Joel Relihan’s The Prisoner’s Philosophy: Life and Death in Boethius’s Consolation serves as a sequel of sorts to his Ancient Menippean Satire (Johns Hopkins, 1993) in which he argued that Boethius’s Consolation belongs to the genre of Menippean satire. This is to say that it is both “philosophical and ironic” in that it “presents and undermines” an intellectual synthesis (x-xi). The Prisoner’s Philosophy expands on that thesis and rethinks some of the methods, definitions, and interpretive practices of Ancient Menippean Satire. The present text argues, in particular, that the Consolation is a decidedly Christian work that “dramatizes” the limits of pagan philosophy and that it belongs to a Platonic tradition (stretching back to the Crito) which culminates in 12th Century Christian Platonism (ix). Relihan defends this thesis (1) by “intensive appeal to the details of plot and structure,” (2) by careful attention to the other traditions and texts visible in it; (3) and by reference to the subsequent interpretive tradition. For those readers who see the Consolation as a collection of interesting philosophical arguments wrapped up in the narrative of Boethius’s last days, The Prisoner’s Philosophy will prove to be both a revelation and a challenge.
One might view the central thesis of The Prisoner’s Philosophy in two ways. On the one hand, it is a detailed, comprehensive, yet approachable synthesis of the broader philosophical, literary, and historical sources and context of Boethius’s most well-known work. It argues that the Consolation belongs decisively to the genre of Menippean satire, a genre whose primary function, Relihan argues, is to uncover the limits of theoretical knowledge. The first six or so chapters of the book build the case for this reading of the Consolation by examining various aspects of the genre at work in Boethius’s text. Relihan knows his subject, and, as a result, the reader can expect to learn much from this side of the text.
On the other hand, The Prisoner’s Philosophy argues that the Consolation is at heart a Christian work. Relihan argues, in fact, that Boethius employs the genre of Menippean Satire in order to deliver a fundamentally Christian message. To put this somewhat starkly, the failure of theory borne out by the genre considerations of Menippean satire, points, for Boethius, to the alternative of prayer, specifically Christian prayer, which notion closes the Consolation. Relihan builds his case for this reading alongside his case for taking the Consolation as Menippean satire. Despite their being intertwined, they are, fortunately I think, partially separable theses. In other words, one might profitably read The Prisoner’s Philosophy’s exploration of the Menippean elements of the Consolation without embracing the rather more ambitious claims that the Consolation seeks to deliver a Christian message. That reading, of course, would leave open the question of what the critique of theory was for in the first place.
The Prisoner’s Philosophy is organized in series of relatively short, almost independent, chapters. Each covers a narrow aspect of the text, the genre, or the textual reception. Relihan’s lively mind, broad scholarship and attention to source material makes summary difficult. Having said that, the structure of the chapters would make it possible to read the book out of order (and I don’t mean this as a criticism). I would suggest in fact reading the later chapters first, as they make more decisive arguments for the second, and more ambitious, thesis (which the first chapters often only suggest obliquely).
The text opens with a discussion of the genre of Menippean satire. For Relihan, Menippean Satire is fundamentally a parody of scientific knowledge rather than polyphony—i.e., the combination of prose and verse, fantasy and morality (xi). Menippean Satire, in other words, consists in uncovering the limits of theoretical knowledge to explain “irrational human behavior.” Relihan isn’t unaware of the post-modern ring to that claim, but he labors to show that his notion of Mennipean satire is thoroughly grounded in the ancient textual tradition. For this reason the first chapter develops the notion of Menippean satire with reference to the ancient tradition in Fulgentius and in Martianus Capella’s Marriage of Mercury and Philology as well as the Consolation itself. Relihan’s conception of Menippean Satire rests on four unfulfilled promises, as he calls them, in the Consolation : (1) it’s a consolation, but there’s no consoling; (2) self-realization is promised but never achieved; (3) Philosophy promises to lead the narrator to a true homeland, but never does; (4) harsher medicines are promised, but never given. These “absences, omissions, and frustrations of expectation” must be seen, Relihan argues, as central to the interpretation of the text (4).
Having explained the general perspective on the Consolation, the subsequent chapters pursue the details. Chapter two argues that, as far as Philosophy is concerned, the Consolation is effectively finished at the end of Book III. But Boethius is unsatisfied and in the remaining two books forces Philosophy into an interrogatory exchange which ends up undermining her project. We see this in the contrast between the God of benign providence of Book III, the final cause to which Boethius must attune himself, and the God of the final two books, who as an efficient cause orders and foresees everything that will come about. In light of this contrast, books IV and V of the Consolation, according to Relihan, are digressions meant to keep Philosophy from achieving her stated goals. They are, in short, the ironic undermining of the work of Philosophy (21). Relihan then argues that Boethius frustrates Philosophy and forces her to admit the legitimacy of prayer—in his view, a Christian theme—as a way of accessing God. So the irony, or rather one of the ironies, of the Consolation is that it begins as a consolation of knowledge which it ends up rejecting.
