Boethius, Philosophy

Wisdom from Boethius for the Holidays

Image result for wheel of fortune boethiusI’m so glad that I put off making my 2017 favorites list until at least December 31 because Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy (which I finished today) will definitely make it on that list. To be honest, this was actually a reread. I read it for the first time in February 2016. But I include on my favorites lists any books that I have read and loved during that year.

When Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy in 524, he was under house arrest and awaiting execution. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born into a powerful family; his father was consul and Boethius was himself appointed to the position in 510, during the reign of King Theodoric. In 522, both of his sons were made joint consuls. He held many positions of power and privilege throughout his life, but in 523, Boethius was unjustly accused of treason and imprisoned in Pavia. Boethius finished Consolation of Philosophy shortly before his brutal execution in 524.

Consolation of Philosophy is a fictional dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy about reason, justice, fortune, and free will. Lady Philosophy’s message is particularly relevant in today’s political climate. It’s also perfect for the Christmas season.

So here’s some wisdom from Lady Philosophy for the holidays:

1) You cannot trust Fortune.

Do you really hold dear that kind of happiness which is destined to pass away? Do you really value the presence of Fortune when you cannot trust her to stay and when her departure will plunge you in sorrow? And if it is impossible to keep her at will and if her flight exposes men to ruin, what else is such a fleeting thing except a warning of coming disaster? […] If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning, you are of all men the most obtuse (p. 23).

The wheel of Fortune is all about chance. No one should trust good fortune to last forever. In a moment, you could lose everything. Indeed, every person dies with empty hands.

You know there is no constancy in human affairs, when a single swift hour can often bring a man to nothing. For even if you can’t expect any permanence in a life of chance events, on the last day of one’s life there is a kind of death for Fortune even when she stays with one (p. 28).

2) Wealth cannot bring freedom. 

[W]ealth cannot make a man free of want and self-sufficient, though this was the very promise we saw it offering (p. 52).

Greed makes the rich want more than they already have. No one is ever satisfied with the wealth they have. The more wealth you have, the more outside help you need to protect it.

No man is rich who shakes and groans/ Convinced that he needs more (p. 26)

3) High office does not make a person more worthy of honor and respect.

[H]onour is not accorded to virtue because of the office held, but to the office because of the virtue of the holder (p. 37-38).

Only people can be worthy of honor and respect, not offices. If a wicked person occupies a high office, he is still unworthy of respect.

[V]irtue has her own individual worth, which she immediately transfers to whoever possesses her. But as public offices cannot do this, it is clear that they have no beauty or worth of their own” (p. 54-55).

4) You can’t truly own anything that Nature hasn’t already given you. 

If Nature gives them their beauty, how does it involve you? They would still have been pleasing by themselves, even if separated from your possessions. It isn’t because they are part of your wealth that they are precious, but because you thought them precious that you wanted to add them to the sum of your riches (p. 35).

The only thing you can truly own are your virtues.

It seems as if you feel a lack of any blessing of your own inside you, which is driving you to seek your blessings in things separate and external (p. 35).

5) And for those who consider themselves religious, here’s a warning:

Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope, and put forth humble prayers on high. A great necessity is laid upon you, if you will be honest with yourself, a great necessity to be good, since you live in the sight of a judge who sees all things (p.138).

Source: Boethius. Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts, Penguin Classics, 1999.

Eco, Umberto, Mystery

Review of Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

What was it about?

The Franciscan friar William of Baskerville and his sidekick, a Benedictine novice named Adso of Melk, arrive at a Benedictine abbey in Italy run by Abbot Abbo to help defend Franciscan poverty in a theological dispute between the Minorites and the Avignonese pope John XXII. Upon his arrival, William learns that a monk named Adelmo committed suicide. After the translator Venantius is found headfirst in a jar of pig’s blood, the abbot commissions William to determine the cause of the deaths. The murder seems to revolve around a book found in the labyrinthine library at the monastery, but unless William finds the book the safety of the monks and the integrity of the Franciscan ideal will be compromised. Set in the 14th century, Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose is at once a murder mystery and an exploration of the theological, philosophical, and political debates of the Late Middle Ages. Eco, a semiotician by trade, explores the use and meaning of signs through a story set in a world obsessed with signs. William of Baskerville is a disciple of William of Ockham whose philosophy guides the friar-detective in his investigation. Name of the Rose is the quintessential postmodern novel.

