The first lockdowns of the global pandemic were quickly followed by a spike in book sales. The successes of Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year and Albert Camus’ The Plague in particular suggest that many readers wished to place the pandemic in a wider historical context. According to Camus’ daughter Catherine, his novel had newfound relevance, in that “we are not responsible for coronavirus, but we can be responsible in the way we respond to it.” A similar perspective informs Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, which was written around 524 AD, but was still a bestseller hundreds of years later during another pandemic: the Black Death. Written while Boethius was experiencing his own lockdown—imprisoned and facing a death sentence—it provides useful advice for coping with today’s pandemic.
Boethius was born into an aristocratic family in Rome, shortly after the barbarian Odoacer deposed the last Roman emperor and became king of Italy. Although Boethius was a Christian, his family proudly upheld many of the pre-Christian traditions of imperial Rome. Under the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great, Boethius rose to the position of Master of the Offices—in charge of all government and court services. But soon thereafter, the ageing king, worried about a possible Roman coup, accused Boethius of treason. Although Boethius denied the charge, he was sentenced to death.
Boethius begins the Consolation by lamenting his fall from grace, then describes being visited by the female personification of philosophy. She has come to remind him of some fundamental truths that his misfortune has caused him to forget. They converse in the form of a Socratic dialogue, interspersed with lyrical poetry that references Greek and Roman myths.
Boethius was writing at a time when philosophy was considered a source of practical wisdom that could help people live and die well. He was determined to educate the leaders of his day about what he called Greek wisdom, especially the wisdom of the Stoics, who taught that being virtuous is sufficient for a happy life. Stoics try to adjust their wishes to the conditions of their world. In the words of Epictetus, they strive to remain “sick and yet happy, in peril and yet happy, dying and yet happy, in exile and happy, in disgrace and happy.”
Lady Philosophy encourages Boethius to adhere to these Stoic principles. She gently admonishes him for rebelling against his fate, and reminds him that human beings can’t control most of what happens to them. Our destinies, she says, are in the hands of the Roman goddess Fortuna, who might dispense high office and wealth or condemn us to unjust imprisonment, depending on her mood. Lady Philosophy tells Boethius, “You know there is no constancy in human affairs, when a single swift hour can often bring a man to nothing.” We are all united by our inevitable vulnerability: we all end. Boethius agrees: “Over me, too, hang death and all-mastering destiny.”
Lady Philosophy teaches that true happiness cannot be found in anything that Fortuna can take away, such as material goods, wealth, fame or power. None of these things have any intrinsic goodness. Physical pleasures can lead to remorse and ill health. Good health can be taken from us without warning. We cannot even always depend on our friends and family since children “flee; but on the heart, a lasting sting they leave.” She reminds Boethius that we all face hardship one way or another but encourages him not to focus solely on sadness—which will pass, as everything does—but to invest time in reflection and view life in its totality.
Lady Philosophy also explains how, even in Boethius’ circumstances, happiness is possible. Our powers of reasoning are not imperilled by the vicissitudes of fortune, and can help us identify what is good, which will help us live virtuously, whatever our circumstances. And our virtue is all we truly have. As Lady Philosophy puts it, “If you are in possession of yourself, you possess … something Fortune can never take away.”
The Consolation touches on religious philosophy as well. For Boethius, God is the perfect good, and happiness comes from living in tune with his will (for the Stoics, it was Nature). Lady Philosophy explains why, despite the existence of an all-powerful god, evil people can seem to prosper and good people to lose everything: evil people are unhappy because they don’t live virtuously, while good people are made happy by being good.
The Consolation reminds us that, while we are not responsible for coronavirus, we can control how we respond to it. For us, as for Boethius, change is inevitable, fortune unpredictable. We all face hardship and death. But we don’t need to focus solely on the hardships we face or the sadness we feel, which will pass. We can spend time reflecting on all the different aspects of our lives, and strive to live virtuously, with self-possession, which can provide a source of happiness amid sorrow.
The Consolation also touches on questions of human reason and knowledge that are relevant today. For Boethius, human reason is one of our greatest gifts, but it is limited: perfect knowledge is unattainable. We can see the truth of these observations in our current situation. The race to develop vaccines against Covid has demonstrated the power of human reason, but the destruction wrought by the pandemic has also demonstrated its limits.
Finally, the Consolation reminds us that we must all learn to live with uncertainty. The goddess Fortuna tells the narrator that inconstancy is “the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle … Rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when, by the same token, you begin to fall.”
Other Christian writers of Boethius’ time draw on the pagan beliefs found in the Norse and Anglo-Saxon epics, including the belief in the impermanence and cyclical nature of human experience. For example, in the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the eponymous warrior is mortally wounded while killing a dragon. Although he has protected his people by slaying the beast, his death has also deprived them of a protector, and his loyal companion, Wiglaf, predicts that Beowulf’s enemies will now take revenge on his people. Nevertheless, the epic ends by predicting that Beowulf’s life will be celebrated, as he did his duty and upheld the heroic code.
