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Book Report: The Consolation of Philosophy


I do a lot of reading on my own, but don't get to share the things I've read with others much. This year I'm going to try out a new exercise: write a book report for books I read on my own. My hope is that these reports will help me better retain what I've read, and act as a kind of TLDR I can reference back for myself in the future. If nothing else perhaps some others will find these summaries useful, if not interesting.


Project Gutenberg link for free ebook.

The Consolation of Philosophy was written by Boethius in 523 AD. Boethius had attained a pretty high rank in the collapsed wreckage of the Roman empire, until court intrigues landed him in prison awaiting execution for treason. It was during this imprisonment that The Consolation of Philosophy was written.

The text takes the form of a dialogue between the author and Lady Philosophy, who has graciously come to cheer him up during his imprisonment. Between short dialogue sections there are also small songs/poems which are sung by Philosophy, usually topical to the surrounding dialogue.

In the beginning Boethius is obviously quite distraught, but Philosophy quickly pulls him out of the mental gutter to set him straight. Boethius bemoans his loss of fortune, but Philosophy quickly proves to him that fortune was never something which he truly possessed anyway. If it were, how could it have been taken?

There's quite a bit of kicking-the-dead-horse around the various aspects of fortune: fame, wealth, power, glory, pleasure, etc... Philosophy shows Boethius that while these are all consequences which stem from the attainment of "the good", because they are only parts of that good they are necessarily incomplete and therefore inferior distractions. So what is this "good" which is to be pursued?

Now, the good is that which, when a man hath got, he can lack nothing further.

The good is briefly equated with "the Divine", but that's not leaned into too much quite yet. More than being divine, the good is shown to be the pursuit of unity. In the context of life, unity means the pursuit of life itself, and because all beings seek to preserve their lives, then the preservation of life is itself the ultimate good.

'Now, that which seeks to subsist and continue desires to be one; for if its oneness be gone, its very existence cannot continue.'

'All things, then, desire to be one.'

'But we have proved that one is the very same thing as good.'

'All things, then, seek the good; indeed, you may express the fact by defining good as that which all desire.'

I found it interesting that it this point the conversation, having equated goodness, unity, and the preservation of life all together into the same concept, continues to focus specifically on goodness as being the moving target worth discussing. In my view the preservation of life is the more concrete aspect; being "good" or "unified" are rather abstract and subjective, but the preservation of life is a tangible, measurable goal, and so more interesting to discuss.


Up till this point, around Book IV, I'd say the book was pretty cut-and-dry philosophy stuff, though with quite a bit of polish. The reader is guided from one logical conclusion to the next without any mental gymnastics or huge leaps of faith being required. It's sound, and I'd recommend it to any first time philosophy readers.

Past this point, however, things start getting messy. Book IV is where discussion about the rewards of doing good vs evil begins, and therefore necessarily the omnipotent Divine (the Christian god, at this point in history) comes to be invoked more and more. The problem, as Boethius rightly points out to Philosophy, is that those who do evil seem to get away with it, and more than that they seem to thrive.

While wickedness reigns and flourishes, virtue not only lacks its reward, but is even thrust down and trampled under the feet of the wicked, and suffers punishment in the place of crime. That this should happen under the rule of a God who knows all things and can do all things, but wills only the good, cannot be sufficiently wondered at nor sufficiently lamented.

The rest of the text is spent more or less chewing on this question, with Book V extending it to include discussion on how free will can even exist at all in the face of omnipotence.

I came away from these sections unsatisfied. There's quite a bit more hand waving and mental gymnastics employed here, to try and guide the reader to an answer which ultimately amounts to "God sees existence differently than you". Which, while probably true given an omnipotent being, really brings the whole thing around to a question of faith rather than philosophy.

And this is, I suppose, the problem Boethius was really trying to tackle. Wikipedia describes Boetheius as "seeking to reconcile the teachings of Plato and Aristotle with Christian theology", and that struggle is plain to me.


I won't go so far as to give an explicit rating to the books I read as part of this series. Instead I'll leave it simply with: I'm glad I read The Consolation of Philosophy. Even if it didn't contain all the answers (something I never really expected of it, or no further books on the subject would ever have been written!) it at least clarified to me the points at which the questions lie.

Published 2024-01-06


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