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Hortulus: The Online Graduate Journal of Medieval Studies

Vol. 2, No. 1, 2006

Techniques for Preserving a Tradition: Incorporating Fortune and Faith in the Consolatio Philosophiae
by Alexandra Cook While nearly every text credited to Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius bears the mark of his intention to transmit Greek philosophy to the West and to preserve the classical tradition, it is in the Consolatio Philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), his final work, that the value of that pagan legacy is most urgently at stake.1 The Consolation is Boethius’s last piece, written while he was in exile for purported treason against Theodoric, King of the Ostrogoths.2 Boethius was executed shortly afterward. The tragic context of the text’s production gives a particular poignancy to its consolatory efforts and a particular weight to the source from which the narrator seeks comfort. In the Consolation, the pagan legacy that Boethius worked so hard to preserve is called upon to perform the momentous feat of reconciling the narrator to the loss of all the earthly goods that made life pleasurable, and indeed to the possibility of the loss of life itself. Yet because Boethius was also a Christian—indeed, he was the author of several Christian theological tractates—both ancient and modern scholars have puzzled over why the author, at this crisis in his life, sought comfort primarily from Neoplatonic philosophical ideas rather than Christian theological ones.3 What, Boethian scholars ask, does this choice tell us about Boethius’s attitude toward Christianity? During the period in which Boethius wrote, many proponents of Neoplatonic philosophic were outspokenly critical of Christianity.4 Christian thinkers responded in kind, and both groups criticized aspects of pagan theism. Yet in contrast to many of his scholarly peers, Boethius took special care to create a philosophical treatise that, insofar as it is possible, offers an integration of philosophy and a few select elements of popular pagan theology that rarely contradicts the tenets of Christian doctrine. Ironically, because Boethius was careful to avoid religious conflict, his true views via the relationship between Christianity, Greek philosophy, and pagan theology have become the subject of one of the most heated controversies in modern Boethian studies. The figures of Lady Philosophy and Lady Fortune have often been called into service to settle or at least to further the debate about Boethius’s ideological loyalties, for they seem to function as some of the most visible evidence of Boethius’s devotion to, respectively, Neoplatonic philosophy and a species of pagan theism. For example, Pierre Courcelle declares, “Que Boèce soit Chrétien ou non, toute allusion à l’Écriture ou aux théologiens aurait été, après qu’il eût choisi ce personnage fictif de Philosophie, une faute de logic et de gout.” [Whether or not Boethius was a Christian, all allusion (in the Consolation) to the Scriptures or to the theologians would be, after he had chosen the fictive personage of Lady Philosophy, a fault of logic and of taste.] Courcelle subsequently classifies Lady Philosophy’s use of both pagan and Christian theological terms as “lapses” in Boethius’s purported efforts to write an exclusively philosophical treatise and to retain clear and inviolable distinctions between the realms of reason and faith.5 Edmund Reiss makes a similar argument about Philosophy, noting that the physical www.hortulus.net 16

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details of Lady Philosophy’s description make up a symbolic iconography which ultimately reveals their “essentially traditional nature,” harking back to conventions inaugurated in Plato’s Phaedrus and continued in his Crito; for Reiss, as for Courcelle, Lady Philosophy is strictly a philosophical figure.6 On the other hand, C. J. de Vogel registers her surprise that, despite Boethius’s well-documented love of Platonic philosophy, the Consolation’s narrator professes such heartfelt belief in the figure of Lady Fortune: Fortune is an analogue to the pagan goddess Fortuna, a figure embraced by proponents of popular pagan theism but scorned by the elevated elite of philosophy, and whose appearance is therefore puzzling in the work of such an erudite scholar. De Vogel concludes that the presence of this figure can be classed as an “unconscious” bit of syncretism, a “spontaneously voiced pagan belief.”7 As these examples show, modern scholars tend to read the Ladies Philosophy and Fortune as representatives of two very different and opposing ideological systems, nor do they believe that Boethius blurred the boundaries between these religious and philosophical systems deliberately. Instead they claim that such transgressions are unpremeditated, unconscious acts for which Boethius should not be held responsible. In such cases the underlying assumption is that Boethius, like so many of his late antique contemporaries, wanted to maintain certain distinctions between the ideological frameworks that appear in the Consolation; furthermore, that to do so was indeed his responsibility (as a loyal Neoplatonist). One of the reasons for scholarly confusion about Boethius’s true philosophical or religious loyalties may be attributed to Boethius’s only provisional concern with these distinctions. Using theoretical terms and paradigms offered by Derrida in his metaphysical history of Western religion, The Gift of Death, I will argue that, rather than being used to maintain certain religious or philosophical distinctions, Lady Philosophy and Lady Fortune—these “corporeal” representations of Neoplatonic philosophy and of pagan theism—are used by Boethius as a means of “incorporation” whereby he demonstrates that aspects of pagan theism merge with Neoplatonism, and aspects of Neoplatonism converge with Christianity. The means by which they bring about this incorporation is closely tied to their status as allegorical figures: by definition, they are symbols that stand for something else. The presence of allegory makes available the possibility for substitution as well as the possibility that a one-to-one correspondence between the sign and the thing signified may not hold. I argue that it is the resourcefulness of these transformations of signifiers that chiefly interests Boethius; he is more interested in the ability of the twin figures of Philosophy and Fortune to connote multiple meanings than in their ability to denote one fixed idea.

