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Fall 1994 · Vol. 23 No. 2 · pp. 134–35 

Book Review

The “Consolation” of Boethius: An Analytical Inquiry into His Intellectual Processes and Goals

Stephen Varvis. San Francisco, CA: Mellon Research University, 1991. 215 pages.

Reviewed by Donald Sullivan

The focus of this book is on the meditations of the sixth-century Italian Christian philosopher Boethius as he awaited execution by the Gothic king Theoderic. The Consolation of Philosophy was Boethius’ attempt to find solace as his earthly end approached.

Professor Varvis contends that modern discussions of the Consolation have reached an impasse because of their failure to penetrate to the deeper level of the book’s meaning for Boethius himself. Varvis therefore shifts the discourse to a new level. He proposes to explicate the chief symbols of the work and its underlying structure in order to understand it in its own terms within what he calls, after Adam Barfield, the “history of consciousness.” Here the perceptions of those directly involved are given primacy over the specific ideas advanced. Varvis also follows Eric Voegelin in directing close attention to individual experiences and the symbols used to express them within the context of their time. Accordingly, the imprisoned Boethius records the successive stages of his perceptions and experiences as he seeks a satisfying spiritual consolation.

The Consolation of Philosophy is an extended dialogue between the prisoner and Lady Philosophy as the symbol of true wisdom. Under Philosophy’s firm guidance, Boethius is led to contemplate with increasing intensity the highest good in itself. Gradually the prisoner breaks his psychological bondage to such transient allurements as fame and wealth, and finds final respite in the imperishable good, which is God. His spiritual malady healed, Boethius receives the consolation necessary to meet his grim fate.

In this Christianized neo-Platonic approach, true wisdom consists in the proper care of the rational soul as an organic part of an ordered, hierarchical cosmos that reflects the mind and will of God. To participate in that divine goodness is the soul’s highest aspiration.

In the millennium after Boethius, his Consolation resonated among medieval writers. From King Alfred through Chaucer, the confident Boethian vision of a rational, harmonious world that imaged God’s own intellect and will helped to shape medieval literary perceptions.

But after 1300 the Boethian paradigm came under mounting attack. The nominalist thinker William of Ockham led the way in insisting that God could never be bound within any intellectual system that limited his freedom. Boethius’ underlying perception of a rational continuity between the spheres of the divine and the human had to be rejected so that God {135} retained complete liberty to do as he would. There could be no rational participation of humanity in a divine being who was wholly transcendent and remote from human understanding. The nominalist vision of reality prefigured the modern sense of a spiritual realm completely inaccessible to human rational powers. Late medieval thinkers like Ockham severed the rational link that had offered such consolation to Boethius and his earlier medieval followers. Science and theology would henceforth go their separate ways.

This is an important first book. It offers a fresh and stimulating perspective on a central aspect of medieval intellectual history. Students of the history of ideas generally will likewise find much to interest them, especially the skillful application of semiotics and “perception theory” to a very influential text. Although the causes of Ockham’s “paradigm revolution” are not adequately examined, this book is well worth the close reading it requires.

Donald Sullivan
Associate Professor
University of New Mexico

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