The Consolation of Philosophy

Guide: Louis Markos

Transcript

Welcome to Hesperides Books, where today we’re going to be talking about one of the most influential works of the medieval period, The Consolation of Philosophy. Written in the 6th Century by Boethius, a Roman politician, while languishing in jail before his eventual execution, not only has it been influential, but it remains vital today as a work of literature and as a work of philosophy. We’re remarkably fortunate to have with us Professor Louis Markos of Houston Christian University as our guide to the book. An award-winning lecturer, he has recorded for the Great Courses series and is dedicated to the idea of the professor as a public educator. Accordingly, he has written many popular and illuminating books, often focused on exploring the wisdom that could be found in pre-Christian and non-Christian texts, these include From Plato to Christ, From Achilles to Christ and The Myth Made Fact. In addition, he has written works of apologetics, studies on Romantic poets and poetry and guides to C.S Lewis and J.R.R Tolkien 
Welcome Lou, thank you very much for agreeing to guide us through The Consolation of Philosophy. Lou, a lot of your work is about why Christians should read pagan classics, why they should even read pagan myths. Broadly, why do you think it’s important for Christians to engage with this kind of literature?

Hey, thanks for having me on Eliot. This is really my passion! It’s what’s called bringing Athens in Jerusalem together, taking and bringing together our Greco-Roman pre-Christian Heritage and our Judeo-Christian heritage. Now, a lot of Christians, especially Evangelicals, which is where I hail from, are a little bit suspicious. How can we learn anything from pre-Christian pagans, they’re unregenerate? How can we learn? Won’t they deceive us?

To understand why we can learn from the pagan classics—and I don’t use ‘pagan’ in a negative sense, it’s just the pre-Christian Greeks and Romans—the reason we can learn from them is because of a very important theological distinction between general revelation and special revelation. 

Special revelation is the way God speaks directly to people, and he does that through the prophets in the Old Testament, in the New Testament, and supremely through Christ. But, Eliot, that is not the only way God speaks. That’s only the direct special revelation that we focus on, but God also speaks to all people generally through creation. Through nature as it says in Romans chapter one. Through our conscience as it says in Romans Chapter two. But God also speaks through our reason, through our imagination, and to quote C.S Lewis ‘through the good dreams of the pagans’. A lot of times the pre-Christians didn’t have the answers because they lacked the special revelation of the Bible and of Christ, but they often ask the right questions. We were all made in God’s image, and although we’re fallen and depraved, we still retain the imago Dei, the image of God, and so we can learn real truths from reading these great pagan classics. Of course, but we still want to measure things ultimately against the special revelation of Christ in the Bible. So that, in a nutshell, is why we can read and learn from the Pagan classics 

Now Boethius is something of a problem case in the sense that he is a Christian, he writes theological tracts that show he’s an orthodox Christian, he has been a classic for many Christians, and yet his most famous book The Consolation of Philosophy doesn’t include anything about Christ. In what sense should we see this as a Christian classic, if indeed we should?

It is fascinating, and we need to say that Boethius was a Christian and almost surely died a martyr. He was serving a man named Theodoric, who was the leader of the Ostrogoths, and this man was almost surely an Aryan. Those were the people that denied the deity of Christ, and so of course they weren’t believing Christians. At first Theoderic seemed to like Boethius, even seemed to help him to become a Consul of Rome (this is late Rome now) but he fell foul of Theoderic, probably because he wasn’t orthodox Christian, and eventually he was martyred. Now he did write Christian reflections, he wrote books about logic and music that influenced education, but while he was in prison he decided to write a book called The Consolation of Philosophy. What he meant by that is: what consolation can we take from philosophy? What can we learn from it that can help us to weather the storms of life? And he’s going through a pretty big storm of life in prison, and again eventually he was martyred.

Now, what he did is odd. It seems odd to us, but it wasn’t necessarily odd back then. He decided when he wrote this book to see what truth he could gain from the best of general revelation, and when it comes to philosophy that means Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Cicero and some of the Stoics and Epicureans, particularly the famous Stoic, Marcus Aurelius. There was also a Stoic named Seneca, another named Epicurus and just the Neoplatonists in general. He wanted to see how much we can learn from that general revelation. The closest I can give to it is: I myself write a lot of Christian books, but sometimes I’ll write a book for a more general audience. Sometimes in those books I might not quote the scriptures, because I figure my audience may not believe in it, but that doesn’t mean I’m not guided by other truths that are compatible with Christianity and that point towards Christianity. So if I’m speaking at a secular museum, let’s say secular humanist museum, I can still teach a lot of real truths without necessarily quoting the Bible as the authoritative inerrant word of God. So Boethius, he’s not the only person that does it, what he showed us is that there’s a lot we can learn from not just Plato and Aristotle, but we can take some of the myths some from let’s say Homer or Hesiod or Ovid, and if we know from the special revelation the ultimate truth, we can identify in those myths bits and pieces of truth that have a sort of spiritual significance that the Christian can learn from.

