Boethius’s tangent

The tomb of Boethius in Pavia, Italy (photo credit, D. Gallorto; WikiMedia)

At a key juncture in his Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius ask Lady Philosophy a certain pressing question that has arisen to the forefront of his mind. Lady Philosophy responds that Boethius is asking about a tangential matter, something of a side issue. Here are the two places in the text I have in mind. The first:

“True,” said I; “but, since it is thy office to unfold the hidden cause of things, and explain principles veiled in darkness, inform me, I pray thee, of thine own conclusions in this matter, since the marvel of it is what more than aught else disturbs my mind.”

A smile played one moment upon her lips as she replied: “Thou callest me to the greatest of all subjects of inquiry, a task for which the most exhaustive treatment barely suffices. Such is its nature that, as fast as one doubt is cut away, innumerable others spring up like Hydra’s heads, nor could we set any limit to their renewal did we not apply the mind’s living fire to suppress them. For there come within its scope the questions of the essential simplicity of providence, of the order of fate, of unforeseen chance, of the Divine knowledge and predestination, and of the freedom of the will. How heavy is the weight of all this thou canst judge for thyself. But, inasmuch as to know these things also is part of the treatment of thy malady, we will try to give them some consideration, despite the restrictions of the narrow limits of our time.”

Book IV, Prose 6; James translation

Among the list of subjects (providence, fate, chance, God’s knowledge, and human freedom), providence and fate are discussed in Book IV, but return along with the other topics in Book V. Nonetheless, at the beginning of that last book—after Lady Philosophy has finished explaining how adverse fortune can be a good thing insofar as it affords the opportunity to strengthen one’s character—we read:

She ceased, and was about to pass on in her discourse to the exposition of other matters, when I break in and say: “Excellent is thine exhortation, and such as well beseemeth thy high authority; but I am even now experiencing one of the many difficulties which, as thou saidst but now, beset the question of providence. I want to know whether thou deemest that there is any such thing as chance at all, and, if so, what it is.”

Then she made answer: “I am anxious to fulfil my promise completely, and open to thee a way of return to thy homeland. As for these matters, though very useful to know, they are yet a little removed from the path of our design, and I fear lest digressions should fatigue thee, and thou shouldst find thyself unequal to completing the direct journey to our goal.”

Ibid., translation slightly modified

Since chance was one of the subjects that Lady Philosophy initially suggested, why is it now a digression? Indeed, Lady Philosophy herself had said that “to know these things also is part of the treatment of thy malady,” and this “digression” introduces the discussions for which the Consolation is most famous, and rightly so. What makes them beside the point?

Perhaps it might help to recall the context and the prior stages of the discussion. The Consolation is an extended philosophical-medical examination of Boethius’s soul. In the drama of the story, this takes place between the two famous main characters, but this is act. The real examination is a self-examination, undertaken by Boethius the author as he awaits death in King Theodoric’s prison cell. Thus, the “digression” in question is, at one level of interpretation, one which author provides for himself. Yet is it only in a way a distraction? Is it a sign of something else that we note?

Boethius’s “malady,” one will recall, is threefold (it is diagnosed by Lady Philosophy in her role of “physician” of the soul at the end of Book I). Boethius has forgotten his own nature, the end of all things, and and the means by which all things are ordered or governed. Slowly, over the course of the work, these diseases are healed, but mostly in Book V. So, again, how could the very point of the book be a digression?

William Wheatley, in a commentary on the Consolation that was falsely ascribed to St. Thomas Aquinas, suggests that

[Lady Philosophy] turns her speech to some other matters to be considered. However, what subjects these were, Boethius does not portray. Perhaps this is because her opinion on these subjects was less desirable, or perhaps they were extraneous to the matter at hand.

Corpus Thomisticum; my translation

Perhaps there is a clue from Lady Philosophy’s having just finished the exhortation at the end of Book IV, in Poem 7:

Ite nunc fortes ubi celsa magni
Ducit exempli uia! Cur inertes
Terga nudatis? Superata tellus
Sidera donat.

Brave hearts, press on! Lo, heavenward lead
These bright examples! From the fight
Turn not your backs in coward flight;
Earth’s conflict won, the stars your meed!

James translation

This is an echo of and addition to the warning in Poem 12 at the end of Book III, which retells the myth of Orpehus and Eurydice:

Vos haec fabula respicit
Quicumque in superum diem
Mentem ducere quaeritis.
Nam qui Tartareum in specus
Victus lumina flexerit,
Quidquid praecipuum trahit
Perdit, dum uidet inferos.

Ye who the light pursue,
This story is for you,
Who seek to find a way
Unto the clearer day.
If on Tartarus past
One backward look ye cast,
Your weak and wandering eyes
Have lost the matchless prize.

Ibid., translation slightly modified

That is, Book III turns Boethius the character away from a sort of philosophical damnation (Tartarus, infernus); Book IV lifts his gaze heavenward. Is this Boethius the author—and Christian philosopher—touching upon the contents of faith that can only be anticipated by Lady Philosophy? So, at the beginning of Book V, Lady Philosophy would “go up higher,” if she could. But she is prevented—and the subject matter becomes heavy with a speculation that at its highest can only limn the face of mystery.

Wheatley’s commentary lends some support to this view:

Note that [Lady Philosophy] says “open to thee a way of return to thy homeland.” Here, beatitude is called one’s “homeland” [patria], about which she previously showed how to find. For those ways by which a man arrives at his homeland are the virtues, about which Boethius did not intend to treat in this book, but in the last part of his work on music, treating of human music. However, his intention was not completed, since he was prevented from this by his death at the hands of King Theodoric.

* * *

It is also possible that this passage is a literary pun of sorts. That is, in Book V, Prose 1, Lady Philosophy is about to consider the nature of chance, the accidental conflux of two lines of causality that are not determined to such an event in and of their own intention. Thus, Lady Philosophy intends to talk about one thing, while Boethius the character wishes to talk about another. Their conversation thus takes a turn as if by chance.

Of course, Boethius’s authorial intention includes both. Thus, with the providential eye of the maker of the world of the text, incorporates both of these into the broader design of the whole. The microcosm of the human soul depicted by the text thus imitates the hither-an-yon musings of a man condemned to die, a misfortune not averted but foreseen and permitted, in view of some grander finality, by the Author of all things.

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