A similar perspective is found in the early Norse myths, compiled by the thirteenth-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson in the Prose Edda. Some of these myths describe Ragnarök, the future destruction of the world. When Ragnarök arrives, the Fenris wolf and the Midgard serpent battle the gods. Odin, the All-Father, fights the wolf, while his son Thor fights the serpent. Thor kills the serpent but dies from its poison. The Fenris wolf kills Odin, but is killed by Odin’s other son, Vidar. The earth is then successively covered by fire and submerged under the sea. However, the world is destined to be reborn: some humans will survive and repopulate the earth. The Norse, like the Stoics before them, accepted that fate would determine the course of history; and focussed on something they could control: adhering to the heroic code.
The Mayans, Incas and Hopi also viewed time as cyclical. And in Taoism, too, the cycle of the seasons, and the larger cycle of existence of which they are a part, are central to understanding the world. The sixth-century Tao Te Ching ends with advice of which Boethius would approve: “All things pass. Take things as they come.”
We may be more intolerant of uncertainty and death than Boethius’ contemporaries were. We consume information at a rate no other culture has ever done. As we crunch more data with more computing power, we may believe that we should be able to achieve complete knowledge. Some artificial intelligence researchers predict that human life will soon be superseded by a hyperintelligent AI, while others predict that we will soon be able to upload our consciousness to the cloud, making existential human concerns such as the inevitability of death irrelevant. In Boethius’s time, history’s wheel was turning fast, but today, as technology changes society at a dizzying pace, it is increasingly difficult to see where we are on the wheel of fortune as we lose sight of the historical horizon. When the Cold War ended, some called it the end of history, but they were proved wrong: others today see the signs of the end of history in the end of American hegemony and the rise of China. With every election cycle, we claim that our societies are heading in new directions, directions that will precipitate the end times.
Part of our disorientation may be due to our expectation of progress. After Boethius, Christian thinkers discarded the cyclical view of history in favour of a belief in human progress that would culminate in the second coming of Christ and salvation. The idea of fate was replaced by the idea of divine will, and individuals focussed on completing a list of tasks (sacraments) with the goal of obtaining permanent salvation. Philosopher John Gray has argued that, for many today, science and technology’s promise to provide a better world has replaced Christianity’s promise of salvation: there has been progress in knowledge, but not in human behaviour. Yet belief in a linear view of history, in which human beings progress from a less enlightened state to a utopian end state, remains as a relic of Christianity. Gray, by contrast, sees history as neither progress or decline, but a cycle of recurring gains and losses. He notes that “in the Greek world in which Homer’s songs were sung, it was taken for granted that everyone’s life was governed by fate and chance”:
The whole world is in some ways better than it’s ever been in the past. And, indeed, I think for many people the meaning of their lives really depends on that belief. If you strip out that belief in progress, if you start thinking of the world … [as] the ancient pre-Christian Europeans did, or the Buddhists and the Hindus or the Taoists of China do, many people think that’s a kind of despair. I don’t know how many times I’ve been told … “If I agreed with you, John, that history had no pattern of that kind, I wouldn’t get up in the morning.”
If Boethius wrote the Consolation today, he would no doubt be criticised for the idea that philosophy can offer consolation. Nowadays, few entertain the idea that one can think one’s way out of despair. We are more likely to try to counter our unhappiness by turning to material goods, physical pleasures and the praise of strangers: an approach that Boethius advises against. Yet the restrictions many of us have recently experienced have demonstrated that much of what we rely on for our happiness is governed by chance. At the very least, those restrictions have given us the opportunity to reconsider our priorities, rely more for our happiness on what we can control, and increase our appreciation of the good things that could be taken from us with little warning. For me, the lasting sting I might feel if I lost my friends and family would be worth enduring in exchange for the joy that their presence has provided.
The contrast between Boethius’ calm, logical arguments and much of today’s writing is stark. Even the idea that reason can be useful is currently being challenged. We are told that politicians are right to appeal to the emotions of the masses. Yet the enduring popularity of the Consolation suggests that, when people are not distracted, reason can both convince and console them. The problems that faced Boethius’ contemporaries are not so different from the problems that we face today. If we take a linear view of history, we may be less inclined to look to the past for wisdom, but we can choose instead to take a cyclical view, which suggests that there is value in revisiting the past to see how others have dealt with issues similar to those we face today.
The pre-Christians understood the role of fate and focussed their efforts on their own actions in the unpredictable present. The modern western mind finds it hard to see Boethius’ life—which ended in a brutal execution—as a happy one, or Beowulf’s reign as a success. But we can learn from medieval thinkers who focused, not on the arrows that fate slung at them, but on how they carried themselves. This was Boethius’ consolation in his darkest hour, and—if we make time for reasoned reflection as the wheel starts spinning again—it can be ours too.
Extremely well done, will buy your book! – a tired graduate student
Thanks for a very fine essay.