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Part 4: Sufficiency and Satire: Reading the Consolation through the Menippean Form

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

July 7, 2008

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.

Part 3: Sufficiency and Satire: Reading the Consolation through the Menippean Form

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 30, 2008

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.[1]

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.”[2] 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.[3] 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.[4] 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.[5] 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.”[6] 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.[7]

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.”[8] He argues that the gaps in Philosophy’s arguments, the lack of an Ariadne thread[9] 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[10] – “This undermining of philosophy, Relihan believes, is in the service of the Christian faith”[11] – Marenbon thinks that Relihan’s argument is unconvincing. Philosophy makes powerful arguments that Boethius does in fact accept.[12] 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.[13] 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.”[14] 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.[15]

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.”[16] 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?”[17] 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.[18] 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.”[19]

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.”[20] 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.”[21]


[1] 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.

[2] Marenbon, Boethius, 4.

[3] 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.

[4] Marenbon, Boethius, 99.

[5] Marenbon, Boethius, 100.

[6] 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.

[7] Marenbon, Boethius, 158.

[8] Marenbon, Boethius, 160.

[9] “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.

[10] Joel C. Relihan, Ancient Menippean Satire (Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993), 193 (the relevant section stretches from 187-194).

[11] Marenbon, Boethius, 161.

[12] 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).

[13] Marenbon, Boethius, 163.

[14] Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 4.

[15] Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 4.

[16] Consolation, V.6.172-176.

[17] Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 129.

[18] 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.”

[19] Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 129.

[20] Relihan, The Prisoner’s Philosophy, 130.

[21] Consolation, V.6.1`68-170.

Part 2: Sufficiency and Satire: Reading the Consolation through the Menippean Form

By Cynthia R. Nielsen

June 26, 2008

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.


Let’s get didactic

The idea that Boethius’ use of poetry is not so simply wrangled into Philosophy’s service, but is actually functioning as part of a larger satirical structure, is not the popular answer to the  difficult question of how exactly we are to read the Consolation. Wayne Hankey takes it as a given that Boethius is writing a straightforward consolation: “The Consolation of Philosophy records the purely philosophical doctrine which persuaded and comforted, and would persuade and comfort, Christians even in extremis for a millennium and a half.”  Chadwick, whose text has provided a standard interpretation of Consolation for philosophy and theology for the past twenty years, also takes a literal reading of the Consolation. The title alone tells its genre and the object of the consolation, Philosophy, is the consoler. He takes Boethius at face value when he says that he is trying to make the interpretive task easier for the reader by including poetry, and suggests that the meter sections merely extend the arguments. Boethius uses poetry, “with the intention of lightening the reader’s task with a difficult subject.”  But does this mean that we are to simply mine the poems for content similar to that in the prose sections? Chadwick seems to say yes. “The poems normally have subtle links with the prose sections that precede or follow them.”  Beyond this, as Joel Relihan says, tongue in cheek, “it seems much safer to confound Philosophy and pedantry and attribute [the Consolation's] perceived dullness to high-mindedness.”  Chadwick notes that the Consolation resembles other works written in a Menippean Satire format (a combination of prose with poetry that is lighthearted or pokes fun at the matter of the prose), like Capella’s Marriage of Philology and Mercury, which also is about a kind of pilgrimage.  He applies the same interpretive formula to these as well. Hermeneutically speaking, Chadwick doubts that Boethius is performing anything unusual, ironic or groundbreaking by employing the Menippean format.

Philosophers are not the only ones that have read the Consolation this way. Even recent literary theoristsexpound on it in light of its supposed genre, taking a literal tack to the characters’ arguments. Jo-Marie Claassen, in Displaced Persons (1999), believes that the title and genre of the Consolation are pretty straightforward. There is nothing ironic or subtle about Boethius’ turn from an Ovidian elegiac to Philosophical dialogue. Rather, this turn is transparently underscored by his rejection to use anything “remotely Ovidian” until the last poem of Book III (III.m.12).  There, Boethius recounts Orpheus’ heroic, yet tragic, descent into hell to rescue his lover, Eurydice. Orpheus is successful in recovering Eurydice, but is warned against looking upon her until they surface from the cave, which in his love Orpheus is unable to do, thus losing Eurydice. “Who can give lovers laws? / Love is a greater law unto itself.”  Claassen reminds us that the singer Orpheus gains the freedom of Eurydice through song, but is unable to keep her, “incapacitated by the very emotion, romantic love, that had sent him to look for her.” Both T. F. Curley and Claassen argue that Boethius’ inclusion of this poem, his final tribute to the elegiac, is his way of forgoing, once and for all, the possibility of ascent through poetry. He resolutely identifies the Orphic character with his state at the beginning of the Consolation. He has since recommitted himself to Philosophy. He now has no pretension that poetry might harbor some ability foreign to or greater than Philosophy’s own abilities.  “Ovidian ‘truth’ apparently pales before the ‘truth of philosophy’.”

Claassen gives no defense for her particular typological interpretation of Orpheus. One wonders if Orpheus must be read as an exemplar of the poets, or if it is clear that Boethius read him that way? Nor does she explain her sharp dichotomy between poetry and philosophy.  Does Boethius tell the poem in order to draw attention to poetry as such, or does he tell the poem to reference – and possibly counterpoint – the end of the tragic Orphic quest? More problematic is her understanding of how Boethius reads the Orphic figure. Whereas Claassen would have us read Boethius as replacing Orpheus, qua poetry, with Philosophy, one finds countless instances of philosophers and theologians in the Christian tradition reading Orpheus as a Christological figure-Jesus Christ, the perfect Orpheus, is able to rescue his lover, the world, from hell. And while we do not have an overt hermeneutic of the Orphic type, Claassen gives no support for why one should so easily dismiss that Boethius’ interpretive methods might have been concomitant with his Christian theological commitments.

Claassen concludes that Philosophy is ultimately successful in her act of consolation.  She leads Boethius to the good, a sign that the author Boethius had already found peace with his imprisonment and impending death._ Claassen is confident of this interpretation, even despite the complexities of the Menippean format. As I will demonstrate below, however, the satirical and dialogical structure of the Consolation create nuances, resonances, and complexities for which Claassen can only unsatisfactorily account in her straightforward, didactic reading. By neglecting the impact of the dialogue, the Menippean form, and similarities to Biblical wisdom literature in her interpretation, she is forced to either ignore the weaknesses in Philosophy’s arguments, or dismiss them as poor writing on Boethius’ part.