believed in justice and the triumph of good over evil,"

Don't want to seem challenging, but I'm curious, where did you envision the good coming from? Did man create it? Was it always there even before the Big Bang? Something other than those?


message 14: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "I'm curious, Silver and Eman have been going through some difficult times as have I. Has anyone found consolation in this work? I have not."

I have read it more with objectivity than subjectivity. More curious about the message in the abstract than in the concrete application to my life.


message 15: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Roger wrote: "For what it's worth, the word "philosphy" is feminine in gender in Greek, so its personification would just about have to be a woman. Come to think of it, abstractions are just about always femini..."

Even the word for "manliness" (andreia) is feminine.


message 16: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Thomas wrote: "Even the word for "manliness" (andreia) is feminine. "

That about nails it, doesn't it? Every married man understands that. :)


message 17: by Nemo (last edited Jul 07, 2011 11:11PM) (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: "Nemo wrote: "When I was an atheist, I always believed in justice and the triumph of good over evil,"

Don't want to seem challenging, but I'm curious, where did you envision the good coming from? ..."


I don't mind challenging questions at all, as long as you're also willing to answer them. :) Were you born into a family of theists?

My views were very similar to the Epicureans, I think. Things come into being on their own, and good and evil are qualities assigned by man. For instance, a Lutheran pastor once asked me whether I thought about God when I listened to Bach. I replied that I appreciated beauty but nothing beyond that.


message 18: by Silver (new)

Silver Patrice wrote: "I'm curious, Silver and Eman have been going through some difficult times as have I. Has anyone found consolation in this work? I have not."

In the first two books I was able to find some consolation in the work because at that point the idea of happiness was not linked strictly to the Christian conception of God and so in the first couple of books the it seemed as if Philosophy was proposing the idea of happiness defined through self, not needing to be dependent upon outsider force. And there was something one ones on will being able to determine happiness that appealed to me.

But of course in the end that was not the message of Boeithus but at the time of reading it before it did begin to really bring forth the Christian message, I was able to draw something from it that was helpful to me at that time.


message 19: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Patrice wrote: "I'm curious, Silver and Eman have been going through some difficult times as have I. Has anyone found consolation in this work? I have not."

Consolation is like comfort foods. There are different kinds for different people. :)

I was more interested in the philosophical idea when I read this book, but I think I would have found consolation in it twenty years ago, as an idealist willing to sacrifice for a higher purpose. The belief that, although I may suffer and die from injustice, my sufferings are not meaningless and serve a good purpose in the grand scheme of things, and that good will triumph over evil.

"There's some good in this world, Mr. Frodo, and it's worth fighting for."


message 20: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nemo wrote: "Things come into being on their own, and good and evil are qualities assigned by man."

In some ways I can agree with that. Many forms of the good, lower case g, are indeed assigned by man -- whether beetles are a good food, for example, or whether it is good to enslave those women and children from the cities you defeat in battle.

But for the capital g Good, I'm not so sure that it represents man-assigned qualities. In that, I tend to agree with both deists and Platonists, that there is a Good outside of and external to humans toward which we strive (or at least should strive).


message 21: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: " I tend to agree with both deists and Platonists, that there is a Good outside of and external to humans toward which we strive (or at least should strive)..."

I raised this question before in the earlier threads: How do we know/recognize this Good that is external to humans? What standard do we use to judge whether or not it is indeed Good?


message 22: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments Boethius's God does not seem much like the Christian God to me. There's no revelation, no miracles, no intervention in history--just a philosophical assurance that ultimately all works out for the good (or Good), despite the appearances. Nor is it like Aristotle's bloodless Unmoved Mover. His God seems most like Plato's Good, an impersonal source of being beyond human understanding, but somehow mystically perceivable.


message 23: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Roger wrote: "Boethius's God does not seem much like the Christian God to me. "

I have to agree with you here. This is, I suspect, one of the reasons why some scholars question whether Boethius was really a Christian in belief as well as in name.


message 24: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Roger wrote: "Boethius's God does not seem much like the Christian God to me. ..."

