Jacques Maritain Center: Thomistic Institute

Consolatio Philosophiae:
Philosophy Consoling and Consoled

Steven C. Snyder, Ph.D.
Pontifical College Josephinum
July 1, 1999

What is distinctive in the biblical text is the conviction that there is a profound and indissoluble unity between the knowledge of reason and the knowledge of faith. (Fides et Ratio, 16)

On the Feast of the Triumph of the Cross (1998), Pope John Paul II issued the encyclical Fides et Ratio, whose message is that the new evangelization requires also a renewed reconciliation, a renewed harmonizing of the teachings of the two books, the book of natural wisdom and the book of revealed wisdom. This reconciliation, Fides et Ratio makes clear, cannot be imposed by theology onto philosophy, or vice versa. Philosophy and theology are autonomous sciences which must be united as in a marriage and not subsumed one to the other as in a conquest. Each must find its way back to the other.

Today I wish to focus on one such journey of reconciliation which is part of the rich heritage of Western thought. Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy is a journey made, I believe, in the spirit of harmonizing faith and reason as discussed in Fides et Ratio. I choose Boethius' text because it presents a view of philosophy's relation to revelation that is implicit but not emphasized in Fides et Ratio. And I choose the Consolation of Philosophy also because it presents such a compelling question: how can it be that in this work the great Christian author Boethius, the author of the theological tractates, the great defender of the divinity and humanity of our Lord and Savior made Flesh, makes not one mention of Christ, not one mention of the God of Abraham, not one mention of the cross? When we face death and fear it, whence comes our consolation? Is consolation from philosophy, or is consolation from Jesus Christ?

There is no doubt that for Boethius salvation is through Jesus Christ, and so ultimate consolation is through Christ. But a study of the Consolation of Philosophy reveals, I believe, an important fact about the intellectual journey of the man who is both philosopher and Christian: the autonomous science philosophy is open to the wisdom of faith because her longing is for faith, even though she cannot know that the faith is that for which she longs. That is, my thesis is that the "of" in Consolation of Philosophy is both objective and subjective genitive: the title means both that philosophy consoles and philosophy is consoled.(1)

The right reason of philosophy, through her metaphysical journey, first consoles and heals the man buffeted by the caprices and evils of the world; but in this very act of consoling she comes to know herself as needing consolation. Qua philosopher she knows only her need, her longing for harmonizing wisdom; but the Christian philosopher, like Boethius, knows that consolation which fulfills his philosophic longing is found in revealed Christian wisdom. Philosophy, by her natural powers, can conclude that it is reasonable--not demonstratively requisite but reasonable--for reason to hold that there is a supernatural wisdom beyond natural reason which resolves the mysteries that philosophy can see but cannot herself hope to resolve.

Let us journey for a time with Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius was a Roman born around A.D. 480 who around 525 was tortured and executed under the Arian Ostrogothic King Theoderic by order of the Senate as a subverter and traitor.(2) The maxim "to whom much is given much is expected" was no abstract doctrine to the noble Boethius; it was a principle animating his life. Knowledge of Greek was dying in the Latin West: Boethius, expert in Greek, set himself to translating and expounding in Latin all the works of Plato and Aristotle, so that subsequent generations would not be bereft of their wisdom. His monumental task was cut short by premature death, but the little he did translate from Aristotle's logical works was treasured by Latin scholars until new translators came along six hundred years later. The Church was threatened with formidable Christological and Trinitarian heresies in his day; Boethius responded with five orthodox theological tractates which went far towards establishing the theological terminology of the Latin Church. Boethius the political man, the Senator and Consul, was not deaf to the cries of the poor but gave freely of his substance in their times of need.

What we see from even this short biography is that Boethius strove to harmonize.(3) His life seems to have been dedicated to finding the common ground, the common value, the common truth in disparate arenas: his research sought harmony between Plato and Aristotle, his theological writing sought harmony between Orthodox Greek and Latin Christian Christologies; and his public life sought to harmonize the moral integrity and learning of the philosophers with the legitimate needs of government and the people. Boethius was by nature a harmonizer.

