English 9213B

The Consolation of Philosophy and its English Afterlives

Instructor: Professor Anne Schuurman.
Winter Half Course.

Few works have influenced English thought and literature as profoundly or for as long as The Consolation of Philosophy, a dialogue written in the sixth century by the Roman philosopher and statesman Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. In this seminar, we will begin by studying the Consolation in a modern English translation, with the aid of scholarship that will help us interpret the text with some understanding of its original language and context. We will then consider medieval and early modern translations of and responses to the Consolation; possible texts include The Old English Boethius (ca. 900), Geoffrey Chaucer’s Boece (1382) and various lyrics, Thomas More’s A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation (1534), John Stradling’s translation of Justus Lipsius, Two Bookes of Constancie (1595), and Elizabeth I’s translation of the Consolation (1598). In the third and final part of the course, we will consider some expressions of modern Stoicism (from Martha Nussbaum and Alastair MacIntyre to popular self-help guides) as well as recent texts that invoke Boethian themes, such as Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia (1993) and the film Arrival (2016). As we survey this long tradition, we will reflect on Boethian ideas that remain more or less constant over time and those that change in response to changing historical circumstances, paying careful attention to the various modes and politics of translation that shape these ideas. Some key themes that will guide our reading and discussion include: forms of consolation and desire; the nature of suffering and of the good; the problem of evil and theodicy; time and temporality; philosophy as therapy of the soul and care of the self; paradoxes of allegory and mimesis.