“But Fortune, who never forgets her duty, turns her wheel suddenly.” – Marie de France
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, commonly called Boethius lived from 477-524 CE and was a Roman senator and counselor to the Ostrogothic King of Italy, Theodoric the Great. He was also a philosopher who translated Aristotle into Latin wrote philosophical texts of his own, and was likely a Christian though his “real religion is philosophy.”1 He was convicted (probably unjustly) of high treason and for one year prior to his execution, imprisoned in a dungeon where he wrote one of the great masterpieces of human civilization, The Consolation of Philosophy. Here we can witness the response of a great philosopher to the most extreme of ill fortune.
It opens with Boethius’ lament about the reversal of his circumstances, about injustice in the world, and the fickle nature of Fortune. He is visited by Lady Philosophy and a dialogue ensues. She urges him to cease in complaining and seek healing and courage. She reminds him that philosophers often clash with the ways of men in their opposition to evil and must reconcile themselves to the consequences of this clash, conquer the fear of death, and be unyielding to good and bad fortune alike.
The basic question for Boethius is whether the universe is guided by a rule of reason or by chance? He concludes that all things have the reason of God as their source. Therein we can analyze the nature of fortune – life cannot stand still, change is integral to living, and fortune may bring one alternately high and low – these are the rules of the game and understanding them prevents unnecessary misery. The solution is detachment from fortune; if one bears everything with a calm mind, one’s lot will be blessed. Happiness lies within not without. The mastery of yourself is the most important of all possessions, and fortune cannot take that from you.
And ill fortune has an upside; it distinguishes true friends from doubtful acquaintances, and true friends are more valuable than any amount of riches. Dejection is caused by a too limited, too human perspective; philosophy’s job is to raise man’s sights, to give him divine vision. Any individual turn of fortune is not understandable in isolation, but must be placed in the total scheme of things, and to do that is to philosophize. Philosophy does not change events or reverse fortune but it does provide the understanding by which the events of life may not only be accepted, but also enjoyed. When fortune reverses itself, the first cry is for restoration, but philosophy teaches that man’s chief need is not for change, but for understanding. The goal is to seek the highest good and scorn the gifts of fortune.2
In summary, Boethius teaches us that the philosophical approach to chance in life is: (1) acceptance of and detachment from the inevitable cycles of good and bad fortune, (2) maintenance of perspective on individual fortune in the larger picture of the cosmos, (3) identification of enduring goods such as true friendship through changes in fortune, and (4) recognition of the ultimate value of self-mastery and internally-focused contentment. What greater legacy can one man hope to leave to humanity?
1Edman, Irwin, Editor, The Consolation of Philosophy; The Modern Library, New York, 1943. Page x.
2MacGill, Frank and McGreal, Ian, Editors, Masterpieces of World Philosophy; Harper-Row Publishers, New York, 1961. Pages 264-268.