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True Happiness and The Consolation of Philosophy

In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI devoted part of a Wednesday general audience to Boethius (c. 480-c. 524), a little-known Roman who lived in the waning days of the Empire. Boethius seems a surprising topic for a papal address: He was a philosopher, not a theologian. His most famous work makes no mention of Christ or Christian belief. But the pope observed that Boethius was an important figure in the development of Christian philosophy, as his works seek to bridge “the Hellenistic-Roman heritage and the gospel message.” And, the pope added, he has traditionally been honored as a Christian martyr.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius had a short but impressive life. It was short, in large part, because he lived, as Pope Benedict noted in his March 12 audience, “in some of the most turbulent years in the Christian West and in the Italian Peninsula in particular.” It was impressive because Boethius was a man of remarkable genius and character. He was born into a noble family whose lineage included Roman emperors, and he was a senator at the age of 25. He studied Greco-Roman culture and philosophy with great diligence and admirable ambition. One of his goals was to translate the works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin, and he wrote works on logic, mathematics, and theology. But his most famous and enduring work is De Consolatione Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), written while under house arrest. Having initially earned the favor of Theoderic, king of Ravenna and regent of the Visigoths, Boethius found himself accused by the king—an Arian—of treason. He was arrested in 523 and executed a year later at the age of 44. Through The Consolation of Philosophy, Benedict noted, Boethius “sought consolation, enlightenment, and wisdom in prison.” As we will see, the issues of happiness and the greatest good are central to this search for wisdom.

Boethius and Augustine

What has puzzled many readers is that Boethius makes no obvious mention of Christian theology and distinctively Christian beliefs about Christ, the Church, the Holy Spirit, and the sacraments. In fact, the book is a dialogue with the Lady Philosophy. All of this has raised questions about the purpose of the Consolation and the exact nature of Boethius’ theological beliefs. If the Consolation is taken alone, it indeed provides little or no evidence of Boethius’ Christian beliefs, and therefore gives no definitive answer to the question of the necessity of divine revelation and the Church. Yes, there are passages that reveal a deep and abiding reverence for God, who is portrayed as personal and relational to some degree. For instance, in replying to Philosophy’s call to invoke God in prayer, Boethius answers that “‘We must invoke the Father of all things,’ I replied, ‘for if this were not done, we should not base our search on the appropriate first step’” (3:9:33). But what of divine revelation, Christ, the Church, the sacraments?

The great Benedictine scholar David Knowles reflected on the different approaches taken by Boethius and Augustine in addressing the relationship between faith and reason. The former’s “programmatic wedding of faith and reason, owing much to Augustine, is expressed in a philosophical idiom more comprehensible, because more Aristotelian, than that of the earlier doctor” (The Evolution of Medieval Thought, 55).

The connection between the two is fascinating. Boethius is buried in San Pietro in Cielo d’Oro (St. Peter in a Golden Sky) in Pavia, in the crypt below the main altar in which, according to ancient tradition, Augustine’s bones rest. The relationship between the two philosophers extends well beyond their resting places, of course, evidenced by the tremendous influence they both had on medieval thought.

But did Boethius agree with Augustine that humans require divine revelation and the Church’s guidance in order to attain salvation? Boethius authored several noteworthy theological works, including De Trinitate, which relied heavily on Augustine’s like-titled work, and De Fide Catholica, which was catechetical in nature. He played a significant role in defining key terms such as “nature” and “person” in the aftermath of the Councils of Ephesus (431) and Chalcedon (451), ecumenical synods that respectively addressed Nestorianism (the heresy which taught that Christ had one nature only), and defined the hypostatic union (the relationship between Christ’s two natures as present in one Person).

So, it is quite difficult to imagine Boethius disagreeing with Augustine. Yet why, in the face of death, did Boethius seek consolation from philosophy—the study of wisdom—and not theology—the study of God? If true and lasting happiness is found in sharing eternally in the divine life, why not be more explicit about it?

Apologia pro Boethius

C.S. Lewis, who had a deep affection for The Consolation, addressed this question in The Discarded Image, his study of medieval thought. There he outlined three hypotheses about the relationship between Boethius and the Christian faith that he found unsatisfactory:

  1. Boethius’ Christian faith was “superficial and failed him when brought to the test” and he fell back onto his neo-Platonic philosophy to bolster himself.
  2. Boethius was a Christian to the end and the Consolation was “a mere game with which he distracted himself in his dungeon.”
  3. Boethius was not, in fact, the author of the theological works commonly ascribed to him.

