December 25, 2016
In the year 523, the Roman politician and philosopher Boethius was imprisoned for conspiracy to overthrow Theodoric the Great. During the year he spent awaiting execution, he wrote a book called The Consolation of Philosophy. You can read about Boethius here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boethius.
Boethius is alone, the victim of (from his perspective) treachery, and pretty much resigned to his unpleasant fate. So what does he do? He writes one of the most interesting and influential meditations in world history on the meaning of life, human nature, virtue, evil, happiness, death, justice, and free will. Talk about a commitment to your calling and the value of a rich inner life during times of crisis!
In the book, Boethius imagines himself having a conversation with Lady Philosophy. Through this construct/character, Boethius reassures himself that the internal attributes of the individual are more important than anything that might be imposed on one from outside. His process of questioning, reasoning, and proposing provisional answers is fascinating and inspiring.
In this year when so many of us feel betrayed by the external forces of economy, society, and government, we can still look inward for consolation. We may live in a culture and time period dominated largely by illusion and greed, but others have felt this way before, and they have found strength in sincere self-reflection. Life may not be fair, but good questions honestly grappled with can give us avenues for both escape and resistance.
Things didn’t work out for Boethius, but his work has provided a blueprint for staying sane in the midst of calamity. Over the coming year, I hope we can all be consoled by philosophy, by revealing self-reflection, by ongoing deep conversations, and by the example of others who have faced traumatic circumstances with equanimity and strength.
Merry Christmas. I hope everyone receives both a little consolation today and something good to read.