Wheel of Fortune

Personhood and Poetry in The Consolation of Philosophy


In the spirit of collaborative effort, our group has decided to write several pieces that build off one another in the style of a discussion board thread. Each person has their own section in which they compile their thoughts about the readings, as well as offer reflections on the ideas other members have brought up in their own posts.



Reading Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy for the first time, the interplay of prose and poetry immediately jumped out. Why was Boethius swapping between two different modes of communication in his treatise? To at least try and answer this question, my group looked at the first and last poems, discerning their function with regard to their own content, and with regard to the rest of the work.

The Consolation opens with the first poem in which the speaker, Boethius, bemoans his outcast state. We learn that he began his life with much, which has fallen apart before his eyes as old age crept in. This descent from a good life to suffering comes directly from fortune, more specifically the lack thereof. Such lack leads to an overbearing melancholic tone. He is emotionally at the bottom of a pit and composes no way out. This tone is not just built from Boethius himself, but also a host of muses that influence him.  

The Consolation does not end with a poem, but the final poem ties together many important themes of the text. It highlights the difference between the material and spiritual worlds. The “race of men” are the only animals—out of all on the earth—able to discern between the two and choose to focus on the spiritual over material. This creates a more hopeful tone, showing a possible way out of his emotional pit. Such a choice leads one not to be dragged down by the evils of the world, and stand proud. Point of View is clearer here, as there are not a host of influences, but a single third-person narrator.



Another thing to note about the differences between the two poems is the ambiguity of the second regarding the speaker. In the first poem, we see a clear use of “I” when referring to the speaker, whom we know quite clearly by context to be Boethius, wallowing in self-pity while surrounded by his Muses. But the final poem’s speaker is not clear. Is it Lady Philosophy? Is it Boethius again? Is it someone else entirely? This is neither made clear in the poem itself, nor in surrounding passages. 

One thing that the ambiguity of the speaker accomplishes is this feeling of generalizability. There is no use of “I” in the poem, though there is “you” and “they”; it is almost as if the reader can envision themselves as both audience or speaker, because the topic of the poem too is not focused solely on the speaker as it is in the first poem. We are all, as the second poem says, of “the race of men”, who can transcend other “curious creatures” and look down upon them, our minds free to explore the possibilities presented in the poem. Perhaps we were meant to embark on this journey with Boethius together, and by the end this is our own understanding now of the meaning of our lives.  



The discrepancies of grammatical personhood between the poems could also hint to their super structural meanings regarding the entire text. The first poem’s heavy use of the first person outlines Boethius’ very intimate and human suffering, especially his obsession with material loss and bodily aging. The concerns are mortal in nature, and bound to the physical world in which humans inhabit. However, a central theme of the Consolation is that true happiness comes from pursuing the ultimate good, and therefore God. Nothing from the material world can compete with this true good, and oftentimes the very obsession with things obtained through “good” fortune will eventually lead to misery when these things are inevitably lost. 

The last poem, in contrast, is not concerned with the individual, grammatically or otherwise. The poem, which lacks a definitive voice, takes a macroscopic view of the world, emphasizing the beauty of nature as well as mankind’s special place within it. It claims that other animals are confined to only look down, while humankind alone has the ability to look up, and therefore comprehend the existence of God. This awareness of God and the ability to understand Him is not only what sets humans apart from the animals, but also what sets them free from the “earth’s mire,” and the suffering of the physical plain. This poem is also a direct response to the first; it presents a solution to the misery expressed earlier in the form of contemplation of God. Both grammatically and conceptually, these poems stand in opposition to one another in order to mirror Boethius’ philosophy journey to understanding and peace.  



My group mates have examined how structure within the poem lends itself to the meaning of the poems— the first person in the first poem helps convey Boethius’s wallowing, while the third person in the final poem gives a sense of enlightenment as Boethius sees beyond his own mortality. But what does the macroscopic structure of Boethius’s work do to the meaning? As a lens to start, I’d like to introduce a quote by Lady Philosophy on the topic of poetry: 

Never [does poetry] support those in sorrow by any healing remedies, but rather do ever foster the sorrow by poisonous sweets. These are they who stifle the fruit-bearing harvest of reason with the barren briars of the passions: they free not the minds of men from disease, but accustom them thereto…Away with you, Sirens, seductive unto destruction! leave him to my Muses to be cared for and to be healed.

In short, Lady Philosophy condemns poetry because it indulges one’s passions and keeps one away from reason. This is evident in our reading of the first poem: Boethius, speaking from the first perspective, indulges in his misery. Furthermore, poetry does not cure the issue (as reason does) but rather “accustom them” to disease. Lady Philosophy implies poetry is a coping mechanism, a binky. 

Merely unleashing the emotions of the mind, we can hazard a guess as to the role of poetry in Boethius’s work. This mixing of prose and poetry layers Boethius’s work, creating two planes for us to operate on: the poetry communicates his affective state, while the narrative prose forwards this logical, Socratic dialogue. The two interact insofar as the dialogue actively changes Boethius’s perspective, while the poetry is a window/snapshot of his psyche. Boethius’s work is therefore quite meta in this Lady Philosophy quote, as the narrative in one layer is commenting on poetry existing in another layer. 

Reading the end poem, we are left with a poem that has no trace of Boethius as a character within it––– as established, it’s in the third person. However, as a reader, I know that even if the character Boethius (the narrator of the story) isn’t immanent to the poem, the historical Boethius wrote the actual poem. Both the character Boethius and the writer Boethius wait imprisoned. I can’t help but think: is Boethius the writer a hypocrite? Why is he partaking in a practice which takes him away from reason?

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