BMCR 2000.01.16

Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy

, Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999. lvii, 171. $80.00.

It is a daunting task to translate the Consolation into English and fit oneself into a trajectory that leads from King Alfred through Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth up to the present day. Yet the need for a new translation is obvious: Richard Green’s translation for the Library of Liberal Arts is now 37 years old, V.E. Watts’s Penguin is 30, and S.J. Tester’s Loeb is 26; all of these antedate the excellent commentary of Joachim Gruber (Berlin 1978), the second edition of Ludwig Bieler’s standard edition in the Corpus Christianorum series (Vol. XCIV; Turnhout 1984), and the excellent school edition of J.J. O’Donnell (Bryn Mawr 1984). P.G. Walsh takes the opportunity of a new translation to set before the reader the fruits of these and other scholarly works, particularly Henry Chadwick’s Boethius (Oxford 1981), Seth Lerer’s Boethius and Dialogue (Princeton 1985), Gerard O’Daly’s The Poetry of Boethius (Chapel Hill 1991), and R.W. Sharples’s Cicero: On Fate & Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy IV.5-7, V (Warminster 1991); Claudio Moreschini’s 1999 Teubner edition has made its appearance too late to be included. If for nothing else, Walsh is to be commended for bringing Boethius up to date; his Consolation is a text that can be studied. One could wish that Walsh were yet more conversant with recent work on Boethius; one could wish as well that his attempts at translating the poetry of the Consolation were more successful. But this is a welcome attempt at a very difficult and much-needed volume, and I hope that the readers of this review will take my criticisms in this light.

Let me begin by detailing the mechanics of the volume itself. It is a pleasure to see a translation of the Consolation in English that finally has the sentence numbers in the outside margins of the prose sections (verse numbers always appear in the right-hand margins, but should have followed prose practice). The pages are otherwise uncluttered, as there are no footnotes; asterisks send the reader to the extensive section of endnotes (pp. 115-65). Rather than have a separate label in his text for each prose and verse section, Walsh adapts Watts’s practice: he dispenses with the archaic Prose 1, Metre 1 titles and breaks up each book only with the labels Chapter 1, Chapter 2, etc., each chapter consisting of one prose and one verse section (though 1 m.7 stands alone). With comfortable margins, the volume’s clean and enjoyable pages make the Consolation a less formidable text.

Unfortunately, the insistence on the uncluttered page has been carried a little too far. The running head for each page is a uniform, italicized Consolation of Philosophy with a page number, so that it is not always clear just what book you are in or what section you are reading; acceptable for a front-to-back reading of the text, this spareness complicates the reader’s attempt to follow the references to the text embodied in the notes. Specific notation for the content of each page spread would have been much better. Similarly, the page headings in the notes refer only to the page numbers of the translation; I believe that readers would be helped here too by the addition of indications of the text numbers, or at least of the book number. Further, Walsh invents a somewhat cumbersome system for referring to the chapters (rather than to traditional prose and verse sections) in his text. For example: 2. 4. m.6 refers to the sixth verse in the sole poem that is to be found in the second chapter of the fourth book (standard would be 2 m.4. 6). I do not see what he really gains by this; the abbreviation m. reads as though it stands in for v., or verse. This is perhaps a minor detail, for it is consistently used; but it complicates the use of the Glossary and the notes for those already familiar with the Consolation, who must rethink their habits, and see the poem number before, and not after, the letter m. [Note: in this review I will, when necessary, refer to passages by the traditional notation.]

Walsh’s notes provide for curious readers a wealth of parallels to poetic and philosophical sources; a brief summary of the argument of each chapter is also to be found here (a Summary of the Treatise as a whole is found near the end of the Introduction, pp. li-lii). With pleasant spacings and indentations, these pages are easy to read; they are complemented by a glossary (actually, more of an index of terms and proper names) which refers not only to the text of the Consolation, but to the lengthy Introduction as well. Here the reader needs to be aware that the Roman numerals point to section divisions of the Introduction, not to actual page numbers; and while the references to the text of the Consolation are here given with full specificity, there is some room for confusion in that a series of references under one lemma to the same book of the Consolation will have the book number prefaced only to one of them. This saves some space, but at the cost of some clarity. Consider the entry “Fortune”: Introd. VI; 1. 1. m.17; 4. 2, 19, 44; 5. m.29, 47; 2. 1. 3ff.; 1. m.1 ff.; 2. 1ff., 12; 3.1.9 ff…. Similarly, some of the notes have cross references to passages within the same book, for which the book number is omitted (for example, the reference in the note at 1.3.9 to 4.27n. points to 1.4.27); the reader can, with forewarning, get used to this.

