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Monday, October 1, 2012

Consolations of Philosophy

Boethius was a philosopher and senator in the Roman Empire (5th century CE). Boethius was a very honest, successful and highly respected individual. However, he fell into disfavor with the king who kept him in house arrest for almost a year. Subsequently he was executed.

During the period of house arrest he had time to reflect on his life. He wondered how he, who had been a honest and upright citizen, and who had practiced truthfulness and virtue, could suffer such a fate. He wondered why good people suffer. He has written his doubts and his lamentations in the form of a conversation with the Lady (Goddess) of Philosophy. This text is a classic and the title is Consolations of Philosophy.  Here is a summary.

Many of Lady P’s remarks resemble passages from Bhagvat Gita, Yoga Vasishta and Buddha and teach equanimity .

Lady Philosophy asks Boethius what the source of Universe is. He says “God”. She asks what the direction of Nature is. He says he does not know. She asks: “How is it that you know where it is from and do not know where it is going?” Then she asks who he (Boethius) is. He says that he is a man endowed with reason and subject to death.  

Chapter 2 and 3 are the lamentations of Boethius and tough questioning by Lady P. She tells Boethius that the natural characteristic of Fortune is to be unpredictable and mutable. “Mutability is her constancy” says Lady P and compares the activities of fortune to a wheel and says: …”if it takes to standing still, it ceases to be the Wheel of Fortune” and also
“And great the marvel,
when in one brief hour She shows her darling lifted high in bliss
Then headlong plunged in misery’s abyss”.

Madame Fortune gives and takes as she pleases and one cannot depend upon her for happiness. “Happiness cannot be obtained from worldly goods and is not dependant on what Fortune gives us but something to be sought after within oneself” says P.

She says that wealth and rank are not the rightful property of man and they are at the whims of lady Fortune. She tells him that “ what now thou believest to be calamitous passeth also”. (This comment is similar to Buddha’s talk on passing clouds covering the Sun?) Finally she says: “Things created may not last” and “nothing is wretched but thinking makes it so. Conversely every lot is happy if borne with equanimity”.

When talking about riches like gems and nature’s beauty, Lady P says that they are the natural qualities of the things themselves and says: “ …they derive not their preciousness from being counted in thy riches, but rather thou hast chosen to count them in thy riches because they seemed to thee precious”. She challenges Boethius:  “Have ye no good of your own implanted within you than ye seek your good in things external and separate?”

Section IX and X of Book V are worth reading again and again. They are the same as in the Upanishads, talking about the ONE SOURCE of all that we see, the one Godhead warped into this universe.

Book VI discusses Providence and Fate and their interactions. Although I am not sure, it appears that the word Providence is close to the concept of Dharma of Buddhist philosophy because it talks about cycles. It also sounds similar to the rtha or cosmic order. Fate is defined by Boethius as “inherent in all that is” created by Providence. In some ways it looks similar to the concept of the three gunas of Prakriti (of the Samkhya philosphy) with Providence being similar to Prakriti itself.

At the end of Chapter II of Book V, Song II has these words:  “All that is, hath been, shall be, In one glance compass…”  This is the English translation of the Latin version of the Upanishadic statement: “ bootha, bhavya and bavishya”.  
Chapter III of Book V is an excellent section in which Boethius discusses free will and how it is incompatible with the idea of Divine Predestiny as the explanation for chance.  Somewhere there Lady P points out how Free Will itself requires reasoning for deciding what is implied in the exercise of free will.

There is one section on the subject and object of thoughts. There is a long passage on the chain of events in the process of “knowing”.  This passage is similar to the first 10 slokas of Atma Gnana Upadesha Vidhi of  Adi Sankara. What eye sees is known by the mind. What mind sees is known by buddhi. What buddhi sees is known by the chitha. What chitha sees is known by the ahankara. What  ahankara sees is known by the atma.   We can complete this list with a question from Brahadranyaka Upanishad: “By what can we know the knower”?

These passages also seem to suggest that perception is what senses and the mind cognize. This is as things appear to be. But, you have to see things as they are. This is apperception.  In Boethius’ words:  “…everything that is known is cognized not in accordance with its own nature, but in accordance with the nature of the faculty that comprehends it”.  Sankara has expressed similar ideas and differentiates between vastu tantra (the object as is) and purusha tantra (object as perceived by the human mind). Buddha also talks about this view of things as they seem and as they are.

 After all those discussions about senses, imagination, thought and intelligence, Boethius defines thought as belonging to human and intelligence as that of the Divine. In that scheme of things, you can then say that Divine Intelligence predetermines events and things.

The way Boethius defines “eternal” is also interesting and different. Eternity is not about endless life or infinite time. “.. eternity is the possession of endless life whole and perfect at a single moment……………that which includes and possesses the whole fullness of unending life at once, from which nothing future is absent, from which nothing past has escaped, this is rightly called eternal"

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