Boethius and the Path of Wisdom

Updated: Jul 24, 2021

Recently, I reread a book by Anicius Boethius, ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’. This seminal work was written in 523CE and is considered the last great Western work of the Classical Period[i]. It had a huge influence on western civilisation and Christian philosophy from the early medieval period until the Renaissance. Yet, even now, 1,540-odd years later, his words remain as valuable and as relevant as ever. For me personally, it forms a kind of gospel of fortune being the most cognisant and clear description of the constant inconstancy of fortune I have come across, and while it is a short work, it is one that rewards the careful reader.

The Consolation of Philosophy is written in a prosimetrum style (a prose work with verse interludes) and recounts an imagined dialogue between the prisoner Boethius and a personification of Philosophy[ii]. Written during his imprisonment for treason and for engaging in magic[iii] (which he denies), Boethius begins his work lamenting his misfortune. He feels he has suddenly become old, and in his imprisonment, is left only with the memories of a happy youth and past successes as a comfort. He is at such a low that he wishes for death, lamenting that it seems that death passes the unhappy by. As he is writing these complaints, philosophy personified as a woman appears to him.

Boethius (left) by profzucker is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Philosophy is described by Boethius in a manner that is instructive to those who seek wisdom/philosophy. Philosophy is described as a ‘very old woman, yet without any trace of enfeeblement’. Her stature ‘was hard to judge, at one time appearing to be as of a normal person and at others to be unfathomable’. These descriptions speak of the ancient yet unwearying vigour of philosophy and how the truth is accessible to us all yet wisdom is never able to be possessed. Her garments are also instructive.

Philosophy was described as wearing a dress she had made herself from the finest cloth, yet tarnished by age and neglect. The hem of this dress has the Greek symbols, Π(Pi), representing the life of action, and θ(Th), representing the life of contemplation joined by a set of stairs. Boethius never explains what these stairs mean but it seems to me that he offers up a path to wisdom each step representing the development and practice of one of the virtues (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The Path to Wisdom

Wisdom, Boethius seems to say, starts with the contemplation of what is right and wrong. It is from this basis that you and you alone can develop practical wisdom through the exercise of the virtues. As we talk about in The Code (Chapter 24 & 25), the virtues are the basis of what we call good character. It is by practising them that we gain the fortitude to do what is necessary to achieve our Purpose in Life by ensuring the welfare of our families and communities.

It is easy to forget that doing what is right is often hard. It is not easy to tell the truth when it hurts, it is not easy to stand up when everyone else is afraid. But we who place the welfare of our families first must be ready to do the necessary, especially when it is hard. This why we need the virtues. The virtues are not just words, they are layers of armour in defence of your Individual Purpose. Each virtue builds on the one before it. With each locking together to help you do what is right and necessary more often.

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Sources: [1] The Consolation of Philosophy (Oxford World's Classics), Introduction (2000) [2] [3]

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