The Consolation Of Philosophy: How A Man About To Die Found Happiness

It is a time of decay. Rome, once the mighty capital of an Empire spanning three continents, is a rotting, crumbling shadow of its former self.

The old institutions of the city, like the formerly powerful Senate, are still there, but entering the last few decades of their existence.

The ruler of Rome is no longer a Roman, but instead a barbarian King named Theodoric.

Theodoric was the King of the Ostrogoths, a Germanic tribe which had been previously settled in Pannonia on the banks of the Danube River. Always in search of land, they had then moved downriver into the Balkans.

From their settlements deep in Lower Moesia, the Ostrogoths had been pillaging the Eastern Roman Empire, even threatening the capital of Constantinople itself.

In order to protect his lands, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno urged Theodoric to instead turn his wrath towards Italy.

There the ruler was Odoacer, the Germanic chieftain and King who had overthrown the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus. Thus he had ended the Empire in the West for all eternity.

Theodoric sent all his forces into battle and defeated Odoacer, founding an Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. Rome became just another city in his kingdom.

It is 523 AD, and a man is sitting in a darkly-lit cell, awaiting trial for a crime he did not commit. He was falsely accused and brought down by dishonest men who coveted his position.

The man, in his mid-40s, takes up a pen and starts writing. One question bothers him: How is it that in a supposedly just world, good men suffer bad things, while evil men often triumph?

Boethius, or in his full name Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, was born into an ancient Roman noble family. Among his ancestors he could count Roman emperors, consuls and senators. He was a senator himself, who rose to become a consul, and later a high-ranking official in the court of Theodoric.

Boethius had jumped to the aid of a friend who was falsely accused of treason against Theodoric and for that had been in turn accused of treason himself. His enemies brought out false witnesses against him and he was thrown in jail.

Being a man of learning, Boethius used the time during which he was locked up for productive purposes. As a scholar of ancient philosophy, he used his knowledge to draft a manuscript which in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance would become one of the most influential works of Late Antiquity. It is called “The Consolation of Philosophy”.

It was a dark time in the man’s life, knowing that his days were numbered and he was about to die. This was made even more difficult by the fact that this situation was not of his doing. He had tried to be a good and honest man, but shady and dishonest men brought him down.

An honest man was about to be executed based on false accusations, while crooked men were enjoying riches and privilege. This state of affairs caused him to lose sleep. How could this be in a world supposedly ruled by a just God?

This is the question that many people have asked themselves throughout history and continue asking themselves now. Why do good people get punished and bad people rewarded?

Most people have been taught that if they do good, they will be rewarded. However when they look around, they see the reality of the world. This is not in fact the way things work.

In order to answer this question, it is interesting to look at what Boethius had to say. For if a man about to die can find happiness, why can’t you in other situations?

In Boethius’ writing, Lady Philosophy visits him in his cell and tries to comfort him by showing him how to take happiness into his own hands.

The approach she takes is a step by step approach, first by examining the common views of what most people consider happiness to be, and then moving onto more deep, philosophical explanations of happiness. At the beginning, she gives him “light medicine”, and then later she switches over to giving him the real “cure”.

In this life, most people are striving for money, political positions, fast cars and other material goods. They think that by getting these things, they will finally be happy.

However, a lot of times, these people end up being more and more unhappy. Just think of rock stars, people who are living the dream, committing suicide, or rich people abusing drugs in order to get a cheap thrill.

The problem is that people focus on the wrong things.

Boethius states that what all people desire as their ultimate goal is happiness:

All mortal creatures strive to reach one goal—the goal of happiness. Now, the ultimate good is something that when a man has it, he can lack nothing further. This is the supreme good of all, containing within itself all the other particular goods. To this state, all men try to get to, but by different paths.

They try to get there in different ways, but usually end up mistaking the means for the end:

For the desire of the true good is naturally implanted in the minds of men; only error leads them aside out of the way in pursuit of the false. Some, deeming it the highest good to want for nothing, spare no pains to attain affluence; others, judging the good to be that to which respect is most worthily paid, strive to win the reverence of their fellow-citizens by the attainment of official dignity.