In addition to undermining Philosophy’s theoretical enterprise, another Menippean feature of the Consolation is the collision of the universal and the particular. Chapter three exposes the tension between the universal philosophical and the particular autobiographical aspects of the Consolation. This tension comprises part of the paradoxical or ironic structure of the text as a text about the production of a text. The universal and the particular collide on purpose. The universal genre of the Consolation collides with the particular consolation of Boethius the person; the universality of philosophical consolation is rejected in the affirmation of the particularity of supplicant prayer. Philosophy—the universal and theoretical—is frustrated by the specific and practical. The writing of the text is taken out of Philosophy’s hands.
Chapter four considers the place of the text within the genre of Consolation. Relihan runs through some of the typical features of the consolation genre and how Boethius both assumes and violates them. Among these features are the necessity of consolation (on account of “melancholy”), the two-part structure of the text, the proposed universal nature of the cure, and the doctor-patient relationship. But Boethius frustrates these genre expectations. Relihan argues that one can only see this as intentional, in a number of respects. To give a few examples, the “consolation” really never happens; Boethius is never consoled. The second part of the text undermines the universal view typical of consolations; Boethius refuses (again in the second part) to take the philosophical escape of the Platonic style consolatory text (cf. Phaedo) and he remains perpetually interested in worldly problems. In particular, the first part of the text gives the providential picture of fortune and fate in a world wisely governed, moving toward its final cause. But Boethius rejects this philosophical picture, Relihan argues, with his persistent interest in the coherence of this wise governance with the possibility of human freedom (his interest in human freedom being “worldly”).
The tensions between the personal and the universal play out on the narrative level as well. Relihan argues, in Chapter five, that Boethius peppers the consolation with puzzlingly false or misleading narrative elements, whose presence resists Philosophy’s desire to depersonalize, to offer a universal cure. Indeed, at this point in the text one begins to notice with more urgency the Christian aspect of Relihan’s thesis. One might also be mindful of the marked absence of overt references to Christianity or to Christian themes. It is, of course, well known that Boethius, the person, intervened in several Christian debates (he wrote, after all, five tractates on theology and was known to have intervened in other religious debates). So why the reticence? Relihan holds that this reticence is more than a matter of style; rather the Consolation is “the author’s less-than-perfect accounting of himself” which points, very much on purpose, to that which is missing—and what is missing is any mention of religion.
The intellectual journey of the Consolation recalls the Odyssey; it is an epic journey (of an intellectual kind of course) in which the protagonist resists temptations, faces challenges, and so forth, to return home. There is, however, a twist. Philosophy, who represents Death, points out the route home, but Boethius refuses. Consistent with the genre of Menippean satire (cf. Lucian, Seneca, Martianus Capella), Boethius journeys to the Land of the Dead, and comes back alive (78). He is filled with “otherworldly wisdom,” which he uses as reason to return to the world. This underscores, according to Relihan, the Christian elements in the Consolation. Philosophy’s teaching has “converted the prisoner from her teachings.” That practically nothing Christian has been explicitly expressed in the Consolation should come as no surprise; Odysseus, after all, spends most of his time trying (and failing) to reach his destination. The last part of this chapter systematically restates Relihan’s rereading of the Consolation as consisting in a series of four “redirections.” (1) In the first lines of the work, the epic genre of consolation is redirected by an elegiac poem (84); (2) Philosophy redirects the genre to philosophical dialogue (85); (3) Philosophy changes her diagnosis of the prisoner; (4) the prisoner interrupts Philosophy’s argument. One final redirection, Relihan argues, is Christianity. This consists in the prisoner’s final refusal to exult in Philosophy’s exhortation to “return with Philosophy to the homeland that she had in mind” (91) and his insistence on prayer as a means of accessing God.
The rest of the text continues to look beyond the Consolation itself for clues to its interpretation. Chapter seven considers some of the textual parallels to the Consolation. Relihan begins with the Crito, arguing that the Consolation is an ironic retelling of the Crito story. He then proceeds to discuss Lucian (some dialogues involving Philosophy as an interlocutor) and Agathias Scholasticus as parallels, and Fulgentius ( Mythologies), Maximian ( Elegies) and Isidore of Seville ( Synonyma) for the reception of the Consolation.