Derridean Perspectives: Deconstructing the Breaks and Boundaries of Conversion History
Derrida’s The Gift of Death offers a powerful and well-theorized framework for interpreting conversionary breaks between what he calls “orgiastic fusion” (a phrase he uses to characterize the dynamics of pagan theism), Platonism, and Christianity.8 My use of the term “incorporation” borrows from his definition: Derrida describes the breaks between these conversionary stages as a process of “incorporation and repression” in which each new stage contains elements of what www.hortulus.net 17

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came before but whose proponents deny that such continuities exist. Through this process of denial and repression, Derrida argues, a kind of fantasmatic stability-through-rupture is achieved. The Consolation does indeed enact a series of incorporations in which paganism becomes part of Platonism and Platonism merges with Christianity. But Derrida’s notion that such incorporation is typically paired with repression is more helpful for analysis of the critical reactions to the Consolation than it is for analysis of the text itself. It is precisely because the Consolation rarely follows this aspect of the Derridean formulation—because it makes only provisional efforts to repress and deny the elements of continuity that survive the movement from one “conversionary stage” to another, because it places far more emphasis upon instances of incorporation without repression—that this text has for so long proven a conundrum for critics. Derrida argues that to some extent, “stability” (or safety) is achieved and retained through “rupture.” That is, the emphasis upon breaks and separations, and differences between these stages, make it safe for the continuities to exist, though to maintain this safety their existence is repressed. The Consolation is an anomaly to the extent that it does not participate in this pattern of denial. Boethius shows very little interest in enforcing the boundaries maintained by so many of his contemporaries. By extension, he does not participate in an established formula for making the conversionary process safe. Because of this anomalous factor, the Consolation—while very popular in late antiquity and in the mid-to-late Middle Ages—was often, then, perceived as a dangerous text; now, for the same reason, it is perceived as a bit of a puzzle.9 Some contemporary Boethian critics, when seeking to determine the extent to which the Consolation champions Platonist ideologies over Christian ones, or vice versa, cite assertions made by contemporaries of Boethius who were far more invested than was he in maintaining the lines of demarcation between these ideological frameworks. For example, Courcelle, in order to prove his assertion that Boethius prioritized pagan Platonism over Christian doctrine in the Consolation, notes that Boethius used the terms fortuna (fortune) and fatum (fate), “which Augustine had proscribed.”10 But Derrida’s text suggests that those late antique thinkers (such as St. Augustine) who are most interested in defining clear boundaries and making hermetic distinctions between one conversionary stage and another may also be those with the deepest investment in repressing those elements which are incorporated from other systems. When Courcelle accepts Augustine’s division of the formal and ideological boundaries between Christianity and paganism, he can also be said to be participating in the narrative of progressive history that Augustine wished to propagate. Augustine makes it a matter of responsibility to distinguish between Christian belief and the pagan ideas denoted by the terms fortuna and fatum. Courcelle’s historicist formulation of critical responsibility imitates Augustinian method and follows Augustinian rule. That is, Courcelle uses a historiographical method whereby, to create an historically accurate lens through which to analyze this late antique text, he attempts to view Boethius’s work from the perspective of the author’s scholarly predecessors and contemporaries. But in this case, Courcelle’s strategy results in an interpretation whereby late antique modes of interpretation are reproduced, rather than examined as such. When Courcelle assumes that it is his own responsibility to confirm the differences between the respective systems of pagan theism

