John Marenbon

title.none: Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy (John Marenbon)

identifier.other: baj9928.0209.022 02.09.22

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: John Marenbon, Trinity College, Cambridge,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2002

identifier.citation: Boethius. Relihan, Joel C., trans. Consolation of Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001. Pp. xxxiii,216. $9.95 $34.95 0-87220-584-3. ISBN: 0-87220-583-5.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 02.09.22

Boethius. Relihan, Joel C., trans. Consolation of Philosophy. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2001. Pp. xxxiii,216. $9.95 $34.95 0-87220-584-3. ISBN: 0-87220-583-5.

Reviewed by:

John Marenbon
Trinity College, Cambridge

Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy is one of the few important philosophical texts that, like Plato's dialogues and Augustine's Confessions, are also highly wrought literary compositions. Although no reader can fail to notice the outward aspects of the Consolation's literary form -- that it alternates between prose and poetry, and is cast as a dialogue between the character Boethius and a personification of Philosophy -- many translations make it clear that they are by scholars who regard the poems as rather routine verse interludes and the prose as polished but not dense or complex. One of Joel Relihan's great merits is to recognize Boethius as a sophisticated writer, who chooses and repeats his words and phrases with care; the author of a prosimetrum that will be understood fully only by taking into account all of its various aspects -- its genre, its dialogue-structure, the poetry and the verbal patterning, as well as the philosophical arguments. Professor Relihan's main way of bringing this recognition to bear on his translation is through intelligent literality. He believes that Boethius' phrasing, choice of words and repetitions deserve to be preserved so far as is possible in a translation, and he is willing to pay a certain price in terms of awkwardness. Compare, for example, this passage (I.4.43):

At vero hic etiam nostris malis cumulus accedit, quod existimatio plurimorum non rerum merita sed fortunae spectat eventum eaque tantum iudicat esse provisa quae felicitas commendaverit; quo fit ut existimatio bona prima omnium deserat infelices. in Relihan's translation:

But it is this that makes the full measure of my disasters overflow, that the opinions of most people look not to the merits of things but only to the outcome of Fortune, and that their judgement is that only the things that good Fortune has endorsed have been in the care of Providence. So it is that the good opinion they once enjoyed is the first thing of all that forsakes the unfortunate.

and in the recent translation by P.G. Walsh (Oxford University Press: World's Classics, 1999):

And further, my evil plight is greatly intensified by the fact that most people look not at the merits of a case, but at its chance outcome. They consider the stamp of success as the sole criterion of prudent forethought, and so the first casualty of failure is one's good repute.

Walsh is a careful translator, and here, as often, his polished English better conveys the flair of Boethius's rhetoric, and the concision of his Latin, than Relihan's looser language. But Relihan's version is far nearer to being an exact rendering of Boethius' words; and on one of the few substantive disagreements of interpretat ion, Relihan is probably right to link provisa with providence, as opposed to human foresight; although a version that preserved the ambiguity in the original would have been even better. Although there is no shortage of places where the more natural English phrasing of Walsh's and other recent translations is preferable, at least to the British ear, to Relihan's rather awkward style, the many instances of greater literal accuracy (some further examples will be seen below) give this new translation the edge as the version to be used by the serious, but Latin-less student of the Consolation.

When, however, Relihan claims in his preface that he has provided not only a new translation, but 'a new sort of translation' of the Consolation, he probably does not have merely his dedication to literal accuracy in mind, but rather two special features: the apparatus of parallels, and his special method of rendering the verse passages. At the bottom of every page of the translation, there is a list of other places in the text where a number of the important words or phrases in that section also occur -- a sort of running concordance. The benefit of such an instrument in an edition of an intricate text in its original language is obvious. Where the parallels concerned are the words of a translation, the whole exercise becomes more problematic. Since, clearly, what Relihan wants to illustrate is the verbal patterning in Boethius' text, it might seem that he is committed, at least so far as the words selected for the apparatus are concerned, to sticking to a single English equivalent for each Latin word. In fact, Relihan wisely avoids so constraining himself. Indeed, it is actually rather difficult to find instances among the words listed in his apparatus where a given Latin term that occurs a few times is always translated by the same English one. Even where Relihan comes near to doing so, some exception will often be found: as for example in the case of perspicax, which Relihan translates as 'penetrating' whenever it occurs; but he renders the comparative adverb perspicacius at line 8 of III, m. 11 as 'more...clear to view'. The apparatus is at its best when it identifies a certain translation that is used consistently for a given Latin word in a certain usage. For instance, meritum is used just twice, in the ablative, in the sense that Relihan renders well by 'in virtue of': the apparatus identifies and links these two occurrences.

