Boethius’ Philosophy as Therapist

Here is a common way to think about the psychotherapeutic experience: the therapist helps the patient construct an alternative narrative of his or her life. Why is this therapeutic? The patient has offered the therapist a recounting–via a series of archaeological, genealogical forays into his past–of his life’s events, and describes how these have contributed to the crisis currently being experienced. The therapist then offers a reconstruction of these into an account that lends itself to an interpretation different from the one the patient has made central to his assessment of his life’s fortunes. This displacement of the pathology-creating narrative is the therapist’s central function. We live by stories that we tell about ourselves; our therapist–aided by our willing, motivated co-operation–equips us with a new one.

This reconstruction can proceed by pointing out how a patient has, like any author, selectively emphasized and de-emphasized certain events, and more analytically, drawn faulty or mistaken inferences from them. Because such inferences are often based on ignorance, the therapist may also be called on to play the role of educator.

The relevance of the philosopher–and the philosophical attitude–to this task should be apparent.  This is demonstrated quite well in Boethius‘ The Consolation of Philosophy, where Philosophy, in offering her consolations to the miserable prisoner convinced of his misfortunes, offers just such a combination of new narrative, edification and argument analysis.

For instance in Book II of the Consolation, after hearing Boethius’ lament, Philosophy, as part of her description of the true nature of that fickle mistress, Fortune, says in Prose 3, which is subtitled ‘Philosophy reminds the prisoner of his former prosperity and of the precious gifts he still has’:

[You] ought not to consider yourself completely miserable  if you recall your many great joys.

I will not mention that when you lost your father you were adopted by very prominent people and were chosen to become closely associated with the most powerful figures in the city. You soon were more dear to them by love than you had been close before by relationship, and that is the most precious bond….But I want to stress the greatest of your joys.  If any mortal achievement can make a man happy, is it possible that any amount of misfortune can dim the memory of that brilliant occasion when you saw your two sons made Consuls and carried from their house in the company of the Senators and accompanied by the people?….You pledged yourself to Fortune while she pampered you and favored you with her gifts. You got more from her than any private citizen ever received–and now do you think you can bargain with her?

This is the first time she ever frowned on you with her evil eye. If you balance the number and kinds of your joys and misfortunes, you must admit that up to now you have been a happy man.

This is not enough for Boethius, of course, for Prose 4 is subtitled ‘Boethius protests that the worst sorrow is the remembrance of lost joys. Philosophy answers that the only true joy is self-possession in the face of adversity.

And so it goes. The outlines of a therapeutic dialectic are clearly visible here and remain so as we read on.

Note: Bertrand Russell‘s The Conquest of Happiness is another classical member of the Philosophy as Therapy canon.

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