Book Review: The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy is simultaneously the starting point and the final consummation of the great medieval synthesis of the Greco-Roman and Jewish-Early Christian worldviews. Here, Boethius sets the task of the middle ages to reconcile the two great blocs of Western heritage and does so admirably himself.

Written while Boethius was in prison awaiting his own execution, Boethius frames the book in the form of a prison dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy. While contemplating his great fall from fame, power, and wealth to his pitiable imprisonment, Philosophy arrives to both chide and extol him. She begins by asking him if he indeed remembers what he is — what a human being is. Discovering that he has forgotten, she proceeds to teach him and the rest of the book, a moving and intellectually stimulating discussion of the nature of life, death, fate, ethics, and much else, ensues.

The result is a philosophy which brings together the best of Plato and Aristotle as well as their Greek and Roman progeny along with a manner of thinking thoroughly molded in biblical thought. Nearly every philosophy of the next thousand years looked back to Boethius as the originator of their task as well as the model to be followed in his synthesis.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in philosophy. It is essential reading for an education in the greatest the human mind has ever produced.

The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents

The prison cannot fail to produce delinquents. It does so by the very type of existence that it imposes on its inmates: whether they are isolated in cells or whether they are given useless work, for which they will find no employment, it is, in any case, not ‘to think of man in society; it is to create an unnatural, useless and dangerous existence’; the prison should educate its inmates, but can a system of education addressed to man reasonably have as its object to act against the wishes of nature? The prison also produces delinquents by imposing violent constraints on its inmates; it is supposed to apply the law, and to teach respect for it; but all its functioning operates in the form of an abuse of power. The arbitrary power of administration: ‘The feeling of injustice that a prisoner has is one of the causes that may make his character untamable. When he sees himself exposed in this way to suffering, which the law has neither ordered nor envisaged, he becomes habitually angry against everything around him; he sees every agent of authority as an executioner; he no longer thinks that he was guilty; he accuses justice itself’ (Bigot Préameneu). Corruption, fear and the inefficiency of the warders: ‘Between 1,000 and 1,500 convicts live under the surveillance of between thirty and forty supervisors, who can preserve some kind of security only by depending on informers, that is to say, on the corruption that they carefully sow themselves. Who are these warders? Retired soldiers, men uninstructed in their task, making a trade of guarding malefactors’ (La Fraternité, March 1842). Exploitation by penal labour, which can in these conditions have no educational character: ‘One inveighs against the slave-trade. But are not our prisoners sold, like the slaves, by entrepreneurs and bought by manufacturers. … Is this how we teach our prisoners honesty? Are they not still more demoralized by these examples of abominable exploitation?’

Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, pp. 266-67

Review: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison by Michel Foucault

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this book while sitting in a prison at night, surrounded by sleeping prisoners locked in their cells, during the last few nights of the year I spent as a correctional officer in a Georgia prison. Each point made by Foucault in this book stood out in high relief all round me. So did the points he missed.

While Foucault’s analysis here is, as always, insightful and fascinating, I think his own obsession with the idea of power led him to miss some points which he often seems to be very close to. In one instance, for example, he correctly refers to the prison system as the product of puritanism. This point taken deeper and examined more thoroughly I believe would yield greater insight than the rather nonchalant way Foucault throws it out and moves on.

Ultimately, the word I believe Foucault misses is: Gnosticism. The prison system, as so much of the modern world, is essentially Gnostic. It is the product of an absolute mind-body dichotomy for which Descartes might be blamed for popularizing most recently but which stretches very far back in Western thought. It is, however, even a bastardized Gnosticism at work in the penal system, a Gnosticism stripped of its spiritual elements, which have instead been replaced by a supposed “science of the mind,” “psychology” which no longer takes the “psyche” (that is, the soul) as its subject but some sort of disembodied but ultimately material “mind”.

Simultaneously, God has been replaced by the State. Whereas the medieval prisoner undergoing torture was expected to confess to a priest and receive the absolution of God, the modern prisoner, subject to the State, sits under the watchful gaze of its representatives and has his every bodily function regulated in accordance with the State even as it attempts thereby to control his mind. One need only compare the masses huddled on that Arch of Constantine, an early example of emerging Christian art coupled with political propaganda to, for example, the Panopticon of Bentham. Whose all-seeing Eye do each stand under? What relation does each individual in each respective mass have to his fellows under observation and control?

I recommend this book to anyone interested in the penal system and, more broadly, in the development of the post-Enlightenment world and its differences from the medieval one which preceded it. This book is, simply put, fascinating and thought-provoking.

View all my reviews

How capitalism created the welfare state

It was not a coincidence that asylums, workhouses, a new prison system, and other institutions for social control emerged in the United States and western Europe during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. At a time when elites on both sides of the Atlantic were beginning to embrace the doctrine of laissez-faire, minimal government regulation of the economy, problems of destitution and dependence proliferated. Thus it seemed critical to find solutions appropriate in a free-market society. The new prison system, asylums, and workhouses of the early nineteenth century all were supposed to provide a benevolent form of social control, replacing the family government and stable communities of the past. These caretaker institutions were to offer a nonauthoritarian way of deterring pauperism, resocializing criminals, alleviating mental illness, and teaching the deaf and the blind to read and write.

Even though the emergence of these “crucibles of moral character” was a transatlantic phenomenon, there was something distinctively Americans about institutional reform in the antebellum United States. A religiously fired, millennialist optimism infused the rhetoric of the founders of penitentiaries, houses of refuge, orphan asylums, insane asylums, and common schools. These reformers often spoke in apocalyptic terms, decrying the breakdown of family discipline and the dangers of communal disorder, but they did not regard these new institutions as bulwarks against anarchy and social collapse. Rather, they viewed these asylums as models for society and as instruments of liberation and emancipation. The asylum would free the mentally ill and the disabled from confinement in attics, cellars, and jail cells. The common school would erase class lines and promote social mobility. The prison and the reformatory would remove criminals from the temptations of vice and eradicate the underlying source of crime. It is a point of historical irony that the period of growing laissez-faire also marked the beginning of a new public paternalism, in which public institutions took on the moral prerogatives, presumed benevolence, and good will previously invested in kinship and local communities.

 Steven Mintz, Moralists and Modernizers: America’s Pre-Civil War Reformers, pp. 81-2