Thursday, November 17, 2011

Questioning Fate and Fortune: Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy.

“It remains” I said “for you to explain this apparent injustice I am suffering now.”

 "The question you're asking," Lady Philosophy replied with a smile, "is the grandest of all mysteries, one which can never be explained completely to the human intellect, for, when one problem is removed, many more arise to take its place, and arise and arise unless the mind is keen and awake.  For the problem you raise touches on a number of difficult questions: the simplicity of Providence, the nature of Fate, the unpredictability of Chance, divine and human knowledge, predestination, and free will.  You know the difficulty involved in these questions; nevertheless, I will try to answer them in the short space allotted us."

Then, as though she were beginning for the first time, Philosophy said, "The coming-into-being of all things, and the entire course that changeable things take, derive their causes, their order, and their forms from the unchanging mind of God.  The mind of God set down all the various rules by which all things are governed while still remaining unchanged in its own simplicity. When the government of all things is seen as belonging to the simplicity and purity of the divine mind, we call it “Providence.”  When this government of all things is seen from the point of view of the things that change and move, that is, all things which are governed, from the very beginning of time we have called this “Fate.”  We can easily see that Providence and Fate are different if we think over the power of discernment each has.  Providence is the divine reason, the divine logos , and only belongs to the highest ruler of all things: it is the perspective of the divine mind.  “Fate,” on the other hand, belongs to the things that change and is the way in which Providence joins things together in their proper order.  Providence views all things equally and at the same time, despite their diversity and seemingly infinite magnitude.  Fate sets individual things in motion once their proper order and form has been established.  In other words, Providence is the vision of the divine mind as it sees the unfolding in time of all things, and sees all these things all at once, whereas the unfolding of these events in time, seen as they unfold in time, is called Fate.  Even though the two are different, the one depends on the other, for the complex unfolding of Fate derives from the unity of Providence.  Think of it this way: a craftsman imagines in his mind the form of whatever thing he intends to make before he sets about making it; he makes it by producing in time through a succession of acts that thing that he originally conceived of in his mind.  God, in his Providence, in a unified and simple way, orders all things that are to be done in time; Fate is the unfolding in time through a succession of acts in the order God has conceived. Therefore, whether or not Fate is worked out by angelic spirits serving God, or by some "soul," or nature, or the motions of the stars, or the Devil himself, or by none or all of these, one thing you can be certain of: Providence is the unchangeable, simple, and unified form of all things which come into and pass out of existence, while Fate is the connection and temporal order of all those things which the divine mind decided to bring into existence.  This leads to the conclusion that all things subject to Fate are in turn subject to Providence; therefore, Fate itself is subject to Providence.
[Boethius:  Consolatio Philosophiae, Book IV, Prose VI.]

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, more often referred to as just Boethius , was a statesman and philosopher who lived in the sixth century A.D.  He was educated and high born, descended from an early Roman noble family, and was author of numerous books including commentaries on Aristotle; he wrote his Consolatio Philosophiae [hereafter referred to under the translated name of The Consolation of Philosophy] whilst in prison in 523/24 A.D.  He had achieved much during his life, being appointed Consul of Rome in 510 A.D. and had seen his sons become joint consuls twelve years after.   Boethius was responsible for the translation of numerous Greek teachers’ works in Latin, including works by Ptolemy on astronomy, Euclid on geometry, and those of Plato and Aristotle.  Shortly before his imprisonment, he was appointed as magister officiorum to Theodoric I, ruler of Italy.  Boethius was accused as being a sympathiser of Justin I, Emperor of Byzantium, a former career soldier who had risen through the ranks and been elected emperor.  Justin’s nephew, later adopted as his son, was Justinian I, and husband of the notorious empress, Theodora. Indeed it was owing to a repeal of certain laws by Justin, preventing the royal family from marrying women of low rank such as actresses, that his nephew was able to marry Theodora, allegedly a former prostitute and actress.

A Mediaeval representation Boethius, visited by Lady Philosophy.

Historians seem to be in general agreement as to the events which lead to Boethius’ fall from grace.  A former consul, Albinus (Caecina Decius Faustus Albinus) was accused of treason, of treacherous correspondence with Justin, in front of the king and court, by Cyprianus.  Boethius, however, stated he believed Albinus to be no more guilty of the accusation than Boethius himself nor the other senators, and took his defence.  In retort to this, Cyprianus turned and Boethius indicted of the same crime.

