A golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully. —Edward GibbonConsolation of Philosophy was written during Boethius' one year imprisonment while awaiting trial, and eventual horrific execution, for the crime of treason by Ostrogothic King Theodoric the Great. Boethius was at the very heights of power in Rome and was brought down by treachery. This experience inspired the text, which reflects on how evil can exist in a world governed by God, and how happiness can be attainable amidst fickle fortune, while also considering the nature of happiness and God. It has been described as "by far the most interesting example of prison literature the world has ever seen.
Boethius writes the book as a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy. She consoles Boethius by discussing the transitory nature of fame and wealth ("no man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune"), and the ultimate superiority of things of the mind, which she calls the "one true good". She contends that happiness comes from within, and that one's virtue is all that one truly has, because it is not imperiled by the vicissitudes of fortune.
Boethius engages questions such as the nature of predestination and free will, why evil men often prosper and good men fall into ruin, human nature, virtue, and justice. He speaks about the nature of free will versus determinism when he asks if God knows and sees all, or does man have free will. To quote V.E. Watts on Boethius, God is like a spectator at a chariot race; He watches the action the charioteers perform, but this does not cause them. On human nature, Boethius says that humans are essentially good and only when they give in to “wickedness” do they “sink to the level of being an animal.” On justice, he says criminals are not to be abused, rather treated with sympathy and respect, using the analogy of doctor and patient to illustrate the ideal relationship between criminal and prosecutor.
Boethius sought to answer religious questions without reference to Christianity, relying solely on natural philosophy and the Classical Greek tradition. He believed in harmony between faith and reason. The truths found in Christianity would be no different from the truths found in philosophy. In the words of Henry Chadwick, "If the Consolation contains nothing distinctively Christian, it is also relevant that it contains nothing specifically pagan either...[it] is a work written by a Platonist who is also a Christian, but is not a Christian work.
To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages. — C. S. LewisFrom the Carolingian epoch to the end of the Middle Ages and beyond, this was the most widely copied work of secular literature in Europe. It was one of the most popular and influential philosophical works, read by statesmen, poets, and historians, as well as of philosophers and theologians. It is through Boethius that much of the thought of the Classical period was made available to the Western Medieval world. It has often been said Boethius was the “last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics”.
The philosophical message of the book fit well with the religious piety of the Middle Ages. Readers were encouraged not to seek worldly goods such as money and power, but to seek internalized virtues. Evil had a purpose, to provide a lesson to help change for good; while suffering from evil was seen as virtuous. Because God ruled the universe through Love, prayer to God and the application of Love would lead to true happiness. The Middle Ages, with their vivid sense of an overruling fate, found in Boethius an interpretation of life closely akin to the spirit of Christianity. The Consolation of Philosophy stands, by its note of fatalism and its affinities with the Christian doctrine of humility, midway between the pagan philosophy of Seneca the Younger and the later Christian philosophy of consolation represented by Thomas Aquinas.
The book is heavily influenced by Plato and his dialogues (as was Boethius himself). Its popularity can in part be explained by its neoplatonic and Christian ethical messages, although current scholarly research is still far from clear exactly why and how the work became so vastly popular in the Middle Ages. Notably, the book has not received much attention in the recent modern era, possibly in part because of its foreign inward looking virtues and rejection of the modern emphasis on material productiveness. As Sanderson Beck says of the Middle Ages:
Translations into the vernacular were done by famous notables, including King Alfred (Old English), Jean de Meun (Old French), Geoffrey Chaucer (Middle English), Queen Elizabeth I (Early Modern English), and Notker Labeo (Old High German).
Found within Consolation are themes that have echoed throughout the Western canon: the female figure of wisdom that informs Dante, the ascent through the layered universe that is shared with Milton, the reconciliation of opposing forces that find their way into Chaucer in The Knight's Tale, and the Wheel of Fortune so popular throughout the Middle Ages.
Boethian influence can be found nearly everywhere in Geoffrey Chaucer's poetry, e.g. in Troilus and Criseyde, The Knight's Tale, The Clerk's Tale, The Franklin's Tale, The Parson's Tale and The Tale of Melibee, in the character of Lady Nature in The Parliament of Fowls and some of the shorter poems, such as Truth, The Former Age and Lak of Stedfastnesse. Chaucer translated the work in his Boece.
Many 19th century poets reference Boethius.
Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-earth says how “Boethian” much of the treatment of evil is in Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings. Shippey says that Tolkien knew well the translation of Boethius that was made by King Alfred and he quotes some “Boethian” remarks from Frodo, Treebeard, and Elrond.
It is a prosimetrical text, meaning that it is written in alternating sections of prose and metered verse. In the course of the text, Boethius displays a virtuosic command of the forms of Latin poetry. It is classified as a Menippean satire, a fusion of allegorical tale, platonic dialogue, and lyrical poetry.
In the 20th century there were close to four hundred manuscripts still surviving, a testament to its former popularity.