BMCR 2014.06.20

Boethius’ ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ as a Product of Late Antiquity

Antonio Donato, Boethius' 'Consolation of Philosophy' as a Product of Late Antiquity. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2013. vii, 221. ISBN 9781780934624 $120.00.


This is an important book. With it—and in the company his three substantial and near-contemporary articles on Consolation, modestly unrecorded in his bibliography—1 Donato emerges as a new and powerful voice in Boethian studies. His is a conservative voice, and his book is a conservative, but surprising, reading. In four chapters (Boethius and the Ideology of the Roman Senatorial Aristocracy; The Illness and the Healer; How does Philosophy Convey her Therapy?; Christianity and the Consolation) he argues for this conclusion: Consolation is not about revealing the limits of philosophy as a surprise or as a failure, not about probing philosophy’s limits as a critique of its limited value; certainly not about opposing philosophical truth and Christian truth. Rather, because in the sixth century and in the neoplatonic tradition philosophy is readily acknowledged to have limits and boundaries, and because there is in the sixth century in general (and in the house of the Anicii in particular) no disjunction between philosophy and Christianity, or between faith and rhetoric, Boethius the author can have Philosophy the interlocutor advocate prayer when her own limits have been reached. There is a wisdom beyond Philosophy, and Philosophy knows it and points the way to it; she is part of a more far-reaching system. In two neat formulations, Donato puts it this way: ” Philosophy teaches Boethius that the discovery of a problem that philosophy cannot resolve reveals not its deficiency but its domain” (188); “the Consolation reveals not Philosophy’s failures but her boundaries” (189). [Note: In reference to his text, I follow Donato’s use of the italicized Philosophy and Boethius to refer to the characters in dialogue; in my own voice I settle for the capitalized but roman font for Philosophy and the prisoner.]

This is what Donato means by “a product of late antiquity”. The character Philosophy who adresses the prisoner in Consolation belongs to the sixth century world. Donato’s arguments are that Philosophy as she appears in Consolation is the philosophy of the sixth-century synthesis, philosophy as embodied by and lived by the Roman aristocrats who inherit a living neoplatonic tradition. The thrust of Donato’s last chapter is that Boethius subscribes to a Christian worldview in which Greek philosophy is the language of belief. There is no discord or disjunction; it is only in the ninth century (Bovo of Corvey), when there truly is a separate Christian culture, that Latin readers can look at Consolation and wonder where the Christianity is. Further, Neoplatonic philosophy draws a distinction between philosophy and wisdom; philosophy has limits; philosophy should not be taken beyond its limits; the use of Aristotelian logic in the Treatises shows that there is a realm for logic and a realm that logic does not address. It is good that Donato draws on the works of Proba and Ennodius to show that in the house of the Anicii there is no gap between rhetoric and faith, between philosophy and Christianity.

This Philosophy knows her limits, in other words, but the prisoner does not know his. She teaches the prisoner that he needs to regain his sense of perspective, and thus his sense of who he is, by rebalancing the demands of the vita activa and the vita contemplativa. The crucial point is that the prisoner has fallen into despair because of his personal situation; because he cannot see the solution he thinks that Philosophy herself is to blame. That is not surprising, but here is Donato’s greatest strength: he insists that everything that Philosophy does is designed to get the prisoner to abandon his obsession with politics. Consolation of Philosophy belongs to the genre of consolation, and is a successful consolation, because consolation is individualized, and a consolator uses any and all means necessary to address the individual needs of the consolandus, even to the point of changing plans and being inconsistent. (Donato takes Philosophy’s willingness to deviate from her plans as proof that her plan is to be willing to be changed (76-78): she doesn’t want to travel by any one particular or predetermined path. She wants to waken the prisoner to argument; she is a good “dialectical doctor” by listening.) The uniqueness of the work as a consolation reflects the uniqueness of the prisoner. Consolation demonstrates truths about philosophy for a philosopher who needs to be reminded of them, to get his mind off of his political interests and to rise to the “philosopher’s challenge”. Here is the nub of it in Chapter 2 (76): “It is thus quite safe to assume that when Philosophy remarks that Boethius has left his native land, she means that he is no longer in the state of consciousness that would allow him to react to his imprisonment and his political demise with the detachment and inner strength typical of a philosopher.” Donato says that it is as if the philosopher who has returned to the cave to help his fellow prisoners has forgotten about the existence of the world outside of the cave (67).

