How Philosophy Emboldens the Soul

Norman D. Livergood

     Today, people worldwide suffer the continual onslaughts of one form of tyranny or another: political, economic, social, religious, or educational. We quite rightly feel ourselves to be "imprisoned" in the morass of corruption, war, and spreading fascism. We feel our plight keenly and wonder how we can respond in a meaningful and effective way.

      The situation of the classical writer Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480-524 C.E.), who was imprisoned by a Roman emperor before being murdered, was much more extreme than our condition. But we can gain a great deal of insight into our present predicament by thoughtfully examining the book he completed in prison just before his slaying: The Emboldenment of Philosophy.      Boethius's writing is often mis-translated The Consolation of Philosophy, but the word "consolation" is too passive and timid a word for what transpires in the book. Even if we consider the word used in Boethius' original Latin, consolatio, this means "encouragement," "reassurance," and "amelioration," and the related Latin word consolido means "to make firm."

     During the Middle Ages and beyond, the Emboldenment was the most widely copied work of secular literature in Europe. It was one of the most popular and influential philosophical works, read by statesmen, poets, and historians, as well as by philosophers and theologians. It is through Boethius that much of the thought of the Classical period was made available to the Western Medieval world.

     Boethius deliberately chose an extraordinary style in which to write his Emboldenment of Philosophy: Menippean Satire, a fusion of allegorical tale, platonic dialogue, and lyrical poetry. Menippean satire was associated with works which ridicule the pretensions of imperious claims to wisdom. Emboldenment is written in sections alternately of narrative prose and contemplative verse, which display an elegant command of the lineaments of Latin poetry.

     Because Boethius wrote Emboldenment as a Menippean satire, we must recognize that even the title speaks in an ironical tone. When we read the first part of the book and find Lady Philosophy telling Boethius, "snap out of that sorry state of self-pity," we recognize that this is anything but a solacing, "here, here, it's okay" kind of comforting, soothing, or pitying. It's a stirring emboldenment of Boethius which only Philosophy--the divine Lady Wisdom--can provide.

"The future of civilization depends on our overcoming the meaninglessness and hopelessness which characterize the thoughts and convictions of men today. We shall be capable of this however only when the majority of individuals discover for themselves both an ethic, and a profound steadfast attitude of world and life affirmation, and a theory of the universe that's convincing and based on reflection."

Albert Schweitzer, Philosophy of Civilization

     Boethius had seen the coming of the Dark Ages--as we are now experiencing the arrival of a new Dark Age--and helped to preserve the wisdom of the ancient thinkers before the final darkness fell. His works provided the major source (for the West) of knowledge about such earlier sages as Plato until the rediscovery of the original Greek texts in the twelfth century.

     During the Dark Ages in Europe, acquaintance with the works of Plato was at second or even third hand, through the writings of authors such as Macrobius, Martianus Capella, Augustine, Boethius, Calcidius' translation of the Timaeus, and John Scotus Erigena. The most important contribution in the vernacular was provided by the late ninth century reworking of Boethius' De consolatione Philosophiae.

     The Emboldenment of Philosophy became one of the most popular books throughout the Middle Ages. It was translated into Old English by Alfred the Great, into Middle English by Chaucer, and into Elizabethan English by Queen Elizabeth.

     In political life Boethius stood up for justice at his own peril. He and Epiphanius, Christian Bishop of Pavia, had persuaded Theodoric to remit by two-thirds the tax his nephew Odoacer had imposed on the farmers of Campania. The eloquence of Boethius had rescued Paulinus from the intriguers in the palace. He had criticized the Goths Conigastus and Trigulla, and he had sided with the culture of the larger Roman Empire against the Gothicizing circle of Cyprian. Now the "honorable" Basilius and Opilio claimed that Boethius had treasonous designs.

     Boethius was imprisoned in Pavia three hundred miles from Rome while a sentence was passed against him and confirmed by the Senate, probably under pressure from Theodoric. While Boethius was in captivity and deprived of the use of his library, he wrote The Emboldenment of Philosophy. In 524 CE a strong cord was tied so tightly around his head that his eyes bulged out; then he was beaten with a club until he died. Shortly after that his father-in-law, the senator Symmachus, was taken from Rome to Ravenna and also executed.

