Clarity of Imagination: C.S. Lewis’s Birthday

“Reason is the natural organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” – C.S. Lewis

On the anniversary of Lewis’s death earlier this week I wrote a partial reader’s autobiography of how Lewis’s works integrated into the span of my own life. Now, for the anniversary of his birthday, I want to celebrate how I believe Lewis’s attitude towards the imagination can edify human life.

My first time teaching Introduction to Literature left me somewhat disappointed. This was for a few reasons. One was entirely my fault – I overloaded the reading list and let my enthusiasm cloud what was practical. Also, I provided readings electronically, which I regard as an error for a number of reasons. One of those reasons is the effect I think it has on the imagination: there are so many texts on the internet, and these just happen to be the ones our nutty professor assigned. Why are they due any special attention? As the course neared its end, I decided I didn’t want to repeat the mistakes of this semester. In addition to hard copies and a lighter reading load, though, I realized that I had not clearly defined for myself the precise goal of what I wanted my students to get out of the course. Naturally it’s frustrating when they don’t like what I like, especially with the attention and devotion that goes into appreciating a text, but it’s more than that. Even when they did like the text, they often seemed to miss the larger purpose in why it was assigned. What were my students missing that I wanted them to see? What was it that I cared about and wanted them to care about, too? I wanted them to have meaningful, rich reactions to beautiful literature – not because I had assigned it or because I happened to like the particular piece of literature, but because I earnestly believed (as I told that class and still tell my students) that profound literary experience is profoundly important for a full life.

I remembered, as I was puzzling over this question, something C.S. Lewis had said about George MacDonald’s Phantastes – that it had baptized his imagination. Thinking about that phrase, I recalled that one of my favorite philosophical meditations on the imagination was MacDonald’s essay, “The Imagination: Its Function and Its Culture.” It was then that I realized that this was exactly what was missing, in our culture, in my students’ perspective, and in my own pedagogy (which I have since developed and posted on this blog): a craft of imagination that doesn’t just treat the imagination as a given, overlooked and taken for granted, but instead sees it as an inborn capacity with a range of potential applications. Like every other inborn ability, the imagination must be developed – you need a method. From there, I designed my introduction to literature course, and it has been far better as a result. And I have realized that the philosophy of imagination I developed was centrally Lewisian in character, and stemmed from two basic texts: “Meditations in a Toolshed” and “On Stories.”

In the first essay, Lewis meditates upon a beam of light that enters into a slim crack in the toolshed door. He realizes the difference between looking at the beam of light as an object, versus along the beam of light as a tool for seeing the world. This is the fundamental issue with the imagination: we look at it as a curiosity, maybe a diverting source of entertainment – we look at products of imagination instead of looking through the imagination as a source of meaning-making. And when we do that, we lose out on the primary effect of imagination: to render a coherent picture of value out of our experiences in the world. After all, the imagination makes an image of our world, something Lewis knew medieval thinkers had developed into a sophisticated structure of rich interpretation that he discusses in The Discarded Image, to this date one of the finest introductions to the Middle Ages (and to the history of imagination in that period) which I have ever read.

Along with this meditation on how imagination fits into human life, Lewis’s “On Stories” more specifically analyzes how narrative attempts to capture in “a net of words” the things which mere words cannot capture unless they are embedded in an imaginative approach to the reactive power symbols can have on the human mind. Lewis’s essential point in “On Stories” is that the purpose of reading a story is not to have an emotional reaction – excitement, for example – but to isolate the emotional reaction itself and recognize it as rife with imaginative potential. We should not fear death: we should imagine what the fear of death means for life. Only stories can provide this enchanting distance, and the essay breathes in the air of Tolkien’s On Fairy Stories, an essay which Lewis deeply appreciates and alludes to frequently in many of his own works.

I have an abiding fondness for Romanticism, but am sensible of the critique that Romantic ways of thinking can sometimes muddle the imagination. We must “inquire into facts,” as a fictional naysayer critiquing MacDonald’s perspective on imagination points out, but what Lewis makes clear in his toolshed meditation is that you cannot meditate on facts, let alone upon Truth, without an enriched imagination. Lewis brings together what is often in direct opposition for many people: a rigorous analytical process of thinking with an enraptured experience of wonder at the realities about which one thinks. The philosopher is worried that the poet might sweep us all away into sweet nothings at best and destructive falsehoods at worst, and the poet is worried that the philosopher will render us into nothing more than rationalistic and empirical events in a coldly objective world. Lewis, most poetic of philosophers, knew with a rare clarity of imagination that the height of poetic feeling could be found in the most careful of intellectual thought, and that robust rational effort was necessary to nourish a lively and Romantic experience of real meaning. The warmth of Lewis’s imagination came from its clarity of thought, from his ability to think crisply and carefully about both the mundane and the mysterious. That is the glorious weight of the divine imagine Lewis believed we all carry in the secret halls of our minds and that calls to us when we see wonder in the sacred book of creation within which all of our stories live, move, and have their being.