Just a quick look, I don’t know if you’ve done this, but if you want to teach your child, it may be your son, you want to teach him balance and moderation, things that certainly fit in with Christ’s teaching, you might tell them the famous story of Daedalus and Icarus. Most people know that story. Daedalus built wings so that he and his son could escape from the labyrinth where they’ve been imprisoned, and when he put the wings on his son he told him, ‘son don’t fly too low or the weight of the water will make the feathers wet and drag you down, but don’t fly too close to the sun or the sun will melt the wax, the feathers will fall out and you’ll die. Take a middle course.’ But of course, the son is young, he starts thinking he’s a bird, he flies too low, he flies too high, the wax melts and he falls to his death. I wrote a book called The Myth Made Fact where I show how lots of these ancient myths, some of them very strange and even terrifying, have lessons that can strengthen in a sort of devotional way a Christian reader, and especially a Christian reader reading to their children and trying to teach them Christian lessons. 

So we will talk about, no doubt, Boethius doing that very explicitly later on. If I could just for a moment zoom in on the historical period into which Boethius was born. So he’s born in Rome, but this is a Rome under the control of the Goths, or the Ostrogoths, and Theoderic is the king, as you said, for most of his life. What was it like for Boethius growing up in this environment?

It was very strange. Just to get a ballpark, Saint Augustine is around 400, Boethius is around 500. They don’t quite overlap, but they’re within a hundred years of each other. Again, Rome was sacked in 410, and then finally in 453—it’s finished, but it doesn’t disappear. The barbarians from the North, the Franks and whatnot, at this point, like you said the Goths and the Ostrogoths, they maintain much of the Roman structure of government, with the Senate and things like that. But because Rome has lost its integrity, it’s not so easy to keep the various barbarians off, so there’s a lot of people competing for power. Many people will know that eventually out of that we get what’s called the Holy Roman Empire. At this point, the Church is still a little bit too weak to actually bring law and order to the Empire. They can bring law and order to the individual souls of their parishioners, but it’s going to take a while—really, not till 800 when you’ve got a Charlemagne, the First Holy Roman Emperor and a strong enough Church to bring order and peace—so now there are the remains the leftover Roman order and the Roman peace. But things are very precarious. 

Many people will know that in 325 A.D Constantine called for the Nicene Council, an ecumenical Council at Nicaea. There in 325, partly helped by Athanasius a great theologian, they did declare Christian Orthodoxy, that Jesus was fully man and fully God—not what the Arians said, that he was a heightened man, the highest of all men, but still not equal to God. Well a lot of people don’t realize that even though theologically the Aryans were defeated in 325, they held on for several more hundred years. Part of the reason for that was many of the barbarian soldiers, sort of warrior people, clung to Arianism. and if you think about it Arianism is a great religion for soldiers. God is God, that’s it. We don’t need all this fine theology and things like that. It’s just simple and straightforward, and sort of authoritarian. Even Athanasius himself had to run, he was sent to exile again and again and again. It’s kind of hard to believe, but a hundred and fifty years after Nicaea we still have leftovers of Arianism.

But again, on certain matters the Christians and Arians can work together. Boethius was an intellectual, an expert in Latin, an expert in logic and music, in what we call classical Christian education today. Boethius, with all of his skills, was able to work his way up in the court of Theodoric. Again, oddly, even though the Roman Empire as we know it is gone, Boethius was able to become a Consul—there were these two presidents, sort of, that were able to call the shots, not complete power but able to do things. It’s a time of instability where you can go up and go down, and it’s interesting that it’s Boethius who popularized the image of Lady Fortune or Dame Fortune who turns her wheel of fortune, and maybe Boethius identified with that because he himself sort of went up—great scholar, all of this stuff—and then fell foul of the Arian King Theodoric. So it’s a time in the shadow of Rome, if you will.

And he’s born into an elite family, which enables him to get ahead and to get an education in the Classics. At the time he is growing up Plato’s Academy is still open, he probably doesn’t go there, but he certainly reads in Greek. Could we talk about some of the influences on his thought at that time?

People that have read the Confessions will know that Augustine went through a period when he was a Neoplatonist. There was a very influential writer named Porphyry, there was another one named Plotinus, and Boethius would have studied people like Plotinus and Porphyry, would have studied Platonism as filtered through the Neoplatonists, and one of the things he would have studied, one of the things that I find so helpful, is the concept I like to call ‘ascending the rising path’. There is this sense of spiritual growth and sometimes these Neoplatonists can almost make Christians look bad, right? I mean our salvation is by faith in Christ, it’s done, but we’re still meant to grow and be sanctified and to rise up to be more like Christ, and some of these Neoplatonists, although they didn’t know Christ, understood the importance the desire to move away from what Christians would call the flesh and move more towards spiritual truths. Now the problem with the Neoplatonists, even more so than Plato, the problem with the Neoplatonists is that they had a dualistic view of soul and body, where the soul was good and the body was bad, and the Soul was struggling eventually to come free of the body. Now the ironic thing is that there are many Christians, particularly in America, who without realizing have bought into what really is a heresy. This idea that soul is good and body is bad. In fact, soul and body are both good, created in God’s image, but both fallen.

At the same time, some of the things he would have learned from these followers of Plato and Aristotle, was how to live a virtuous life, how to avoid excess, how not to be controlled by lust and greed and how to moderate your desires. He would have been also influenced by the Stoics, again people like Epicurus, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius are the most famous Stoics. We still use that word stoic, and I’ve often said that if it could be proven that Christ didn’t rise from the dead, then Christianity would be defunct and what would you do? I think I’d become a Stoic. I think it’s the most manly option if God has not in fact spoken and died and risen again. So I think he would have gotten a lot of good influences from the best of Greco-Roman thought.

