Consolation of Philosophy: Theme Analysis
Reason vs. Passion
From the very beginning, Philosophy tries to tell Boethius that his suffering is not due to circumstance but to his emotional collapse. He is full of grief at what he has lost, as well as the prospect of death. She tries to show him two sorts of humans, those who have fallen below the human level and who live by their animal passions, and those philosophers who live by reason, thus raising themselves to a divine level of life.
Passion is a life of the senses. It includes overindulgence of the senses, which thus distorts perceptions and emotions. The result is that one lives in darkness, unable to know higher truth. These sub-human people may just suffer, or they may actually turn to evil. This darkness is a state created by humans themselves since humans are by nature rational creatures. They have the ability to choose which way to turn in life.
Even a good man like Boethius can become unbalanced in an extreme situation, and like a physician, Philosophy appears to remind him to use his mind and his reason to come out of his emotions and misunderstanding. His passion makes him believe that God has deserted him to evil forces. He thinks he is a plaything of Fortune.
Philosophy’s calm presence and step-by-step reasoning force him to use his higher faculties. This brings him out of passion and darkness. Once more he sees the order in the universe and knows God is running things. Passion makes one feel like a victim; reason, like a philosopher who is above the storm of life. Reason produces a “fruitful harvest” while Passion only produces “barren thorns” (I. i., p. 4).
Fate vs. Providence
Boethius questions Philosophy over and over: if God is in charge of the world, why is there evil? Philosophy makes a distinction between Fate and Providence to answer his question. At first it seems just a matter of definition or point of view, but later she shows they are actually two different mechanisms.
Fate was a term the Greeks used for what was beyond the control of humans. The gods appointed certain destinies for each person, and there was nothing to be done about it. Oedipus, for instance, tried to outwit the fate foretold him, but he fulfilled the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, despite his attempts to escape. Boethius is trying to understand if perhaps he is in prison because he is caught in such a trap of Fate. He has tried to live a virtuous life, but maybe the cards were stacked against him.
Providence, on the other hand, is the term used to mean that all events are part of God’s plan. There is no evil, says Philosophy, because no matter how dark it looks, God sees what each person deserves and needs. God not only works out the plan for each person but also for the whole universe, simultaneously. There is no way the human mind can understand all this, but through reason it can verify God’s justice. Providence “is the divine reason itself,” while Fate is the binding influence of one’s own actions (IV. vi., p. 104).
She goes on to explain that Providence is above Fate, and it rules Fate. Fate is like a chain of necessity, of harsh cause and effect, governing what is farthest away from God. Those who live in ignorance far from the light, commit acts that bind them to strict and lawful consequences. The closer to God and to the light one lives, the less the rigidity of Fate can influence one’s life. If one lives a life of reason, one will not come under the influence of Fate, but under the benign influence of Providence, where all is working in a timeless way for one’s good. Providence is the higher force, which subsumes the workings of Fate.
Just because Boethius is trapped in prison by evil men does not mean he is under the control of Fate. He must have faith in God and use his reason to stay under the sway of Providence where everything will turn out to produce the good for him, even if he dies.
The Ascent of the Soul
The most surprising theme in The Consolation of Philosophy is the ascent of the soul to God. As one faces death, one thinks of the relationship to God and the destiny of the soul after death. How does one face one’s own mortality?
Scholars have been surprised that Boethius, who was a Christian, did not bring in his Christian beliefs here. He does not speak of Christ as the savior of souls. This is a central doctrine in Christianity, that humans cannot save their own souls because they are weighed down with too much sin. They need divine intervention to take away the sin, the darkness, so the soul can approach God.
At the moment of death, however, Boethius turns to the consolation of ancient philosophy, especially to the transcendental philosophies of Plato and Plotinus. In the book, the theme of the ascent of the soul is largely set forth in the hymns that Philosophy sings. Philosophy does not just tell Boethius that he can be with God after death; she asserts that he can be with God now in his life. She makes it clear that the human soul can “go home” to the divine center on its own. It has this capability to return to its own source.
In the Hymn to God that is the book’s climax (III.ix), Philosophy describes the self-circling divine mind, always turning back to itself in eternal self-sufficiency. Likewise, the human mind imitates this motion of being able to go inward to its source, which is the same as God’s center within each soul. She prays: “Grant, Father, that our minds Thy august seat may scan” (III. ix., p. 67).
Another hymn (III.xi) specifically describes the movement of turning back to the center of the soul. Whoever wants truth “shall turn unto himself his inward gaze,/ Shall bring his wandering thoughts in circle home/ And teach his heart that what it seeks abroad/ It holds in its own treasuries within” (p. 77).
Finally, there is a hymn describing the ascent of the soul to God (IV. i) as Philosophy promises to give the author’s mind “wings on which to lift itself” (p. 86). She describes how the mind can escape the corrupt sublunary sphere beneath the moon, can pass through the sphere of fire, pass the ether, pass the stars, because it possesses “the holy light” (p. 86) to approach God’s center and say, “I remember” (p. 87).
This turn back to the center of the soul is not represented as the same as being saved by Christ or God. It is the description of how the human can participate in divine goodness while alive, thus deserving to continue to do so after death. The Consolation of Philosophy implies that it is not enough to wait for God to save the soul. The human obligation is to use reason to approach God during one’s life.