Boethius : The Consolation of Philosophy

In former times, to pleasant songs my work was given, and bright were all my labours then;
but now in tears to sad melodies I am compelled to turn.
Thus my maimed Muses guide my pen,
and gloomy songs make real tears bedew my face.
Then could no fear so overcome me
as to leave me companionless upon my way.
They were the pride of my earlier bright-lived days:
in my later gloomy days they are the comfort of my fate;
for hastened by unhappiness age has come upon me without warning,
and grief has set within me the old age of her gloom.
White hairs are scattered untimely on my head,
and the skin hangs loosely from my worn-out limbs.
Happy is that death which thrusts not itself upon men in their pleasant years,
yet comes to them at the oft-repeated cry of their sorrow.
Sad is it how death turns away from the unhappy with so deaf an ear,
and will not close the eyes that weep.
Ill it is to trust to Fortune's fickle bounty, and while yet she smiled upon me,
the hour of gloom had nearly overwhelmed my head.
Now has the cloud put off its alluring face,
wherefore without scruple my life drags out its wearying delays.
Why, O my friends, did ye so often puff me up, telling me that I was fortunate?
For he that is fallen low never did firmly stand.
Boethius, miserable in prison, is visited by the Lady Philosophy. He complains to her that life is unjust because he was once so rich, powerful, successful in society, then suddenly he has lost his power and privileges.

Philosophy said: "The loss of your former good fortune has so affected you that you are being consumed by longing for it. The change in her favors alone has overturned your peace of mind through your own imagination.   I know how Fortune is ever most friendly and alluring to those whom she strives to deceive, until she overwhelms them with grief beyond bearing, by deserting them when least expected.  If you recall her nature, her ways, or her deserts, you will see that you never had in her, nor have lost with her, anything that was lovely.

 `What is it, mortal man, that has cast you down into grief and mourning? You have seen something unusual, it would seem, something strange to you. But if you think that Fortune has changed towards you, you are wrong.  These are always her ways: this is her real nature. She has with you preserved her own constancy by her very change. She was ever changeable, even at the time when she smiled upon you, when she was mocking you with the allurements of false good fortune.  You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess. To the eyes of others she is veiled in part: to you she has made herself wholly known.  If you find her welcome, make use of her ways, and so make no complaining. If she fills you with horror by her treachery, treat her with despite; thrust her away from you, for she tempts you to your ruin. For though she is the cause of this great trouble for you, she ought to have been the subject of calmness and peace. For no man can ever make himself sure that she will never desert him, and so has she deserted you. 

Do you reckon such happiness to be prized, which is sure to pass away? Is good fortune dear to you, which is with you for a time and is not sure to stay, and which is sure to bring you unhappiness when it is gone?  But seeing that it cannot be retained at will, and that when it flees away it leaves misery behind, what is such a fleeting thing but a sign of coming misery? Nor should it ever satisfy any man to look only at that which is placed before his eyes. Prudence takes measure of the results to come from all things. The very changeableness of good and bad makes Fortune's threats no more fearful, nor her smiles to be desired.  And lastly, when you have once put your neck beneath the yoke of Fortune, you must with steadfast heart bear whatever comes within her realm.

 But if you would dictate the law by which she whom you have freely chosen to be your mistress must stay or go, surely you will be acting without justification; and your very impatience will make more bitter a lot which you cannot change.  If you set your sails before the wind, will you not move forward whither the wind drives you, not whither your will may choose to go?  You have given yourself over to Fortune's rule, and you must bow yourself to your mistress's ways.  Are you trying to stay the force of her turning wheel? Ah! dull-witted mortal, if Fortune begins to stay still, she is no longer Fortune."

As thus she turns her wheel of chance with haughty hand,
and presses on like the surge of the ocean tides,
Fortune now tramples fiercely on a fearsome king,
and now deceives no less a conquered man by raising from the ground his humbled face.
She hears no wretch's cry, she heeds no tears,
but wantonly she mocks the sorrow which her cruelty has made.
This is her sport: thus she proves her power;
if in the selfsame hour one man is raised to happiness, and cast down in despair,
'tis thus she shews her might.