Lewis stated that “[n]one of these theories seems to me necessary” (The Discarded Image, 76). Lewis believed that although Boethius wrote under arrest and in disgrace, he likely wasn’t in a dungeon or living “in the daily expectation of the executioner” (77). The language of the work, Lewis argued, is not that of “the condemned cell.” “The consolation Boethius seeks is not for death but for ruin,” he argues, “When he wrote the book he may have known that his life was in some danger. I do not think he despaired of it.” He further argued, “If we asked Boethius why his book contained philosophical rather than religious consolations, I do not doubt that he would have answered, ‘But did you not read my title? I wrote philosophically, not religiously, because I had chosen the consolations of philosophy, not those of religion, as my subject’” (77-78).

Lewis concluded that Boethius looked to both his Catholic faith and his love for the “high Pagan past,” the two united

by their common contrast to Theodoric and his huge, fair-skinned, beer-drinking, boasting thanes. This was no time for stressing whatever divided him from Virgil, Seneca, Plato, and the old Republican heroes. He would have been robbed of half his comfort if he had chosen a theme which forced him to point out where the great ancient masters had been wrong; he preferred one that enabled him to feel how nearly they had been right, to think of them not as “they” but as “we.” (79)

Philosophy, Theology, or Both?

This echoes the opinion of others who point out that the mentality of the time was far different from our own, and that Boethius was by inclination and talent a philosopher with a deep love for the ancients. The French Thomist Etienne Gilson understood Boethius to be following in the footsteps of Augustine, while admitting that

the importance of the philosophical element is overwhelming in the writings of Boethius, even in his theological tractates, but this is precisely the reason why he is rightly considered one of the founders of scholasticism. His whole doctrine is an example of putting to work a precept which he himself has formulated: “Conjoin faith and reason, if you can.” There again Boethius could have quoted St. Augustine. (Christian Philosophy in the Middle Ages, 106)

The key is recognizing that Boethius, as a Christian, sought to reconcile pagan philosophy (particularly Plato and Aristotle) as far as possible, with Christianity. To do so he worked as a philosopher, not a theologian; therefore, he could only go as far as philosophy allows.

There is also the fact that the modern, radical dichotomy between philosophy and theology would be foreign to Boethius. Knowles remarks:

The explanation may well lie in the changed attitude towards philosophy since the later middle ages. Between the days of Augustine and those of Siger of Brabant it was the universal conviction among those who thought seriously that there was a single true rational account of man and the universe and of an omnipotent and provident God, as valid in its degree as the revealed truths of Christianity. . . . Behind the rational arguments, no doubt, in the unseen realm of the soul, an individual could meet the personal love and grace of Christ. (Medieval Thought, 56)

Frederick Copleston, S.J., called attention to the distinction between natural theology, based on philosophical inquiry, and dogmatic theology, dependent upon divine revelation. “In his doctrine of the Blessed Trinity,” he wrote, “Boethius relied largely on St. Augustine; but in the De Consolatione Philosophiae he developed in outline a natural theology on Aristotelian lines, thus implicitly distinguishing between natural theology, the highest part of philosophy, and dogmatic theology, which, in distinction from the former, accepts its premises from revelation” (A History of Philosophy, Medieval Philosophy, Vol. 2:I: Augustine to Bonaventure, 118).

Happiness Is the True Good

This approach, along with the tragic background of the book, places in bold relief the poignant and profound nature of Boethius’ dialogue with the lady, Philosophy. Their conversation takes up the nature of happiness and how it is to be obtained. Happiness, according to The Consolation of Philosophy, is acquired by attaining the perfect good. Man, Lady Philosophy notes, is often in the dark about what true happiness is because he spends so much time chasing goods that are not, in and of themselves, perfect goods. And yet, whatever mistakes and poor decisions man makes, he is still striving, however poorly, to attain happiness:

Mortal creatures have one overall concern. This they work at by toiling over a whole range of pursuits, advancing on different paths, but striving to attain the one goal of happiness. This is the good which once attained ensures that no one can aspire to anything further. Indeed, it is the highest of all goods, and gathers all goods within itself. If any good were lacking to it, it could not be the highest good, since some desirable thing would be left outside it. Thus it is clear that happiness is the state of perfection achieved by the concentration of all goods within it. All mortals, as I have said, strive to attain it by different paths; for this longing for the true good is naturally implanted in human minds, but error diverts them off course towards false goods. (3:2:2-4. Quotes from the Oxford World Classics ed., tr. P. G. Walsh)

