Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Anicius M. S. Boethius and his peeps

The end of the semester comes with a bit of extra time for reading.  I have a fairly eclectic set of tastes -- how-to books, poetry, mystery, economics, anything Dickens -- so this break I've been reading books recommended to me by my nearest and dearest.  (J-son brought me a copy of Hunger Games which he urged earnestly upon me, so now I finally have a bit of pop-culture in me, too).

For the past week or so, I've been curling up with a book my husband had waxed eloquent about.  My husband really only likes long-dead authors, so Hunger Games is way off his list.  But the author and philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kicked the bucket in the year 524, so he's well-qualified to take a place on my husband's shelves.

 In some places, this book is just what you'd expect from a 1,500 year-old book of philosophy.  There are places (especially toward the end) where you run into head-scratching traffic-jam sentences like this one:

But if in the perception of corporeal phenomena external stimuli strike and impinge on the instruments of the senses, and corporeal passivity precedes mental activity -- a passivity which stimulates mental activity and calls upon the dormant forms in the mind -- if, I say, in perceiving corporeal phenomena the mind is not passively affected, but judges of its own power the experience subjected to the body, consider the case of beings which in their mode of being are free from all corporeal influence.

(Um, yeah.  I'll translate that one in a mo').  But there is a reason this book has inspired countless numbers of people, including and most notably Dante, and there's a reason it's been published and republished for millennia.  

Boethius had been a high-and-mighty politico in his time, but he wrote his The Consolation of Philosophy while he was in jail awaiting a death by torture.  He had all sorts of reasons to be severely unhappy with his situation.   In fact, the book opens with a poetic lament worthy of Job, very appropriately "woe is me".   But who should then stride into his jail cell, but Philosophy?  Philosophy is not merely some idea or ideal; she's a fearsome woman with an attitude:
At the sight of the Muses of Poetry at my beside dictating words to accompany my tears, she [Philosophy, that is] became angry.   
'Who', she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with fire, 'has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside?  They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse.'
Tell it, sistah!

Philosophy doesn't come right out and say "virtue is its own reward" (that would have been Cicero, six centuries earlier), but it's pretty clear that she agrees with Cicero's sentiment.  Philosophy slaps down the fickle femme Fortune, reminding Boethius that we don't get to choose our circumstances, only how we respond to them.  

There's also a rather amazingly sophisticated argument about free will versus predestination.  (For those who care, here's Boethius's take:  we have free will.  How then can God know all we're going to do?  Well, here's an analogy.  Our bodies feel, see, and hear things, but the real essence of being human is that our mind then actively makes sense of these things.  Our minds "know" the world in a different and much higher level than the way our bodies sense the world; in the same way, God "knows" things in a way that's different and higher than the way we "know" things.)

I have to admit that I have a fondness for hysterical sluts (one of my favorite poems to read when I'm in a funk is Tennyson's In Memoriam).  But I'm glad to have spent some time striding fearlessly alongside the no-nonsense Philosophy, too.

(Next up on my list of books to read, thanks to my friends:  Nabokov's Pnin, Rippetoe and Kelly's Starting Strength, and M.T. Anderson's Feed).

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