I who once wrote songs with joyful zeal
Am driven by grief to enter weeping mode.
See the Muses, cheeks all torn, dictate,
And wet my face with elegiac verse.
No terror could discourage them at least
From coming with me on my way.
They were the glory of my happy youth
And still they comfort me in hapless age.
Old age came suddenly by suffering sped,
And grief then bade her government begin;
My hair untimely white upon my head,
And I a worn out bone-bag hung with flesh.
Death would be a blessing if it spared the glad
But heeded invocations from the wretch.
But now Death’s ears are deaf to hopeless cries,
His hands refuse to close poor weeping eyes.
While with success false Fortune favoured me
One hour of sadness could not have thrown me down,
But now her trustless countenance has clouded,
Small welcome to the days that lengthen life.
Foolish friends who called me happy then;
For falling shows a man stood insecure.
Thus begins Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. [i] Poor Boethius! Probably the last of the great Classical Roman thinkers, who rose to great political heights in the court of King Theodoric at Ravenna, but who then crashed and burned after being implicated (probably wrongly) in a conspiracy against the crown. Jailed and tortured, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy in prison as he awaited execution in 524 AD. [ii]
Not surprisingly, Boethius rails against the goddess Fortune over the injustice of his sudden fall, but is chastised with the rules of her Wheel of Fortune game — a game he had previously been happy to play when on the winning side:
Shall man’s insatiable greed bind me (Fortune) to a constancy which is alien to my ways? Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top. Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require. You must surely be aware of my ways. [iii]
The Consolation of Philosophy is presented by Boethius as a dialog between himself, the ailing prisoner, and his ‘nurse’, Philosophy personified in the form of a woman. The discourse is intended to present a sound philosophical argument as to why Boethius should not lose heart and retain his composure in spite of his suffering. Given his situation, I suppose Boethius can be forgiven for focusing on his own sad plight.
And yet, perhaps there is something fundamental here for modern reader? The above Cris de Coeur could just as equally be read as metaphors for the sad plight of the fading Roman Empire itself as much as applies to Boethius’s personal situation. Thus, the Wheel of Fortune, which took the Roman Empire to extravagant heights, by Boethius’ own time had turned, leaving the Empire nearly spent. Rome had itself become a ‘bone bag’ and ‘stood insecure,’ soon to fall to Germanic invaders. [iv] Could those suffering the decline of the empire also seek solace in this same argument?
I BECAME interested in reading Boethius because, yes, he lived in what was essentially the last days of the Roman Empire. I wondered if there is consolation to be found for those who live in what appears to me to be the dying days of Western Civilization? It’s the same Wheel of Fortune that took Rome to such giddy heights and then turned. Having taken Western Civilization to its own peak, the Wheel appears to be continuing its turn top to bottom.
Here I confess to being an admirer of German philosopher Oswald Spengler, who proposed that civilizations rise and fall in grand cycles more or less in the same fashion and for more or less the same reasons. [v] If Spengler is correct, perhaps we should be able to identify parallels in thinking in The Consolation of Philosophy reflected in our own times. The same over-arching ‘end-of-cycle’ philosophy common to both. I guess that is my primary aim here. Not so much to examine the philosophy itself, but the mind, the psychology, of the person behind it. Can we, in our own decline, find some parallel in these arguments?
Firstly, though, to better take Boethius and his position in the historical context of the evolution of the Roman society and project him into our own times, it is perhaps necessary to replace his ‘nurse’ Philosophy, with a ‘nurse’ more relevant to our own aged, namely what I would call Enlightenment. Perhaps then it is possible to re-imagine Boethius, and the arguments presented, in the context of the present day. There are hints in the text that seem as potently relevant to the situation in the present day as they did to Boethius in his cell so very long ago.
The above opening poem is dictated by the Muses of Poetry at Boethius’s bedside. On entering his cell, Philosophy (or, if you will, Enlightenment) is not amused :
At the sight of the Muses of Poetry at my bedside dictating words to accompany my tears, she [Philosophy/Enlightenment] became angry.
‘Who,’ she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, ‘has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man’s bedside? They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These are the very creatures who slay the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with barren thorns of Passion. They habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them. … Sirens is a better name for you and your deadly enticements : be gone, and leave him for my own Muses to heal and cure.’ [vi]
This battle of wills between Philosophy and the Muses of Poetry — with their ‘barren thorns of passion’ who ‘slay the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason’ — can here be translated into the modern vernacular as the battle between Reason and Emotion. In other words, the battle between reasoned, logical debate as opposed to the ‘touchy feely’ recourse to emotionalism of groups such as Extinction Rebellion. In Boethius’s time it appears that Philosophy was still able to offer resistance and send the Muses of Poetry on their way, whereas I doubt that Enlightenment in our own age could realistically manage this same victory. These days arguments hinging on emotion have more sway than those based on fact. At first sight, in the context of Spengler’s thesis, it would appear that Western Civilization has already declined beyond Rome’s point of devolution when Boethius lived.