Walsh wants his translation to be used by students and readers with scholarly interests, who need to check a passage, or to refer back (or ahead) to parallels. Some problems of text layout work against this, as I have suggested above; more annoying is the nature of the cross references themselves, which tend, when referring to prose sections, to point only to the chapter and not to the sentences which are so neatly and conveniently labeled. For example, Walsh’s note at 5. 1. 2 glosses “That statement which you made a moment ago” with “see 4. 6.” This is frustrating, as 4. 6 is the longest prose section of the Consolation; why not say 4. 6. 2-4? This truncation of references in the notes is a serious impediment to the use of the material which they contain; there should have been more cross-references to the text, and they should have followed the full citation pattern used in the glossary.

As for the content of the notes: textual matters are discussed only twice (4 m.2. 8, reading captos for captus; 5. 4. 1, reading destruit for distribuit), and the choices of other translators only once (Tester’s translation 3 m.9. 18 = 3. 9. m.26 Walsh). References to others of Boethius’s works are few, and technicalities of the metres of the individual poems are rarely discussed (see rather Introduction, pp. xli-iii). This streamlining is appropriate for the general or philosophical reader, though I would have preferred that more metrical information be transferred from the introduction. In general, when Walsh does include a (truncated) cross-reference, the referenced passage does not include a cross-reference back to the first. Again, this is fine if the reader is reading the text straight through, and reads the notes in order which point primarily backwards, toward the front of the text. The glossary makes up for some of this where, for example you can find out the two passages in which the younger Seneca appears by name, even if this information is not given in the notes at 1. 3. 9 or at 3. 5. 10.

Misprints are few, and mostly in matters of punctuation, and one cannot compose 50 pages of notes without some numbers going awry. I hope that it will not seem too critical if I list, for the utility of readers, those that I found. In xiv, line 2 from bottom: for sons. read sons, ; xv, note 5: for Wodeck read Wedeck; xv, note 5: for 2. 4 read 2. 3. 8; xvi, line 9: for functionary read functionaries; xliv, line 7 from bottom: for orthodoxy. read orthodoxy, ; page lii, line 13 from bottom: for Providence read Philosophy; liii, line 5: for Weisenberger read Weinberger; p. lvi, line 16: for Mansi read Masi; page 13, last line: for fixed read fixèd; p. 20, line 26: for playing-field.? read playing-field. ; p. 27, line 7, for here, So read here. So; p. 43, line 8: for because read that; p. 48, line 6, for who read whom; page 69 verse 1: for would could read who could; page 69 verse 19: for plants read plaints; page 69 verse 24, for utterance. read utterance, ; page 79 verse 20: for ranged, read ranged. ; p. 136, line 5: for 3. 3, read 3. 5. 4; p. 137: the note for 3. 8. 9 cites a text of Ovid which is actually parallel to Boethius’s language in 3. 8. 7; p. 143, line 10: for Cabaniss read Cabanis; p. 147, line 14: for capti read captus; p.163: the note labelled 5. 5. 4 should be 5. 5. 9.

To turn to the translation itself. Walsh is not a Boethian scholar, but has long distinguished himself as an able translator of Latin, and he brings to the Consolation some valuable experience as a translator of Petronius’s Menippean Satyricon, Apuleius’s ornate Golden Ass, and Cicero’s philosophical Nature of the Gods. There is no question that his translation is more than a fair guide to the meaning of Consolation. Its considerable distinction is that it is more concerned to be full than spare, to follow Boethius’s rhetorical structures and not always to leap to more concise formulations; the general effect is that the reader is made more aware of the real manners of speech of the partners in the dialogue. For example, compare Walsh’s and Watts’s translations of 3. 10. 1, Quoniam igitur quae sit imperfecti, quae etiam perfecti boni forma uidisti, nunc demonstrandum reor quonam haec felicitatis perfectio constituta sit (Walsh: “So now that you have seen what is the shape of the imperfect good, and also that of the perfect good, I think that I must now show you the region in which the perfection of happiness is set;” Watts: “Since then you have seen the form both of imperfect and of perfect good, I think we now have to show where this perfect happiness is to be found.”).