There are some who fix the chief good in supreme power; these either wish themselves to enjoy sovereignty, or try to attach themselves to those who have it. Those, again, who think renown to be something of supreme excellence are in haste to spread abroad the glory of their name either through the arts of war or of peace.

A great many measure the attainment of good by joy and gladness of heart; these think it the height of happiness to give themselves over to pleasure. There are others, again, who interchange the ends and means one with the other in their aims; for instance, some want riches for the sake of pleasure and power, some covet power either for the sake of money or in order to bring renown to their name.

Most people focus on the wrong things. They chase after money, thinking it will make them happy. They chase after fame or bodily pleasures (let’s do drugs everybody!), thinking it will bring them happiness.

Oftentimes people get some things they want, but then find something else to be unhappy about.

The conditions of human bliss are oftentimes troublesome; either they are never realized in full, or never stay permanently. One has abundant riches, but is shamed by his low birth. Another is conspicuous for his nobility, but through the embarrassments of poverty would prefer to be obscure. A third, richly endowed with both, laments the loneliness of an unwedded life. Another, though happily married, is doomed to childlessness, and nurses his wealth for a stranger to inherit. Yet another, blessed with children, mournfully bewails the misdeeds of son or daughter.

Wherefore, it is not easy for anyone to be at perfect peace with the circumstances of his lot. The more favored a man is by Fortune, the more fastidiously sensitive he is; and, unless all things answer to his whim, he is overwhelmed by the most trifling misfortunes, being utterly unschooled in adversity.

So petty are the trifles which rob the most fortunate of perfect happiness! How many are there, can you imagine, who would think themselves as in heaven, if but a small portion from the wreck of your fortune should fall to them?

Most people look at things as if the glass were half-empty, instead of half-full. They don’t realize what is really important and what really matters.

Instead, they need to look on the bright side. There are always things you should be thankful for.

Lady Philosophy reminded Boethius that he still has his family and should be thankful for that, since they are healthy and successful. His loved ones are still alive and that is the most important thing.

What right do you have to talk of ill-fortune while you still keep all of Fortune’s better gifts? Symmachus, your wife’s father—a man whose splendid character does honor to the human race—is safe and unharmed; and while he bewails your wrongs, this rare nature, in whom wisdom and virtue are so nobly blended, is himself out of danger—a boon you would have been quick to purchase at the price of life itself.

Your wife yet lives, with her gentle disposition, her peerless modesty and virtue—this the epitome of all her graces, that she is the true daughter of her sire—she lives, I say, and for your sake only preserves the breath of life, though she loathes it, and pines away in grief and tears for your absence. What shall I say of your sons and their consular dignity—how in them, so far as may be in youths of their age, the example of their father’s and grandfather’s character shines out?

Since, then, the chief care of mortal man is to preserve his life, how happy you are, could you not but recognise your blessings, who possesses even now what no one doubts to be dearer than life! Wherefore, now dry your tears. Fortune’s hate has not involved all your dear ones; the stress of the storm that has assailed you is not beyond measure intolerable, since there are anchors still holding firm.

Fortune is fickle. You shouldn’t tie your happiness to its fickle whims. Sometimes you get lucky sometimes you don’t. That’s the nature of this world.

If, then, you are the master of yourself, you possess that which you will never be willing to lose, and which Fortune cannot take from you. And that you must see that happiness cannot possibly consist in these things which are the sport of chance, reflect that, if happiness is the highest good of a creature living in accordance with reason, and if a thing which can in any wise be reft away is not the highest good, since that which cannot be taken away is better than it, it is plain that Fortune cannot aspire to bestow happiness by reason of its instability.

Your happiness should not depend on external things outside your control. This is very similar to the old Stoic maxim of concentrating on things that you can control and forgetting about the rest.

However oftentimes this is very hard to do, especially if your basic urges like food, shelter, and sex are not satisfied.

Humans (and all living things) have two basic goals in their lives, to survive and to reproduce. These are the lowest and most important parts of the hierarchy of needs.

In order for a person to objectively be happy, these basic needs have to be satisfied first. If they are not, you cannot be happy.

If you don’t have food on your table, don’t have a house, or keep getting rejected by girls, you are not satisfying your basic needs, and no number of affirmations inside your head will change that.