These philosophers were not just teaching abstract philosophy, they were often part of schools, philosophical schools, where they were trying to live these things out and learn to control their temper and control their lust. Many people have heard there was a group called the Epicureans, and today we think the Epicureans were hedonists. They believed the most important thing was pleasure, but in our modern day we seem to think the Epicureans were running around getting drunk and sleeping around all the time. But the greatest of the epicureans said, well yes the goal of life is pleasure, but if you over indulge yourself with fornication and drinking and stuff like that, all you’re going to do is hurt your body and then you’re going to be miserable. A lot of these Epicureans, even though they put pleasure first, often like the Stoics try to live more moderate lives. And that would have been some of the things that he studied, along with Christianity.

After his education, or his education is obviously ongoing, throughout his life, and you see that in the Consolation he is still trying to live up to the ideal of Philosophy, he becomes a kind of politician-cum-philosopher in the mode of Cicero. All the time he’s becoming a politician, he’s rising to Consul, to something like prime minister under the king Theodoric, he’s got these writing projects. Could you tell us about some of those and what he’s hoping to achieve?

The ones that we know about, he wrote about music, and the Influence of music, and that’s very Platonic because in Plato’s Republic he spends a great deal of time, actually Aristotle a little bit too, but especially Plato spends a lot of time talking about the good and bad influence of music. And that’s something we probably need to learn from today. He wrote about that the idea of rhythm and balance. You know a classical education then, and today it’s been revived, follows what’s called the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium means grammar, logic and rhetoric, and the quadrivium is mathematics, geometry, astronomy and music. If you think about it, the trivium all has to do with letters, with words, the way we understand words, the way we put them together, the way we use them to persuade, things like that; whereas the quadrivium has to do with the numbers. Whether it’s the numbers in math, or it’s the numbers spread out in space that gives us astronomy, whether it’s numbers in time, which is in a sense what music is, and Boethius is one who really understood not only the importance of logic and words, but he understood, as well, the power of numbers. What we have of him, he’s writing about those things, and it seems to have had a lot of influence on the educators of his day.

And aside from his original work, he’s also translating Greek texts into Latin.

He translated some of Aristotle, I believe.

And he wants to translate all of Aristotle, and as much as Plato as he can, into Latin. He never completes that project, but his translations and commentaries become enormously influential in the medieval period.

You know it’s kind of interesting because later on his Consolation of Philosophy, that we’ll talk about in a moment, was later translated into English by Alfred the Great, by Chaucer, and I believe some say even by Elizabeth I. 

But you’re right. We probably should have said that by the time we get to Augustine, like I said that’s around 400, Augustine actually knows very little Greek and sort of scorns it. The very early Church Fathers, before Tertullian, wrote in Greek. After Tertullian they wrote Latin, and by the time we get to Boethius Greek is quickly becoming a lost language. It would be lost for almost a thousand years. It would be kept, of course, over in Byzantium, Constantinople, but that that’s why Boethius tried to do this translation. When the Greek New Testament was lost everybody was reading the Vulgate, which was the Latin translation done by Jerome a hundred years earlier, at the same time as Augustine. That’s why it’s an important thing that Boethius tried to do.

Yes, because he is, along with Augustine and Aristotle, he’s one of the most important figures in medieval philosophy. He shapes his whole course, through his original word and through his translations, but the Consolation has always been the most popular, the most enduringly popular, work by Boethius. We get into the book, and we see that Boethius is one of the main characters, and we find out about his predicament. Can you tell us about how Boethius, the character Boethius, is at the beginning of the book, how does he feel and what is this predicament?

It’s very interesting because he’s given in to despair, and it seems like he’s turned for consolation to Poetry, to the Muses, to entertainment and things like that. It’s obviously not working, and it’s sort of an amazing beginning to Consolation where Lady Philosophy, philosophy allegorised as a beautiful woman appears to him and scolds him for giving way to the siren song of The Muse. That’s not to say poetry is evil, but it becomes frivolous in sight of philosophy, which is the higher pursuit. Especially Plato thought that philosophy was the higher pursuit. It’s funny though that that the Consolation of Philosophy was written in a strange mixture of poetry and prose. He goes back and forth between poetry and prose to show that both of them are important.

I should mention here for those of you are listeners who are fans of Dante’s Divine Comedy, towards the end of Purgatory, Dante is reunited with Beatrice, the woman he loved from afar. And he’s all excited when he sees Beatrice, thinking Beatrice will come up and give him a big hug and kiss and tell him what a good boy you are, but instead Beatrice just lays into him and says, what are you doing? When I died you should have followed my soul to heaven. Not die, but you should have been lifted up to higher things, rather than being drawn down to lower things. And again she scolds him in and out. A lot of people don’t realize that Dante, who was a huge fan of Boethius, that Dante patterns that whole scene of the angry Lady Philosophy, who must make him repent for his giving in to the Siren, and that’s the word that Beatrice uses as well, is actually coming right from Boethius. This is a kind of um a kind of literature that that is not as popular today, that’s allegory. When you take something abstract and you make it concrete in some kind of image. Pilgrim’s Progress is the best example of allegory, where despair is allegorized as a giant who grabs Christian and his friend and throws him in prison in the Dungeon of Despair. That’s kind of what despair feels like, it’s like some terrible giant locking us up, so that’s what Bunyan does. 

