The Consolation of Philosophy: Study as Path, Wisdom as Mother

When the 5th century Roman philosopher Boëthius was under house arrest for treason (he got on the wrong side of a political fight, basically), he wrote his best-seller, an allegorical play in which he is visited in prison by Philosophy, personified as a wisdom goddess.

When she first arrives, he complains about his misfortune, especially after he had a faithful and illustrious life, and she says (alongside accusing other schools of ancient philosophers — the Epicureans and Stoics — of committing sexual assault against her) this to comfort him:

Think you that this is the first time that wisdom has been harassed by dangers among men of shameless ways? In ancient days before the time of my child, Plato, have we not as well as nowadays fought many a mighty battle against the recklessness of folly? …

[It] is no matter for your wonder if, in this sea of life, we are tossed about by storms from all sides; for to oppose evil men is the chief aim we set before ourselves. Though the band of such men is great in numbers, yet is it to be contemned: for it is guided by no leader, but is hurried along at random only by error running riot everywhere.

If this band when warring against us presses too strongly upon us, our leader, Reason, gathers her forces into her citadel, while the enemy are busied in plundering useless baggage. As they seize the most worthless things, we laugh at them from above, untroubled by the whole band of mad marauders, and we are defended by that rampart to which riotous folly may not hope to attain.

Boëthius, The Consolation of Philosophy (1.3), Cooper, tr. 1902.

The historical record available to me teems with intellectuals and contemplatives misunderstood, vilified, and quite regularly murdered by what — as a junior member of both ancient cohorts — I would agree to call “evil men.” Philosophy herself includes a list of intellectual martyrs in her consolation, starting with Socrates, who “won his victory of an unjust death, with [her] present at his side.” I think about the seemingly inevitable purges of intellectuals, artists, and other independent thinkers after revolutions. Autocrats and educated people are mostly incompatible, for unsurprising reasons.

As they talk, she asks him why if everything is guided by God — which he admits he believes is true, even after everything he’s been through — he’s still confused about how bad things can happen to good people. He’s basically tormented by doubt, the deadliest of the hindrances. But he’s also stuck in wrong view. His understanding of the universe, and therefore of himself, is not yet mature. She diagnoses his ailment in terms that resonate easily with the Buddhist view of dissatisfaction (dukkha) as fundamentally conditioned by ignorance (avijjā), especially about the nature of the self:

‘Now,’ said she, ‘I know the cause, or the chief cause, of your sickness. You have forgotten what you are.

Consolation of Philosophy (1.6)

Their conversation addresses that most thorny of the old theological problems: reconciling God’s omniscience with human free will. Basically, if God knows everything, including every decision we think we’re making freely, mustn’t that mean that the future is predestined and that free will is illusory?

Her answer is beautiful, and turns on God transcending our limited, linear perception of time [duh!], and experiencing a timeless present, therefore aware of things as they unfold in the same way we are aware of what is immediately happening to us.

C.S. Lewis puts a sharp summary of this position in the voice of his allegorical devil in letter 27 of The Screwtape Letters (PDF) — and there’s more to notice here about why Boëthius’s wisdom projection is a female angel but Lewis’s is a male demon (and a bureaucrat to boot). Here’s a deeper philosophical summary.

What she’s really doing, of course, isn’t just putting forth an abstract argument about the nature of free will, but she’s saying something important and kind to this elder on the eve of his violent and unjust death. I might translate it like this:

Your life matters.
Goodness matters.
Don’t. Lose. Hope.

Philosophy is no inconsequential or disembodied intellectual pastime here. She has arrived in miraculous flesh (which is to say, at least, that the literary image of that flesh is itself a kind of embodiment) in response to his desperate prayers, but really to bring him to awakening on the eve of his execution. She is explicitly maternal, coming to comfort the child she “nourished upon the milk” of her teaching, and brings consolation (consolatio), based in wisdom: his suffering is based on false premises and clear seeing is the medicine to resolve his heart.

I think this is why I love philosophical discussions of action and its results so dearly. Conversations about identity, will, action, and guidance are some of the most direct and meaningful things we talk about. In Buddhist traditions it’s in the doctrines of karma and Liberation. In Christian traditions it’s Fate and Salvation. In Scientific traditions it’s Systems Theory and Positive Psychology. Each of these systems has ethical guidelines, and reasons for them. We want to know what to do in a complex and painful world, and why.

As a side note for the Buddhist translation geeks, I wonder here if “consolation” might be an interesting way to translate karuna, rather than the standard “compassion”. They’re both Christian terms, but have different valences. If compassion is to “feel with” someone’s pain, but consolation is to address that pain with the intent to comfort (which is the function of the consolatio as a literary genre), consolation might be more accurate to the active, or directive, tone of the brahmavihāra in general. We don’t just feel kindness, compassion, joy, or equanimity, we direct these feelings toward others with the intent toward action: “radiating kindness over the entire world” as the Mettā Sutta sings, also using a maternal metaphor: “Even as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child…”.

