Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Book 14: The Consolation of Philosophy

This is one of the first reading assignments in my "Antiquities" class (the first one was actually selections of The Dead Sea Scrolls, but those included less than half of the book).  Honestly, for a somewhat religious text written in the 6th century, I was pleasantly surprised by the readibility and the message behind the book.  Naturally, I didn't agree with everything the author had to say, but the first half especially appealed to me.
Boethius, a prominent statesmen in Italy (after the fall of the western part of the Roman Empire), wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned for treason after having been one of the most important advisors to the king of Italy.  He declares himself innocent of the charges, and as this piece begins, he is in despair, under arrest.  It is at this time that his old muse, Philosophy, comes to him, to console him and remind him of himself and the actual path to happiness.
The piece is broken down into 5 books, with varying chapters per part, and is a mix of prose and poetry.  The first part basically addresses the author's despair at his false imprisonment and the changes of fortune he has experienced.  In book 2, Philosophy chastises Boethius for cursing fortune since as she points out, everything he had before this was the result of fortune.  He cannot curse her for her reversal given that he was more than happy to accept her gifts.  This part as well as the first half of the third book involve Philosophy taking down the things people pursue in hopes of happiness even though they bring only false happiness.  Power brings its own obligations, and people that pursue money find themselves needing more and more to protect what they have.
The next half of the text deals more with God and religion, and as a result, the arguments didn't speak to me as much.  The rest of Book 3 argues that true happiness comes only from God, while the fourth book examine the idea of wickedness and why it is that bad things happen to good people and vice versa.  The argument is that the wicked suffer by their wickedness and inability to attain good, but I can't say that argument had me entirely convinced - certainly it may be true, but it's still nice to see some come-uppance.  Also, I would argue that there are people who are evil or wicked and don't know it.  Philosophy also states that wickedness made people less than human.  Finally, the fifth book addresses the idea of free will vs foreknowledge.  The character Boethius has a hard time believing that any actions can be the result of free choice if God already knows everything that will happen and therefore the events must happen.  Personally, this concept doesn't bother me because if I personally don't know the future I will make my choices freely even if someone else has already foreseen them.  Philosophy's final argument for free will is that human perception is different from God's, and that God being eternal, is in all times at once - basically, the future is his present as is the present, so therefore he knows everything because he sees it as it is happening even if it hasn't happened yet.  I know this was written 14 centuries before Slaughterhouse-Five but that concept totally made me think of Tralfamadore.
One reason I was pleasantly surprised by this was due to all the references to Greek and Roman philosophy and mythology.  Only knowing beforehand that it was a Christian text, I thought I could easily be bored with this, but given the time it was written, this was when the ancient texts still were very much a part of the thoughts and culture of the time, and hadn't already been lost or avoided as pagan and inappropriate for a Christian audience.  I am always nervous about philosophy, but I actually enjoyed this - it was broken down into small, easily digestible chunks, and the argument was easy to follow.  It's still philosophy so I doubt I'll be pressing this into people's hands, but for anyone interested in expanding their horizons and braving philosophical texts, this is certainly not a bad starting point.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for reviewing this classic book! I remember reading Confederacy of Dunces years ago and I remember the main character kept mentioning The Consultation of Philosophy. Now, after reading your great review I wanna read it.
Great blog, I will try to drop by more often!!

Jen K said...

Thank you so much for the visit and the kind comment! I look forward to seeing what you select for this year's European Reading Challenge.

Joy Weese Moll (@joyweesemoll) said...

Hopping over from the Nonfiction Reading Challenge.

This looks like a terrific reading experience from such an old text -- thanks for sharing it with us!

Jen K said...

I was definitely pleasantly surprised. That's one nice thing about taking classes again, having to read things I normally wouldn't. At least sometimes.