Three witnesses were presented to demonstrate Boethius’ guilt (and quite probably that of Albinus alongside him) in the affair.  These witnesses’ testimony was denounced by Boethius as being dishonourable as they had previously been petty criminal behaviour, with one having been exiled for his debts, and the other two of fraud.  However, sources differ as to the veracity of the statements and the good character of these three witnesses.  Nonetheless, Boethius was arrested, initially detained in church, and then under house arrest.  It was whilst he was under house arrest that Boethius was executed.  A number of extenuating factors may have contributed towards, if not hastened, Boethius’ end. 

Theodoric’s origins were being born of Ostrogothic royalty, as a child he had been sent as a royal hostage to Byzantium where it appears he was educated in the ways of Government.  In his thirties, the Byzantine emperor Zeno appointed Theodoric as his consul based upon his successes as a soldier. Zeno also allowed him to return to his own people where, soon after, he was crowned king following the death of his father, Theodemir.  Soon after, at Zeno’s suggestion and the promise of the Italian peninsula; Theodoric invaded Italy where the existing viceroy Odoacer was being seen as an increasing threat.  Following a three year siege and a treaty made between both sides, Theodoric slew Odoacer with his sword at Ravenna.  Theodoric then set about slaying his family and remaining supporters.  Soon after, Theodoric was appointed as king of Italy. 

The Battistero degli Ariani [The Baptistry of the Arians]
in Ravenna, believed to have been built by Theodoric.

The religious beliefs of Theodoric were Arian in nature, and this was to cause quarrels between his subjects, some Catholic, some Arian.  Justin entertained good relations with Hilderic, king of the Vandals, and this contributed to a turbulent relationship between the two realms.  In addition, the beliefs of Theodoric (and most of the nobility) stood in marked contrast to those following the resolution of the Acacian Schism in 519, whereby Christ had been recognised as divine; a complete antithesis of the Arianist theology.  Theodoric’s sister Almafrida, dowager queen of the Vandals, had raised an unsuccessful revolt against the successor of her late husband, his cousin Hilderic.  Her husband had sought to forge better relations with Byzantium, by ceasing the persecution of the Catholics within his kingdom.  Hilderic, continued his predecessor’s ways and empathy for the Catholics, allowing many of his subjects to convert; he thus achieved even greater ties with Byzantium and further alienated the Arians.  This resurgence of Catholic strength led to a subsequent persecution of Arians in the East.  Hilderic had Almafrida imprisoned, and she was possibly executed, or died in prison.  It was only due to the death of Theodoric that the two nations didn’t go to war at that point in time.  However the animosity between Byzantium and Italy was great.  However the animosity between Arians and Catholics was to continue; with a victorious revolt in the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa, seven years later, lead by Hilderic’s cousin Geilamir.

Over the year in which Boethius was imprisoned he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. Sometime after its completion, Boethius was executed.  In respect of Boethius’ final days, the fragmentary chronicle Anonymous Valesii states:-

But the King [ie Theodoric] summoned Eusebius, Prefect of the city of Ticenum, and without giving Boethius a hearing, passed sentence upon him. The King soon afterwards caused him to be killed on the Calventian territory where he was held in custody. He was tortured for a very long time by a cord that was twisted round his forehead so that his eyes started from his head. Then at last amidst his torments he was killed with a club.”

The work itself is a significant deviation from all the others in Boethius’ catalogue of writings in that it is of a personal nature, and not a translation nor a commentary of earlier philosophy or doctrine.  Within those words, Boethius imbues the work with themes from relevant works in his library, seemingly of pre-Christian writers.   The work, although much of the ideas are commentary or derivative of other sources; this does not detract from the importance of the underlying theme, nor does it make the work any less stimulating to read and to allow the reader to contemplate.  The informed reader of the work however will ponder two questions whilst reading and reflecting upon Boethius’ words whilst reading this work however.  The first being that of Boethius’ guilt in the crime for which he had been accused and the second one being the question mark over Boethius’ faith and beliefs. 

