Monday, June 10, 2013

Boethius: Fortune and Philosophy

Philosophy, mural by Robert Lewis Reid. Second...Image via Wikipedia

Boethius (480 – 524/6), born in Rome of an ancient family, served as the head of all government in the kingdom of Theodoric—Ostrogoth king of Italy.

The work of a polymath is always daunting, and for that reason I will focus on only one book and within that book (The Consolation of Philosophy) on the theme of Fortune. Because I’ve always thought that fortune either smiles on us or simply ignores us--and nothing else, I was taken aback by what Boethius had to say on the matter.

It is not in material wealth, nor money, or possessions, or fame, much less in the abundance of servants that the most precious of all riches lies. Boethius reveals where. And considering that he was betrayed and abused, his insight is even more bewildering.


When a senator named Albinus was accused of treason against Rome, Boethius defended openly the accused man. The consequences were disastrous. Not only was Boethius also charged with treason, but also with the sacrilege for practicing mathematics and astrology. It is during his imprisonment that he wrote his celebrated work, The Consolation of Philosophy. Having crashed out of grace, he was vilified, tortured, and finally executed.

The Consolation is a dialogue in prose and verse between the author and Philosophy.
In book II, chapter 2 we read:
“Didst thou not learn in thy childhood how there stand at the threshold of Zeus ‘two jars,’ ‘the one full of blessings, the other of calamities?’ How if thou hast drawn over-liberally from the good jar? What if not even now have I departed wholly from thee? What if this very mutability of mine is a just ground for hoping better things? But listen now, and cease to let thy heart consume away with fretfulness, nor expect to live on thine own terms in a realm that is common to all.”

Under the form of Fortune, Philosophy addresses Boethius’ complaints, attempting to make him see that humans partake of the two jars: blessings and calamities. That even under the most abject conditions Fortune brings about sudden reversals. That happiness can be found even under the most adverse of conditions.

The poet’s voice tells us about the essence of Fortune:
“Mad Fortune sweeps along in wanton pride,/Uncertain as Euripus surging tide;/Now tramples mighty kings beneath her feet;/Now set the conquered in the victor’s seat./She heedeth not the wail of hapless woe,/But mocks the griefs that from her mischief flow.”

In Book II, chapter 8, Philosophy reveals to Boethius that there are two Fortunes:
“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 favour by the semblance of delusive good, the other delivers them by the knowledge of the frail nature of happiness.”

Philosophy turns Boethius’ understanding upside down. Here we have a transvaluation of values. Good fortune turns out to be the villain; Ill fortune the heroine.
In closing her discussion of the two Fortunes, Philosophy, tells Boethius that it is Ill Fortune who discloses who our true friends are—not Good Fortune, who on the contrary hides them. And in her final admonition lies a much sought out nugget of wisdom: “Cease, then, to seek the wealth thou hast lost, since in true friends thou has found the most precious of all riches.”

Boethius makes the point that in the course of our lives, when Good Fortune smiles on us, we should be wary, for complacency, deception, and delusion will lead us to overdraw our blessings from the good jar.

For those with a philosophical bent, The Consolation of Philosophy offers insightful discussions on happiness, the problem of good and evil, and human freedom. For those with a practical bent, you can find wise advice on wealth, money, riches, and living well.

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