Donato corrects many mistaken notions and calls for a greater accuracy in terminology: the inapplicability of the word pagan, the specious contrast between pagan and Christian, a greater appreciation for the varieties within the genre of consolation, the looseness of my own terms in referring to Consolation as a parody of a consolation, or as a paradoxical consolation, or as a surprising consolation, or as a failure to console as planned. There is great value in this reading of Consolation as a success, if only because this conservative reading is so different from others: this is not a simple demonstration of the basic truths of philosophy for a universal audience, but for a very individual audience. This is Boethius’ self-consolation, a personal statement of how he gave up the particularities of his individualized personal experience as a Roman aristocrat to accept the abstracted realties of the universal vision of the ascended soul. And at the end we are not so very far apart, perhaps. He overstates, I think, the degree to which modern scholarly opinion reads Consolation as the author’s choice of philosophy over Christianity; but Donato at the end speaks of how Boethius’ “Christian beliefs subtly surface in the Consolation” (191).

There is room for disagreement, of course. If Consolation shows the prisoner returning to the world of the sixth-century synthesis, why does Philosophy describe the history of lower-case philosophy in I. 3 as Plato/Aristotle, schismatic Hellenistic philosophers, Roman era martyrs, and then Boethius, without any reference to the neoplatonic world in which Boethius grew up? It would seem to me that the text seeks to tease apart the elements of that synthesis by separating Boethius from it. Donato specifically denies that intercessory prayer is at issue at the end of Book 5 (190); I think it is, in a switch from what I have called the high road of transcendence to the low road of intercessory prayer. What is metaphor and what is fact may be in the eyes of the beholder: To Donato, Philosophy’s appeal to the prisoner to fly away with her is a metaphor for the ascent of the mind to the realms where ascended souls dwell, where the soul is united with God; I take it as a metaphor for death, a death present in a dozen ways within the text. And death may have a greater presence in Consolation, the inheritance of Crito, that Donato allows (p. 96, n. 80); Crito does not make its presence felt in Donato’s analysis.

I think that Donato’s book paves the way for new lines of further research, both literary and philosophical. For those of us who still locate Consolation within the history of Menippean satire, Donato’s analysis of its construction as a specific set of literary structures and argumentative gambits reflecting a specific personality and specific situation can be viewed in parallel to the analysis of the Apocolocyntosis as a Saturnalian reflection of the uniqueness of Claudius: the genre did not predetermine the treatment of the character.2 Further, if Philosophy aims to disengage the prisoner from an obsession with politics, and if we accept O’Donnell’s argument in The Ruin of the Roman Empire (New York: Harper Collins, 2008) that Boethius was guilty as charged (“Theoderic was not merely paranoid: he had a real enemy. Boethius wanted to be emperor himself—or, more precisely, he wanted to be Plato’s philosopher king” (166-7)), then, we may ask, why did Boethius the author choose this medium for a confessional ? To Donato, Consolation dramatizes the hard work of philosophical thought, what it means to be a philosopher—but why Boethius chose to dramatize at all, to expose himself so fully, remains a mystery.


1. “Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and the Greco-Roman Consolatory Tradition”, Traditio 67 (2012): 1-42; “Forgetfulness and Misology in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy”, British Journal for the History of Philosophy 21.3 (2013): 463-485; “Self-Examination and Consolation in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy“, CW 106.3 (2013): 397-430.

2. See my review [ Gnomon 84 (2012): 654-5] of Alice Bonandini, Il contrasto menippeo: prosimetro, citazioni e commutazione di codice nell’ Apocolocyntosis di Seneca. Con un commento alle parti poetiche. Labirinti 130. Università degli Studi di Trento, 2010.