Saturday, June 13, 2009


There are some texts that one returns to again and again. For me, Boethius' Consolatio is one of them. I first encountered this work in undergrad, lo, these many years ago, and have returned to it periodically over the years, both personally and professionally.

I recently returned to the text after some 5-6 years since I've really looked at it, using this time the Penguin translation. Back in 2001, I worked through the first book and part of the second in Latin, and I read P. Walsh's translation in 2003.

Its been a difficult period, both professionally and personally. The dissertation process is one that has nearly removed me any pleasure or desire to ever be in academia. Were it not for an adjunct gig reminding me how much I love being in the classroom, and a couple of projects reminding how much I love to do research, I'd have ended my bid for an academic career. That other than my adjunct gig I don't have an academic career is at the moment beside the point. So, I needed some Consolation.

But it isn't just that that spurred me....there are some texts that I think both personally and professionally I need to return to, to be steeped in, to let those authors and texts become a significant part of me. The Consolation of Philosophy is one such text for me. Now, some of these texts, some of us are able to teach from time to time, Beowulf, The Odyssey, etc are two such texts for me. But there are others that I have yet to be able to teach, the Consolation, Augustine's Confessions and On Christian Doctrine, Dante are a few of these on my list. (Perhaps this is a good time to start a new meme: what texts do you find yourself revisiting often (by desire, not force) and that are important to you.)

So, serendipity struck again and I found myself wanting to return to this text at the intersections of professional and personal needs. I was surprised after all this time how much of the Latin text I remembered and naturally how much more of those portions I recalled than the parts I've only ever known in translation. Of course, I know this to be true, nothing sticks in your memory as well as some text on which you've worked in another language. Still though, since its been 8 years now since I've even looked at the Latin, I was a bit surprised.

Boethius is always an odd read, I think. He posits a divine figure that controls all things, and in that we should take comfort because even those things that are evil are not so, but simply part of the plan so to speak. It is such a view that gave rise to Calvinism and that system's strict predestination, like Boethius, meant to be a comfort to the believer that God has it all in hand. There is no theology of accident. Unlike Calvinism and other deterministic views, though, for Boethius there seems to be plenty of room for free choice of individuals. Evil people choose to do evil things, but doing so is still part of the plan.

And I always laugh at Philosophy's rebuke of the Muses in Book I, so very Platonic in form and tone. Yet I've found that literature, and poetry in particular, often help me more that Plato or Aristotle....and poets I think probably overall had a greater impact on how people view themselves and the world that philosophy ever did, no matter how highly philosophy is held. Nonetheless, it is an amusing scene, particularly since in rejecting the Muses Philosophy herself engages in the Muses' activity by composing and singing poetry in largely traditional Classical meters!

As I read the text again I was reminded too of many things in manuscripts: coming across a phrase in the text where a manuscript gets the Greek wrong, and then tracing where that particular error arose...yet the interlinear commentary on the Greek phrase renders it's meaning correctly.....or in how many manuscripts I looked at, there is significant evidence of the first couple of books having been read carefully, but much less evidence of it as highly influential as Boethius was on Medieval thought, I would hazard a guess that it was the first two books that were the most influential and most well known.

I've always meant to get to the 14 or so Boethius manuscripts from A-S England, but this whole PhD and dissertation thing got in the way and has taken my time. Since then Malcolm Godden and other scholars have done a lot of work on them and Bruce Gilchrist informed me that Godden's work on the Old English Boethius, with Susan Irvine, book is now out and weighs in at over $200. Just looking it up, it's $365 from Oxford here. Just let me say how very jealous I am....but nonetheless I think there is still some great work to be done on the Latin commentary tradition, both within and without England. No one has really done substantial work on that since Edmund Silk's 1935 Saeculi Noni Auctoris in Boetii Consolationem Philosophiae Commentarius--a magnificent piece of work, but Silk was wrong in many of his conclusions, and there is still a great deal of work to do. I confess that I've always had an interest in Alfred's Boethius, mentioned above, but when I started looking at Boethius, Nicole Discenza had already been doing her dissertation on it, and has now published a book based on her work and published other materials. With Godden and Irvine's work, Discenza's, and a couple of conferences on Alfred's Boethius, there seems to be quite a lot of attention going that way these days...and that's a good thing even if I'm sitting on the sidelines.

