Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXIX - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XXIX - 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 this lay, then she began to discourse again, and spake thus: ‘Dost thou think that companionship of a king and the wealth and power he bestows on his darlings can make a man really wealthy or powerful?’
Then I answered, saying, ‘Why can they not? For what is more pleasant and better in this life than the service and neighbourhood of a king, as well as wealth and power?’
P. Tell me, then, whether thou hast ever heard of these things abiding with any of our predecessors, or dost thou think any man who has them now will be able to retain them for ever? Thou knowest that all books are full of examples taken from the lives of the men that were before our time, and every man now living is aware that many a king has lost his power and riches and become poor again. Well-a-day! A fine thing forsooth is wealth, that can preserve neither itself nor its lord, nor ensure the latter from needing further help, nor both from despiteful usage! Is not kingly power your very highest form of happiness? And yet, if a king lacks aught that he desires, his power is thereby lessened and his poverty made greater, for your blessings are always lacking in some respect or other. Yea, kings may rule over many peoples, yet they do not rule all those that they would wish to rule, but are miserable in their mind because they cannot come by P. 71. all they would have; and a king who is greedy has, I know, more poverty than power. It was for this that a king who in old times unjustly seized the kingdom said, ‘Oh, how happy the man over whose head no naked sword hangs by a fine thread, as it has ever been hanging over mine!’ How thinkest thou? How do wealth and power please thee, seeing they never exist without dread and misery and sorrow? Lo, thou knowest that every king would be quit of these and yet hold power if he could, but I know he cannot; so that I marvel why they glory in such power. Does then he seem to thee to have great power and much happiness that is ever desiring what he can never compass? Or again, dost thou think him very happy that ever goes forth with a great bodyguard, or again him that stands in dread alike of those that fear him and those that fear him not? Dost thou think him to have much power, who, as many do, fancies he has none unless he have many to do his bidding? What shall we now say more of kings and of their courtiers save this, that every wise man will perceive they are poor and very weak creatures? How can kings deny or conceal their weakness, when they can accomplish no great deed without the help of their servants? Or what more shall we say regarding kings’ servants, but that it often happens that they are stripped of all their honours, nay, even of life itself, by their false monarch? Do we not know that the wicked king Nero was willing to order his own teacher and foster-father, whose name was Seneca, a philosopher, to be put to death? And when this man found that he must die he offered all his possessions for his life, but the king would none of them, nor grant him his life. Perceiving this he chose to die by being let blood in the arm; and so it was done. Again, we have heard how Papinianus was the best-loved of all the favourites of the Caesar Antonius, and how he had most power of all his people; but the Caesar had him cast in bonds and then put to death. Now all men know that Seneca was held in most honour and most love by Nero, as was Papinianus by Antonius, and they were most powerful both within the court and without; and yet, though void of offence, they were done to death. Both desired their lords to take all they had, and let them live, but could not prevail, for the cruelty of those kings was so harsh that the humility of the men availed them no more than their pride had done before; all was in vain; do what they would, they had to forfeit their lives. For he that doth not take care in time will have no provision when his hour cometh. How do power or wealth please thee now that thou hast heard that no man can possess them and be free from dread, nor give them up if he so desire? What availed the kings’ darlings their multitude of friends, or what avail they any man? For friends come in with riches, and depart again with them, save very few. And the friends that love him for wealth’s sake depart when wealth departs, and then become his enemies, except those few who formerly loved him out of love and loyalty. These would have loved him even if he had been poor; these also abide with him. What is worse plague and greater hurt to any man than to have in his company and neighbourhood a foe in the likeness of a friend?’
When Philosophy had spoken this speech she began to sing again, and these were her words:
‘He who would have full power must first strive to get power over his own mind, and not be unduly subject to his vices, and he must put away from him undue cares, and cease to bewail his misery. Though he rule the earth from east to west, that is, from India to the south-east of the earth, even to the island we call Thule (that is to the north-west of this earth, where in summer there is no night, and in winter no day), yet hath he none the more power if he have no power over his own thoughts, and be not on his guard against those vices we have before spoken of.’
[P. 71. ]Alfred’s account of Dionysius and the hanging sword is more lively than the Latin, ‘expertus sortis suae periculorum tyrannus regni metus pendentis supra verticem gladii terrore simulavit.’