To address the question of Boethius' beliefs, it is perhaps reflective of the environment in which he found himself, Boethius, much like St. Jerome a century previous found himself drawn to the works of Cicero and Plato.  Indeed, The Golden Legend recounts a tale of how St. Jerome converted to Christianity upon the threat of being whipped and condemned as a pagan upon his reading of Cicero and Plato, both deemed and condemned as being heretical texts, yet by stalk contrast, Boethius seems to have enjoyed respect rather than condemnation for his appreciation of the two same (amidst many others) authors from antiquity.  Indeed, in reading The Consolation of Philosophy, it becomes highly apparent how much the Early Church was to appropriate pre-Christian writers and philosophy into its teachings.  Boethius makes extensive reference to the works of Cicero, and there is a deep Platonist feel which is found throughout the work, yet perhaps rather extraordinarily, there is not a single reference made to Scripture.  This is extraordinary in retrospect, as the book as much its author, was to be venerated by Christians for many centuries after.  Boethius admittedly did not have access to his library whilst imprisoned, however his source of salvation does not seem to have been found that of the Christian message, and it is Lady Philosophy who teaches him the importance of virtue.  Boethius’ writing seems to have been influential in the formation of scholastic philosophy, and Boethius, in addition to demonstrating his advanced knowledge of both Roman and Greek philosophy appears to have an evident understanding of the ideas that were adhered to by the Gnostic traditions, long since proscribed by the Church of Rome.  The book is shows clear signs of being theistic in nature, but imitates or echoes the doctrine of the Neo-Platonists, in which God was portrayed as being an infinite, yet depersonalised, being. Upon reading the book without approaching it with a Christian outlook, the tone is decidedly Neo-Platonist, and Stoic, than Christian.

The Wheel of Fortune as portrayed in the Coëtivy Master c. 1460/70
 The Gnostic traditions taught that Sophia [meaning “Wisdom”] was the feminine aspect to God.  She was the embodiment of knowledge, and understanding.  Some Gnostic schools taught that Sophia was the Mirror of God.  However to add confusion, this Sophia had a daughter, also called Sophia, who left the plemora, or a divine plain, and became lost and confused below.  So as to keep herself company created Yaldaboath [meaning “child of chaos”], a creature that was half lion, half serpent.  However this creature terrified her and she built an enclosure around him, thus separating the world from the Underworld.  Then either Yaldaboath or Sophia, the stories differ, created Man.  Sophia herself can be interpreted as being metaphorical of the human soul; lost and confused, yet still containing the spark, or gnosis, within her.

Scholars have recently questioned as to when during the time frame of his imprisonment did Boethius compose this work.  Some have proposed that it is not the work of a man who is preparing to face death and execution but more one of one who’s life and status are in ruins; who had reached the echelons of power for himself and by extension, his family, and that was all taken from him.  Perhaps Boethius only believed that he was being punished with imprisonment for speaking out against Cyprianus, rather than facing the ultimate atonement for his treason; death.  Ultimately the work is Boethius, a rationalist from the teachings he had read and adopted, is writing a rational approach to events that have befallen him, and through the intervention of Philosophy, personified, is attempting to explain them.  By association, and in line with the teachings of Plato, philosophy (or philosophical thought and reasoning) is seen as an important method of detracting the mind, taking it’s listeners or readers away from a misleading external world of “matter” and appearances, but to the true enlightenment and experience of reality.  A direct comparison can be drawn between Plato’s parable of the caves, found in The Republic, whereby Plato uses the sun as a “guiding light” as symbolising the Good, and Boethius talks about his striving towards the light of Truth.  Philosophy tells Boethius that he should not be allowing good nor ill-fortune to affect his judgment, and alludes to that through his recollection of events, suggests that he has knowledge i.e. to have the ability to recollect is to demonstrate knowledge. 

