Front Page Titles (by Subject) XVIII - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XVIII - 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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P. 42. WHEN this was spoken, the Mind was silent; and Philosophy began to discourse again, and spake on this wise: ‘O Mind, there is one evil which must be shunned, that very constantly and very grievously deceiveth the minds of men that are choice by nature, but not yet arrived at the highest point of perfect virtue; I mean the desire of false glory and unrighteous power, and fame beyond measure for good works among all people. Many men desire power, wishing to have good report, though they are unworthy of it; yea, even the most infamous desire this. But he that is wise and earnest in his quest of good report soon perceiveth how small a thing it is, how fleeting, how frail, and void of all good. If then thou wilt keenly consider, and look into the compass of the whole earth from east to west, and from north to south, as thou mayest read in the book that is called Astralogium, thou wilt perceive that compared with heaven all this earth is but as a tiny dot on a wide board, or as a boss on a shield, according to the judgement of the learned. Dost thou not remember what thou didst read in the works of Ptolemy, who in one of his books has set out the measurements of all this earth? There thou mayest see that mankind and beasts take up not nearly one fourth of that part of the earth that can be travelled through, for what with heat and what with cold it is not all fit for them to dwell in, and the greater part is taken up by the ocean. Now subtract from the fourth part all the tract covered by the sea, and all its encroachments in the form of inlets, and the parts taken up by fens, and moors, and all the deserts in any land, and thou wilt perceive that there is left for man to dwell in the merest little plot of ground, as it were. How foolish if ye were therefore to toil and strain all your days to blazon your fame far and wide over such a little plot; since the part of the world in which men dwell is but a point compared to the rest. Is your boast then a liberal, or magnificent, or worthy one, that ye dwell on half the fifth part of the earth, so narrowed is it, what with seas and marshes withal? Why then do ye desire so immoderately to extend your name over this tenth part, for it is no more, what with sea and fen and all? Again, consider this small enclosure that we have been speaking about, whereon dwell such a number and variety of races, all diverse in speech, and habits, and customs, over which ye now so extravagantly desire to spread your name. This ye can never do, for their speech is divided into two and seventy tongues, and each tongue is further parted out among many peoples; and the nations are severed and kept apart by the sea, and by forests, and mountains, and marshes, and by divers deserts and impassable regions over which even the merchants do not journey. How can the name of any one ruler reach places where the very name of the city where he liveth, and of the nation where he hath his dwelling, is utterly unheard of? I know not for what folly ye desire to spread your names over all the earth, as ye cannot do, nor come near doing. Thou hast heard, I suppose, how great was the Romans’ dominion in the days of the chieftain [consul] Marcus, whose second name was Tullius and his third Cicero. Well, in one of his books, he mentions that the fame of Rome had not yet crossed the mountains called Caucasus, nor had the Scythians, who dwell on the other side of those mountains, ever heard the name of that city or people. It had come first to the Parthians, and even to them it was still very new. And yet it was a name of dread to many a neighbouring people. Do ye not then understand how narrow must be your fame, which ye toil and strive unduly to spread abroad? How great, thinkest thou, is the fame, and how great the honour, that a single Roman can get in a land that even the name of his city and all the glory of its people have never reached? Though a man without measure and unduly desire to spread his fame over all the earth, he cannot bring it to pass, for the customs of nations are so diverse, and so various are their ways, that one country likes best that which another most mislikes, and even deems worthy of heavy punishment. Hence no man can have equal fame in every land, the likings of nations being so different. Therefore let every man be content to be well esteemed in his own country, for, even if he desire more, he cannot attain to it, since a number of men seldom agree in liking the same thing. This is why the fame of a man remains confined to the country where he hath his dwelling, and likewise because it hath often cruelly happened, through the sloth and neglect and carelessness of unlucky historians, that the character and deeds of the foremost and most ambitious men of their day have been left unwritten. And even if the writers had written of their lives and deeds, as they would have done if good for anything, would not their writings sooner or later have grown too old, and perished out of mind, as certain writers and the men they wrote of have done? And yet ye men think to have eternal honour, if ye can by lifelong effort earn glory after your days! If thou wilt compare the moments of this present fleeting life with those of the life unending, what do they come to? Compare the length of time in which thine eye can wink with ten thousand years, and there is some likeness, though not much, since each hath a term. Now compare ten thousand years, or more if thou wilt, with everlasting and eternal life; here thou findest nothing in common, for ten thousand years, though it seem long, doth come to an end, while of the other there is no end. Thus then the finite and the infinite cannot be measured together. If thou wert to count from the beginning of the world to the end thereof, and set all those years against infinity, there would still be no comparison. So it is also with the fame of great men; it may sometimes last long, and endure many years, yet is it very short when compared with that which never endeth. Nevertheless ye care not to do good for aught else save for the poor praise of the people, and for this shortlived fame we have been speaking of. This ye strive to win, neglecting the powers of your reason, of your understanding, and of your judgement; desiring to have as the reward of your good deeds the good report of unknown men, a reward which ye should seek from God alone.
‘Thou hast heard, I suppose, of a very wise and very mighty man of old, who fell to questioning and railing at a philosopher. The latter was swollen with self-conceit and used to vaunt his philosophy, not making it known by his intelligence, but by his false and overweening boasts. The wise man, wishing to prove him, whether he was as clever as he thought himself, began to mock and revile him. The philosopher for a time listened quite patiently to the words of the other, but, hearing his taunts, he lost patience and began to defend himself, though up to this he pretended to be a philosopher. So he asked the wise man whether he thought he was a philosopher or not. “I would call thee one,” said the wise man, “if thou wert patient and couldst hold thy peace.” How wearisome was the fame that the philosopher had heretofore sought with falsehood!Why, he broke down instantly at that one answer! What availed the best of those that were before us their eager desire for idle glory and renown after their death, or what avails it now to us that are still alive? More useful were it for every man to desire virtues than false fame, for what can fame do for him after body and soul are sundered? Do we not know that all men die in the flesh, although the soul liveth on? For the soul passeth freely to heaven once she is set free and released from the prison of this body, and she despiseth all these things of earth, and delighteth in being able to enjoy the heavenly things after she is sundered from the earthly. So the Mind itself will be its own witness of God’s will.’
[P. 42. ]The book that is called Astralogium. The Latin has astrologicis demonstrationibus.