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and Neoplatonism, he follows Augustine’s advice, but does not delve into what might have motivated Augustine’s particular set of interpretive rules. Derrida offers an abstract and theoretical means of distinguishing between Platonic and Christian ideologies that proves a very useful supplement to such historicist endeavors: he characterizes the conversion from the Platonic to the Christian subject as a shift from a viewpoint that purports to exile mystery and secrecy to one in which they are perceived as constitutional to the construction of the subject itself. The Platonic subject, Derrida explains, assumes that it is possible to achieve an exterior/accessible gaze upon itself and upon the abstract Good of the summum bonum. This exterior gaze enables the Platonic subject to see itself clearly and to take full responsibility for its actions. In contrast, Derrida asserts, the Christian subject is marked by the interior/inaccessible gaze of another subject, a (personalized) God who sees internal secrets from which the subject itself is barred. The Christian subject, by definition, will never know everything about itself. As I will show, the Consolation does not place complete confidence in the narrator’s access to self-knowledge and in the power that such understanding conveys, in true Platonic fashion. Rather, it acknowledges the existence of areas of secrecy which in turn allow for the possibility of uncertainty and risk, and, ultimately, of faith. If Boethius’s narrator cannot predict how he will be judged—and consequently rewarded or punished—because the contents of his own soul are a mystery, he will be forced to rely upon and have faith in Lady Philosophy, the secret sharer to whom his real self is visible. In the Consolation, Boethius personifies good as the goodness of a personalized authority figure who sees the internal secrets of the narrator, those parts of the soul that are constitutionally unreadable to him. But Lady Philosophy is not simply an independent agent in the text of the Consolation. Indeed, one clear implication is that Lady Philosophy is an aspect of the narrator, Boethius’s “I” persona—because she represents Boethius’s accumulated philosophical knowledge. But how is it possible that Lady Philosophy be both an aspect of the narrator and also an independent agent? Two centuries before, Augustine created a dialogue founded upon the same seeming contradiction. In the Soliloquies, he represents his mind in conversation with itself, but expresses this conversation as occurring between a knowledge-seeking self and a (female) figure who personifies Reason. Acknowledging the originality of this narrative structure, Augustine claimed to have invented a genre whose achievement was to internalize the process of dialogue. While Augustine uses a question-and-answer dialogue in a pursuit of wisdom, a format that of course employs an identifiably Socratic method, what is different about Augustine’s dialogue is that, as Reason points out, “we are speaking to ourselves alone”; the dialogue is not represented as occurring between different historical personages.11 The unique status of “Reason” is apparent in the opening lines of the Soliloquies: When I had been pondering many different things to myself for a long time, and had for many days been seeking my own self and what my own good was, and what evil was to be avoided, there suddenly spoke to me—what was it? I myself or someone else, inside www.hortulus.net 19

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me or outside me? (This is the very thing I would love to know but don’t)—At any rate, Reason said to me…12 The participants in this dialogue are therefore identified as the narrator, the “I” persona of Augustine himself, and Reason, whose status is left ambiguous: is she “inside” the narrator or “outside” him, a part of himself or an independent entity? Unlike Boethius’s narrator, Augustine’s narrator poses this question directly, but he refuses to resolve the query for his readers, claiming he is unable to answer it. To further complicate matters, while on the one hand Reason may be identified with some part of the narrator, on the other hand she seems to operate as a kind of conduit to God himself, insofar as she claims that while “it is God himself who illuminates,” it is she upon whom the narrator must rely to “display God as clearly to [the narrator’s] mind as the sun appears to the eyes.”13 Thus Reason is a liminal figure, a kind of gobetween who can both stand in for a part of the narrator himself and also act as a divine emissary of God. As in the Soliloquies, the dialogue of the Consolation occurs between the author’s “I” persona and a female figure who acts as his instructor. Furthermore, the figure of “Reason” as one that may represent both the narrator’s own mental powers and, at the same time, act as an independent agent, bears a striking resemblance to Boethius’s “Lady Philosophy.” Though Boethius himself does not openly acknowledge the fact that she is, in some sense, the product of his own mental processes, readers must be aware that Philosophy, as a creation of Boethius the author, represents his accumulated philosophical knowledge. Of course, readers might also conclude that Boethius the author knows things that his “I” persona does not. But if we assume that the abject despair and ignorance of the narrator is a purely artificial device, meant to provide the author—in the guise of Lady Philosophy—the opportunity to correct the narrator and display his own wisdom, we lose any sense that the professed ignorance of the narrator also expresses an honest desire for knowledge on Boethius the author’s part. Of course, this question is to some extent unresolvable, but I propose that a more satisfying reading will follow if we assume that Boethius, like Augustine, is using his own writing process as part of a sincere search for the salvific knowledge that can comfort him in his plight. The narrator and Lady Philosophy indeed represent a split self: their conversation is, in one sense, a dialogue between the helpless unknowing part of the self and the self that knows. Furthermore, like Augustine’s Reason, Philosophy’s knowledge seems to come at least in part from her proximity to God. Ultimately, both Reason and Philosophy are liminal figures that can satisfy two kinds of desires via authority: as authorities in their own right, they satisfy the desire for a personalized, concrete and accessible authority figure; as conduits to God, they satisfy the desire for an authority that preserves a certain mystery, whose greatness is testified to by the fact that mere mortals can’t achieve direct access but must make use of a go-between. Like Augustine’s Soliloquies, Boethius’s Consolation represents an internal dialogue, a mind in conversation with itself; like Augustine, Boethius emphasizes learning as a product of solitude and spiritual contemplation rather than public exposition. Through his internalization of Platonic philosophy, we see Boethius’s Christianization of Platonic philosophy, because the working out www.hortulus.net 20

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of the relationships between two parts of the soul bears the mark of the Christian formulation of the secret sharer: Lady Philosophy, a many-faceted symbol, represents both the part of the narrator’s soul that knows, and the personalized, subjective gaze of God, an individual—rather than an objective “Good”—that gazes upon the narrator and sees him for what he truly is.

