37 Boethius

Boethius Summary

Boethius’ complaint (Song I.).

Chapter Ⅰ — Philosophy appears to Boethius, drives away the Muses of Poetry, and herself laments (Song II.) the disordered condition of his mind.

Chapter Ⅱ — Boethius is speechless with amazement. Philosophy wipes away the tears that have clouded his eyesight.

Chapter Ⅲ — Boethius recognizes his physician Philosophy. To his wondering inquiries she explains her presence, and recalls to his mind the persecutions to which Philosophy has oftentimes from of old been subjected by an ignorant world.

Chapter Ⅳ — Philosophy bids Boethius declare his griefs. He relates the story of his unjust accusation and ruin. He concludes with a prayer (Song V.) that the moral disorder in human affairs may be set right.

Chapter Ⅴ — Philosophy admits the justice of Boethius’ self-vindication, but grieves rather for the unhappy change in his mind. She will first tranquillize his spirit by soothing remedies.

Chapter Ⅵ — Philosophy tests Boethius’ mental state by certain questions, and discovers three chief causes of his soul’s sickness:

  1. He has forgotten his own true nature;
  2. He knows not the end towards which the whole universe tends;
  3. He knows not the means by which the world is governed. (179)

Excerpt: Book Ⅰ

Cover art of the book Margarita Philosophica

Figure 6.1: G. Reisch, Margarita Philosophica by Wellcome Collection gallery is licensed under CC-BY-4.0

While I was thus mutely pondering within myself, and recording my sorrowful complaining with my pen, it seemed to me that there appeared above my head a woman of a countenance exceeding venerable. Her eyes were bright as fire, and of a more than human keenness; her complexion was lively, her vigor showed no trace of enfeeblement; and yet her years were right full, and she plainly seemed not of our age and time. Her stature was difficult to judge. At one moment it exceeded not the common height, at another her forehead seemed to strike the sky; and whenever she raised her head higher, she began to pierce within the very heavens, and to baffle the eyes of them that looked upon her. Her garments were of an imperishable fabric, wrought with the finest threads and of the most delicate workmanship; and these, as her own lips afterwards assured me, she had herself woven with her own hands.

The beauty of this vesture had been somewhat tarnished by age and neglect, and wore that dingy look which marble contracts from exposure. On the lower-most edge was in woven the Greek letter Π [Greek: P], on the topmost the letter Θ (Greek: Theta), and between the two were to be seen steps, like a staircase, from the lower to the upper letter. This robe, moreover, had been torn by the hands of violent persons, who had each snatched away what he could clutch. Her right hand held a note-book; in her left she bore a staff.

And when she saw the Muses of Poetry standing by my bedside , dictating the words of my lamentations, she was moved awhile to wrath, and her eyes flashed sternly. ‘Who,’ said she, ‘has allowed yon play-acting wantons to approach this sick man — these who, so far from giving medicine to heal his malady, even feed it with sweet poison? These it is who kill the rich crop of reason with the barren thorns of passion, who accustom men’s minds to disease, instead of setting them free. Now, were it some common man whom your allurements were seducing, as is usually your way, I should be less indignant. On such a one I should not have spent my pains for naught. But this is one nurtured in the Eleatic and Academic philosophies. Nay, get ye gone, ye sirens, whose sweetness lasted not; leave him for my muses to tend and heal!’

At these words of upbraiding, the whole band, in deepened sadness, with downcast eyes, and blushes that confessed their shame, dolefully left the chamber. ‘But the time,’ said she, ‘calls rather for healing than for lamentation.’ Then, with her eyes bent full upon me, ‘Art thou that man,’ she cries, ‘who, erstwhile fed with the milk and reared upon the nourishment which is mine to give, had grown up to the full vigour of a manly spirit? And yet I had bestowed such armour on thee as would have proved an invincible defence, hadst thou not first cast it away. Dost thou know me? Why art thou silent? Is it shame or amazement that hath struck thee dumb? Would it were shame; but, as I see, a stupor hath seized upon thee.’

Then, when she saw me not only answering nothing, but mute and utterly incapable of speech, she gently touched my breast with her hand, and said: ‘There is no danger; these are the symptoms of lethargy, the usual sickness of deluded minds. For awhile he has forgotten himself; he will easily recover his memory, if only he first recognises me. And that he may do so, let me now wipe his eyes that are clouded with a mist of mortal things.’ Thereat, with a fold of her robe, she dried my eyes all swimming with tears.

