Joel C. Relihanwith a contribution on the medieval Boethius by William Heise
The Roman philosopher Boethius (c. 480-524) is best known for the Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most frequently cited texts in medieval literature. In the Consolation, an unnamed Boethius sits in prison awaiting execution when his muse Philosophy appears to him. Her offer to teach him who he truly is and to lead him to his heavenly home becomes a debate about how to come to terms with evil, freedom, and providence. The conventional reading of the Consolation is that it is a defense of pagan philosophy; nevertheless, many readers who accept this basic argument find that the ending is ambiguous and that Philosophy has not, finally, given the prisoner the comfort she had promised.
In The Prisoner’s Philosophy, Joel C. Relihan delivers a genuinely new reading of the Consolation. He argues that it is a Christian work dramatizing not the truths of philosophy as a whole, but the limits of pagan philosophy in particular. He views it as one of a number of literary experiments of late antiquity, taking its place alongside Augustine’s Confessions and Soliloquies as a spiritual meditation, as an attempt by Boethius to speak objectively about the life of the mind and its relation to God.
Relihan discerns three fundamental stories intertwined in the Consolation: an ironic retelling of Plato’s Crito, an adaptation of Lucian’s Jupiter Confutatus, and a sober reduction of Job to a quiet dialogue in which the wounded innocent ultimately learns wisdom in silence. Relihan’s claim that Boethius’s text was written as a Menippean satire does not rest merely on identifying a mixture of disparate literary influences on the text, or on the combination of verse and prose or of fantasy and morality. More important, Relihan argues, Boethius deliberately dramatizes the act of writing about systematic knowledge in a way that calls into question the value of that knowledge. Philosophy’s attempt to lead an exile to God’s heaven is rejected; the exile comes to accept the value of the phenomenal world, and theology replaces philosophy to explain the place of human beings in the order of the world. Boethius Christianizes the genre of Menippean satire, and his Consolation is a work about humility and prayer.
“The Prisoner’s Philosophy is an important, original, and exciting book. It will open a new path in studies of the Consolation and in the history of Menippean satire in the Latin Middle Ages—for not the least of its accomplishments is the way in which this book suggests the literary influences of the ‘new’ Boethius it so clearly and compellingly reveals to us. I have been waiting for this sort of examination for a long time, and Joel Relihan is perhaps the only scholar who could produce it.” —Joseph Pucci, Brown University
“Relihan develops the innovative interpretation of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy that he previously advanced in his Ancient Menippean Satire and elsewhere. . . . Although Relihan’s conclusions will be considered radical by many, he offers thoughtful approaches for examining some of the difficulties of the Consolation.” — Choice
“Going beyond the stance that the Consolation has merely some latent religious convictions, Relihan argues that Boethius is using the resources of Menippean satire to show the limits of pagan philosophy and the need to turn to prayer instead. . . . The present volume is a masterful re-thinking of a classic text that rightfully has an honored place in the philosophical canon. Its thesis is carefully argued and richly deserves a scholarly hearing.” — Journal of the History of Philosophy
“. . . a detailed, comprehensive, yet approachable synthesis of the broader philosophical, literary, and historical sources and context of Boethius’s most well-known work. It argues that the Consolation belongs decisively to the genre of Menippean satire, a genre whose primary function, Relihan argues, is to uncover the limits of theoretical knowledge.” — Bryn Mawr Classical Review
“Professor Relihan’s The Prisoner’s Philosophy: Life and Death in Boethius’s Consolation has two central theses. The first is that Boethius’s swan song is an important, coherent, complex, and misunderstood philosophical work. The second is that the Consolatio is the work of a Christian philosopher, who writes as a Christian.” — American Catholic Philosophical Quarterly
“Relihan’s book argues that the Consolation is Menippean satire, a parody of both philosophy and the form of consolation. There is much to admire in this complex and literarily sophisticated reading. The connections it makes—not just to Job but to Matthew’s gospel, to Plato’s Crito, to the book of Esther, and to the Odyssey —appreciably deepen our understanding of the Consolation.” — Religious Studies Review
“This text will become one of the most important critical sources for study on the Menippean problem. . . . Relihan makes an important and compelling argument for paying attention to the narrative of the Consolation. . . . Relihan does a valuable service to the reading and teaching of the Consolation_. He brings a sense of excitement and even suspense to the text.” —_Speculum