A guest post by Dan McClain. Dan is a doctoral student of theology at the Catholic University of America and blogs at The Land of Unlikeness.
How to read the Consolation with a touch nuance
Two contemporary scholars have argued against this kind of didactic reading. Both Joel C. Relihan and John Marenbon share the theory that Boethius is questioning Philosophy’s ability to lead him to an attainment of the good, but they differ as to Boethius method and what degree of impact the Menippean format has on Boethius’ project.
John Marenbon’s thesis, on one hand, is simply as he states in the introduction to his book: “The Consolation is, as its complex literary structure should immediately suggest, not just a work of but about Philosophy; a subtle text which could be understood on various levels.” But as Marenbon is also quick to point out, our approach to the Consolation requires more than philosophical proficiency. The Menippean Satire, rather than providing a neutral structure, as Chadwick and Claassen believe, infuses the work with a satirical bent (as the “satire” in Menippean Satire suggests). As such, the inclusion of poetry serves to help make sense of the gaps in Philosophy’s arguments, the fact that while she leads Boethius to the good (III.10), she can not help him attain it. In fact, Marenbon argues that the inclusion of the Menippean format is even more crucial to the Consolation than either the consolatio or the dialogue genre. While “modern discussion of the Consolation has tended to be either philosophical or literary,” he suggests that two factors are necessary for a whole reading: the poems, and Boethius’ Christianity. Operating between these two invisible hermeneutical poles are the two stated goals of the Consolation: 1. curing the sick Boethius by means of Philosophy’s remedies; and 2. demonstrating what true happiness is. Thus, Marenbon has the task of showing how his reading can better elaborate on these two goals. In terms of Boethius’ Christianity, Marenbon points to textual evidence. “The Consolation is a dialogue between a figure who is recognizably a Christian – Boethius – and a figure who is not – Philosophy. The reasons for making this assertion are almost too obvious to remark.” He also points to inconsistencies in Philosophy’s arguments when she’s forced to deal with issues raised in light of Boethius’ faith, as in book V when she (inadvertently?) defends causal determinism.
The poems, Marenbon asserts, point directly to Boethius’ use of the Menippean format. Nearly three decades after Chadwick’s Consolations of Logic, Music, Theology, and Philosophy, it is a commonplace in Boethian scholarship that the Consolation is a work of Menippean Satire. Marenbon, however, is among few that insist that the satirical form dramatically affects the Consolation’s meaning. Whereas, the Consolation’s “links with [Philosophical and consolatio] genres do not affect its meaning… to recognize the work as Menippean Satire does, arguably, change how it should be understood.” He argues that the gaps in Philosophy’s arguments, the lack of an Ariadne thread in her arguments from beginning to the end of work, and the fact that she ultimately fails to help Boethius attain the good, all of this can only be explained by recourse to satire, that Boethius the author never intended to grant to Philosophy the sufficiency to exhaustively grasp the good. Yet, Marenbon’s trust in the Menippean form only goes so far. Whereas Relihan argues that Boethius is demonstrating Philosophy’s inability to come through on its own promises – “This undermining of philosophy, Relihan believes, is in the service of the Christian faith” – Marenbon thinks that Relihan’s argument is unconvincing. Philosophy makes powerful arguments that Boethius does in fact accept. Marenbon suggests instead that through the Menippean format, Boethius explores the limitations of Philosophy. Menippean Satire gives Boethius a middle path between Philosophy and Religion to explore the limitations of Philosophy.
Marenbon concludes by noting that whereas Boethius could have overtly explored Philosophy’s inability to grasp the good, he only exposes her inability through the use of the Menippean and dialogue formats. Sadly, Marenbon is content to do the same. And while his text is an overview of the entire extant Boethian corpus, he does little to explore how this reading of the Consolation, and the ramifications that he declares it has for Philosophy, might affect Boethius’ larger corpus. With Marenbon’s research and provocative statements as a jumping off point, the reader is left to speculate what role Philosophy might have in a different (more theological?) search for the good.
Relihan, in The Prisoner’s Philosophy (2007), boldly declares that the Menippean satire “insists on the essential disconnectedness of facts and rejects the mythical modes of reasoning that look for theories to explain events, or that it uses at least two voicesto oppose a threatening or false orthodoxy.” Boethius, however, usurps the usual function of Menippean Satire for Christian ends. Relihan suggests that Boethius uses the Menippean Satire in order to create a via media between Philosophy’s pedagogical goals and the instability called up by the satirical form. The middle way is the Christian vision, through prayer, of the world as created.
Relihan points to the quote from Esther at the end. As Esther has not mentioned “God” directly, so too the Consolation. Relihan directs us to the similarities between the injustice done to the Israelites in Esther, and the trumped charges and imprisonment of the innocent Boethius. While Philosophy has urged Boethius to forget these temporal matters in the search for true happiness, Boethius, the author, is apparently still concerned about temporal justice, and places this message, subversively, in Philosophy’s mouth. “Turn away then from vices, cultivate virtues, lift up your mind to heaven. A great necessity is solemnly ordained for you if you do not want to deceive yourselves, to do good, when you act before the eyes of a judge who sees all things.” Here at the very end, Philosophy is calling Boethius to turn his eyes toward heaven, but Boethius hears something more than a self- and world- negating turn. According to Relihan, Boethius hears the call to this-worldly-righteousness in the vein of Mordacai and Esther. This entails that an understanding of scriptural texts of justice and righteousness are necessary to understand Boethius’ story (his life story as well as his psuedo-auto-biographical work). Amidst the legion of genres embodied in the Consolation, there is a parallel to Wisdom literature, the discovery of God in the everyday, and the discovery of the everyday through God.