But I, because my sight was dimmed with much weeping, and I could not tell who was this woman of authority so commanding — I was dumfoundered, and, with my gaze fastened on the earth, continued silently to await what she might do next. Then she drew near me and sat on the edge of my couch, and, looking into my face all heavy with grief and fixed in sadness on the ground, she bewailed in these words the disorder of my mind:

Even so the clouds of my melancholy were broken up. I saw the clear sky, and regained the power to recognise the face of my physician. Accordingly, when I had lifted my eyes and fixed my gaze upon her, I beheld my nurse, Philosophy, whose halls I had frequented from my youth up.

‘Ah! why,’ I cried, ‘mistress of all excellence, hast thou come down from on high, and entered the solitude of this my exile? Is it that thou, too, even as I, mayst be persecuted with false accusations?’

‘Could I desert thee, child,’ said she, ‘and not lighten the burden which thou hast taken upon thee through the hatred of my name, by sharing this trouble? Even forgetting that it were not lawful for Philosophy to leave companionless the way of the innocent, should I, thinkest thou, fear to incur reproach, or shrink from it, as though some strange new thing had befallen? Thinkest thou that now, for the first time in an evil age, Wisdom hath been assailed by peril? Did I not often in days of old, before my servant Plato lived, wage stern warfare with the rashness of folly? In his lifetime, too, Socrates, his master, won with my aid the victory of an unjust death.’

And when, one after the other, the Epicurean herd, the Stoic , and the rest, each of them as far as in them lay, went about to seize the heritage he left, and were dragging me off protesting and resisting, as their booty, they tore in pieces the garment which I had woven with my own hands, and, clutching the torn pieces, went off, believing that the whole of me had passed into their possession. And some of them, because some traces of my vesture were seen upon them, were destroyed through the mistake of the lewd multitude, who falsely deemed them to be my disciples.

It may be thou knowest not of the banishment of Anaxagoras, of the poison draught of Socrates, nor of Zeno’s torturing , because these things happened in a distant country; yet mightest thou have learnt the fate of Arrius, of Seneca, of Soranus, whose stories are neither old nor unknown to fame. These men were brought to destruction for no other reason than that, settled as they were in my principles, their lives were a manifest contrast to the ways of the wicked.

So there is nothing thou should wonder at, if on the seas of this life we are tossed by storm-blasts, seeing that we have made it our chiefest aim to refuse compliance with evil-doers. And though, maybe, the host of the wicked is many in number, yet is it contemptible, since it is under no leadership, but is hurried hither and thither at the blind driving of mad error.

And if at times and seasons they set in array against us, and fall on in overwhelming strength, our leader draws off her forces into the citadel while they are busy plundering the useless baggage. But we from our vantage ground, safe from all this wild work, laugh to see them making prize of the most valueless of things, protected by a bulwark which aggressive folly may not aspire to reach.

…’ ‘Now,’ said she, ‘I know another cause of thy disease, one, too, of grave moment. Thou hast ceased to know thy own nature. So, then, I have made full discovery both of the causes of thy sickness and the means of restoring thy health. It is because forgetfulness of thyself hath bewildered thy mind that thou hast bewailed thee as an exile, as one stripped of the blessings that were his;it is because thou know not the end of existence that thou deem abominable and wicked men to be happy and powerful; while, because thou hast forgotten by what means the earth is governed, thou deem that fortune’s changes ebb and flow without the restraint of a guiding hand. These are serious enough to cause not sickness only, but even death; but, thanks be to the Author of our health, the light of nature hath not yet left thee utterly.’

In thy true judgment concerning the world’s government, in that thou believed it subject, not to the random drift of chance, but to divine reason, we have the divine spark from which thy recovery may be hoped. Have, then, no fear; from these weak embers the vital heat shall once more be kindled within thee. But seeing that it is not yet time for strong remedies, and that the mind is manifestly so constituted that when it casts off true opinions it straightway puts on false, wherefrom arises a cloud of confusion that disturbs its true vision, I will now try and disperse these mists by mild and soothing application, that so the darkness of misleading passion may be scattered, and thou may come to discern the splendor of the true light.’ (179)

Book Ⅱ — The Vanity of Fortune’s Gifts


Chapter Ⅰ — Philosophy reproves Boethius for the foolishness of his complaints against Fortune. Her very nature is caprice.

Chapter Ⅱ — Philosophy in Fortune’s name replies to Boethius’ reproaches, and proves that the gifts of Fortune are hers to give and to take away.

Chapter Ⅲ — Boethius falls back upon his present sense of misery. Philosophy reminds him of the brilliancy of his former fortunes.

Chapter Ⅳ — Boethius objects that the memory of past happiness is the bitterest portion of the lot of the unhappy. Philosophy shows that much is still left for which he may be thankful. None enjoy perfect satisfaction with their lot. But happiness depends not on anything which Fortune can give. It is to be sought within.

Chapter Ⅴ — All the gifts of Fortune are external; they can never truly be our own. Man cannot find his good in worldly possessions. Riches bring anxiety and trouble.