Philosophy’s Precarious Consolations
I n the Consolation, Lady Philosophy is cast in the role of a savior who will rescue the Boethius character from the ruin that random Fortune has made of his life. However, from her first appearance in the Boethius character’s cell, she displays a surprising affinity with the quality of uncertainty that she has supposedly arrived to abolish. In an essay titled “My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with some Epicurean Stereophonies,” Derrida traces the philological links between the unforeseeable, chance, and the idea of a fall: “…the unforeseeable…[involves]…that which falls and is not seen in advance…it comes from above, like destiny or thunder…Grasping everything in advance, anticipation, does not let itself be taken by surprise; there is no chance for it.”14 The details of Lady Philosophy’s arrival in the narrator’s cell link her with the unforeseeable, the fall, and the psychological weight of “destiny or thunder,” so that in this moment she seems to represent the qualities of chance itself even more than she does the tenets of philosophy. The abrupt quality of her entrance and her banishment of the muses of poetry with whom the prisoner has been beguiling himself mark her as an independent entity whose arrival is not orchestrated or anticipated by the author; hence her arrival is that of the unforeseen and the unforeseeable. The physical description which reports that Lady Philosophy’s head “penetrates the heavens” implies her fall from thence: “It is difficult to say how tall she might be, for at one time she seemed to confine herself to the ordinary measure of man, and at another the crown of her head touched the heavens; and when she lifted her head higher yet, she penetrated the heavens themselves, and was lost to the sight of man.”15 The fact that this unanticipated arrival is crucial to the prisoner, that it will make all the difference to his life, his death, and his soul, invests her arrival with the importance of “destiny or thunder.” What is initially most frightening about this consolatory figure is that her help cannot be anticipated, counted upon, or fathomed. Like the misfortune whose randomness is, to the narrator, its most terrifying aspect, Lady Philosophy’s arrival seems random, based on her own whim. At the very least, Boethius represents her arrival as something that the prisoner does not have the agency to bring about independently. Immediately after her unexpected appearance, Lady Philosophy claims that the narrator “is in no real danger,” for his only problem is that he has forgotten his real self—which she can help him to recover.16 The idea of banishing danger by recovering certain truths is one that borrows heavily from Platonic philosophy. On this score, the Consolation owes perhaps its most significant debt to Plato’s Phaedo, in which Socrates, like Boethius, ponders philosophical truths while he awaits death at the hands of his accusers. Yet ultimately, the Consolation revises the Phaedo’s formulations as to what constitutes true danger and loss. One of the most important revisions is the Consolation’s new emphasis on the existence of a forgotten or secret self.

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In the Phaedo, Socrates tries to console his students about his impending death by explaining that death itself does not constitute a real danger, particularly for the philosopher. The soul, Socrates explains, is united with ideas of the perfect Forms, including the Form of the Good. The individual is born with a knowledge of these Forms, but forgets them upon being imprisoned in the body. The philosopher can prepare himself for death by remembering and revering the ideal Forms that the soul remembers, and by devaluing the worldly goods and possessions that please the body. For this reason, the philosopher can be said to be constantly preparing himself for death, and looks upon it as no danger. For Socrates, the soul is the perceiving agent that, by definition, is not tied to bodily senses. While mortals have never literally seen absolute/ideal beauty or goodness, the soul can perceive their Forms, and one can best enhance this perceptual ability “by applying [one’s] pure and unadulterated thought”—that is, the intellect unaided by any bodily sense—“to the pure and unadulterated object.”17 It is clear that Socrates places an extremely high premium on this pure intellection, which can give mortals access to pure unadulterated truths and can ultimately transform what death itself means. It is also clear that Socrates feels quite confident that the pure and unadulterated “objects” which are the idealized Forms are fully accessible, at least to the perceptual ability of the trained philosopher. His confidence in these invisible but accessible Forms is illustrated by the position he adopts in doing the consolatory work of the Phaedo: it is Socrates himself, the one condemned to death but also the one most highly trained in philosophy, who is least in need of consolation from others. On the contrary, he himself adopts the consolatory role and tries to comfort his students by helping them to perceive the truths that have long since comprised his own comfort. In contrast to the Phaedo’s emphasis upon the accessibility of the ideal Forms and their perceptual “visibility,” the Consolation employs a thematic focus on ways that accessibility to certain ideal truths may be blocked or obscured. Unlike Socrates, the narrator of the Consolation has lost sight of the “truths” that have the power to transform his experience of death, so that, rather than mourning the end of his bodily life, he rejoices in the prospect of his soul’s eternal unity with the Good. As Philosophy observes, “[Once, the narrator] sought and told all Nature’s secret causes. / But now he lies / His mind’s light languishing,…His eyes cast down beneath the weight of care, / Seeing nothing / But the dull, solid earth.”18 His inability to see anything but the earth signifies the fact that at this moment, the narrator is preoccupied by the material world: his perceptual powers can only register that which is accessible to the bodily senses. Nor is the narrator confident that he can regain a clear-sighted vision—that is, the ability to perceive the elevated realm of ideas and ideals—on his own. Instead, he must rely upon the figure of Lady Philosophy, whom Boethius represents as an authoritative teacher who can help the narrator to recover what he has forgotten. As noted above, Lady Philosophy can be said to represent an aspect of the narrator himself, insofar as she is meant to represent his memory of the philosophical truths he learned in his previous life as a philosopher; he refers to her as “the nurse who had brought me up, whose house I had from my youth frequented.” If this is the case, the fact that Boethius chooses to represent the narrator’s self as split or divided between the part that remembers/knows (Lady Philosophy) and the part that doesn’t (his mournful, imprisoned, www.hortulus.net 22