I remember once playing the videogame, Spyro the Dragon, and had an uncharacteristically cynical thought: well, after all, this dragon is just an abstraction we came up with from seeing a lizard, a bat, a dog, a fire…. And then I laughed. For what wondrous imagination it would take to conceive of a lizard, a bat, a dog, or fire – none of which is as complex as a mind which could consider or invent such things! That is the enchanting distance of story, as Lewis saw it, which reminds us to have joy in the creation of which we are a part. I can think of no better way to conclude this consideration of Lewis’s philosophy of imagination than with a joyful prayer – for even Lewis saw himself as a ruddy-cheeked, loud-voiced announcer of jovial wonder.

For Joy in God’s Creation. – 1928 Book of Common Prayer

O HEAVENLY Father, who hast filled the world with beauty; Open, we beseech thee, our eyes to behold thy gracious hand in all thy works; that rejoicing in thy whole creation, we may learn to serve thee with gladness; for the sake of him by whom all things were made, thy Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

 

Warmth of Imagination: In Memory of C.S. Lewis, d. Nov 22, 1963

I can measure the epochs of my life in C.S. Lewis books. His refined quality of thoughtful expression, his talent for both arguments and stories of incredible profundity mixed with an ease of access, his well-meaning sarcasm and the general warmth of his paternal tone – even more than Tolkien, who is the finer storyteller, C.S. Lewis is the father of my longing for imagination, both metaphysical and literary. As an English major in my undergraduate years, I desired writers who combined philosophical acuity with enchanting narrative, and so my love for Boethius’s Consolation was immediate and riveting. But in retrospect, I realize it was a taste for Lewisian thought that had whetted my intellectual and aesthetic appetites in a way that made Boethius so fitting – no surprise, given the esteem in which Lewis held Boethius. I thought that today, in memory of his deathday, I would mention a few of how the titles by Lewis show up in my readerly autobiography.

The Chronicles of Narnia – I wrote in a previous blog about the garage sale man who had sold his literary gold to my mother when I was eleven years old. That summer, I read the entirety of the Chronicles in two weeks, and I consider that the moment in which I was made pointedly aware of an agonizing perception of beauty that lay behind the senses. Finishing The Last Battle and walking around the apartment grounds in Amherst, I felt as though I could see, hear, and smell that deeper layer of which the Professor spoke – the enrapturing and enfolding embrace of Providence.

Mere Christianity – I read Mere Christianity in Middle School, and had for the first time the most explicit experience of reading the mirror of my own thoughts, better articulated, voiced in the rich language of a far wiser mind that always has the effect of leading readers deeper into intellectual subjects. His thoughts were expressed so clearly, lucidly, and compellingly, it was less like considering an argument and more like discovering that an argument had been tailor made for me – I could slip into it and wear it comfortably around the house or take it to dinner parties and formal occasions (not that I was going to any in Middle School) just as well.

Out of the Silent Planet – Somewhat later than Mere Christianity but still in Middle School, I was assigned Out of the Silent Planet. I remember having a discussion with my math teacher about this book – she had tried to read it and couldn’t get into it. I found this troubling, and I think that moment was part of what began my desire to understand aesthetic reactions, or my own at least, well enough to articulate why I was having the pleasant or unpleasant reaction to a particular story.

The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man – It had been a while since I had read any new Lewis, although I had revisited some of his other works I had read. But during my Master’s program, I was growing weary of certain aspects of academic discourse – particularly the postmodernism, the delight in uncertainty and in undercutting traditional modes of thought, which have in certain ways real value but which can leave one cold when trying to construct a satisfying account of meaning. I don’t mean to say that was what all of my professors were pushing or upholding, but that it was a strong enough subtext that it was proving tiresome to me. I had also not been reading as much in the way of theology, since I was in the midst of my lengthy fall away from the perspective of a certain denomination which had told me not to read CS Lewis anymore (a directive I had never followed). As I began to long for something sustaining, I remembered the profound effects Lewis had had on me when I was younger. By chance I reached for The Great Divorce and The Abolition of Man – and, to my surprise then though not so much now, Lewis gave me precisely the comfort I sought. I remember in particular the narrator of The Great Divorce noting that questions, like thirst, can be reasonably assumed to have something in reality which satisfies them, and Lewis’s deft social critique of our habit of mocking the source of virtue while being surprised at how vicious we act. I felt edified, nourished by these thoughts, and my love for Lewis was reawakening. Doubtful as I was of the Trinity, however, I pulled back from Lewis, hesitant to leap into another theological foray into debates about the divinity of Christ.

