Essay / Philosophy

Boethius according to C.S. Lewis

In 1962, C.S. Lewis made a “ten books that have influenced me most” list at the request of The Christian Century. Read it here. (He agreed to do this even though, in a letter to Clyde Kilby in 1958, he had worried that publishing anything whatsoever in the Century “may merely be putting up the sales of what seems a pretty nasty periodical!”)

Number seven on that top ten list was The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius.

In his lectures on the world-picture of the middle ages, The Discarded Image, Lewis noted that the Consolation was “for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin.” He went on to say that “until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it.”

And then, probably his loftiest endorsement: “To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.” (Discarded Image, p. 75)

Now C.S. Lewis thought that his own greatest contribution to the scholarly world was his ability to read the old books as if he were contemporary with them. He presented himself to Cambridge University in his inaugural lecture for the professorship of Medieval and Renaissance Literature as a living specimen of the old way of thinking, claiming that he would not only describe how the old authors thought, but be for the students and faculty of Cambridge a living specimen of the medieval approach. In that lecture, De Descriptione Temporum, Lewis warned his hearers to learn all they could from him, because he was a living dinosaur, and there would be no more dinosaurs after him.

Therefore, when he says that to learn how to like Boethius’ Consolation is “almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages,” he is showing you how to join him on that side of the line between the ancients and the moderns. Boethius is your immigration checkpoint, he is your passport, he is your certificate of citizenship in the Christian middle ages. If you like the Consolation, you get it.

That word ought to be sufficient to set the wise on their way to Boethius. Be warned that parts of the book are dry, cold, and peculiar –like the middle ages. But here are three more commendations of Boethius from Lewis:

On the old imperial ways vs. the emerging feudal middle ages: “Catholic Christendom and that high Pagan past to which he felt so deep a loyalty were united in his outlook by their common contrast to Theodoric and his huge, fair-skinned, beer-drinking, boasting thanes.” (p. 79)

On the wheel of fortune: “His work, here Stoical and Christian alike, in full harmony with the book of Job and with certain Dominical sayings, is one of the most vigorous defences ever written against the view, common to vulgar Pagans and vulgar Christians alike, which ‘comforts cruel men’ by interpreting variations of human prosperity as divine rewards and punishments, or at least wishing that they were. It is an enemy hard to kill….” (p. 82)

On time as a moving image of eternity: “I cannot help thinking that Boethius has here expounded a Platonic conception more luminously that Plato ever did himself.” (p. 90)

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