I have been reading this as part of a course on Chaucer as we explore his inspirations and attempt to gain some insight into why Chaucer wrote what he did. This book in particular was a huge influence on Chaucer, as well as medieval thinking in general, but it’s remarkable in just how modern and personal it still feels.
At the heart of any great work of prison literature is the observation of how humanity behaves (wickedly) while the prisoner (innocent) suffers. Boethius’ motivation is even stronger because he knows he will be executed and so we’re witnessing a person come to terms with their life in an attempt to find some sort of meaning to their own existence. In some ways he’s lucky because how many hundreds of millions of people never got the chance to assess their lives before meeting a tragic end, but he has left behind a document that can do some of the heavy lifting for us.
As with most cases of a person being accused he begins his story at the mercy of the emotional muses. How many people have been convicted – even just by a court of public opinion – because of public emotion rather than sound logic? Philosophy then appears to drive those “sluts” away and attempts to use the gift of humanity, reason, to help him make sense of life, specifically why the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper.
The most compelling argument I found in the entire book was Philosophy’s explanation about punishment. Philosophy tells Boethius that punishment is actually a form of goodness and so when a wicked person is not punished then they are not open to the goodness that punishment offers. This reminded me of the argument about hell and how eternal damnation is actually a form of mercy since to cease to exist would be the ultimate act of indifference. Even in hell the sinners are at least able to be punished for their crimes and sins.
However, Boethius is also concerned about what he believes to be false punishment. He believes he is innocent and that any punishment he is currently enduring is unjust, but this brought up an interesting point in that Philosophy tells him that we can never really know who is innocent or not. We may see someone who we think absolutely deserves to be punished for being wicked, but are we the ultimate arbitrators of justice? Do we know what really rests in the hearts and souls of every person?
Philosophy reminds Boethius about Providence and that while it may seem random and that there might not even be free will, it is only because he lacks the intelligence of the ultimate good (God) that he assumes what happens to him and to wicked men is random, but when in fact it is not. Ultimately the whole discussion boils down to faith, and while this final section of the book makes the most obtuse and obscure argument in the book, perhaps because Boethius was quite soon to be executed, it does reflect the difficulty of having faith, truly having faith, in something greater than ourselves.
We so want for our lives to have meaning and yet so often we feel as if life, the universe, and everything is totally random and indifferent, and perhaps it even is, yet what is remarkable is that this document exists, that a man on the eve of his execution was able to meet the end of his life with dignity and lay out a reasonable argument that could perhaps give comfort to even the most slandered innocent person. And he does so without growing overly religious because he constantly frames his arguments by talking about the good – the ultimate goodness of life, that form we all strive for no matter what we might call us. He is, in effect, showing us how there is goodness even in the darkest of places.