For me, medieval thought was synonymous with dusty old books, smelling of mothballs and full of archaic language and redundant concepts. I frequently gave the medieval section in bookshops a wide berth, remembering the year I spent at university compelled to study Old and Middle English. I was young and hungry for all that life could offer me. Medievalism was to me a Dark Ages hangover that could not have any significance in the colourful global village of the 20th century. The idea of "consolation" was irreconcilable with medieval philosophy. Further, I was not religious. The internecine debates of the Christian Platonists and their Aristotelian detractors on the issues of God, the immortality of the soul, the creation, and all the plethora of ecclesiastical scholasticism did not inspire me. Add to this the many different philosophies, the "sea changes" in the thinking of the time, the breaks with tradition, the revivals and the discoveries, the elusive undercurrents of Stoic ideas mixing cosmology, ethical theory and logic with religion - all made it easy for me to turn my back on this lexicon of lunacy.
But, as always happens, experience brings us wisdom where learning does not. It was with some curiosity that I finally picked up Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy.
Boethius has been referred to as "the schoolmaster of the West", and I knew that the Consolation was a kind of introspective jail journal compiled in isolation before his execution. I thought of my teaching days and incarceration in Lebanon. My own record of that time was, in some paradoxical way, a consolation perhaps. History may have divided us, but might there be something in Boethius's writing that I might recognise? Could the "schoolmaster of the West" reveal anything to another schoolmaster from the West?
The immediate thing that struck me was that, for Boethius, consolation (philosophy) was personified in the form of an awe-inspiring woman. She becomes his guide and comforter. But she is also quick to chastise him when he becomes self-pitying or self-defensive. I too knew this Janus- faced deity, who entered into my indulgent moments with affection or ferocity. My Muse was also feminine, and I came to a painfully slow understanding that it was by the degree that I could "hear", and enter into, this nurturing female element that I could release myself from the oppression of my imprisonment. I quickly noted that Boethius's Muse explains to him that her dress has been torn by those who have run off with remnants of her wisdom and claim for themselves great understanding. But, as it is only partial, it is ultimately powerless.
This brings me to the second thing which struck me so forcefully. It was the author's powerfully retentive memory. In isolation, we remember so much, so vividly. We see the tardy remnants of the half-understanding in which we clothe ourselves. Like Boethius, I too wrenched up from my history, books, poems, philosophies and phrases as an objective commentary on, and attempt to find a meaningful synthesis for, all the broken bits of myself. I see them still, those paraphrases of history and literature that I etched on the prison wall with the charcoal stubs of matches. Boethius's Muse quotes to him from the Iliad:
If first you rid yourself of hope and fear
You have disarmed the tyrant's wrath:
But whosoever quakes in fear or hope,
Drifting or losing mastery,
Has cast away his shield, has left his place,
And binds the chain with which he will be bound.
I salved my own desperation with a similar sentiment: "Hope for everything and expect nothing."
As the author's jail journal unfolds, it is more than its title suggests. It is about more than "consolation". It moves from meditation, through consolation and healing, to transformation. It is a sacred dialogue of self and soul. But such a dialogue must take the form of confession, and confession necessarily asks terrifying questions; for only from such existential confrontation can illumination arise. The prisoner rages like Job, proclaiming his innocence and the world's enmity. His questioning is not expressed in a simple plea, but indirectly, through his conversation with his Muse, throwing light back into the shadowed soul. She answers:
Now I know ... the major cause of your illness: you have forgotten your true nature ... And it is because you don't know the end and purpose of things that you think the wicked and the criminal have power and happiness. And because you have forgotten the means by which the world is governed you believe these ups and downs of Fortune happen haphazardly ... In your true belief about the world's government - that it is subject to divine reason and not the haphazards of chance - there lies our greatest hope of rekindling your health.
Boethius's Muse proclaims the efficacy of "divine reason" as opposed to "a divine Creator". And here is the central essence of the Consolation: reason is the liberator and protector.
Book Two explores the intellectual and emotional map of human nature. Longing and imagination are revealed in their negative aspects. Fortune and chance are examined and are represented as the wheel of melancholy and misperception, to which the hapless prisoner is chained, and from which only the power of reason can release him. Happiness is the natural state of humanity, declares the Muse, but man pursues it in some other guise, fame, or wealth, and ultimately cannot acquire it. "Why then do you mortal men seek after happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within you? You are led astray by error and ignorance."
My own imprisonment taught me something similar to this. It was that "No man can humiliate me. I alone can humiliate myself." Both Boethius and myself, prisoners centuries apart, were learning the same lesson: self-possession is the only true wealth.
The only way one man can exercise power over another is over his body and, what is inferior to it, his possessions. You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of inner tranquillity a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason.
Having clearly outlined in Book Two the pitfalls and the misrepresentations in the search for true happiness, the Muse in Book Three declares that true happiness is "a state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good" and, further, that "the desire for true good is planted by nature in the minds of men". But Book Three is not simply a reiteration of the previous book. It develops, by close rational and logical deduction, the truths evolved by sympathetic reason and reaches the conclusion, as summed up in the Muse's words, "that supreme happiness is identical with supreme divinity".