I see your point, but I think there is a commonality: the notion that there is a divine design and purpose for the world at large. If we view history as a sort of screenplay written by God, the difference between Boethius' God and the Christian God, as you put it, is that the former is absent from the scene but the audience can infer his attributes from the clues He provides, whereas the latter appears Himself as the leading actor in the self-directed movie. IOW. God doesn't intervene in history, but rather, men are the supporting cast in his-story.


message 25: by Roger (new)

Roger Burk | 1729 comments I'd like to think that Boethius is engaged in project to see how close one can get to belief in a personal God and divine providence without any appeal to revelation. But I'm not sure. He seems to firmly believe that "There is indeed nothing which is done with evil intent," even by wicked men (ch 9, l 22). That's contrary to the usual Christian understanding.


message 26: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Roger wrote: ""There is indeed nothing which is done with evil intent," even by wicked men (ch 9, l 22). That's contrary to the usual Christian understanding. ..."

St. Augustine wrote to the effect that evil is the absence of or deviation from good. Evil doesn't exist in the sense that it has no substance, whereas God and His creation have substance.

It follows that the best way to destroy evil is not to destroy evil men, who are created by God, but to (re)turn them to Good. In the words of Abraham Lincoln, "Am I not destroying my enemies when I make friends of them?"


message 27: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Patrice wrote: "Isn't that straight Plato?"

That part isn't contrary to Christian teaching, as far as I know. OTOH, the Christian notion of sin, i.e., the deliberate rejection of God, is absent in Plato, who states that man commits injustice involuntarily due to ignorance. One could argue that Plato didn't believe in revelation because as a Gentile he didn't receive any, and was himself in a state of ignorance. But it's remarkable that he figured out the clues, so to speak, by the sheer power of reason and intellect.


message 28: by Thomas (last edited Jul 10, 2011 05:56PM) (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Patrice wrote: "Isn't that straight Plato?"

It could be, though there is some evidence that Boethius read Augustine. We'll see in the Republic that "evil" is frequently described as a deprivation of good, not as a thing in itself. Socrates' favorite example seems to be disease, which he describes as a deficiency of good in the body. Similarly, injustice is a deficiency of good in the soul. Evil is weakness, disorder, dysfunction. It is not a force.

Boethius wraps everything up very nicely by equating unity with the good -- anything less than The One must in some sense be deficient and striving to be One; but it wouldn't be fair to call anything less than the One "evil." (All the world as we know it would thus be "evil.") In our terms evil has a willful, sinful aspect which it doesn't in Plato. Once again it is interesting that Boethius takes this route instead of the Biblical one.


message 29: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "As for "evil", it is my understanding, but you would know better, that the Greeks did not believe in "sin" but in error. The word sometimes translated as "sin" actually means error. Is that true?"

Thomas would know better than I about the word translated as sin, but they did have the same basic concept of sin as Christians do -- that is, disobedience or dishonor of God (for Christians) or the gods (for the Greeks). In the Iliad, for example, Agamemnon's dishonoring of Apollo in kidnapping his priest's daughter and refusing to return her was grounds for divine punishment -- that seems to me fairly near to the Christian concept of sin.


message 30: by Nemo (last edited Jul 10, 2011 10:31PM) (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: "In the Iliad, for example, Agamemnon's dishonoring of Apollo in kidnapping his priest's daughter and refusing to return her was grounds for divine punishment ...."

With the Greek gods, it's more a matter of politics, ISTM, because the gods can be and often are divided among themselves, as is the case in Iliad. For instance, at the bidding of Athena, Diomedes wounded Aphrodite, when the latter complained to Zeus, she was told to mind her own business.

Plato was perhaps disgusted by the unworthy behavior of the gods depicted by Homer, and insisted that gods and men don't mingle together, lest the gods be corrupted by the mortals.


message 31: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Everyman wrote: "Patrice wrote: "As for "evil", it is my understanding, but you would know better, that the Greeks did not believe in "sin" but in error. The word sometimes translated as "sin" actually means error...."

Agamemnon's treatment of the priest is called an "insult," so it is certainly a sin in some sense. But it seems to me quite different from a sin of disobedience, like that of Adam and Eve. The code of honor is something that both gods and men share in the Iliad, whereas the Bible sets men and God in much different relationship. Oedipus is Aristotle's favorite example for someone who has "sinned," but his sin is unwilling. I think this is different from the Biblical notion of sin that is in modern usage.


message 32: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Patrice wrote: "As for "evil", it is my understanding, but you would know better, that the Greeks did not believe in "sin" but in error. The word sometimes translated as "sin" actually means error. Is that true?."

Yes. "Missing the mark" is the literal meaning, but it takes on a deeper metaphorical meaning in the New Testament.


message 33: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Patrice wrote: "Hmmm, I'm thinking that when I said "the Greeks" I was being too broad. Can we equate Homer with Plato? When Plato speaks of "missing the mark" is that the same as offending the gods in Homer?
Wo..."


