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21.02.07 Uhlfelder, The Consolation of Philosophy as Cosmic Image

The Medieval Review

21.02.07 Uhlfelder, The Consolation of Philosophy as Cosmic Image


Myra Uhlfelder passed away in 2011 before her monograph, The Consolation of Philosophy as Cosmic Image, could be completed. A scholar of classical and medieval Latin, she had asked former student Margaret Jennings to help "bring the Boethius book to life," as Jennings puts it in her foreword (xi), and the book indeed came to life seven years after Uhlfelder's death. The appearance of The Consolation of Philosophy as Cosmic Image is thus a culmination of and tribute to a career spanning six decades.

The book's scope, perhaps fittingly, is at once enormously capacious and precisely focused. Uhlfelder sets out to offer a key, if not to all mythologies, then to all the intricate and interlocking layers of meaning in Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, which Uhlfelder argues is nothing less than a model of the cosmos itself, and humanity as microcosm thereof. Jennings has fleshed out the unfinished manuscript, beginning with a foreword sketching out the state of the field of Boethius studies over the last several decades, establishing the significance of Uhlfelder's contribution in negotiating disparate schools of thought before turning to an overview of the monograph's argument.

The first chapter is itself a microcosm of the book as a whole, tracing a summary of the structure of the Consolatio in its entirety. As Uhlfelder describes, Book I poses Philosophia's question, "what is man?" The remaining four books of the Consolatio respond to that question, progressing from the lowest to the highest levels of understanding while focusing, respectively, on sensus, imaginatio, ratio, and intelligentia. But Uhlfelder argues that the Consolatio is also a set of concentric circles arranged around the focal point of Book III. M.9, which contains a "like image" or similis imago of the cosmos and, in microcosm, the image of man made in the likeness of the Creator, and thus, albeit "remotely," an image of God: "Since the cosmos itself as depicted in III. M.9 is also, in some ineffable way, God's image as well as his product, it too, along with all of its 'like images,' shares in the divine attributes" (9). In the Consolatio, then, "insofar as a human craftsman adopts cosmic order as a model, his opus becomes a cosmic image" (11).

The second chapter deals with the much-discussed III. M.9, which Uhlfelder reads as both an image of the cosmos and a "center of the other cosmic depictions," which is to say the other likenesses or analogies of the cosmos that the work contains (13). This chapter begins with a full text and translation of the section, and then commentary on III. M.9 arranged as a series of notes on the text, and finally a discussion of the poem as cosmic image. The discussion of III. M.9 heavily invests in readings of proportions and perfect numbers, drawing on Boethius' other writings. Boethius' De institutione arithmetica figures heavily here, as the structure of this and other sections including the numbers of lines and proportions of lines and sections in the text are correlated with numerical principles suggested in other Boethian texts.

Following the discussion of III. M.9, the next chapter broadens the focus to a discussion of Book III as a whole, read as "an image of the physical cosmos described in III. M.9" (27). Further consideration is given here to proportions of the text and discussions of proportions in the De institutione arithmetica and Greek musical theory. Much of Uhlfelder's discussion proceeds by offering ambitious hypotheses before teasing out the implications for the text if the hypothesis were accepted--"if this poem is indeed a cosmic image," etc. (21). Throughout, Uhlfelder asks what we might see if we look at the Consolatio from her perspective, and leads us, as Philosophia does Boethius, from one postulate to the more challenging one for which it had laid the foundation.

Chapter 4 considers Philosophia's argument as itself a cosmic image across Books II-V (33-34). Uhlfelder reads Philosophia herself as a like image of God, arguing that both Philosophia's weaving of her dress and of her philosophical argument establish her as artificer linked to God (35). Much of the work of this chapter, then, is to place the Consolatio in conversation with the traditions of thought that Boethius drew upon. For example, as we are told, Philosophia relies on a method of proving new points based on points that have already been proved, and hence her argument is "geometrical" and focused on the realm of being rather than of becoming (38-39). In setting out the steps of her argument from the outset, Philosophia establishes the importance of order and structure in her philosophical argument.

