Boethius And The False Consolation Of Philosophy

CH602 – Medieval Church & Reformation

Dr. R. Scott Clark

04 / 03 / 09


My project in this paper is to examine Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to determine what Boethius was attempting to communicate to his audience about Philosophy itself.  The single most perplexing issue to arise in Boethian studies since at least the early medieval period has been the question of why Boethius, a Christian who had written several theological treatises defending orthodox Christian doctrine, chose in his final days to console himself not with Christian revelation, but with Neo-Platonic philosophy.  Many supposed that Boethius was not really a Christian and that the author of the Consolation could not have been the same man who wrote the theological treatises.  More recent scholarship has dispelled this notion.  Thus the question remains the same, but the issue now becomes an attempt at reconciliation between the catholic Christian Boethius of the treatises and the Neo-Platonist Boethius of the Consolation.

Several theories emerge as likely contenders.  The first two are similar, but with important differences of nuance.  The third is a radically different and relatively new take on the issue.  First, then, is the simplest answer, put forward by several history of philosophy texts[1] as well as the introduction to the Loeb edition of the Consolation.[2] According to this theory, Boethius was an Aristotelian who held to a rather strict division of the disciplines, and so when writing a work of philosophy he was writing philosophy and not theology.  Implied in this theory is that no further explanation is needed.  The second theory is proposed by C. S. Lewis.[3] Lewis echoes the first theory but goes on to add a further reason for Boethius’ choice of philosophy over theology as his comforter, namely that it was the Neo-Platonic philosophy of the Romans that separated Boethius from (and, no doubt in his eyes, elevated him above) his Barbarian captors, who were all Arian Christians.  Had Boethius chosen to write a work in which he was forced to point out Christianity’s manifold disagreements with this great Greek and Roman tradition that he loved so much, says Lewis, he would have been robbed of half his comfort.

The third theory diverges significantly from these first two.  The first two theories share the common feature of taking for granted that the Consolation is meant to do what it sets out to do, namely to console the despairing character of Boethius by satisfactorily answering his questions.  But according to John Marenbon, lecturer on the history of philosophy at Cambridge, Lady Philosophy does not accomplish this goal, at least not fully.[4] Marenbon argues that Philosophy’s overall case is really only half convincing (which is why she often supplements her arguments with rhetorically powerful poetry).   More importantly, says Marenbon, Philosophy’s attempt in the last book of the Consolation to solve the problem of divine foreknowledge and human freedom ends up in contradiction.  For while she succeeds in showing that God’s foreknowledge need not cause contingent events, she turns around in her closing remarks at the very end of the book and declares (according to Marenbon) that God does indeed cause all events, thus undermining her entire argument from the previous sections.  Marenbon suggests that this is no accident, but rather intentional on the part of Boethius, because the Consolation is written in the style of Menippean Satire, a genre of literature that purposefully satirizes its main character.  Boethius, then, is subtly pointing out the shortcomings of philosophy to answer questions of theology.

My thesis is that Marenbon’s interpretation of the Consolation is correct.  My plan is first to briefly summarize the relevant passages from the Consolation itself, then to explain and defend Marenbon’s thesis in light of that evidence, considering and responding to possible objections.  I should note here that there have been two other variations on the three interpretations of the Consolation mentioned above, a “Hellenist” interpretation which says that Boethius was attempting to construct a completely rationalist theology apart from any divine revelation (anticipating Thomas’s division between faith and reason), and a “Christianizing” interpretation which overemphasizes the Christian elements of dialog to make Lady Philosophy herself into an angel from God, rather than a personification of human reason.[5] I will not deal directly with the Hellenist interpretation, as it is subsumed under the general category to which C. S. Lewis’s interpretation belongs, and so in looking at Lewis’s I will be indirectly dealing with the Hellenist’s as well.  The Christianizing interpretation I will deal with in the third section of my paper as a possible objection to Marenbon’s theory.