But what Boethius is doing here is trying to allegorize the war or conflict between philosophy and poetry as these two ladies. And of course, if you think about it for a moment, he’s kind of getting that from the Bible isn’t he? Because there is Lady Wisdom and Lady Folly, who are competing for Solomon or whoever’s son’s attention. So it is Greco-Roman allegory, but it’s also Biblical, if you read Proverbs carefully.

Could we go into a bit more detail about what precisely is the problem with the Muses of Poetry, with poetry?

It kind of in this sense goes back to Plato, and that is that the muses are dealing with the surface rather than dealing with the truth. Plato famously says that poetry is an imitation of an imitation, Aristotle disagreed on this, but rather than poetry drawing us closer to the truth it actually draws us away. It’s a veiling of a veiling. So these Muses are sort of fickle, and they’re not really taking you to the truth that endures, to the central, deeper truths. Lady philosophy is one who can reveal to him the way things really, are not just reflections but the truths of things. 

Boethius has turned to poetry because he finds himself imprisoned, imprisoned by Theodoric, and he’s fallen from almost the highest rank he could hold. He’s lost his good name, his wealth, his freedom, and he’s bemoaning the fact that bad things happen to good people, like himself. What can philosophy promise him? What kind of consolation does she offer?

They’re not exactly the same, but Dame Fortune ends up being as fickle as the Muses, right? And here’s the problem, Boethius is very foolish when he says: well, I had good fortune and now fortune has abandoned me. Lady Philosophy says this would be like a young man falling in love with this beautiful girl, who he knows has dated five men before him and has made them very happy for one month, and then dropped them cold and left them despairing, and this foolish young man, boy number five, thinks, you know this girl will be different for me, it won’t just last for a month, it will go on forever. If he only understood the true nature of this person, of this fickle person, he wouldn’t be complaining.

You’re happy and you’re praising Dame Fortune, and then when she acts the way she does, it’s in her nature to turn her wheel and take you to the bottom, why are you cursing her out? It’s kind of a weird thing because Lady Philosophy does not like Dame Fortune, but in a weird way she also defends Dame Fortune—maybe because she’s a fellow woman or something like that—but in a way she’s also ironically defending her by saying: why are you putting curses on Fortune? That is her nature, she takes you up and she takes you down. You were happy enough to praise her when she took you up, but when she followed her natural course and took you down, why are you complaining now? You need to tie your star, not to something as fickle as fortune, that goes up and down and up and down, you need to find that which is permanent, which of course is Philosophy. You need to seek after the good life, and not the frivolous life that goes up and down. To me we can learn from that as well.

I just kind of laughed about it, there was a big thing in in America a while back where people are saying: oh, you know this newscaster lady was really pretty, and now she’s not so pretty and now they’re letting her go. I remember thinking to myself, well it kind of depends on the situation. If the only reason she got the job in the first place was because she was prettier than the other ones, then how could she complain that she’s losing the job because there’s others prettier than her now. That wasn’t always the case, but what I’m saying is you know we need to understand that and come to grip with reality as it is, and for lack of a better word Lady Philosophy is giving Boethius a reality check.

So there’s a sense in which he doesn’t need consoling at all. He just needs to see that if he understands things correctly, all is good. 

One thing we need to understand, and it’s in Boethius, it’s also in Cicero, but it’s not going to be fully developed (it’s in Aristotle, too) until we get to the Middle Ages, and C.S Lewis talks about this in the Discarded Image, he talks about Boethius, and that’s a good book to read to learn more about some of the things we’re talking about here. 

But anyway, the medievals, and leading up to that, saw themselves as living in a two-tiered universe, and the dividing line between the two tiers was the moon. Now Solomon says ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’. The medievals would have said there’s nothing new under the moon. Because everything sublunar, everything under the moon, is in constant change. That’s what Plato calls the ‘world of becoming’. Nothing is actually arrived yet, it’s always becoming. Things are dying and being reborn, they’re going in an endless cycle, and in fact one of Dante’s great contributions, and he’s kind of getting it from Boethius, is to say that—okay for the medievals, all of the Spheres, all the planets were in crystal, and they were guided by this intelligence, this sort of spiritual being, this angel-like being, and the Earth doesn’t spin—yet Dante says: well there is an angel that watches over the Earth, but that angel is Dame Fortune. He’s getting it right from Boethius; the Earth is still because it’s ceaselessly changing, but not actually going anywhere at the same time. We need to understand that everything below the Moon is in constant change, we can’t expect uh things to remain the same, everything above the Moon is fixed. They believe that the heavens were perfect, the heavens did spin, but Aristotle said when something spins infinitely fast in a perfect circle, then it will never decay. It will always be perfect because there’s something perfect about the circle. That was so influential, Eliot, that even people like Copernicus and Galileo were still thinking that the cycles were circles. We needed to get, was it Kepler who was the one that finally realized they were an ellipsis, because the image of the circle was so utterly powerful. Even in the early Renaissance that they couldn’t shake it. Anyway, that’s a long digression, but the idea is that Philosophy has to remind him that only in the heavens, only in what in what Plato called the world of Being, up there, are things fixed and perfect. Down here things are ceaselessly changing because that’s the nature of the world in which you live, which is watched over by Dame Fortune.