But this begs the question of the importance of Boethius’ religious commitments. Twentieth century Boethian scholarship seems to think that the Consolation could have been written by virtually any (imprisoned) neo-Platonic philosopher of the time. This is Hankey’s proposal, that Boethius’ influence on the medieval Christianity is simply a matter of his contribution of another consolatio apathiae? Marenbon and Relihan shoot too many holes in this theory for it to be tenable any longer. Still, the question lingers: “Why did Boethius choose to write what could still be called uncharitably a crypto-Christian work?” Relihan is not content with explanations that minimize Boethius’ Christian commitments, or the hermeneutical import they have for understanding Boethius’ corpus. A better explanation shows the Consolation uniting various genres (dialogue, satire, philosophical exposition, prisoner/exile literature) under the banner of wisdom literature with the purpose of creating something “experimental,” in Relihan’s words. Wisdom literature provides a point of synthesis between pagan and Christian, where Boethius can explore the relationship of his faith and theological commitments to his philosophical education. “Like Wisdom literature in general, which gains its religious dimensions by its placement in the religious context of the canons of Scripture, Consolation co-opts secular traditions for religious purposes.”
Unlike Marenbon, who thinks that the religious import of the work lies solely in the quiet subversion of the Menippean form, Relihan sees a deeper religious motive at work. He links Boethius concern with justice with his initial cry for God’s rule on earth (I.m.5). Here, Relihan draws the reader’s attention to similarities between the language of the Consolation and the Lord’s Prayer. He argues that “Boethius the author has been trying in these five books to represent a recreation not of the process of thought, but of the process of prayer.” Incidentally, we never hear Boethius praying. However, his concern for prayer’s efficacy is only the obvious sign of Boethius’ larger, independent “deconversion” from Philosophy. Indeed, Boethius’ relationship to Philosophy is highly suspect by the end of the Consolation. Relihan sees in Boethius’ silence in the face of Philosophy’s barrage of argumentation at the end a “parting of ways” between the two. Boethius, he thinks, has discovered something that Philosophy possessed but neither realized nor intended to impart: “the present eternity of his sight runs along with the future quality of our actions dispensing rewards for the good and punishment for the wicked.”
 Marenbon is writing ten years after Relihan’s Ancient Menippean Satire (1993), and four years before Relihan’s The Prisoner’s Philosophy (2007); they represent a live conversation about the role of Menippean Satire in interpreting the Consolation.
 Marenbon, Boethius, 4.
 Book III is, in many ways, the turning point of the Consolation: Boethius has recovered from his overwhelming grief through a back and forth with Philosophy. Maybe the discussion with Philosophy has provided a bit of a distraction. Maybe the philosophical give and take has been a grace to him in his solitude. Philosophy ends Book II by singing a song of cosmic love – “what binds all things to order, / Governing earth and sea and sky, / Is love” (II.m.8.13-15, Loeb ed.). Boethius declares his relief, both from her arguments and her rendition of the muse’s art, and his desire for more. Philosophy, in what could be seen as both haughty and seductive, responds: “[W]ith what desire you would burn if you knew where I am going to lead you” (III.1.15-17 Loeb ed.). She then asserts that she will lead him to true happiness; not the mundane sort that got him in the bind he’s in now, and that he has been pining away for, alone in a prison cell. No. This is the kind that occupied his heroes, Aristotle and Plato. Happiness, she explains, has been sought through different means – temporal power, self-sufficiency, fame, honor, and physical health. All, both characters agree, are simply means to something greater, namely true happiness. And while Boethius holds a more complex view of happiness, Philosophy believes that true happiness is actualized in a state of complete independence to these secondary states (wealth, health, etc..). This view, that the happiness which Boethius seeks is to be found only in rationality, will be the thrust of her argument through Book III, until she gets to discussing God, a discussion that comprises the end of Book III. This Book, therefore, is both a focal point of Philosophy’s energies, as well as the point in which Boethius, both as character and author, will break that focus through a barrage of dialogical questioning and the irony introduced through the Menippean form.
 Marenbon, Boethius, 99.
 Marenbon, Boethius, 100.
 Marenbon, Boethius, 157: The character Boethius affirms a quotation from Wisdom 8.1 by Philosophy; further, Boethius is evidently concerned about the efficacy of prayer in the absence of free will, in V.3.33-34.
 Marenbon, Boethius, 158.
 Marenbon, Boethius, 160.
 “Ariadne thread” refers to a method of solving a dilemma to which there are multiple apparent ways to proceed; in mythology, Ariadne was the wife of Dionysius.
 Joel C. Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 193 (the relevant section stretches from 187-194).
 Marenbon, Boethius, 161.
 As at the beginning of book III, in which Boethius confirms that Philosophy’s therapy is working, and practically begs for more (III.1.1-9).
 Marenbon, Boethius, 163.
 Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 4.
 Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 4.
 Consolation, V.6.172-176.
 Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 129.
 Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 129: “…Consolation is an atypical philosophical work, and … Boethius is trying very hard to do something different an unexpected… alongside Augustine’s Confessions and Soliloquies as a spiritual meditation, as an attempt to speak objectively about the life of the mind and its relation to God.”
 Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 129.
 Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 130.
 Consolation, V.6.1`68-170.