Notes and Questions for Boethius (475-525), The Consolation of Philosophy (524)

Robert Harris
January 11, 1999


The Consolation was written while Boethius was in prison awaiting execution. The work is cast in the form of a dialog with Philosophy, who explains to him the true nature of happiness, why the wicked appear to prosper while the good suffer, and many other difficulties. By the end, Boethius sees clearly the goodness and sovereignty of God. (Section numbers follow those in Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, New York: Penguin, 1969.)

Things to Think About as You Read

1. Boethius constructs a harmony between classical and Christian ideas about God and human nature, showing in part the unity of truth and philosophy (classical and Christian wisdom being so similar) and in part the support that classical philosophers provide for Christian truth.

2. Similarly, Boethius carefully bases his argument on reason rather than Christian revelation, to show first how reasonable a base Christianity ultimately rests upon and second to show that there are rational, intellectually satisfying answers to the sufferings of the human condition. (Perhaps this work could be considered as "pre-evangelism" for intellectuals.)

3. Boethius relies substantially on Platonic and Neoplatonic thought. If you are familiar with the ideas of Plato, look for echoes here.

Notes and Questions

Book I

Poem 1 through Prose 5: Boethius’ complaint to Philosophy. He tells her about his unhappiness.

Poem 1. The poem reflects Boethius’ complaint: a hopeless, self-absorbed grief, because Fortune has turned against him.

Prose 1. Boethius says that entertainment is not a medicine for sorrow. Is he right or wrong? Note also the startling reversal from our typical mindset, influenced by romantic-era thinking in his comment that opposes "the fruitful harvest of Reason" to "the barren thorns of the Passions." Comment?

Prose 3. Note that Philosophy says that opposition to and even hatred of wisdom and the truth are normal. What reason does she give for this?

Prose 4. Boethius here raises one of the principal questions of the Consolation, and a major question in Christian apologetics: "If there is a God, why is there evil? And if there is no God, how can there be good?" Note that Boethius is constructing his argument by quoting classical philosophers rather than Biblical texts. For example, he quotes Epicurus and Pythagoras. The question is, Why do the wicked prosper while the virtuous suffer?

Prose 4. Boethius says (in another translation) that "most people . . . think that only things which turn out happily are good." Can you think of some things in your own life that have turned out "unhappily" that were good?

Prose 5. Philosophy tells Boethius that in his true country "one is its lord and one its king." If you interpret this on more than one level, who might this king be in each case?

Prose 6. This is the diagnosis following the complaint in the sections above. Philosophy tells Boethius why he is confused and unhappy. What reasons for his confusion and unhappiness does she give?

Book II

Prose 1-2. Characterize Philosophy's description of Fortune and the expectations men should have toward her.

Poem 2. Here Boethius raises the issue of man's boundless, disordered desire. This is another foundational idea in the Christian analysis of human nature.

Prose 3, Poem 3. Philosophy tells Boethius that "this sorrow will also pass." Here is an old story, told many times, now recounted by Abraham Lincoln: "It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: 'And this, too, shall pass away.' How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! How consoling in the depths of affliction."

Prose 4. Philosophy refers to "this rather silly notion of happiness based on good fortune." How would you define happiness? Compare the idea of being rooted in oneself from Matthew 13:20-21: "As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away" (RSV).

Prose 7. What are Philosophy's main arguments against the value of seeking fame?

Prose 8. Philosophy tells Boethius that misfortune is actually better than good fortune. Why?

Book III

Prose 2. How does Philosophy explain that man's desire for the true good propels him into the pursuit of false goods?

List the false goods sought by men and discussed in each of the following sections:

Prose 9. Note that, in true Socratic form, Philosophy establishes the criteria for true and perfect happiness before announcing a candidate source of it.

Prose 10. What is the true source of happiness?

Prose 11. Note that the argument here is: All seek preservation, which means that all seek unity, which means that all seek the good, which means that all seek God--even though they may not know it, but get detoured in their ignorance.

Book IV

Book IV is Boethius' treatment of the "problem of pain": why is there evil? His argument is very interesting, for he asserts that the good always win and the evil always lose.

Prose 2. Why does Philosophy say that "good men have power but evil men are impotent"?

Prose 3, Poem 3. What is the punishment that afflicts the evil?

Prose 4. Philosophy argues that for the evil to be successful makes them more unhappy than if they failed at their goals. Why?

Prose 6.. How does Philosophy explain the apparent prosperity of the wicked?

Prose 7. Philosophy eventually tells Boethius, in effect, "Stop being a wimp; life is supposed to be hard, for your own good."

Think back on Book IV. How satisfying is Boethius' explanation of the problem of evil?

Book V

Prose 1. Does chance exist?

Prose 3-Prose 6. Boethius here raises another common and important issue in theology, which is the question of free will, predestination, and the omniscience (include foreknowledge) of God. How does Philosophy settle the conflict between free will and God's foreknowledge?

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Robert Harris is a writer and educator with more than 25 years of teaching experience at the college and university level. RHarris at virtualsalt.com