     Boethius is one of the great martyrs within or associated with the Perennial Tradition, such as Socrates, Jesus, Bruno, Servetus, and many others. Boethius composed The Emboldenment of Philosophy while sitting in his prison-cell awaiting a ghastly execution. The absence of any explicit reference to Christianity in the Emboldenment poses interesting questions, showing that great philosophers such as Socrates, Plato, and Boethius can deal with ultimate spiritual issues without the sham "consolation" of an ecclesiastical religion. Boethius's inner dialectic clearly shows that there is an interior Higher Consciousness which has to do with an ancient, Perennialist spirituality that is quite different from the pseudo-spirituality that sacerdotal Christianity embraces.

     In Boethius' Emboldenment, Philosophy moves from persuasion and rational argument to an inspired use of poetry to bridge the gap between the sense-imprisoned human and divine Wisdom. Lady Philosophy ends with this statement: "Eternity is the entire and perfect possession of endless life at a single instant."

     While in prison, Boethius had experienced a definite innner dialectical interchange between Lady Philosophy (the spirit of the love of Wisdom) and his soul. The narrative account in his Emboldenment of Philosophy discloses how Boethius achieved transformation and self-understanding while communing with Lady Sophia in an inner spiritual domain. Boethius' book combined verse and alternating dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy, organizing his narrative into different stages of his spiritual healing and transmutation. Lady Philosophy communes with Boethius in his inner being, bringing into the dialectical interchange others who were true devotees of philosophy: lovers of and seekers of Wisdom.

"There are now-a-days professors of philosophy but not philosophers"

Henry David Thoreau

     In this essay, we'll first examine excerpts from the beginning of Book One, providing a running commentary on the text. This will provide a sense of Boethius' message in his Emboldenment. In this section, we'll use the translation of Boethius' Emboldenment by W. V. Cooper. Following that, we'll examine the entire teaching of the Emboldenment, applying it to our own current situation.

Text and Commentary on Boethius' The Emboldenment of Philosophy

Emboldenment Text (excerpts)

'Why, O my friends, did ye so often puff me up, telling me that I was fortunate? For he that is fallen low did never firmly stand.'     Boethius recognizes that if he could now experience such extreme misfortune, then even though he seemed to be in fortune's favor before, it was a chimera.

While I was pondering thus in silence, and using my pen to set down so tearful a complaint, there appeared standing over my head a woman's form, whose countenance was full of majesty, whose eyes shone as with fire and in power of insight surpassed the eyes of men, whose colour was full of life, whose strength was yet intact though she was so full of years that none would ever think that she was subject to such age as ours. One could but doubt her varying stature, for at one moment she repressed it to the common measure of a man, at another she seemed to touch with her crown the very heavens: and when she had raised higher her head, it pierced even the sky and baffled the sight of those who would look upon it.       As Boethius is composing his mournful complaint against Fortune, there appears to him a majestic, ageless woman with powerful, discerning eyes. At one moment she seemed to be his height and the next, appeared to tower into the heavens. Her gaze baffled all those who looked at her.

Her clothing was wrought of the finest thread by subtle workmanship brought to an indivisible piece. This had she woven with her own hands, as I afterwards did learn by her own shewing. Their beauty was somewhat dimmed by the dulness of long neglect, as is seen in the smoke-grimed masks of our ancestors. On the border below was inwoven the symbol Π, on that above was to be read a Θ. And between the two letters there could be marked degrees, by which, as by the rungs of a ladder, ascent might be made from the lower principle to the higher. Yet the hands of rough men had torn this garment and snatched such morsels as they could therefrom. In her right hand she carried books, in her left was a sceptre brandished. The woman is wearing a fine garment of a single piece of cloth, woven by herself. The beauty of the garment is somewhat dimmed from neglect, with the Greek letters Pi and Theta inwoven on the hem, the first letters of the Greek words denoting Practical and Theoretical, the two divisions of philosophy. Between the two Greek letters there is a symbolic ladder on which humans can ascend to the realm of Forms. In her right hand the woman is carrying books of wisdom and in her left hand a royal sceptre, denoting her royal station.

