Lady Philosophy and man blindness in Boethius’s Consolation

“Do you remember that you are a man?”
“How could I forget that?” I answered.
“Well, then, what is a man? Can you give me a definition?”
“Do you mean that I am a rational animal, and mortal? I know that, and I admit that I am such a creature.”
“Do you know nothing else about what you are?”
“No, nothing.” [1]

Lady Philosophy with Boetius in bed

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy is a poetry-filled dialogue between a man and a woman. The text begins with Boethius weeping in bed. He has lost his youthful glory and good looks. He laments deceitful Fortune and the sorrow of his continuing life. Then Lady Philosophy appears.[2] With a majestic face, flashing eyes, and towering height, she has a manly, commanding presence that Boethius lacks.

Standing about Boethius’s bed were women associated with poetry, play, and sex. Lady Philosophy drives those women away:

“Who let those whores from the theatre come to the bedside of this sick man?” she said. “They cannot offer medicine for his sorrows; they will nourish him only with their sweet poison. They kill the fruitful harvest of reason with the sterile thorns of the passions; they do not liberate the minds of men from disease, but merely accustom them to it.”

The figure “sterile thorns” resonates with sexual dysfunction against the fruitful harvest. Lady Philosophy sits at the foot of Boethius’s bed and sings poems to him. She gently strokes his breast and dries his tear-filled eyes with a fold of her robe. She tries to recall him to the “strength of a virile soul.” Has Boethius forgotten the natural sense of being a virile man?

While Boethius was highly learned in Latin literature, his Consolation of Philosophy ignores significant prior Latin literature. Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy about 525. Many centuries earlier Juvenal had unforgettably protested against women’s abuses of men and urged his friend not to marry. Jerome through the persona of Theophrastus similarly had urged widows to act with Christian charity toward men and not remarry. In response to Roman men’s reluctance to subject themselves to the burdens of marriage, Roman law penalized Roman men who remained unmarried. None of this complex, vibrant human reality appears overtly in the Consolation of Philosophy.[3]

Lady Philosophy describes marriage in lifeless conventions. She declares that everyone considers Boethius fortunate to have “such a chaste wife, and such fine sons.”[4] Those who might perceive in that statement a subtle claim about other (unchaste) wives and other (vicious) sons would be mistaken about the wives. Explaining happiness, Lady Philosophy declares:

Someone else may enjoy both wealth and social position, but be miserable because he is not married. Still another may be happily married but have no children to inherit his fortune. Others have children, only to be saddened by their vices. Therefore, no one is entirely satisfied with his lot; each finds something lacking, or something that gives pain.

Lady Philosophy later elaborates on the difficulties with children:

The pleasure one finds in his wife and children ought to be a most wholesome thing, but the man who protested that he found his sons to be his torturers spoke what may too often be true. How terrible such a condition can be you must learn from me, since you have never experienced it at first hand, nor do you now suffer from it. In this matter I commend the opinion of Euripides who said that the childless man is happy by his misfortune. [5]

Roman men and women who appreciated reading Ovid, Juvenal and Jerome would see through Lady Philosophy’s dress and recognize features of women they knew.

Lady Philosophy obscures heterosexual passion. She tells the story of a free man who, experiencing a tyrant’s torture to betray a secret, bit off his tongue and spat it in the tyrant’s face. Jerome had recast that story to tell of an enchained man biting off his tongue to resist sexual assault by a woman in a locus amoenus.[6] In contrasting surface beauty with inner reality, Lady Philosophy described the outwardly beautiful body of Alcibiades containing ugly entrails within. Given early Christian concern with women’s adornment, that story probably more commonly figured an enticing woman. In referring to men’s bodily pleasures, Lady Philosophy refers to a man’s “wife and children.”[7] Bodily pleasures that husbands experience with their wives, if the marital bed hasn’t frozen over, differ significantly from bodily pleasures they experience with their children. Lady Philosophy doesn’t acknowledge that obvious sexual distinction.

Lady Philosophy ironically emphasizes wealth, honor, and power relative to sex. Males competing with other males to have sex with females and to preserve their offspring’s lives drives biological evolution. Lady Philosophy’s mythic history of men’s violence against men emphasizes men’s interest in luxuries and ignores men’s interest in sex and in providing for their children:

How happy were men long ago,
when they were content with nature
and not yet corrupted by wealth:
their hungers were easily sated
by acorns they found on the ground.
They had not yet learned to mix
sweet honey into their wine.
They did not dress up in silks
dyed bright with Tyrian purple.

