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Friday, May 12, 2017

Distractions From Consolation

The Consolation Of Philosophy” is in some ways a familiar story: an innocent man is unjustly convicted and executed. What makes his story unlike so many other is that, among other writings, he gives us a kind of journal of how he received consolation while waiting to die. Written in the 6th Century AD, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius left a legacy of instruction fit for the life-long learner.

Encyclopedia Britannica
Face a-dew with tears, Boethius lamented his condition--he lost everything and was awaiting execution. As nothing could save him from his situation, was there any hope for his languishing spirit? Philosophy appears to him in a vision in the form of a nurse and sitting on the end of his bed, applies a healing balm to his weary soul by helping him remember foundational truths he appears to have forgotten. Like the farmer expecting a crop, he may have to find another means of sustenance, as it were, as lamenting will not help a fallow ground to grow a crop. As if collecting flowers and herbs, one does not search for the blooms of the field under the cover of the woods should he? Everything has a season, in it’s time. There’s an order to follow and sometimes one must wait, try again, or look somewhere else. But if a plant is growing and the hope of a harvest is plain to see, why would one cut if off? This is principally what Boethius was doing. No wonder he was depressed.

Philosophy (personified as a woman) was a brilliant psychologist for the lover of wisdom (the true philosopher) must nurture his soul. Boethius had not been doing that (what did Socrates say about the unexamined life?). The allegorical Lady Philosophy points out that Boethius has forgotten who he was so it should come as no surprise that he should sit in the proverbial darkness staring at the proverbial ground. “You are overwhelmed by this variety of mutinous passions: grief, rage, and gloom tear your mind asunder, and so in this present mood stronger measures cannot yet come night to heal you,” she says. He is distracted and deceived by his emotions and by a dream of things he cannot have (“fortune”). When she arrived, he was sitting with the muse of Poetry in tears; in effect, he maintained his own emotional wreckage by feeding his distress with dark and misguided feelings, thinking this would be the best for himself. Lady Philosophy observes, “How much I wonder how it is that you can be so sick though you are set in such a health-giving state of mind!”

There are only hints that the writer substituted the virtues of wisdom for the wealth of knowledge, replacing soundness of mind with the teachings of Epicurus and the Stoics, whose ideas still thrive to this day. The Epicureans believe we should “live by chance,” doing anything and everything that feels good. Just pursue happiness and be happy in that pursuit. Do your own thing, just don’t hurt anyone or interfere with someone else’s happiness. The Stoics thought we should “live by luck” by accepting things as they are--don’t fight your circumstances but pay attention to where they take you. Trust your feelings.

Lady Philosophy speaks truth: there is no light when stars are hidden by black clouds. Still water is clear like glass, but blow the wind and it becomes impenetrable and dark. Don’t let your joy die, put away your fear, let false hope go and stop grieving! “Where these distractions reign, the mind is clouded o’er, the soul is bound in chains.” The Universe is not randomly guided nor does it operate by chance. Enjoying the harvest of crops requires the order of seasons, so there is an order and a time for everything and a great designer behind it all.

There is a time and place for feelings and every man's fortune is his own but they must be coupled with wisdom. Wisdom keeps the emotions from wandering aimlessly and getting lost in the vast territory of the unknown. Fortune, that is, that which becomes the purpose of life is not without a guide otherwise fate would be cruel and unfair. Wisdom is the foundation of contentment and good judgment.

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