Boethius the orthodox Christian, Senator, and philosopher was unjustly imprisoned and finally tortured and executed for treason and sorcery. At the beginning of the Consolation we find Boethius lamenting most grievously his unjust fate. Solzhenitsyn in the beginning of the Gulag Archipelago captures the despair of the prisoner unjustly accused:

Arrest! Need it be said that it is a breaking point in your life, a bolt of lightning which has scored a direct hit on you? That it is an unassimilable spiritual earthquake not every person can cope with, as a result of which people often slip into insanity.(4)

Immediately Solzhenitsyn identifies the cause of this "spiritual earthquake," giving the same reason given by Lady Philosophy to Boethius to explain his grief:

The Universe has as many different centers as there are living beings in it. Each of us is a center of the Universe, and that Universe is shattered when they hiss at you: "You are under arrest." If you are arrested, can anything else remain unshattered by this cataclysm?(5)

The disease that is the source of so much grief, Lady Philosophy argues, is that Boethius, or Solzhenitsyn's you, has forgotten his own identity. No man, no creature, is the center of the Universe; God, the creator of all things, is the center of the Universe, and of each individual creature's being. Convincing Boethius of this truth is the way Philosophy consoles; by this wisdom Philosophy replaces grief with knowledge and the joy that come from knowing the highest truths.(6)

The arguments that Lady Philosophy uses begin in ethics and culminate in metaphysics.(7) The man who is "shattered" by the injustice done him is grieving for a lost good. But what is the good for man? Lady Philosophy argues that it is not some temporal good that can be lost with changing fortune but must be the supreme, completely fulfilling, unchangeable good. God is the good of all creation, and God is especially the good of man. Man's happiness is "to acquire divinity, become gods ... omnis igitur beatus deus ... by participation ..." [CP III.pr.10, 80-90; cf. I.pr4.143-145](8) "O happy race of men/," Lady Philosophy sings, "If the love that rules the stars/ May also rule your hearts."(9) [II.m7, 27-30]

But Philosophy then demonstrates that God is indeed the "love that rules the stars" and the entire created universe. Philosophy demonstrates that the grades of imperfect goods we experience in the universe can only be accounted for by the existence of a single, perfect, complete goodness which is the complete cause of their being, conjoined with no other cause; and this ultimate cause is God. [III.pr10] The point I wish to emphasize is Lady Philosophy's necessary demonstration that God is the cause of all of being. There is no being that is not God or caused by God. And since God is the very meaning of Goodness, we can just as well say that all is caused by Love. There is no being that is not caused by God, there is no reality that is not under the constant care of infinite Divine Love.

The consolation Philosophy offers by necessary demonstrations is indeed great: fear not, for all is under God's care; grieve not, for all that happens happens because God knows that it will bring us closer to His Likeness; hate not, for the wicked have a sort of disease of the mind; lament not, for death ushers the good closer to God and terminates wickedness before it can completely consume its host; and hope confidently, since providence "from <its> lofty watch-tower" arranges what perfect knowledge knows is best and fitting for each of his beloved creatures. [IV.pr6]

A great legacy this, from a long-dead man and an every-young Lady. But it is only part of the dialogue:

Lady, <Boethius says,> you who <have> lead the way to the true light, what your speech has so far poured into my mind has clearly been both divine, contemplated on its own, and invincible because of our arguments, and you have told me things which, although lately forgotten because of the pain of my injuries, I was not previously totally ignorant of. But this itself is the greatest cause of my grief, that, although there does exist a good ruler of the universe, evil can exist at all and even pass unpunished ... and ... when wickedness flourishes and is in control, virtue ... is even thrown down ... [IV.pr1.5-19; my emphasis]

In the last two books of the Consolation, Lady Philosophy moves to resolve Boethius' aporia. She shows that virtue is never thrown down, that the vicious are truly the weakest and most ineffectual of men because their very wickedness keeps them from achieving the happiness they truly want. In Book V Philosophy rises perhaps to the heights, in the question of the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human free will, to show that human free will can exist without jeopardizing the self-sufficiency of divine knowledge.

Now, contemporary scholars usually focus their analyses of the Consolation on Boethius' answer to the question of the possibility of human free will given divine foreknowledge. But there is a more fundamental question that Boethius has raised: given his demonstration that God is the creator and first efficient cause of all creaturely being, how can there be divine causality and true human agency, true human free will? Providence is not just a knowing, it is a disposing, a causing. If God is the cause of everything, how can man, or any creature, be the cause of anything? The problem of moral evil, for all its existential import for salvation history, is philosophically a subset or derivative of the greater question of how the infinite divine being and agency leaves room for finite creaturely being and agency.

