Consolations of philosophy

I mentioned in an earlier post that I had decided to broaden my horizons and start reading up on subjects like philosophy, psychology, history etc instead of only focusing on finance, economics etc. In that quest, I had listened to a great podcast series on some of the greatest philosophers the world has heard of. The name of this series is Philosophy: The Classics and it can be downloaded for free. The author of this series is Nigel Warburton who has authored a number of books on philosophy including one with the same name as the podcast series.

Nigel has done a pretty impressive job of covering the important message by the great philosophers which includes people like Plato, David Hume, John Stuart Mill etc. The best part is that the podcast can be understood by complete beginners to philosophy (I am referring to myself).

One of the key observations was that, the greatest philosophers of different time periods often gave wise messages that are more applicable to that specific time period. Some of the thoughts of Plato or Aristotle can be considered downright cruel if we forget the time in which they were born. This is same mistake we all tend to make when we tend to interpret religious verses. Taken and read out of context, many of the verses from religious scriptures can be taken very out of context.

Now, we come to the key message of this blog post. Amongst all the philosophers in that podcast series, one really caught my attention. Boethius. The reason Boethius really stood out was because I never heard his name before. Secondly, some of his thinking really resonated with me and while listening I could feel myself agree to his theories. The major work of Boethius is the book called “The Consolations oh Philosophy” which he wrote from prison in the year 524 AD. I haven’t read the full book but I thought I would like my readers to get a teaser of what it looks like. To do that I am taking the liberty of providing a summary from Wikisummaries.

Boethius may have written his book, The Consolation of Philosophy, from prison in the year 524 AD, but the issues he addresses are every bit as relevant to modern life as they were to life in the 6th century. A philosopher, statesman, and theologian, Boethius was imprisoned by Germanic King Theoderick on trumped up charges. In his Consolation, Boethius creates a dialogue between his imprisoned self and Lady Philosophy to examine the true nature of happiness.

Philosophy initially finds Boethius despondent because of his changed circumstances. A respected scholar and politician, he has lost everthing: his wealth, his position, his friends and even all contact with his family. He is bemoaning his fate and the false charges that have put him in prison. Lady Philosophy diagnoses his illness: he has forgotten who he truly is and exactly what is his nature and purpose. She reminds him that the world was not created by chance but by a divine creator. She then turns her attention to human happiness. Fortune she asserts, cannot bring true happiness because the things fortune brings are transient: wealth, power,and honor. She reminds Boethius that although he is not with his family they are still alive. She then goes on to examine the ways in which people seek happiness and shows that when humans have those things they tend to become slaves to them for fear of losing them. She further asserts that bad fortune is actually good because it frees one from bondage to transient, earthly things.

All people are seeking happiness, Philosophy asserts, but most of them are seeking in the wrong places. She then equates happiness with the good and further asserts since God the creator is the Supreme Good, all people are actually seeking him even if they do not know it. Boethius counters with the questions: how then can there be evil in the world with if it has a Good and Perfect creator? Philosophy says that evil is really nothing because it has no power over good, because all men seek good and those who are evil cannot achieve that which they seek. Every action she says, requires will and power. Those men who seek good but do not achieve it thus have no power. Boethius still questions this because he is unable to understnd why it often seems that the evil prosper and the good suffer. This is a one of the most difficult problems a philosopher will face, Lady Philosophy admits. She then explains that what we see as fate, God sees as Providence. We cannot always understand what God intends but his intentions are always good for the correction of evil and the reward of good. However, this only brings Boethius to another question: If God knows all things and his Providence guides all actions, then how can man possibly have free will? Philosophy explains this by showing that just because God knows what will happen does not mean he wills what will happen. She says that man cannot put our own limitations on God. He is outside of time so all times look the same to him and his view is different: he sees a never changing present.

Thus Lady Philosophy provides consolation to Boethius for his situation. God foreknew it and it is part of his providential plan. Boethius happiness can be based in his virtue and in his knowledge of truth rather than in the ups and downs of circumstances. And indeed, good did come out of Boethius’ imprisonment even though he never left his prison save to escape to death, he left us this book to help us learn to rise above our circumstances and never to let our circumstances controll us. Boethius may have phisically died in prison but in addition to a place in paradise, he gained immortality through his message which is still providing consolation to readers today.

Asif Khan, CFA

Asif Khan is presently a Research Analyst (Financial Sector) for Exotix which is a frontier market focused investment bank. He has more than 6 years of work experience as equity analyst in both buy and sell side roles across Asian frontier markets. Asif is a CFA Charterholder and has a dual major in Finance & Economics from North South University.

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