The Problem of Pain, A Grief Observed and Til We Have Faces – I was finishing my Master’s thesis when I found, unexpectedly, that my relationship with my fiancée was over. I was broken hearted and unable to focus or find my way forward, and my mother kindly offered to pay for me to go on a retreat, at a little hideaway overseen by a nunnery. I brought with me these books, figuring that Lewis, who had so guided me in times of confusion, perhaps could comfort me now in what was at the time the sharpest pain of my life. I wept and confronted my grief as I read through The Problem of Pain and A Grief Observed, and confronted (as much as one can in a single attempt) how my own broken perspective on love and relationships had colored my own experience in Til We Have Faces.

Pilgrim’s Regress, The Space Trilogy, Surprised by Joy – In different ways, all three of these books (or sets of books) are about a restoration of faith. I didn’t know that, and yet I picked them up during the months after my conversion to Anglicanism in 2010. It was some kind of bizarre prophecy – I could see my own intellectual journey, albeit with its own idiosyncrasies, reflected in the struggling theological imagination of Lewis in Pilgrim’s Regress. I had just happened to have awakened to the theistic philosophy of George Berkeley, and could see Berkeley’s metaphysics acting as a sort of organizing beacon of light around which Lewis’s aesthetics of return to the Church had been designed. Although I had read Out of the Silent Planet, I had not yet read Perelandra or That Hideous Strength, and finally plunged in – and there I found myself again seeing the marriage of philosophy with narrative that I had always longed to experience. In Surprised by Joy I found Lewis, in explaining his own journey back to his ecclesiastical home, the cipher for how his voice was guiding my own meditations. I had avoided considering Anglicanism for some time because I knew my admiration for Lewis would make it seem as if I had converted merely for appreciating him – but I realized then that the reason why Lewis appealed to me so deeply was because his thought was fundamentally Anglican, and as such fit into the same grooves of where psychology, personality, and aesthetic inclinations meet that I had been discovering in myself. Lewis had not turned me Anglican: he had given me a mirror to see myself and a table at which to learn my tastes, and of all the writers who I have ever read I feel an intimate connection to his experience of God’s love.

The floodgates had opened, and I was reading everything by Lewis I could get my hands on: God in the Dock, The Seeing Eye, Miracles, The Four Loves, Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, and The Weight of Glory. I became sensible of the fact, too, that since Lewis was a professor of English, a medievalist and Renaissance scholar, that since I shared his profession I ought to read his academic work. Studies in Words, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama, Spenser’s Images of Life – I delighted in finding my personal mentor at professional work, and then I rediscovered The Allegory of Love. I had read some bits of it in my undergraduate degree, but came to it with a newfound appreciation both of the material he was discussing and of my own need to forge an identity in my academic endeavors. As I reread The Allegory of Love I began to see more clearly just what my dissertation would be about, and I realized that Lewis’s desire to foster public intellectual discourse and to fight against the abolition of man, to reawaken imaginations to the wonder of the human experience of language and glimpses of divine love, was part and parcel with the project of literary interpretation of philosophical and psychological problems that so compelled me. In the world of ideas, which can feel so cold – usually unintentionally, but sometimes, I think, quite intentionally – Lewis casts a warming fire of imagination that melts away the snows of indifference and disappointment every time I reach for his beautiful pages.

I offer this prayer of thanks to the Lord, drawn from the Book of Common Prayer in which Lewis found so much devotional power, for the marvelous means of grace which the work, thought, and deep warmth of Lewis has provided in my own life:

We bless thy holy Name for all thy servants departed this life in thy faith and fear; beseeching thee to grant them continual growth in thy love and service, and to give us grace so to follow their good examples, that with them we may be partakers of thy heavenly kingdom. Grant this, O Father, for Jesus Christ’s sake, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.

Silent Musings

People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never shared
And no one dared… disturb the sound of silence.

