The Consolation of Adversity’s Sweet Milk, Philosophy

Unknown.pngWe all have our bad days. Life is going well, and everything falls into place neatly and conveniently. Then, in the blink of an eye, life flips upside down, becomes inverted, seems foreign, and your whole outlook changes. A small change in fortune can have monumental consequences, many of which are outside of our control. Nobody is exempt from misfortune; we all endure it from time to time because we have to—our cards are dealt that way, whom or what by, we do not know. The idea that some kind of external force controls our life, whether it be fate or fortune, destiny or chance, has captured our attention for as long as we can remember, from mythology to science. But some also believe in man’s autonomy, his free will, and his ability to use that will, in contrast to said outside forces. These problems have been addressed by literature ever since signs and symbols were invented. One man who discussed this problem, hailed as one of the greatest English writers, lived during the transition between the Middle Ages and the Renaissance: William Shakespeare, in whose famous tragedy Romeo and Juliet he writes about the problem of fate and misfortune. Yet another comes a millennium before Shakespeare, a Roman Neoplatonist scholar named Boëthius (c. 477-524). He wrote an enduring book that was well received during the Middle Ages called The Consolation of Philosophy in which he describes how he came to cope with his misfortune. Together, Shakespeare and Boëthius, a playwright and a philosopher, explain how, when faced with struggles and suffering, we can all benefit from, and be consoled by adversity’s sweet milk— philosophy.

Romeo-Montague-1968-romeo-montague-1968-26656721-1152-1008.jpgOur consolation begins with Romeo. Young, romantic, and honorable, Romeo is a citizen of Verona and a member of House Montague. He has cool friends with whom he hangs, and he lives a safe and privileged life. Another thing he has going for him is his love for Juliet, a member of House Capulet. Although they are of different families who hate each other, their love transcends these boundaries. They end up getting married. It would appear, then, that Romeo has everything for which he could ever wish, and life could not be any better. Similarly, Boëthius was a well-to-do politician and scholar. He had the good fortune to be adopted by a good man named Symmachus, and Boëthius would marry a wife and have kids who were obedient, and who would go onto serve both as consuls. Well-known throughout Rome and rich, Boëthius was in his prime. Both men had reached the apex of life: They had good families, a solid fiscal situation, and success in their public and private lives. Nothing could get in their way. Then, one afternoon, Romeo’s life flashes before his eyes. Upon marrying his true love, he encounters her cousin Tybalt, with whom he gets into an altercation, and whom he kills out of anger. The prince of Verona promptly banishes Romeo from Verona, and worse, from his love. In just a few hours, he loses his family, his Unknown.jpeghonors, and his North Star, his raison d’ětre—Juliet. Compare this to Boëthius, who defended a friend of his in court, only to be betrayed by a few corrupt politicians. He ended up being thrown in jail (in Verona, coincidentally) by the very king he was loyal to, forced to rot in prison, without any hope, his possessions and titles stripped, his life essentially over. Eventually, he was executed while in jail. From the highest point of his life, Boëthius had the carpet pulled out from beneath his feet, so he was made to fall to the very bottom, to the bottom-most depths of human tragedy. In each case, the two men suffered a reversal of fortune, a tragic fall, much like those found in the Ancient Greek tragedies. Hence, Shakespeare wrote The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, and the life story of Boëthius could have been called The Tragedy of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius.

While weeping in grief after the prince’s pronouncement, Romeo is offered solace by the man who married him to Juliet, Friar Laurence: “‘I’ll give thee armor to keep off that image-20150727-7653-s9wpej.jpgword [banishment], / Adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy, / To comfort thee, though thou art banished’” (3.3.54-56). Why does Friar Laurence call philosophy “adversity’s sweet milk”? The answer, I believe, is twofold: First, milk is a product, something produced, as when we milk a cow, meaning that philosophy is the product of adversity, that which we get when we “milk adversity,” so to speak, or endure difficulties; second, milk is good for its nutrients and especially for its calcium, which is necessary for growth, both for the calf and the human baby, strengthening the bones and the skeleton, providing strength—when we speak of nurturing, we think of feeding milk, so philosophy is what nurtures us. If we synthesize these two interpretations, then we get that philosophy is that which allows us to learn from and grow after enduring difficulties, helps us to recover, nourishes us, for it is like milk in that it strengthens us. When we undergo adversity, we end up learning from it; we get stronger from it, like a muscle after exercise. Friar Laurence introduces philosophy by calling it “armor,” because when armed with it, Romeo can protect himself from the inevitable scarring and suffering of adversity. Philosophy is a shield, an ægis that provides cover from him and that deflects the pain of memory.

