What’s the Matter with Poetry? On ‘The Consolation of Philosophy’
If philosophy prepares us to die, should healthy men study it? Certainly we can imagine what Nietzsche might grouse about the relative lack of usefulness in much of Western philosophy. We might not be as stern but still get the feeling that quite a bit of classical philosophy prepares us to drink the hemlock or wear the fetters. Perhaps it comes from the bodily disinterest, often bordering on disgust, which we find in many of the descendents of Socrates, especially the Stoics. To be lost in thought, that Socratic ideal, is to be disembodied. If this is the ideal philosophical state, maybe we don’t really care what happens to our bodies, which Epictetus, for instance, describes as a corpse holding a tiny soul.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while preparing to die, exiled to Pavia and waiting to be executed in 524 under suspicion of conspiring with Constantinople against Theodoric the Great. Born to an aristocratic family, his life had run a course in which he was already Senator at 25, Consul at 30, and sentenced to death by 45, and the second book of The Consolation is written against man’s focus on the constant sliding of Fortune. Throughout the work, the Spirit of Philosophy, a beautiful woman, draws Boethius out of a state of forgetfulness, distraction really, and towards his true nature as a man. This seems an important passage:
Indeed the condition of human nature is just this; man towers above the rest of creation so long as he recognizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks below the beasts. For other living things, to be ignorant of themselves is natural, but for man it’s a defect.
What man thinks he wants is fame, power, wealth, pleasure, beauty, luck, and the other fleeting things. But we have an innate attraction to the good, according to Boethius, echoing Socrates. The whole dialogue, in fact, seems patterned after the cave parable in the Republic with Boethius slowly led from the stultified world of appearances higher to consciousness of the good and therefore apprehension of God. There’s quite a bit of Platonism and Stoicism to the work, with Boethius’s Christian monotheism underlying it, but not quite discussed. C.S. Lewis argued this was because Boethius was writing as a philosopher and not a theologian in this particular text, and at any rate we sometimes forget that there really was not much in Platonism that contradicted Christian theology, nor the inverse.
The section I find most difficult in the Consolation comes right at the beginning, when Philosophy confronts the muses of poetry, those “hysterical sluts” who have misled the ailing Boethius. It prefigures her later warning not to get mixed up with that fickle goddess of Fortune and there’s an amusing side to seeing Philosophy as a jealous woman driving away her no-good female rivals. The love of wisdom drives out other cock-teasing loves! But why poetry? Philosophy claims that the muses “slay the rich and good harvest of wisdom or reason with the bareness of passion,” thus combining sexual and fertility metaphors. She then deepens the health theme that will run throughout the work by saying the muses make us used to the illness we live with, instead of curing us. Philosophy cures us.
But, again, why poetry? This is especially puzzling because Boethius writes poetry and there are poems throughout the Consolation. It can’t be irony because Boethius is not a particularly ironic writer, and yet the contradiction between Boethius and Philosophy creates a sort of irony in the piece. What seems most likely is he is sincere in thinking Philosophy would be opposed to poetry. He might not be able to come up to that level himself, but sees it as the Philosophical ideal. If one should die with a clear head, they must drive away poetry. We think of poetry as a distillation of the inner monologue of the poet, tapping the soul, so to speak. But Boethius is thinking of epic poetry, storytelling really, in the Homeric mode. He is thinking of the need to create fictions and console ourselves with those fictions; we might point out this is what he is doing in the Consolation. The fictional framework is what allows him to convey philosophical truths to his readers, who are then encouraged to distrust fiction. Again, though, we need to distinguish between Boethius, the sick man, and Philosophy, the Nurse Ratched who wants him to deal with reality.
Lady Philosophy also echoes Socrates often enough to suggest Boethius saw him as the clearest mouthpiece for this daemon. Socrates, or at least the Socrates depicted in Plato, both loved the Homeric epics and wanted to ban poetry from his ideal Republic as dangerous. It’s hard not to take offense at his censorious impulse, especially since, as with all aspiring censors, it seems aimed more at the protection of others than himself. But, let’s wait a second. I don’t want to defend the notion that fiction warps our understanding of reality. Yet I ask myself if my own awe in the face of fiction and of art doesn’t fall far short of that of Socrates, who saw them as having the power to keep us from the true nature of reality. In other words, do we defend art from the censors because we don’t ascribe the same power to art that they do? Have we been accustomed by living in a time in which, after all, art most often comes in the form of consumer items, to think that art doesn’t matter to such a high extent? Poetry in Boethius is a rival to Philosophy, even as her inferior.
Finally, for Boethius, the highest reality is a universe created by a rational God. We feel despair at how things turn out only because we haven’t yet apprehended an underlying order to things that is loving and rational. To find this order, we must turn inward, and fiction has the tendency to pull us away from that inner monologue. We can’t hear the inner voice while listening to Homer. I think the core of my issue with Boethius is I live in a different universe, more like Camus’s absurd one, in which our yearning to feel a sense of order and meaning to our lives meets a void that presents none. I share Boethius’s dread without any of his consolations. So, art and poetry are fuel for me; they help in the lifework of creating a meaning that is not provided. I don’t have God; I have art. But it will have to do.