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despairing self) suggests the paradoxical possibility that there is self-knowledge from which the self can be barred.19 Furthermore, the narrator’s need for a figure to return to him the selfknowledge that he lacks also works to emphasize the fact that such a lack exists. Paradoxically, then, the source of the narrator’s consolation—Lady Philosophy and her possession of knowledge which he has lost—also opens up a dangerous gap between the narrator and the salvific knowledge of his real self upon which his consolation is said to rest.

Philosophy and Fortune: Guides to the Good and to God
In the first two books of the Consolation, Lady Philosophy’s lessons center upon the figure of the Lady Fortune, whom the narrator identifies as the one who is to blame for his present plight. Before his imprisonment, the narrator was wealthy, respected, and happy. Now, as the selfdescribed victim of “adverse fortune,” he has been accused of treason against the senate, thrown in jail, and is at present “deprived of all [his] goods, stripped of [his] honors,” and “the object of evil gossip.”20 Lady Philosophy sets out to console him by proving that the world is “rationally directed,” rather than being “run by random and chance events.”21 Initially, then, the twin figures of Philosophy and Fortune are caught up in an apparent opposition: Philosophy is the representative of abstract truth and the rational, though not always evident or visible, force of divine order, which ensures that the rewards of salvation and safety are accessible to those who work for them; Fortune plays her foil as the irrational representative of material wealth, bodily pleasure, and the dangerous power of chance to bestow or withdraw these goods at random. Like other pagan gods, Fortune is often linked to the idea of degraded materiality, all the more so because it is her special province to distribute earthly treasures: Lady Philosophy offers a list of Fortune’s useless gifts—riches, jewels, fine clothes—and scoffs that man “can only appear splendid to himself by the possession of lifeless stuff.”22 C. J. de Vogel characterizes Lady Fortune as “anti-intellectual, anti-reason,” and notes that she was the special bane of philosophers as a goddess of irrationality and chaos.23 Her reputation for fickleness and caprice and her status as one who gives with one hand and takes with the other imbue her figuration with the potential for risk and danger that accompany the loss of her gifts. It is this risk and danger (or rather, the perception that this danger is real) that Lady Philosophy must help the narrator to overcome. However, in the Consolation, the simple oppositional relationship between Lady Philosophy (representative of divine order, the invisible but “real” and abstract truths of philosophy, safety, and permanence) and Lady Fortune (representative of popular pagan theism, irrationality, material and visible goods, transition, chance, and danger) does not retain its dialectical integrity. The similarities and links between these apparently oppositional figures is suggested when Philosophy speaks for Lady Fortune in book 2 (when Fortune “speaks,” she is quoted directly, but with the understanding that Lady Philosophy speaks for her; that is, Philosophy speaks as if she is Lady Fortune). Ventriloquizing Fortune, Philosophy announces that if the things that Boethius claims he lost were really his, he never would have lost them. That is, the riches and good reputation that he formerly enjoyed are earthly treasures and, by their very nature, transitory and mutable. Earthly goods cannot be permanent possessions; one cannot expect to www.hortulus.net 23