After considering the philosophical argument of the Consolatio as nothing less than a model of the cosmos, the fifth chapter considers humanity as microcosm. This chapter particularly lays out Uhlfelder's reading of Books II-V as respectively dealing with the faculties of sensus, imaginatio, ratio, and intellegentia, respectively. Each facilitates a different understanding of the human, and the highest, intellegentia, can only be reached in the final book of the Consolatio, when "the argument is finally dealing with the true imago Dei" (56). This reading of the text's structure thus bears some similarity to--but distinguishes itself from--that of Elaine Scarry's "The Well-Rounded Sphere," noted on page 53, which for its part assigns "sense" and "imagination" to Books I & II and "reason" and "insight" to Books IV and V respectively, with Book III raised above the others in the center of the work. This chapter continues the consideration of number and proportion from the previous chapters.

The structure of the Consolatio thus established, Chapter 6 takes up the question of how Christian the philosophical argument of the Consolatio might be understood to be. Arguing that the Trinity and thus Christianity itself become the "hidden treasure" of the work, Uhlfelder argues that the Christian nature of the Consolatio is hidden according to the biblical injunction not to cast pearls before swine (Matt. 6:7, quoted on p. 66), and thus that the Consolatio contains "cryptic Christian meaning" (65). Uhlfelder decrypts this meaning with reference again to the numerological and mathematical significance assigned to numbers and proportions in Boethius' own work and that of Proclus. Correspondences of Boethian divisions of lines, meters, and prose sections to specific numbers

are thus assigned meaning, and the number of lines in any given section may be connected to some hidden significance. For example, Uhlfelder argues that the tenth, twentieth, and thirtieth sections of the Consolatio correspond to Christian ideas, and thus are "referring obliquely to the Christian Trinity" (65). Uhlfelder anticipates that readers may not always find this "hidden treasure" where she does: "The continuing doubt among scholars about the Christian intention of the work is a proof of Boethius' success in hiding his traces from the profane" (66).

The final chapter both rehearses the multiple, overlapping structural patterns described thus far and considers further ones. Much of this chapter also takes the form of outlines, or series of sketches, perhaps owing to the unfinished state of the project at the time of the author's death. Repeated words linking the different cosmic analogies are considered here, and these might help to elucidate some of the structural patterns considered in the previous chapters. The book concludes with a consideration both of the text's Christian meaning and of its dialogue as representing "an interchange between two parts of Boethius' psyche, with Philosophia representing a projection of his rational self" (91). Not unlike Boethius, we come at the end of the work to a better and more complete understanding of the concentric structures that make up the cosmos and the human mind as microcosm thereof.

Since the manuscript was unfinished at Uhlfelder's death, less contemporary scholarship is brought into conversation than might otherwise have been the case. A brief bibliography at the beginning of the volume offers a reference for all of the works cited therein. Many of the volume's footnotes offer important references to Boethius' other works, or to analogues in other classical authors. A large portion of the footnotes contain the Latin original of quotations, which are primarily given in English within the text itself. Sometimes the Latin is omitted, with the explanation that it is not at issue in a particular moment (44 n27); the reader, however, might have preferred to see it all the same.

This ambitious and many-layered book is of broad interest to both classicist and medievalist scholars of the Consolatio, who will find commentary and structural analysis of each book. Medievalists will find that Uhlfelder has also considered the medieval commentary traditions and literary afterlives of the Consolatio, and carefully delineated the differences between, for example, a point made by Boethius, the earlier (different) point in Plato's Timaeus that it draws upon, and the later (different again) interpretation in Chaucer's translation of Boethius (6). Although a slender volume, Uhlfelder's last work displays a sweeping depth and breadth of learning regarding the Consolatio and the works it influenced and drew influence from. Readers and scholars will find much to consider and debate in its pages. Readers of Boethius will find their understanding challenged and deepened as they proceed through the various stages of The Consolation of Philosophy as Cosmic Image, not unlike Boethius progressing through the stages of Philosophia's instruction. In this, it is a fitting capstone to a scholarly career.