Fortune turned away that faithless face of hers, and my bitter life drags out its long, unwanted days. (I, i, p. 2)
Boethius’ famous book, The Consolation of Philosophy, opens with Boethius locked in a prison cell, writing a gloomy poem about his current misery. He looks up and sees a mysterious woman in front of him who has inexplicably appeared in his cell. She is Lady Philosophy and she begins a long dialogue with him, first about his immediate feelings and then about the nature of God and the universe.
Although the early sections of The Consolation are about Boethius’ personal situation they really tell us a much broader story; in effect these chapters give us an understanding of human unhappiness generally. If we abstract from the specific details of Boethius’ problems, we will see an image of the most common causes of much of our own unhappiness. And by identifying with his problems, we may be more likely to resonate with the cures that Lady Philosophy offers.
The Causes of Unhappiness. In explaining his current misery, Boethius refers to at least three main factors:
A reversal of fortune. Boethius’ first complaint is that he has completely lost the comforts and status of his early existence. In explaining his situation to Lady Philosophy he says,”Is not my terrible treatment at Fortune’s hands not clear. Look at this dreadful cell! Does it resemble that cozy library where you used to visit in my house?” (I, iv, p. 10). His earlier life was precious to him and now he is devastated by its loss. Who, he asks, would not be made miserable by this?
The injustice of the world. But the fact of his loss of status and comfort is vastly intensified by the fact that he perceives that he has been done an injustice. He writes: “Instead of being rewarded for my actual virtue, I am punished for imaginary crimes” (I, iv, p. 16). As though this injustice is not painful enough in itself, Boethius is made even further miserable by his belief that the evil people who have persecuted him are being rewarded and says, “I am thus stripped of my honors, deprived of all my possessions, the subject of wicked gossip, and punishment for all my years of honest service, while the wicked, dancing in their delight, plot new accusations and hatch new schemes” (I, iv, p. 18).
The indifference of God. Ultimately, Boethius’ wretchedness is caused by his feeling that he has been abandoned by God. Although God controls both the stars and the planets and the fall of every leaf, Boethius believes that God is failing to intervene as “the innocent suffer penalties proper to malefactors, and wicked men sit upon thrones” (I, v, p.19).
The underlying problem. As Boethius continues with his lament, it becomes clear that the real cause of his unhappiness is not so much what happens to him but his beliefs about what happens to him. His concern is not just that he has lost his comforts, but what he perceives as the injustice of his fortune. In other words, what makes us miserable is not what happens to us but our beliefs about what should or should not happen to us. We have our own view of how the world is supposed to work and when our expectation is not met, we can be plunged into despair. But many of the beliefs that cause us misery are not actually true and many of our expectations are unreasonable. As Lady Philosophy points out to Boethius, “You are suffering because of your incorrect beliefs” (II, iv, p.37).
The observation that unhappiness is caused by false beliefs also suggests the cure to unhappiness. If we could substitute the false beliefs that cause us misery for true beliefs that leave our happiness intact, our suffering would be greatly diminished. This is exactly what Lady Philosophy will offer Boethius. As she explains it “the best cure for such a disease is a correct understanding of the governance of the world” (I, vi, p. 25). The rest of the Consolation is dedicated to the process of curing Boethius’ suffering (and our own unhappiness) by substituting truth for error.
Boethius offers a lot to think about for our own lives. One student gets a C on a test and is devastated, another with the same grade dances around the room for joy. The difference is that each has a belief about how the world should be. What makes us most miserable when bad things happen is our belief that they should not happen, or at least that they should not happen to us. Indeed, this truth is also at the heart of many other philosophers and religious leaders, including Plato, St. Augustine, and Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). All of these figures argued that human misery and suffering were caused by our false beliefs, misunderstandings, and inappropriate desires, and all sought to bring happiness by teaching us the truth about the nature of ourselves, God, and the world.
This insight can be a powerful resource for our own lives. If we can learn that whether we are happy or sad probably has more to do with our attitude than with our situation, we can begin to take steps to a happier life. This is especially true because we probably have more control over our attitudes than we do over the things that happen to us.
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