Front Page Titles (by Subject) VII - The Consolation of Philosophy
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VII - Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy [520 AD]
King Alfred’s Version of the Consolations of Boethius. Done into Modern English, with an Introduction by Walter John Sedgefield Litt.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900).
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HEREUPON Philosophy was silent a little while until she had read the inmost thoughts of the Mind; and having read them she said, ‘If I have rightly read thy sadness, it comes to this, that thou hast utterly lost the worldly prosperity thou hadst once, and thou art now grieving over thy changed lot. I perceive clearly enough that worldly prosperity cunningly lures with all manner of sweets the mind that it wishes at last to beguile most; and then in the end it brings the mind when she least weeneth to despair and deepest sorrow. If thou wilt know whence cometh prosperity, thou mayest observe that it comes from covetousness of worldly goods. Next, if thou wilt learn its nature, know that it remains true to no man. By this thou mayest understand that thou hadst no joy when fortune was thine, and in losing it thou hast suffered no loss thereof. I thought I long ago had taught thee to recognize it, and I knew thou didst shrink from it, even when thou hadst it, though thou didst profit thereby. Further, I knew thou didst oft repeat my sayings against it, but I know that no habit can be changed in a man without his mind being in some measure affected, and therefore thou art now bereft of thy peace of mind.
‘O Mind, what has cast thee into this sorrow and trouble? Thinkest thou this is something new or in any way unwonted that has come upon thee, such as has never ailed man before? If thou thinkest it thine own fault that thy worldly prosperity is gone, then art thou in error, for its ways are even so. In thee it but fulfilled its own nature, and by its changing it made known its own instability. When it most flattered thee, it was the very same as it now is, though it was enticing thee to an unreal happiness. Now hast thou perceived the fickle faith of blind pleasure; yet that which is now plain to thee is still hidden from many others. Now thou knowest the ways of worldly prosperity, and how it changeth. If then it is thy wish to be in its service, and thou likest its nature, why dost thou mourn so grievously? Why not change also in its company? If thou wouldst avoid its treachery, do thou despise it and drive it from thee, for it is tempting thee to thy ruin. That same prosperity, the loss of which thou art grieving over, would have left thee in peace, hadst thou but refused to accept it; and now it hath forsaken thee of its own will, not of thine, being such that no man loseth it without grief. Dost thou then count a thing so precious and so dear which is neither safe to hold nor easy to part with, and which, when it shall slip away from a man, he shall let go with the greatest wound to his mind? Since therefore thou mayest not keep the joys of this world after thy will, and they bring thee to sorrow when they vanish from thee, why else do they come save as a foretokening of sorrow and pangs unrelieved? Not on worldly wealth alone should a man fix his thoughts while he possesses it, but every prudent mind will consider the end thereof, and guard equally against its threats and its blandishments. If however thou art desirous to be its servant, thou must needs do cheerfully what belongs to its service, in obedience to its nature and its will; and, if thou wouldst have it put on other garb than is its will and its wont, art thou not then doing thyself dishonour, in that thou art rebelling against the lordship thou thyself hast freely chosen? And nevertheless thou shalt not be able to change its ways and kind. Surely thou knowest that if thou spreadest out thy boat’s sail to the wind thou leavest all thy journey to the wind’s mercy. So too if thou give thyself over to the service of worldly prosperity it is but right that thou shouldst follow its ways. Thinkest thou that thou canst turn back the whirling wheel in its course? No more canst thou turn aside the changing course of worldly riches.