I think this is an important caveat to what Boethius is saying, otherwise he is spot on. Outside of these basic needs, all the other things on the hierarchy of needs are just nice to haves. These nice to haves should not be the defining factor of whether you are happy or not.

If you think about it, a lot of things people chase after are pretty stupid.

Boethius lists some of the general things that humans usually lust for and discusses how unimportant they really are:

For example riches:

What do you seek by all this noisy outcry about fortune? To chase away poverty, I ween, by means of abundance. And yet you find the result just contrary. Why, this varied array of precious furniture needs more accessories for its protection; it is a true saying that they want most who possess most, and, conversely, they want very little who measure their abundance by nature’s requirements, not by the superfluity of vain display.

Or fame:

And yet consider with me how poor and unsubstantial a thing this glory is! The whole of this earth’s globe, as you have learned from the demonstration of astronomy, compared with the expanse of heaven, is found no bigger than a point; that is to say, if measured by the vastness of heaven’s sphere, it is held to occupy absolutely no space at all.

If you look at the grand scale of things, most things are quite insignificant. If you look out at the night sky, you will see stars. Those stars might be just little specks in the sky, but in reality they are giant balls of hot gases and the light from them has been travelling through space for thousands or even millions of years!

The universe is vast, and individual things are insignificant compared to this vastness.

And time is vast as well. Just imagine how much time has already passed since the time when Boethius had written these words:

Once more, how many of high renown in their own times have been lost in oblivion for want of a record! Indeed, of what use are written records even, which, with their authors, are overtaken by the dimness of age after a somewhat longer time? But you, when you think on future fame, fancy it an immortality that you are begetting for yourselves.

Why, if you scan the infinite spaces of eternity, what room have you left for rejoicing in the durability of your name? Verily, if a single moment’s space be compared with ten thousand years, it has a certain relative duration, however little, since each period is definite. But this same number of years, and a number many times as great—cannot even be compared with endless duration; for, indeed, finite periods may in a sort be compared one with another, but a finite and an infinite never.

So it comes to pass that fame, though it extend to ever so wide a space of years, if it be compared to never-lessening eternity, seems not short-lived merely, but altogether nothing.

Given that fortune is so fickle, you need to reframe your thinking. Think of bad fortune as a learning opportunity. Failure allows you to learn from your mistakes. Misfortune also allows you to realize what is truly important and get your priorities straight.

Strange is the thing I am trying to express, and for this cause I can scarce find words to make clear my thought. For truly I believe that Ill Fortune is of more use to men than Good Fortune. For Good Fortune, when she wears the guise of happiness, and most seems to caress, is always lying; Ill Fortune is always truthful, since, in changing, she shows her inconstancy.

The one deceives, the other teaches; the one enchains the minds of those who enjoy her favor by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness. Accordingly, you may see the one fickle, shifting as the breeze, and ever self-deceived; the other sober-minded, alert, and wary, by reason of the very discipline of adversity.

Finally, Good Fortune, by her allurements, draws men far from the true good; Ill Fortune oftentimes draws men back to true good with grappling-irons.

Thus all fortune is good fortune; for it either rewards, disciplines, amends, or punishes, and so is either useful or just.

So what should you do in order to find happiness? The answer found in Boethius’ writing is to focus inward, to reflect, to try to be the best you can be and live a life of virtue.

That’s why intrinsic motivation is important. You will not gain true satisfaction through external things and extrinsic motivation.

Being intrinsically motivated can also shield you from the bad influences of the outside world and the general failings of human nature.

Always keep in mind this quote from Marcus Aurelius:

Begin each day by telling yourself: Today I shall be meeting with interference, ingratitude, insolence, disloyalty, ill-will, and selfishness – all of them due to the offenders’ ignorance of what is good or evil.

Many people end up being unhappy because other people think of them badly or try to undermine their efforts.

This is unfortunately the natural state of the world. Most people think of themselves first and try to promote their own things, often using treachery and lies. If you realize this state of affairs, you can keep objective about it and not have it rattle you.

A lot of times, people will try to trip you up on purpose. Even if they are lying and you are telling the truth, they will work even harder to blacken your name and reputation.

