The idea of sitting in solitude and contemplating one’s life is for the most part viewed as a daunting task. Having no distractions, nor outside influences, grants one the ability to fully analyze their own life. Boethius is faced with this arduous challenge in The Consolation of Philosophy –approaching execution while confined to a jail cell, forcing him to question his position with a higher power: God. Lady Philosophy guides him along this theological and philosophical journey to understand his own complex mind and relationship with God. The dialogue between the two characters leads to Boethius’ contentment with his position in life. The distinction and yet relatedness between the three terms Providence, Fate, and Fortune reconciles the relationship between himself and God. Boethius forgets his purpose in life and Lady Philosophy aims to rediscover said purpose through a gradual healing process and teaching of the true concept of happiness.
Boethius’ life story is a classic example of riches to rags. A descendent of an early Roman noble family, Boethius lived a privileged lifestyle for the majority of his life. However, he was accused of treason around the age of forty which lead him down an unfortunate path of
resentment to both himself and God. This ill-contentment lead to a feeling of grief and despair laying the foundation of the plot. Specifically, the text contains a series of personalized poems written in Boethius’ point of view which reflect his dark and lifeless thoughts, “Black clouds and stormy darkness fills the sky: The sun lies hid before the hour” (7). Boethius is stuck in a state of sadness and utter despair; his pessimistic outlook on life has lead him to ultimately question God and evaluate how and why he is stuck in the predicament he is in: facing death row.
An “awe inspiring” woman then appears before Boethius and her appearance is noted in a fanciful and mysterious tone, “Her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men” (7). Nevertheless, she is described as exceptionally wise and ahead of her times, “She was so full of years I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid colour and undiminished vigour” (4). The woman, Lady Philosophy, is not a physical being but rather a metaphorical guide to Boethius’ path to rediscovery. She wishes to assist Boethius in finding himself by evaluating happiness in its truest most pure form. Her role is similar to that of a nurturer, one who is aiming to heal Boethius of his inner deprived state. Lady Philosophy goes about this from a medical perspective, describing Boethius like an ill patient, “It is nothing serious, only a touch of amnesia that he is suffering, the common disease of deluded minds” (6). Conversely, Boethius refers to Lady Philosophy as his own personal doctor, “When my thoughts recollected I turned to examine the face of my physician” (7). Her goal is to upraise Boethius to a more advanced and enlightened thought process. Boethius has lost himself, forgotten his purpose in life, and lost his connection to God. Lady Philosophy’s cure is through “medication” which she refers to in such a way that its intent is to alter his outlook on life. Philosophy aims to start with “gentler medicines” and work her way up to sharper ones. In other words, this means that she will ease Boethius into the process of rediscovery in order to ensure the process works successfully.
To fully comprehend Lady Philosophy’s claim, she introduces the concept of Providence. She defines Providence as the divine reason itself by which all things are ordered, never responsible for the injustice of the world and therefore not the cause of Boethius’ situation. God by his Providence lays the foundation of all that is to be done, although worked out by Fate. An unchanging plan essentially, in that God can predict specific outcomes of our lives. This concept even supports the philosophical branch of metaphysics regarding the claim that God is thought of as the highest good. Boethius states that, “the greatest cause of my sadness is really this — the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished” (85). Lady Philosophy disagrees with this statement by counterarguing that, “From him, too, you can learn that sin never goes unpunished or virtue unrewarded, and what happens to the good is always happy and that what happens to the bad always misfortune” (86). Through Boethius’ understanding of the concept of Providence, he is able to come to terms with how God, shapes our lives. Although it is difficult for human beings to understand what God intends, the premise presented by Lady Philosophy remains true. It is essential that Boethius and all human beings trust this process. Through the acception of God’s intentions, Boethius can achieve a more advanced state of mind.
Boethius’ path to rediscovery depends highly on the idea of happiness as well. Lady Philosophy presents this claim by explaining its complex nature, “But first I will try to describe and sketch an idea of the cause of happiness. Then, with a proper vision of that, you will be able to turn your gaze in a different direction and recognize the pattern of true happiness” (47). In other words, one must understand the true cause of happiness prior to obtaining it on one’s own. She thus defines it as a, “state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good, a state, which, as we said, all mortal men are striving to reach though by different paths” (48). These different paths she states are mainly flawed as most people are vying for physical tangibility. “Money has no inherent property such as to stop it being taken away from those who possess it, against their will” (52). The Stoics would strongly support Lady Philosophy’s claim because it reflects the philosophical view that one cannot call oneself happy if the foundation of this inner pleasure can be lost against one’s own will. Furthermore, it is always optimal to develop a positive state of mind rather than physical tangibility. Therefore, we must never get caught up with the physical objects that we normally associate happiness with ie. money, precious jewelry, and even the intangible ie. reputation and career. These things can be stripped away from us at any moment, so defining them in terms of happiness is flawed and essentially invalid. However, “those who attain happiness are divine” (93). This statement connects God to that of happiness; God is the ultimate Supreme Good that exists in the world.
Such tangibilities and intangibilities are a result of Fortune, given to us by a seductive woman named Fortuna, the goddess of Fortune. Fortuna may either shower us with gifts or lead us into catastrophe. Boethius believes that his lack of happiness stems from his loss of wealth, reputation, and freedom that he once had. This connects to the concept of Providence that, “all fortune is certainly good” (111). This is because of what was previously stated that the wicked never go unpunished and the righteous never rewarded.
Another question brought up in The Consolation of Philosophy is about the extent of free will. If God is responsible for all outcomes through Providence then how are we responsible for our own free will? Lady Philosophy answers this by stating that just because God knows all things does not that he is the one ultimately in charge of directing us to such an outcome. Fate is essentially the order and disposition as it is seen in the unfolding events of the world. Certain things may be more or less subject to this force due to the veering away from the idea of divine Providence. Fate has the ability to set things into motion once a particular order is set. Providence and Fate are intertwined in that one depends on the other and vice versa.
Boethius’ thinking and worldly outlook changes over the course of the text in response to Lady Philosophy’s teachings. In the beginning, Boethius is stuck on the mindset that God is the one accountable for Boethius misfortune, and therefore questions God regarding his own situation. Boethius’ perspective changes drastically as reflected in another one of his poems, “The active power of mind then roused calls forth the species from within” (129). In other words, the mind as we know it has the will power to come forward and dictate our own happiness.
Lady Philosophy successfully alters Boethius’ state of mind, reminding him that he is the one ultimately in charge of his own thought process. She lends him the ability to think his way out of his own sorrows. Her stoic perspective of free will reminds Boethius that he is the one responsible for how he chooses to view the world, and more specifically the situation that he has fallen into. This idea can even be applied to today’s day in age, a reminder that the physical tangible objects are not the cause of true happiness, but our mind itself which controls our state of being. It is not the situation we are consumed in but rather the value of truth that will dictate our happiness in the end.