The classics may be old, but they are still perceptive.
Like anyone, I have holes in my education. Inspired to fill one of these holes, last week I picked up and read through Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which has had a tremendous influence on Western thought. Written circa 525 A.D. as Boethius was awaiting execution, the Consolation is a philosophical meditation on some of the great questions that men and women of all times face.
In the text, we learn that Boethius is anxious because his trial and sentence of execution was unjustified, and was taking away from him the position and influence he had worked so hard to gain.
Boethius’ dialogue partner, in the form of Lady Philosophy, chides him for his anxiety, which she determines is rooted in a misplaced trust in the fickle reality called “Fortune”:
“But you are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you… Do you really hold dear that kind of happiness which is destined to pass away? Do you really value the presence of Fortune when you cannot trust her to stay and when her departure will plunge you in sorrow?”
As many of you may have discovered, the circumstances our human lives do not operate according to immutable laws. You can do everything right and not achieve your desired result, and you can do many things wrong and stumble into prosperity. We can be grateful when we experience success—whether it be in our jobs, our relationships, or in our finances—but we should understand that such success is not completely in our possession and can go away at any time.
As Lady Philosophy notes, anxiety originates from trying to control or hold on to Fortune:
“Again, the man who is borne along by happiness which can at any time fail, either knows or does not know its unreliability. If he does not know it, what kind of happiness can there be in the blindness of ignorance? And if he does know it, he can’t avoid being afraid of losing that which he knows can be lost. And so a continuous fear prevents him being happy.”
She also implies that we shouldn’t envy (another source of anxiety) those we believe possess a greater share of Fortune:
“It is the nature of human affairs to be fraught with anxiety; they never prosper perfectly and they never remain constant. In one man’s case you will find riches offset by the shame of a humble birth and in another’s noble birth offset by publicity unwelcome on account of the crippling poverty of his family’s fortunes. Some men are blessed with both wealth and noble birth, but are unhappy because they have no wife. Some are happily married but without children… Some again have been blessed with children only to weep over their misdeeds. No one finds it easy to accept the lot Fortune has sent him. There is something in the case of each of us that escapes the notice of the man who has not experienced it, but causes horror to the man who has.”
As Boethius learns, because of the unpredictable and incomplete character of Fortune, because we do not truly “possess” it, it cannot be our ultimate source of happiness. To become free of anxiety, we must develop an abandonment toward Fortune. According to Lady Philosophy, our ultimate source of happiness must lie within. Through growing in knowledge and virtue, our own self is the only thing we can be truly come to “possess”: