Much of the discussion about the move to remote and online classes this school year has focused on the mechanics of such teaching—how to make online learning engaging, how to create community, how to use the technology better. But what about the substance of what we are teaching? How can the actual content of the courses help students and faculty better understand and cope with the upheaval into which their lives have been thrown? Good teaching is not just about getting the technology right. It’s also about having something to say, something worth showing up for.
In one of my Honors College courses at Azusa Pacific University, for example, we read The Consolation of Philosophy, written by Boethius in 525 CE. What could a Roman government official from 1,500 years ago possibly have to offer 20-year-old college students today? This book has a pointed, direct message for the crisis in which we are living, regardless of whether we discuss it together in person or on Zoom.
Boethius writes about the Wheel of Fortune, not in the modern, TV-game-show sense of that term but in an older way of understanding it. Boethius’s Wheel of Fortune does not spin around and land on expensive prizes. A human being—you—ride Boethius’s Wheel. One spin of the Wheel may put you at the top, with everything going your way, but then the next spin thrusts you to the bottom, upside down, barely hanging on. Fortune—or Lady Fortuna—is fickle. She doesn’t owe you anything. She may smile upon you one second and betray you the next.
Boethius lived much of his own life at the top of Fortune’s Wheel. He grew up in a powerful family, married well, moved quickly up the political ladder, became a respected scholar and writer, and raised sons who also became powerful leaders. He had it all, but then suddenly, because of political machinations and one bad spin of the Wheel, he lost it all. He found himself unfairly imprisoned without trial, stripped of his wealth, power, and freedom, and ultimately tortured and executed.
He was shocked and bewildered at this sudden turn of events. How could it happen? What did it mean? What implications did it have for the philosophy and faith on which he had built his life? What should he do about it? What should he think about it?
The result of agonized thinking became his most famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy. Students today may not be facing Boethius’s fate, but most of them will relate to someone who had his life upended through no fault of his own. Students are not living the college experience they thought was theirs. They are cut off from friends, from their college social lives, from job opportunities, from sports and other extracurricular pursuits, from those chance encounters that lead to unexpected friendships, romances, and connections that may last a lifetime. They didn’t do anything to deserve this. They ask the same questions Boethius asked. Why? What meaning does this disruption have? What happens next?
Faced with this unwelcome turn of Fortune, Boethius turns to what I tell my students they might ultimately rely on: his education. He had spent his life studying the great philosophers and religious thinkers and texts. Now he turns to them again—with urgency.
Coping with their own crisis, students can decide to use what they are learning for a much more important purpose than simply getting a good grade: they can use the reading to make sense of their lives. Much of the Consolation is a dialogue between Boethius and a character he calls Lady Philosophy. In a sense, when Boethius talks to Lady Philosophy, he is talking to himself, the part of him that is trying to make sense of things while the Boethius part of him agonizes. Lady Philosophy also represents the Greco-Roman-Christian philosophy that Boethius knew so well. When he first learned it, however, life was good, and much of what he learned was of more interest at the intellectual level rather than the gut level. Now, he has to look at that philosophy anew to see if it really works when life turns sour.
I tell my students that as they go through their education, they are creating their own Lady Philosophy. Some of it may be relevant immediately, but the rest of it may sit in their minds for years before life’s circumstances force them to recall it and test its truth. Better to create a Lady Philosophy who has something to say in those dire moments than to ignore their education and be left without resources when the Wheel of Fortune turns downward.
So what does Lady Philosophy have to say to the traumatized Boethius? Like students in a pandemic, he first needs time to complain, so Lady Philosophy simply listens to him for a while. He is in no condition to hear easy answers—or even hard answers. He needs time to mourn, and she gives it to him. There is great wisdom in that, my students realize. In the midst of grief and disappointment, quick answers, even if they’re philosophically correct, only bring resentment.
As she gently leads him forward, she does so with questions that help him to challenge his own false assumptions. Fortune is fickle, and he should not assume that he somehow deserves only good fortune and must never accept the bad. It’s a mistake to put his trust in fleeting values, such as wealth, power, and honors, which can so quickly evaporate.
Even in the best of times, the idea of reaching complete satisfaction is an illusion. Lady Philosophy says, “Man’s condition produces anxiety; it never proves wholly satisfactory; it never lasts forever” (p. 42). Lady Philosophy pushes Boethius away from finding his identity in external satisfactions such as clothes, jewelry, mansions, and fame, and she urges him toward values that last, such as goodness, faith, and a belief in God’s providence. She asks, “Are you so impoverished that you have no innate good that belongs to you? Must you seek your good in things that are external and not your own?” (p. 49). Lady Philosophy does not solve Boethius’s outward crisis. He remains imprisoned and eventually is executed. But she does help him come to terms with his internal crisis. She brings him a new perspective on his situation, a new peace and contentment in spite of circumstances.
Without the crisis, would he ever have deeply questioned his values, behaviors, and false assumptions? I wish the pandemic of our own day had never happened. Like my students, I would love nothing more than to be where I was a year ago, gathered in a classroom with other human beings, talking about the texts and enjoying one another’s presence. This is a time filled with anxiety and disappointment. We may be at the bottom of the Wheel, but sometimes it is at the bottom where we can learn the most.
Boethius. (2012). The consolation of philosophy (S. Goins & B. H. Wyman, Trans.). Ignatius Press. (Original work published ca. 524 CE)
Joseph Bentz, PhD, is a professor of English and an Honors College faculty fellow at Azusa Pacific University, where he teaches courses in writing and literature. His emphasis is 20th-century American literature, and much of his scholarly work has focused on novelist Thomas Wolfe.
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