Rhetorical Adversity in the Consolation of Philosophy and Paradise Lost

Written in 523 and 1674 AD respectively, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and John Milton’s Paradise Lost are crucial works of Christian prose and poetry. Despite their clear promotion of the Christian faith, the two works rely on the literary and religious elements of classical Greece and Rome to convey their message. In this post, I aim to highlight two similarities between these works regarding their treatment of classical influences and argue that their vilification of ancient Greek and Roman religion ironically pays homage to the classical influences they utilize. 

Poetry in Ancient Greece often began with an invocation of the Muses. Poets petitioned the Greek goddesses for inspiration or knowledge before they began their accounts of legendary myths and legends. Hesiod’s Theogony begins with such an invocation and explains their origin as the nine daughters of Zeus and Memory. Of them, the muse Calliope is considered most important, as she is believed to be the muse of epic poetry. Though she isn’t mentioned by name, different invocations to the muses are also seen in representative works of epic poetry, including but not limited to the Iliad and the Aeneid

Boethius and Milton make note of this tradition, but repurpose it to better fit the tone of their works. In both works, the Heliconian Muses are swiftly disposed of to make way for their modern counterparts. Lady Philosophy banishes the muses who surround Boethius in his time of despair. “Who let these chorus girls in here to approach a sick man’s bedside? They have no cures for what ails him. … If he listens to their nonsense, he will accustom himself to depression instead of finding a cure” (Boethius 4) she exclaims. The muses serve no purpose other than to be dismissed by Lady Philosophy, who delivers the Consolation Boethius is in need of. They are a nuisance, a distraction meant to tempt Boethius away from rational thought. The Muses have even less of a presence in Paradise Lost. Milton begins his epic poem with an invocation of the muse that “didst inspire that Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed, In the Beginning how the Heav’ns and Earth Rose out of Chaos.” He does not ask for the Heliconian Muses, but rather the muse of Moses. Milton does not disparage classical muses like Lady Philosophy does. Instead, he makes a mockery of the tradition, situating the Angel of the Lord in the place of the Muses to introduce his biblical epic. 

Further reading of the two works shows how Boethius and Milton make no attempt to disprove the existence of Greek deities other than the muses, but also identify them as adversaries to the Christian cause. The gods of the Greek Pantheon are identified as pagan gods, some of whom are explicitly identified as enemies and threats to the Christian God. Lady Philosophy blames much of Boethius’ worries on the whims of Fortuna. “If you submit your neck to her yoke, you cannot then complain about what happens to you or how the mistress you have yourself chosen is treating you badly” (Boethius 29) she scolds, criticizing Fortune’s fickle temperament and man’s susceptibility to her whims. A Roman goddess of Hellenistic origin, Fortuna’s popularity as goddess or mystery cult rose as jaded Athenians turned to her blind, dumb luck to cope with the deterioration of traditional Hellenic culture. Lady Philosophy’s criticism of Fortuna thus contains an undercurrent of anti-classical bias. “How happy is mankind if the love that orders the stars above rules, too, in your hearts” (Boethius 58) Philosophy concludes at the end of Book I, shepherding Boethius away from the pagan, classical influences and toward the Christian God instead. 

The association between Ionian gods and paganism is more evident in Milton’s poetry. In a long list of Satan’s allies evocative of Homer’s description of the Argives, Milton dedicates fifteen lines to his description of the Greek gods:

“The rest were long to tell, though far renown’d, Th’ Ionian Gods, of Javans issue held Gods, yet confest later then Heav’n and Earth Thir boasted Parents; Titan Heav’ns first born With his enormous brood, and birthright seis’d By younger Saturn, he from mightier Jove His own and Rhea’s Son like measure found; So Jove usurping reign’d: these first in Creet And Ida known, thence on the Snowy top Of cold Olympus rul’d the middle Air Thir highest Heav’n; or on the Delphian Cliff, Or in Dodona, and through all the bounds Of Doric Land; or who with Saturn old Fled over Adria to th’ Hesperian Fields, And ore the Celtic roam’d the utmost Isles” (Milton)

Though acknowledging their significance as the “far renown’d” gods, Milton clearly aligns the Ionian gods with the likes of Satan. The fallen angel himself is personally characterized with classical traits, described as “Titanian, or Earth-born, that warr’d on Jove” (Milton) in size. Gathered together in Pandaemonium, the Capital of Hell named “all the demons” in Greek, the Greek gods are firmly identified as a pagan adversary despite their influence on cultural, religious, and even literary trends. 

Though Boethius and Milton discredit Greek deities as pagans to push a Christian message, they utilize classical conventions to do so. Lady Philosophy berates the Muses and Fortuna whilst clad in a dress bearing the Greek letters theta and pi (Boethius 3). Milton stylizes Paradise Lost after the Aeneid, dividing his poem into twelve books and emulating the plot of loss and emigration as mapped out by Virgil. Willard Connelly remarks that “Milton must have measured the dimensions of the Aeiend like a fussy old carpenter” (466) to draw such clear similarities between the works. Yet the two thinkers ultimately present God as a solution, a beacon of Right that man has strayed from. Their very utilization of classical deities and literary traditions seem to suggest that their vilification of classicism is more of a religious, rhetorical strategy, which is only employed with the purpose of corralling readers back to the Christian faith. 

Though the Consolation of Philosophy and Paradise Lost decry classicism, they still rely on the foundations of classical theology to advance their point. This idea is later revisited and even challenged by other writers after their time. Sue Bridehead in Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure clings to “pagan” Greek gods and traditions, going as far as to purchase statues of Venus and Apollo out of admiration. Her proclivity for classical religion and architecture identifies her as an eccentric, hinting at her eventual rejection of the Christian faith. By refusing to recognize her first marriage and maintaining a romantic and sexual relationship with her cousin Jude, Sue challenges preconceived notions of propriety and love, revisiting the religious state of adversity configured by thinkers like Boethius and John Milton.

Working Group 2: Jack, Matheu, Dawn

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by David R. Slavitt. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Brown, Norman O. Hesiod Theogony. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1953.

Connely, Willard. “Imprints of the Aeneid on Paradise Lost.” The Classical Journal, vol. 18, no. 8, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1923, pp. 466–76, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3289116.

Milton, John. “Paradise Lost: Book  1 (1674 Version) by John…” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45718/paradise-lost-book-1-1674-version.

Image Credit:

Vouet, Simon. “The Muses Urania and Calliope, c. 1634.” The Muses Urania and Calliope, 1961, https://www.nga.gov/collection/art-object-page.46160.html#provenance. Accessed 1 Mar. 2022.

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