Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXVII - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XXVII - 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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WHEN Philosophy had sung through this song, she began to discourse again and said: ‘Two things can honour and power do, if they fall into the hands of a fool; they can make him respected and revered by other fools. But as soon as he quits his power, or his power forsakes him, he has no respect nor reverence from them. Has power therefore the faculty of rooting up and plucking out vices from the minds of its possessors, and planting in their stead virtues? I know that earthly power doth never sow virtues, but gathereth and harvesteth vices; and, when it hath gathered them in, it maketh a show of them instead of covering them up, for the vices of the great, who know and associate with many men, are beheld of the multitude. Thus, then, we lament over power when lost, and at the same time despise it, seeing P. 66. how it cometh to the worst of men, and those we think the most unworthy. Hence the wise Catulus long ago waxed wroth and heaped insult and contumely on the rich Nonius, because he met him seated in a gorgeous carriage; for it was a strict custom among the Romans at that time that only the worthiest should sit in such carriages. Catulus despised the man seated there, whom he knew to be very ignorant and very dissolute; so without more ado he spat upon him. This Catulus was a Roman leader [consul] and a man of great understanding, and he would certainly not have done such great despite to the other, had the latter not been rich and powerful.
‘Canst thou conceive what dishonour power brings upon him that receives it, if he be imperfect, every man’s vices showing the plainer if he hath authority? Tell me now, I ask thee, Boethius, how it came to pass that thou didst suffer so many evils and such great discomforts when thou hadst power, and why thou didst afterwards abandon it so unwillingly? Why, was it not simply because thou wouldst not in all things fall in with the will of the unrighteous king Theodoric, perceiving him to be in all respects unworthy of power, shameless and turbulent, and without any good parts? Wherefore we cannot lightly say that evil men are good, even though possessed of authority. Nevertheless thou wouldst not have been banished by Theodoric, nor would he have been displeased with thee, if like his foolish favourites thou hadst shown liking for his folly and unrighteousness. Now, if thou wert to see a very wise man that had much noble pride, but yet was very poor and very unfortunate, wouldst thou say that he was unworthy of power and honours?
B. No, indeed; if I met such a man I would never say that he was unworthy of power and honours; nay, I should consider him worthy of any honour the world may have.
P. Every virtue hath her own special grace; and this grace, and the honour of it, she bestoweth speedily on him that cherishes her. For example, Wisdom, which is the loftiest of virtues, hath within herself four other virtues, to wit, prudence, temperance, courage, justice. She maketh her lovers wise and worthy, sober, patient, and just, and filleth him that loveth her with every good gift. This they that possess authority in this world cannot do, for they can from their wealth bestow not a single virtue upon their lovers, if these already naturally have none. Hence it is very clear that the powerful man hath no special virtue in his possessions; they come to him from without, and he cannot possess aught that is outside him as his own. Just consider whether any man is the more unworthy merely because many men despise him; nay, if any man be the more unworthy, it must be the fool who to wise men appeareth the unworthier the more he hath. It is therefore clear enough that authority and riches cannot make their possessor any the more worthy, but rather make him the less worthy, if he were not already good. So too power and wealth are worse if their possessor be not a good man, and either of them is the baser when they are together. However, I can easily prove to thee by an example, and thou shalt clearly understand, that this present life is like unto a shadow, wherein no man can attain to true happiness. If a very mighty man were to be banished from his own land, or sent on his lord’s errand, and came to a foreign country where he was quite unknown and unknowing, and whose language was entirely strange to him, thinkest thou that his power at home would make him honourable there? I know that it could not. If honours belonged naturally to wealth, or if wealth were really possessed by the wealthy man, they would not forsake him, but would accompany him, in whatever country he happened to be. But as they do not really belong to him they desert him, and because they are not in their nature good they vanish like a shadow or smoke. Though their false hope and imagination lead fools to believe that power and wealth are the highest good, yet it is quite otherwise. When a man of great wealth happens to be either in a foreign land or among the wise men of his own country, his wealth counts for nothing, for then men perceive that they owe their distinction not to any virtue of their own but to the applause of the silly people. If then they derived any special or natural good from their power, they would keep this good, even though they lost their power, and instead of forsaking them this natural good would ever cleave unto them and make them respected in whatever land they were.
Now thou mayst understand that wealth and power P. 69. cannot make a man esteemed in a foreign land. Thou thinkest perhaps that in their own country they may be always able to do so, but I know that they cannot. Many years ago throughout the Roman realm the leaders, and judges, and treasurers that had the keeping of the money paid yearly to the soldiers, and the wisest counsellors, had the highest honours; but in these days either there are none such, or, if there be, they are held in no honour. So it is with all things that have in themselves no proper natural good; sometimes they are blameworthy, at others to be praised. What pleasure or profit, thinkest thou, are in wealth and power, that are never content, nor have any good in themselves, nor can give to their possessors any lasting advantage?
[P. 66. ]Alfred was probably led into the error of mistaking Catullus the poet for Catulus by the reading of his copy of Boethius, as a MS. still exists with the reading Catulus. But his commentary would have told him that the poet was meant.
[P. 69. ]The money paid yearly to the soldiers. The Latin for the whole of this passage runs, ‘Atqui praetura magna olim potestas, nunc inane nomen et senatorii census gravis sarcina. Si quis quondam populi curasset annonam, magnus habebatur, nunc ea praefectura quid abiectius?’