Plato and Homer use the same word, hamartein, but they don’t always use it in the same way. In the Iliad it often means literally missing the mark -- for example when Priam's son Antiphus throws his spear at Aias and misses, hitting Odysseus' friend Leucus instead. It is hard to see this in terms of “sin.” But he also uses it in a religious sense -- Zeus says in Book 24 that Hektor never failed to offer him sacrifice. And finally he uses it in the way that Plato uses it most frequently, in the sense of mistake or error -- as when Telemachus fails to close the door to the armory, allowing the suitors access to Odysseus' weapons. Plato uses the word almost always in this sense, as a mistake or error, a failing of the understanding.

None of which is as interesting as your last question. I'm sure it will come up again when we get into the Republic, but how do you think Boethius would respond? What sort of advice do you think Philosophy would give to Agamemnon, or to Abraham when he was ordered to sacrifice Isaac?


message 34: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments We seem to be going in circles. Now back to Kierkegaard again. :)


message 35: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Patrice wrote: "What God meant was to take Isaac and sacrifice a ram and that's what he did when God interceded. Of course these things have many, many readings and interpretations but the Hebrew bible does not say sacrifice Isaac. That was the point of that episode, according to this interpretation. God was saying "do not practice human sacrifice as the Canaanites do." "

I'm curious then, in this interpretation, why does the Angel of the Lord bless Abraham for being willing to sacrifice Isaac? Why should Abraham be blessed for being willing to do something God would never have commanded in the first place?

It's an interesting interpretation, but not without its own difficulties, I think. It certainly would take the wind out of Kierkegaard's sails. He would have to add another scenario to Fear and Trembling, the one where Abraham is played by Mel Brooks. "Oh, I thought you meant HIM."


message 36: by Thomas (new)

Thomas | 4508 comments Patrice wrote: "Isn't that word, Hamartein, the root for what we call the "fatal flaw" in Greek tragedy? I think I love that. Sin as a fatal flaw of character.
How true is that? "


Hamartia is often translated that way, but it's somewhat misleading since it isn't necessarily a character flaw. "Sin," at least in the way we've been talking about it, as a mistake made out of ignorance, is a better reading in my opinion. The classic example of hamartia for Aristotle is Oedipus.


message 37: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Patrice wrote: "I just looked up the meaning of "sin". It's a willful transgression of divine law. Does that fit the Greeks? I don't think so. "

I'm not so sure about that. There were divine laws. Perhaps the best example was the obligation toward travelers. This is seen frequently in Greek literature, particularly in the Odyssey. One who willfully refused food and lodging to a traveler, or who abused a guest under their roof, was committing an offense against divine law.


message 38: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: "There were divine laws. Perhaps the best example was the obligation toward travelers. This is seen frequently in Greek literature, particularly in the Odyssey...."

I thought the purpose of that law was to prevent the mortals from inadvertently mistreating the gods in disguise. Wasn't Poseidon abusing a traveler when he tossed Odysseus around in the storm?


message 39: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nemo wrote: "Wasn't Poseidon abusing a traveler when he tossed Odysseus around in the storm? "

In Greece, the laws of the gods were for mortals to follow, not the gods. I'm not aware of any general laws or rules they had for themselves, although they could indeed be punished for transgressions against the orders of Zeus or other transgressions, e.g. Prometheus and Tantalus.


message 40: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments This excellent discussion can, of course, continue as long as people want it to, but I'll be posting the next Interim Read shortly, so the location of this folder will be moved down on the list.


message 41: by Nemo (new)

Nemo (nemoslibrary) | 2456 comments Everyman wrote: "Nemo wrote: "Wasn't Poseidon abusing a traveler when he tossed Odysseus around in the storm? "

In Greece, the laws of the gods were for mortals to follow, not the gods. ..."


Is that a double standard, "Do as I say, not as I do"? Or is it sort of like Nietzsche's conception of "beyond good and evil", i.e., the laws of ethics don't apply to beings of power?


message 42: by Everyman (new)

Everyman | 7718 comments Nemo wrote: "Is that a double standard, "Do as I say, not as I do"? Or is it sort of like Nietzsche's conception of "beyond good and evil", i.e., the laws of ethics don't apply to beings of power?
"


I don't think the latter; the Olympian gods weren't beings of power in that way.

I suspect it's more that there are different rules for gods and mortals. Partly because we can set the rules for ourselves, but not for gods, whereas they can set rules for both.


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