In addition, Boethius’ Lady Philosophy teaches her subject (and audience) that Fortune is indeed fickle, that the Wheel of Fortune must turn and even those with wealth, position and power; material objects or goals that seem to bring happiness, that the Wheel can turn and those can so easily reach the bottom.  This is shown to explain or justify Boethius’ current position in prison.  Having been at the top, he know finds himself stripped of power, wealth and lands.  However his consolation is in the understanding that good fortune is deceptive, and that it is only when wealth, fame, fortune are taken away; and what appears to be ill-fortune and adversity is instructive in teaching what is truly important and relevant to living when material goods are taken away; again revealing traits of Stoicism and its doctrine. The truth is shown to be what is truly important, and those to whom our lives and fates matter to.  Bemoaning his impending doom, or situation; Philosophy reminds him again that only those who are truly virtuous, and truly good, will be rewarded through attaining ultimate happiness through virtue rather than Evil being masked in rewards of materialist happiness. In effect, despite the appearance of materialist happiness, the wicked are not truly flourishing.  Boethius’ questions to Philosophy are that of how can there be free will, if all actions are pre-ordained.  Again Philosophy dictates that this is the difference in the individual as to whether they believe in having actual knowledge of what events will take place based upon action, or whether events are already pre-determined by Providence and Fate.  Therefore, free-will and choice means that the individual has the choice or at least the conscious knowledge of what could be a possible outcome, however that does not predetermine the outcome of events, but that the individual has the choice whether or not to make it happen.

Lady Philosophy leading Boethius towards his enlightment, Coëtivy Master c.1460/70 
Whilst consoled by Philosophy, and occasionally chastised, for bemoaning his fate, or his lot, dependent upon the reader perceives how “consolation” (ie. Reason) is approached, ultimately (his) fate is not trapped in an unmoving present, where neither the future nor the past can be changed, but ultimately that a higher power, is outside of the remit set by time and is not an entity which possesses feelings, understanding nor personality. This higher power exists in an eternal present, not drawing upon the past nor predetermining a future.  It is also an attempt to show a possible relationship between that of events being predetermined and that of destiny, and free will.  Fortune is interpreted as being a turning wheel, and that each individual’s life is that very wheel, not just a spoke within it, or part of a greater, grand design.  The fortunes of one’s life come and go, through the intervention of various forces; be they Providence or otherwise.  It could be seen that life, in its entirety will have momentary pleasures and fortunes, is simply a background to which these opportunities and events will surface.  Mediaeval Christians would have probably tied in with these teachings, although it is never specifically refered to nor cited, the Christian notion of "the meek inheriting the Earth."    

As noted previously, Neo-Platonism is a principle underlying dimension to the work of Boethius, and not simply just a facet or an external influence that affected his writing and opinions.  Neo-Platonism was developed in the third century AD.  It’s ideology in some ways seems very similar to that, or as an expansion upon the doctrine of Simon Magus, and some of the Gnostic schools that followed.  It put forward the notion that an all-Supreme deity, the One, from which emanated the divine Intelligence [or nous], and below that the soul of the world.  Some of the souls remain in the celestial plain, and others descend into the bodies below.  The soul however could ascend the hierarchy and eventually with, and be part of, the One.  The teachings, developed by Plotinus, were influenced by a number of earlier schools of philosophy; such as those of Aristotle, and Pythagoras.  Neo-Platonism was to become the most popular philosophical school by non-Christians, and was later to make resurgence in mediaeval and Renaissance thought. 

As to the question of Boethius’ guilt in the accusation levied against him of conspiracy to commit treason, or to actually be party to it, or whether he was a man wrongly accused, is a difficult subject to discuss as the sources which are available all express the same bias.  The primary source we have of the events leading up to his imprisonment is none other than Boethius himself.   Naturally this autobiographical account of the wrongdoing meted out to him is going to be prejudicial to say the least, however, Boethius’ recounting of events leading up to his imprisonment do betray certain sympathies that could betray his actual guilt in the matter, rather than exonerate him.  Furthermore, they draw into question the sympathy that should be afforded him, and whether Lady Philosophy’s arrival, like a deus ex machina, is in fact there to cover for or to create a defence (posthumous or not) for a seemingly rational man, hiding behind rationalism, to disguise or hide his own culpability.

Another primary source for the events surrounding Boethius and his condemnation is the Anonymous Valesii, a fragmentary chronicle of unknown origins, yet believed to have been composed some 20-30 years after Boethius’ execution, possibly in Ravenna.  Certainly the contents of Boethius’ pleadings of innocence fall into line with those written in The Consolation of Philosophy.  However, it cannot be determined whether the author of the tract had access to Boethius’ writings or not, and whether he was writing directly from The Consolation of Philosophy as his source.  Procopius, author of The Secret History, writes in similar vein and again, possibly again using Boethius as his source, thereby making his bias immediately apparent. 

