Quotable: Boethius on love as the principle of harmony

“That the universe carries out its changing process in concord and with stable faith, that the conflicting seeds of things are held by everlasting law, that Phoebus in his golden chariot brings in the shining day, that the night, led by Hesperus, is ruled by Phoebe, that the greedy sea holds back his waves within lawful bounds, for they are not permitted to push back the unsettled earth–all this harmonious order of things is achieved by love which rules the earth and the seas, and commands the heavens.

“But if love should slack reins, all that is now joined in mutual love would wage continual war, and strive to tear apart the world which is now sustained in friendly concord by beautiful motion.

“Love binds together people joined by a sacred bond; love binds sacred marriages by chaste affections; love makes the laws which join true friends. O how happy the human race would be, if that love which rules the heavens ruled also your souls!”

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, 41 (Book II, Poem 8).

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.

Another Reason Why I love C.S. Lewis

Perhaps the most frustrating part of reading the copious books on preaching is the author’s apparent failure to realize that the largest part about what makes a person interesting is his or her depth of insight, not just whether he or she is a good story teller or uses gestures and vocal inflection with variation. This is a prime example of why I love C.S. Lewis as a writer, depth of insight:

Screwtape: “Why that creative act leaves room for their free will is the problem of problems, the secret behind the Enemy’s nonsense about ‘Love’. How it does so is no problem at all; for the Enemy does not foresee the humans making their free contributions in a future, but sees them doing so in His unbounded Now. And obviously to watch a man doing something is not to make him do it.

It may be replied that some meddlesome human writers, notably Boethius, have let this secret out. But in the intellectual climate which we have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe, you needn’t bother about that. Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so. We have done this by inculcating the Historical Point of View. The Historical Point of View, put briefly, means that when a learned man is presented with any statement in an ancient author, the one question he never asks is whether it is true. He asks who influence the ancient writer, and how far the statement is consistent with what he said in other books, and what phase in the writer’s development, or in the general history of thought, it illustrates, and how it affected later writers, and how often it has been misunderstood (specially by the learned man’s own colleagues) and what the general course of criticism on it has been for the last ten years, and what is the ‘present state of the question’. To regard the ancient writer as a possible source of knowledge–to anticipate that what he said could possibly modify your thoughts or or your behaviour–this would be rejected as unutterably simple-minded.”

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, 150-51.