Boethius and the Consolation of Astronomy, part 2

Last week I left Boethius lamenting that life on earth was not perfectly ordered like the heavens. Now let’s see how Philosophy transforms Boethius’ contemplation of the divine perfection of the celestial realm into a source of comfort rather than anguish.

Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy. Italy, 1385 MS Hunter 374 (V.1.11), folio 4r. Wikimedia Commons.

Philosophy gently chides Boethius for dwelling on the loss of his family, friends, fortune and position. “It is the nature of human affairs to be fraught with anxiety,” she tells him; “they never prosper perfectly and they never remain constant.” Those things, she asserts, do not bring true happiness. Therefore their loss should not occasion such bitter grief. Philosophy directs Boethius’ attention once again to the heavenly realm but urges him to see it in a different light, one that soothes his soul rather than aggravating it. First, she points to the immensity of the celestial sphere to demonstrate to him the insignificance of fame and wealth:

But just think how puny and insubstantial such fame really is. It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. The surface of the world, then, is small enough, and of it, as you have learnt from the geographer Ptolemy, approximately one quarter is inhabited by living beings known to us. If from this quarter you subtract in your mind all that is covered by sea and marches and the vast area made desert by lack of moisture, then scarcely the smallest of regions is left for men to live in. this is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour.

Diagram from a 1586 edition of Sacrobosco’s Sphere showing that the earth must be a point in relation to the heavens. An observer on earth can always see half of the heavens. Sacrobosco states: “if the earth were of any size compared with the firmament, it would not be possible to see half the heavens.”

Philosophy explains to Boethius that power, wealth, fame and bodily pleasures cannot bring happiness.

If you try to hoard money, you will have to take it by force. If you want to be resplendent in the dignities of high office, you will have to grovel before the man who bestows it: in your desire to outdo others in high honour you will have to cheapen and humiliate yourself by begging. If you want power, you will have to expose yourself to the plots of your subjects and run dangerous risks. If fame is what you seek, you will find yourself on a hard road, drawn this way and that until you are worn with care. Decide to lead a life of pleasure, and there will be no one who will not reject you with scorn as the slave of that most worthless and brittle master, the human body.

Boethius has to admit that when he was rich and an influential advisor to Theodoric, he lived in a constant state of anxiety: “in fact I can’t remember when my mind was ever free from some sort of worry.” “These roads to happiness are side-tracks,” she tells him, “and cannot bring us to the destination they promise.” Philosophy tells Boethius that “happiness is a state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good.” And everything that is good can be found in the Creator of the universe. Thus, true happiness can only come from the true good, which is God. And to begin to think about God and what it means to try to get closer to God, Philosophy urges Boethius to look away from the things of this world that he values so much, and to look to the splendor of the heavens. “Look up at the vault of heaven: see the strength of its foundation and the speed of its movement, and stop admiring things that are worthless.”

Philosophy:  . . . what do you think we ought to do now in order to be worthy of discovering the source of that supreme good?

Boethius: We ought to pray to the Father of all things. To omit to do so would not be laying a proper foundation.

P: [sings]

O Thou who dost by everlasting reason rule,

Creator of the planets and the sky, who time

From timelessness dost bring, unchanging Mover,

If you desire to see and understand

In purity of mind the laws of God,

Your sight must on the highest point of heaven rest

Where through the lawful covenant of things

The wandering stars preserve their ancient peace:

One of the fascinating aspects of this text is that, although Boethius was a Christian, and although the text was widely read and admired by Christians throughout the European middle ages, there is nothing about the text that is explicitly Christian. Indeed, many commentators have noted that it could well have been written by a late antique pagan. We might expect that a Christian, facing torture and death, would turn for consolation to contemplation of the suffering of Christ on the Cross and the promise of blissful reward in the afterlife. Many martyrs did just this. But this is not the path Boethius takes. He turns to philosophy, to reason, to the innate ability of the human mind to “make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” He cites Parmenides and Plato and Ptolemy, but never the Scriptures. When Philosophy argues that the wicked are not truly happy, even when they gain power and wealth through their crimes, because happiness only comes from pursuit of goodness, Boethius interrupts to ask, “don’t you leave any punishment of the soul until after the death of the body?” To which Philosophy replies, “There is, indeed, great punishment then, sometimes exacted with penal severity, sometimes, I think, with purifying mercy; but it is not my intention to discuss it now.” But she continues: “the wicked are more wretched when unjustly absolved from punishment than when they receive a just retribution.” Virtue is its own reward; wickedness its own punishment. But the reward and punishment to which Philosophy refers are of this world, not the next.

None of this is to suggest that Boethius was a lax or indifferent Christian. But it should remind us that stereotypes about the middle ages as an age of faith as opposed to an age of reason miss considerable nuance. It is not true that reason, and the study and contemplation of the natural world, were not valued. But Boethius also reminds us that contemplation of the heavens was not just about understanding or measuring the movements. There was an emotive response as well. It was supposed to inculcate awe and wonder and draw the mind toward the timeless power and benevolence of the creator.


References

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Victor Watts (Penguin Classics, 1999).

Sphaera Ioannis de Sacro Bosco emendata : Eliae Vineti Santonis scholia in eandem sphaeram ab ipso auctore restituta : Adiunximus huic libro compendium in sphaeram per Pierium Valerianum Bellunensem: et Petri Nonii Salaciensis demonstrationem eorum, quae in extremo capite de climatibus Sacroboscus scribit de inaequali climatum latitudine, eodem Vineto interprete (Venetiis: apud heredem Hieronymi Scoti, 1586).

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