The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation begins with the character of Boethius wallowing in self-pity over the loss of his high status and possessions after his imprisonment due to suspected treason.  Philosophy appears to him as a woman, at once young and old.  She tells Boethius that he is sick and that she will have to cure him, first with easier and eventually bitterer medicine.  She begins by showing him that he has suffered no true loss at all, for what he has lost are merely transitory goods that could never have secured him true happiness anyway.  They are of no eternal value and should only be sought in moderation.[6] What these transitory goods point to, however, is the true aim of all humanity; happiness, which is the good.[7] Later Philosophy will demonstrate that the good is God, and so therefore is happiness.[8] Thus what all men really seek is God, and that is where true happiness lies.  Such happiness cannot at all be affected by the changes of fortune, and so Boethius’s own run in with ill fortune cannot truly affect his happiness.

In the closing sections of Book III, Philosophy argues for a kind of divine Providence.  God is entirely sufficient and so governs the whole cosmos through himself, which means he governs it by the good.  And because all things desire the good by nature, God’s providence is not coercive.  But this leads, in Book IV, to an obvious question:  If the cosmos is governed by the good and all things seek the good, why are some men wicked, and moreover, why do the wicked so often seem to prosper while the good (like Boethius) suffer?  Philosophy’s answers are quite intriguing.  First she argues that wicked men are actually weaker than good men, since all men seek the good and therefore wicked men fail to achieve that which they seek after, while good men succeed.  She then argues that wicked men are not happy, since she has already shown that happiness is the good and wicked men fail to acquire the good, and so fail to acquire happiness.  Finally, she shows that wicked men do in fact receive punishment in this life by achieving the wickedness that they set out to do.  In other words, because God allows the wicked acts of wicked men to come to fruition, they are made even more wicked, which is a punishment in itself.  And because good men do good, they become even more virtuous and more happy, which is its own reward.  Indeed, if happiness is the final good that all men seek, what other reward could there be?

But Boethius does not find this line of reasoning convincing.  He still finds intuitively that there is some good in the transitory blessings of fate, and some evil in their loss.  More importantly, there seems to be some evil in the fact that good men can be oppressed by wicked men, and by implication, some evil in the fact that the actions of evil men are allowed to come to fruition.  And so, for the remainder of Book IV, Philosophy takes a completely different track in arguing for divine providence.  She distinguishes between “providence” and “fate”, where providence is a simple unity in God’s mind and fate is the manifold outworking of providence in the cosmos.  Philosophy uses this distinction to explain that providence is beyond the ability of human beings to grasp, essentially saying that there is an ultimate plan behind everything even if we can’t see what it is.  But she also makes several attempts at explanations for why bad things happen to good people.  In some cases, for example, bad things happen to good people to test their patience and virtue, or to strengthen them.  Conversely, the wicked are sometimes allowed to prosper in order to restrain them from even greater wickedness (since, for example, a wicked man who is in want will steal), or to give them the ability to punish other wicked men, or even to bring them to ultimate ruin.

Finally, in Book V, Philosophy must face a new problem, introduced by her defense of providence at the end of Book IV.  If the outworking of fate in history is a direct result of providence, then it would seem that all things are determined.  How then can human acts be free?  Philosophy responds that human acts are the result of the rational powers of the will and nothing else, so that they are not within the causal chain of providence in the same way that other events (which today we might call “natural” events) are.  God, then, foresees how his creatures will freely will and arranges providence accordingly.  But this leads to an equally serious problem that will take the rest of the Book V to answer.  If God knows what will happen in the future, then it must happen necessarily, and if all things are in this sense necessary, how can there be any contingency?  Again, how can any human act be free?   Philosophy’s response to this problem is ingenious; a fact that sometimes escapes us today because we’re so used to hearing it.  It’s not that Boethius (the author) is saying something totally unique.  Like everything else in the Consolation he is drawing from his philosophical heritage, but the way in which he combines elements to respond to this specific problem is quite brilliant.  God is eternal.  And, says Philosophy, eternity is not merely the endless succession of moments in time, but “the whole, simultaneous, and perfect possession of boundless life.”[9] God, then, is not “in time” as we are, experiencing a succession of moments.  He experiences all of time simultaneously.  All time is present to him, strictly speaking there is no past or future.  Philosophy asks Boethius to imagine watching a chariot race and asks whether the fact of his watching it in the present makes the acts of the charioteers any less contingent.  Of course it does not.  Likewise, God foresees the future in the same way that we see the present (in fact it would not even be correct to speak of foreknowledge with respect to God).  And just as our present knowledge of events does not make them necessary, nor does God’s eternal knowledge of events bind any necessity to them.

