The Consolation of Philosophy. By Boethius. Trans. and ed. by Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman. Ignatius Critical Editions (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2012), 278 pages. ISBN 978-1-58617-437-8
The book, “The Consolation of Philosophy,” is one of the greatest works of literature, written in the 6th century by Boethius by a Roman philosopher. It brings together the wisdom of Ancient Greece and Rome, and the first five centuries of Christian thought. In words similar to those later made familiar to us by Dante, Boethius desiderates:”If that Love which rules the heavens might also rule your hearts!” (p. 62)
Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman, scholars of classics at McNeese State University (Louisiana), offer us a very carefully prepared new translation and critical edition for the series, “Ignatius Critical Editions.” They have made a translation that uses prose, which is accessible and clear, lending itself to easier understanding by the general public. For the translation of the poetry, they have used straightforward, free verse, which captures the poetry of the original very well. Other editions have employed end rhyme, which often necessitated the addition of words. The free verse in this translation, unencumbered with (at times) forced end rhyme, is totally faithful to the original, while retaining a nice poetic quality. This edition, with useful notes found on each page, allows Boethius to be read and understood by both experts and beginners alike.
Boethius wrote this great work while imprisoned by King Theodoric, who treacherously repaid his loyal service with execution. The loss of his position and comfort inspired Boethius to write about the nature of happiness and fate. His figurative teacher, “Lady Philosophy,” teaches him: “Don’t you see how narrow and confined is the glory that you work to spread out and extend? ….. A man’s name and fame will be confined to the boundaries of one nation….” (p. 57).
Lady Philosophy explains to Boethius what fate is, and how many either learn from suffering, or are punished through it. She teaches him to find happiness in what is good, and above all, in God, who is the highest good. By participation in this goodness, each man is, therefore, a god even though God is one (p. 92).
This idea recurs when she replies to Boethius’ objections about the injustice of receiving punishment for a life of virtue: “Every virtuous man receives his glory from his own virtue… and since the good is blessedness, those who are blessed are rightly called gods.” Boethius should understand “that every kind of fortune is completely good…Since all fortune, either pleasant or bitter, is given to reward or test the good or to punish or correct the bad, it is entirely good, since it is either just or useful” (p. 141).
In the last chapter, Lady Philosophy explains to Boethius the most difficult subject: the interplay between God’s knowledge and human freedom. If God knows the future, how does man have freedom? She tells him that God “discerns all things in his eternal present.” With one glance, he “distinguishes both the things that will necessarily come about, and those that will come about without necessity, just as when you humans see at the same time a man walking on the earth, and the sun rising”(pp. 169-170).
In their excellent footnotes, which include the translation of key terms and indicate variations in the translation, the editors provide the readers with very helpful summaries of each chapter, and with key notions of Aristotelian, neo-Platonic and stoic thought, which were well-known by Boethius. Both are very useful for the reader. In addition, Ignatius’ critical edition offers the sources that Boethius used from the ancient philosophers, as well as Homer, Virgil, Cicero, Seneca, Horace, Ovid, Augustine, and others. Likewise, they indicate passages from Aquinas, Chaucer, Jeun de Meun, Dante, and Shakespeare, who clearly used Boethius as their source. The editors point to highly probable biblical allusions in the text, and the many references made by Aquinas to Boethius. Both types of annotations strengthen the belief that Boethius was a Christian, writing a unique work for his time, one without direct appeal to revelation.
The new edition includes a good historical introduction to Boethius, and his work, by the translators, and an engaging series of essays by other scholars (located at the end of the text).
Goins and Wyman have made an excellent contribution to the study of this great Christian thinker, one which will introduce many students, and other readers, to the wisdom of ancient and early Christian thinkers.
Fr. Juan R. Vélez
(author of: “Passion for Truth,” “The Life of John Henry Newman.”)
San Francisco, California