Boëthius went through almost the same exact thing. In The Consolation of Philosophy, he imagines a conversation between him and a personification of philosophy, whom he Unknown-1.pngenvisions as a beautiful woman there to comfort him in his grieving. She, like the friar, tells him not to cry, saying, “'[I]t is time for medicine rather than complaint…. Are you not he who once was nourished by my milk and brought up on my food; who emerged from weakness to the strength of virile soul?’”[1] Notice how Philosophy uses the metaphor of “milk” for her teachings, just like Friar Laurence did. Both people take on the role of the mentor offering advice, and they both talk of philosophy, comparing it to the nutritious, nourishing drink we all love—milk. Again, the usage of “milk” in this quote suggests and further supports my claim from earlier: Philosophy is a salutary drink, a drink which we know is good for us, but which we are hesitant to take, a drink that can cure us of our problems and sorrows, a drink that we literally thrive upon, that strengthens us and makes us grow, not physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. When I read “and brought up on my food,” I thought of ambrosia, the food of the gods, for some reason; and if we take that as what she is saying, then that means philosophy is on the level of the divine, and it is equivalent to the drink of the gods, nectar, whose definition includes “sweetness,” from which we can see the connection in “sweet milk” used by Friar Laurence. In Roman times, a popular metaphor was the images.pngphilosopher as doctor. Hence, Philosophy tells Boëthius that, instead of crying, he should take his “medicine”; i.e., philosophy. Philosophy thus takes on the role of healer, a medical professional in whose best interest it is to heal Boëthius’ mental wounds. Boëthius used to be a strong, healthy man, but tragedy made him weak and servile, as he no longer practiced what he preached. Philosophy questions him, asking why it is that, despite studying her wisdom, he does not heed any of it while in prison. The doctor is in, and having diagnosed her patient with ignorance and self-pity, she prescribes him adversity’s sweet milk—philosophy.

Part of Philosophy’s diagnosis is the fact that Boëthius does not know how the universe is governed. While he concedes that God (for the remainder of the essay, feel free to substitute God for whatever you believe [or don’t] in!)  is the rational creator of the universe, he does not acknowledge the role played by the goddess Fortune. According to Philosophy, Fortune is fickle. Like Janus, the god of passages, Fortune is two-headed and bestows either good or bad fortune indiscriminately. And much like a coin, she can show either of her faces upon a single toss. Fortune balances out goodness with badness, misleading many who attribute constancy to her. This is a foolish error, Philosophy Unknown-1.jpegargues, because to think that one has “good fortune” just because a series of good things has happened, does not guarantee that, in the next moment, something good will happen again; it is Fortune’s nature to change rashly and unexpectedly. It is as though there is a cosmic equilibrium. Fortune is a little bit like Karma, except that it is not caused by free will, but by fortuity; by this, it is to be understood that, whereas in Karma a good action is followed by a good consequence and vice versa such that it equals out in the end, Fortune grants good fortune and elevates so long as she feels like it and then can level her victim with bad fortune at the flick of a hand. Whatever she does, whether it be good-good-bad-bad or good-bad-good-bad—it will always end at 0. Therefore, everyone will reach their high point, be able to enjoy it for a time, then reach their low point, wallow in it, and repeat. Sometimes we have bragging rights, others we have pity rights. What remains constant is this: None of us is responsible for our fortune, good or bad. This is what causes so much unhappiness. Many of us blame ourselves or others for our bad fortune, when really, it is outside of our control. Or, we’ll praise ourselves for our good fortune, when, in reality, it was dispensed external to us.

