Per Caritatem

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.


Sketches of Insufficiency

While Marenbon and Relihan disagree on the extent and the finality to which Boethius departs from Philosophy, the astute reader will certainly agree that Boethius’ subversion of Philosophy casts a dark cloud over her claim to achieve the summum bonum. The last part of my paper will try to elucidate what this idea of Philosophy’s insufficiency means with the assistance of the the French philosopher Maurice Blondel’s 1896 Letter on Apologetics. Blondel pursued a track similar to Boethius’ critique when he declared that philosophy, generically speaking, is insufficient to truly explain the natural need for the supernatural; philosophy can not explain God or this need for the infinite.[1] Blondel sees in philosophy, ancient and modern, a claim to self-sufficiency through intellectualism, or rationalism; the philosopher desires the whole of wisdom and thinks philosophy is capable of achieving that whole. Through contemplation and rationalism, philosophy claims that the philosopher can ascend to a complete and controlling truth.[2] But really, the whole of truth entails not only an explanation but also a grasp of the supernatural, of which philosophy has never been capable. Philosophy, he says, “claims to attain to reality and to apprehend truth – so that between itself and being, between knowledge and life itself, there is an identify which is simply taken for granted.[3] However, philosophy will only truly be itself when it gives up its self-sufficiency. Rather, Blondel proposes that the philosophical project, as an examination of the human capacity for knowledge, does indeed point the philosopher beyond. Beyond what?[4] Philosophy can and ought to continue sketching out the immanent and subjective realm. However, it must not believe that these judgments bear any absolute value against the supernatural, whether they be positive judgments or judgments that dismiss the idea of the supernatural altogether.[5] What philosophy is able to do in the realm of the supernatural is to study the impact of the supernatural in the realm of phenomena, which also entails the study of human consciousness in the light of the supernatural.

Of course, my comparison is complicated by the curious fact that proto-scholastic Boethius writes the Consolation in a bricolage style, while the Frenchman, Blondel, writes in a highly didactic style. However, if Marenbon and Relihan are even partly right that Boethius is asking Philosophy difficult questions that highlight her inability to “apprehend”[6] the truth, as Blondel puts it, then their projects bear a remarkable consanguinity. Both philosophers are exposing weaknesses that prevent philosophy, of any age, from making totalizing claims about the relationship between natural and supernatural. This is not merely a negative appraisal of philosophy. Their chastening of philosophy is directed at the larger good of recovering the world as philosophy’s object, an object that Philosophy in the Consolation only grudgingly accepts.

Menippean Satire gave Boethius a middle path between pagan Philosophy and revealed religion. Understanding the Consolation in this light, we can see that he used this format in tandem with a classical dialogue in order to explore the limitations of Philosophy.[7] And while it is certainly not an irreverent exploration, the combination of the structure and the gaps and lack of overall cohesion in Philosophy’s arguments lead to the conclusion that the Boethius of the Consolation is questioning the sufficiency of philosophy to deliver the goods. Here, Relihan is more transparent than Marenbon when he points to the revelation that Boethius has about not only God but also God’s creation when Philosophy directs his gaze toward the world “below”. Whereas haughty and transcendent Philosophy perceives that she is making an absolute claim about the world, its fallibility, its transience, and its ability to give true happiness, Boethius sees the world as God’s creation. He has sees that he is part of this world, and indeed that Philosophy, too, is part of this world.[8]


Blondel, Maurice. The Letter on Apologetics and History & Dogma. Translated by Alexander Dru and Illtyd Trethowan. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964;

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy, rev. ed. Trans. Victor Watts. London: The Penguin Group, 1999 (first translation 1969).

Boethius. Theological Tractates and the Consolation of Philosophy, new reprint ed. Trans. H. F. Stewart, et al. Cambridge, Mass: Loeb Classical Library, 2003.

Chadwick, Henry. The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press,1981.

Dronke, Peter. Verse with Prose from Petronius to Dante. The Art and Scope of the Mixed Form. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1994.

Hankey, Wayne. “Ad intellectum ratiocinatio: Three Procline logics, the Divine Names of Psuedo-Dionysius, Eriugena’s Periphyseon and Boethius’ Consolatio Philosophiae.” In Studia Patristica, vol. XXIX, ed. Elizabeth A. Livingstone. Leuven: Peeters, 1997. Accessed April 29, 2008 on

Marenbon, John. Boethius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Marenbon, John. “Rationality and Happiness: Interpreting Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy.” In Rationality and Happiness: From the Ancients to the Early Medievals. Yu, Jiynan and Gracia, Jorge J.E., eds. Rochester, NY: University of Rochester Press, 2003.

McInerny, Ralph. Boethius and Aquinas. Washington, DC: The Catholic University Press, 1990.

Relihan, Joel C. Ancient Menippean Satire. Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Relihan, Joel C. Boethius, “Consolation of Philosophy'” Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2001.

Relihan, Joel C. The prisoner’s philosophy: life and death in Boethius’s Consolation. Notre Dame, IN: Notre Dame University Press, 2007.


[1] Maurice Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History & Dogma, trans. Alexander Dru and Illtyd Trethowan (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1964).

[2] Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics and History & Dogma, 172; however, Blondel nuances this point by explaining that ancient philosophy enjoyed a felicitous relationship with theology in that theology brought with it a broadening in scope to philosophy’s project, so that philosophy never even noticed that theology was making claims that philosophy could only answer by employing the object and methods of theology (173); in the middle ages, philosophy continued to be ancient while theology matured; but in the modern era an “animosity” grew between dusty, “sterile” scholasticism and the ancient reason it has essentially enslaved (174).

[3] Although, Blondel specifies that modern philosophy (circa 1900) tends to do the opposite, to limit itself and its claims on truth, and its claims to identification with truth, looking instead for truth outside of itself and its systems (The Letter on Apologetics, 176); nevertheless, the perspective of immanence that modern philosophy takes includes a rejection of ontology that Blondel argues is just as totalizing and “transcendent” as the ancient philosophy of transcendence; as such, he will treat the two together throughout the remainder of the book (The Letter on Apologetics, 179).

[4] “instead of just describing the whole phenomenon of though and action in man’s consciousness (which would have been consonant with the critical spirit), it still claims to provide the equivalent or even the reality of all the noumenon” (The Letter on Apologetics, 178).

[5] “One can not make a transcendent truth of the negation of the transcendent or of the supernatural (The Letter on Apologetics, 178-79).

[6] Blondel, The Letter on Apologetics, 176.

[7] Marenbon, Boethius, 161-163.

[8] Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 136.

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