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Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy has long been considered one of the great masterpieces of philosophical literature. Upon reading David R. Slavitt’s elegant, mesmerising modern version of the Latin original, it’s easy to ascertain why.  It reads like an acute, poetic and philosophical blueprint of behaviour and belonging, which is (unsurprisingly) no less valid today, as when originally written under a death sentence.  

Boethius (c.480-524), an Imperial officer under Theodoric, Ostrogoth ruler of Rome, found himself - during an intense period of political paranoia - denounced, arrested and ultimately executed two years later without trial.  Thus, essentially composed while its author was imprisoned and cut off from family and friends (in faraway Pavia), The Consolation of Philosophy remains an astonishing, if not beautiful piece of work.  Its eloquent meditations upon the transitory nature of earthly belongings, and the superiority of things of the mind, reaches back to histories - whilst simultaneously reaching out to the here and now (if not the future).

The title alone, suggests so much more than its mere four words.  It’s all conclusive openness and inherent grace, invites the reader to be swept along amid the book’s many swaths of sensibility:

He whose heart is fickle is not his own
master, has thrown away his shield, deserted
his post, and he forges the links of the chain that
holds him.  

Such invitation, hopefully enables the reader to understand - by way of having light shed upon - the author’s shocking situation:  ‘’Now,’’ she said, ‘’ have you understood what I have been saying?  Has it sunk in, or are you a donkey hearing a lute?  Why are you still weeping?  As Homer tells us, ‘Speak out, don’t hold it, buried in your heart.’ If you want the physician’s cure, you must bare your wound.’’  

And bare he does:  

 Its long, unwanted days.  My fair-weather
 Friends
Admired me, paid compliments, and envied my
luck,
but now they see how my foothold was always
uncertain.  

At once, authoritative, then all of a sudden wrought with the anguish of uncertainty, the poetry and prose contained herein, is blessed with the sort of humanity, which only a courageous, painful and philosophical undertaking such as this work will allow.  

As Seth Lerer writes in the Introduction:  ‘’And yet, the Consolation does not simply juxtapose two forms of writing for simple contrast.  Both the poetry and prose are deeply figurative, rich with metaphors of travel, of the home, of music, and of literary echoes and resonant rewritings […].  This literary afterlife marks The Consolation of Philosophy as one of the most influential and most widely copied, translated, and commented upon works of literature in Western culture.’’


David Marx
The Consolation of Philosophy
By Boethius
Translated by David R. Slavitt
Harvard University Press - £14.95
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