But one could still wish that key words in the dynamics of the conversation between Philosophy and the prisoner were better recorded. Most important, the variations between Philosophy’s addresses in the second person singular and in the second person plural need to be diligently maintained. Walsh is not flawless: at 2. 7. 9 Philosophy passes from singular to plural without notice; see also 3.5.12, where the second person is suppressed in preference to the third; and 3.8.10, where the second person singular is not distinguished from the plural. And certain other signposts in the dialogue can be missed. For example, at 1. 6. 6, Philosophy expresses her surprise at the prisoner’s lack of understanding with an incongruous and comic word: Babae! The prisoner uses the same word, surely not by accident, at 4. 2. 1, to expresses his surprise at the enormity of what Philosophy has promised to reveal to him. Neither “How odd!” nor “My goodness!” (Walsh’s translations) quite catches the force of babae, though at least Walsh, unlike Watts, makes an attempt at translating it; but had the two instances received the same translation, the reader would have been able to connect the two passages. A more important example: at 4. 6. 1, the prisoner confesses that he finds the idea that all things happen as they should happen in this world a miraculum, usefully overtranslated here as “that strange situation which I mentioned.” Philosophy picks up on his language, and will use the word three more times in the coming prose section: 4. 6. 27 ( miraculum), 4. 6. 31 ( insigne miraculum), and 4. 6. 50 ( insigne miraculum). These are translated as “the situation”, “the remarkable phenomenon,” and “the striking miracle” respectively. Or consider 4. 4, in which Philosophy speaks of the seeming impunity of lawless men: the terms are consistently forms of the noun impunitas and the adjective impunitus; they are translated variously as impunity, unpunished, and scot free. Walsh has the reasonable impulse to make more varied what is perhaps monotone in the Consolation : for example, the ten inquam‘s in the dialogue at 3. 3. 6-15 are translated as remarked, admitted, answered, and said (this last appearing six times). But do we not hear something of an interlocutor mechanically acceding to Philosophy’s arguments in the dull drumbeat of inquam, inquam, inquam ? This is a matter of interpretation, perhaps, and the argument can certainly be made that not even an ideal translation of the Consolation would translate the same word the same way each time that it appears. Walsh has his reasons; but I confess my frustration that he did not see fit either in his introduction or in individual notes to spell out just what his guiding principles in translation are.

What sets the Consolation apart from other protreptics, dialogues, or consolations in the classical tradition is its use of verse; the extraordinary presence of the work in Western culture may blind a modern reader to just how strange the Consolation is on this score, but this cannot escape the translator. The verses are the hardest part to translate. Thirty-nine poems in a wide variety of meters and combinations of meters (some invented by Boethius himself) make this the most prosimetric text of antiquity, eclipsing both Petronius’s Satyricon and Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury. The translator of Boethius, who is never a professional poet, is stuck: how to make these poems look like they belong in the text? If translated as prose, one sort of meaning is preserved at the expense of another; if into English verse forms, how to avoid doggerel if you’re trying both to get the philosophical terms straight and make a meter or a rhyme? I would not be surprised if there are Boethian scholars who have refused to translate the Consolation just for fear of walking through the minefield of Boethian verse. In general, Tester (every poem a free verse exercise), Green (every poem in prose), and Watts (a smaller variety of English verse forms) seem to exhaust the possibilities. [But see Boethius: The Poems from the Consolation of Philosophy translated out of the original Latin into diverse historical Englishings, diligently collaged by Peter Glassgold (Los Angeles 1994) for an interesting series of Old English experiments.]

Walsh follows Watts’s lead here, and the results, I regret to say, are mixed at best. The vocabulary tends toward the archaic in some poems, particularly 1 m. 2: we are in a world of despond, baneful, descry, espy, main (sea), perforce, orb, fixèd, plaint, car (chariot), ‘midst, plight. He tolerates many false rhymes: sphere / chair, known/dawn, trees/lease (1 m. 5); height/weight (2 m. 4); road/abroad (2 m. 5); one / gone, unknown/dawn/dethrone (2 m. 7); far/war (2 m. 8); blows/jaws, low/withdraw (3 m. 2); swarm/charm 3 m. 7); sky/stupdity (3 m. 8); arbiter/car (4 m. 1); sea / Circe, warms/charms (4 m. 3); mar/war (4 m. 4); thrives/gives, role / befall (5 m. 4). His great merit is that he is scrupulous; though he views Boethius as more a versifier than a poet (cf. Introduction, p. xliii), he does not indulge in improvisations on Boethian themes, but tries sincerely to get at his meaning through close attention, for it is precisely Boethius’s ability to express his philosophical ideas in metrical form that commands Walsh’s respect. Walsh keeps fairly close to the number of lines of his originals; of the 39 poems, 19 have the same number of lines, and another eleven differ only by one. He takes his greatest liberties in some of the longest poems: 1 m. 2, 27 lines translated as 39; 3 m. 2, 38 as 46; and 3 m. 9, 28 as 40. He is at his best in his non-rhyming efforts, and 3 m.9, the hinge of the Consolation, is quite elegantly done this way; see also 1 m. 4 and 5 m. 3). I enjoyed the rhyming quatrains of 2 m. 8 and the curious sonnet of 5 m. 2. But Walsh’s rhymes and couplets, so alien to Latin verse, sound particularly out of place in a work which seeks to create new verse forms, and to strike the ear in new and surprising ways. The reader will in general find that the rhetorical formality of the prose interchanges of Philosophy and the prisoner is not sweetened by the presence of such verse.