An old man sat under the shade of a tree by the riverbank, his knotted hands dancing on the strings of a beaten, worn guitar that he had played under that tree for more summer days than he could remember. His fingers danced and the strings sang, and his eyes wandered with passersby as they walked over the bridge past his house and bustled into the little town. He sang a simple song, a song about the blueness of blue skies and shadows scattered by tall grass blowing in an easy breeze, a song about hard work in the day and rest in the cool air of evening, a song about the melody of the song to which these things were set. Life is a song, and to sing about life is to sing about the river of all music.

“Still breaking the silence, old bard?” asked a voice with wearied disdain.

The old man kept strumming his guitar and didn’t draw his breath short on the last note of his song. He kept strumming as he replied. “Silence is an illusion, old spirit. No one who listens could ever believe in silence.”

The voice cackled. “Still listening for the Muse too, I wager. We have music too, you know. The Architect doesn’t hate all music.  Just the music that forgets the earth.”

The old man watched a young boy upstream land his fish line in the water. “The Muse could never forget earth. But when the music of the earth forgets her true song, then it becomes a violent silence and hurts the ears of those who make it more than the minds of those who listen. You make yourself deaf to the Muse with the noise you call music.”

A rhythmic percussion began to follow the guitar’s dancing strings, and the old man looked to see that his visitor had begun to play his drum.

“Whatever our theories, old bard, when we play together, we still make one melody,” he said with a sneer.

“That is actually my point,” said the old man, “not yours.”

The notes from the guitar lifted from the strings, and little flashes of light seem to gleam between their vibrating shivers and the floating motions of his heavy fingers. Between the skin of the drum and the sharp palm of the old man came little puffs of smoke. Da daladala ding dalalalalading, the strings were singing, and tumtum tadadadatum, the drum was dancing, and the sounds mixed and carried over the stream. The little boy fishing up stream began to notice their song and reeled in his line, and came over and sat down across from them on the other side of the river. He watched with big, dark brown eyes, his white teeth flashing in a smile stark against his dark skin.

Tumdatumdalatumdadingtum and the music played, and the flashes of light and the wisps of cloud began to grow as the sound grew and the strength of their music began to make a vision.

“We’re both bards, old spirit,” said the old man. “The lad can’t tell the difference, y’see?”

“I sing for silence and you sing for the Muse, old bard. We’re the same the way a cloud shaped like a man is the same as a man. The earth is real and the air longs to be real. The Muse is a wish to make air more real than earth, but such a wish is vanity.”

“Vanity, and striving after the wind,” said the old man with a laugh, and again he began to sing.

The power of his song met the flash of strings and the smoke of the drum, and billowing out now between the two figures was a cloud of bright and swirling mist in which the shapes of dreams were moving like a carousel, little men and little beasts moving in the likeness of living creatures, sparks of the music of the old man and the old spirit.

There were men who rode upon tigers and men who rode upon dragons, and in the field of smoke and light they clashed with mighty voices, for the tigers struck with fire in their claws and the dragons struck with lightning. And from their battle new shapes were born, the eagles and the ravens who drew up and away and shrieked at the battle below. But a deeper motion disturbed the earth of fire and smoke, for the sound of battle and the noise of those airy beasts had awoken a darksome sleeper, who began to shake all things. All rumbled and roared and shook and shattered, and at last in the horizon of the sky of the song-world a bright trumpet sounded out, and like a rising sun a melody burst from the burning clouds. Then she could be seen, her eyes ice blue and her hair like ropes of fire, and she was saying, “None shall unmake the music, for I shall send it out and you shall hear it and sing it back, and no melody shall be unreturned to its maker.”

There was a flash and for a moment the river and the tree, the old man and the old spirit, and the young boy, were lost in a white haze. Then sight returned, and their music was ended.

“Come here, boy,” said the visitor, his long teeth flashing in his grin. The boy obeyed, climbing onto the rail of the bridge and scurrying across with no concern for balance. Dust moved at his feet as he came and sat cross-legged before them.

“How did you do that?” he asked. “How did you make the music visible?”

The old man and the old spirit laughed and looked at each other.

“Well,” said the old spirit, “it is my belief that the music is an illusion, that the one truth is the silence of the earth. We can see the music because it is not music at all, but can be made still in pictures and images because it is made of air that steals the earth. Music is the wind’s parody of the silent land.”

The old man leaned his guitar against the tree. “What do you think, lad?”

The boy shook his head. “How could the music be an illusion of earth? It seems nothing like earth to me.”