Thus, all goods are contained within the perfect good and man has a deeply innate longing for this “true good,” even if he finds ways to avoid it or invest it in lesser goods. Five diversions from the perfect good are addressed: riches, position, kingships, fame, and pleasures (3:2:5-17). These goods, Philosophy points out, are not the actual goals of those seeking them; they point to other, more basic desires:

What they [men] wish to acquire and accordingly long for are riches, high positions, kingships, fame and pleasure; and the reason why they want them is because they believe that those are the means by which they gain self-sufficiency, respect, power, renown, and joy. So in their differing pursuits men seek what is good, and this readily indicates the scope of nature’s power; for though their aspirations vary and are at odds with each other, all are at one in choosing the good as their goal. (3:2:19-20)

Before providing a more accurate and exact account of the perfect good, Philosophy explains why each of these five goods are lacking and, in fact, can easily lead to false happiness and melancholy (3:3-8). Then, in chapter nine, she returns to the matter of “true happiness,” guiding Boethius through a series of questions intended to further clarify points about the lacking goods, and then calling upon the Roman philosopher to invoke “support from heaven” before the two arrive at their destination. In response Boethius acknowledges the need to “invoke the Father of all things” and ends the chapter with a poetic outpouring of praise for the “Father of earth and sky,” concluding with a nearly ecstatic accounting of God’s attributes: “For in the eyes of all devoted men, You are calm brightness and the rest of peace. Men aim to see You as their starting-point, their guide, conductor, way, and final end” (3:9:36-40).

The tenth chapter of the third book is the heart of the Consolation; all that comes before leads to the conclusion expressed there, and all that follows flows from it: True happiness is found in the perfect good, and that perfect good is God. Central to Philosophy’s conclusion is her argument for the existence and nature of God, which foreshadows (and no doubt influenced) St. Anselm’s famous ontological argument:

“Now as for the abode of that happiness,” she went on, “ponder it in this way. The belief which human minds share demonstrates that God, the source of all things, is good; for since nothing better than God can be imagined, who can doubt that something has no better, it is good? Reason in fact establishes that God’s goodness is such as to demonstrate further that perfect good resides within him. Were this not the case, he could not be the source of all things, for there would be something more preeminent, which would be in possession of perfect good, and would be seen to take precedence ahead of him, since all perfect things clearly take precedence over things less complete. So to prevent the argument from advancing into infinity, we must allow that the highest God is totally full of the highest and perfect good. Now we have established that the perfect good is true happiness, so true happiness must reside in the highest God.” (3:10:7-10)

That Man Might Become God

This conclusion is summed up directly in this way: “‘And so,’ she said, ‘we must acknowledge that God is happiness itself’” (3:10:17). And then Philosophy makes a most striking remark, one that might be unsettling for modern-day Christians:

But we have concluded that both happiness and God are the highest good, so the highest divinity must itself be the highest happiness. . . . since men become happy by achieving happiness, and happiness is itself divinity, clearly they must become happy by attaining divinity. Now just as men become just by acquiring justice, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so by the same argument they must become gods once they have acquired divinity. Hence every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity. (3:10:21-23)

This is the doctrine of theosis, or divine sonship, expressed in a manner found also in the writings of both Eastern and Western Fathers and Doctors, including St. Irenaeus, St. Athanasius, and St. Thomas Aquinas. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, for example, quotes from all three in stating:

The Word became flesh to make us partakers of the divine nature: For this is why the Word became man, and the Son of God became the Son of man: so that man, by entering into communion with the Word and thus receiving divine sonship, might become a son of God. For the Son of God became man so that we might become God. The only-begotten Son of God, wanting to make us sharers in his divinity, assumed our nature, so that he, made man, might make men gods. (CCC 460)

True happiness, in other words, comes from sharing in God’s divine life, made possible by the work of Jesus Christ, given in baptism by the power of the Holy Spirit, and nourished by the Eucharist. Boethius’ quest, Benedict observed, was “for true wisdom,” which is “the true medicine of the soul.” All wisdom is from God; all truth originates from God; all goodness flows ultimately from the greatest Good. And happiness, in the end, is sharing in the divine nature by God’s grace and love.


How Blest Is He

How blest is he who could discern
The bright source of the good,
How blest, for he could slip the chains
Of earth, which weigh men down!
— Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (3:12)

Does the Consolation Lack Christian Sensibility?

Many readers in modern times have been perplexed by the total absence of any allusion to specifically Christian doctrine or sentiment in the Consolation. If, however, we reflect that it was precisely in the centuries which we call the “ages of faith” that the appeal of Boethius’s work was felt more strongly, we may be led to think that the apparent problem may be rather one of sentiment than of essentials.

—David Knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought, 55

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