Boethius’ successor as magister officiorum was Cassiodorus [or Flavius Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator], himself a former consul and governor of Sicily.  Cassiodorus’ approach to history and philosophy was of marked difference to that of Boethius however.  Both men recognized the importance of Greek and Roman literature, however Cassiodorus considered that the works of Scripture to of considerably higher import.  Furthermore, Cassiodorus appears to have placed a more emphatic relevance to the Neoplatonist ideology of the form of the Good [τοῦ ἀγαθοῦ ἰδέαν]; a “symbiosis” of ideas between that ideology and that of beauty.   In writing about the trial and ultimate execution of his predecessor, Cassiodorus is conspicuously silent and makes no mention or allusion to those events.  This is extraordinary in that he penned a series of letters, the Variae Epistulae, which cover numerous aspects of Theodoric’s reign.  This gap in his writing has been the subject of conjecture by scholars, whether this is an implication of the guilt of Boethius, or of his innocence.  The Variae themselves speak highly of those individuals of whom Boethius suggests to be disreputable.  Both his accuser, Cyprianus , as well as two of the “witnesses” called are cited as being men of good character.  It needs to be noted however that experts do tend to approach the historical works of Cassiodorus with prudence, for he seems to have exercised caution when writing his works, more specifically for the sake of self preservation rather than recording the specific facts. 

The Wheel of Fortune, as represented in the Carmina Burana
The fifth and sixth centuries were to demonstrate an important time in the development of the Christian Church.  The conflict between pagan ideas and those taught within Scripture were coming to an end.  Through the proscription of various books which betrayed different ideas on accepted Christianity, and the compilation of a complete canon of accepted books by Athanasius in 381 A.D., Christianity at last had some element of structure as to what was orthodox, and what was heterodox.  Anything, be it other’s doctrines, teachings, or even alternative gospels and strands of Christianity (such as those of the Sethians, Manichees, etc) could be denounced as being heresy and be suppressed wherever and whenever possible.  For a brief while, Christianity and classical “pagan” traditions could co-exist alongside each other, however with Scripture as “the inspired word of God” taking precedence over that which had been written by non-believers in the “true word”.  However, Scripture was to become a prevalent force, and rational, scientific thought was discouraged.  To the modern mind this might seem preposterous, however it serves as a valid reasoning as to why so many synods and ecumenical councils were held during the fourth and fifth century.  In essence, a “blueprint” had to be drawn up, and the Church had to be unified in her message, not be teaching divergent ideas that, at times, were plainly conflicting with one another.  It was only with the Renaissance, some eight to nine centuries later, that science, logic and philosophy was “rediscovered” outside of the message contained in Scripture, and given a new sense of purpose and worth, and could be taken seriously, and considered as a valid, alternative standpoint to the “word of God.”

The Consolation of Philosophy was to prove to be one of the most popular works of Mediaeval literature, alongside Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia, and Jacobus de Voragine’s The Golden Legend, and was translated and printed in many languages following the invention of the printing press.  Certainly Boethius was received by a significantly sized, Christian audience.  The narrative is simple in construct, yet the ideas profound; the structure is prosimetrical; alternating between prose and metered poetry. One of the most profound influences on the book and its approach is the works of Plato, of who’s works Boethius was compiling a compiling a commentary, prior to his imprisonment and eventual execution.  The Christian audience of medieval times saw this work as instruction, discouragement from worldly goods and vices as money and power were merely temporary things but to focus, through the intervention of philosophical thinking, upon values, virtues, and of good.  A path to virtue was through the suffering of inflicted evil, and despite adversity, to be able to overcome it and accomplish good, and through such action, one would reach peace and unity with God.  Not only can Man exercise free will, but the ability to act upon that free will. The work also acted as a guide to provide encouragement and incentive to it's readers, invited to understand and seek consolation in the words of Boethius, emanating from the lips of Lady Philosophy.

The Consolation of Philosophy has left an important legacy for readers since its completion and circulation from the sixth century onwards.  The work has inspired numerous writers, not just in the Mediaeval and Renaissance era when at its most popular; the both has influenced Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, to recent writers as diverse as J.R.R. Tolkien and John Kennedy Toole.   It was translated many times, amongst its notable translations having been made by Alfred the Great, Chaucer, and queen Elizabeth I.  Numerous translations have been circulated throughout the ages and the work is still available today; a true testament to the work’s enduring appeal and popularity in the present as much as in the past. 

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