In order to deal with this inevitable fact, Philosophy gives Boëthius two choices: Accept Fortune, or ignore her. The first choice is amor fortuna—love of one’s fortune (my spin-off of Nietzsche’s amor fati—love of one’s fate). With this choice, we realize that we cannot change our Fortune, but that Fortune changes of her own will, so we might as Unknown-2.jpegwell go along with it. Because we cannot expect anything from Fortune, there is no purpose in reasoning with her. Unlike the other gods and goddesses, Fortune does not listen to our prayers, for she acts independently. Consequently, we cannot blame Fortune, per se; instead, we should be grateful for the good fortune we are bestowed. This, or we can go with the second choice and ignore Fortune entirely. If we are to ignore Fortune, then we are to not blame her for anything. Romeo shouts in despair after killing Tybalt, “‘Oh, I am Fortune’s fool!’” (3.1.98). Of all the people he could have killed, it had to be Tybalt, the cousin of his wife. A series of events transpired that led to his killing Tybalt, a series that was greater than he, that was outside his control, and that he could not foresee. Realizing his misfortune, he cries out against the goddess Fortune, condemning his role as a puppet, a mere thing to be flung around for her amusement. Philosophy ties it all up by arguing that, although misfortune is inevitable, it is endurable. Primarily, present suffering is temporary; it will not last forever. Secondarily, misfortune, we have said, is but a small cog in the Wheel of Fortune. Present misfortune is succeeded by unforeseen good fortune, and so on. It is just that, at the moment, we are so transfixed by our suffering, we fail to see clearly what lies ahead.

But all of this does not explain the Problem of Evil, objects Boëthius. If God is indeed the creator of this world, and He governs it with His perfect, beneficent reason, then why does He not only let evil men succeed, but permit Evil itself to exist? It seems as though everywhere we look, injustice prevails and justice shrinks away. Good men stay in the shadows while evil men run amok in the streets. Boëthius points out that he was a virtuous politician who acted morally, yet he was arrested and belittled by vicious, corrupt politicians. Where was the justice in that? And Romeo was banished because he avenged his friend Mercutio’s unfair death. Tybalt provoked Romeo, but the latter did not give in, so his friend fought instead, only to suffer a wound that killed him. Romeo, like a good friend, wanted to avenge his friend, because to do otherwise would be to let a murderer go free. As a result, he went after Tybalt and slew him. While it was not the most rational thing to do, surely there was justice in avenging his friend. Did good prosper, or did evil? Either way, two men died. These two good men—Boëthius and Romeo—had good things going for them and long lives ahead, but in one moment, all fortune became misfortune, and good succumbed to evil.

Unknown-3.jpegIn response, Philosophy claims that bad fortune is actually better than good fortune, contrary to popular opinion. This is because good fortune is deceptive. Whenever something good happens, we expect more good things to happen, and we become excessively prideful and optimistic. Of course, it is a good thing to be optimistic, but to be Panglossian, to see too much good—this can cloud our judgment, leading to poor expectations. We are led to believe that we are having good luck for a reason. However, such is not the case. Bad luck, on the other hand, is realistic—harsh, but realistic. It teaches us the realities of life. Not everything is happiness, smiles, and rainbows. Misfortune lets us have reasonable expectations. From bad experiences, we learn lessons. If we do something stupid, then we learn what not to do in future scenarios. Often, we judge others, and others judge us based on chance and random circumstances, but not on our character. Philosophy assures Boëthius that the good are powerful and that the evil are weak; it is just that we do not see it that way. Only the good can in theory be happy because they can get what the want, whereas evil men are always frustrated due to their ignorance. Thus, when we see evil men succeed, we must remember that it is but a single chance event, and that, deep down, they can never get what they desire.

What is happiness? Boëthius does not give an exact definition, although he states in agreeance with Aristotle that it is the highest good, the summum bonum, which all men seek. Happiness is not equivalent to fame, possessions, glory, power, or pleasure; happiness is a synergy of the aforementioned traits. Stated in another way, one can have Frans_Francken_(II)_-_Mankind's_Eternal_Dilemma_–_The_Choice_Between_Virtue_and_Vice.jpgfame, things, glory, power, and pleasure and still not have happiness, but someone who has happiness necessarily has fame, things, glory, power, and pleasure. Happiness transcends these individual traits. Drawing from Plato and Socrates, Boëthius says that everyone, even those who are evil, seeks Good (happiness), but many of us do not know how to obtain it because we are ignorant. In this light, Evil is viewed as stemming from ignorance; it is the classic Scholastic view that Evil is the absence of Good. Because we do not know the true nature of the Good, we are misguided in our efforts, so we end up seeking the wrong things, resulting in vices instead of virtues. An evil person, without knowing it, desires happiness, but they mistakenly equate it with, say, power, so they focus only on getting power. This focus on a single aspect spirals into a narrow-minded pursuit that ends up turning into vice, then corrupting into Evil. Another may be distracted and focus only on possessions, working to acquire as much wealth as they possibly can; but little do they know that this will not get them true happiness, but more problems. Good men, contrarily, learned, knowing what happiness is, will take a balanced approach, not focusing on one aspect more than the others, but pursuing them all equally through virtuous action, which is good in itself. Everyone, even with good fortune, is never 100% happy at any given time. Circumstances cloud our judgments constantly so that we may miss out on opportunities. Ultimately, happiness contains all lesser goods, so if you have happiness, then you have glory, power, fame, possessions, and pleasure.