Chapter Ⅵ — High place without virtue is an evil, not a good. Power is an empty name.

Chapter Ⅶ — Fame is a thing of little account when compared with the immensity of the Universe and the endlessness of Time.

Chapter Ⅷ — One service only can Fortune do, when she reveals her own nature and distinguishes true friends from false. (179)

Excerpt from Philosophia’s Speech: Book Ⅱ.Ⅰ

Thereafter for a while she remained silent; and when she had restored my flagging attention by a moderate pause in her discourse, she thus began: If I have thoroughly ascertained the character and causes of thy sickness, thou art pining with regretful longing for thy former fortune. It is the change, as thou deem, of this fortune that hath so wrought upon thy mind. Well do I understand that Siren’s manifold wiles, the fatal charm of the friendship she pretends for her victims, so long as she is scheming to entrap them—how she unexpectedly abandons them and leaves them overwhelmed with insupportable grief. Bethink thee of her nature, character, and deserts, and thou wilt soon acknowledge that in her thou hast neither possessed, nor hast thou lost, aught of any worth.

Methinks I need not spend much pains in bringing this to thy mind, since, even when she was still with thee, even while she was caressing thee, thou used to assail her in manly terms, to rebuke her, with maxims drawn from my holy treasure-house. But all sudden changes of circumstances bring inevitably a certain commotion of spirit. Thus it hath come to pass that thou also for awhile hast been parted from thy mind’s tranquility. But it is time for thee to take and drain a draught, soft and pleasant to the taste, which, as it penetrates within, may prepare the way for stronger potions. Wherefore I call to my aid the sweet persuasiveness of Rhetoric, who then only walk in the right way when she forsakes not my instructions, and Music, my handmaid, I bid to join with her singing, now in lighter, now in graver strain. (179)

Book Ⅲ — True Happiness and False


Chapter Ⅰ — Boethius beseeches Philosophy to continue. She promises to lead him to true happiness.

Chapter Ⅱ — Happiness is the one end which all created beings seek. They aim variously at (a) wealth, or (b) rank, or (c) sovereignty, or (d) glory, or (e) pleasure, because they think thereby to attain either (a) contentment, (b) reverence, (c) power, (d) renown, or (e) gladness of heart, in one or other of which they severally imagine happiness to consist.

Chapter Ⅲ — Philosophy proceeds to consider whether happiness can really be secured in any of these ways, (a) So far from bringing contentment, riches only add to men’s wants.

Chapter Ⅳ — (b) High position cannot of itself win respect. Titles command no reverence in distant and barbarous lands. They even fall into contempt through lapse of time.

Chapter Ⅴ — (c) Sovereignty cannot even bestow safety. History tells of the downfall of kings and their ministers. Tyrants go in fear of their lives.

Chapter Ⅵ — (d) Fame conferred on the unworthy is but disgrace. The splendor of noble birth is not a man’s own, but his ancestors.

Chapter Ⅶ — (e) Pleasure begins in the restlessness of desire, and ends in repentance. Even the pure pleasures of home may turn to gall and bitterness.

Chapter Ⅷ — All fail, then, to give what they promise. There is, moreover, some accompanying evil involved in each of these aims. Beauty and bodily strength are likewise of little worth. In strength man is surpassed by the brutes; beauty is but outward show.

Chapter Ⅸ — The source of men’s error in following these phantoms of good is that they break up and separate that which is in its nature one and indivisible. Contentment, power, reverence, renown, and joy are essentially bound up one with the other, and, if they are to be attained at all, must be attained together. True happiness, if it can be found, will include them all. But it cannot be found among the perishable things hitherto considered.

Chapter Ⅹ — Such a happiness necessarily exists. Its seat is in God. Nay, God is very happiness, and in a manner, therefore, the happy man partakes also of the Divine nature. All other ends are relative to this good, since they are all pursued only for the sake of good; it is good which the sole ultimate end is. And since the sole end is also happiness, it is plain that this good and happiness are in essence the same.

Chapter Ⅺ — Unity is another aspect of goodness. Now, all things subsist so long only as they preserve the unity of their being; when they lose this unity, they perish. But the bent of nature forces all things (plants and inanimate things, as well as animals) to strive to continue in life. Therefore, all things desire unity, for unity is essential to life. But unity and goodness were shown to be the same. Therefore, good is proved to be the end towards which the whole universe tends.

