#148. ON CONSOLATION. One of the most famous passages in Gibbon is his description of the imprisonment and assassination of Boethius. Simply put, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was a scholar, translator and politician of the sixth century, consul to the then-emperor Theodoric. He was a scion of one of the most respected political families of the empire, universally thought to be a good and honest man, and was the author of philosophic and theological tracts. Despite the polish of his reputation, he ran afoul of Theodoric on two points: he accepted the doctrine of the Trinity, whereas Theodoric was a believer in Arianism; and in a political skirmish he defended the rights of the Roman Senate more vigorously than Theodoric was inclined to forgive. Boethius was condemned to prison and death but during his time in prison Theodoric allowed him paper and ink; he then composed The Consolation of Philosophy, considered one of the last breaths of Roman literature and a step into the canon and practice of medieval literature. At the end of his imprisonment, Gibbon tells us, “a strong cord was fastened around the head of Boethius, and forcibly tightened until his eyes almost started from their sockets; and some mercy may be discovered in the milder torture of beating him with clubs till he expired.” (Some mercy, maybe; not a lot.) His remains were brought to the basilica of St. Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, in Pavia, where they rest in a handsome chest in the crypt; Dante, who revered Boethius, speaks of this in the Paradiso, Canto X: “The body…. / lies down there in Cieldauro, and he has risen / from martyrdom and exile to this peace.”
With most literature we rely on the work gaining some existence independent of its author, but with the Consolation this is curiously not so. We cannot imagine it as a literary exercise; it is, it must be, the work of a man who knew he would soon be facing death by execution. Speaking first of the songs he sang in better times, he is given the vision of a lady, Philosophy, who proceeds, in the work’s five chapters, to strip her interlocutor from all hope in the temporary joys of life. Despite Boethius’s no doubt genuine Christianity, the Consolation is not a Christian work proper but a kind of Platonic, monotheistic work with Pauline echoes. It works, in the prose chapters that are interspersed with poems, with a rigorous logic to a final lesson: that all our fragile and worldly comforts must be abandoned; there is no truck between them and the greater, transcendent, final good. This lesson, especially granting its dramatic situation, is hard to refute, and yet some part of me feels the chill of this logic as well as its rigor, and that at some level the arguments fail. Like Lord Peter Wimsey, I am perfectly willing to say “I have not the philosophic mind.” Gibbon himself writes, “Such topics of consolation, so obvious, so vague, or so abstruse, are ineffectual to subdue the feelings of human nature.”
Perhaps, but in Boethius there is the tempering throughout of a wide-spirited and accepting nature. His pleasures must end; but it engenders in him no sneering, no haughtiness, at the fragilities of the world. Helen Waddell expressed it most finely: “He is both mystic and stoic, but without the contempts of either; a lover of life and unafraid of death, but neither its shadow nor the light of the world to come has taken from the greenness of the grass. It was fortunate for the sanity of the Middle Ages that the man who taught them so much of their philosophy was of a temperament so humane and so serene; that ‘the mightiest observer of mighty things,’ who defined eternity with an exulting plenitude that no man has approached before or since, has gone to gather violets in a spring wood, and watched with a sore heart a bird in a cage that has caught a glimpse of waving trees and now grieved its heart out, scattering its seed with small impotent claws."
Like Lucretius, Boethius has been singularly fortunate in his translators. King Alfred translated him into Old English (I know this has been questioned, but I couldn’t resist), Jean de Meung into Old French; Geoffrey Chaucer and Elizabeth I did versions. Henry Vaughan translated several of the poems, and Helen Waddell included several with very fine translations, in her collections of Latin lyrics, which, yes, are books you should read. A couple of the old Penguin translations of the Consolation can be found easily secondhand, and are not too bad, but David Slavitt in 2008 did a very fine new version published by Harvard; it’s an exceptionally handsome book.