You mentioned Discarded Image there, something Lewis says which goes against the assumption many people make when they read the book is that he doesn’t believe, Boethius, at the time of writing, that he’s going to be sentenced to death. I wonder what you what you think of that. I find it quite compelling when Lewis argues the case.

I do think so because, you know, there’s always going to be appeals and things like that, and even under the Barbarians Rome is about law and order; they’re usually about justice, tribunals. Everything we’ve learned about trials and things like that goes back to the Romans. I do remember he said that that. I think it is possible that he’s trying to find consolation, but he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, he doesn’t know yet at least. From what I’ve read it sounds like what they did is they put like a rope around your head and they twisted and twisted and twisted till your eyes pop out. I mean it doesn’t sound like a very pleasant way to die. I would agree that that he still doesn’t know what his fate is, he’s just trying to live in that moment and find consolation.

It sounds a horrible martyrdom. I think an interesting thing, on that reading, it makes the very beginning, I think, where he talks about how death won’t come, it will strike you down in the midst of life but won’t strike you down when you’re despairing, it makes death too a part of Fortune’s wheel, rather than just an inevitability he’s writing under.
Well, that’s taken us to look at the nature of true goods. So we’ve talked about Fortune we’ve talked about her fickle nature, what instead should we be looking for if we’re seeking out the good?

We need to—I mean we would say it sounds like a cliché—but we need to use what is given to us for growth. So everything’s going great, let’s be thankful, let’s grow, but let’s not waste the suffering that Boethius is going through. Because this suffering can build character, can build perseverance. So we want to grow and learn—I don’t know if you’re a fan of The Once and Future King by T.H. White, but there’s one place where I think Merlin taught Arthur, when everything falls apart and you’re betrayed and all of this happens, there’s only one thing for it, and he says learn, ‘learn why the world wags and what wags it.’ I think that’s the exact quote that I remember reading when I was a kid. So let’s use this opportunity to grow and to take our eyes off that which is fickle and fix it on that which is permanent, let’s try to understand the nature of the universe, the nature of goodness, the nature of growth, and ultimately we’re going to focus on God. Again, we’re writing in a pre-Christian mode, so it’s more like Aristotle’s unmoved mover. The God that is outside and moves all things, and everything moves in love for God. The theology is still going to be fairly simplistic, but it’s not going to necessarily contradict Christianity. It’s going to be a lesser version of what is to be revealed later, later after Plato and Aristotle.

The idea here is the perfect good and perfect happiness are not merely in God, they literally are God. God literally is the perfect Good and union with God is the way to find perfect happiness.

Right. Remember, the two great books of virtue from Greece are Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Nichomachean Ethics, and in the Nichomachean Ethics he says the ultimate telos, the purposeful end, the goal, the purpose of life, is happiness. This Greek word eudaemon, which is almost more like well-spirited, or you know balanced or whatever, and it’s not happiness in the frivolous sense that we think of it today. It’s happiness as a sort of deep-seated contentment, being at peace with everything.

I mean, I’ll just give you an example of something I think we can learn from the pagans, even at their most erroneous. Pythagoras was one of the first people in the West to believe in reincarnation. Now, of course, reincarnation is completely incompatible with Christianity, but what he says is so interesting. He says that we keep coming back until we reach such a pitch of philosophy, we are so at peace, so at one with things, that we can actually hear ‘the music of the spheres’, that’s the music that the universe sings, but we don’t hear because our ears are so dull. 

But we get to a point where we are so in keeping with that, we hear that music, and then we will be released, and we’ll sort of join the universe. Now again, completely incompatible with Christian, and yet there’s something about that idea of spiritual growth. The Christians of the Middle Ages, particularly Aquinas, but others looking back to Plato, spoke about the ultimate thing as the beatific vision, which means not beautiful, but the blessed vision. For both Plato and Aristotle, the highest life is not the life of action, it’s the life of contemplation—and Dante also says this to, by the way in the Comedy. The highest goal of life is pure contemplation: to contemplate the goodness and truth and beauty that is God, because God is the ultimate good and the measure of all other goods. So that is what we are moving towards. It’s a little bit mystical, but that’s Christianity too, you know? Maybe a little more Greek Orthodox than Protestant, but that is a very old understanding of Christianity. 

And the identification of truth and goodness is absolutely central to Boethius here, and that’s a very Classical idea. That’s in Plato from the early dialogues.

It is. The Good, the True, the Beautiful. Those are the three transcendentals that we are coming and moving towards.

So can we just -explain that further still, can you tell us the relation that the things that people do in fact pursue, like wealth, power, position, fame and pleasure in Boethius stand to God or to the Good? 

Again, he doesn’t use the Bible, but ‘seek ye first the Kingdom of God and all these things will be added unto you’. All these things, as wonderful as they sound, fame and fortune, all that sort of stuff, they’re ultimately fleeting. They ultimately will go up and down with Dame Fortune, they’re part of our sublunar world under the sun, and they don’t bring permanent happiness. Permanent happiness is found ultimately in the contemplation of God, the contemplation of the Good, the True, the Beautiful, or we would say the absolute good.

