THE incompatibility of the sufferings of good men, the impunity and success of bad men, with the government of the world by a good God, has been a subject of thought among men ever since religion and abstract questions have occupied the thoughts of mankind. The poetical books of the Bible are full of it, particularly, of course the book of Job, which is a dramatic poem entirely devoted to the subject. The New Testament contains much teaching on the same question. Among the Greeks the tragedians and later philosophers delighted in working out its problems. But from the sixth to the seventeenth centuries of our era the De Consolatione of Boethius, in its original Latin and in many translations, was in the hands of almost all the educated people of the world. The author's personal history was well known. He was a man whose fortunes had risen to the highest pitch possible under the Roman Empire; who had himself experienced the utter collapse of those fortunes, and was known to have sustained himself through imprisonment and even to torture and an unjust death by the thoughts which he left to mankind in this book.
It is a work which appealed to Pagan and Christian alike. There is no Christian doctrine relied upon throughout the work, but there is also nothing which could be in conflict with Christianity. Even the personification of Philosophy, though after the form of a pagan goddess, is precisely like the Wisdom' of Solomon in the Apocrypha; and the same habit of thought led the Jews to personify the Word' of God, and use it as identical with God Himself; and the same led to that identifying of the Word' with Christ, which we find in the first chapter of St. John's Gospel. So, if there is nothing distinctly or dogmatically Christian in the work, there is also nothing which can be condemned as pagan, in spite of the strong influence of pagan philosophy, with which Boethius was intimate.
For though some have held that the Christianity of Boethius was foisted upon him, with his canonisation as St. Severinus, after his death by those who thought he must have been too good a man to have been a heathen, and though the authenticity of his theological works also has therefore been doubted, yet we may now be almost certain that he was a Christian, and an orthodox Christian, for if it is true that he wrote those works, he combated Arianism during his life, and during his imprisonment he was engaged upon a treatise on the Unity of the Trinity, as well as upon this work. Here perhaps lies an explanation of what must seem strange to us at first sight, namely, that a Christian should apparently look to Philosophy rather than to his religion for comfort in persecution and support at the approach of death. But it is to be feared that in his day, and in the society in which he moved, Christianity meant to many who professed it little more than a subject for rivalry and argument among sects and for the combating of heresies. With many of the contemporaries of Boethius, therefore, a new book of comfort sought for in Christian doctrine would not have had much influence, and there seems to be no reason why people of our own day, even those who draw the greatest help from their religion, should not enjoy the additional comfort which solaced an honest and pious thinker in a time of apparently intolerable and incredible misfortune.
The wide learning of Boethius may be partly shewn by a list of some of his writings, which included original works and translations in many branches of study. For instance, he translated into Latin a great number of Aristotle's works on different subjects, such as those on Rhetoric, Logic, the Categories, etc. He translated three books of Euclid, and wrote other mathematical works. He translated and wrote books upon Music and Mechanics, and one upon Astronomy. His theological works included treatises against the Nestorians and Arians.
But his Consolation is the work upon which his fame rests. The veneration in which this book was held in the middle ages and onward is abundantly shewn by the numerous translations made of it. It was very early rendered into German, and later on translated into the French of the day by Jehan de Meun and others in later times; into Greek by Maximus Planudes, into Italian and Spanish. In England translations have appeared at intervals during the last thousand years. For just that space of time has passed since that noble educator of his people, Alfred the Great, translated it with Asser's help, thinking, it would seem, that this work was most worthy of his people's reading of all books after the Bible. But his version does not give us a very true knowledge either of Boethius or his Consolation. It is of the greatest value to the student of Alfred, because there are many indisputably genuine sayings and opinions of that wise man. There are wise thoughts upon kingly duty and many definitely Christian maxims. These were outside the theme of Boethius, though wise themselves and deeply interesting as Alfred's own work. Furthermore, the more abstruse parts are wholly omitted, probably as being of little use for King Alfred's subjects.
In later times that most versatile scholar, Queen Elizabeth translated it. Chaucer, Sir Thomas More, and Leslie , Bishop of Ross, the adviser of Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote imitations of it. Robert of Lincoln (Grosstête) commented upon it. In the sixteenth century appeared Colville's very fine translation. Translations in verse appeared in the seventeenth century by Harry Coningsby and Lord Preston; others followed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its influence is to be found perhaps even in the oldest English poetry of pre-Conquest times; it is certainly very marked in Chaucer, Gower, Spenser, and many another later poet. And in Italy, Dante makes St. Thomas Aquinas point out the spirit of Boethius in Paradise with these words: --
Now if thy mental eye conducted be
From light to light as I resound their fame,
The eighth well worth attention thou wilt see.
Within it dwells, all excellence beholding,
The soul who pointed out the world's dark ways,
To all who listen, its deceits unfolding.
Beneath in Cieldauro lies the frame
Whence it was driven; from woe and exile to
This fair abode of peace and bliss it came.'
Paradiso, x.121 ff (Wright's translation.)