Philosophy continues …
I fought many a great battle against the reckless forces of folly. And then, in Plato’s own lifetime, his master Socrates was unjustly put to death – a victorious death won with me at his side. After that the mobs of Epicureans and Stoics did all they could to seize for themselves the inheritance of wisdom that he left. As part of their plunder they tried to carry me off, but I fought and struggled, and in the fight the robe was torn which I weaved by my own hands. They tore off little pieces from it and went away in fond belief that they had obtained the whole of philosophy. The sight of traces of my clothing on them gained them the reputation among the ignorant of being my familiars, and as a result many of them became corrupted by the ignorance of the uninitiated mob. [vii]
Enlightenment, in our own times, fights ‘great battles’ against the illogical, the irrational, ‘the reckless forces of folly.’ As an example let me argue that the concept of ‘chestfeeding’ [viii] is several steps too far removed from the rational thinking of the Enlightenment. Or how about the normalisation of LGBTQI child-grooming into the mainstream, as the likes of children’s toy company Lego make clear:
Now get ready for ‘Everyone Is Awesome,’ a new, rainbow-colored Lego set introduced … by the toy company ahead of LGBTQ Pride Month. [ix]
Or even more alarmingly, especially in the context of this essay (my emphasis):
[Sex Discrimination Commissioner] Broderick wants ADF (The Australian Defence Force) to temper its warrior culture. [x]
That’s another battle between Reason and Emotion we have probably lost.
The Epicureans and the Stoics mentioned in the text were quasi-religious, philosophical schools of thought which arose more or less in response to the decline of the earlier Classical Greek civilization, as an attempt to ‘rationalise’ away their own slide into irrelevance. [xi] As the Enlightenment passes away in our own times we see the rise of many pretenders who claim its wisdom but are clearly false prophets for the ignorant and ‘uninitiated mob’. Quasi-religions, philosophies and ideologies abound. Perhaps these are personified by the most recent darling of the ignorant mob, Greta Thunberg. Boethius’s nurse, Philosophy, appeared to be optimistic as to the outcome of these ‘great battles’. I am not so convinced that Enlightenment in our times would be filled with the same optimism.
Again, Philosophy (Enlightenment) continues:
When their forces attack us in superior numbers, our (Philosophy’s/Enlightenment’s) general conducts a tactical withdrawal of his forces to a strong point, and they are left to encumber themselves with useless plunder. Safe from their furious activity, on our ramparts above we can smile at their efforts to collect the most useless booty: our citadel cannot fall to the assaults of folly. [xii]
It seems to me that, in our own days, the Enlightened have indeed retreated to their citadels, [xiii] but is there any hope of them leaving those safe places and recapturing lost ground? Are those safe places truly secure against the ‘assaults of folly’? Let us turn again to Boethius addressing Philosophy:
This, then, is how you (Philosophy/Enlightenment) reward your followers. And yet it was no one but you who commended Plato’s opinion that commonwealths would be blessed if they should be ruled by philosophers or if their rulers should happen to have studied philosophy. You took your cue from him and said that the reason why it was necessary for philosophers to take part in government was to prevent the reins of government falling into the hands of wicked and unprincipled men to the ruin and destruction of the good. And it was upon this authority that I (Boethius) decided to transfer to public administration what I learned from you in the course of our private leisure … Fortune should have blushed at the sight of innocence accused, or at least at the depravity of my accusers. [xiv]
At the very beginning of the Enlightenment in the eighteenth century it was proposed, and assumed, that the ‘enlightened’ elites would naturally be the most appropriate ones to lead governments. But, just as Boethius found in a land governed by ‘philosophers’, it turns out that the enlightened elites are as self-serving and depraved as the rulers they replaced. The assault on civilization comes primarily from those who claim to be ‘enlightened’ — the Thunbergs clothed in small fragments of The Enlightenment.