In many cases, however, the use of different English words to translate the same Latin word puts the whole enterprise of providing the apparatus into question, even if the differences in translation are themselves justifiable. For example, Relihan decides to translate sospes as 'recuperation'. He arrives thereby at the following renderings: (I.6.17) aditum reconciliandae sospitatis, 'the entryway for winning back your recuperation' [Walsh: 'the means of recovering your health']; (I.6.19) sospitatis auctori grates, 'you may thank the sponsor of your recuperation' [Walsh: 'thanks be to the source of health']; (III.12.9) ut felicitatis compos patriam sospes revisas, 'so that you can return to your fatherland fully recuperated, the master of your happiness' [Walsh: 'to ensure that you return in safety and happiness to your homeland']. But, at IV.1.9, Relihan translates Pennas etiam tuae menti quibus se in altum tollere possit adfigam, ut perturbatione depulsa sospes in patriam meo ductu, mea semita, meis etiam vehiculis revertaris as 'In fact, I will equip your mind with wings, so that it can raise itself on high, so that you can cast your confusion into exile and return safe to your fatherland, following my lead, along my path, by my conveyances' [Walsh: 'I shall also equip your mind with wings to enable it to soar upward. In this way you can shrug off your anxiety, and under my guidance, along my path, and in my conveyance you can return safely to your native land']. In his apparatus, Relihan lists IV.1.9 (along with the three earlier places) along with the instances of 'recuperation/recuperated'. Yet here he translates sospes as 'safe', and so readers who do not have the Latin text in front of them will simply be puzzled. It may also be asked whether 'recuperation' is a good translation for sospitas at I.6.17 and 19. In all these cases, Walsh's decisions about translating sospes/sospitas seem better, although his rendering of the passages does turn out in general to be less literal.

Indeed, Relihan's apparatus as often as not acts less as a tool for unravelling the complexity of the verbal structure of the Consolation than as a witness to Relihan's own inconsistencies. For example, iucunditas is translated as 'delightfulness' (III.1.2, III.7.3), 'delight' (III.9.15, III.10.36) and 'decent delight' (III.2.9 and 12; III.7.5, III.11.5). These variations may be justifiable, but it is confusing for the apparatus to treat all the different versions as if they were the same: the Latin-less reader does not know if the differences in English correspond to different though related Latin words or, as is in fact the case, they are all versions of the same Latin word. Less easy to justify is the apparently random choice of either 'sorrow' or 'grief' to render maeror. And there are occasions where translation and apparatus combine to mislead. The translation reads at I.2.5 'he's suffering from lethargy' and the apparatus refers readers to III.1.2, where they will read 'the greatest consolation for lethargic hearts'. An interesting repetition -- but it is not Boethius's. At 1.2.5 the Latin reads lethargum patitur, and at III.1.2 summum lassorum solamen animorum. Lethargum is a technical, medical term, which probably should not share its translation with any more everyday word; at any rate, the apparatus should not suggest that it reappears when it does not.

The other special feature of Relihan's translation concerns the verse passages. Relihan rightly wishes to distinguish in his version between the prose passages and the more concise, highly wrought language of the poetry. His way of doing so, however, is rather strange. He will, he says, 'reproduce through English accents the rhythms and meters of the original poems' (p. xxviii). A few lines later, Relihan explains how he will go about doing so. He will add accent marks to show where the 'stresses' should fall but, as he adds immediately, 'the stress marks are intended to have their Latin force: That is, they show where the syllables should be dragged out a bit, pronounced more slowly, given more time' (p. xxix). Relihan's idea, then, is that his English renderings reproduce the quantitative Latin metre, not by making accented syllables correspond to long ones in the Latin, but rather quantitatively. The accentuation of the English may well not correspond to the quantities, but will offer a competing 'rhythm', as he calls it (though is it not odd to suggest that the quantitative pattern is a rhythm?). The trouble with Relihan's scheme is that, in many cases, the only guide to quantity in the translation are the accent marks he inserts: rather than having made the words of the translation in some sense correspond to the metre of the original, Relihan simply indicates that the Latin metre should be imposed on the English words through his accent marks. Who, for instance, would have guessed that (II m. 1, ll. 1-2):

