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Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and the Greco-Roman Consolatory Tradition

From: Traditio
Volume 67, 2012
pp. 1-42 | 10.1353/trd.2012.0004

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

The scholarship on the literary genre of Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy (henceforth Consolatio) proposes a surprising interpretation: the Consolatio is not a consolation in spite of its title and overt goal. Typically, scholars of the consolatory genre simply note that the Consolatio should not be considered together with ancient and medieval consolations. Scholars of the Consolatio, however, offer specific reasons as to why Boethius’s text is not a consolation. One is stylistic: some interpreters (Curley, Dronke, Marenbon, Pabst, Payne, Relihan) argue that the prosimetric style in which the Consolatio is written is typical of a “Menippean satire” and does not befit a consolation. The content of the Consolatio is also considered to be at odds with the consolatory genre: Boethius’s text is interpreted as promising a consolation that either is not delivered (Payne, Relihan) or is only partially achieved (Marenbon). Finally, some scholars (O’Daly, Gruber, Rand, Reiss, Shanzer) hold that because the Consolatio presents features that are typical of several literary genres (i.e., Menippean satire, philosophical dialogue, exhortation to philosophy, etc.) it is impossible to classify Boethius’s last work as belonging exclusively to one genre or another — the text should, thus, be regarded as an “eclectic” work.

The basic difficulty posed by contemporary studies of the genre of the Consolatio is that they rely on a superficial and sometimes inaccurate knowledge of the Greco-Roman consolatory genre. Some scholars (Curley, Fortin, Haldane, Jones, Marenbon) base their investigation on a definition of Greco-Roman consolations that, as we shall see, is mistaken. Other interpreters (Chadwick, Gruber, Rand, Reiss, Shanzer) do not examine the specific features of the consolatory genre and only make vague references to it — an approach that overlooks the complexity of this genre. Relihan briefly considers some features common to consolatory texts, but does not examine the defining features of this genre. This inaccurate or limited knowledge of Greco-Roman consolations jeopardizes the validity of contemporary attempts to assess the genre of the Consolatio: without an appropriate knowledge of Greco-Roman consolations it is very difficult to assess whether the peculiarities in the Consolatio’s style and content make Boethius’s text an original variation within the genre of consolation or an altogether different type of text.

The aim of this study is to show that an adequate assessment of the literary genre of the Consolatio requires (i) a thorough analysis of features (topoi, themes, and methods) considered typical of the consolatory genre and (ii) a consideration of the goal of Greco-Roman consolations. It is only by following this approach that we can gain the knowledge and insights necessary to determine accurately the ways in which Boethius’s text resembles and differs from Greco-Roman consolations.

The significance of an investigation into whether the Consolatio is a consolatory text is not only that of assessing its literary genre, but has further exegetical importance. Typically, an author’s choice of employing a specific literary genre — particularly in the case of ancient and medieval authors — is a telling sign of the purpose of the text, the way the content of the text is to be considered, and the author’s motivation to write it. Thus, the exegetical importance of assessing the literary genre of the Consolatio is that, among other things, it crucially affects the way we interpret the text’s goal and its philosophical arguments. If we consider the Consolatio to be a consolatory text, then it is appropriate to focus on its overt meaning and consider its philosophical arguments as designed to offer consolation. On the other hand, if we think that the Consolatio is, for example, a “Menippean satire” we cannot stop at the overt meaning of the text but have to read between the lines in order to identify the text’s underlying agenda.

This paper will be divided into seven parts. After a brief discussion of the origin of the Greco-Roman consolatory tradition, we shall examine, one by one, those features of the Consolatio which can be traced back to Greco-Roman consolations (sections 2–5) and those which seem to distinguish it from these texts (sections 6–7).

1. The Greco-Roman Consolatory Tradition and the Consolatio...

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