When she saw that the Muses of poetry were present by my couch giving words to my lamenting, she was stirred a while; her eyes flashed fiercely, and said she, ' Who has suffered these seducing mummers to approach this sick man? Never do they support those in sorrow by any healing remedies, but rather do ever foster the sorrow by poisonous sweets. These are they who stifle the fruit-bearing harvest of reason with the barren briars of the passions: they free not the minds of men from disease, but accustom them thereto. I would think it less grievous if your allurements drew away from me some uninitiated man, as happens in the vulgar herd. In such an one my labours would be naught harmed, but this man has been nourished in the lore of Eleatics and Academics; and to him have ye reached? Away with you, Sirens, seductive unto destruction! leave him to my Muses to be cared for and to be healed.'       When the mysterious woman sees that the Muses of poetry are "consoling" Boethius with their innervating seductions, she orders them to leave the "sick" Boethius to her emboldening ministrations. Speaking in both prose and poetry, the Lady Philosophy charges the Muses of poetry with weakening Reason and encouraging passion, habituating humans to dis-ease instead of curing it. She says that if this person were a country bumpkin, that would be another matter; but this Boethius is one well-versed in Greek and Classical philosophy. She sends the Muses of poetry away, saying she will cure this "dis-eased" soul.

"How often care, when fanned by earthly winds, grows to a larger and unmeasured bane. . . Now he lies there; extinct his reason's light, his neck in heavy chains thrust down, his countenance with grievous weight downcast; ah! the brute earth is all he can behold.

"'But now,' said she,'is the time for the physician's art, rather than for complaining.' Then fixing her eyes wholly on me, she said, ' Are you the man who was nourished upon the milk of my learning, brought up with my food until you had won your way to the power of a manly soul? Surely I had given you such weapons as would keep you safe, and your strength unconquered; if you had not thrown them away. Do you know me? Why do you keep silence? Are you dumb from shame or from dull amazement? I would it were from shame, but I see that amazement has overwhelmed you.'

When she saw that I was not only silent, but utter]y tongue-tied and dumb, she put her hand gently upon my breast, and said,' There is no danger: he is suffering from drowsiness, that disease which attacks so many minds which have been deceived. He has forgotten himself for a moment and will quickly remember, as soon as he recognises me. That he may do so, let me brush away from his eyes the darkening cloud of thoughts of matters perishable.' So saying, she gathered her robe into a fold and dried my swimming eyes.
      The Lady Philosophy disparages Boethius' self-pitying, reason-abandoning state, in which his down-cast eyes can see only his low misfortunes.

This is the time, the Lady says to Boethius, for healing instead of complaining. Aren't you the man who learned of my wisdom and attained maturity, gaining weapons to keep you from such a negative state--if you hadn't thrown them away. Do you know me? she asks. Why don't you speak? Oh, you've allowed yourself to be overwhelmed with amazement.

You are suffering from the dis-ease of "sleep" which attacks those who have allowed themselves to be deceived, says Lady Philosophy. When a philosopher forgets his true self, he regains awareness when he recognizes Philosophy. The "dis-ease" of forgetfulness is caused by focusing on thoughts of the perishable world.

In such a manner were the clouds of grief scattered. Then I drew breath again and engaged my mind in taking knowledge of my physician's countenance. So when I turned my eyes towards her and fixed my gaze upon her, I recognised my nurse, Philosophy, in whose chambers I had spent my life from earliest manhood. And I asked her,' Wherefore have you, mistress of all virtues, come down from heaven above to visit my lonely place of banishment? Is it that you, as well as I, may be harried, the victim of false charges? '

      As Boethius' vision is cleared, he recognizes his Teacher, Lady Philosophy, with whom he had studied from an early age. He asks her why she has come to his aid.
'Should I,' said she, 'desert you, my nursling? Should I not share and bear my part of the burden which has been laid upon you from spite against my name? Surely Philosophy never allowed herself to let the innocent go upon their journey unbefriended. Think you I would fear calumnies? that I would be terrified as though they were a new misfortune? Think you that this is the first time that wisdom has been harassed by dangers among men of shameless ways?       Lady Philosophy says that she does not abandon her devotees, that part of the attack on Boethius is also an attack on Philosophy. This is certainly not the first time Philosophy has been attacked by shameless tyrants, she tells Boethius.