`Now  I will argue with you by these words which Fortune herself might use: and  you must consider whether her demands are fair. "Why, O man," she might say, "do you daily accuse me with your complainings? What injustice have I wrought upon you? Of what good things have I robbed you?  Choose your judge whom you will, and before him strive with me for the right to hold your wealth and honours. If you can prove that any one of these  truly belongs to any mortal man, readily will I grant that these you seek to regain were yours.

"When nature brought you forth from your mother's womb, I received you in my arms naked and bare of all things; I cherished you with my gifts, and I brought you up all too kindly with my favouring care, wherefore now you cannot bear with me, and I surrounded you with glory and all the abundance that was mine to give. Now it pleases me to withdraw my hand: be thankful, as though you had lived upon my loans. You have no just cause of complaint, as though you had really lost what was once your own.

"Why do you rail against me? I have wrought no violence towards you. Wealth, honours, and all such are within my rights. They are my handmaids; they know their mistress; they come with me and go when I depart.  Boldly will I say that if these, of whose loss you complain, were ever yours, you would never have lost them at all.  Am I alone to be prevented from using my rightful power? The heavens may grant bright sunlit days, and hide the same beneath the shade of night. The year may deck the earth's countenance with flowers and fruits, and again wrap it with chilling clouds. The sea may charm with its smoothed surface, but no less justly it may soon bristle in storms with rough waves. Is the insatiate discontent of man to bind me to a constancy which belongs not to my ways?

"Herein lies my very strength; this is my unchanging sport. I turn my wheel that spins its circle fairly; I delight to make the lowest turn to the top, the highest to the bottom.  Come to the top if you will, but on this condition, that you think it no unfairness to sink when the rule of my game demands it. 

"Do you not know my ways? Have you not heard how Crœsus, king of Lydia, who filled even Cyrus with fear but a little earlier, was miserably put upon a pyre of burning faggots, but then was saved by rain sent down from heaven?   For what else is the crying and the weeping in tragedies but for the happiness of kings overturned by the random blow of fortune?  Have you never learnt in your youth the ancient allegory that in the threshold of Jove's hall there stand two vessels, one full of evil, and one of good? What if you have received more richly of the good? What if I have not ever withheld myself from you? What if my changing nature is itself a reason that you should hope for better things? In any way, let not your spirit eat itself away: you are set in the sphere that is common to all, let your desire therefore be to live with your own lot of life, a subject of the kingdom of the world."

Then I answered her, `Cherisher of all the virtues, you tell me but the truth: I cannot deny my rapid successes and my prosperity.  But it is such remembrances that torment me more than others. For of all suffering from Fortune, the unhappiest misfortune is to have known a happy fortune.' 

`But,' said Philosophy, `you are paying the penalty for your mistaken expectations, and with this you cannot justly charge your life's circumstances. If you are affected by this empty name of Fortune's gift of happiness, you must listen while I recall how many and how great are your sources of happiness:  and thus, if you have possessed that which is the most precious among all Fortune's gifts, and if that is still safe and unharmed in your possession, you will never, while you keep these better gifts, be able to justly charge Fortune with unkindness.'

`Does the beauty of landscape delight you?' `Surely, for it is a beautiful part of a beautiful creation:  and in like manner we rejoice at times in the appearance of a calm sea, and we admire the sky, the stars, the sun, and the moon. `Does any one of these,' said she, `concern you? Dare you boast yourself of the splendid beauty of any one of such things?  Are you yourself adorned by the flowers of spring? Is it your richness that swells the fruits of autumn?  Why are you carried away by empty rejoicing. Why do you embrace as your own the good things which are outside yourself? Fortune will never make yours what Nature has made to belong to other things.  The fruits of the earth should doubtless serve as nourishment for living beings, but if you would satisfy your need as fully as Nature needs, you need not the abundance of Fortune.  Nature is content with very little, and if you seek to thrust upon her more than is enough, then what you cast in will become either unpleasing or even harmful.