IN ANOTHER unexpected and surprising quotation from The Consolation of Philosophy, Philosophy says:
The natural world did not take its origin from that which was impaired and incomplete, but issues from that which is unimpaired and perfect and then degenerates into this fallen and worn out condition. [xv]
Boethius’ rather pessimistic worldview has, one assumes, an Old Testament/Garden of Eden/Fall of Man origin. However, it is hardly a universal Christian worldview and certainly does not appear to be one that was shared in the actual actions of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine the Great, as he set about building, in 330 AD, the brand new city that was to bear his name, Constantinople. Boethius’ worldview is more of an ‘end-of-cycle’ perspective referencing the ‘fallen’ and ‘worn out’ state of the Roman Empire at time, rather than the optimistic ‘commencement-of-cycle’ world-view held in Constantine’s time.
However, this quotation from 524AD is interesting because it almost exactly echoes the opening line of Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s 1762 work, Émile, intended as a criticism of Western civilization and in support for his concept of the noble savage:
Everything is good as it comes from the hands of the Author of things, and degenerates once it gets into the hands of man. [xvi]
‘Author of things’ is an unusual term for ‘God’, but interestingly Boethius also uses the exact same term as a synonym for the Divine in The Consolation of Philosophy. Or at least his translator does. It is the universal understanding of the human mind that God, author of all things, is good. [xvii] One assumes this is a true translation and not the translator somehow leaning on Rousseau! It is difficult to believe that this is a coincidence. More likely is that Rousseau was well acquainted with his Boethius.
But again, what we are seeing is that same pessimism echoed 1200 years after Boethius — Rousseau expresses the same pessimism at the state of his own civilization. However, this pessimism certainly does not appear to reflect the glorious optimism displayed in the many soaring cathedrals constructed by Christians all across Europe in the founding era of our Western Civilization. [xviii] Nor does it really represent the general optimism held in Rousseau’s own time at the beginning of The Enlightenment, when Henry Homes (Lord Kames) published his 1788 treatise outlining an ‘ascent of man’ model. [xix] However, it does appear to represent a similar, commonly held, pessimistic, ‘end-of-cycle’ phase of our own civilization, in our own time, with the wide-spread if not universal, proliferation of such doom and gloom, back-to-nature cults as the Green movement in general and, for example, ‘Extinction Revolution’ in particular.
THE dialogue between Boethius and Philosophy continues. At one point Boethius exclaims:
But the greatest cause of my sadness is really this – the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world (God), evil can still exist and even pass unpunished. [xx]
…you can learn from the Creator Himself since it is His realm we are speaking of, that the good are always strong and the wicked always humbled and weak. From Him, too, you can learn that sin never goes unpunished or virtue unrewarded, and that what happens to good is always happy and that which happens to bad is always misfortune. [xxi]
Then comes rather interesting (though perhaps unconvincing) logic from Philosophy, who argues that goodness is itself the reward for being good:
… since every reward is desired because it is believed to be good, no one will consider a man endowed with goodness to be without reward. … Goodness is happiness, and therefore it is obvious that all good men obtain happiness in virtue of their being good. [xxii]
And on the other hand, wickedness is the punishment for being wicked:
The reward we see due to the good must be balanced by a corresponding punishment of the wicked. Therefore just as goodness is its own reward, so the punishment of the wicked is their very wickedness. [xxiii].
Philosophy then continues:
Well, we have agreed, haven’t we, that the good men are happy and bad men unhappy. [xxiv]
The wicked will seek punishment, Philosophy argues, in order to restore happiness (Hmm?) However, having said that, Philosophy then offers a completely new line of counter-argument. To refer back to an earlier part of this essay, this appears to be Philosophy using Reason to arguing the cause of Emotion!
There is something else equally well founded on a firm base of argument which they will not agree with, namely, that those who commit an injustice are more unhappy than those who suffer it. … Suppose, then, you were sitting in judgement in the law courts ; on whom would you decide to pass sentence, the man who had committed the wrong, or the man who had suffered it? [xxv]
I have no hesitation in saying I would satisfy the one who had suffered at the expense of the one who had done it.
And Philosophy continues …
So would you think the perpetrator of the injury more wretched than the victim?
To which Boethius replies, ‘It follows.’