Chapter Ⅻ — Boethius acknowledges that he is but recollecting truths he once knew. Philosophy goes on to show that it is goodness also by which the whole world is governed. Boethius professes compunction for his former folly. But the paradox of evil is introduced, and he is once more perplexed. (179)

Excerpt from Philosophia’s Speech: Book Ⅲ.Ⅻ

For, truly, a little before thou didst begin with happiness, and say it was the supreme good, and didst declare it to be seated in the supreme Godhead. God Himself, too, thou didst affirm to be supreme good and all-complete happiness; and from this thou didst go on to add, as by the way, the proof that no one would be happy unless he were likewise God. Again, thou didst say that the very form of good was the essence both of God and of happiness, and didst teach that the absolute One was the absolute good which was sought by universal nature .

Thou didst maintain, also, that God rules the universe by the governance of goodness that all things obey Him willingly, and that evil has no existence in nature. And all this thou didst unfold without the help of assumptions from without, but by inherent and proper proofs, drawing credence one from the other.’

Then answered she: “Far is it from me to mock thee; nay, by the blessing of God, whom we lately addressed in prayer, we have achieved the most important of all objects. For such is the form of the Divine essence, that neither can it pass into things external, nor take up anything external into itself; but, as Parmenides says of it,

“‘In body like to a sphere on all sides perfectly rounded,”

it rolls the restless orb of the universe, keeping itself motionless the while. And if I have also employed reasonings not drawn from without, but lying within the compass of our subject, there is no cause for thee to marvel, since thou hast learnt on Plato’s authority that words ought to be akin to the matter of which they treat.” (179)

Book Ⅳ — Good and Ill Fortune


Chapter Ⅰ — The mystery of the seeming moral confusion. Philosophy engages to make this plain, and to fulfil her former promise to the full.

Chapter Ⅱ — Accordingly, (a) she first expounds the paradox that the good alone have power, the bad are altogether powerless.

Chapter Ⅲ — (b) The righteous never lack their reward, nor the wicked their punishment.

Chapter Ⅳ — (c) The wicked are more unhappy when they accomplish their desires than when they fail to attain them. (d) Evil-doers are more fortunate when they expiate their crimes by suffering punishment than when they escape unpunished. (e) The wrong-doer is more wretched than he who suffers injury.

Chapter Ⅴ — Boethius still cannot understand why the distribution of happiness and misery to the righteous and the wicked seems the result of chance. Philosophy replies that this only seems so because we do not understand the principles of God’s moral governance.

Chapter Ⅵ — The distinction of Fate and Providence. The apparent moral confusion is due to our ignorance of the secret counsels of God’s providence. If we possessed the key, we should see how all things are guided to good.

Chapter Ⅶ — Thus all fortune is good fortune; for it either rewards, disciplines, amends, or punishes, and so is either useful or just. (179)

Book Ⅴ — Free Will and God’s Foreknowledge


Chapter Ⅰ — Boethius asks if there is really any such thing as chance. Philosophy answers, in conformity with Aristotle’s definition (Phys., Ⅱ. ⅳ.), that chance is merely relative to human purpose, and that what seems fortuitous really depends on a more subtle form of causation.

Chapter Ⅱ — Has man, then, any freedom, if the reign of law is thus absolute? Freedom of choice, replies Philosophy, is a necessary attribute of reason. Man has a measure of freedom, though a less perfect freedom than divine natures.

Chapter Ⅲ — But how can man’s freedom be reconciled with God’s absolute foreknowledge? If God’s foreknowledge be certain, it seems to exclude the possibility of man’s free will. But if man has no freedom of choice, it follows that rewards and punishments are unjust as well as useless; that merit and demerit are mere names; that God is the cause of men’s wickednesses; that prayer is meaningless.

Chapter Ⅳ — The explanation is that man’s reasoning faculties are not adequate to the apprehension of the ways of God’s foreknowledge. If we could know, as He knows, all that is most perplexing in this problem would be made plain. For knowledge depends not on the nature of the thing known, but on the faculty of the knower.

Chapter Ⅴ — Now, where our senses conflict with our reason, we defer the judgment of the lower faculty to the judgment of the higher.Our present perplexity arises from our viewing God’s foreknowledge from the standpoint of human reason. We must try and rise to the higher standpoint of God’s immediate intuition.

Chapter Ⅵ — To understand this higher form of cognition, we must consider God’s nature. God is eternal. Eternity is more than mere everlasting duration. Accordingly, His knowledge surveys past and future in the timelessness of an eternal present. His foreseeing is seeing. Yet this foreseeing does not in itself impose necessity, any more than our seeing things happen makes their happening necessary. We may, however, if we please, distinguish two necessities — one absolute, the other conditional on knowledge. In this conditional sense alone do the things which God foresees necessarily come to pass. But this kind of necessity affects not the nature of things. It leaves the reality of free will unimpaired, and the evils feared do not ensue. Our responsibility is great, since all that we do is done in the sight of all-seeing Providence. (179)


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