With this question Philosophy has brought herself to the limits of Philosophy's ability to know. This limit is not one of degree, it is by nature, and it arises from the finitude and creatureliness of reason itself. Philosophy has arrived at an aporia that is insoluble by natural reason. On the one hand, I have free will and am thus truly the first efficient cause of my action, the originating cause that is wholly new. My action has being, and my free will is its cause. If free will is not, man is not. On the other hand, divine causality means that God is the first efficient cause of every being, including my choice. Since God is the first, totally self-sufficient cause of every existent, then God is the cause of my being, of the being of my action, of the being of the circumstances of my action, of the being of my deliberations, and of the being of the movement itself of my will, for each of these is indeed a being, either substantial or accidental. If Divine Causality is not, God is not. The deliberations of Philosophy herself have brought her to inescapable dilemma: to deny either statement of the pair, viz. "My will is the first efficient cause of my action" and "God is the first efficient cause of my action," is impossible, for each is a necessary conclusion of autonomous philosophic reasoning. But it is beyond the power of reason to harmonize these two truths, to put them both together and understand how they both can be true. The philosopher's necessary arguments for the causality of the creature on the one hand and of the creator on the other have led to mystery.(10)

Fides et Ratio seems to acknowledge this inability of philosophy to synthesize the truths of the world:

In the Incarnation of the Son of God we see forged the enduring and definitive synthesis which the human mind of itself could not even have imagined: the eternal enters time, the whole lies hidden in the part, God takes on a human face ... 'Only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light.' (Gaudium et Spes, 22) Seen in any other terms, the mystery of personal existence remains an insoluble riddle.(11)

Philosophy, by her own natural powers of necessary reasoning, recognizes that "personal existence remains an insoluble riddle." Philosophy reaches mystery, and so realizes that although she is autonomous in principles and methods, she is not without dependence on another, higher wisdom if her longing for truth is to be achieved.

"Mystery" does not mean "stop thinking philosophically." Reason will always continue to reflect on the mystery, because the mystery's parts are individually open to philosophic understanding: free will, God's existence, and causality among creatures can all be understood in greater depth.. It is the ultimate harmonizing or synthesizing of these "parts" that is impossible to reason and mysterious. The metaphysical reflections, for example, of philosophers from Parmenides through Thomas Aquinas, and Boethius himself was noteworthy among these, show the increasing depth of understanding possible as philosophy reflects on the relation of creature to creator. For example, Boethius discussion of participation in the Consolation and the Quomodo substantiae (De hebdomadibus) sheds great philosophic light on our mystery.(12) But finally Parmenides is right: how there can be being other than the divine being is ultimately mysterious to reason. Reason cannot account for the mystery of "creatureliness." My point is not that, with further study philosophy could perhaps resolve mystery; and it is not that reason is denied an answer because it is denied some requisite knowledge of the world. My point is that philosophy by philosophy's methods and conclusions has encountered reality "beyond philosophy." It has encountered mystery.

Let us consider this notion of mystery by comparing it with paradox and contradiction. All three words refer to reason's recognition that it has arrived at two assertions that seemingly both cannot be true. In a paradox, e.g., I am there and I am not there, reason by her own natural powers can discern how both assertions can be true (e.g., I am there in spirit but not in body). In a contradiction reason by her own, natural powers can discern that both assertions cannot be true, e.g., this figure is a square and this figure is a circle. But in a mystery reason discerns by her own natural powers that both assertions must necessarily be true even though it is impossible for reason to understand how both can be true. Reason discerns that it will take a wisdom higher than reason to comprehend the unity of the two truths; for reason herself they remain two truths whose unity is unfathomable. Reason discerns that it is reasonable for reason to affirm that a wisdom higher than reason exists which can harmonize the two truths and see them in their unity.(13) "...<A>t the summit of its searching, reason acknowledges that it cannot do without what faith presents." (Fides et Ratio, n.42)

At the end of the Consolation of Philosophy, philosophy has consoled Boethius. But philosophy, and the philosopher within Boethius, is left with mystery and thus is left in need of consolation. Reason's natural desire for ultimate, harmonized truth cannot be achieved by reason; philosophy is left with a longing for what she cannot herself achieve, wisdom beyond reason. Fides et Ratio says,

The desire for knowledge is so great and it works in such a way that the human heart, despite its experience of insurmountable limitation, yearns for the infinite riches which lie beyond, knowing that there is to be found the satisfying answer to every question as yet unanswered. (n.17)

What place, then, does the Consolation of Philosophy have in the works of Boethius, the Christian philosopher? Boethius is in jail because of his political life, and he engaged in politics by the prompting of philosophy, so that the rulers might be philosophers. It is upon philosophy, therefore, that he first calls for his consolation, and philosophy does console him to a point.(14) But by her own power of reasoning philosophy penetrates to a mystery deeper than natural reason can fathom, and it is at that point that the philosopher recognizes the need for a higher wisdom than natural reason. That wisdom is the wisdom of Christianity, the wisdom of Christ, the wisdom of Boethius' opuscula sacra. Boethius' Consolation is a Christian consolation, but it is not a theological consolation. He has already written those, the theological tractates. In prison he writes the work he had not yet written, of the philosophic soul's inchoate longing for the wisdom that revelation knows to be Christ.