Chapter eight involves an author substitution. William E. Heise, a former student of Relihan’s, takes up the question of the “Menippean Boethius in the Personification Allegories of the Middle Ages.” Despite the change in author, the chapter addresses a critical objection to the first of Relihan’s theses: namely that the Middle Ages betrays little if any sense of the Menippean elements of the Consolation. Not so, argues Heisse. And he goes on to point out Menippean elements in several key medieval “personification allegories.” Medieval authors, Heisse argues, were certainly aware of what Boethius was doing. Among the works he considers are Dante’s Paradiso (especially his discussion of Boethius vis à vis the fate of Siger of Brabant), Alan of Lille’s Complaint of Nature (Nature is limited), Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose (personification of reason is confounded), William Langland Piers Plowman (personification of the Holy Church).
The last chapter takes up questions related to the place, or should I say the absence, of Christianity in Boethius’s Consolation. What is, one might wonder, the religion of Boethius? Why is it hidden in the Consolation ? More importantly, what would it mean, after all, to call the Consolation a Christian work, as Relihan has been aiming to do in this text? The short answer is that, taking Wisdom literature as his inspiration, Boethius has co-opted a secular tradition for religious ends—he uses the limitations of philosophy to make a religious point. The frustration of the Prisoner with Philosophy points to the alternative of humble Christian prayer. The textual key for this reading, Relihan argues, lies in language which echoes Job and the book of Esther, as well as other admittedly more tenuous religious elements (such as the Lord’s Prayer) (130), and a reference to hidden treasure reminiscent of Matthew 13.44 (133). That these religious clues are hidden underscores, rather than negates, the religious attitude of the prisoner. Each one of these elements itself suggests a theme of hiddenness. It should come as no surprise, therefore, that Boethius chose them as his points of religious reference.
This brings us back to the two theses of The Prisoner’s Philosophy. The first thesis, that the Consolation is Boethius’s unique and compelling conception of Menippean satire, rests in particular on the inability of Philosophy to attain her objective and the resistance of the prisoner to her various remedies (among other things). If Boethius’ Menippean satire consists in his frustrating the expectations of genre, then I think Relihan has made a powerful case. Will it be powerful enough to sway those who would be inclined to view these genre considerations as window-dressing for an interesting discussion of Divine foreknowledge, the problem of evil, human freedom (and much else)? Probably not, because Relihan is decidedly unconcerned with the actual arguments with which many other readers of the Consolation are solely preoccupied. He has done little, in other words, to bring in likely skeptics. This doesn’t mean that skeptics won’t have a lot they can take away from The Prisoner’s Philosophy. A heightened attention to the literary detail of Boethius’s work makes for a richer appreciation of the text itself, even if it ignores the arguments. One can always add those oneself. One shouldn’t have to choose.
Convincing a narrowly philosophical reader of the presence and significance of Menippean elements in Boethius’s Consolation is one thing, getting that same reader to see them as an argument for a Christian reading of this text is quite another. I suspect I wouldn’t be alone in finding the claim that the Consolation is a decisively Christian work to be a rather weak one. I say this not only because the evidence for any religious interpretation is purposely thin—indeed, some of the evidence for this reading consists in there not being evidence for it. That there may be a religious feature to the Consolation doesn’t strike me as strange, that that religious aspect is uniquely Christian, as Relihan stresses throughout the text, seems fairly groundless.
In the first place, one might indeed see the Consolation as undermining academic theorizing, but not at the same time see an affirmation of anything else than its failure. Philosophy may indeed fail, but that doesn’t mean religion succeeds. Besides, considering the ironic tone implicit in the frustration of expectations, perhaps the affirmation of prayer at the end merely underscores Philosophy’s failure. After all, many of Plato’s dialogues end in the failure to find a suitable definition of the concept under consideration. They do not result in the abandonment of the project.
Second, even if one were to concede there might be a reasonable religious interpretation to the Consolation, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to believe that religion is specifically Christian. Throughout the text, Relihan insists on a specifically Christian character to this religion, but he does not alert the reader to the meaning of this claim. Christianity, after all, for Boethius might be something rather different from how one might imagine it was. And for this reason I might suggest reading the last chapter for some—not much—guidance on Relihan’s sense of what it would this claim might mean. While indeed it is surprising that Boethius seems to have little to say about religion, in particular the Christian religion, in the Consolation, given his background as a participant in Christian religious controversies, one might expect a possible reference to Christianity on his part to be a little more theologically rich than Relihan suggests.
Fortunately, however, The Prisoner’s Philosophy does not dwell single-mindedly on the Christianity, as it may be, of Boethius at work in the text. There is enough, I think, in the discussion of the Consolation as Menippean satire—with the consequent implications for the interpretation of the text—to make Relihan’s book well worth reading.