Boethius on Music as Anesthetic

Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy contains a dialogue wherein Philosophy, like a physician, seeks to cure Boethius’ soul from its malady brought on by his decrease in fortune. He is imprisoned, soon to be executed for treason on spurious charges arising from his concern for the dignity of the senate. Philosophy utilizes what she calls “some gentle and pleasant remedy which may prepare you for the stronger medicine”; this remedy is Music with its graces. So she sings, in the voice of Fortune herself:

“If free-handed Plenty should dispense riches from her cornucopia as plentiful as the sands cast up by the storm tossed sea, or as the stars that shine in heaven on clear nights, men still would not stop crying their miserable complaints.

“Even though God were overgenerous with treasures of gold and deigned to satisfy every plea, if He favored the ambitious with the greatest honors, still all this would not satisfy.

“Ravenous greed would devour everything and then discover other wants. No bridle can restrain man’s disordered desires within reasonable bounds. Even when he is filled with great favors, he burns with thirst for more. No man can be rich who cries fearfully and considers himself to be poor.” (Boethius, Consolations, 25.)

To which Boethius replies, “You have made a persuasive argument, and presented it with sweet music and rhetoric. But it satisfies only while it is being spoken. Those in misery have a more profound awareness of their afflictions, and therefore a deep-seated pain continues long after the music stops.”

“You are quite right,” Philosophy answered, “for these words are not supposed to cure your disease but only to kill the pain of obstinate sorrow. At the proper time I shall apply more deeply penetrating medicine. …”

Boethius, The Consolations of Philosophy, translated by Richard Green (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1962), 25.

I’ve been having some very preliminary conversations with a friend about the psychological event of disintegration from trauma. It strikes me that Boethius may be himself dealing with such an event, and trying to reconcile the emotional value of music and philosophy. In the end, he argues that philosophy is the better cure. But this passage is intriguing for its suggestion that music is an emotional anesthetic of sorts, it allows an alternate vision for a time. It is not the cure, but it can be a path toward it.


Anxiety, the word signifies a weak form of fear. To be faced with the prospect of terminal cancer which gives one but six months to live brings fear. Yet anxiety, this only needs the slightest cause, like having too many emails, or spilling a bit of lunch on your shirt before a meeting. Real fear has really fearful objects; it is the topic of horror movies, and in the modern world only our worst imaginations. What is there to fear in the United States of America (God bless us)? Very little. So why bother talking about such a minor concern. The question needs no question mark because there is no possible answer. We needn’t bother talking about anxiety.

And yet, there may be one amongst us to demur. With his fist clenched and jaw drawn tight, to object has been the bravest achievement of his month, or perhaps his year—note the upturned chin signifying self-respect, even hope. White lines of rage softly pulse from his forehead. Though he cannot quite put it into words, he might say that it is a mistake to suppose that it is only the object of fear that is worth considering, perhaps also the experience. For him anxiety is not a weak form of fear, but rather an invisible one. He would say (if he could) that anxiety thunders with full intensity, like the creeping terror which swallowed lives and livelihoods on the frail coasts of Japan, but in a world where television and live streams do not exist. Anxiety is the colossal pain which manifests itself only in the soft white lines of rage upon his brow. And it is just this invisibility which comprises anxiety’s double curse. Internal pain is hell, but doubly when no one learns of it. So in his rage he softly says, “anxiety is…” His thought breaks off. But perhaps he has completed it? Anxiety is. And this is just the point the man has wished to make. The fact that anxiety is, that it is the creeping, full forced, and invisible terror, is enough to force us to ask, what release can be found? It was hope that led this man to speak. But it was rage in fearing that he dare not hope that cut him off. Where can hope be firmly placed? How can it be ingested? How can it be believed? When this question begins to sing with longing and with promise, perhaps only then have you understood anxiety. And perhaps, then, you have begun to stand, to hope.