Sometimes Plato spoke of the Good as the sort of form of the forms. It was the ultimate good. At the beginning of the Divine Comedy, when Dante’s lost in the dark wood and he looks up the mountain, he sees the sun shining. He recognizes it as God’s grace and he wants to go up there, but Virgil tells him we have to take the long way around, down through Inferno, up Purgatory, up Paradise. In some ways Boethius is taking the long way around.

Maybe the best way to say it is, he needs to take his eyes off the things of the world, the things that fade and focus here. This is the best way to put it. Hopefully in the UK they also sing this beautiful hymn:

Turn your eyes upon Jesus 

Look full in his wonderful face 

And the things of Earth will grow strangely dim 

In the light of his glory and grace.

I mean, ultimately, that’s what we’re talking about. Take your eyes off the shadows and fix them on the light, and the more we fix our eyes on the light, the more unappealing the shadows will become. They’ll be dark, we won’t even care about them.

We promised earlier that we would talk about his employing Classical myth to explain his philosophical point. Could you tell us about that in Boethius?

Oh yeah. There are two myths, and I mean they go back to Homer, but he’s probably getting them from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. As Lewis says there were three books that were the bridge from the Classical world, part of which was lost, to the Latin Catholic world in the Middle Ages. Those were Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Ovid’s Metamorphoses and Virgil’s Aeneid. Anyway, he tells two stories. One is the story of Orpheus and Eurydice, and the other is the story of Odysseus’ men turned to swine by Circe.

Other Neoplatonists like porphyry had often allegorized. Eliot, we don’t realise this, but there were a lot of higher pagans, they were not Christians, but they were higher pagans. They’re not monotheists, but they’re moving towards something like a standard, at least. A lot of them loved Homer, but what are you supposed to do with all these crazy, very ungodly gods that are sleeping around? What do you do with them? There were a lot of pagan writers who wanted to keep the myth because they recognized truth in it, but they didn’t want to take with it the bad paganism that they saw as bad. So they allegorised those stories to find a deeper truth and there were—oh sorry there was a Jewish thinker named Philo and he did that just like the pagans. Porphyry did it, but people like Boethius, and Origen before him also did this. They recognized truth but, it was a truth that needed to be filtered and cleansed of its dark paganism to reveal this kernel of truth.

Most people know the story. Odysseus lands on the island of Circe. He breaks his men into two groups. The one group, led by another man, go in there Circe meets them. She gives them beautiful food and beautiful wine, but in the wine she puts a noxious drug. Once they drink the wine, she touches them on the snout, on the nose, with her wand and they’re all transformed into swine. Odysseus wants to save as many rushes in, but luckily Hermes, Mercury, the messenger of the gods, wants to help Odysseus so he gives Odysseus an antidote called moly. Holy moly, right! He says, when Circe gives you her drink, put the moly in there, that will be the counter agent. Then when she tries to turn you into swine, you can grab the wand and basically domesticate her. What he’s saying is that Circe is sort of the world, right? Those who do not know the truth end up being sucked in by the world and transformed into lower animals. Plato talked about reincarnation, as did Pythagoras before him, but those who know the secret wisdom, the truth, that moly, they can take the world and use it for good. So it’s an allegory of good and evil. Circe is sometimes referred to as the world itself, the world’s body, and we can take Circe’s brew and use it for Spiritual strength, rather than becoming a beast.

I think the other one is a little bit easier to understand, and that is Orpheus and Eurydice. Most people know that Orpheus and Eurydice were married, beautiful honeymoon, but then Eurydice is bitten on the ankle by a poisonous snake. She dies and is taken into the underworld, Orpheus, in great grief, wanders the whole world looking for the doorway to Hades. After a long, long search he finds the doorway, and he makes his way down deeper and deeper and deeper into the underworld. He comes before Hades, or Pluto, and says, Hades please give me back my wife, she died too young. And Hades refuses, and that’s when Orpheus, the greatest musician of all time pulls out his lyre, or loot sometimes, and begins to sing of love. 

As he sings Pluto himself weeps ‘iron tears’ as Milton said in his version.  The furies beat their breasts and wept, and all of hell stopped. Pluto or Hades was so moved he said, you may take your bride back with you but you must not look at her until you get back into the upper world. If you look back at her too soon, you will lose her forever. He leads her up the long stairway, never looking back, but as he gets close to the top, maybe it’s fear or whatever, he thinks maybe Hades has deceived him because after all Eurydice is still a ghost, and so her feet make no sound on the stairs. So just to check he makes a quick backward glance, and the last thing he sees of Eurydice is a wind grabbing her and blowing her back down into the underworld. The allegory is we must keep our eyes fixed on the heavenly things, we must not look back if we are to ascend out of Hades, the darkness of the world. We must keep our eyes on the prize. We must keep our eyes fixed on goodness, truth and beauty. Because if we look back, we will be drawn back down into the world. So both of those myths, and I’m elaborating a bit, Boethius is trying to get from them a truth that will help us on our spiritual journey: so we go up rather than back down.

God is goodness and we should be ascending to Him, but that brings us to the next part of the Consolation, which is that if God is goodness, why is there evil in the world? And this is what Lady Philosophy is set to answer next.