The Failure of Philosophy?

For the sake of space I have painted the picture of the Consolation in very broad strokes.  Now that the background is set, I will dive deeper into specific sections to defend Marenbon’s interpretation.  According to Marenbon, the various arguments that Philosophy makes “do not provide a coherent and full answer to Boethius’s questions.”[10] I will focus on the two main pieces of evidence that Marenbon gives to support this claim.  First, at the end of Book III, after describing what true happiness is and arguing that it is identical with the good and with God, Philosophy offers no explanation of how Boethius can actually enjoy this good.  How is the individual man, Boethius, supposed to relate to God?  No answer is given.  Marenbon finds this to be a huge gap.  Philosophy’s mission is, after all, to console Boethius.  But to hold out this idea of true happiness in front of Boethius without explaining how he can attain it seems almost cruel.  Second, at the very end of the Consolation, just after Philosophy’s masterful response to the problem of foreknowledge, she says that the way in which God foreknows the future is “from his own simplicity.”[11] This is meant to resolve another problem that Boethius had brought up at the beginning of Book V, namely that it would be unworthy for God to be dependent upon anything outside of himself.  If, however, God foreknows the future through himself, as it were, this would no longer be a problem.  But Marenbon thinks that this single admission undoes the entirety of the previous argument, for “how does God know all things through himself unless he sees himself as their cause?”[12]

Marenbon concludes that there are four possible explanations for these major problems:  (1) they are the result of Boethius’s own ineptitude, (2) they are a common feature of the genre of consolatory works, (3) they are only apparent problems, or (4) they are intentional.  Marenbon finds the first three of these options to be highly implausible, and argues that (4) is the best explanation.  This is where he believes an understanding of the genre of Menippean Satire and how the Consolation relates to that genre will make sense of these problems.

Menippean Satire is a genre of literature in which sections of prose are alternated with sections of poetry, as we find in the Consolation.  These satires were “short works, sometimes in dialogue, often aimed at ridiculing pretension, especially pretensions to wisdom, containing short snatches of usually borrowed verse.”[13] Although Marenbon admits that the Consolation is closer to a later, modified version of Menippean Satire (which is most notable for the fact that the verses of poetry are original rather than borrowed and the tone is slightly more serious) this difference is not great enough to affect his interpretation.  The work is still meant to show, not the utter failure of Philosophy, but rather her limitations.  She does at many points provide powerful arguments that go a long way to accomplishing her goal.  But Marenbon notes that Philosophy herself recognizes her shortcomings, clearly stating that she is no goddess and that she is bound by the limits of human reasoning.  Moreover, “one of the uses Philosophy has for poetry is as a way of adumbrating truths that she cannot capture through straightforward philosophical reasoning.”[14] And of course, Marenbon maintains that the one thing Philosophy cannot of her own abilities give to Boethius is a way for him to attain the highest good that she has showed him, noting that “Boethius might, like Augustine before him, have written eloquently and movingly about this gap.  Rather, he leaves the structure of his dialogue to make the point silently.”[15]


The first thing that needs to be addressed is whether or not the first interpretation proposed in the introduction is applicable.  Is Boethius simply a good Aristotelian who doesn’t mix his disciplines?  This might be an adequate explanation if the Consolation was a straightforward didactic treatise, but it is not.  The special genre, with its interwoven and often difficult to interpret verses, makes it much more complicated, even at face value.  Moreover, this suggestion would imply that the philosophical incoherencies pointed out by Marenbon are in fact a result of the ineptitude of the author.  But given what we know about Boethius’s training and intellect, this seems an unlikely possibility.

Next I will address the “Christianizing” objection.  Put simply, this position sees Philosophy as an angelic figure sent by God to draw Boethius back to Himself, much like an Old Testament prophet.[16] But Philosophy cannot be viewed as a Christian character.  She presents herself as the representative of Boethius’s studies, and he was a trained philosopher, not a clergyman.  Moreover, she often refers to “my” Socrates, Aristotle, etc.  But she never once claims any famous Christian theologian as one of her own.  In addition, her poem in Book III.9, taken largely from Plato’s Timaeus, contains a number of doctrines that would be contrary to orthodox Christian teaching (such as the eternality of matter), and she obviously recites the poem approvingly.

