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A Year with the Romans: Sweet Bright Lady

The Consolation of Philosophy

By Boethius, translated by David R. Slavitt
Harvard University Press, 2008


From kingdom to republic to empire, the ancient Romans have transfixed the imagination of the ages, inspiring bestselling novels, plays, poems, movies, and TV productions (not to mention several nations and more than a few dictatorships). Throughout 2009, Steve Donoghue will trace their pomp and circumstance in “A Year with the Romans.”

A man in his forties is led forward into the bright sunlight of a courtyard in Pavia, sometime in the year A.D. 524. The man cannot see the bright sunlight, because he has encrusted holes where his eyes used to be. During the last part of his stay in exile here in Pavia, he’s been liberally tortured by his jailors, and one of the tortures they’ve used is what would come in later centuries to be known as woolding: a knotted rope is placed around the victim’s head at the temples and slowly, gradually tightened. As the bones of the skull press inward, the eardrums rupture and the eye sockets avulse. It’s a parting torture, most often used on prisoners for whom no hope of last-minute pardon can come – hence the permanent damage it inflicts. It’s also, for want of a better term (and there are no good terms connected with any of this), a cerebral torture – usually reserved for those whose accusers consider their crimes to be particularly offenses of the mind, the will. Thieves are never subjected to woolding; adulterers, heretics, and traitors often are.

This man stumbling in the Pavian sunlight is Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, and it is virtually inconceivable that he could be here, brought to this. He’s of a noble family, descendant of scholars and emperors, and he’s held some of the highest positions in the Roman empire of the 6th century. He was born around AD 480, and by 520 he had risen in the service of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great to become the prefect of civic government at Rome. He tells us himself that his proudest moment was officiating at the investiture of his two sons as consuls for the city – a grand ceremony at which his wife and his virtuous old guardian Symmachus must also have been present and beamed with pride. Such a man in such a position could surely count on many years of peace and prosperity ahead of him, and yet the next year found him accused, arrested, exiled here to Pavia to await his own execution.

History is very nearly silent on the reason why (Boethius claims to have written a detailed account of the whole matter, but if he did it doesn’t survive). Theories abound. Boethius makes veiled references to the revenge of political enemies, to the perjury of notorious professional informers, always in the context of his own complete innocence. Doctrinal matters are also suspected; Theodoric was a believer in the Arian heresy, which claimed, among other things, that Jesus and God were different entities (i.e. that God, being the Father, had existed before Jesus came along). This conflicted with the teachings of the Pope at the time, and it was condemned by the Byzantine Emperor (who might also have liked the idea of keeping Theodoric to heel) – Boethius, staunchly defending the sanctity of both those offices, could have found himself thus falling afoul of the de facto ruler of Italy. And it should be added to the mix that Theodoric was a fairly easy man to offend (he disposed of his predecessor, Odoacer, by snapping his neck at a banquet in front of a hundred terrified witnesses).

Whatever the reason, the result seems clear enough: Boethius was banished north to Pavia, ostensibly to await execution, although the interval was also a convenient opportunity for the powers back in Rome to see just to what extents Boethius’ loved ones and political connections would go to secure mercy for him. Toward this end, it suited everybody’s purposes that his exile consist, at the beginning, merely of imprisonment, and perhaps a fairly bearable imprisonment at that. It was during this interval that he wrote the work for which all succeeding generations have known him: the consolatio philosophiae, The Consolation of Philosophy.

Miniature of Boethius instructing his students
from Book I of a 1385 edition of
The Consolation of Philosophy

It’s a remarkable book (though a short one), and its latest edition, rendered into fluid, compellingly immediate English by veteran translator David R. Slavitt, is very markedly the best one it’s ever had. After the brief introductory essay by Seth Lerer (in which he heartbreakingly points out that, for Boethius, “life is made up of the books we read”), Slavitt presents the reader with Boethius brought to vibrant, vigorous life, to a degree that makes all previous English versions seem pedantic and irrelevant. Harvard University Press has crafted a physically beautiful volume, sturdy and small enough to fit in your pocket – an extremely fitting format for a book that’s meant to be a comfort against life’s ills. Reading this edition, even readers who’ve never encountered Boethius before will see at once why his book has meant so much to so many people for the last 1,500 years.

It’s probably impossible to calculate the Consolation’s full effect on those 1,500 years. Boethius’ dramatization of the concept of Fortune’s wheel has made it a piece of our permanent mental landscape, and his book’s meditations on divine will and human desire has given it a very basic kind of appeal. Alfred the Great translated it, as did Chaucer and even Queen Elizabeth I (those who doubt the legend that she completed her translation in one day reckon without the freakish Tudor facility with languages). Dante enshrines him among the stars. When Boethius’ idealized stand-in for himself muses throughout the book on the nature of perfect justice, readers will be rightly reminded of Thomas More’s Utopia. And when those same readers open the book to the scene where the sweet bright lady Philosophy appears (in her tattered dress) to Boethius, they might think of the slightly less presentable lady Folly holding forth in Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly. British Prime Ministers and U.S. Presidents have (in more literate eras) routinely cited it as a comfort to their tribulations.

It’s meant to be a comfort. In the book, Boethius is writing away in his exile’s cell when Philosophy appears before him and asks what’s wrong. In Slavitt’s translation, you can hear the outrage of the reply:

Look around! Do you need to ask such questions? Is my terrible treatment at Fortune’s hands not clear? Look at this dreadful cell! Does it resemble that cozy library where you used to visit in my house, where we would sit and discuss all kinds of interesting matters, both human and divine? Was this what I looked like?