What did I think of it?

What Eco is able to accomplish in this work is astounding! The murder mystery is set in a time period so very different than our own; therefore, the detective and his sidekick use the knowledge of their time period to try to unravel the mystery. Adso (who is also the narrator) not only describes the views of the people but demonstrates their views in the way that he tells the story. A knowledge of Franciscan history is recommended but not necessary (I recommend C.H. Lawrence’s The Friars). Eco explains it well. What is perhaps more important is a basic knowledge of the views of William of Ockham (also known as nominalism). It is the medieval philosophy that has most influenced the modern world. It also underpins aspects of postmodernism. Eco demonstrates well in this work William of Baskerville’s dictum that ” [t]he idea is a sign of things, and the image is sign of the idea, sign of a sign. But from the image I reconstruct, if not the body, the idea that others had of it.”

The story itself is brutal in parts, but you would expect that in a book set in the 14th century. Heretics and inquisitors abound. Cruel and unusual punishment is the law of the land. The Franciscans are convinced that the apocalyptic prophesies of Joachim of Fiore are being realized in their day. Discovering the murderer turns out to be as hard as determining the layout of the labyrinthine library. If you like Dan Brown’s works, love books about books, and/or are looking for deftly constructed murder mystery told from a unique perspective I highly recommend Name of the Rose. It is just as gripping as Angels and Demons but much better written. Honestly, it doesn’t hold a candle to Brown’s book. I can’t believe I waited so long to read Name of the Rose. It felt like it was written for me.

Favorite Quote

“Until then I had thought each book spoke of the things, human or divine, that lie outside books. Now I realized that not infrequently books speak of books: it is as if they spoke among themselves. In the light of this reflection, the library seemed all the more disturbing to me. It was then the place of a long, centuries-old murmuring, an imperceptible dialogue between one parchment and another, a living thing, a receptacle of powers not to be ruled by a human mind, a treasure of secrets emanated by many minds, surviving the death of those who had produced them or had been their conveyors.”

Satire, Swift, Jonathan

Review of The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift

What was it about?

Parnassus has two hills. The tallest is occupied by the Ancients and the shortest is occupied by the Moderns. The latter constantly feel threatened and offended by the height of the Ancients’ hill with respect to their own. The Moderns therefore propose a solution; they offer to use their own shovels and lower the hill of the Ancients so that the two hills can be of equal size. The Ancients do not accept the offer, responding instead that the Moderns should be grateful that the Ancients have allowed them to exist peacefully as a colony. The bickering between the two hills eventually grows into a full-fledged battle. But the battle of the Ancients and the Moderns is not a battle between individuals but between books housed in King’s Library. The Battle of the Books by Jonathan Swift is a satirical look at the tension between ancient and 17th century ideologies. Do the moderns stand on the shoulders of giants or are the ancients irrelevant for the enlightened world?

What did I think of it?

Jonathan Swift is a brilliant satirist. Whereas most satire today is straightforward and obvious, Swift’s satirical works contain layers of meaning. The reader is also expected to have a fair bit of knowledge about philosophy, history, politics, and religion. The Battle of the Books was harder for me to understand than Gulliver’s Travels because I am not well-versed in ancient or 17th century philosophy. As a result, there were many parts that I did not understand. What I did take from the book, though, is Swift’s insight that the Moderns are dreamers and think that they are self-creating but they are, in truth, constantly indebted to the philosophers who preceded them. Still, Swift doesn’t let the Ancients off the hook either. The allegory of the bee and the spider was my favorite part of the tale because it outlined the different ways in which the ancient and 17th century philosophers approached the acquisition of knowledge. I was a bit disappointed that the story ended so abruptly, but there were many parts that gave me food for thought. Overall, I enjoyed the short tale and hope to read more of Swift’s works in the near future.

Favorite Quote

“Then Aristotle, observing Bacon advance with a furious mien, drew his bow to the head, and let fly his arrow, which missed the valiant modern and went whizzing over his head; but Des Cartes it hit; the steel point quickly found a defect in his headpiece; it pierced the leather and the pasteboard, and went in at his right eye.”