C. S. Lewis’s position provides a slightly greater challenge to Marenbon’s interpretation.  Lewis notes that Boethius compliments Philosophy for using “inborn and domestical proofs” rather than “reasons fetched from without.”[17] Lewis interprets this to mean that he is congratulating her on reaching otherwise Christian truths using only philosophical reasoning.  In response to this it seems that Lewis is probably right, but that need not mean that the dialogue as a whole is intended by Boethius the author to show that philosophy can adequately reach the conclusions of Christian theology.  Also, as noted above, there is at least one place in which Philosophy does not reach Christian conclusions (the poem in III.9).

Second is Lewis’s point that if Boethius were to point out the flaws of his Greek and Roman philosophical heritage he would be robbed of half his consolation.[18] Here it can simply be said that Lewis is speculating and that there is no sure objective way to determine whether his suggestion is true or not.  Moreover, this suggestion is actually not helpful in answering the question of why Boethius did not attempt to make his Philosophy closer to Christian orthodoxy.   This particular suggestion is just as plausible as the suggestion that Boethius, in an attempt to distance himself from his Arian Christian oppressors, abandoned his Christianity altogether in favor of Neo-Platonism.  Neither of these seems to account for all the evidence that has been considered thus far.

Finally, Lewis notes that there is no return to the character of Boethius and his situation at the end of the Consolation.[19] Lewis sees this as intentional, which surely it is.  But he interprets it to mean that we the readers are meant to feel as if there is no need to return to Boethius, because Philosophy has so adequately answered his questions that no more needs to be said.  But Marenbon has persuasively called this assumption into question.  Philosophy has not presented an air-tight case with no problems of coherency, and she may have even contradicted herself.  Moreover, Lewis’s interpretation of this literary silence ignores the genre of the Consolation.  Lewis does mention briefly that it is in the genre of Menippean Satire, but he only mentions the alternating of prose and verse, and never mentions the satirical element.  As Marenbon shows, given the centrality of satire to this genre, Boethius’s silence is best interpreted as showing the inadequacy of Philosophy, rather than her accomplishments.


Marenbon points out two things that must be understood in order to properly interpret the Consolation:  the character of Boethius is a Christian; the character of Philosophy is not.  From this it becomes apparent that no simplistic reduction of the Consolation into either a wholly theological or wholly philosophical work will do.  The character of Philosophy is not an angel sent by God, and Boethius is not a Neo-Platonist whose Christianity was only a shallow guise put on in times of prosperity.  Rather, the Consolation is a work that satirizes its own subject in a very subtle way.  Philosophy is shown to have pretensions to Wisdom that she ultimately cannot make good on; she is inadequate.  And yet she is not completely useless.  Like the transitory goods of fortune that she discusses in Book II, she is both useful and an appropriate object of desire, so long as she is used in moderation.  And also like those goods, she is only a pointer to the good, who is a God of mystery and wonder that limited human reason can never fully penetrate or comprehend.  Philosophy does succeed in showing us that, at least.

[1] See, for example, Armand A. Maurer, Medieval Philosophy (New York: Random House, 1962)

[2] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973)

[3] C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964)

[4] John Marenbon, Boethius (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003)

[5] Ibid., 156.

[6] Boethius, Consolation, p. 203.

[7] Ibid., 233.

[8] Ibid., 277.

[9] Ibid., 423.

[10] Marenbon, Boethius, p. 158.

[11] Boethius, Consolation, p. 433.

[12] Marenbon, Boethius, p. 145.

[13] Ibid., 160.

[14] Ibid., 162.

[15] Ibid., 163.

[16] Marenbon cites F. Klinger as representative of this school of interpretation.

[17] Lewis, Discarded, p. 78.

[18] Ibid., 79.

[19] Ibid., 90.

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1 Comment

Filed under Church History, Historical Theology, Medieval Thought, Philosophy

One response to “Boethius And The False Consolation Of Philosophy

  1. Pingback: The Westminster Papers « the PUBLIC HOUSE

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