In ancient days before the time of my child, Plato, have we not as well as nowadays fought many a mighty battle against the recklessness of folly? And though Plato did survive, did not his master, Socrates, win his victory of an unjust death, with me present at his side? When after him the followers of Epicurus, and in turn the Stoics, and then others did all try their utmost to seize his legacy, they dragged me, for all my cries and struggles, as though to share me as plunder; they tore my robe which I had woven with mine own hands, and snatched away the fragments thereof: and when they thought I had altogether yielded myself to them, they departed. And since among them were to be seen certain signs of my outward bearing, others ill-advised did think they wore my livery: thus were many of them undone by the errors of the herd of uninitiated.

      Even before the time of Plato, Lady Philosophy says, she fought against oppression. She was with Socrates when he won his great victory over his unjust death. After the time of Socrates, she says, the Epicureans and Stoics tried in vain to claim that they were following the true tradition of philosophy. They handled Philosophy roughly, pretending to be genuine descendants of Plato and Socrates. Ignorant people, she says, assumed that these false systems were in the tradition of Philosophy, when in fact they were leading people astray, never having been truly initiated into the mysteries of Philosophy.
But if you have not heard of the exile of Anaxagoras, nor the poison drunk by Socrates, nor the torture of Zeno, which all were of foreign lands, yet you may know of Canius, Seneca, and Soranus, whose fame is neither small nor passing old.

      Lady Philosophy recalls the martyrs of philosophy: Anaxagoras [Anaxagoras went into exile from Athens about 450 B.C. E.], Socrates [Socrates was executed by the Athenian state, B.C. E. 399], Zeno [Zeno of Elea was tortured by Nearchus, tyrant of Elea, about 440 B.C.E.], Canius [Canius was put to death by Caligula, c. C.E. 40], Seneca [Seneca was driven to commit suicide by Nero, A.D. 66], and Soranus [Soranus was condemned to death by Nero, A.D. 66]
Naught else brought them to ruin but that, being built up in my ways, they appeared at variance with the desires of unscrupulous men. So it is no matter for your wonder if, in this sea of life, we are tossed about by storms from all sides; for to oppose evil men is the chief aim we set before ourselves. Though the band of such men is great in numbers, yet is it to be contemned: for it is guided by no leader, but is hurried along at random only by error running riot everywhere. If this band when warring against us presses too strongly upon us, our leader, Reason, gathers her forces into her citadel, while the enemy are busied in plundering useless baggage. As they seize the most worthless things, we laugh at them from above, untroubled by the whole band of mad marauders, and we are defended by that rampart to which riotous folly may not hope to attain.       These martyrs of Philosophy, she tells Boethius, were persecuted by tyrants because they fought against oppression. Lady Philosophy tells him that the chief aim of philosophy is to oppose evil men. Even though the number of demonic tyrants is large, they are despicable, for tyranny has no leader, but rushes into errors through ignorance. Lady Philosophy tells Boethius that if tyranny oppresses good people too severely, then the divine Reason gathers her forces into the Higher Citadel, while the tyrants are busy stealing useless things. From the higher vantage point, Reason and Philosophy laugh at the senseless machinations of tyrants down below.

'He who has calmly reconciled his life to fate, and set proud death beneath his feet, can look fortune in the face, unbending both to good and bad: his countenance unconquered he can shew. The rage and threatenings of the sea will not move him though they stir from its depths the upheaving swell: Vesuvius's furnaces may never so often burst forth, and he may send rolling upwards smoke and fire; the lightning, whose wont it is to smite down lofty towers, may flash upon its way, but such men shall they never move. Why then stand they wretched and aghast when fierce tyrants rage in impotence? Fear naught, and hope naught: thus shall you have a weak man's rage disarmed. But whoso fears with trembling, or desires aught from them, he stands not firmly rooted, but dependent: thus has he thrown away his shield; he can be rooted up, and he links for himself the very chain whereby he may be dragged.       A true philosopher accepts what life brings him, thus overcoming death. He looks fortune square in the face, bothered neither by good times nor bad. Whatever happens to him, he remains firm in his dedication to Philosophy. So, the Lady tells Boethius, do not be overcome by powerful tyrants, because they rage in vain against Reason and Philosophy. The true philosopher does not want anything from tyrants; to fear tyrants or desire anything from them is to create one's own servitude to these evil oppressors.