For these bad people “the ends justify the means” as Machiavelli stated. Paradoxically, if you are honest, many of these people will try to hurt you even more.

For as Terence, one of the founders of Roman theater in the 2nd century BC, wrote in his comedy “Andria”:

Compliance makes friends, the truth makes enemies.

A blogger, who writes under the pen-name of “Quintus Curtius” (no, he is not the Ancient Roman historian, but instead a guy who lives now), has shared some interesting thoughts on what you should do about people misperceiving you, whether by mistake or on purpose:

I think there is a subject related to this topic, and wanted to mention it here as well. This is the idea of the variability of our reputations and images even after we die. We should first realize that during our lives we will be endlessly misunderstood and mischaracterized. People will do this either deliberately or through negligence: we should come to expect it.

Why do people misrepresent others? Envy is one major reason: it victimizes anyone who tries to undertake great deeds. The common mob revels in ignorance and venal emotions, and instinctively feels uneasy with talk about talent and virtue. The person who has a great soul, the one who wishes to achieve great things, is attracted by such talk; but the gutter is deeply afraid of it.

Human folly is ever-present and that’s unfortunate, but it is is how it is. Boethius acknowledges this state of affairs in one of his poems:

Human Folly. Alas! how wide astray Doth Ignorance these wretched mortals lead From Truth’s own way!

Your happiness should not depend on whether people praise you or what they think of you, but instead on what you think of your own effort. To continue with what Boethius had to say on this subject:

For many have won a great name through the mistaken beliefs of the multitude—and what can be imagined more shameful than that? Nay, they who are praised falsely must themselves blush at their own praises!

And even when praise is won by merit, still, how does it add to the good conscience of the wise man who measures his good not by popular repute, but by the truth of inner conviction? And if at all it does seem a fair thing to get this same renown spread abroad, it follows that any failure so to spread it is held foul.

But if, as I set forth but now, there must needs be many tribes and peoples whom the fame of any single man cannot reach, it follows that he whom you esteem as glorious seems all inglorious in a neighbouring quarter of the globe. As to popular favor, I do not think it even worthy of mention in this place, since it never comes of judgement, and never lasts steadily.

All this doesn’t mean that you should just go live in a cave somewhere and meditate and that material things don’t matter. Even Lady Philosophy acknowledges that they do matter to an extent.

For example, money can buy medicine and thus better health. So that’s the best way to think of material things. As a means to an end. And you do not need a lot of these things in order to live a happy live.

“But,” you will say, “the rich have the wherewithal to sate their hunger, the means to get rid of thirst and cold.” True enough; want can thus be soothed by riches, wholly removed it cannot be. For if this ever-gaping, ever-craving want is glutted by wealth, it needs must be that the want itself which can be so glutted still remains. I do not speak of how very little suffices for nature, and how for avarice nothing is enough.

The important thing is to focus on self-mastery. “The Consolation of Philosophy” of Boethius is full of poems, one which expounds on this:

Self-mastery: Who on power sets his aim, First must his own spirit tame; He must shun his neck to thrust ‘Neath th’ unholy yoke of lust. For, though India’s far-off land Bow before his wide command, Utmost Thule homage pay— If he cannot drive away Haunting care and black distress, In his power, he’s powerless.

The path towards self-mastery will be hard, but the important thing is that you set upon it and that you try.

For many people what matters is just the result and not the path that they used to get there.

The judgment of most people is based not on the merits of a case but on the fortune of its outcome; they think that only things which turn out happily are good.

If you don’t try, you will never succeed. However your happiness should not be defined by whether you get everything that you want, but instead by the fact that you tried and did everything possible to get there.

Many times, your progress will be blocked by things beyond your control, by bad luck. Boethius is the one who came up with the concept of the wheel of fortune. You spin the wheel and don’t know where the arrow will land.

Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes you don’t. You should not define yourself by this luck.

In the last two books, Boethius starts discussing things on a more metaphysical level. For him, the purpose of life is to realize your Higher Self.

You are supposed to move to a higher point of view. From this view, most things seem petty and trivial.

The way to go about things in this world is to do the right things for the right reasons: to be virtuous.

For Boethius, this is the fundamental element of everything:

One’s virtue is all that one truly has, because it is not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune.