P. 13. ‘I would speak still further with thee of riches. Why didst thou reproach me just now that thou hadst lost thy riches for my sake? Why dost thou frown on me, as if for my sake bereft of thine own, both wealth and honour, both of which thou hadst from me when they were bestowed upon thee? Come, plead thy case before whatsoever judge thou wilt; and if thou canst prove that any mortal man ever owned anything I will restore to thee whatsoever thou canst prove to have been thine own. I received thee foolish and untaught when first thou camest into the world, and I trained and taught thee, and brought thee to that wisdom wherewith thou didst win those worldly honours from which thou hast parted in such sorrow. Thou shouldst rather be thankful that thou hast well enjoyed my gifts, and not deem that thou hast lost aught of thine own. What complaint then hast thou against me? Have I ever robbed thee of any of the gifts which I gave thee? Every true blessing and every true honour is mine own servant, and, where I am, there are they too with me. Be well assured that, if that had been thine own wealth the loss of which thou mournest, thou couldst never have lost it. Oh how evilly I am entreated of many worldly men, in that I may not rule mine own servants! The sky may bring bright days, and anon hide the light in darkness; the year may bring flowers, and the same year take them away again; the sea may enjoy her gentle heaving, and all things created may follow their course and fulfil their desire, save me alone. I only am deprived of mine own wont and use, and forced to strange ones through the unsated avarice of worldly men, who in their greed have robbed P. 15. me of the name I should rightly have, the name, that is, of blessing and honour; this they have wrested from me. Moreover, they have given me over to their evil practices, and made me minister to their false blessings, so that I cannot with my servants fulfil my service as all other creatures do. Now my servants are knowledge and skill of various kinds, and true riches; with these I have ever been wont to disport, and with them I sweep over the whole heavens. The lowest I raise up to the highest, and the highest I put in the lowest place; that is, the lowly I exalt to heaven, and bring blessings down from heaven unto the lowly. When I rise aloft with these my servants, we look down upon the storms of this world, even as the eagle does when he soars in stormy weather above the clouds where no storm can harm him. So would I have thee too, O Mind, come up to us if it please thee, on condition of returning again with us to earth to help good men. Thou knowest my ways, how I am ever earnest to succour the good in their need. Dost thou know how I helped Croesus the Greek king in his need, when Cyrus king of the Persians had taken him captive and was minded to burn him? When they cast him into the fire I set him free with rain from heaven. But thou wast too confident in thy righteousness and in thy good purpose, thinking that no unrighteous thing could come upon thee, and desiring to have the reward of all thy good works here in this life. How couldst thou dwell in the midst of a nation, and not suffer the same as other men? How live in the midst of change and not thyself be changed? What do the poets sing of this world but the various changes thereof? And who art thou, not to change with it? What is it to thee how thou changest, since I am always with thee? It was even better for thee thus to change, that thou shouldst not grow too fond of worldly riches, and cease to expect still better things.
‘Though the covetous man gain riches in number as the grains of sand by these sea-cliffs, or as the stars that shine of dark nights, he never leaveth to bewail his poverty; and though God glut the desire of wealthy men with gold and silver and all manner of precious things, yet is the thirst of their greed never quenched, for its bottomless abyss hath many empty chambers yet to fill. Who can ever give enough to the frenzy of the covetous? The more that is given him the greater his desire.
‘How wilt thou answer Riches if she say to thee, “Why dost thou reproach me, O Mind? Why art thou enraged against me? In what have I angered thee? ’Twas thou that first desiredst me, not I thee; thou didst set me on the throne of thy Creator, when thou lookedst to me for the good thou shouldst seek from Him. Thou sayest I have deceived thee, but I may rather answer that thou hast deceived me, seeing that by reason of thy lust and thy greed the Creator of all things hath been forced to turn away from me. Thou art indeed more guilty than I, both for thine own wicked lusts and because owing to thee I am not able to do the will of my Maker. He lentme to thee to enjoy in accordance with His Commandments, and not to perform the will of thine unlawful greed.”
‘Answer us both now,’ said Philosophy, ‘as thou wilt; both of us await thine answer’
[P. 13. ]Bk. ii. metr. 1, concerning Fortune’s fickleness, is omitted.
[P. 15. ]Alfred omits a passage about Paullus shedding tears over the misfortunes of King Perseus, his prisoner; and also an allusion (in Greek) to the two jars standing at the threshold of Zeus, one full of blessings, the other of calamities.