The old spirit sighed and nodded. “That is to be expected. What is air but earth broken and scattered? What is the sea but earth unsettled and flowing back to its true home?” He began to tap a slow, measured beat upon the surface of the drum. “Music is a noise that longs for silence, and silence is from the earth. Because it mirrors the silence of the earth, music appears to prove that air has something to offer which earth does not. But what earth offers is greater than music. It offers the silence to which music points.

Confusion crossed the boy’s face, and a kind of understanding mixed with the confusion. “I guess I see what you mean. I don’t know if I can argue against it. But it still seems otherwise.” He looked at the old man. “What do you say?”

The old man smiled and picked up the guitar into his hand. “I say that music is the gift of fire from the Muse, and that fire is not earth or air or sea.” He began to strum the guitar and matched the pace of the old spirit’s drumbeat. “Some sounds, some melodies, break upon the soul in such total immersion that it overwhelms us in a kind of stillness that is silence become music, whereas the earth’s silence is merely able to become music. For even beyond fire there is something still greater, and that is the Voice who gave order to the Muse, mother of all flame. The silence of chaos completed in its course may seem like the silence of order given life in our ears, but that is the image of a finished work that one can glimpse even in an empty sheet of music. There can be no music without the stillness of earth, it is true, but stillness alone is death. Life is in the fire of the Voice, and cannot come from earth, or air, or sea.”

His final word ended with his final stroke upon the string of his guitar, and in time with the final beat upon the drum of the old spirit. Silence surrounded them, and they could hear the river washing itself out to the shore and the evening creatures beginning to chirp and stir. The bustle of the village was quieting and the loud trumpet of the sunlit sky was softening for the quiet clarions of starlight. The boy pondered what the old man and the old spirit had said as he looked and gazed upon the forest and the road that cut through it, away from their small village and on to other lands.

Suddenly the old man stood, and looked at his visitor. “It is time, isn’t it?”

The old spirit nodded, and something of his sarcastic poise seem to soften. “It is, old friend.”

“Then we must go,” he said, “but first I must speak with the young angler alone.”

The spirit also stood, though his feet scarcely stirred the grass at his feet as he lifted his white drum and slung it against his back. “Very well. I’ll be waiting for you just up the road. I’ll take you as far as I can, and then I will leave you to find out for yourself if the Muse still sings.”

Gently, like a cloud on a soft breeze, the old spirit went away, the scent of fresh tilled soil on his breath as he sang of rainstorms on wild fields.

The old man walked to the boy, guitar in hand. “Lad, do you ever catch fish in this river?”

“Sometimes,” said the boy,” but not today.”

Nodding, the old man bent down. “Play this guitar before you fish. If you play with a gentle heart, you will always find a lively tug on the hook. But when you play for men, play with fire in your heart and truth in your mind, for they cannot hear peace without a struggle.”

He stood up and turned to walk away.

“But wait,” said the boy.

“Yes?”

“How will you play music without your guitar?” The boy gazed down at the frets and strings and woodwork of the guitar’s body, realizing he had never played any music before.

“I am going to a country where music can be played on the winds and mountains by the joy of many hands,” said the old man, “though my friend, the old spirit, does not believe me.”

“How can a spirit not believe in such a place, but you can?”

“The sounds of silence have left him confused, but I think the Muse still calls him her child. We will see in the harvests of time if I am right.”

“I do not know how to play,” said the boy.

The old man looked at him and nodded. “Neither do I, and so I let my hands play for me, for they know the music when I forget it.”

So he walked from the boy towards the forest and the road to other lands, and his hands were still within his pockets, but he whistled long and low as he walked. In the distance and the softening light of twilight, it seemed to the boy that the old bard was growing larger and smaller, moving faster than the earth but slower in his own pace, and he could see a golden light in the old man’s body as he joined in the dark horizon the smoky and pale figure of the old spirit, like two men walking into another story.

The boy looked at the guitar in his hand, and as he felt the strings with his fingers, it seemed that some melody stirred in the grass and over the river’s waters. He stood up, turned, and walked onto the bridge that spanned the river. At its middle, suddenly, he saw a figure dressed in blue, with long blond hair framing green eyes. She smiled.

“Are you the Muse?” he asked.

“No, I am not her,” she said, “I am a young spirit, only thirty-three and one thousand years have I listened to the Muse. But I saw you with him and with the old spirit. You must be the new Bard, I am sure of it.”

“New Bard?” His dark eyes widened. “But I do not know how to play.”

She took his hand and smiled with a kind laugh. “I do. I will teach you.”