Compassion and wisdom, the two wings of the Dharma.

So this is the dual purpose of philosophical study: heart comfort amid the storms caused by the errors of men [I’ll just leave that in the gendered here… because men], and awakening to what’s really true, important, real.

I’ll leave the now problematic “real” there as well, because it’s embedded in the worldview Boëthius is preaching to himself, and ours still, though the philosophers have largely discarded it. Philosophy now is a different wraith. She knows she’s not “real,” knows that she’s a literary device, an allegory, a hopeful projection, a trace. But that doesn’t mean she has left her beloved children. Mothers don’t do that. She retreats to “that rampart to which riotous folly may not hope to attain” and waits it out with her sister in clarity: Reason. That’s real. (At least, given our current autocrats, I hope so.)

If wisdom is our mother, then study is the path.

In its basic form (as well as some of its philosophical details) the consolation Philosophy brings to her suffering child Boëthius is at the heart of Buddhist thought as well, including the personification of wisdom as maternal, echoing both the image from the earlier Mettā Sutta, and the sibling South Asian goddesses: Saraswatī, the Hindu personification of wisdom and learning, and Prajñāpāramitā, the Mother of All the Buddhas.

The Mother of All Buddhas

In one of the early Prajñāpāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom, which is both the name of the goddess and the name of the philosophical school) texts, The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines, Wisdom is portrayed as a mother because she gives birth to Buddhas in the sense of awakening them from ignorance. Here’s a bit, in Edward Conze’s old King James-style prose:

Tathāgatas [Buddhas] bring this perfection of wisdom to mind, and it is through their might, sustaining power and grace that people write, learn, study, spread and repeat it. … for the weal and happiness of a great body of people, from pity for Gods, men and all beings … they put forth zeal so that this perfection of wisdom may last long, so that it may not be destroyed, so that Māra [The Deceiver] and his host may not prevent this perfection of wisdom from being taught, written, and practiced.

… For she is their mother and begetter, she showed them the all-knowledge, she instructed them in ways of the world. From her have the Tathāgatas come forth. For she has begotten and shown that cognition of the all-knowing, she has shown them the world for what it really is. The all-knowledge of the Tathāgatas has come forth from her.

Conze, tr. The Perfection of Wisdom in 8000 Lines (12.1)

In the Prajñāpāramitā, study, especially the very material performance of reading, copying, and teaching texts, may be thought of as the heart of practice. The philosophy itself is non-dual, and the genre supernatural, so images and their descriptions become the core performance gesture the lineage produces. The Perfection of Wisdom is at its heart a literature. It is to be read.

So we read. And what we find in this body of visionary texts is a moral vision of the universe defined first by the dualism of ignorance and omniscience, or error and its absence, and then by an overarching unity that holds both in dynamic tension. The one who most embodies this tension — who knows that diminishing ignorance and uplifting clarity is both the support for, and result of, resting in timeless presence — is a goddess. Her signature quality is vastness, emptiness, being without essence, unboundedness.

If that resonates for us, our primary discipline must be the ongoing attempt to identify and uproot the tendencies toward every kind of error. We have to learn to sense what’s happening more accurately, because the results of not doing so are clearly so devastating, for everyone. And then to rest in a timeless present? I’m not sure what that means. I think I first need to learn to rest in time. That’s where all the errors happen, so that’s where our work is.

Part of why study has become such an important part of my practice is that I’ve come to feel how unreliable the mirror of my direct experience is. The problem here is that compelling idea: “direct.” My personal experience is mine, right? Because it’s immediate, sensate, and faster than thought, it feels direct. I know what I know, and nobody can take that away from me. Right? But that’s not how it works.

Once in a conversation with my PhD advisor, Dr. Lynette Hunter, in a moment when I had accidentally slipped from academic (Post-structuralist) patois into Dharma (Buddhist Humanist) shorthand and used the phrase, her return was fast and sharp: “There is no such thing as ‘direct experience’.”

I got the teaching instantly: the only way to deepen in inquiry and liberation is to make deconstruction as vigilant a companion as the devilish bureaucrat it’s defending against. But since the devil, Ignorance, interprets projects the world through exactly our bodies, our hearts, our histories, our heritage, how can I trust that I’m having an unmediated contact between a pure me and a pure object? Neither of us are innocents, and barely remember being one. Intuition and direct experience, as beautiful and compelling as they are — and even with Mindfulness awake and doing its thing — may be not be of much use here.

Basically, anything I perceive — and anything I think and feel and “know” about what I perceive — could be wrong. You think this is more true now than ever, but this isn’t a sermon about our “post-truth” culture. Ask Boëthius. This is nothing new.

