Boethius – The Role of Textual Structure

Boethius in Book 1 has a great deal of self-pity for being scorned by Fortune, placing himself in the lineage of “innocents” like Socrates whose devotion to the truth leads to his misery. Lady Philosophy, a figment of Boethius’s imagination, confirms that Boethius rests in this lineage of great philosophers. Boethius’s narrative structure also makes a statement justifying his place in history.

Perhaps one of the most compelling structural aspects of The Consolation of Philosophy is Boethius’ dual usage of prose and poetry, and how they intertwine with his intellectual exploration. Boethius makes a critical decision in the first pages of Book I to move beyond the “heartbreaking verse” that “only grieving Muses would prompt [him] to compose.” As a man sentenced to death, alone in his cell, he could easily have continued in that vein, but he realized two important things: first, that the “nonsense” of these “chorus girls” are no consolation to an “educated man;” and second, that the practical solutions he requires are best communicated in prose. Thus, prose and poetry evolve in their purposes. After Boethius’ “eyes clear and recover their powers” in Poem III, virtually all the remaining poems in The Consolation of Philosophy stand alone as elucidations of philosophical thinking with general purpose. As a corollary, prose is used to apply these ideas to Boethius’ own situation through the medium of a dialogue with Lady Philosophy. Boethius considers Lady Philosophy as both his nurse and his guide to appreciating the “splendour of the true light,” guiding him to “refuse compliance with evil-doers”, or those people who turn their backs on philosophy and focus material power, in order to reach an intellectual telos, again mirroring the spiritual telos of the Christian Heaven. This coincides with his use of prose to detail his conversations with Lady Philosophy, utilizing the linear, quasi-narrative nature of the prose as a structural manifestation of his reaching an ultimate enlightenment. Conversely, his use of poetry to further his philosophical and artistic considerations acts as a callback to the time of Socrates and Plato, when the dominant form of storytelling was the ballad. By utilizing prose and poetry, Boethius grounds himself in his own period while simultaneously establishing himself as an intellectual descendant of ancient philosophers. Furthermore, the blending of the linear prose with the self-reflexive poetry structurally reflects the potential theory that an individual may achieve the endpoint of philosophical fulfillment, but that humanity as a whole is destined to continually renew this cycle of a divide between the material and the intellectual.


Image: Originally found in archives of University of Glasgow

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