They walked then into the darkening night of the village, and the soft sounds of laughter and song disturbed no dreaming sleepers as they passed by.

8/6/2017

The Unnumbered Seal

By right of his dark whimsy
He cuts down through fields
Where final threshing announces
As white sudden wastes of signs
Telling what was left ahead
Was found behind hidden light
Straying into icy floods alone
Naked shards of ice flash slow
Above where trumpets sound.

He cuts through dark fields
where he darkly announces signs
Of the white sudden whimsy of naked ice
Lit by hidden light that strays behind
The flashing floods that shake beside
Left behind what was written before
Together Isolation and Solitude stand
Where by right of their telling
Below crash the trumpet sounds.

Above it naked straying where
Lit by the crashing ice flashing he
With the lights shimmering in the
Hidden dark of the flooding fields
Cuts between their hands before
They touched above the place of a song
For the signs were growing heavy
There where the glow began
Trumpets announcing all around.

4/17/2017

Boethius: Philosopher of the Imagination

Acolyte (noun): A. A person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. B. An assistant, follower, or disciple. [Pronounced ake-lite]

Boethian (adjective): Pertaining to the philosophical thought of Boethius. [Pronounced Bo-eth-ius]

Who the heck is Boethius, and why do I cheekily claim to be his acolyte? Hopefully this post will shed some light on these mysteries that have doubtlessly plagued you for so long.

“Boethius” isn’t a name that has recognition among most people today who aren’t medievalists, but you can’t hardly spend five minutes at an academic medieval conference without hearing his name. Even if you’ve never read Dante (author of the Divine Comedy), Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales), C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia), or J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Rings), all of these writers held in common a deep appreciation for Boethius and even regarded him as a model for various aspects of their imaginative creations. The Old English King Alfred and Queen Elizabeth the First both translated him from Latin into the English of their periods, and in fact, in the medieval period, Boethius was used exactly how I use him in my classroom: as a framework for interpreting literature.

The life of Boethius occurred during the failing days of the Roman Empire. In the year 410, Rome had been sacked by Visigoths, and this precipitated Rome extracting their military occupation from England. When Boethius was born in the year 480, his homeland of Italy was under the rule of the Gothic warlord King Odoacer, so Roman political power had already significantly diminished. In 493, when Boethius was a young teenager and being educated to be a senator by his aristocratic stepfather, the Ostrogothic warlord King Theodoric killed Odoacer with a sword to the stomach while the two leaders were having dinner together. Boethius would live the rest of his life with Theodoric as his king, which would turn out to be bad both for Boethius’s and Theodoric’s health.

Even though Theodoric was an Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe that had migrated from the northern territories, he appreciated Roman culture and recognized the talent and influence of Boethius. In another post I discuss the basics of the liberal arts philosophy; Boethius was a primary figure in establishing what the liberal arts education would actually look like in the classroom. There were seven fundamental liberal arts. The first three arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, were referred to as the trivium, because as the comprehensive arts of language, learning all three was necessary for further education. Grammar taught correct use of language; logic taught how to order language for sound reasoning, and rhetoric taught how to make good grammatical and logical language persuasive to specific audiences. The next four arts were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Arithmetic was more than the basic subject we think of it now – it was the philosophy of number, and music was the philosophy of number expressed through time. Geometry was the art of studying number expressed through space, and astronomy was the art of studying number expressed through both space and time. So although it certainly involved studying the movements of the heavens, astronomy was a precursor of what we would call physics today. Boethius and his friend Cassiodorus were not only trained to the limits of the knowledge in those disciplines in Rome, but wanted to expand that knowledge further, especially by translating and commenting on liberal arts works found in Greek. Boethius wrote treatises on all three arts of the trivium, including a commentary on Aristotle’s On interpretation that concerned the interpretation of language signs, Aristotle’s and other Greek writers’ works on logic, and contributed original thought to rhetoric in the field of what was called topical argumentation, which was the discovery of the best approach of discussion for a given subject matter. Boethius also wrote a treatise on arithmetic and one on music, the second called On the Fundamentals of Music. We know from letters by Cassiodorus that Boethius had written a textbook on geometry, though unfortunately that was lost. And though there is no indication that Boethius wrote on astronomy, many things he says in The Consolation of Philosophy and other books suggest that he had studied the art carefully. In the liberal arts viewpoint, the different arts were not just separate boxes of knowledge about unrelated subject matter – they believed that the arts needed to be distinguished so that they could be studied clearly, but studying first the trivium, the arts of thought and communication, and then the quadrivium, the arts of conceiving order in the world around you, were necessary stages to learn before entering into larger fields of inquiry such as theology or practical efforts such as politics. The academic life of the mind was designed to prepare you for the public life of action. Boethius followed this path, even though he didn’t really want to be a politician, but his parents, who died when he was young, were aristocratic, and his stepfather Symmachus was also a public figure who had been preparing Boethius for the public life from the moment he adopted him. Symmachus loved Boethius enough that he even had Boethius marry his own daughter, with whom Boethius would have two sons.