When with a haughty hand she turns things upside-down Like wild Boeotian straits she rushes back and forth

should be pronounced (I use capitals to indicate Relihan's accented letters):

When wIth a haUghty hAnd she tUrns things UpsIde-dOwn Like wIld BoeOtian straIts she rUshes bAck And fOrth?

And how are we to read, or indeed hear, the version with the accents so that the quantitative pattern emerges? Formal quantitative patterning tends to be disregarded by an English ear listening to English; by far the strongest impression is given by the accentual patterning.

In spite of his misguided attempt to follow the Latin metres, Relihan does succeed in providing often vivid and usually very accurate renderings of the poems -- or perhaps because of it, since the constraints under which he imagines himself to be working may have forced him into constructions and choices or use of words that are out of the ordinary enough to mark off these verse passages very clearly from the prose.

I have dwelled on the two facets of Relihan's translation that are supposed to make it exceptional. Neither of them is well judged, though neither prevents the translation from being, as a whole, and with qualifications, an intelligent and reliable one. The qualifications result indeed, not from the somewhat misguided and over-ambitious attempts to make this into a new sort of translation, but from more mundane failures that seem mostly to be due to Relihan's weakness on the philosophical side. Relihan's training and interests are literary. His care as a translator usually saves him from errors in conveying Boethius' characters' philosophical arguments, but not always. In Book V (3.9), he translates quoquo modo sese habeat ordo causarum necessarium esse eventum praescitarum rerum as "The order of causes -- exactly how it is constituted is irrelevant -- is a necessary result of foreknown things' rather than (as the whole argument shows it must be taken): 'in whichever direction the causes are ordered [that is, whether future events cause the foreknowledge of them, or the foreknowledge causes the future events], the outcome of things that have been foreseen is necessary.' Relihan's mistranslation leads him into a wider misinterpretation of what is going on here. He observes in his note (p. 192) on the passage that 'at V.4.6, Philosophy erroneously refers to this line of argument as the prisoner's own, not as one that he imputes to other philosophers.' But the view that Philosophy attributes to Boethius the character at V.4.6 (cf. V.4.4) is that prescience does not impose necessity on future events -- that is, that it is not the cause of their necessity. This view is one that Boethius the character does accept, for the sake of argument, throughout almost all the discussion. The position of other philosophers that he is rejecting at V.3.7-9 is the view that, just because prescience is not causally responsible for the necessity of future events, it follows that divine prescience does not entail the necessity of the foreknown events. By contrast, Boethius the character is arguing, in the passage mistranslated by Relihan, that although prescience might not be causally responsible for the future events' necessity, none the less it is the case that they are foreseen only if they are necessary.

Relihan's philosophical weakness is apparent also in the notes, which are brief and not very helpful either with philosophical sources and parallels or with analysis of the argument, and in the Introduction. The Introduction has one very good feature. Rather than telling readers what to think, it raises a series of questions that encourage them to investigate the literary structure, generic identity and hidden implications of the text. But two very general pages on the 'Philosophical Content' of the Consolation do not go far to give general readers the background they need for understanding Boethius' arguments, and there is not even a short section outlining Boethius' life and his many years' work as a writer of logical commentaries and textbooks, or his contribution to theology. It would also have been more thoughtful, too, had Relihan pointed out more clearly that the line of interpretation he favours, in which Philosophy is not to be regarded as giving Boethius the author's own final views, is an unusual and controversial one. Relihan may well be on the right lines with his reading, but those coming afresh to the Consolation should be put in a position to reach their own, balanced judgement. The paragraphs above have been concerned mainly with the shortcomings of Relihan's volume. This review would, however, be most unjust if it did not emphasize again that Relihan has approached a very difficult task with enthusiasm, sensitivity and (albeit one-sidedly literary) learning, and he has produced a very good translation that deserves to be widely used in spite of its shortcomings.