OrderedUniverseimageWEB.jpgEverything is controlled by God, contends Boëthius. He asks Philosophy if there is such a thing as “chance,” defined as an uncaused event, to which she replies no, since God is the maker of everything, and nothing is uncaused therefor. The only thing not controlled by God is man, as he has free will. This explains why man is allowed to stray from his virtuous path and toward vice, even though it is against his better nature. Boëthius is content with having free will, yet he is afraid that it is made impossible by the fact that everything is predetermined by God. There is a logical inconsistency: If God can see all things in the future, then how can man make his own decisions? God, responds Philosophy, acts through Providence and Fate. To put it simply, Providence is God’s plan, the bigger picture, and Fate is the specific events, happenings, and occurrences which make Providence possible. Providence is what happens, Fate what makes it happen. Providence is to a blueprint what Fate is to a builder. Philosophy, addressing the problem of predestination, says, “For even though … events are foreseen because they will happen, they do not happen because they are foreseen.”[2] What does this mean? Philosophy is saying that God can certainly see what we humans will do, but his knowing what we will do is not what causes us to do it. An important concept to understand comes a bit earlier, when Philosophy asserts that God is eternal, by which she means that God lives eternally in the present. In other words, there is no past, present, and future, but only a continuous present for God. For sake of understanding, picture God watching over you while you make a decision: When deciding to get a drink of water, He is constantly keeping watch over you, staying with you in the present, and when you decide to get a drink of water out of free will, He presently watches as you make this decision, and therefore foresees it happening in His present. Just because God knows you will get water, does not mean it is He who caused you to: You acted out of free will—He merely observed you making it. Hereby, Boëthius manages to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human freedom.

220px-Romeo_and_juliet_brown.jpgRomeo is awaiting his punishment when Friar Laurence comes in and tells him, “‘Not body’s death, but body’s banishment’” (3.3.12). To Romeo, banishment is equal to, if not worse than, death, because “‘There is no world without Verona walls’” (3.3.18). The friar reprimands Romeo because he ought to be grateful for his situation: He is still alive, and he still has possibilities and things for which he is fortunate. Friar Laurence suggests as a remedy philosophy, but Romeo dismisses it, “‘Unless philosophy can make a Juliet, / Displant a town, reverse a prince’s doom’” (3.3.61-63). Because philosophy is wise and Friar Laurence is trying to help, he likens Romeo to a madman who will not listen to reason. He asks to reason with Romeo regarding his condition. Linking this to the story of Boëthius, Philosophy compares the philosopher to a city-dweller: He who lives in a city sets up his home there, and thence he cannot be exiled, unless by force, in which case it is of his own volition. Even if he were forced to leave the city, it is he on whose legs he leaves—no one else’s. As soon as he settles down, he is never in exile unless he wants to be, unless he tires of it. There is safety within these walls. The mind is one’s city. Philosophy then makes the case that philosophy need not be practiced exclusively in the library or in books; no, philosophy is practiced exclusively through mental and spiritual actions. Happiness does not come from outside, happiness comes from inside, from the self. The mind is our citadel, a fortress into which we can retreat, safe from the outside. It is true that Boëthius was a smart man studied aright in philosophy; however, Philosophy argues that his books could teach him only so much, that true philosophy is put into practice. In reading all his philosophy, Boëthius should have the wisdom to brave out his exile, because therein lies his contentment—in himself.

