The Yale Journal for Humanities in Medicine
The Consolation of Philosophy
Palliative Care patients face questions about meaning in their lives. A meditation on death as a way of understanding life, The Consolation of Philosophy has influenced the world-view not only of Aquinas and Dante but many centuries of lesser believers and non-believers.
Boethius, a man of family, fame and fortune was a politically active scholar of sixth-century Rome. Religiously orthodox but out of step with the Arian leanings of the Emperor Theodoric, he was unjustly accused of treason. In a cell facing torture followed by a horrible death, Boethius constructed a dissertation on the nature of evil and a meditation on what is valuable in life.
In Socratic dialogue with Philosophy, his rational self, Boethius strips away his idolization of the things of this world, recognizes his own unimportance in the eternal scheme, and finds consolation in the infinite warmth of God’s love. This narrative works for Boethius by placing him in a structure of ordered rationality in which he exchanges overwhelming helplessness vis-à-vis a malevolent emperor for an equally helpless, but more comforting, position in relation to a benevolent personalized fate (God).
The Consolation’s dialogue progresses in verse and prose. David R. Slavitt’s new, accessible, colloquial translation gives us both in a modern tone that invites the question, “What kind of self-quieting story could we tell ourselves (or help our patients to tell) in such a jam?”
Like most people faced with incomprehensible losses, Boethius begins with a paean to despair:
Boethius faced by an “unjust” universe and burdened by a feeling of personal unimportance, realizes the transience of what had been the focus of his energies. Like many of our patients, Boethius reviews his life and realizes that the successes he has had—his fame, his wealth, his family—are the result of good fortune. But if he worships Fortune when she smiles on him he must accept her changeability as well. Transience is Fortune’s nature. After a devastating logical argument, Philosophy eventually concludes, “Then happiness is itself God, inasmuch as God is correctly believed to order all things” (p. 100).
But should the doubtful promise of an afterlife require us to strip ourselves of the homely pleasures, asks Boethius? And aren’t we forgetting that his problem is based on an unjust sentence? Would rage, disappointment, and the nihilism born from injustice yield to this rational argument, we wonder? In book three we find Boethius answering back to Philosophy:
He reflects our sense that a person requires a period of shock, anger, and mourning during which he feels overwhelmed by rage and resentment before he can use Philosophy’s rational argument.
Philosophy reminds Boethius how sensible he has been throughout his life and says in an aside, “He has forgotten who he really is, but he will recover, for he used to know me (i.e. his rational self stripped of earthly attachment) and all I have to do is clear the mist that beclouds his vision.”
To find clarity, she instructs him to say what comes to mind:
Some aspects of his despair may have to be spoken. But, in contrast to the blandishments of his original self-indulgent poetry, the poetry of Philosophy helps Boethius find an organizing structure, a personal narrative that rebuilds his sense of self, a self with purpose and meaning, one with a sense of control in his world.
In the process of her cure, Philosophy does listen patiently while Boethius protests the unfairness of his current state,
Here, Boethius wonders how a benevolent and all-powerful God allows evil to exist in the world. Philosophy uses a temporal explanation. The fullness of time is, she says, an instant in God’s perpetual present. Evil imbalances are constantly and instantaneously corrected in that eternal moment. So, in God’s timeless present, evil is eradicated as soon as it appears. And a man is free to make choices. But a man’s choices are always, already known to God because God himself does not exist in before and after terms.
In this way Philosophy explains the perception of evil on the human scale then goes on to empathize with Boethius’ suffering. She finally demands that in spite of suffering he not magnify his losses:
She undermines his claim of helplessness with tough love that helps to focus him on a problem he can solve:
Here, Philosophy defines the problem as a need to re-claim himself and to rediscover where he stands in the relationships with his loved ones, his God, and his world.
That divine love and reason orders the world and that he, Boethius, has an eternal place there, becomes the core of a powerfully consoling belief. But the correct understanding of the way the world works can take many forms. Boethius chooses a personal God; others might choose different organizing narratives.
The Consolation’s religious narrative may continue to be a viable and consoling option for many who examine their lives and impending deaths for meaning. For the secular modern the same self-examination however, does not lead to a transcendent caring figure. For them, bodies are mortal and existence is finite. Can the internal dialogic method of The Consolation of Philosophy produce alternative narratives that console, narratives that do not involve an eternal soul cosseted by a loving God?
Perhaps the structure and process of Philosophy’s arguments can serve as a guide to a Socratic dialogue with oneself in the face of death that yields other types of consoling narratives. The essential fact of transience, the value of rationality and structure, the positioning of self in a perspective that is small either in relation to nature, the awe and solace in merging with something bigger and more completely beautiful, might build a sense of consolation. And, in some sense our existence is not entirely finite as long as we live in the memory of the living. Boethius’ creation is itself is a kind of immortality, and one open to the non-believer. For we can play our parts and accomplish our life projects and leave with dignity when the show is over.
And we are not limited to the passive acceptance of our finitude. There are alternative ways of organizing our personal narratives to embrace the finite nature of human existence. Adam Phillips for example points out that both Darwin and Freud ask us to believe in the permanence only of change and uncertainty: that the only life is the life of the body, so that death, in whatever form it takes, is of a piece with life. The cycles, the pleasures, the beauties of life, and their appreciation, require the refreshment of death.
Where Philosophy consoles with eternity, the non-believer can find consolation in transience and by the sense of merger with a wonderful varied and changeable nature rather than with the eternally present God. Both are merger fantasies. When faced with loss, their own death for example, people respond with imaginative creation—games (fort/Da) (1) and works of art like The Consolation of Philosophy. One’s own death is the ultimate challenge to the imagination. To have one’s name remembered is a way of continuing to exist but simply having a narrative in which one can be the hero of one’s own life may suffice for most of us. So, each of us might benefit from examining his life in Boethius’ Socratic mode and come to his own conclusions about the value of its loves and accomplishments.
Freud, S. Beyond the Pleasure Principal. The Standard Edition. Trans. James Strachey. The Hogarth Press: London, 1961, vol. 18, pp. 14-15.
Phillips, A. Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories. Basic Books, 2000.
(1) Freud describes a game in which his grandson seems to be managing his sense of loss when separated from his mother by throwing a toy out of his crib (fort gone) and pulling it back with the attached string (da there).
Published: February 6, 2009