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.