For this and other reasons based on the fact that by its own nature badness makes men wretched, it is clear that when someone has done an injury, the misery belongs not to the victim but to the perpetrator. But the court orators of today try and take the opposite course ; they try and excite the sympathy of the court for those who have suffered some grievous and painful injury, although juster sympathy is more due to those who are guilty. [xxvi]
This is why among wise men there is no place at all left for hatred. For no one except the greatest of fools would hate good men. And there is no reason at all for hating the bad. For just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind.[xxvii]
If this argument, written in around 524AD, sounds remarkably modern, it is because in recent times it has resurfaced and become ‘mainstream.’ It is called ‘The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment.’ The battle between Reason and Emotion that Boethius identified at the end of the Roman civilization, re-appears at the end of our own cycle of civilization. Here it is, taken up by C.S. Lewis, who in 1949 wrote an important article about what he called ‘The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment’. [xxviii]
The theory goes like this: all crime is really pathological, and treatment, not punishment, is what is required. Punishment is seen as barbaric and vindictive. After all, if someone is sick, we don’t punish them, we seek to treat them. The Humanitarian view rejects the notion of sin, of right and wrong, and instead sees crime in terms of maladaptive behaviour. Those holding to this view believe that this is the only humane and just way to approach criminal activity.
But Lewis reminds us that, traditionally, justice has always been about just deserts – giving to people what is rightly to due them (both victim and perpetrator). In other words, it is the old concept of reaping what you sow. But if we no longer think in terms of crime and criminals, but merely illness and sick people, then the offender of today does not get punished, but gets therapy, ‘understanding’ and coddling.
when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him . . . , we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether ; instead of a person, a subject of rights, we now have a mere object, a patient, a ‘case’. [xxix]
Lewis also suggests the same argument proposed by Philosophy to Boethius when she argued that the wicked would seek punishment in order to restore happiness;therefore, by withholding punishment one does more harm than good. Lewis counters that by separating consequences from actions and punishments from crimes we are actually doing the criminal greater harm. Just as this idea — in essence, of punishing to advance happiness — was sidelined by the argument favoured by Philosophy, so it is being largely marginalised in our own time.
THE Consolation of Philosophy certainly reads extraordinarily well for a document written in difficult Latin 1500 years ago, and no doubt that is largely due to some very clever work on the part of the translator, finding vocabulary to make it accessible to the modern reader. On the other hand, I do believe that the task has been made somewhat simpler by the apparent correlation between the shared ‘end-of-cycle’ world-views pointed out in the above essay. I don’t think Oswald Spengler’s ‘philosophy of history’ suffers in the analysis. In fact, perhaps, with my tongue not as firmly in my cheek as you might think, we should perhaps, just as Spengler had suggested, consider the fate of Boethius’s empire in his life time, and prepare for the possibility of our own round of ‘barbarian’ invaders. (Perhaps ridding armies of their ‘warrior culture’ might be seen in some quarters as an invitation?)
Poor old Boethius! I hope he found consolation in his Philosophy. But for personal ‘consolation’ I’m more inclined to take heed of a poem that Philosophy herself recites early in the book :
Let men compose themselves and live at peace,
Set haughty fate beneath their feet,
And look unmoved on fortune good or bad,
And keep unchanging countenance …
…If first you rid yourself of hope and fear
You have disarmed the tyrant’s wrath [xxx]
‘Rid yourself of hope and fear’ is, of course, a rather pessimistic ‘end-of-cycle’ view, which, however, seems quite suitable for the current situation, as it was for the situation for those facing the impending fate at the end of the Roman Empire.
This poem also appears to be a reference to Stoicism mentioned above, and perhaps even with echoes of the Buddhist, ‘Middle Way’ [xxxi] Avoid attachment and steer a middle course between self-gratification on one hand and self-mortification on the other, between hope and fear, Buddha councils – ‘a wise person remains unaffected by praise or censure.’ It is not surprising then that the Stoic and Buddhist philosophies were themselves ‘end-of-cycle’ philosophies that rose to popularity at the end of the Classical Greek and Classical Indian civilizations. [xxxii]
I notice, though, that I am not alone in advocating this same pessimistic end-of-cycle philosophy. Readers of Quadrant Online will recognise the similarity of this with the advice of newspaper columnist Greg Sheridan (as quoted by Peter Smith) :
The right path is … continued engagement with the culture, insistence on proclaiming the truth, but taking both victory and defeat with good cheer. [xxxiii]
Philosophy puts it thus:
And look unmoved on fortune good or bad, And keep unchanging countenance.
Unfortunately, this rather puts me into Peter Smith’s ‘pantywaist’ basket! [xxxiv] Perhaps I should leave The Consolation of Philosophy purely as a Spenglerian indicator of how bad things have become, and find a new, more virile philosophy with which to face the rigours of the future?
[i] Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Penguin Classics. Revised edition, 1999. Translated by Victor Watts. In 5 ‘Books.’
[ii] Or perhaps 525 AD. Bludgeoned to death at Parvia, his place of exile.