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retain them forever, therefore one should never consider them truly one’s own. With this retort, Philosophy “stands in” for Fortune and gives her the voice she needs to defend herself against the Boethius character’s accusations of ill-treatment. Philosophy makes an emphatic point of speaking as if she is Lady Fortune, because she wants to convince the Boethius character that Fortune must be understood on her own terms. Fortune is, by her essential nature, transitory and fickle. She is often accused of being deceptive because she supposedly seduces the recipients of good fortune into expecting permanent happiness. However, as Lady Philosophy points out, if one truly knows Lady Fortune and understands her basic nature—a nature which Fortune reveals precisely by being changeable—then one learns to expect change, transition, mutability, and bad fortune as well as good. Fortune’s words and actions, as they appear in the Consolation, resonate with the contradictory connotations of the Greek term pharmakon, which is defined as both “a poison” and “a remedy.” While the narrator initially perceives Fortune’s actions as poisonous, Philosophy uses Fortune’s own words as a curative for Boethius’s ailment—which stems, in part, precisely from his initial inability to understand what Fortune means. When, ventriloquized by Lady Philosophy, Fortune chastises the narrator for overvaluing earthly goods, she participates in Philosophy’s Platonic mission to lead the prisoner back to a recognition of what is true. Therefore, while Philosophy has spoken for Fortune, Fortune has also spoken for Philosophy. Philosophical axioms about Fortune confirm that when she retracts her favor, she has offered the one who has lost it the opportunity to discover what is transitory in life and what is stable and can never be retracted. In other words, by revealing her own limitations as a goddess and emphasizing the fact that what she gives cannot be retained, Fortune gives her most profound gift and leads the prisoner back toward the Good. If Fortune reveals a surprising affinity with the Platonic aim of returning to the Good, Lady Philosophy, as she is figured in the Consolation, seems to have a set of affiliations that link her with the material world she derides. Lady Philosophy has arrived to help the prisoner brush away the illusions foisted upon him by his attachment to the material world—illusions that are linked to his love of the body and that which pleases the body (i.e., material pleasure). But why does this message come to him from the figure of Lady Philosophy? Given that Lady Philosophy’s self-ascribed task is to help the prisoner shed his habit of giving excessive importance to the material world, why did the author of the Consolation choose to represent philosophy as an embodied presence? Lady Philosophy is not a set of abstract tenets signifying ideation, but a corporealised figure who, like her supplicant, has a physical form. Indeed, this form is described in great detail: the narrator describes her “burning eyes,” the freshness of her complexion despite the fact that she seems ancient, the delicate workmanship of her dress, emblazoned with two Greek letters signifying the practical and theoretical divisions of philosophy, and the book and scepter that she carries.24 On the one hand, these physical details serve as allegorical signifiers of philosophy’s legendary powers; on the other hand, the fact that she is represented in human form may also signify her affiliation with certain mortal limitations.

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Many late antique texts that engage in the cultural debate of the pagan vs. the Christian treat as problematic the allegorical representation of either classical philosophical truths or pagan deities in mortal form, precisely because this association with the human figure threatens to contaminate any idealized purity. Perhaps the most famous text of this kind is Augustine’s fourth-century manifesto De Civitate Dei Adversos Paganos (The City of God Against the Pagans), in which he points out that even the classical tradition’s most eminent scholars, including Varro, Cicero and Seneca, admit that the practice of representing the gods in human form leads to the belief that the pagan deities are susceptible to various kinds of human weakness.25 The classical scholars cited above rationalize their tolerance of this disrespectful idea by claiming that only the “common folk” (vulgo) believe in the literal existence of the pagan gods as anthropomorphic figures. According to these scholars, all educated people know that the figures of the gods are meant to be read allegorically. Augustine reads such rationalizations as elitist hypocrisy: he feels that the hubris of the pagans is in fact their greatest sin. But Boethius evidences none of the elitism shown by his classical forebears. Instead, he uses the limitations implied by Lady Philosophy’s anthropomorphic figuration in the service of furthering his syncretism of philosophical and religious traditions. As she is represented in the Consolation, Lady Philosophy never displays the mortal passions that often sway the pagan gods. However, her appearance as a human figure suggests that she represents a particularly mortal wisdom. Lady Philosophy may therefore be said, like the Lady Fortune, to give the most profound gift when she reveals her own limitations. Although Lady Philosophy wants to lead the prisoner back to the Good and back to a recognition of/appreciation for God, she cannot approximate God himself: at the limit of human wisdom is where God begins. Lady Philosophy’s first direct acknowledgment that reason has its limits occurs when, in book 4, the narrator asks how God can mete out harshness to the good and grant the desires of the wicked. Lady Philosophy replies that she will try to explain “the depth of God” by giving the narrator those few examples that “human reason can grasp”; she goes on to say that while some evil men may appear just and good to their fellow men, to God, who “knows all,” their wickedness is apparent.26 Philosophy further claims that though some men seem to be rewarded for wickedness, providence arranges all things for the ultimate good of all. For example, in the case of a hypothetical man who has a nature such that “the want of property could very likely provoke him to crime,” providence offers as a remedy for this sickness “the provision of money.”27 Perhaps in anticipation of protest against this rather unsatisfactory explanation, Philosophy ultimately retorts, “But it is grievous that I should talk of all this as if I were a god. For it is not allowed to a man either to comprehend with his natural powers or to express in words all the devices of the work of God.”28 As the representative of mortal wisdom, Philosophy cannot speak “as if [she] were a god”; she is mistress only over what man may “comprehend with his natural powers.” By extension, because man is ultimately incapable of understanding God’s divine motives, he must at a certain point rely on faith rather than knowledge. The conflict between faith and knowledge surfaces again in the fifth and final book of the Consolation when the narrator expresses anguish at the possibility that God’s foreknowledge www.hortulus.net 25