There is no implicit or potential knowledge of Christ in philosophy, such that philosophy could guess at or imagine what would fulfill her longing for the ultimate harmonizing of truth.(15) The philosopher who is Christian, however, sees by the faith he holds from the Holy Spirit that faith does fulfill his philosophic longings better than any other explanation the philosopher has ever heard. Questions still remain, but the answers so far as they are understood are satisfying in ways that other answers are not, even though philosophy qua philosophy grasps these answers only as matters of opinion. They are reasonable to philosophy, not reasoned to by philosophy.(16) The harmony and union of creator and creature, longed for by philosophy but unimaginable by her, is witnessed in the Incarnation and shared in most intimately by us in the Beatific Vision. The subsuming of evil under the plan of divine love is realized in the Resurrection and shared in by our resurrection, body and soul. These revealed truths are not known or even anticipated by philosophy, but they are her consolation in the person of the Christian philosopher. "Reason cannot eliminate the mystery of love which the cross represents, while the cross can give to reason the ultimate answer which it seeks." (Fides et Ratio, 23) Although Philosophy does not know it of herself, it is known to the man who lives in grace that the philosophical man in each of us may find consolation in the Triumph of the Cross.

Steven C. Snyder, Ph.D.
Pontifical College Josephinum
July 1, 1999


1. In the summer of 1978, the late John M. Crossett, Ph.D., pointed out the possibility of seeing Philosophiae in the title of Boethius' work as both objective and subjective genitive. I also owe to him the distinctions of "paradox," "contradiction," and "mystery" employed below.

2. See Owen Chadwick. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981, pp.1-68.

3. Ralph M. McInerny, Boethius and Aquinas. Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1990, p.16.

4. Alksandr I. Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago: 1918-1956. Thomas P. Whitney, tr. New York: Harper and Row, 1974, p.3.

5. Ibid.

6. This point is very persuasively made by D.F. Duclow: "... men find consolation in a turn to the divine center. As this vision becomes clearer and more forceful Boethius is progressively healed." (343) Donald F. Duclow, "Perspective and Therapy in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy," The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 4 (1979): 334-343.

7. For a discussion of the consolations by philosophy, which have the ultimate goal of reconciling Boethius to the order of things, see John Haldane, "De Consolatione Philosophiae," in Philosophy, Religion, and the Spiritual Life, Michael McGhee, ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp.31-45. Haldane notes that there are "several forms of philosophical consolation, and it is important to see that while these overlap (to some extent), they also draw upon two distinct traditions, Stoicism and neo-Platonism, and differ in their metaphysical commitments and practical implications." (p.36, author's emphasis) Given Haldane's identification of Boethius' initial error as "... a double error: identifying the self with the embodying organism, and reality with the sensible world" (p.35), perhaps there is not conflict but progression (dialectical to demonstrative) from Stoic to neo-Platonic arguments.

8. This and all subsequent quotations are taken from the Loeb Boethius. The Theological Tractates <and> The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. by H.F. Stewart and E.K. Rand, rev. by S.J. Tester. Cambridge: MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

9. On the neo-Platonic background of this notion, see C.J. De Vogel, "Amor Quo Caelum Regitur," Vivarium 1 (1963): 2-34.

10. Gerard Verbeke, "Philosophy and Theology," in New Themes in Christian Philosophy, Ralph M. McInerny, ed. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1968, pp.129-151, refers to the limitations of philosophic knowledge in discussing the problem of "the coexistence of the finite and the infinite" and points out that "In his commentary on Aristotle's Peri Hermeneias, Thomas Aquinas wonders if divine causality, which is integral, is not incompatible with human liberty." In his discussion which follows, Verbeke notes (see esp. pp.139-146) that "God's causality belongs to another order; it cannot express itself by means of categories which translate the relations <viz. necessary or contingent> of the finite beings among themselves." This distinction seems the same as what I mean as a "the radical difference in kind" between the rationality of philosophy and the wisdom of God. Because God's wisdom does not deny the rationality He Himself has made, philosophy is possible; but philosophical rationality sees its own limits and its dependence for the ultimate synthesis and harmonizing of even philosophic truth on a wisdom higher than reason.

