Boethius’s Consolidations of Philosophy might not be as famous as Plato’s Republic or Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Despite its being forgotten from the classroom (especially in comparison with the other “big names”), this work is considered to be quite influential, and it serves as a direct application of the philosophical process to human life.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius himself – born around 480 AD – was a consul to the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. As the son of a consul, with both popes and Roman emperors in his heritage, young Boethius was privileged to attain a formal education in Greek – possibly in Alexandria. Working to a position of vast governmental significance under Theodoric, Boethius was unfortunately accused of treason for a cause that is not known.
After his arrest, Boethius was sent away to Pavia, where he would wait for his own death without any of the fruits of his life’s labor, or the pleasures he has become accustomed. During this wait, he wrote Consolations of Philosophy – where he writes the book as in interesting dialogue between himself and the physical, female embodiment of philosophy itself.
In these dialogues, Boethius explores the ideas of fate, the nature of happiness, and God. Lady Philosophy attempts to reveal to Boethius that his happiness needn’t depend upon fortune and external events, but that – given his understanding of philosophy – it should reside under his command.
These reflections are poignant, and directly relevant to the most important issues Boethius must have been juggling with as he waited for his execution in prison. A particular quote resonates well with Boethius’s fall from remarkably good fortune to remarkably bad, and it brings a fascinating issue to the table:
“For in every ill-turn of fortune the most unhappy sort of unfortunate man is the one who has been happy”
Ah, isn’t it so. Most people can immediately find a situation in their own life to tie in with this quote as soon as it is read. Can you?
Here Boethius expresses an idea to the colloquial phrase “we don’t know what we’ve got ’til its gone.” The insight here is that all of our conditions are filtered through our perspective, and if our conditions are relatively worse than they were before, we’re often going to feel it.
It is commonly said that the poor and wakes up poor every morning and is barely troubled, while if the rich man woke up poor he would be tremendously troubled. We become accustomed to and potentially identifies with certain conveniences, certain pleasures, and certain privileges.
Once these are removed, our focus is not on what is left – on what is present – but on what was, and is now lost. Our daily lives may become filled with ideas of what we once had in similar circumstances, but no longer have. This focus on loss and the past continues, and so we suffer.
The good news is (there’s good news?!), this suffering is completely dependant on the objects of our perception. Our sense of self may have been attached to those things or circumstances which good fortune had brought us. Our continued focus on them in their absence will bring about a sinking feeling.
Think about something simple, like an iPod and a laptop computer. I didn’t have either of these two items a few years ago. If I woke up tomorrow and my macbook/iPod were gone, I would – to be honest – at least feel an initial pang of pain.
These objects have become such an easy way for me to store and record important information, they aide in my ability to study and grow. If I never owned these objects, then waking up without them would likely not bring down my emotional state.
Taking the insight of Boethius into account, we might make note of those things and situations which we genuinely appreciate. We might also understand that our continued focus on that which is lost will only bring about feelings associated with loss – and that overcoming this aspect of our condition implies control of our focus.
Just from reading this blog post, it might be hard to immediately apply these ideas to a situation as serious as that of Boethius. However, if in the near future you only have to deal with a missing iPod and not your impending doom, you might be able to put your conscious perspective to work.