Let me conclude with a few observations on Walsh’s critical stance. Both in his introduction and in his notes, Walsh is obsessed with Boethius’s sources, not only in thought, but also in language. Many of his notes tell us which Ode of Horace or which passage from Seneca stands behind a given expression in the Consolation. This has its advantages: Walsh relies heavily on O’Daly’s The Poetry of Boethius, and it is good to be allowed through the notes to see Boethius the poet at work, not just adapting well-known poetry to his ends, but also alluding in significant ways to the common intellectual property of Late Antiquity. But Walsh tends only to make note and not to interpret; whether there is some intertextual depth to be gained by remembering Boethius’s original in its new context is a question which he rarely raises, but which the reader should.

Walsh’s interest in sources can in fact be very frustrating. In his Introduction (pp. xxi-ii) Walsh observes that Boethius’s work De arithmetica is largely a translation of Nichomachus’s Introduction to Arithmetic, and that Boethius’s De institutione musica was based on Nichomachus’s Introduction to Music (Books 1-4) and Ptolemy’s Harmonics (Book 5). His note then tells us who edited the Greek text of Nichomachus’s Arithmetic and who translated it; we are referred to a section in Chadwick’s Boethius and an essay by Caldwell in Gibson’s Boethius for discussion. But is it not of interest that Boethius’s Fundamentals of Music has been translated with ample notes and introduction by Calvin Bower (New Haven 1989); or that his Arithmetic has been translated as Boethian Number Theory by Michael Masi (Amsterdam 1983)? Surely Boethius’s own words on the subject ought to be of some interest to the student of the Consolation. Walsh’s knowledge of Boethius seems not to go beyond the Consolation.

To Walsh, the Consolation of Philosophy is a classic, and his job, though he does not quite spell it out in these words, is to provide the reader with enough cross-references to Plato, Aristotle, neo-Platonic authors, and Roman poets in his notes so that the reader will see clearly that this is a book to be read thoroughly within a Classical context. This is not a bad approach, actually; Walsh relies on the studies of others in his introduction to guide the reader to matters of Boethius’s life and times, the nature of neo-Platonism, and the medieval significances of the text, and stands on his own ground in asserting that this most extraordinary work is comfortably at home on the shelves of Classical literature. Unfortunately, this leads him generally to dismiss the idea of Christian allusions in the text: while he allows it in Philosophy’s citation from Wisdom at 3. 12. 22, he otherwise only speaks of the temptations of other scholars to see such allusions (see his notes on 3 m.9. 38-40, 4. 1. 6, 4. 4. 23, 4. 6. 13, 5. 3. 34, 5. 6. 47). But what is a surprise is that for all of this Walsh has an unusual view of the text’s goals: its Menippean form “sought a readership wider than the relatively small circle of enthusiasts for philosophy; he looked to the larger audience of those whose intellectual recreation lay in the traditional literary culture.” (Introduction, p. xxxviii) Given all that has been written on prose and verse in the Consolation as two separate ways of knowing, about the integration of these two different world views into one, if not mystical, at least transcendent view of God and the world (going back at least to Alfonsi in the 1940’s), does Walsh really mean to disregard any thought that the Consolation is a private work, that it has some sort of spiritual value, written to console the author himself? Walsh speaks often enough of the politics that lurk behind the passages: he invests 2. 4. 17 with great significance as showing that Boethius was merely under house arrest, and on 2. 2. 14, Fortune’s reference to the prisoner’s ability to hope for better things, as showing that there may have been a possibility of reprieve. But does such an autobiographical text really exist as a call for the less committed to join the ranks of philosophy because poetry can be the sugar to help them swallow the bitter pills of Philosophy? I do not object to the fact that Walsh’s view is itself eccentric; I like to see a translation that has a point of view. But it is, ultimately, naive, and I think that Walsh could have been more honest to present this interpretation as something other than the common-sense view of his text. He would have profited by consulting F. Anne Payne, Chaucer and Menippean Satire (Madison 1981), Ann. W. Astel, Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth (Ithaca 1994), and the now famous essays of T.F. Curley (1986, 1987; the latter does appear in Walsh’s bibliography).

To conclude. I believe that these comments are a fair assessment of a laudable work with some shortcomings in style, format, and critical approach. It will be read and studied with profit by anyone interested in the Consolation. The reader of this review should be aware that I am myself engaged in a new translation of the Consolation; I speak from an intimate knowledge of how difficult the task is. The reader should also be aware that while I was not happy to see that his references to my discussion of the Consolation in my Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore 1993) are disapproving and that his quotations from it (see p. xxvii and n. 32) are inaccurate, I am consoled by the thought that both Walsh and I are interested in setting the Consolation in its Classical context. I see it as a stranger text than he does, but I am willing to allow him to differ.