THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY

0

Life is filled with turbulence, argues Sonnie Ekwowusi

Once upon a time (in 523 A.D. to be precise) there lived in Pavia, a city south of Milan, Italy, an Italian statesman, scholar and academic called Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. Boethius was born into a highly successful and wealthy family at the threshold of the collapse of the Roman Empire. As a boy Boethius was very brilliant. He studied Classics. He translated much of Plato and Aristotle’s work from Greek into Latin. He was very wealthy. He lived in a luxurious Villa, eat sumptuous meals. Besides, he married a woman of great charm and beauty called Rusticiana. Rusticiana had two sons for Boethius. Both were very handsome. Like their father, they were very successful in life. Given his attractive talents Boethius eventually ventured into Italian politics. Shortly after entering politics, he rose to political stardom. He occupied a number of elevated political posts under Theodoric, the then King of Ostrogoth, Italy.

But one day Boethius heard some hard knocks at his door. Upon opening his door some soldiers from King Ostrogoth stormed into his bedroom and had him arrested on a falsified charge of plotting to overthrow King Ostrogoth. Without being allowed to bid his lovely wife and children farewell Boethius was whisked away and dumped into a tiny cell without trial. Even though Boethius had been imprisoned most citizens of Pavia knew that he was innocent of the trumped-up charge. Abandoned to die in a suffocating cell, and deprived of his dignity, the affection of his beautiful wife Rusticiana, his lovely children and friends, Boethius soon sank into a deep melancholy. All his disheveled hair soon turned white. Boethius was downcast. He was emaciated. He was dejected. On contemplating how he fell from grace to grass and his separation from his lovely wife and children, Boethius fell into despair. It was at this time that an expected visitor visited Boethius in prison. In the words of Boethius, “while I was pondering thus in silence, and using my pen to set down so tearful a complaint, there appeared standing over my head a woman’s form, whose countenance was full of majesty, whose eyes shone as with fire and whose power of insight surpassed that of all men…”

Boethius’ first shock was that the uninvited visitor still found her way into his cell even when the cell was locked with a padlock. The lady was very beautiful. She was dark in complexion, tall and splendidly built. Her voice was tender as much as it was consoling. No sooner had Boethius tried to open his mouth to engage the visitor in a conversation than the visitor merely introduced herself as Philosophy. Taking a closer look at the lady, Boethius discovered that she was carrying a pack of philosophical and classical books on one hand and a sceptre on the other hand. Lady Philosopher inquired from Boethius the cause of his anguish and melancholy. After Boethius had finished unburdening his heart, a long conversation between her and Boethius ensued. Lady Philosopher explained to Boethius that external violation of one’s freedom does not affect the exercise of one’s interior freedom which happens to be the utmost freedom. She told Boethius that it is unwise to put blind faith in the ephemeral gifts of fortune- material wealth, fame, power, prosperity, money, reputation and career- which many people mistakenly believe are the fundamental ingredients of happiness when it is obvious that one would surrender them some day at a stroke. She reminded Boethius about the inconstancy in human affairs. She reminded him about Fortune’s famous saying, ”Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle… yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require…. Isn’t this what tragedy commemorates with its tears and tumult?”

After saying this, Lady Philosopher sat down and thereafter delivered to Boethius the kernel of her message. She told him that true happiness cannot be found in one’s material possession or one’s activities or things governed by chance: true happiness truly lies in what one can never lose, in what the Stoic philosophers called ‘inner citadel,’ which develops one’s powers of reasoning in order to give one access to the beauty, mystery and complexity of the universe. At this juncture Boethius recovered from his melancholy. He came to his senses. He cleared his eyes, and took a studied look around his tiny cell. No lady. His visitor was a metaphorical figure. Thereafter Boethius sat down and penned what has become a classical masterpiece with the alluring title, The Consolation of Philosophy.

Our troubled coronavirus pandemic times deserve to rediscover the message of Philosophy. The people of our times need to appreciate that those who build their happiness and prowess exclusively around the ubiquity and fickleness of material wealth, fame, power, prosperity, money, reputation and career (as if these things are the object of human destiny or the quencher of human thirst) are the most sorrowful and dejected of all men. Whereas the coronavirus pandemic had unfortunately killed many across the world including Dr. Alfa Sa’adu, Carol Jamabo, Ugochukwu Erondu, Bassey Offiong, Abba Kyari and other Nigerians, those who are still alive in their respective homes observing the stay-at-home directive are anxiously wondering what would be their fate if the coronavirus pandemic worsens or what would happen to their material wealth. They fail to realize that by possessing themselves they already possess everything. The provocative message of Lady Philosopher to the people of Boethius’ times and I suppose to the people of our times is that the best way to find happiness and peace of mind in troubled times is to ensure that the ingredients we associate with happiness are not direct conduits to a fundamental instability and fickleness that lead to inner torment and anxiety. In his book entitled, The Overlooked Factor: The Power of Being Fully Human, Paul Mimbi writes that unlike Nietzsche and Heidegger who held that the temporal horizon of man’s existence is un-surpassing, man, in his spiritual nature, can transcend time. “Man is happy in the measure that he surpasses time by means of hope, enthusiasm and love”.

Man is happier to the extent in which he accepts the difficulties and emergencies confronting him and tries to excel in them instead of lamenting them. For example, those anxiously waiting for the coronavirus pandemic to end so that life will return to normal may be multiplying their anxiety and sorrows. C.S Lewis words in 1948 at the time the atomic bomb posed a great existential threat still rings true today, “We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life’. Life has never been normal. Even those periods which we think most tranquil … turn out, on closer inspection, to be full of cries, alarms, difficulties, emergencies.”