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The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Boethius has lost his position of privilege within the empire and while in prison constructs this enjoyable dialogue. The character based upon himself is forlorn when suddenly he is visited by Philosophy--a quasi-divine manifestation of Philosophy herself. She comes to bring him consolation and the way to do that is to correct his thinking which has gotten askew during his troubles. And so, in a series of dialogues she leads him back to the proper understanding of human nature, good, evil, fortune, and God's plan. Toward the end they consider some higher philosophical problems like foreknowledge and free will.

I will show you the path that will bring you back home. I will give your mind wings on which to lift itself; all disquiet shall be driven away and you will be able to return safely to your homeland. I will be your guide, your path and your conveyance.

I find the basic idea delightful--that philosophy can bring consolation by helping us to think aright. And it is well written, with each chapter having a poem as well as the dialogue. The poems often draw from classical stories and some are very good.

The book is a theodicy, and as with most theodicies, I find it inadequate in answering its problem. This approach takes the view that evil is no thing, and I for one cannot accept any theodicy that begins with that premise, but only those which begin with the reality of evil.

But the main problem with the book is not a judgement about how well it is written or how enjoyable it is to read. It is a fundamental difference of worldview. The arguments make sense within a late ancient/early medieval synthesis of classical thought with early Christianity, but they make little to no sense to those of us shaped by modernity.

For example, freedom is defined as contemplation of the mind of God rather than personal autonomy.

Finishing the Boethius, I was drawn to peruse again through Sources of the Self by Charles Taylor for a reminder of what a dramatically different conceptual world we live in and how we cannot grant the basic premises of Boethius, much less find consolation in its conclusions. In fact, we are inclined to withdraw from them in disgust or rebel in rage.

But it was an enjoyable read, and so much more fun than reading Augustine. It is also important to read and understand how different we view the world and our moral life within it.

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