Born to a Roman high class family, Anicius Severinus Boethius was raised in affluence from his childhood. He came from a family of emperors and consuls, which exposed him to public life and classical knowledge at a young age. However, his father dies while Boethius was still a child, and was subsequently adopted a Quintus Symmachus, a family relative and as an equally respected a man as his father. It was Quintus who inspired the young Boethius’ love for the classics, particularly literature and philosophy (Beilharz, 2009, p. 5). Perhaps it was his early orphanage that influenced Boethius’ worldview about fortune and riches. The ideas that he advances in The Consolation of Philosophy must have been part reflections on his affluent upbringing and rise to prominence before he was ruthlessly removed from power and lost is his property. Thus, he is speaking from experience having possessed wealth and power in his former life. The Consolation of Philosophy, therefore, is intended to be a non-material-based comfort to those who have lost their fortune, or, having been people of honor in society, suddenly find themselves at a disgrace. It is a quest to find solace in the metaphysical world, where the machinations of the ill-disposed or the hand of misfortune cannot reach. It is an exploration of fundamentals such as knowledge, reason, values, and human existence, and man’s relationship with the metaphysical world. Boethius seeks to find a consolation in nonmaterial things, because material possessions do not offer long lasting happiness or provide man with enough –sufficiency due to their temporal nature. Consequently, the “consolation of philosophy” is a departure from worldly pursuits like pleasure, riches, happiness and power, and a desire to find comfort in a higher goal, such as gaining knowledge about the nature and purpose human existence.
Boethius begins his reflections in The Consolation of Philosophy by questioning the source of evil and good, and God’s role in the lives of men. He pauses: “if God indeed does exist, what is the source of evil? But if he does not exist, what is the source of good?” 1.3.30). He further argues that it’s unimaginable that false accusations by a criminal against a righteous person “should prevail while God looks on.” Boethius is apparently outraged for being punished for crimes that he did not commit. He questions if there is any fairness in life or God really cares at all when evil triumphs over good. In particular, Boethius is skeptical of the reliability of fortune, reflecting how it deserted him when he needed it most. He could not understand how a man of high social class like him suddenly finds himself a prisoner condemned to death. All his riches, position of power and influence were useless because they could not reverse his fate. He was doomed, and the knowledge that all men are vulnerable to misfortune regardless their station in life convinced him that nothing in life was permanent. He contends that life is unpredictable such that in the end, when misfortune strikes, even the rich will lose their riches, the mighty be stripped of their power, and all be subject to whatever destine fate proclaims upon them. From these observations, Boethius lays the foundation of the subsequent discussions that touch on the vanity/meaninglessness of man’s pursuit of riches, pleasure, power, and happiness.
Boethius laments at the temporariness of fortune. Lady Philosopher points out that Boethius is saddened by the loss of his fortune. She says that the transitory/temporariness of riches is the nature of Fortune, “that deceitful lady and her fawning friendship with those whom she intends to cheat, until the moment when she unexpectedly abandon them, and leaves them reeling in agony beyond endurance” (Boethius 2.1.3). In this pronouncement, Lady Philosophy points to the false security that fortune, such as material possessions, offer their owners. This idea accurately captures Boethius’ situation after being exiled and having his property confiscated. The knowledge that a more powerful agent/person will take one’s property by force illustrates the insufficiency of riches in ensuring happiness to the rich. It avidly captures the relevance of the saying that “even the rich cry.”
Another theme that Boethius explores in The Consolation of Philosophy is the tendency of men to seek pleasure and happiness. He argues that all mortal pursuits are directed towards the attainment of happiness. However, he observes, men become so engrossed in their thirst for riches that they get corrupted to the extent of placing all their hopes on their possessions. They forget that they came to the world without anything. As Lady Philosopher says, “When nature brought you forth from your mother’s womb, you were naked then, and bereft of everything” (Boethius 2.1.4). Boethius seems to suggest that man has no right to complain when he loses his fortune because he did not bring it with him into the world. Nevertheless, this argument underlays the book’s central idea that everything in this world is transitory- not permanent. Every mortal pursuit for happiness, pleasure, power, and riches will end up in vain because all these things are temporal, and in the words of Lady Philosopher, only offer bogus happiness.
Perhaps the most enduring idea in The Consolation of Philosophy is the argument that abundant wealth neither frees man from want nor enables him to be self-sufficient. Boethius argues that people’s quest for riches, pleasure, fame, and power do not lead to true happiness. The most they can achieve through material possessions, he contends, is a temporary state of satisfaction that soon or later gets overtaken by other concerns like anxiety, fear, and worry about losing their possessions (Boethius, 3.3.16). He observes that the ultimate goal of humans is the attainment of a perfect state of satisfaction, in which the individual does not long for anything more. He refers to this condition as a state of “self-sufficiency,” in which the individual is independent of all his needs and wants and content of his present circumstances. However, he notes, there is always something that denies human beings total happiness, either through its absence or presence. This is because no one can posses everything; if anyone did, the presence of something undesirable threatens overshadows the happiness attained through riches. Even the wealthy are worried about the prospect of losing their possessions, having it taken by force or by someone stronger. The presence of a stronger person, or some destructive force such as natural disasters, an unpreventable threat to their wealth, counters the absence of “lack” in their lives. Consequently, they are compelled to seek protection outside their wealth, effectively making them dependent upon others. This dependence voids the claim of self-sufficiency afforded by wealth, leading to the conclusion that riches do not offer true happiness since it still leaves its possessors with unfulfilled desires.
Boethius also argues that that true happiness ought to bring about a state of perfection by combining all goods within it, such that the individual is satisfied of all desires. However, error and self-deception diverts human beings “off course towards false goods” (Boethius, 3.2.4). One error that mortals make in this regard is the false notion that the satisfaction of all material needs, and not lacking in anything leads to happiness. Consequently, they strive to acquire abundant riches and become self-sufficient. Regardless, the acquisition of riches does not prevent the rich from seeking external protection to keep their wealth safe. Thus, the position of the rich in relation to their riches is reversed: “the riches which people thought made them self-sufficient compel them instead to require external protection” Boethius, (3.3.16). This situation contradicts the notion that riches ought to cushion the rich from all forms of external worries and concerns like the fear of losing their possessions. If riches were indeed capable of providing complete happiness, the rich would not worry or care about unforeseen events or the possibility of experiencing misfortune. As the Philosopher argues, “true happiness knows no trouble or melancholy, it is exposed to no grief or worries” (Boethius, 3.2.18). And yet, the rich live in perpetual anxiety about losing their possessions, dreading the day thieves might steal from them or ill fortune may ruin it. For riches to qualify as the source of true happiness, it should be capable of dispelling the fear, anxiety, and concerns that the rich have about losing their possessions. Additionally, it should afford the rich the luxury of living without worries about their lives or unforeseen, future catastrophes. The fact that they worry like other people suggests that there is something that even riches cannot buy. This means that even the rich have some needs that they cannot satisfy completely, such as their security and protection from natural calamities.
In conclusion, The Consolation of Philosophy is an excursion into the nature of human existence and the meaninglessness of material possession and the happiness that comes from them. Boethius, a former well respected and rich man, refers to his downfall to strengthen his idea that everything that no worldly possession can offer man true happiness. While critics may argue that Boethius was perhaps using his reflections to comfort himself for his loss and prepare himself psychologically for death, The Consolation of Philosophy captures the desires of mortals, chiefly their obsession with material things, happiness, pleasure, and power.