How Philosophy Emboldens Us In Our Time

     When we face the ravages of tyranny--as in Boethius' day and ours--it's easy to allow ourselves to degenerate into a state of despondency. The constant onslaughts of the current demonic cabal on our Constitutional rights, on our way of life, at times becomes almost overpowering. In a cultural atmosphere of corruption, there seems to be no champion for Truth, Justice, Goodness, and Beauty. The Emboldenment of Philosophy gives us powerful insights as to how to struggle against tyranny, using the weapons of Philosophy.

     As with Boethius, the major cause of our contemporary "illness" is that we have forgotten our true nature and therefore have forgotten the "means by which the world is governed." Because we are ignorant of the true purpose of human life, we think that stupid and evil men are powerful and happy.

      We have put our trust in Fortune, falling victim to her delusions that tell us happiness only comes from the happenstances of life boding well for us. We are now suffering the devastation of tyranny and think ourselves ill-used. Fortune has not been false with us; it is her nature to be always perfidiously changing our plight. It is we who have been untrue to our essential understanding that life is for the purpose of realizing our Higher Self.
Gregor Reisch's Arithmetica, 1503. A symbolic image depicting Boethius and Pythagoras in a mathematical competition. Pythagoras uses an abacus, while Boethius uses numerals from India. Boethius looks very proud, he is ready while the poor Pythagoras still tries to find the solution.

"I am well acquainted with the many deceptions of that monster, Fortune [Lady Philosophy says]. She pretends to be friendly to those she intends to cheat, and diappoints those she unexpectedly leaves with intolerable sorrow. If you will recall her nature and habits, you will be convinced that you had nothing of much value when she was with you and you have not lost anything now that she is gone."

        Many of us in the modern world have lived most of our lives in the halcyon days of post-world war II to the beginning of the twenty-first century, when life was fairly easy and the demonic cabal had not yet begun the complete destruction of the American--and the world--dream.   

      But now our swimming-pool existence is turning into the nightmare of unemployment, corruption, poverty, and war.

"You have merely discovered the two-faced nature of this blind goddess, Fortune. Although she still hides herself from others, she is now wholly known to you. If you like her, abide by her conditions and do not complain. But if you hate her treachery, ignore her and and her deceitful antics. Really, the misfortunes which are now such a cause of grief ought to be reasons for tranquility. For now she has deserted you and no man can ever be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune."

     What we're suffering from, Lady Philosophy tells us, is a form of mental illness, a derangement of our understanding, resulting in our misinterpreting human life and misjudging our personal situation. By allowing ourselves to fall victim to the vicious delusions of Fortune, we've become brainwashed by her absurd notion of happiness as based on good fortune. Under Fortune's spell, we've forgotten who we truly are--what is the true nature of human existence--and who really rules the universe.

     It's at this point in the dialectical interchange between Boethius and Lady Philosophy that readers are called on to make a superhuman effort to surmount their ordinary, mundane mind-set and ascend to a super-sensible, transcendent outlook.

     This challenge reveals to us just how conditioned we are to the traditional world-view. We're so accustomed, so habituated to the mechanistic, materialistic, physical-things-in-space-and-time, each-struggling-for-his-own welfare to the detriment of others, that moving our consciousness to another, higher perspective is impossible for most and astoundingly difficult for even the few who are interested in this transformation.

"The illusion from which we are seeking to extricate ourselves is not that constituted by the realm of space and time, but that which comes from failing to know that realm from the standpoint of a higher vision. We are at length restored to consciousness by awakening in a real universe, the universe created by the One Mind as opposed to that perversion of it which has been created by our egocentric selves. We then see the visible world as the expression of the immanental life of God, the Divine in manifestation. In relating ourselves to it we live in that Presence subjectively in the depths of our mystical being. And in the properly integrated personality the two processes have become one."

Lawrence Hyde, The Nameless Faith

     As we journey to this higher, transcendent perspective, watch how strange and exotic, almost absurd, many of its ideas seem to you. They appear to have the tinge of the grandiose, the etheric, the fantastic about them. But, once we become accustomed to these higher ideals and concepts, we recognize that our ordinary, dog-eat-dog point of view is philosophically impoverished and stultifying. We've lived in this desolate, bellicose, unproductive mind-world so long that it's difficult for us to see it for the arid, empty, perilous realm that it truly is. It seems like the height of "reality," and we feel somewhat desolate and frightened when we're asked to move to a more inclusive, fruitful, superior point of view. Note how the word "superior" forces your mind to think: "who says this so-called higher point of view is really superior to my ordinary one?"

