Wheel of Fortuna

September 11, 2008

In college, I read Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy to gain some general intellectual background to Chaucer and medieval literature.  I liked it quite a lot then, and lately, it seems to be cropping up here and there (including as the philosophical inspiration to the protaganist of that entertaining and vastly overrated work, The Confederacy of Dunces) so once again I am reading the last work of that unfortunate man.  It’s as good as I remember it!

I really like the way the piece gets right to the heart of the matter.  He’s sitting in prison, unjustly accused, wailing “Woe is me!” when a colossal figure of Ms. Philosophia comes for a visit.  She wastes no time in pointing out to him that if he were really a philosophical chap, he would realize that if he is the victim of evil men, it’s only because he permits himself to be!

Mr. B is generally regarded as one of the most influential writers of the Middle Ages.  That is, he was the “last of the Romans, and the first of the Scholastics,” living in the late 5th Century A.D. under the Ostrogoth successors to the Latin Roman Emperors.  His works were among the most quoted, copied, and taught in the medieval period. He was from an illustrious family, had a brilliant career, a highborn wife, two successful sons, but he ended up being tortured to death in prison by a Barbarian king whom he had pissed off for some reason.  As the late, great Kurt Vonnegut would have put it, “So it goes…

And that, to be perfectly serious, is part of the message of the The Consolation.  The Wheel of Fortune, so beloved by TV viewers, got its send off into the Middle Ages with Boethius’ work.  I am up, up UP! shouts the king on top…while on the other side the deposed ruler laments, I am down Down, DOWN!  ‘Round and round, and nobody knows where it will stop – it never stops.

As an interpreter and popularizer of Platonic thinking, Boethius, a Christian, elaborated the explanation of how evil can exist in a world ruled by an all powerful God that was begun by Augustine.  This is called theodicy, not to be confused with idiocy. Of course, it turns out that evil doesn’t really exist.

Mr. B. had another argument that I thought was in The Consolation, but which I read in his book on music, it turns out.  All of you high-brow critics will love it:

Boethius points out that there are three types of people who concern themselves with music: theorists, composers, and performers. Of these, the performers are excluded from true musical understanding, … “They … act as slaves, without reasoning or thinking”. The composers, or poets, “compose more with their natural instinct than through the exercise of thought or reason”, but the theorist, on the other hand, “is entirely devoted to reason and thought…”

Boethius draws the conclusion that the theorist is the highest of the three, alone worthy of the name “musician…”

from Boethius’ Three Musicisans

Those who can do, those who cannot become critics…