Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from Nigel Warburton’s A Little History of Philosophy, a book that presents the grand sweep of humanity’s search for philosophical understanding from Socrates to Peter Singer. Today, our focus is on Boethius, a Roman philosopher who wrote the celebrated Consolation of Philosophy.
‘Boethius’ life,’ Nigel Warburton writes, ‘was a mixture of good and bad luck’. In chapter 7 of A Little History of Philosophy, we see how this came to be. Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius (475-525), was initially granted a high office by the ruler of Rome at the time, King Theodoric. With money, a reputable family and acclaim for his work, everything seemed to be going well for Boethius—and then things started to go very, very wrong. Boethius was thrown into prison for allegedly plotting against Theodoric; there, he was tortured and executed brutally. Although Boethius always claimed he was innocent, no one believed him.
As bleak as his situation was, Boethius nonetheless produced a great work of philosophy while he was in prison, and this book became a bestseller after his death. Warburton writes, ‘It opens with Boethius in his prison cell feeling sorry for himself. Suddenly he realizes that there is a woman looking down at him. Her height seems to change from average to higher than the sky. She is wearing a torn dress embroidered with a ladder that rises from the Greek letter pi at the hem up to the letter theta. In one hand she holds a sceptre, in the other books. This woman turns out to be Philosophy. When she speaks, she tells Boethius what he should believe. She is angry with him for forgetting about her, and has come to remind him how he should be reacting to what has happened to him.
[…] She tells Boethius that luck always changes, and that he shouldn’t be surprised by this. That’s the nature of luck. It is fickle. The wheel of Fortune turns. Sometimes you are at the top; sometimes you are at the bottom. A wealthy king can find himself in poverty in a day. Boethius should realize that’s just the way it is. Luck is random. There is no guarantee that because you are lucky today you will be lucky tomorrow.
Mortals, Philosophy explains, are foolish to let their happiness depend on something so changeable. True happiness can only come from inside, from the things that human beings can control, not from anything that bad luck can destroy.’
But where was Boethius supposed to derive this ‘true happiness’ from? Well, read A Little History of Philosophy to find out.