Oh, pay heed, citizens of the twenty-first century, to Philosophy’s warning. There are many in your day who think they can control Fortune’s Wheel. They cannot. Those who reach the top of her Wheel may rejoice for a day, but sooner than they think, the Wheel shall spin and they shall accompany it in its downward turn.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Boethius: On Fortune’s Wheel
Five hundred years separate me from Virgil. He had the fortune to witness the birth of the Roman Empire; it was my misfortune to watch it die. I say this not with pride but with sadness: I am the last Roman in the west.
At first I was the favorite of the barbarian king Theodoric. I was even made a consul of Rome—though that title had little meaning in my age of dissolution and decay. But, in the end, Theodoric turned against me and accused me of treason. I was thrown in prison and left there to rot.
But there, in the dark and the cold and the stench, Lady Philosophy came to me and brought me consolation. I wrote down her words in a book, half in prose and half in verse. I know that my paltry poetry cannot stand up against that of Virgil or Horace or Ovid, but the writing of it brought me peace, hope, and beauty in the midst of despair and certain death.
Those of you who have read my little book may think it strange that I write you this letter as a poet. After all, my Consolation begins with Lady Philosophy exposing the muses as sirens who lead men to ruin with their seductively sweet voices. Though the muses can help their devotees to express their laments in words, they cannot finally bring any true consolation to those in pain. If anything, they increase their pain by lulling them into reflecting on it endlessly in song.
Still, poetry, like all the arts and sciences, is capable of being taken up into the higher realms of truth. It too can contain wisdom and beauty and serve as a guide toward moral goodness and spiritual growth. In my book, even Lady Philosophy herself speaks, occasionally, in poetry. For she knows its sweetness can prepare the heart for knowledge.
For example, Lady Philosophy spoke to me partly in prose and partly in verse to teach me a great truth about the Wheel of Fortune that I would like to pass on to you, my friends of the future.
When Lady Philosophy found me lying in my misery, I was too quick to blame all my woes on Lady Fortune. I complained bitterly that she who had once smiled on me so graciously had abandoned me and turned her face from my groanings. I accused her of being callous and without pity, blissfully unconcerned with those whose lives she ruined.
“Why,” I cried out in my confusion, anger, and despair, “are your laws fixed and impartial when you turn the seasons from autumn to winter to spring, but fickle and unjust when it comes to the lives of men? To the heavens above and the beasts below you are the same, but to us, the crown of creation, you deal out lots that are out of proportion to our merits. Thus, you punish those who are righteous while sparing the sinner and making him prosper.”
But Lady Philosophy stayed my tongue and would not let me slander she who turns the Wheel. Was it not my choice to make Lady Fortune my mistress? Did I not surrender my calm peace of mind to her flattering ways? Who exactly did I think I was taking as my companion and guide?
“Know this,” Philosophy spoke and sang, “that Lady Fortune shows her constancy by being inconstant. Were she ever to stop the spinning of her Wheel, she would no longer be Fortune. Indeed, she can only be constant by being perpetually inconstant. That is her nature and her end. Those who make her their mistress must turn with each turn of her Wheel.”
Oh, pay heed, citizens of the twenty-first century, to Philosophy’s warning. There are many in your day who think they can control Fortune’s Wheel. They cannot. No one can. Those who reach the top of her Wheel may rejoice for a day, but to be at the top only means that a time will come, and sooner than they think, when the Wheel shall spin and they shall accompany it in its downward turn. Remember that the Greek word catastrophe means, literally, “down turn.”
How then can one escape the fickleness of Fortune? By changing one’s vision and one’s goal. First, my friends, you must see this world as it really is. Second, you must turn your eyes away from Fortune and toward the Good.
Do not be deceived by the fame that the world offers. The great men of the Roman Republic lived by a motto that I would enjoin upon you: sic transit gloria mundi. So goes the glory of the world. Even the victorious generals who rode in their Triumph through the streets of Rome knew this sad truth.
What is our earth, after all, but a tiny dot in space? Indeed, the earth we inhabit leaves but the smallest room for human habitation. Cicero, he who embodied our once glorious Republic, explained it long ago in his “Dream of Scipio.” No more than a fourth of our globe allows for human life to thrive. The rest is ocean or desert or frozen waste. Rome at her height controlled but a fraction of that fourth, and now she has lost even that small piece that once was hers. Fame cannot last. All is vanity beneath the moon.
Turn your eyes upward, then, and pursue the higher virtues. Follow the teachings of Aristotle and make happiness, not wealth or power or honor or pleasure, your final goal. The desire for happiness has been implanted in all our souls, yet too often we go astray and seek the baser things.
Let nothing sway you from the true path. Do not be like the drunken man who yearns to return home, but, in his stupor, forgets the proper road. Fix your eyes on the virtue of happiness and all other things will fall into place.
Remain steadfast and true, and leave Lady Fortune to turn her Wheel, and you cannot fail to find that which you were made for.
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The featured image is a detail from “Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel” (c. 1470) by Coëtivy Master, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.