      Your life-experience must be similar to Boethius' for you to have a chance to ascend to a higher perspective. If you haven't reached an awareness of how shoddy the enjoyment provided by ephemeral things is, that they forsake those who are content with them and fail to satisfy those who are divinely discontented, then you're fated to remain in the ordinary mind-set. You must have become enough of a philosopher--seeker of wisdom--to understand that happiness is within you, that it's fruitless to depend on terrestrial things which are uncertain and changeable, that nothing that can be lost can be a supreme good, that nothing is miserable unless you think it so and nothing brings happiness unless you're content with it. You must, in short, be eager for an advancement in world-view.

     Lady Philosophy emboldens us by making clear that the elemental purpose of human life is to achieve divinity through understanding and virtue. All human beings have as their true aim the realization of their Higher Self--the Divine Within--and only this brings genuine happiness. It is a mind- and soul-destroying delusion to think that persons can be fully human who do not have this as their aim, to think that people are truly happy who are striving for something other than realization of their divinity.

"Since men become happy by acquiring happiness, and since happiness is divinity itself, it follows that men become happy by acquiring divinity. For as men become just by acquiring integrity, and wise by acquiring wisdom, so they must in a similar way become gods by acquiring divinity. Thus everyone who is happy is a god and, although it is true that God is one by nature, still there may be many gods by participation."

     Since the supreme goal of human life is the achievement of divinity through virtue, then only those persons who achieve this goal are truly powerful. Those persons who pursue wealth, power, and fame are allowing themselves to be duped by the false god, Fortune. If we allow ourselves to believe that evil persons are powerful and happy, we fall into a deranged mind-set.

"Those high and mighty kings you see sitting on high in glory, dressed in purple, surrounded by armed guards, can breathe cruel fury, threaten with fierce words. But if you strip off the coverings of vain honor from those proud men, you will see underneath the tight chains they wear. Lust rules their minds with greedy poisons, rage whips them, vexing their minds to stormy wrath. Sometimes they are slaves to sorrow, sometimes to delusive hope. This is the picture of individual man with all his tyrant passions; enslaved by these evil powers, he cannot do what he wishes."

     Our happiness is in realizing our Higher Self through achieving goodness (virtue). When we achieve virtue, we have our reward in what we have become. Evil people cannot take away our happiness, because they cannot plunder our virtue. Evil people cannot be happy, even though they may give the illusion; they cannot be powerful, since power is the capability of achieving humankind's true goal, divinity. It's a delusion that evil people are powerful and happy.

     Boethius says to Lady Philosophy that these ideas challenge ordinary humans' powers of understanding.

"'That is true,' Philosophy answered, 'because men cannot raise eyes accustomed to darkness to the light of clear truth. They are like those birds who can see at night but are blind in the daylight. For as long as they fix their attention on their own feelings, rather than on the true nature of things, they think that the license of passion and immunity from punishment bring happiness. But think of the sanctions of eternal law. If you conform your spirit to better things, you have no need of human approval and reward; you have placed yourself among the more excellent. But, if you turn to what is cheap and low, do not expect someone else to punish you; you will have lowered yourself to a condition of squalor."

     Philosophy says that we must not assume that the common mind-set can put us in touch with Reality. The ordinary world view is like a person who has lost his ability to see--and has also lost his awareness that he has lost his sight. He thinks that his blindness is perception and wants to force all people to his standard of ignorant blindness.

     Lady Philosophy presents us with an exceptionally challenging concept: that evil and viciousness is a kind of disease of the soul, like illness in the body. And, she tells us," if sickness of the body is not something we hate, but rather regard with sympathy, we have much more reason to pity those whose minds are afflicted with wickedness, a thing worse than any sickness." Thus, it is a waste of time to hate evil people.

     Boethius is emboldened by Lady Philosophy to reconstruct his world-view and live with true equanimity. In a similar vein, as we transform our perspective of life and the Divine, we achieve the "peace that passeth understanding."

"Therefore, even though things may seem confused and discordant to you, because you cannot discern the order that governs them, nevertheless everything is governed by its own proper order directing all things toward the good."