Boethius on Ill Fortune and True Friendship

“What would you have paid back then to know which were which and whom to trust?”


The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius translated by David R. Slavitt (2010, Harvard University Press)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (480-524 AD) – known simply as Boethius – was a Roman public servant and Neoplatonic philosopher, who was imprisoned (and later executed without a trial) by the Ostrogothic King Theoderic the Great (454–526 AD) on charges of a political conspiracy. While in jail, Boethius produced The Consolation of Philosophy – a meditative treatise on issues like death, wealth, fate, virtue, the prosperity of evil men, the suffering of good men and free will. The text was a major influence on the scholarly figures of medieval Christianity – among them, Thomas Aquinas and Dante Alighieri.

Composed when Boethius was utterly cut off from family and friends, The Consolation of Philosophy – according to a 2010 Harvard University Press translation – is one of the most powerful and beautiful writings on the “transitory nature of earthly belongings and the superiority of things of the mind” in Western literature.  The work is written as a conversation between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.

Boethius teaching his students from a 14th-century Italian manuscript, Wikimedia Commons


A portion from the book in which Lady Philosophy talks about fortune and friendship:

Lady Philosophy and Boethius from a 15th-century Italian manuscript, Wikimedia Commons

…do not suppose that I am altogether in opposition to Fortune. Sometimes she deserves men’s respect and deference. But those are the times when she is honest and candid and shows her true face. Do you have any notion of what I’m saying? It may seem counterintuitive, but it is nonetheless true, although it sounds peculiar when one puts it bluntly into words. The fact of the matter is that ill fortune is better for men than good. When Fortune smiles, she is always false. But when she is inconstant and whimsical, she shows her true self. The first aspect of people will deceive people, but the second is instructive. The first blinds while the second opens men’s eyes to how fragile the happiness of mortals really is. The man who enjoys good fortune is driven frantic, running this way and that and trying to maintain what he has. The other is steady and, if he learns from his experience, even wise.

She continues:

Lady Fortune with the Wheel of Fortune in a medieval manuscript of a work by Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-1375), Wikimedia Commons. The Consolation of Philosophy was responsible for the popularity of the goddess of Fortune and the wheel of fortune in the Middle Ages.

Good fortune can lead men astray, deceiving them about what to expect from life and how to think of themselves. When Fortune in unkind, she draws men back to an understanding of what the world is like, and who their friends are. Surely, in your time of trouble, you must have learned who were your real friends. The honest ones have been winnowed out from that crowd of associates and companions, all of whom have deserted you. What would you have paid back then to know which were which and whom to trust? Here you are, complaining of the wealth that you have lost, and you fail to recognize the wealth you have gained – knowledge of your true friends.

The words above will not be new or unusual to our ears. But how much more meaningful these basic facts become when read out of such ancient texts.


Featured Image: Girdle book of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy by User “Beinecke Library”, CC BY-SA 2.0Flickr

Preview The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

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