restricted access The Christian Socrates: Autobiography and Conversion in the Consolation of Philosophy
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The Christian Socrates
Autobiography and Conversion in the Consolation of Philosophy

In the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius presents a dramatic and unforgettable snapshot of personal suffering that not even the ultimately happy ending erases. Unjustly accused, tried, exiled, and awaiting a brutal death, the narrator’s vivid complaints and the seemingly irreparable harm that he has undergone add a shock value to the book’s transcendent resolution. Boethius’s sufferings, like the Scriptural book of Job or like Shakespeare’s last plays, however, are not supposed to be forgotten in a holier-than-thou ending. Instead, Boethius’s sufferings create a foundation that adds not just verisimilitude to the literary framework but what Blessed John Henry Newman would describe as certitude to the book’s arguments. Boethius’s experience demonstrates that Philosophy’s arguments are not a textbook easy fix, but truths lived and proved by reality. Thus, although the bulk of the Consolation of Philosophy consists in philosophical demonstrations and logical argument, it is the first-person narrator who causes, tests, and accepts the philosophical propositions in the book. Through the person of the prisoner, Boethius combines autobiography, self-reflection, and conversion [End Page 143] to create a narrator-persona who not only receives but, more important, incarnates assent to the higher truths.

Boethius’s self-representations of meaningful suffering have historically combined to make him one of the West’s most beloved authors as well as a popular medieval saint since he reveals himself to be someone with whom readers can empathize. As C. S. Lewis observes, “Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love [Consolation of Philosphy]. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.”1 Through the Consolation, one enters into not just the Middle Ages but participates in the principles that animated the era, its heroes, doctors, and saints. Through philosophical dialogue, Boethius reveals his interior self in such a way as to draw others into his experiences. As Jacques Maritain writes, “Because of the very fact that I am a person and that I express myself to myself, I seek to communicate with that which is other and with others, in the order of knowledge and love. It is essential to personality to ask for a dialogue, and for a dialogue wherein I really give myself and wherein I am really received. Is such a dialogue actually possible? That is why personality seems to be linked in man to the experience of suffering even more deeply than to that of creative conflict.”2

Boethius, too, uses dialogue through the persons of the prisoner and Philosophy to express and communicate perspectives that are in tension with each other. In a dialogue that resembles the conversation between his higher and lower natures, between his reason and his soul in rebellion to the truth, Boethius creates a text that borders on autobiography not for the sake of self-expression but to create a very real Christian Socrates whose experiences resonate with ordinary persons and who orients himself and his readers toward God. [End Page 144]

Persona and Autobiography

To understand the implications of Boethius’s first-person usage in the Consolation of Philosophy, it is necessary first to examine the conventions of antique and medieval I’s, conventions that are especially difficult to negotiate when speaking of apparent premodern autobiography. While first-person representations are common in lyric poetry, liturgy, chronicles, and romances, the first-person pronoun was usually regarded as designating a neutral space able to be occupied by any reader rather than denoting the author specifically. Consequently, an automatic correspondence between author and narrator-character cannot be presumed despite the presence of a narrating “I.” A. C. Spearing states the case: “Autobiography did not in fact come ‘naturally’ to medieval writers, for what seems natural depends on readily available conventions of expression, and for autobiography no such conventions existed in the later Middle Ages (except those of the confessional).”3 Indeed, autobiography emerged most nearly inside of a religious framework to communicate a point other than self...