No bugle calls then had sounded
to summon men to bloodshed
in hatred or naked greed
that stained the fields with blood,
for what could men gain from killing?
Look at us now and compare
our lives to those of the ancients.
As fierce as the fires of Etna
is the lust of men for plunder.
Shame, shame on the man
who first dug gold from the earth
and brought the bright baubles of jewelers
into the light of the sun. [8]

Lady Philosophy incongruously describes men as elite women in the context of battlefields drenched with men’s blood. Boethius, who was from a very wealthy family, had little need for gold. He expresses no lust for wealth or luxuries, nor passion for violence against men.[9]

Lady Philosophy’s most elaborate figure of heterosexuality is resentful. Instead of Cupid’s arrows, she describes a bee’s sting. The temporal perspective is that of a bitter, forsaken lover:

Every pleasure knows this one thing:
Goading on those who enjoy it,
Like the honeybees that hover.
Once it pours its pleasing nectar,
It is gone, and pangs the bruised heart
With a sting that can’t be drawn out. [10]

Pleasure has been transitory. Hurt has endured. Philosophy has failed as consolation for Lady Philosophy.

The doctor Lady Philosophy, full of poetry and rhetorical sophistication, engages in an intricate game of Christian seduction. For earthly Christian men, virtuous loving differs from consorting with dressy whores, and from merely cherishing a wife as mother of your children. Lady Philosophy proposes to lead Boethius to understand fully his manhood “under my direction, along my path, and by my means.” Lady Philosophy, much more human than philosophy alone, offers unitive understanding:

The warmth of springtime calls forth blooming
flowers that perfume the air:
hot summer dries the grain in the fields;
autumn brings the happy harvest;
and in wintertime the rains come down
to nourish and refresh the earth.
These delicate balances order all
that live and breathe on the bountiful earth,
and that same order takes them away
at the end, when their span of time has run.
But always above there sits the Lord
who rules all things and holds in his hands
the reins that guide his whole creation,
the ruler, the fons et origo.
The lawgiver, the wise judge,
he stirs the stars and planets to motion
and yet controls their paths and orbits,
lest they run wild to break from their circles,
tearing the sky into pieces reducing
the universe to its building blocks,
but the bonds of love hold those pieces in place.
Love is that common fount of all;
All seek adhesion to that end, the good.
Things cannot otherwise survive
Unless, in Love’s renewed embrace, they flow
Back to that source, their fount of life. [11]

Boethius reaps despair from his philosophically idealistic political activity as a leading Roman public figure. Lethargic, he suffers lovesickness from forgetting himself personally as a man. A twelfth-century courtier, less poetic than Lady Philosophy but with similar breadth of learning and interest in dialogue, understood the ultimate earthly consolation to be heterosexual union.[12]

Lady Philosophy, although a doctor, is a Roman woman who gains Boethius’s attention by remaining silent for awhile with modest reserve.[13] She doesn’t explicitly propose the harsh remedy necessary for Boethius to ascend to a higher, more personal, more unitive love. Eloping carnally with Lady Philosophy would be wickedness impossible to hide from the all-seeing judge on high. Trying to hide from God would be unnecessary if Lady Philosophy were Boethius’s wife. The literary implication follows logically. Lady Philosophy, Boethius’s wife, is calling Boethius home to be a virile soul in an invigorated marital bed.[14]

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[1] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 1.6, from Latin trans. Langston (2010) p. 15. Richard H. Green finished this translation in 1962. His translation emphasizes accuracy. It translates the poems as prose. For my interpretation, the poetic form is significant. Hence I draw on other translations for the sections in meter. Subsequent prose quotes are from id. (source book.section, translation page) 1.1, p. 4 (whores from the theatre); 1.2, p. 5 (virile soul);  1.3, p. 21 (chase wife and fine sons); 1.4, p. 23 (miserable because not married); 3.7, p. 42 (childless man happy / bodily pleasures); 4.1, p. 59 (along my path). Boethius’s Latin text, Consolatio Philosophiae, is available online.

As a philosopher, Boethius wrote Latin translations and learned commentaries on Aristotle’s works on logic. Boethius also wrote treatises on theology. For an overview of Boethius’s writings, Marenbon (2010).

[2] For simplicity, I refer to the first-person voice of the man within Consolation of Philosophy as Boethius. That character is not necessarily identical with the author Boethius. Within the text, Lady Philosophy is identified only as Philosophy, referenced with female gender. Because Philosophy’s sex is crucial to my interpretation, I refer to Philosophy as Lady Philosophy.

[3] Boethius had “close and enthusiastic knowledge” of Juvenal as well as of Ovid. Walsh (1999) p. xxxix. Consolation of Philosophy 2.5.34 refers to Juvenal X.19 (poor have no need to worry about robbers), and Consolation of Philosophy 4.m3.15 refers to Juvenal XV.163 (Tigris Indica). As an elite Roman Christian living in Rome, Boethius read Jerome’s Vulgate Bible and also undoubtedly knew of Jerome’s influential letters to elite Romans. As a leading Roman public official, Boethius would have also known Roman legal history.

[4] Consolation of Philosophy 2.3, trans. Langston (2010) p. 15. In the next prose section, Lady Philosophy presents a more extensive, but highly conventional, laudatory description of Boethius’s wife:

Your wife, so gracious, so chaste, so like her father in excellence of character, still lives, though now she is weary of life and goes on only for your sake. Even I must concede that in her case your happiness is greatly marred since her sorrow for your misfortune is killing her.

