Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy and Its Afterlife. Spring 2016. Course rationale.
Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy was one of the most influential literary texts in medieval Europe. From the time of its rediscovery in the Carolingian period, the Consolation was valued as a compendium of poetry in classical meters, a first-person narrative of embattled virtue, an authoritative synthesis of ancient philosophy, an occasion for exegetical exposition, and a model of dialectical method applied to intractable problems in ethics, metaphysics, and theology. In this seminar, we examine the Consolation and its medieval and early modern reception, with a focus on the problems—and opportunities—that this text presented to successive generations of readers. What did readers seek from the Consolation, and what gave them trouble in it? How did this text enable new ways of thinking and writing, and how did these innovations change the meaning of the Consolation itself? As a mixed-genre work read widely over a long period, the Consolation and its tradition provide unique insight into the dynamic literary and religious cultures of premodern Europe.
Our course begins by reading Boethius’s text beside two programmatic theoretical essays, by Sheldon Pollock and Pierre Hadot. The first of these asks where textual meaning is located; the second asks what roles literary technique played in ancient ethics. In subsequent weeks, we examine key aspects of the Latin commentary tradition that grew up around the Consolation, then read major translations and adaptations of this text, with emphasis on medieval and early modern England. Key texts include the Old English Boethius (ascribed to King Alfred), Alan of Lille’s Complaint of Nature, Jean de Meun’s Romance of the Rose, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, and Thomas More’s Dialogue of Comfort, plus the translations of Chaucer, John Walton, George Colvile, and Queen Elizabeth I.