Unknown-4.jpegBoëthius was influenced by the Stoics, and he can be best described as a Stoic-Neoplatonist. Interestingly though, early in The Consolation of Philosophy, he criticizes the school alongside Epicureanism for not living up to the Socratic ideal. Notwithstanding, his thinking clearly borrows from Epictetus. Speaking of the great Stoic sage, he knew of a man similar in mind to Romeo. In his Discourses, he recounts of Thrasea, who said he would rather die that day than be banished the next, for which he was reproved by his master, Musonius Rufus, because neither punishment was in his control; thus, he ought to have settled with either willingly. Another, Agrippinus, awaited calmly his trial, going through his daily routines, neither optimistic nor pessimistic. When he got the news that he was banished, he asked when, was told the next day, and replied, “Let’s have dinner,” because he was in no rush, and it was just a regular day.[3] This is the attitude we should adopt toward all circumstances, Epictetus and Boëthius believed. Like Thrasea, Romeo preferred death to banishment, and Friar Laurence, in the role of Rufus, lectured him for his foolishness. Romeo, evidently, has many wrong beliefs, which are the true causes of his sorrow, not his situation. First, Romeo is not dead, which is good for several reasons. One, he is not dead. That is pretty good in itself. To be alive is a good thing. This means that Romeo has possibilities, seeing as Heidegger defined death as the end of all possibilities. Since he managed to escape with his life, Romeo is able to explore the world, do all the things he has ever wanted to do without constraints. Even if he were to die, it would not be bad from a Neoplatonist perspective, which would be taken by Boëthius, but which has little bearing today, considering death was viewed as good: It meant the pure soul would reunite with the One, or God. Second, Romeo mistakenly believes that there is nothing good beyond Verona. Having grown up in his hometown of Verona, Romeo has not seen anything beyond his home. Imagine all the sights he could have see in Mantua! But he Verona.jpgneed not have been constricted just to Italy, either; he could have explored Europe by himself! Banishment means creating a new life, which is difficult, but also liberating. There all kinds of opportunities in creating a new life while still young and in love. Cicero was exiled several times in his life. The first time, he was scared and hated it. He thought of exile negatively, just as Romeo did. Over time, he got used to it and actually learned to enjoy it. He viewed exile as an opportunity to get out of Rome, write, and be productive. Exile for Cicero was about rebirth rather than death. While Romeo is right that philosophy cannot undo what had happened, he is wrong that philosophy has no use: He could have used it to cope with his situation, to move on with his life, to make sense of what was going on and what had happened. Despite being banished from his home, he still had the possibility of being with Juliet, had he sticked around long enough. If he had the patience or wisdom borne from philosophy, he could have been with his beloved Juliet. In a sense, philosophy could have made him Juliet, could have displanted a town, and could have reversed a prince’s doom—if only he had the reason to heed Friar Laurence and drink from adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy.

Unknown-5.jpegFrom a Renaissance dramatist and a Medieval philosopher we have learned some important lessons. In spite of their abstractness, difficulty, and age, they have ideas that in this day and age should be studied, read, and lived. Both writers explored the human condition, and internal struggles faced by us on a daily basis, and they showed how free will and responsibility can coexist with a universe governed by unflinching, uncaring chance and fate. While there are things that happen outside of our control, there are things we can control—a Stoical doctrine. Sometimes things do not go our way, but we must be on the lookout for better days, of which there are plenty coming our way, each and every one of us. And when we do have a bad day, it is important that we look back at what we have had the good fortune of having, because misfortune is fleeting. Happiness is not a singular pursuit, remember that. One ought to be well-rounded in their virtues and avoid Unknown-6.jpegvice at all costs. These are all great lessons to use in our lives, but greater still is the appeal of philosophy. Philosophy has been looked down upon for years, though it has been getting a small resurgence lately. Even Shakespeare, renowned mostly for his contribution to literature, was a philosopher at heart, an explorer of ideas and of the inner terrain of man. The lot of us have missed out on the beauty and wonder that is philosophical inquiry. Many today know not the consolation of philosophy. Many today know not adversity’s sweet milk, philosophy.

[1] Boëthius, The Consolation of Philosophy, p. 6
[2] Id., pp. 105-6
[3] Epictetus, Discourses, 1.1

For further reading: Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (2011)
The Consolation of Philosophy by Boëthius (1962)


One thought on “The Consolation of Adversity’s Sweet Milk, Philosophy

  1. Pingback: The Parable of the Farmer and His Fate | Bookshelf

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