I think one of the great things that Boethius gives us, and Lewis quotes it many times, I mean ultimately evil is a is a misuse of free will. He would agree with Augustine that evil is a privation or a negation or a perversion of the good, but here’s the real deeper question that Boethius handles, at the end of the Consolation, and Lewis quoted many times in the Screwtape Letters, but other places he quotes it as well. Almost all Christians believe that God knows the future. Well if God foreknows or has foreknowledge, if God foreknows the future, must he not therefore also predestined everything right, and of course if he predestines everything, then is he predestining evil, is he predestining our evil choices back and forth? What Boethius says, and I think it’s just a brilliant thing, is that the problem is that when we say God foreknows the future we are making an error. God does not foreknow anything. God only knows.

God is outside of time and space. He does not foreknow the future, he knows the future, because he lives in an eternal now. Eliot, too many people think that eternity means taking the timeline and going on forever, but that’s infinity, maybe. Eternity means no time at all. Lewis, kind of looking back to Boethius, says the closest intimation we have of eternity is a present moment. When you have one of those moments where you seem to live your whole life. It’s that moment where time and eternity touch each other.

If God knows the future, or let’s change words now, God does not foresee the future, God sees the future. Well, if I see you in the present moment doing something, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’m causing you to do it. I mean, I could be, but it doesn’t necessarily mean I’m causing you to do it. I’m just seeing you do it.

When God sees the future, he sees the future the way we see the present. Because God sees everything in his eternal now. God knows everything, and sees everything, because he’s outside of time, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he is causing the misuse of free will that ushers evil into the world, Adam and Eve, but also maintains that evil and brings greater evil. Like I said Lewis quotes this often, and I think it’s a very helpful way of reconciling foreknowledge and predestination. It’s just interesting that Boethius getting ideas from Aristotle and whatnot, Augustine’s sort of speaks about time in that way, but Boethius sort of perfects it right there at the end of the consolation.

And this is the part of the book that people are most likely to be familiar with; because this is the part, part five, that’s really taken up by philosophers today, and if you do encounter Boethius in a seminar, it’s likely to be this passage that you look at.

 I teach at Houston well it was Houston Baptist University, now we call it Houston Christian University, and one of my colleagues is William Lane Craig, who teaches part of our apologetics course. He comes up with this sort of molinism, middle knowledge, trying to find a way between sort of Calvinism and this idea we’re talking about, Boethius. It’s interesting, I don’t know if it works fully, but people are still debating that and trying to understand how these things are. There are even some Christians who speak of God as if he’s living in time with us, which I think is a little bit problematic. So the dialogue continues.

There was one part of the work, a little bit earlier, that I would like to pick up, and that’s the distinction made between providence and fate. Could you explain that distinction and why it’s important?

Often the Barbarians, especially the Germanic barbarians, if you have ever read any Norse mythology, that Teutonic stuff is so dark. Fate, destiny, as it says in The Last Kingdom, fate is something that is still, in a way, tied to this world. It’s still a kind of locked in kind of destiny. But providence—and the word providence a lot of people don’t realize that ‘pro’ means before and the ‘vid’, think of the word video which is something you see, ‘providence’ literally means to see before—so when we say God provides we ultimately mean that God sees before what our needs are and provides them. Providence is something that is much higher than fate, that sees everything all at once. The analogy often used is if you’re, we just celebrated the Fourth of July—traitor day over there and the idea is that if I’m watching the Fourth of July parade, I’ve seen the parade go by float by float. But imagine somebody in a helicopter who watches the parade and sees all of it from beginning to middle to end, all at once. Providence has that higher kind of vision that sees everything and sees how it all fits together. Whereas fate is something that, you can tie it up to the influence of the stars and astrology as we still see it today, being part of that system of what will later become a clockwork universe under Newton, but again we’re talking about something higher than fate. We’re talking about the God, who sees all and knows all and understands the plan from beginning to end. 

So providence is kind of God’s plan, and fate is the playing out of that plan in time. One question on that point. How does this form part of the answer to the question of why we see evil around? Why we see bad things happening to good people, good things happening to bad people. How does that distinction help us make sense of this?

We’re only seeing the part of the parade that we’re part of. We’re seeing the little, small acts and scenes working themselves out, but we’re not seeing the whole play from beginning to end. We’re not getting a grasp of the whole thing. I’m going to use another analogy. We’re like the characters inside the play, and providence is the playwright that is outside the play. And I just think of something that Lewis says, and of course Boethius doesn’t go this far, but Lewis says you know imagine if you’re Shakespeare and you want to speak to your characters who are stuck inside the play. How can you really do it? And the ultimate way to do it is to write yourself into the play as a character. That’s the part that Boethius is not getting to because he’s dealing with general revelation.

But they are working out within the framework of the play. We only see that part of it. We don’t see the wholeness of the picture. I guess that’s the best way I can explain it—kind of a difficult concept!

You’ve spoken about some instances already, but could you tell us about how the book has been received and how it’s been influential across time?

First of all the idea of Dame Fortune has been very, very influential. Also, like we said, the idea of providence and fate and foreknowledge and choice and things like that. It’s funny because like I said, Chaucer actually translated Boethius, and what’s really neat about this is if you read the Knight’s Tale, which is the first really long tale of Canterbury Tales, there’s a part of that where basically Chaucer is directly quoting Boethius. 