But we are all the time sure that this divinity is of purely human dimension. This is, essentially, why Boethius stands as a kind of beacon light between that period of philosophy which placed its emphases on the supernatural end of man and the primacy of theology, and the opposing great intellectual move forward which saw that rational enquiry into every branch of human life was essential. He added to the complexity and richness of philosophy without diminishing the supernatural aspect.
The poem that concludes Part XI of Book Three begins:
Whoever deeply searches out the truth
And will not be deceived by paths untrue,
Shall turn unto himself his inward gaze,
Shall bring his wandering thoughts in circle home ...
That circle is discovered in the magnificent opus of Book Four, superb in its poetic flight, with which Boethius's depiction of the ascent of the soul reaches its artistic climax. Based on the famous allegory of the Cave in Plato's Republic, his ascent is essentially about learning and memory turning inward to illuminate the soul.
The rest of Book Four develops the debate on the existence, the nature and the purpose of evil. It is a problem that has occupied men's minds since before Boethius and will still be problematical for many centuries. It is a perplexing dilemma, and my own understanding comes closest to the author's when he says, "To the objection that evil men do have power, I would say that this power of theirs comes from weakness rather than strength." Later he states, "evil is not so much an infliction as a deep- set infection." It is the association of evil with disease that I can understand. An evil or a wicked man may be described as someone who suffers from some malformation or malfunction in their psyche. Boethius speaks of wickedness as a dehumanising experience. In a sense the wicked are to be pitied rather than punished. It is a supremely ethical and Christian position, and follows that logic which the author has established in the book. But he is not referring to forgiveness. As he has established the necessary human requirement of self-sufficiency, the logical outcome of the denial of self-sufficiency, ie wickedness, is self-abuse and self- denial. I myself concur: if we are in touch with the soul-side of our personality we may not commit evil, and if we did I am sure that the psychic pain would be worse than any prison.
It is of course consequential of all that the Muse has been explaining to her prisoner that the concept of freedom, and specifically freedom of the will, should be explored. How many times have I sought to define those terms? And how many more times have people asked me what freedom means? The Muse has answers even if I have not.
There is freedom ... For it would be impossible for any rational nature to exist without it. Whatever by nature has the use of reason has the power of judgement to decide each matter.
And she continues, "Human souls are of necessity more free when they continue in the contemplation of the mind of God."
The closing pages of the Consolation are a presentation of the mind of God; and, like that full circle referred to in Book Four, Boethius's light goes full circle. His language here is sometimes that of the philosophers who preceded him, with phrases like "the inescapable nexus of causation, descending from the fount of Providence", "Celestial and divine beings", "Temporal events", "eternal prescience", "God's foreknowledge", "the author of all good", etc. But set against this language of theological enquiry, Boethius adopts the language of scientific and psychological exploration:
Similarly man himself is beheld in different ways by sense-perception, imagination, reason and intelligence ... But there exists the more exalted eye of intelligence which passes beyond the sphere of the universe to behold the simple form itself with the pure vision of the mind.
This could almost be the language of 18th- and 19th-century rationalists. It displays the author's openness and modernism. But it also reveals something more.
Lifted out of the context of the whole work and considered solely on its own merits, Book Five might lead the reader to conclude that this is the intense speculation of a fevered intellect passionately committed to the intention and purpose of the Christian message. But the part cannot be separated from the whole. The work is a progression. It does not make statements, it arrives at them. It is a work whose major impulse is accommodation, inclusion, and thence on to synthesis and unity. If Book Four describes the ascent of the soul in poetic terms, Book Five repeats that same ascent, but by the path of reason, deduction and logic. Its central dialectic is the divinity of reason through which man discovers his own divine nature and his union with God.
As a summary, let me only say that Boethius's work reminded me that, when removed from the world, the mind never ceases in its restless rage for order. As a child I constantly asked, "Why?" As a man that enquiry is never far from my thinking.
If it was one of the purposes of the medieval mind to use reason in order to understand faith, it was also sometimes a consequence of this, that reason stood between faith and vision. But the Consolation is a finely wrought attempt to unite faith and vision by the instrument of human reason. Any vision can only exist and can only be perceived under conditions of harmony. Everywhere in Boethius's work we discover a symphony of concord. It may be demanding, but like all great symphonies it unites human affairs with cosmic power.
Most philosophies are about systems of thought, but Boethius's work seeks to move this definition to a more sublime classification. The author presses at the limits of language and conceptual thinking and by so doing prises open the barred door, and reveals the capacity of man to forge his own freedom in the darkness of his cell.
Perhaps if I had read Boethius instead of avoiding the medieval world in my adolescent years I might have come to terms with my own incarceration sooner. But that I find in Boethius's work an echo of my own imprisoned thinking is something more than a consolation. It is an affirmation.
8 'The Consolation of Philosophy' by Boethius, preface by Brian Keenan, is published by the Folio Society (pounds 19.50). For copies and membership enquiries, phone 0171 400 4200Reuse content