Overview of Section: Medieval Period - Boethius
Overview of this Section
We continue our study of Philosophy and of our particular themes -- Human Nature, Ethics, Society, and the Nature of Reality -- by focusing on another classic work in Philosophy -- Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy. We are now moving into the Middle Ages with this text -- a time of considerable development of new thought, but also rethinking older philosophical ideas in new contexts and situations. Boethius is a prime example of this -- you'll see references to ancient philosophers and schools, like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics in his work.
Although there are no explicit references to Christianity in the Consolation, as you read it you can see how Boethius - who is a Christian philosopher - reinterprets philosophy in relation to a number of ideas that play an important role within a classical Christian framework - for example, the problem we encountered earlier in Epictetus, namely that of the relation between human freedom and providence.
Boethius is writing this work in very difficult circumstances. He has fallen from his previous position and power as a member of the Roman Senate, within the new kingdom of the Ostragoth King, Theodoric, in Italy, and has been accused of treason. This was then, as it commonly is now, a capital crime -- and he is under arrest, in an isolated villa, awaiting his eventual execution.
The text itself is a dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy, who appears to him as a beautiful and brilliant semi-divine woman. A good portion of it consists of the kind of philosophical discourses that by now you have some experience with -- arguments, inquiries, explanations, distinctions -- but through all of it, Philosophy aims to bring Boethius back to a proper understanding of himself and his situation. And that means coming back to a full understanding of the working of the universe, providence, the divine -- of Reality, as Boethius (and many other philosophers) understands it. It also means coming to terms with the nature of the human being, and how things go wrong for human beings in their actions, desires, thoughts, and lives.
You'll notice that there is also a lot of poetry interspersed throughout the text -- nearly every chapter has its poem. I would suggest that for a first-time reader, the poetry can be ignored. Reading it will of course, add much more to the text -- but perhaps that is something better saved for rereading the text later on down the line, after this class is finished.
The readings for this section are available for you in the Texts and Readings for the Class area. You should read through this material several times, taking notes, going back over the text -- it's not something you can fully understand with a single reading. And, the more time and work you put into studying it, the better and more deeply you'll understand it.
You may find watching the six Video Lectures on Boethius' Consolation recorded specifically for this class very helpful -- and you can find them immediately following this overview
You should also read through the Lesson Pages in the section that deal specifically with Boethius' Consolation. Those Pages can be found after the Video Lectures
I also have produced three useful Handouts on Boethius' Consolation, which are located below the Lesson Pages.
You'll also find a set of Questions for reflection, a Forum for discussing key ideas, and a Quiz you can take to check your understanding on the material.