But to me I think the most interesting influence that Boethius had was in its genre. Let’s look at the Knight’s Tale.  Okay, Chaucer was a believer, nobody knows what Shakespeare believed, he was obviously in a Christian culture, but there are things that Chaucer tells us that make it pretty clear that he was a believer. There are many Christian characters in Canterbury Tales, but when he writes the Knight’s Tale, which again that’s the longest tale, he sets the Knight’s Tale in a pre-Christian world. So even though maybe Chaucer the Christian would have liked to have injected Christianity into the Knight’s Tale, he remains true to the people and the characters that are living within that pre-Christian, pagan world. I think he’s learning how to do this from Boethius, which is probably the reason why he literally quotes Boethius’ Consolation in the Knight’s Tale. 

Again, it’s always hard to know, but Beowulf, and just as Lewis was something of an expert on the Consolation, his good friend Tolkien was an expert on Beowulf. Lewis was expert in everything, really. But anyway, Beowulf, read the great essay called ‘Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics’ by J.R.R Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings. He’ll say that the author was clearly a Christian monk, he’s anonymous but he was clearly a believer. But when he wrote Beowulf, sort of like Knight’s Tale, which of course is later, but like Knight’s Tale, like Boethius, it is set in a pre-Christian world and the author shows incredible restraint. He obviously loves his character, Beowulf, but he cannot give him the Christian heaven because that is not available to him in his world. So he stays true to the pre-Christian pagan sinning of Beowulf by giving Beowulf the highest honour, or the highest reward a Viking can have, and that’s the super great Viking funeral and all that sort of stuff. If you read Beowulf carefully you’ll see that every so often he kind of breaks in, just a little bit, but again he shows amazing restraint. 

Now interestingly, there’s another book that does this, and it’s called The Lord of the Rings. Tolkien was a strong believing Catholic, and yet the Lord of the Rings is set in a world that is not only pre-Christian, it’s pre-Jewish, so it’s even earlier. Because the Middle Earth is the Earth. if you read the letters, it’s pretty clear. But it is before God reveals himself to Abraham, so it’s way, way back. Again, Tolkien shows great restraint by not giving direct special revelation to his characters, though his beliefs find their way into the Lord of the Rings through general revelation, the same way Boethius does.

And by the way there’s another book, Lewis’s strangest and most beautiful novel, Till We Have Faces, is also Boethian in the fact that it’s written by a Christian and points forward to Christ but is fully set in a BC world that knows nothing of Christ, and actually also knows nothing of the Jewish revelation. So to me, that’s one of the really exciting literary influences of Boethius.

You’ve given us lots to ponder. We’ve got a reading list there. Is there anything else you would recommend reading to those who have read the Consolation and enjoyed it, got something from it? It can be about Boethius or by other similar authors.

One of the things, if you’re interested in this concept, I wrote a book called The Myth Made Fact: Reading Greek and Roman Mythology through Christian Eyes, it’s actually available on Audible. I actually did the audiobook for that book, the only time I ever did that—very exhausting! But anyway, there I tried to take fifty myths and show how they point forward towards a greater truth that the inventor of the myth would not have known about.

I also did one called From Achilles to Christ, where I look at The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid and the Greek Tragedies in the same way.

Finally, From Plato to Christ looks just at Plato, and the way things in him can teach us truths, but can also shine a lamp on the greater truths that are to come.

Those of you that are enjoying Boethius, you really should read Virgil’s Aeneid and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, because those were the ones that were so influential on the later Middle Ages, they were the gateway if you will.

Another work that is set in a pre-Christian mode is actually Samson Agonisties by John Milton, which is the story of Samson turned into a Greek tragedy, and written as a Greek tragedy. But again Christ is never mentioned, of course, but it’s also pointing forward. 

Of course, Dante’s Divine Comedy is something that needs to be read again and again in its powerful mingling of the Greco-Roman and the Judaeo-Christian, bringing together a much greater fusion.

One more thing is often missed, obviously we want to read The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, but Cicero wrote a short work called The Dream of Scipio that was incredibly influential. Cicero wrote something called The Republic, and just like Plato’s Republic ends with the myth of Ur, a myth about the afterlife, Cicero’s Republic ends with The Dream of Scipio, which is a vision of the afterlife. We’ve lost almost all of the Republic, but luckily the dream of Scipio was preserved in a Latin translation, and it exerted a great deal of influence, it even influenced Chaucer, but throughout the Middle Ages. I would encourage looking that up, The Dream of Scipio, and to see what it does and its influence on Boethius and also on Dante.

That’s a lot to be getting on with, thank you very much for that.

One last thing. What about King Lear? Again, nobody knows what exactly Shakespeare believed, but King Lear is clearly set in a pre-Christian pagan England, as being seen by the eye of at least a Christian culturally if not a Believer, it’s hard to know. But there’s just another example of that kind of writing, that kind of genre, that Boethius has helped open our eyes to.

Lou, thank you very much. You’ve been uh a marvellous guide to Boethius.

Thanks so much, Eliot. And thanks for doing this, and this is a book that I think needs to be revived.

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