2.4, id. p. 22. In the last sentence quoted above, Lady Philosophy construes intricate interpersonal connections between Boethius and his wife.

[5] Boethius at a young age married his foster-father’s daughter Rusticiana. They had two sons, Symmachus and Boethius. While Boethius’s sons were politically successful, the quality of their personal relationship with him isn’t otherwise attested. In the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius has a tortuous relation with philosophy. Lady Philosophy may be referring to Boethius as her son, in the sense of being a wayward disciple. The context, however, is that of real, human relationships.

Boethius refers to Euripides’ Andromache ll. 418-20. Those lines actually express Andromache’s love for her child:

All mankind, it seems, find that children are their very souls. Whoever finds fault with this through inexperience, although he has less pain, has a poor happiness.

Given Boethius’s sophisticated treatment of these lines from Andromache, the relation of Boethius and Lady Philosophy to their sons should be allowed possibilities for irony.

[6] Consolation of Philosophy 2.5. According to Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers 9.10, Life of Anaxarchus:

when Nicocreon commanded his {Anaxarchus’s} tongue to be cut out, they say he bit it off and spat it at him.

Cf. Jerome, The Life of Paul the First Hermit, s. 3, described in my post on castration in the story of the Nun of Watton.

[7] Lady Philosophy declares in 3.2:

they want a wife and children because they regard them as sources of pleasure.

Trans. Langston (2010) p. 35. In 2.7, Lady Philosophy muses:

What now shall I say about bodily pleasures? … The pleasure one finds in his wife and children ought to be a most wholesome thing

Trans. id. p. 42. Most husbands experience with their wives a type of pleasure that they have no interest in attempting to seek with their children.

[8] Consolation of Philosophy 2.m5, trans. Slavitt (2008) pp. 47-8. Relihan (2001), p. xxix, notes that he constructed his translation “so as to avoid sexist language.” Relihan’s translation of 2.m5 thus obscures that the violence is violence against men. Recognizing the highly sex-disparate imprisonment of men is also relevant to a poem about a prisoner. As indicated above, sex is central to a personally sophisticated, textually detailed interpretation of the Consolation of Philosophy. For related mythic history, see my post on Pamphilus and men’s abasement, labor, and violence.

[9] Donato (2013), Ch. 1, convincingly argues that Boethius, with his commitment to aristocratic ideals of late antiquity, didn’t privilege external goods over intellectual and moral excellence.

[10] Consolation of Philosophy 3.m7, trans. Relihan (2001) p. 64. Slavitt’s translation effaces the singularity of the bee that stings.

[11] Consolation of Philosophy 4.m6, trans. Slavitt (2008) pp. 140-1, Walsh (1999) p. 94. The last four lines are from Walsh’s translation. Slavitt’s translation narrows the focus of the last three lines to the firmament and includes a superfluous, confusing negative.

This poem echoes themes of 2.m8, later memorably personalized in Dante, Paradiso IIII.143-5. Donato (2013) and Blackwood (2015) insightfully emphasize the importance of personal experience and poetic music for understanding fully Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

[12] Andreas Capellanus, De amore 1.6.470-1, from Latin trans Walsh (1982) p. 181 (from the eighth dialogue between a man of higher nobility and a woman of higher nobility). Id. refers to sex as extremo solatio. The term solatium occurs throughout De amore in reference to love. The context — love for another person — identifies solatium with consolatio.

[13] Consolation of Philosophy 2.1:

Philosophy was silent for a while; then, regaining my attention by her modest reserve, she said …

Trans. Langston (2010) p. 17.

[14] Donato (2013) identifies Lady Philosophy’s wide-ranging, personal therapy as helping Boethius to overcome his preoccupation with elite Roman public life. Relihan (2007) Ch. 9, which perceives a Christian intention in Consolation of Philosophy, highlights that its last three lines refer to Esther 16:4. The text in Esther is from the decree of Ahasuerus. Given the personal characters of both figures in the text, Tobit 7:4 seems to me to point to a fuller interpretation of Consolation of Philosophy’s end.

[image] Lady Philosophy and Boethius, who is lethargically lying in bed. Illumination from anonymous French translation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. France, 1477. Harley 4339, f. 2. Thanks to the British Library.


Blackwood, Stephen. 2015. The Consolation of Boethius as poetic liturgy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Donato, Antonio. 2013. Boethius’ Consolation of philosophy as a product of late antiquity. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Langston, Douglas C. ed. 2010. Boethius. The consolation of philosophy: authoritative text, contexts, criticism. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Marenbon, John. 2010. “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.” Entry in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Relihan, Joel C., trans. 2001. Boethius. Consolation of philosophy. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Pub. Co.

Relihan, Joel C. 2007. The prisoner’s philosophy: life and death in Boethius’s Consolation. Notre Dame, Ind: University of Notre Dame Press.

Slavitt, David R., trans. 2008. Boethius. The consolation of philosophy. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University.

Walsh, P. G., trans. 1982. Andreas Capellanus on love {De amore}. London: Duckworth.

Walsh, P. G., trans. 1999. Boethius. The consolation of philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

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