Tolkien, Boethius, Music

My latest YouTube video flows out of the “Tolkien Among the Theologians” digital symposium in which I participated this past weekend, exploring music as an interaction with, reflection of, aspect of the order of the cosmos, starting with The Silmarillion and closing with the hymn “This Is My Father’s World” — which, if you’ve been around this blog long enough, you ‘ll know, I love.


Reading Boethius at age 38

Wheel! Of! Fortune!
Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Fr. 809, fol. 40r (15th c.).

Two nights ago, I sat reading at the top of the stairs within earshot of my sons’ room. I was ready to lay down the law if the goblins weren’t keeping quiet. I did — some stern words were uttered. Silence reigned. If they don’t get enough sleep, they are increasingly unmanageable. As I sat uncomfortable and only able to half listen, I was reading The Old English Boethius.

Sort of appropriate.

I’m not comparing completely normal parenting woes to being imprisoned on suspicion of treason by King Theoderic the Great (which was Boethius’ situation when he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy). But the underlying theme of the Consolation is that age-old question: Why do bad things happen to good people? Why do the wicked prosper? This question is the cry at the heart of Boethius the character as he engages in conversation with Wisdom/Philosophia, a cry stretching back at least to the book of Psalms. Psalm 73:1-15:

TRULY God is loving unto Israel : even unto such as are of a clean heart.
2. Nevertheless, my feet were almost gone : my treadings had well-nigh slipt.
3. And why? I was grieved at the wicked : I do also see the ungodly in such prosperity.
4. For they are in no peril of death : but are lusty and strong.
5. They come in no misfortune like other folk : neither are they plagued like other men.
6. And this is the cause that they are so holden with pride : and overwhelmed with cruelty.
7. Their eyes swell with fatness : and they do even what they lust.
8. They corrupt other, and speak of wicked blasphemy : their talking is against the most High.
9. For they stretch forth their mouth unto the heaven : and their tongue goeth through the world.
10. Therefore fall the people unto them : and thereout suck they no small advantage.
11. Tush, say they, how should God perceive it : is there knowledge in the most High?
12. Lo, these are the ungodly, these prosper in the world, and these have riches in possession : and I said, Then have I cleansed my heart in vain, and washed mine hands in innocency.
13. All the day long have I been punished : and chastened every morning.
14. Yea, and I had almost said even as they : but lo, then I should have condemned the generation of thy children.
15. Then thought I to understand this : but it was too hard for me,

1662 BCP/Coverdale

When I first read Boethius’ Consolatio I was 20 or 21 (I think). I typically have two books on the go for leisure reading — something fictional and something Christian. I recall at the time having a conversation with the friend who first mentioned Boethius to me that it didn’t really feel very Christian to me, and certainly not as “helpful” as my then-standard fare (I honestly can’t remember what Christian books I read in undergrad besides CS Lewis stuff, Bonhoeffer’s Christology, and Ridenour’s How to Be a Christian without Being Religious).

Maybe I just hadn’t suffered enough. Now, round three through Boethius, I find his concerns eminently relatable and the teaching of Wisdom (in OE, rather than Philosophia in Latin) something of a balm. Being parents has not always been easy on my wife and me. I was unemployed for a year within recent memory. I never landed the academic job I wanted. I am actually mostly between jobs just now.

This list is not exhaustive.

I am, 18 or so years on from first reading Boethius, in a place where reading the modern English translation of the Old English translation of the Consolation of Philosophy is blessing me. As I sit in the midst of uncertainty with various troubles besetting my world, I am called to consider what are those goods that endure.

Position? Influence? Power? Money?

Pat Sajak spins the wheel, and you fall from these at the snap of Wyrd’s fingers (Wyrd, or Fate, takes Fortuna’s place in Old English).

Wisdom calls us to a different life, and not just the life of the mind, not just the life of reason (although he certainly does this). The Old English Boethius makes explicit the moral and ethical demands Wisdom makes upon those who would pursue him, demands implicit in the original in its discussion of Philosophia.

And what do you enjoy if you pursue and hold tight to wisdom?

Therefore the wise always lead
an untroubled life without change,
when they renounce all earthly good
and also remain untroubled by those evils,
looking for the eternal things which come afterward.
Then almighty God keeps him
in every way perpetually
continuing in his mind’s own
blessings through the grace of the creator,
though the wind of worldly troubles
may greatly afflict him and care may constantly
hinder him when the wind of worldly fortunes
blows cruelly and fiercely on him,
and though the distraction of these worldly fortunes
may always terribly afflict him.

The Old English Boethius, trans. Irvine and Godden, Meter 7, ll. 40-54, p. 65.

I find this more comforting in the midst of worldly trouble than people quoting Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. [NIV]), because I think, “Well, the Lord’s plans for Russia in 1917 included Bolshevism, and his plans for Cranmer, Latimer, and Ridley involved being burned at the stake.”

But the Christian philosophy of Boethius, drawing on the best ideas of Aristotle and Augustine, knows such realities all too well. Thus, he doesn’t and cannot look to a “better future” unless that future is rooted in his own inner man, his own conduct, his own mind. And that is where hope and consolation are to be found.

Boethius aligns well with the Psalmist. And so I close with the final verses of Psalm 73:

20. Thus my heart was grieved : and it went even through my reins.
21. So foolish was I, and ignorant : even as it were a beast before thee.
22. Nevertheless, I am alway by thee : for thou hast holden me by my right hand.
23. Thou shalt guide me with thy counsel : and after that receive me with glory.
24. Whom have I in heaven but thee : and there is none upon earth that I desire in comparison of thee.
25. My flesh and my heart faileth : but God is the strength of my heart, and my portion for ever.
26. For lo, they that forsake thee shall perish : thou hast destroyed all them that commit fornication against thee.
27. But it is good for me to hold me fast by God, to put my trust in the Lord God : and to speak of all thy works in the gates of the daughter of Sion.

