Book Reviews

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

*vinyl scratch* “Yep, that’s me, your boy Boethius. You might wonder how I came into this predicament, being locked up in my own home and sentenced to death for being irreligious, while actually being a Christian. Well, the truth is that I don’t even know. But I do know how I accepted my fate. I had a good talk with an old friend: Lady Philosophy.”

This was the situation Boethius a 6th century philosopher and Christian found himself in. He was being sentenced to death for something he apparently didn’t do. As a devout catholic, he was being charged with impiety and had to die. He had been grounded to his home. All alone he started to write a consolation of his situation. Not to God, which is something that would have been expected of a Christian, but to Lady Philosophy. It is with her that he tries to find consolation with his predicament.

How is it possible that God could sentence a devout Christian to die, without him having done anything wrong? We could extend this question even further, why is there unnecessary evil and is evil even necessary in the first place? Lady Philosophy gives an account of this. God is all-good and doesn’t know evil. It is literally impossible for God to do evil, since then he wouldn’t be all-good. We only do evil because we are ignorant of the good (something which resonates with Plato). It is we who do evil.

But what if you’re innocent, like Boethius claims? Why would God punish you then? Well, who knows if you’re innocent? Maybe you’re not the saint that you claim to be. Maybe you could have done more? No worries though. It is through knowledge and becoming wise that we can achieve goodness.

 But something more is going on. If God is all-good and all-knowing, why would he allow us to do bad things? What about free will, how can it exist with an all-knowing God? Well, here Boethius is kind of ambiguous and uses weird, hard to understand reasons to try to combine determinism and free will into some sort of compatibilism. We should envision God as being out of time. He doesn’t live in the past, present or future; he just lives. When we are traveling on a road, we only see what’s in front of us and behind us and we are situated at the present location. That way we go forward. But God, he sees the whole road. He doesn’t just see the present location where we are situated; he sees the whole journey. Because of this he is all-knowing. It is because of this that we don’t do because God wants us to it, which would be deterministic. Rather God sees it because we will do it. There is free will, God will just see it. How this solves the problem of free will is still a bit ambiguous to me and I’ll need to reread this in order to further understand it.

In the end, this isn’t a philosophical treatise in the main sense. It is rather, as the title suggests, a way to accept the terrible faith with lies ahead for Boethius. I find it to be very human to try and rationalize your doomed scenario. We always try to find reasons why some things happen. Why did that person suddenly act like a bully to me? Why did a family member get cancer? Why do these things happen? As an atheist I don’t feel like finding the answers from a certain God. By asking his questions to Lady Philosophy, Boethius makes his plea pleasurable for everyone. I think it’s human to ask these questions not to an all-knowing being but to your own rationality. I believe it’s something we all do sometimes.

The Consolation of Philosophy is a short text and combines prose with verse. The text is beautifully written and shows the literary abilities of Boethius. The reasonings can be rather complex but if you take your time the light of knowledge will give you the things you need to understand. It shows the last days of a troubled man, trying to come to peace with his horrible situation. In the end all we can do is accept it and try to make the best out of it and that’s exactly what Boethius did. Hopefully we all have the courage to do the same.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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