Rethinking Boethius

This ancient text reveals a lost approach to economics thinking that we need to rediscover.

Review of: Foundations for a Humanitarian Economy: Re-thinking Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy 

Author: William D Bishop

Reviewed by Frances Hutchinson

Foundations for a Humanitarian Economy is the second book in a Routledge series on economics and humanities, in which the fundamental questions of our times are being raised by independent scholars. 

In this slim volume the author, whose background lies in telecommunications, photography, the history of art and librarianship at the British Library and Rudolf Steiner House in London, discusses the historical and cultural context that influenced Boethius' writing. He explores how Consolation offers a radically different understanding of economic concepts. Aptly sub-titled, Re-thinking Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, contains a brief history of Boethius' life and influence, a summary of the Consolation and an explanation of how it differs from mainstream economics as it is studied and practised today. Bishop argues that Consolation provides a fresh economic logic that is much needed at a time when the economy, with its global and technological interconnections, has become so complex that "it undermines, rather than supports, general welfare".

From the late 8th century Consolation was studied in monasteries and elsewhere throughout Europe. Described as “a best seller for 1,000 years”, the text was instrumental in shaping European culture after the fall of the Roman Empire into “a culture dominated by Christianity”. It was translated, revised and commented upon by leading philosophers and thinkers of many countries. One early translation from the Latin into the vernacular was made by the Anglo-Saxon king Alfred. 

A large number of translators and commentators on the work are briefly introduced by Bishop, including Chaucer, Dante and Queen Elizabeth I. After an active career as statesman and philosopher, including the translation of Aristotle into Latin, Boethius' imprisonment under sentence of death forced him to explore truth and the nature of life. As a result, we are drawn into a new understanding of economic concepts. Discussion in this text ranges across the distinction between wealth and inner happiness, poverty from hoarding outer possessions, self-sufficiency in the greater whole, enlightenment through misfortune and development as arising from the Good. Modern economics, on the other hand, is founded upon consumerism, avarice, growth, the market and technological fetishism.

“In contrast, the medieval feudal economy regarded land as the source of wealth and hence common property. Land was leased to farmers by local lords, and also by the monasteries, hence agriculture was the basis of the self-sufficiency of the community as a whole. Wealth in the Middle Ages was therefore the product of cooperation between the spiritual and the material, between virtue and land, and considered in the context of the relationship with God ... The strong sense of community that this arrangement engendered encouraged moral behaviour and a 'for use' economy based on sustainable agriculture.”

The ideals within the organic feudal economy may well give food for thought about our future social commonwealth. There is an urgent need for unity, for recognising that our two "modes of cognition", the inner Plato (artist) and the outer Aristotle (scientist), as Boethius does in his Consolation.

The book sets out to present the context in which The Consolation of Philosophy was written, setting the author, Boethius, in his historical background. What then follows is a summary of the dramatic dialogue of the Consolation, a summary that tempts one to get hold of a copy of the original text (if unknown to the reader). Consideration of the separate themes as they relate to modern economic issues is followed by the elaboration of ten insights into ways through which to create a humanitarian economy.

Written under sentence of death by a dedicated scholar, of classical philosophy and literature, a Christian and a translator of key works, Consolation provides a firm foundation for the transformation of economics into an ethical system under the conscious control of humanity. The quest for Truth, Goodness, Wisdom and above all Love, is woven into this text. Love is a divine power that can, when it rules the human heart, act in the interests of, and care for, the common good as a whole. The Conclusion contrasts ten key insights between the Poetic-Philosophic Economy and Modern Economics. These insights provide a useful starting point for research and study into the profound issues raised in this book through the spiritual power of the Consolation.

At the time Boethius was writing, cannon law was statute law for the whole of Christendom, so that laws were drawn up on ethical principles. Usury was against the law, as it was seen to be making money out of money, which was considered unethical. The role of finance in the Modern Economy is thus brought into focus.

Aristotle distinguished between two forms of economy:

Consolation is concerned with oikos "as the household economy", whereas modern economics is primarily concerned with the chrematistics and exchange values. The latter leads inevitably to environmental and social devastation. At this point the author draws our attention to Saving the Appearances, where Owen Barfield refers to the Copernican revolution. Barfield argues that what is needed today in order to set in motion a post-modern enlightenment, is a new kind of participation that involves a re-awakened awareness of the divine – “not as faith, but as knowledge”.

Many issues of crucial importance for the future of humanity are raised briefly so that the whole work provides an excellent starting point for detailed study of the many tantalising references in the chapter Notes and Bibliography. Reference is made, with very little amplification, to such issues as ‘Green’, ‘Feminist’ and ‘Ecological’ economics, to Rudolf Steiner's threefold social order and to such names as Karl Polanyi, Peter Kropotkin and Ernest Schumacher. The ten points of contrast between the dreamed of Poetic-philosophical Economy and the Modern Economy raise many contemporary issues that are urgently in need of private and group study. The reader who has read so far into this review will be unable to resist the temptation to acquire the book itself – and also a copy of Consolation.

The publisher is Routledge.

Foundations for a Humanitarian Economy: Re-thinking Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy © William D Bishop 2022.

Review: Rethinking Boethius © Frances Hutchinson 2023.

Review | 28.02.23

community, nature & economics, Need for Roots, politics, tax and benefits, England, Review

Also see