This is also in a roundabout way, the answer to the question asked initially: why do good men suffer and evil men triumph?

Maybe this is the wrong question to ask. Things are how they are. Human nature will not change. You need to accept it and not let it bother you. You should distance yourself from it and look inward.

Bad people can do bad things to you, but they cannot triumph over you, unless you let them. If you keep your virtue intact, you have won.

Boethius argues that evil men will get what is coming to them:

Those high and mighty kings you see sitting on high in glory, dressed in purple, surrounded by armed guards, can breathe cruel fury, threaten with fierce words. But if you strip off the coverings of vain honor from those proud men, you will see underneath the tight chains they wear.

Lust rules their minds with greedy poisons, rage whips them, vexing their minds to stormy wrath. Sometimes they are slaves to sorrow, sometimes to delusive hope. This is the picture of individual man with all his tyrant passions; enslaved by these evil powers, he cannot do what he wishes.

Take a mafia boss as an example. He might be rich and powerful, but is he truly free? No, he needs to go around surrounded by big groups of bodyguards and fears for his life at all times.

Evil men are slaves to their passions and emotions, and this will never render them truly happy.

On this higher level, Boethius argumentation is sound, however I have found a few points of disagreement.

Boethius argues that evil men know they are doing bad and suffer for it.

Not sure whether I agree. This presupposes that all people are wired the same way. This is not so, for example psychopaths. They lack the emotional wiring that most ordinary people have and doing bad things paradoxically oftentimes makes them feel better.

However the argument of Boethius does have its merits and I understand where he is coming from.

The argument is a good coping mechanism for people who have tried to act justly, but were struck by misfortune. That’s why many people believe in the afterlife, where their good actions in this world will finally be rewarded.

Ultimately, talk of the afterlife is unknowable and thus unfalsifiable. We just do not know and will not know until we get to that point.

This work of Boethius, while based on philosophical arguments, does contain a lot of talk of God.

Boethius had been inspired by previous philosophical schools, especially the thoughts of Aristotle and the Neo-Platonists, as well as by religion and Christianity (which in turn had itself been inspired by various schools of philosophy and mysticism).

He was living in an age where paganism was almost eradicated and Christianity had taken over Rome. So this work had parts which sat well with the religious crowd and became very popular in the Middle Ages.

To quote:

In the Consolation of Philosophy, written in a form of an imaginary dialogue with philosophy, Boethius argues that there is a higher power and that all the suffering has higher purpose. According to Boethius, the universe is ruled by divine love and true happiness can be achieved not through power and money but by turning to otherworldly virtues. This interpretation perfectly fitted with the Christian doctrine of humility and played an important role in the later Christian philosophy of consolation according to which suffering from evil will be rewarded in the afterlife.

However at its core, it is based in philosophy, so many of its profound lessons can be grasped even by people who are not religious.

One thing that the work mentions is a Hero’s Path. In one of the poems it expounds on the life of a hero and all his trials and tribulations.

This idea has been echoed many times in what modern mythologists like Joseph Campbell call the Hero’s Journey.

One of the most important lessons of most hero’s journeys is that the hero had to look deep inside himself, if he wanted to triumph. This inward look and reflection were the keys to him becoming a hero.

Xenocrates, a pupil of Plato, came up with the concept of unifying the two parts of a human soul: the Olympian or heavenly part, and the Titanic or earthly part. Boethius stated that if you achieve happiness, you unify “the good”, and since “the good” is equivalent to God, you become God.

Writing “The Consolation of Philosophy” was a way for Boethius to achieve what he was talking about, to reflect on his inner self, to find the “good” and to come to peace with his fate.

After reading his work, I realized this is also why I am keeping this blog and have kept at it for over 3 years now, even though I get no money for it. This is my consolation of philosophy, a way to reflect and learn about things.

I urge you to take a look at Boethius’ “The Consolation of Philosophy” and apply lessons from it to your own life.

You might get a different idea about what it is saying from mine. That’s OK, though.

There are different interpretations of it and scholars argue about what he really meant. As long as it helps you, then Boethius has succeeded in his aim, whether directly or indirectly.

Read More:
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