In Emily St. John Mandel’s science fiction novel Station Eleven, a nomadic group of actors and musicians travels through North America devastated by a lethal pandemic, ”Georgia flu”. The troupe performs William Shakespeare’s plays, which have found new appeal in a society where life is uncertain, much like in Shakespeare’s days.
Although our real-life pandemic has proven to be less dramatic than in dystopic fiction, it has marked our society, and we have turned to books written in troubled times. A year ago, library loans of works like Boccaccio’s Decameron and Albert Camus The Plague surged. Recently, Ylioppilaslehti (student magazine for the University of Helsinki) asked four historians to name old books that help to understand our own times (article in Finnish). Recommendations were: Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, Gilgamesh, Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations and Eric Hobsbawm’s Age of Empire 1875–1914.
My personal favourite, and the favourite of many others in the course of centuries, is The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a sixth-century Roman senator. Sometimes described as the last of the classical and first of the medieval authors, Boethius, and above all his Consolation, was copied, translated, commented and cited throughout the Middle Ages. Neither did humanist scholars shun Boethius, unlike many medieval best-sellers.
The Consolation of Philosophy, written as a dialogue between a female personification of Philosophy and the narrator, describes the problems of evil, free will, destiny, and virtues. Boethius, writing as a convict waiting for his execution, is preoccupied with the unfairness of the world: why do the virtuous suffer while vile men succeed:
Harsh punishment, deserved by the criminal, afflicts the innocent. Immoral scoundrels now occupy positions of power and unjustly trample the rights of good men. (1. Poem 5, transl. Richard Green, 1962).
Such reflections have certainly appealed to all who have felt that the Feel of Fortune has cast them down. With a certain irony, the Consolation has also been favourite reading of those who have condemned others to prison, torture and death. Boethius is the only author – besides the Bible – that the late fourteenth-century inquisitor Petrus Zwicker, whom I studied in my recent book, cites in his writings. Perhaps reading Boethius was a healthy reminder: Zwicker’s days were the times of plague, schism and war, and Fortune was fickle.
Boethius’s Consolation is definitely reading for troubled times. For those who find the original Latin a bit arduous, there are many translations available. For Finnish readers, I can recommend Juhani Sarsila’s translation (2001).
Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus. Filosofian lohdutus. Suom. Juhani Sarsila. Vastapaino, 2001.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard Green. The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1962.
Onninen, Oskari, ’Tuntuuko, että maailma on monimutkainen paikka ja elämä hankalaa’. Ylioppilaslehti 7.4.2021.
St. John Mandel, Emily, Station Eleven, 2014.
Välimäki, Reima. Heresy in Late Medieval Germany: The Inquisitor Petrus Zwicker and the Waldensians. York Medieval Press, 2019.