The Consolation of Philosophy – Boethius

Boethius Cover Art Controversy

As far as Penguin covers go, the reproduction from the cover illustration of a thirteenth-century edition of Boethius’ Consolation in the Philosophical Library of New York has to be one of the most confusing:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration B&W

This is from the groovy 1969 edition translated by Watts. Okay, I can see Lady Philosophy. But what.s up with Boethius? I can see his hands, he.s holding in the left hand a manuscript and a quill in the right, but something weird is going on with his head. done something to give the image a sense of depth, but it obscures all the details. Trying to read the letters is impossible. Maybe you need 3D glasses to make things out? In a later 1986 reprint, someone made the right call:

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Boethius Consolation Cover Illustration Line

Ah!–so Boethius has his head at a weird angle! I wonder if these old school illustrations with the words written in banners is a precursor to comic book art. And it.s nice to see someone has sewn back together Lady Philosophy.s dress: in the Consolation it had been torn to tatters from all the different philosophical schools each tearing off a square of the ‘true’ philosophy.

Ancient Quarrel between Philosophy and Tragedy

So started reading philosophical works since I.m writing the last chapter of Paying Melpomene’s Price. In the rest of the book, tragedy.s been defined by what it is: structure, audience reception, typology, and so on. In the last chapter I want to do something different. I want to define tragedy by what it is not. It is not history. It is not comedy. And it is not philosophy. One thing noticed reading all these genres is that they are not very fond of one another. Take Boethius’ Consolation. It starts off with Boethius communing with the Muses of tragedy. He is sad because he has been imprisoned on trumped up charges. They are lamenting together. In comes Lady Philosophy. She calls the tragic Muses harlots (yes, she uses those terms: scaenicae meretriculae!) and tells them to scram. She then proceeds to comfort Boethius with the ‘proper’ consolation of philosophy. But if you look in a work of tragedy, philosophy doesn.t come out looking so well: for example Faust calls philosophy ‘odious and obscure’. The ancient quarrel between the genres of philosophy, tragedy, history, and comedy suggest that tragedy can be defined by the generic boundaries that separated each of these disciplines. In the case of Boethius, how Boethius understood philosophy was that it was based on logic and reason. Defined negatively, the logic and reason of philosophy is not the lamenting of tragedy. So that is what I mean by defining something by what it is not. More on this in a later post as I gather up my thoughts.

Etymology of Tragedy (translating Boethius)

But for now, an interesting thing has come up while reading Boethius. Here.s Watts translation of a passage:

But even if you do not know the stories of the foreign philosophers, how Anaxagoras was banished from Athens, how Socrates was put to death by poisoning, and how Zeno was tortured, you do know of Romans like Canius, Seneca and Soranus, whose memory is still fresh and celebrated. The sole cause of their tragic sufferings was their obvious and complete contempt of the pursuits of immoral men which my teaching had instilled in them.

I was interested to see where the word tragic came from. Here.s the Latin:

quodsi nec Anaxagorae fugam nec Socratis uenenum nec Zenonis tormenta, quoniam sunt peregrina, nouisti, at Canios, at Senecas, at Soranos, quorum nec peruetusta nec incelebris memoria est, scire potuisti. quos nihil aliud in cladem detraxit nisi quod nostris moribus instituti studiis improborum dissimillimi uidebantur.

Interesting! Although Latin has the word for words for tragedy (tragoedia, tragicus, and tragoedus) the term Boethius uses is clades which Watts translates into tragedy.

Strange. So I looked up other things in the ancient world that could be understood to be tragedies in the lay sense of the term. The Fire of Rome (the one Nero reputedly started which raged uncontrolled for a week). Or Hannibal.s victories at Lake Trasimene or Cannae (which gave him control of pretty much the whole of Italy). Suetonius and Livy refer to these events as clades as well. They are not tragicus or ‘like a tragoedia’.


Both the Latin and the English terms go back to ancient Greek of course. So there.s where I turned next. What things would we consider to be ‘tragic’ to them? Perhaps the Sicilian Expedition (which put a permanent end to Athens’ hegemony) or The Battle of Salamis (from a Persian standpoint). Again, Aeschylus and Plutarch do not call these events tragoidia but rather sumphora.

So it would appear that the modern sense of the word ‘tragedy’ as in ‘the AIDS tragedy’ or ‘the Challenger tragedy’ or ‘the Chernobyl tragedy’ is completely modern. The ancients had a term for ‘tragedy’ but it could only refer to the art form of tragedy, never to tragedy in terms of a disaster or heartbreaking loss.

Did you know that?–well now you do!

Until next time, I.m Edwin Wong and these are the things that fascinate me on my journey of Doing Melpomene’s Work.