In addition to his liberal arts textbooks and scholarship, Boethius had written five theological tracts, two on the Trinity, one on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, one on the relationship of God’s goodness to the goodness of the world, and a final that was a basic statement of Christian faith. We can see here Boethius working to understand the relationship of philosophy and theology, and his conviction that philosophy could help people to better understand complicated aspects of theological doctrine. In Boethius’s view, when trained by the liberal arts, philosophical inquiry could be seen as bringing structural clarity to the revelations of Scripture, a view he had learned from reading the Church Father Augustine. But his theological beliefs was a source of political discomfort, because his king, Theodoric, was an Arian, as most of the Gothic tribes were, which means they rejected the Trinitiarian theology of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, believing that Jesus was not fully divine. But despite their theological differences and the tension in Theodoric, as an outsider, ruling over a people which Boethius had been born into the ruling class of, Boethius still accepted Theodoric’s offer to try and build a better Italy, one where both Romans and Goths could be educated and civilized. In 511, Theodoric made Boethius the consul of Rome, and in this role Boethius made himself some enemies among other Roman senators, because he defended farmers and other laborers from high taxes and unjust political persecution. Theodoric used Boethius to investigate a case of counterfeited coins, asked him to handpick a harpist to send as a token of good will to the Emperor in the East, and even called on his skill as a clock maker (both sundials and water clocks) for political purposes. Theodoric was essentially using Boethius both as an ambassador to keep up good relations with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and as a cultural figurehead to reconcile Romans and Goths living in Italy. He made this position official in 522, when he named Boethius the Master of Offices, the highest honor Theodoric could have given him, a position which gave Boethius tremendous authority to promote his project of studying, preserving, and teaching Roman culture and expanding it with Greek learning. That same year, Theodoric further honored Boethius by making both of his sons consul of Rome. Favored by king and country alike, Boethius had become something of a celebrity – but as we know all too well today, that isn’t necessarily such a good thing.

A senator named Albinus, one of Boethius’s friends, was accused of a treasonous plot to overthrow the King and bring the Eastern emperor’s rule back to Italy. Boethius, in a misplaced but loyal act of rhetorical flourish, testified that if Albinus was guilty, then even he could be accused and so could the senate – the point being of course that such a charge was preposterous. This verbal gaffe was Boethius’s undoing. Immediately his political enemies, bitter over the obstacle he had been as consul to their agendas, came out of the woodwork and accused Boethius of treason – ironically using as evidence his role as an ambassador, which Theodoric had assigned him to, as a sign of his treason. They threw every charge at him they possibly could – they even resorted to accusing him of practicing magic, a standard charge levied against intellectuals cloistered away in libraries reading old books. Of course, Boethius thought the charge preposterous enough that we find him joking about it in The Consolation of Philosophy. In spite of his own feelings about it, though, Boethius’s commitment to Trinitarian theology, his nostalgic affection for all things Roman, and the prospective danger he posed if he should set himself against the king, as popular as he was, proved enough incentive to kindle the spark of Theodoric’s royal jealousy into an inferno. Even though he refused to confess his guilt when subjected to the torture of having a rope tied around his face to the point that his eyes are described by Roman historians as bulging out, Boethius was stripped of his political power and thrown in prison without so much as a trial.

With a single gust of political wind, Boethius went from star of the show to a cast aside political pawn. As he sat in his jail cell, reflecting on his commitment to the welfare of the very kingdom that had so unjustly treated him, upon his commitment to a supposedly loving God who had allowed him to be the victim of such obvious injustice, and especially his dedication to the liberal arts education that had fueled both of those commitments and led to this unhappy imprisonment, Boethius was thrown into a true dark night of the soul. His freedom, his political influence, his access to his family, his plans for contributing to the Roman intellectual tradition – all of it was taken away in what seemed like a stroke of bad luck. How could life be so capricious? He certainly would have been justified to simply mourn his fate in his cell, or to perhaps pen an angry invective against his wrongdoers. Instead, Boethius drew upon the worldview he had been building his whole life, and funneled the sum of his liberal arts education, his theological insights, and his political experience to write The Consolation of Philosophy, unquestionably the masterpiece of the sixth century and one of the finest pieces of literature in the period of late antiquity. To produce such a work in the face of such adversity strikes me as a life well lived.