We need guidance, and not from ourselves. To be precise, we need guidance from people — or deities, or texts, or both. Philosophy, in other words — that which is wiser than ourselves. How else will we be able to know we’re on the path? Some of us are privileged enough to have actual personal contact with people wiser than ourselves. But as is painfully obvious, lots of them turn out to be not so wise after all, and the ones that are can’t be as available to us as we need, almost by definition. There are never enough good teachers and mentors.

So here’s where the study part comes in.

Study as Path

In my Buddhist and Yoga communities, study often seems to be considered a secondary practice, “intellectual” as opposed to “embodied,” like the meditative or social action limbs. There’s some basis for this in both the Pāli and Zen texts that are our foundation, but I think for us it’s mostly a distorted position that rides on anti-intellectual tendencies in American culture at large. Study is neither embodied or disembodied, wholesome or unwholesome, itself. It’s a practice, and like meditation or any other exercise, can be done in a wholesome or unwholesome way.

I got into study of ancient texts not in school or in a training, and not because I thought I should learn more about the practices I was devoted to, but because I was searching for consolation — for comfort, guidance, direction. As insecurely attached people (with mother wounds, which may be an implicit backdrop to all those philosophers’ maternal projections as well) often have, I run a pretty constant comparing mind. “What’s better, what’s worse,” etc. We all know this is super painful, and probably have heard a thousand times that the Buddha taught the way out of these mind states, which are based in delusion and ignorance about what we really are. Sound familiar?

One way this manifested for me in the early years of my spiritual search was an obsessive urge to know a little bit about everything that might be important. I’m a generalist, not a specialist. I read from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, the Tao, the Upaniṣads… politics, history, culture, myths… and took in every kind of art I had access to… every kind of healing modality… I learned about a lot of practices and ideas.

I could tell early on that I was doing this out of a kind of deep insufficiency: I wanted to know what the best thing in the world was so that I could get close to it. And solve the problem of constant comparison by simply doing the best thing.

Unlike many of my fellow comparing minds (you know who you are), for me the judgment didn’t hook onto being the best at a given thing. It was enough for me to know what the best thing was, and be a student of it. I didn’t even have to succeed at it. It being the Best Thing and all, it was perfectly honorable to give it a sincere go, even if I struck out. Nice maneuver, right? It let me be both sort of the best and sort of a failure at the same time.

Be best.

Marketing. But for what, exactly?

So because I started out with the idea that art was the best way to spend a life, and music was the best art, I followed a path from lesser music (as a violinist that meant romantic classical) to better music (modern classical) to the best music, which was “silence,” of course, now available as an app. Because progress. (Much later, I realized that in my you-don’t-know-what-you-don’t-know utterly middle-class snobbish zeal for the perfection of music I had overlooked quite a few truly sick jams, including the entire genre of EDM… whew. Not all is lost.

Ok, all is still lost. But it’s a deliriously satisfying kind of lost.)

As the god of music faded into silence around me, I turned to searching for the best philosophy and practice — the better path that might lead to the end of all this pain, and went from difficult dualistic religion (Catholicism) to impossible non-dual non-religion (Zen) to methodical pragmatic religion (Theravāda), again characterized by silence, now available as an app you probably already have.

I now record meditations for these kind of things. Which is a bit, as the kids say now [they don’t, but philosophers do], “hyper-real” (which just means “characterized by emptiness,” which would be Prajñāpāramitā’s way to say it).

Insight Meditation: the actually practicable Theravāda Buddhism of the Pāli Canon, fleshed out by the all-encompassing maternal ontology of the Prajñāpāramitā, suggested to me a Middle Way between all the problems the other systems had. Still does. So here I’ve landed, gone for consolation to a wisdom mother, making my livelihood teaching other deluded but sincere folks to read, revere, copy, practice, and offer comfort to all those who struggle through the storms brought on by the actions of reckless men.

But receiving consolation from Philosophy means, as her name indicates, falling in love with her. And because she’s composed of ideas, that means reading, listening, and discussing ideas. Through the haze of our anti-intellectual culture, and depending on who you are and what your background is through the traumas of stratified access to education in this culture, can we come together in sincere exploration of ideas? Not to bypass suffering in a kind of shallow intellectualizing, but to confront it directly, at its root, which is ignorance?

Study is that coming together. Whether you’re reading a text, or engaging with peers or teachers or students, live or otherwise, study is relational. Literature is relationship. It’s conversations about ideas, about experiences, about lives. It’s never disembodied if it’s really study: inquiry into what’s real: what to do… what not to. You probably won’t learn that stuff very well on your own, without guidance, without the words of others, without visitation in your prison from someone who knows. Almost nobody does. It’s too slippery — the mind. You need your mother to teach you.

Boëthius teaches us that it’s never too late to cry out for Philosophy. That no matter how lost or imprisoned we are, no matter how cruel and capricious the world feels, she always appears to console her children.

[Boëthius] Help! They’re murdering me! Why??

[Philosophy] I’ve got you, baby. Don’t lose hope. It’s going to be ok.

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