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might exclude the possibility of free will. For the narrator, it is crucial to believe that free will exists, for without it man’s prayers and efforts are meaningless. But God’s very omniprescience threatens Boethius’s faith that free will exists. That is, if God has foreknowledge of the future (because he is omnipotent and all-knowing by definition), doesn’t it follow that what he knows will be true in the future must come to pass—that is, it must necessarily follow? If this is true, even men’s vices are determined by necessity rather than by their own wills, in which case there is no sense in hoping for anything to happen or praying for anything to be averted. At this moment, the narrator reveals that in a certain sense, he longs for uncertainty, for uncertainty is the foundation that makes both faith and prayer possible. Through prayer, “men seem able to converse with God and to be joined by the very manner of their supplication to that inaccessible light, even before they receive what they seek.”29 For Boethius, the act of supplication is itself more important than the specific thing asked for, because it is an acknowledgment of God. Prayer is the “sole intercourse between men and God” because man can gain access to that “inaccessible light” only by an acknowledgement of its inaccessibility and a hope that God will grant his mortal supplicants grace. The narrator insists upon retaining his belief that the mind of God is open to mortal influence, and that prayer is a kind of dialogue or “intercourse” between two parties. As C. J. de Vogel points out, the narrator’s definition of prayer is very different from that of the Greek philosophers, who thought it impious to believe that the course of human events might be altered by the interference of human supplication.30 Indeed, insofar as the narrator’s definition of prayer emphasizes the idea of a personal relationship between God and human subject, it is closer to the Christian concept of that relationship than to the Platonic version.31 The distinctive relationship between uncertainty or risk and religious belief is aptly summarized in Derrida’s The Gift of Death: he defines religious belief as “an involvement with the other beyond knowledge and certainty which constitutes a venture into absolute risk.”32 In the Consolation, these abstract notions are most obviously made concrete in the figure of Lady Fortune, the pagan goddess whom the narrator initially believes governs his fortunes in a manner beyond knowledge, certainty, or his ability to predict. Initially, it appears that Fortune is vilified for this very quality of randomness. However, ultimately this quality comes to serve as the foundation for the narrator’s most profound wish: to retain his capacity for faith. The narrator’s profound investment in the idea of faith alerts us to the fact that his version of pagan philosophy is a hybrid that incorporates crucial elements of Christianity as well as pagan theism. While Lady Philosophy initially seems to exhibit what Carol Harrison has recently termed the “startling optimism” of classical philosophy, characterized by “its unerring conviction of man’s autonomous will, his capacity for rational self-determination and for perfectibility through knowledge,” by the end of the Consolation Lady Philosophy has forsaken assurance for humility.33 In her final words to the prisoner she urges him to “offer up humble prayers to heaven,” and to do good, for he acts “before the eyes of a judge who sees all things.”34 Lady Philosophy cannot act as final judge of the narrator’s true self, for she is the representative of mortal wisdom who cannot “see all things”; that power is reserved for God. In Boethius’s www.hortulus.net 26

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version of Platonic philosophy, at least as it is rendered in the Consolation, a place is retained for mystery and secrecy: they can be found in the “inaccessible light” of God. It is this “secret sharer” to whom Lady Philosophy urges the narrator to offer his ultimate supplication and to whom she refers him for his ultimate consolation. Alexandra Cook is a Ph.D. candidate in medieval literature at UC Santa Barbara, with a specialty in Chaucer. This summer, she plans to finish her dissertation, "Risking Desire: Chaucerian Representations of Erotic Love and the Pagan Past" (under the direction of L. O. Aranye Fradenburg) before taking up her tenure-track position as an assistant professor at the University of Alabama in the fall of 2006.

Notes
1. Boethius’s lifetime ambition, as he declared in De interpretatione, was first to translate with commentary the entire body of Aristotle’s work on logic, ethics, and physics, then to translate with commentary all of Plato, and finally to demonstrate that the two philosophies are fundamentally in agreement. (At age 44, when he was put to death, Boethius had accomplished only a small part of this project, having completed a translation with commentary on Aristotle’s work on logic.) Boethius’s ambitious plans for such an extensive set of translations were motivated in part by the fact that Italian scholars’ knowledge of Greek declined throughout the fifth and sixth centuries. Edmund Reiss, in his useful overview titled Boethius (Boston: Twayne, 1982), p. 4, argues: “Rather than blame this loss on the advent of the barbarians, it may be more accurate to say that the loss was a product of the political decadence and intellectual stagnation of the Roman world, which allowed the barbarian invasions to be possible.” At a time when few translations existed, an ignorance of Greek meant a real loss of knowledge and, indeed, of culture itself. 2. In the early sixth century, Theodoric governed the Romans of Italy in the capacity of a patrician designated by the Byzantine emperor Zeno. 3. Shortly following Boethius’s execution, legends sprang up depicting the author of the Consolatio Philosophiae as a Christian martyr (two of these accounts are documented by Reiss in Boethius, pp. 8487), but in recent centuries he is more often thought of as “the last representative of…ancient philosophy,” according to Edward Zeller, who is quoted in Edward Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1928), p. 139. In the nineteenth century, Zeller asserted that Boethius’s Platonic and Neoplatonic leanings cancelled out any possibility that his feelings were those of a true Christian; see Zeller, quoted in Rand, Founders, p. 139: “…though he may have associated himself externally with the Christian Church, his real religion is philosophy.” In the twentieth century, as Pierre Courcelle notes, new critical attempts have been made to emphasize Boethius’s Christian sensibilities; see Pierre Courcelle, Late Latin Writers and Their Greek Sources, trans. Harry E. Wedeck (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1969), pp. 318-27. Still, Boethius continues to confound scholarly efforts to establish him properly either as the representative of pagan philosophy’s last stand or as the advocate of Christianity’s new regime. 4. For a summary of the attacks that pagan philosophers made upon Christianity in late antiquity, see Pierre Courcelle, “Anti-Christian Arguments and Christian Platonism: From Arnobius to St. Ambrose,” in The Conflict Between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century, ed. Arnaldo Momigliano