Philosophy is unimpressed with this ire, however, and there follow five chapters of exquisite prose and poetry, as Philosophy attempts to console the poor prisoner with demonstrations of virtue’s superiority over evil, all very much in the manner of Boethius’ beloved Platonism:

“Now, let us suppose two men, both of them trying to perform the same action. One of them performs and completes the action in the normal way, but the other cannot function normally, but only tries to imitate the first man, who has succeeded. Which would you say is the stronger? “

“I know what you want me to say, but it’s still murky to me. Can you be clearer?”

“Let us say that walking is a natural action.”

“Yes, of course.”

“Walking is a natural function of the feet.”

“Quite true.”

“Then let us suppose that one man is walking using his feet, while the other who lacked the proper use of his feet tried to walk on his hands. Which of these would you think is stronger?”

“That’s ludicrous. The man walking on his feet is the stronger.”

“Very well, then. The highest good, which is available to both the good and the wicked, the good try to get by exercise of their virtues. But the wicked try to get it by the whims of their desires – which is not at all the natural way to obtain the good. Or do you disagree?”

“No, not at all. An what follows is also clear: the conclusion is inescapable that the good are strong and the evil are weak.”

The central question that preoccupies Boethius – understandable, given his circumstances – is why things happen the way they do. How can false and wicked accusations brought against an upright man such as himself actually succeed in bringing about their desired ends? Does God care, or are these things pre-ordained? There’s a touchingly human tenor in his appeals to Philosophy to sort this question out for him, and she does here best:

If you accept the distinction between the human and the divine present, then it would follow that, just as you see things in the temporal present, he must see things in the eternal present. So his divine prescience does not change the nature of things, but he sees them in his present time just as they will come to be in what we think of as the future. And he cannot be confused but sees and understands immediately all things that will come to pass whether they are necessitated or not – just as you can see at the same time a man walking on the ground and the sun rising in the sky, and, although the two sights coincide, you understand immediately that the mans’ walking is willed, and the sun’s rising is necessitated. And it is similarly true that his observation does not affect the things he sees that are present to him but future in terms of the flow of time. And this means that his foresight is not opinion but knowledge based on truth and that he can know something is going to happen and at the same time be aware that it lacks necessity.

Now, if you were to say that what God sees as going to occur cannot not occur and that what cannot not occur happens of necessity, and make a problem of the word ‘necessity,’ I will answer that it is absolutely true but is, indeed, a problem, not so much for logicians as for theologians. All I can tell you is that this future event from the point of view of divine knowledge is necessary, but from its own nature is utterly and entirely free. There are actually two necessities, one of them simple – as that all men are mortal – and the other conditional – as that when you see a man walking it is necessary that he be walking.

So: things are not pre-ordained, even though God sees everything that will happen, and if you can keep that slippery division stable in your mind’s eye, you will have achieved the perfect perception of the balance between what is and what ought to be.

Boethius needed to see that, and his book has an almost visceral appeal to all those who need to see it too. The worldly skeptic might point out that in Philosophy’s analogy of the two men trying to walk, evil wouldn’t try to walk on its hands but rather simply yoke and ride the foot-walking good (or else outlaw the use of feet in walking and, more pointedly, exile and execute offenders), but such observations have no place in the Consolation, which builds to the clear, calming conclusion that only good people are ever really happy in this life, regardless of what happens to them.

Boethius Bidding Farewell to His Family,
by Jean Victor Schnetz

What happens to that forty-year-old man in Pavia in 524 shouldn’t happen to anybody. When his time has run out, when his appeals have come to nothing, when all the good people he knows have failed to prevail against the evil men who condemned him and the indifferent men who’ve tortured him, he’s led to a pillar in the town’s central courtyard and strapped in place. Then for the next hour two gnarled bailiffs (if they’re like their northern Italian counterparts five hundred years later, they wear masks) take turns pounding on him with long, heavily-weighted iron staves. Arms, legs, pelvis, ribs – all are broken and then gradually pulverized, the muscles shredded, the screams unimaginable to anybody who hasn’t heard them. Finally some well (or poorly) placed blow caves in the man’s head, and the mortal parts all stop.

We’ve had his verses, singing about just that mortality:

Let him who hopes for fame consider
the extent of the starry skies
arching over our small planet.
Can he think of shouting his name
and proclaiming his pride into the icy
distances looming above him?
Does he rather wish to free
his neck from mortality’s yoke?
Will his name find a home in the mouths of strangers,
and will death be at all impressed
that welcomes alike the proud and the humble?
Where are Fabricius’ bones
or those of Brutus or stern Cato?
They are reduced now,
those glorious names, to anecdotes.
What can we know of the dead?
And do you suppose you won’t be forgotten
or that fame will keep you alive
on the lips of men for even a moment?
Your last day will take
even this hope from your unclenching
hand in a second death.

And dame Philosophy has added her own disclaimer:

Think also of how many people, famous in their own time, are altogether forgotten now. Either there was no written record, or, if there was, then the writers are lost or forgotten in the shimmer of time. And do you still think that you can succeed at these odds and that your fame will somehow endure? And for how long? A thousand years? Even that is only a moment in the infinite stretch of the eons.

Impossible for the man himself to have guessed, that a thousand years – and more – would indeed pass, and that he would still be here among us, trying to help.

___
Steve Donoghue was a foundling adopted and raised by the Baron Mayer de Rothschild is his magnificent and newly constructed Mentmore Towers. Eventually, racing debts forced Donoghue to sell the mansion to the Transcendental Meditation movement. He nows hosts the literary weblog Stevereads from his two-room flat in East Cheapside.

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