[iii] Boethius. Op. cit. Book II, page 25.
[iv] Even in Boethius’s time the Empire was ruled by ‘barbarians’, first Odoacer, then followed by Theodoric. Incidentally, the Latin word Barbarus essentially translates as ‘Non-Roman’, and that is the sense implied here.
[v] Spengler, O., 1923/1927, The Decline of the West. Outlines of a Morphology of World History, trans. Charles Francis Atkinson, New York, 1927 (orig. Der Untergang des Abendlandes, Umrisse einer Morphologie der Weltgeschichte, vol. 1, Vienna, 1918, rev. ed. Munich, 1923; vol. 2, Munich, 1922).
[vi] Boethius. Op. cit. Book I, page 4.
[vii] Boethius. Op. cit. Book I, pages 7-8.
[viii] Lane, B. 2021. ‘Mothers group in turmoil over “chestfeeding” pressure. The term ‘breastfeeding’ is said to trigger the bodily discomfort of biological females who identify as men.’ The Australian, (8/5/2021).
[ix] Carras, C., 2021. Kind of awesome: A new rainbow Lego set will arrive just in time for Pride Month. Los Angeles Times. (20/5/2021)
[x] Snow, D., 2012. Broderick wants ADF to temper its warrior culture. The Sydney Morning Herald (23/8/2012) https://www.smh.com.au/national/broderick-wants-adf-to-temper-its-warrior-culture-20120822-24msk.html#ixzz24JbOMdbp
[xi] Of course, the rise and fall of Greek civilization represents an earlier cycle of the ‘Wheel of Fortune’, but the timing of the appearance of the Stoics and Epicureans in that cycle represents the same timing as Boethius’s life in the cycle of the Roman civilization, or indeed or own position on the cycle of our own civilization. In Spengler’s view, in that sense, we are all ‘contemporaries’, because we all live in the same corresponding part of the cycle.
[xii] Boethius. Op. cit. Book I, page 8.
[xiii] An exemplar might be seen in the rise of such DIY books as the Benedict Option. https://www.amazon.com/Benedict-Option-Strategy-Christians-Post-Christian/dp/0735213291?tag=askcom05deals-20
[xiv] Boethius. Op. cit. Book I, pages 9-10.
[xv] Boethius. Op. cit. Book III, page 68.
[xvi] Rousseau, J.-J., 1762, Émile, ou de l’Éducation, Geneva. (in English in 1763,- transl. Bloom, A. (1979)).
[xvii] Boethius. Op. cit. Book III, page 69.
[xviii] Perhaps includes a mix of post millennial optimism along with the bountiful times of the Medieval Warm Period.
[xix] Home, H., Lord Kames, 1778. Sketches on the History of Man, Dublin. reprinted – Liberty Fund. He proposed a progression – a Hunting and Gathering Society, to a Pastoral Society, to an Agrarian Society, to a Commercial Society.
[xx] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, page 85.
[xxi] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, pages 85-6.
[xxii] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, pages 88-9.
[xxiii] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, pages 93-4.
[xxiv] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, page 97.
[xxv] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, page 99.
[xxvi] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, page 100.
[xxvii] Boethius. Op. cit. Book IV, page 101.
[xxviii] Lewis, C.S., 1949. The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment. http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/ResJud/1954/30.pdf
[xxix] Slightly edited version of Bill Meuhlenberg, ‘Crime and (no) Punishment’, Culture Watch (21/11/2016)
[xxx] Boethius. Op. cit. Book I, pages 8-9.
[xxxi] ‘Middle Way, in Buddhism, the complement of general and specific ethical practices and philosophical views that are said to facilitate enlightenment by avoiding the extremes of self-gratification on one hand and self-mortification on the other.’ https://www.britannica.com/topic/Middle-Way
[xxxii] Spengler, O., 1923/1927, Op cit. Vol 1 page 356. (Spengler’s emphasis) ‘Each culture, further, has its own mode of spiritual extinction, which follows necessity from its life as a whole. And hence Buddhism, Stoicism and Socialism are morphologically equivalent as end-phenomena.’
[xxxiii] Sheridan, Did Trump Destroy Evangelical Christianity? The Australian. (12/6/2021) Quoted in Smith, Peter. 2021. Good Cheer In Defeat Be Damned. (14/6/2021).
[xxxiv] Smith, Peter. 2021. Good Cheer In Defeat Be Damned. (14/6/2021) https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2021/06/good-cheer-in-defeat-be-damned/