 `O happy was that early age of men,
contented with their trusted and unfailing fields,
nor ruined by the wealth that enervates.
Easily was the acorn got
that used to satisfy their longwhile fast.
They knew not Bacchus' gifts,
nor honey mixed therewith.
They knew not how to tinge with Tyre's purple dyes
the sheen of China's silks.
Their sleep kept health on rush and grass;
the stream gave them to drink as it flowed by:
the lofty pine to them gave shade.
Not one of them yet clave the ocean's depths,
nor, carrying stores of merchandise,
had visited new shores.
Then was not heard the battle's trump,
nor had blood made red with bitter hate
the bristling swords of war.
For why should any madness urge
to take up first their arms upon an enemy
such ones as knew no sight of cruel wounds
nor knew rewards that could be reaped in blood?
Would that our times could but return
to those old ways!
but love of gain and greed of holding burn
more fiercely far than Etna's fires.
Ah! who was the wretch
who first unearthed the mass of hidden gold,
the gems that only longed to lie unfound?
For full of danger was the prize he found.

Philosophy continued: 'I think that ill fortune is of greater advantage to men than good fortune. Good fortune is ever lying when she seems to favour by an appearance of happiness. Ill fortune is ever true when by her changes she shews herself inconstant.  The one deceives; the other edifies. The one by a deceitful appearance of good things enchains the minds of those who enjoy them: the other frees them by a knowledge that happiness is so fragile. You see, then, that the one is blown about by winds, is ever moving and ever ignorant of its own self; the other is sober, ever prepared and ever made provident by the undergoing of its very adversities. 

Lastly, good fortune draws men from the straight path of true good by her fawning: ill fortune draws most men to the true good, and holds them back by her curved staff.  And do you think that this should be reckoned among the least benefits of this rough, unkind, and terrible ill fortune, that she has uncovered to you the minds of your faithful friends? Fortune has distinguished for you your sure and your doubtful friends; her departure has taken away her friends and left you yours. At what price could you have bought this benefit if you had been untouched and, as you thought, fortunate? Cease then to seek the wealth you have lost. You have found your friends, and they are the most precious of all riches.

Through Love the universe with constancy
makes changes all without discord:
earth's elements, though contrary,
abide in treaty bound:
Phœbus in his golden car
leads up the glowing day;
his sister rules the night
that Hesperus brought:
the greedy sea
confines its waves in bounds,
lest the earth's borders
be changed by its beating on them:
all these are firmly bound by Love,
which rules both earth and sea,
and has its empire in the heavens too.
If Love should slacken this its hold,
all mutual love
would change to war;
and these would strive to undo the scheme
which now their glorious movements carry out
with trust and with accord.
By Love are peoples too kept bound together
by a treaty which they may not break.
Love binds with pure affection
the sacred tie of wedlock,
and speaks its bidding
to all trusty friends.
O happy race of mortals,
if your hearts were only ruled
as is the universe, by Love!

Conclusion of the Consolation of Philosophy:

The freedom of man's will stands unshaken, and laws are not unrighteous, since their rewards and punishments are offered to wills unbound by any necessity. God, who foreknows all things, ever looks down from above, and the ever-present eternity of His vision concurs with the future character of all our acts, and dispenses
rewards to the good , punishments to the bad . Our hopes and prayers also are not fixed on God in vain, and when they are rightly directed cannot fail to have an effect. Therefore, withstand vice, practise virtue, lift up your souls to right hopes, offer humble prayers to Heaven. Great is the necessity of righteousness laid upon you if you will not hide it from yourselves, seeing that all your actions are done before the eyes of a Judge who sees all things.