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(Oxford: Clarendon, 1963), pp. 151-92. Also see J. H. W. G. Liebeschuetz, “Latin Apologists of the age of the Great Persecution: Arnobius and Lactantius,” in Continuity and Change in Roman Religion (Oxford: Clarendon, 1979), pp. 252-77. 5. Pierre Courcelle, La Consolation de Philosophie dans la Tradition Littéraire: Antécédents et postérité de Boèce (Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1967), p. 24. 6. Reiss, Boethius, p. 141. 7. C. J. De Vogel, “Boethiana II,” Vivarium 10 (May 1972), 1-40 at 35. 8. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995). 9. For a succinct summary of the historical debates about whether Boethius is the first Christian scholastic, a theologian and greatly honored martyr, or the last Roman, whom pagan wisdom consoles on the threshold of death, see Courcelle, La Consolation de Philosophie, introduction. 10. Courcelle, Late Latin Writers, p. 320. 11. Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, Soliloquies; and, Immortality of the Soul, trans. Gerard Watson (Warminster, Eng.: Aris and Phillips, 1990), p. 23. 12. Ibid. 13. Ibid., p. 41. 14. Jacques Derrida, “My Chances/Mes Chances: A Rendezvous with some Epicurean Stereophonies,” in Taking Chances: Derrida, Psychoanalysis, and Literature, ed. Joseph H. Smith, William Kerrigan, and Jacques Derrida (Baltimore, Md.: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1984), p. 5. 15. Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. S. J. Tester, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1990), p. 133. All Latin citations and translations from the Consolation are from this edition. 16. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.Prosa 2, pp. 138-9. 17. Plato, Phaedo, trans. Hugh Tredennick, in The Collected Dialogues of Plato, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns, Bollingen Series 71 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), p. 48. 18. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.Prosa 2, p. 139. 19. Ibid. 1.Prosa 2, p. 141. 20. Ibid. 1.Prosa 6, p. 169. 21. Ibid. 1.Prosa 6, p. 167. 22. Ibid. 2.Prosa 5, p. 205. 23. De Vogel, “Boethiana II,” p. 26.

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24. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.Prosa 1, pp. 133-135.

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25. Saint Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, The City of God Against the Pagans trans. William Green, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1978), 4.30-31. 26. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 4.Prosa 6, pp. 365-367. 27. Ibid. 4.Prosa 6, p. 369. 28. Ibid. 4.Prosa 6, p. 371. 29. Ibid. 5.Prosa 3, p. 401. 30. De Vogel, “Boethiana II,” p. 4. 31. The terms Boethius uses to refer to God are ambiguous; it is often difficult to determine if they are meant to be linked to Neoplatonic or to Christian theological traditions. In “Boethiana II,” C. J. de Vogel argues that Boethius’s use of the phrase summo illi rerum Principi is properly translated “the Lord of all things”; in this phrase she sees a reference to God in personal and therefore Christian form. As she explains, pp. 6-7: “[Neoplatonists] avoided [a personal form of reference to God]…because…they felt the personal form would stand for something more limited than the impersonal. Plotinus did his utmost to place his First Principle beyond Being, thinking and deliberate will or purpose, and in this he was followed by later Neoplatonists. Boethius, on the other hand, who in our passage fights almost violently for the possibility of a real colloquy between men and God, naturally used the personal form: Princeps omnium rerum.” Christine Mohrman counters by saying that the phrase summo illi rerum Principi retains some philosophical connotations, but concedes that “by using princes, and not principium he makes, perhaps, a certain concession to the Christian conception of a personal God. Thus, the God of Grace imperceptibly draws near to the ‘First Principle’ of philosophers.” See Christine Mohrman, “Some Remarks on the Language of Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae,” in Latin Script and Letters A.D. 40009000: Festschrift Presented to Ludwig Bieler on the Occasion of his 70th Birthday, ed. John J. O’Meara and Bernd Naumann (Leiden: Brill, 1976), pp. 54-61. Finally, Pierre Courcelle, Late Latin Writers, p. 321, terms Boethius’s reference to the prima divinitas “a lapse in pagan theology.” Boethius’s use of ambiguous terminology is yet another instance of the degree to which he makes it difficult to pin down his religious and ideological loyalties. 32. Derrida, Gift of Death, p. 5. 33. Carol Harrison, Augustine: Christian Truth and Fractured Humanity; Christian Theology in Context (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 100. 34. Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 5.Prosa 6, p. 435

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