This is the distinction between the two kinds of revealed truths in Thomas Aquinas' Summa theologiae I.1.1. I would suggest that one possible reason the greatest pagan minds mixed even their properly philosophical reflections on God with "much error" was because the mind naturally recoils from mystery when it has no reason to hope for mystery's resolution. Perhaps that is one reason that Aristotle was so unclear on the immortality of the human soul, because he could not account for the soul's happiness and fulfillment by its natural powers alone. Cf. Fides et Ratio, n.73.

For the discussion of divine causality and human liberty referred to by Verbeke, see Thomas Aquinas. In Libros Peri Hermeneias Expositio Bk.I, L.14, nn.8-24, esp. 17-18. Note that Thomas refers in this text to the distinction of Divine and created being in order to refute those who say philosophy can demonstrate the impossibility of true secondary causality; he does not, for all that, explain philosophically the mystery of creation.

11. No.12. Consider also, "But our vision of the face of God is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently ... the knowledge proper to faith does not destroy the mystery; it only reveals it the more, showing how necessary it is for people's lives ..." no.13, my emphasis.

12. See McInerny, op. cit. (n.3), pp. 199-247.

13. In CP V.pr. 4-5, in his discussion of divine foreknowledge and human free will, Boethius refers to Intelligence (e.g., V.pr.5.13-18), and this is what I am calling "Divine Wisdom." He speaks of Intelligence as beyond the limits of human reason, as God's being is beyond the limits of human being. My position is that as the dialogue progresses we learn something more about reason and intelligence: that reason knows itself to have encountered by its natural powers mystery, and reason has a reasonable hope that divine intelligence can provide consolation for philosophy by harmonizing what philosophy knows she herself by her natural powers cannot harmonize but which must finally be harmonized, namely divine and creaturely causality.

14. Andrew Belsey, "Boethius and the Consolation of Philosophy, Or, How to Be a Good Philosopher," Ratio 4 (1991): 1-15, notes the appropriateness of Boethius' turning to philosophy to get him out of a fix she got him into (since it is philosophy who concludes that societies will be well governed only when philosophers are rulers). In general, Belsey's thought provoking study brings out well the notion of tension in the CP, although I think many of the tensions Belsey finds are ones arising from his own conception of philosophy rather than from Boethius'.

15. Professor Haldane argues, op. cit. (n.7), pp.38-44, that "a contemplation of 'Aristotelian' forms is any more credible as philosophical consolation than Boethius' alternative," which Haldane identifies as "... participation in the life of a Divine Intellect ..., <which participation is> an all-consuming purpose of existence which would exclude the possibility of knowledgeable misery." (39) He rejects this "Boethian alternative" as an "implausible hypothesis" which "barely registers on the credibility measure" because of its dependence on innate <or infused> knowledge. Haldane suggests, "... there is a mode of thinking of the nature of things which is contemplative but which does not seek to transcend the realm of numerically distinct empirical forms. When it <viz., this mode of thinking> comprehends those forms for what they are, and ipso facto comprehends the immanent principles of being of individual objects, it is satisfied at having engaged with reality and thereby having realized itself. This is the consolation which Boethius believed he had found, that of uniting oneself with the real, of coming to be at one with things--not, as mystics have often claimed, at one with everything, the totality itself being conceived of, in Parmenidean style as a unity, but united with each thing as one contemplates it for what it is." (p.43)

The knowledge Haldane describes may be necessary for fulfillment, but it certainly is not sufficient, even on Aristotelian grounds, for we naturally desire to answer every "why" question. The receptive intellective power, for Aristotle, is the intellect which becomes all things. The mystery lies in grasping the non-Parmenidean All. That is, it seems to me that it can be demonstrated philosophically that human fulfillment requires "participation in the life of the Divine Intellect" and that natural human knowledge is through sense data and is much as Aristotle and Thomas describe it to be. Therefore, neither of these assertions, of the origin of natural knowledge and the need for participation in the Divine life has the problem of philosophical credibility: what is not accessible to philosophical reason is the harmonizing of these two truths.

16. "Of itself, philosophy is able to recognize the human being's ceaselessly self-transcendent orientation toward the truth; and, with the assistance of faith, it is capable of accepting the 'foolishness' of the cross ... Here <viz., in the preaching of Christ crucified and risen> we see not only the border between reason and faith, but also the space where the two may meet." (Fides et Ratio, 23)