1662 BCP/Coverdale

Boethius on divinity and happiness

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy 3.10:

Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation. (Trans. V.E. Watts)

Boethius (or, rather, Philosophy) goes on to argue that happinessgoodness, so you are not truly happy unless you are truly good. This is part of the argument that only God, the Supreme Good, is ultimately happy. That’s a necessary piece of context. (For more context, read my review.) It’s important, because if committing murder or lying to people or stealing make you have feelings you call ‘happy’, this does not mean you are participating in divinity. In fact, according to Boethius, you wouldn’t be happy at all because evil is itself a tendency towards non-existence.

Upon reading this passage, those of us who spend time with the Eastern Orthodox will immediately cry aloud, ‘Ah, theosis!’ And, indeed, it is part of what is going on here, part of the passage from praktike to theoria symbolised by Philosophy’s gown as she stands before the senator in his prison cell. Of these latter two words, theoria is usually Englished as contemplation. So we are back in our sixth-century contemplative context, a few decades before Gregory the Great and Augustine of Canterbury.

This, I would argue, is the philosophical basis of Christian mysticism. God is good. To be truly happy, one must be good. God is wholly good, so he is perfectly happy. Therefore, for us to become happy, we have to connect with God and have communion with Him.

Saint of the Week: King Alfred the Great

Alfred the Great in Winchester (my photo)

Throughout history, many monarchs of one sort or another have gained the appellation ‘the Great’ — Alexander the Great, Charlemagne (who assumed ‘the Great’ into his name!), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and, in some circles, Constantine the Great (the only other monarch to have been saint of the week).

What makes Alfred, King of Wessex (lived 849-899, reigned 871-899) great? Well, he drove a Viking army into the Danelaw and got their ruler to convert to Christianity and settle down. He also kept the Vikings out of England. He united the various English kingdoms under his rule. He established a system of burhs, fortified towns throughout his kingdom where all ablebodied men learned archery for the defence of England from Vikings. He started the famous Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

All of these things and more make Alfred a great king. And, certainly, striving to be good at your earthly calling is part of being a Christian, whether monarch or missionary, clerk or cleric, artist or apostle. But, fascinating as these parts of the Life of King Alfred are, they are not what made King Alfred, who is commemorated tomorrow, this week’s saint.

As famously related by Asser, King Alfred when a young boy did not know how to read or write, but spent his hours listening to the songs and tales of the Anglo-Saxon tongue in the court at Winchester. When he was twelve (I believe), his mother made a contest between him and his brothers, that whoever could memorise a book of poems could keep it. Alfred did so.

Although he undoubtedly learned the Anglo-Saxon tongue shortly thereafter, he did not come to his knowledge of the Latin language until 30 years of age. As king, he felt that it was a shame how learning had decreased in his kingdom — Anglo-Saxons had once been at the forefront of learning in Europe, in the age of Bede (saint of the week here). Probably a bit awestruck by all he had seen on the Carolingian mainland as a child and in the eternal city of Rome as well, he wanted to see learning flourish in England again.

Therefore, Alfred set about ensuring that the clergy of his kingdom were all literate. He also set about translating and ensuring translatin by others from Latin those works he felt most important, including his own introductions. Most famously, he translated Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy and Pope Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care.

This latter may have been provoked by his esteem of the Roman see because of his visits there as well as Gregory’s having sent Augustine (saint of the week here) as a missionary to Canterbury. However, we should also note that the Pastoral Care is also one of the only works from the Latin Fathers to have been widely translated and disseminated throughout the Greek world. That is to say, it was  world classic of Christian thought as well as being of practical value for Alfred’s clergy.

Now, to say that Alfred’s organisation of learning and translation throughout his kingdom was a particularly Christian thing to do is not to say that no pagan monarch ever did such a thing (see the Ptolemies at Alexandria), but I still think it a more noticeably Christian action than the defence from attack. Christianity has always been a religion of the book, and so learning has always been held in high esteem by all Christians — at least basic literacy, even amongst some anti-intellectual Franciscans.

In later centuries, it would be Christians like John Knox who would promote universal education on this island. I believe that King Alfred, although his emphasis was on clergy and nobility, stands within that same Christian tradition of education. Furthermore, the Christianness of his translations is further proof of how Alfred is engaged in the task of educating as a Christian king — we have Boethius and Gregory, not Virgil and Horace here, after all.

For More on Alfred and Anglo-Saxons

Besides Asser’s Life of King Alfred, check out the following:

Alfred the Great, ed. and trans. Simon Keynes. This Penguin Classic includes Asser’s Life as well as relevant selections from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and various documents illustrating the reign of King Alfred, including some of his own writings.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, ed. Kevin Crossley-Holland. This anthology includes not only the complete Beowulf in Crossley-Holland’s translation but a variety of Anglo-Saxon and Latin documents from the Anglo-Saxon world, both Christian and secular, poetry and prose.

Anglo-Saxon Christianity by Paul Cavill discusses Christianity in Britain in the days of the Anglo-Saxons, showing the union of Mediterranean religious values and ‘Germanic’ cultural traditions that occurred here in those days long ago.

BBC History website about the Anglo-Saxons, 410-800. This site includes discussions of Christianity.

BBC History website about Alfred the Great.