In another vein, I can't help but think of Boethius' influence on Tolkien and Lewis. In Lewis, I think the influence much more obvious and even in some ways acknowledged. I think the influence on Tolkien much more subtle. Unless some has or will beat me to it, I do plan an article someday on Boethius and Tolkien. A few comments here though: one place where I've always seen such an influence is a comparison between Lady Philosophy and Galadriel. Many have drawn the parallels between Galadriel and Mary, and a few others have seen the influence of the Middle English poem The Pearl on the conception of Lothlorien, especially as we enter Lothlorien from Moria. And in many ways, the "pearl" character of the poem, who stands in the place of Mary, is influenced by Dante's Beatrice, both as standins for Mary, and all three I'd maintain influenced by Boethius' Philosophia. More directly I think Galadriel, for example, in seeming both young and old, changing in size, her role as healer of hurts of body, but even more so of soul and spirit, font of wisdom and knowledge, who sees into hearts and minds, owes a great deal to Boethius' Philosophia.


Jason Fisher said...

A very thoughtful post. I have always had a warm place reserved for Boethius myself, and (a bit of trivia for you) I worked on the transcriptions of the Latin Consolatio for Project Gutenberg. :)

Your idea for an extended look at the influence of Boethius on Tolkien is a good one, but a few people have been there first (not to say there isn't more work to be done). You'll want to look at Kathleen Dubs's "Providence, Fate, and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings", in Tolkien and the Invention of Myth (ed. Jane Chance). Also I talk about Boethius a little bit in my essay, "'Man does as he is when he may do as he wishes': The Perennial Modernity of Free Will", in Tolkien and Modernity, Vol. 2 (ed. Frank Weinreich and Thomas Honegger). Just off the top of my head.

AM Shull said...

I'm about to start my third year of teaching dual-enrollment Comp I and II, and because the department likes theme courses, I teach Comp I based around the theme of leaving home, whether by choice or against it--I teach Rasselas, the "Wanderer" and "Seafarer," and the Consolation. Last year I taught Hesse's Siddhartha as well, but this year I'm probably going to go with independent reading along the theme, and introduce "The Wife's Lament."

Of course most students' eyes glaze over when we begin Boethius. This next year I'm probably going to assign Slavitt's new translation (with a good introduction), so I'm hoping it'll be a little better, but I'm still not expecting most to get it. However, the few that do really, really get it, in that deep, speaking-to-your-soul understanding. Additionally, I placate the overachievers by saying, "If you ever reference this in a paper in English classes, your teachers might fall all over themselves."

Additionally, as I teach in the rural South, most of my students have some flavor of Christianity behind them, which lets them be grabbed by Boethius's discussion of God, as they are at the same time struck by his complete omission of any actual Bible stories and dependence on Platonic and Aristotelian thought. It's a good antidote to people that see the world as either rational without deity, or theist with reason.

If you want to teach the Consolation, don't feel bad about shoehorning it into a section of Comp--if you're trying to teach argument and logic, looking at Boethius, praising and criticizing his way of reaching conclusions, you've certainly got something there to find.

Also, Galadiel/Philosophy makes infinitely more sense than Galadriel/Mary. While Mary is presented traditionally as both powerful and wise, it's more of a quiet, contemplative power and wisdom. Philosophy has a rod, and whether to rule or to whack, it's a lot closer to Galadriel.

theswain said...

Thanks for the comments!

Jason: Thanks, I'd forgotten about Dubs piece in that Chance collection, though now you mention it I think I had some real problems with her treatment. I'm going off memory here and a vague one at that, but I seem to remember thinking that she make some leaps in logic, or noted similarities and then assumed the similarities meant direct influence.

I am embarrassed to say though that I didn't know about your article. Care to give a precis of what you say, or even better yet share the article? Hint hint...

Still, might not be a bad idea to see whether there's interest in a conference session or two and a possible section in The Heroic Age or if enough interest, a collection of essays.

AM Shull: Thanks for the comments on teaching the Consolatio! I've taught it as part of Medieval Heroes and Villains, or at least part of it. It was an undergraduate course, and I spent a lot of time contextualizing Boethius....I have to admit, I love telling the story of Theodric, the fate of the Germanic peoples in the Roman Empire, and the tale of Boethius....thee's gotta be a good saga in there somewhere...certainly later hagiography made much of Boethius' "martyrdom" casting him in the role of martyr for the orothodox face in opposition to the Goth's Arian heresy. (See for example Alfred's introduction to his translation and its source that off the top of my head I can't recall). Anyway, I digress...

Seriously, I hadn't considered including it in a class in a very long time now, and your comments and suggestions make think I should do just that. Thanks!