For those of you that read my blog posts, you will know that I think Seneca’s Praemeditatio is quite possibly the best philosophical piece I have ever seen written. I mentioned it in the ‘Ancient Chinese, Greek, and Roman view on health’ blog posted July 3, 2021. I am also in the process of dedicating an entire article on this pre-meditation, so watch this space, or keep an eye out on my website davidhartmanntcm.com
Today’s post is giving you a look at another philosophical masterpiece. The guy that wrote it was called Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480-524/525CE), or Boethius for short. He wrote it whilst in jail where he was awaiting execution for supposedly conspiring against King Theodoric, the Ostrogoth, in the year 524/525CE.
Before I give you the philosophy piece, I thought it relevant to give you a little back story to provide context to the piece. I often feel that unless you know someone a little bit, you don’t really get the full impact of their thinking. If you understand what was happening in their lives before, and during, the written thought, it provides a much better image of the person, and therefore the philosophical piece.
Boethius was a Roman that came to prominence with his political career (he became famous as a philosopher after he died), which was as a consul to King Theodoric, the Ostrogoth from 510 until his execution in 524/525CE. King Theodoric was in charge of the ailing Western Roman empire, but he was essentially a puppet to Emperor Justin I, who ruled from Constantinople, as part of the Eastern Roman empire.
Theodoric became King of the Western Roman empire after defeating Odoacer in 493CE. Theodoric was an Ostrogoth (an Eastern Germanic people), that had established an empire north of the Black Sea. After the death of Atilla the Hun in 450CE they declared their independence and then expanded their territory all the way into the Western Roman empire by 493CE.
Interestingly, in 484CE there was a breach between the Eastern and Western Roman empires (known as the Acacian schism). Therefore, when Theodoric defeated Odoacer he became the ruler of the Western Roman empire; but this still resulted in him being inferior to the true Emperor of the Roman empire, who ruled from Constantinople. This meant that Theodoric was a King, not an Emperor, and was a Viceroy of Emperor Justin I. But he still had an extreme amount of power and the Western Roman people accepted him as their King and ruler. Well as much as you can accept a barbarian invader as your ruler, that is.
This is important because in 519CE, the schism ended, and this threatened King Theodoric’s position. The Western Roman people once again considered Emperor Justin I as the one true ruler, and Theodoric was nothing more than a barbarian invader and a heretic. Boethius was one of those Romans, and even though there is nothing that I read suggesting Boethius was conspiring against Theodoric, he was in a very difficult position. This is because Boethius was a Roman and Theodoric was an Ostrogoth.
It was probably only a matter of time before Romans in power under King Theodoric were rounded up and killed, either by perceived legal avenues, or illegal means. Boethius was arrested, condemned and exiled to Pavia. Whilst he was in prison awaiting his execution, he had time to think, and he wrote “The Consolation of Philosophy”. It is a philosophical masterpiece, which is fascinating in itself, because Christianity was considered to be the official state doctrine, with the Pagan God’s all but banished. What makes this interesting is that Boethius chose philosophy over theology at his greatest time of need, even though Boethius was a Christian.
The other intriguing element to this is that Boethius rarely opposes Christian beliefs in the text. This allowed his writing to survive Christian discrimination (and elimination) so that we have the opportunity, and pleasure, to read his masterpiece today.
Boethius also targets the Goddess Fortunata (Fortuna or Fortune) to vent his frustrations and this makes for compelling reading. The Goddess Fortunata was charged with providing people with fortune, but this could be either good or bad. She didn’t have favourites either so it didn’t matter how powerful you were, how famous, how special, she could hand out good fortune or bad. Plus, she was happy enough to provide a person with good fortune one day and then bad the next; or do the same for entire communities of people. Even praying to her didn’t guarantee good fortune indefinitely. Boethius essentially blames her for his imprisonment.
Whilst Boethius is in jail he is visited by ‘Philosophy’, who presents to him as a woman, a figment of his imagination. His book is, in part, a conversation between him and her. The following piece-de-resistance is one of those situations. The person starting the conversation is Philosophy, but she quickly refers on to the Goddess Fortunata. I hope you enjoy:
‘I would like to continue our discussion a while by using [the Goddess] Fortune’s own arguments, and I would like you to consider whether her demands are just.
“Why do you burden me each day, mortal man,” she [Goddess Fortunata] asks, “with your querulous accusations? What harm have I done you? What possessions of yours have I stolen?
“Choose any judge you like and sue me for possession of wealth and rank, and if you can show that any part of these belongs by right to any mortal man, I will willingly concede that what you are seeking to regain really did belong to you.
“When nature brought you forth from your mother’s womb I received you naked and devoid of everything and fed you from my own resources. I was inclined to favour you, and I brought you up – and this is what makes you lose patience with me – with a measure of indulgence, surrounding you with all the splendour and affluence at my command.
Now I have decided to withdraw my hand. You have been receiving a favour as one who has had the use of another’s possessions, and you have no right to complain as if what you have lost was fully your own. You have no cause to begin groaning at me: I have done you no violence.
Wealth, honours and the like are all under my jurisdiction. They are my servants and know their mistress. When I come, they come with me, and when I go, they leave as well. I can say with confidence that if the things whose loss you are bemoaning were really yours, you could never have lost them.
Surely I am not the only one to be denied the exercise of my rights? The heavens are allowed to bring forth the bright daylight and lay it to rest in the darkness of night: the year is allowed alternatively to deck the face of the earth with fruit and flowers and to disfigure it with cloud and cold. The sea is allowed either to be calm and inviting or to rage with storm-driven breakers.
Shall man’s insatiable greed bind me 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.
… Now, you have had more than your share of the good, but have I completely deserted you? Indeed, my very mutability gives you just cause to hope for better things. So you should not wear yourself out by setting your heart on living according to a law of your own in a world that is shared by everyone.”
In the end, Philosophy and the Goddess Fortunata didn’t/couldn’t/wouldn’t save Boethius. After a period of time in exile (a year or 2 I believe), Boethius was cruelly tortured and then bashed to death in 524 or 525CE.
And whilst my research suggests that Boethius was never interested in infamy, thanks to ‘The Consolations of Philosophy’ he obtained just that. So perhaps the Goddess Fortunata wasn’t so unkind to him after all?
I am keen to hear your thoughts.
Love and light to you all