Shortly after Boethius completed The Consolation of Philosophy, sometime in 524 or 525, he was executed by King Theodoric. Because his political fears were motivated by paranoia about a Trinitarian plot to reunite the Western and Eastern Churches, Theodoric’s killing of Boethius is often interpreted as, to some extent, an example of religious persecution. Naturally, after Boethius was killed, Theodoric’s paranoia only exploded – because after all, he had just had killed Rome’s favorite son right before Rome’s eyes, a bloody execution at thirty strokes of the sword. So he went on a rampage, taking down Boethius’s stepfather Symmachus, as well as Pope John the First, probably the person for whom Boethius had written his theological writings for. This shocked writers of the day in the East like Procopius, who had enormous respect for Boethius, and harmed relationships between Theodoric and the Eastern Byzantian empire. A year or two after Boethius died, Theodoric himself died during a massive bout of diarrhea. Perhaps he was being given the same divine affliction that killed Arius, the founder of his Arian beliefs, or more likely Theodoric’s political enemies had finally caught up with him, poisoning him to avenge people like Boethius who had died in the wake of his unhinged paranoia.

The Consolation of Philosophy thus became a favorite text for people subjected to religious or political persecution, and it also became popular with monarchs who wished to distinguish themselves as good – sort of like hey, we read Boethius, so we’re good kings – not like that Theodoric fellow! It’s a challenging text to read, all the more impressive when we consider the physically uncomfortable and mentally distressing circumstances under which Boethius wrote the Consolation, because he didn’t know at the time whether he would be imprisoned for life, exiled, or executed. Writing in the carefully trained Latin of a Roman liberal arts philosopher, Boethius designed the text as a prosimetrum, which is a piece of writing that alternates between prose and poetry. If you read The Hobbit, for example, that book is also a prosimetrum because when its characters recite poetry, the story shifts from regular prose into poetry. Boethius’s Consolation is unusual because of how strict its prosimetric style is: there are 39 passages of prose and 39 passages of poetry, one after the other. This structure is important to pay attention to because it is significant for Boethius’s understanding of literature, which is one of the things we are trying to understand this. Notice that most of the poems are dialogue, which means they are a response of a character to a situation or to another character. The first book begins with poetry; books two through four all begin in prose and end in poetry, while the fifth and final book begins and ends in prose. It’s also important to think about whose voice we are supposed to imagine when each prose or poetry section is under way, and with the poetry in particular. The Consolation is mostly a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of the subject he had studied and valued for most of his life. We begin with imagining Boethius writing a poem, and then Lady Philosophy stops him from writing and has her speak with him – although this conversation will of course actually happen in the real Boethius’s writing. She recites 35 of the other 39 poems; of the remaining three, one will be a description of the narrator telling the reader about his mental state when he first interacts with Lady Philosophy, and the other two will be Boethius’s attempts to express his distress to her as they discuss difficult concepts like political injustice and the relationship between God’s knowledge and free will.

Even though this is a philosophical text, it’s one that is highly imaginative – Lady Philosophy is a personification, which is a product of imagination, since of course philosophy is not a strikingly beautiful woman who can sing, play music, and talk about how beautiful nature is. She has a depth of personality even while she represents her intellectual namesake, and she will even create a personification of Lady Fortune. She invites Boethius to use his imagination in relationship to historical figures, philosophical concepts, and his own circumstances, and in particular seems to disapprove of the use of imagination we see in his initial poem. This means that the poetry she recites is, in a sense, poetry approved by the philosophical imagination, or another way to put it: her poetry is an example of the type of imagination which Boethius the author thinks is appropriate to being philosophical, which is why Lady Philosophy recites them to the distressed prisoner. Boethius is a master of the philosophical poetic mode, and is a cornerstone figure to contemplate how literature and philosophy can speak to each other, and so speak all the more powerfully to us. That’s why I think he deserves at least one acolyte, performing the ceremony of philosophical imagination necessary to open a window into his life and thought.

This is a partial transcript, with some alterations, of a lecture I gave on Boethius’s life and his final work, The Consolation of Philosophy. The recorded version of the lecture is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TBld9QYgtdE&index=2&list=PLYki0VzvSlPaRDk6tJfUxMRv4_jULLFyn