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Chapter Six of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University


6. Boethius

Boethius was a Christian classicist who lived in the waning years of Rome's greatness. A public servant and philosopher, he looked back towards the classical period for inspiration, while at the same time maintaining a conviction of the rightness of Christianity. Under Emperor Theodoric the Great, Boethius rose to positions of great honor and power, even eventually becoming Magister Officiorum, or "prime minister." Then, suddenly, for reasons not now entirely understood, Boethius fell out of favor and out of power. He was accused of treason and quickly condemned to death. While he was in prison awaiting execution, Boethius wrote a lengthy tract in Latin, The Consolation of Philosophy. Written in the manner and spirit of Greek philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy reads at times very much like one of the dialogues of Plato. It is a long and rich work, one from which many men and women down through the ages have taken solace. Chaucer was one of these. He admired the work so much that he translated it into Middle English. A number of his works, notably the Knight's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde, show its influence.

The Consolation of Philosophy is too long and complex a work to summarize fully here, but it may be useful to say something of the work and to list a few of the points that are of most interest in connection with Chaucer.

Boethius opens his work by bemoaning his unhappy life in prison and the unfair circumstances that brought him to it. He laments the passing of the pleasant songs he once enjoyed and the good labors he once engaged in. Now, in prison, all is changed. He feels no joy. His hair has turned white, his skin flabby. He expresses bitter resentment at fickle Fortune, who had once smiled on him, yet now has altered her deceiving face and scorns him. As Boethius thus weeps and bewails his miserable state, suddenly a strange woman appears in his cell:

While I was pondering thus in silence and using my pen to set down my tearful complaint, there appeared to me standing overhead a woman whose countenance was full of majesty, whose gleaming eyes surpassed in power of insight those of ordinary mortals, whose color was full of life, and whose strength was still intact though she was so full of years that by no means would it be believed that she was of our times. One could but doubt her varying stature, for at one moment she repressed it to the common measure of man, at another she seemed to touch with her crown the very heavens; and when she raised her head higher it pierced even the sky and baffled the sight of those who would look upon it.

At first puzzled by this strange woman, Boethius gradually comes to recognize her as his old nurse Philosophy, whose house he had been visiting ever since his youth. She tells Boethius that he has forgotten most of what she had earlier taught him, and she has come back to help him to recall the wisdom he once lived by. She will engage her old disciple in conversation, she says, if he is willing. Boethius is delighted, and they begin a long dialogue. Philosophy begins by trying to establish a common ground:

"First, then," she continued, "will you let me gain access to and find out the state of your mind by means of a few small questions, so that I may see what should be the method of treating you?"
"Ask," I replied, "what you think should be asked, and I will answer."
Then she said: "Do you think that this world is run by accidental and irregular chance, or do you believe that somehow it is ruled by reason?"
"I could," said I, "by no means believe that what is so certain and predictable could be run by irregular chance; I know that God the Creator presides over His work; and the day will never come that I will abandon this judgment as untrue."
"It is as you said," she continued.

It is not surprising that with such a fundamental agreement on so basic a point right from the start, Philosophy has relatively little trouble in bringing Boethius back to a sound understanding of "the truth." After this initial agreement that the world is not run by irregular chance and that God the Creator presides over the world, Boethius and Philosophy reach many other encouraging answers about the nature of the world, the nature of man, and right behavior. The Consolation of Philosophy contains many such answers. I shall here isolate only the answers to four questions that seem most important to an understanding of Chaucer.

First, what is the role of Fortune? Boethius discovers that he is wrong to think that Fortune raises and lowers men without reason or fairness. Fortune, after all, is subject to the divine control of God, and God cannot, if rightly viewed, be unfair. Certainly, since Boethius had been willing to accept the gifts bestowed by Fortune, he should also be willing to accept without complaint the discomforts bestowed later. What is Fortune, after all, but a force for change? Those who are high are brought low, and those low are brought high. It is neither right nor helpful to complain or to expect the wheel of Fortune to stop turning when one has risen to the top.

Second, what is the role of chance? Even though men may not be able to understand, in their earthly blindness and ignorance, what God's purposes are in causing a given event to take place, all things are rightly done. A good and loving Governor does order all events in the universe, and does link all events by means of a chain of causes that make sense of everything. When chance or accident seem to occur, that is only because people are too ignorant, too limited in perspective, to recognize the chain of causes that control things. Wise men trust in Providence, knowing that there must be order and meaning in all that happens. They do not complain or try, in their pride, to improve on God's universe.

Third, do men have free will? If God really is in total control, and really has set up a chain of causes that ultimately prove that there is a controlling order in the universe, then God foreknows all that will happen. And if God knows all that will happen to men, then, Boethius concludes, men have no free will. God's foreknowledge in essence predetermines what will occur. There is no human liberty and no point in human striving for the good, for all paths are determined in advance. Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that he is wrong to draw such conclusions. God's foreknowledge of what will happen does not contradict or deny human free will or liberty. God does foresee, yes. But He foresees what man, exercising freedom of choice, will do. If a man, using that freedom, chooses one thing, God will have foreseen that. That same man, however, was free to choose the opposite. Had he, in his freedom, ultimately done so, God would have foreseen that instead. God's foreknowledge, then, does not in any sense deprive a man of the ability or the responsibility to choose. Man's will is free from control or necessity, and it is right that man is held responsible for choosing the good and avoiding the bad.

Fourth, how should people react to adversity? When Fortune does bring into our lives pain and sickness and poverty, are we to lash out and resist? Are we to fall into despair? Are we to weep and bewail our ill fate? Are we to rail against God? Are we to run from our troubles by drinking or escaping or blaming those around us? Are we to try to correct God's universe? Lady Philosophy, of course, would have us do none of the above. Rather, we must accept adversity, believing that what looks to us like misfortune is really part of a divine plan that we cannot, in our ignorance, understand. God can do no evil. To bewail our fate is to proclaim our own prideful lack of faith in the power and wisdom of God in managing the universe. We must "make virtue of necessity," secure in our knowledge that things will work out for the best. As wise Theseus puts it at the end of the Knight's Tale,

"Thanne is it wysdom, as it thynketh me,
To maken vertu of necessittee,
And take it weel that we may nat eschue,
And namely that to us all is due."

(1 3041-44)

In the end, the philosophy of Boethius is an encouraging and optimistic one. It proclaims that there is order in the universe and that a wise and benevolent God is in charge. We earthbound men and women are limited in wisdom and vision. If we could but see the full truth, we would know that there is order in what looks like chaos, that things have a way of working out for the best, and that all stories have encouraging endings.

  • Primary source: The Consolation of Philosophy, edited and abridged by James J. Buchanan (New York: Ungar, 1957).

Chapter Six of Backgrounds to Chaucer, Peter G. Beidler, Lehigh University

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