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Woman’s Work: Lady Philosophy's role in The Consolation of Philosophy

Updated on May 15, 2015
Ronna Pennington profile image

Ronna Pennington, a college instructor, has a Master of Liberal Arts degree with emphasis in history.

That's no "lady"

If the men of Boethius’ era were encouraged to pursue philosophy, why is it that the personification of that virtue appears to him in The Consolation of Philosophy as a woman? The character of Lady Philosophy is not stepping outside the bounds of her gender role for two reasons. First, Lady Philosophy is not a real, tangible woman. As the conscience of Boethius, she is really male, not female. Presume, though, that Lady Philosophy is real. Even then, her philosophical nature does not step outside the bounds of the era’s typical female because she is actually more nurse and caregiver than a philosopher.

Lady Philosophy appears to Boethius in prison as he is wallowing in pity regarding the turn of events that stripped him of his dignity and landed him in exile. She is angered when she sees the Muses encouraging him to engage in his engrossing self-pity. These drama queens, or more literally the “whores from the theater,” are doing nothing to improve Boethius’ mental state. (p. 4) They are actually encouraging him to fall into deeper depression.

Lady Philosophy shoos the Muses away so she can begin to cure Boethius. She says the Muses cannot offer him the medicine he needs and are only enabling his illness. (p. 4) Although Boethius does not recognize her right away, Lady Philosophy sits at the foot of his bed and sings him a song of comfort, the same way a nurse would comfort a child. (p.5) Childcare was an acceptable duty of women of the era; therefore Lady Philosophy acts purely within that gender-specific role. In her caregiving of Boethius, she is performing typical women’s work.


A man and his conscience

Lady Philosophy with Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy, written by Boethius as he was exiled and awaiting execution.
Lady Philosophy with Boethius in the Consolation of Philosophy, written by Boethius as he was exiled and awaiting execution. | Source

Lady Philosphy as a caregiver

When Boethius finally recognizes her, he specifically refers to her as “my nurse.” (p. 7) He thinks at first she has been likewise accused and exiled, but finds that she has come to care for him. “How could I desert my child…” she asks, exhibiting the type of care a mother or nurse would provide for her child. (p. 7)

Throughout her reasoning with Boethius, she uses the logic that he understands to explain things to him, just like a child’s caregiver would do. She distributes the knowledge in small doses that he can digest, bringing him out of his self-pity and back into a state of knowledge. When the reader looks at Lady Philosophy’s distribution of knowledge as a dose of cure, it is clear to see that she is a nurse acting in the way to best treat her patient. She prepares Boethius for stronger “medicine” using a mixture of rhetoric and music, two tools she knows she can use to reach Boethius and guide him out of his depression, back into the light of philosophy. (p. 21)

Like a good nurse, Lady Philosophy comforts her patient Boethius during his exile. She sits by his bed and talks with him, gives him “medicine,” and tries in general to boost his morale. The philosophy she uses to do so is only a means to an end. It is the way she relates to Boethius, not her primary role. Philosophy is not her primary focus; consoling Boethius is.


Luck be a lady

The popularity of Lady Philosphy lead to other "ladies" appearing in the Middle Ages, such as Lady Fortune and her wheel of fortune as in one of Boccaccio's works.
The popularity of Lady Philosphy lead to other "ladies" appearing in the Middle Ages, such as Lady Fortune and her wheel of fortune as in one of Boccaccio's works. | Source

Typical social role

Because caregiving is Lady Philosophy’s primary concern, she is well within the limits of the social role of women during the era. Since a woman of this time frame would not have been keen on the study of philosophy, it makes sense that Boethius simply personified his own conscience as this tender caregiver. Either way, Lady Philosophy does not act outside the confines of her presumed gender because she is a nurse rather than philosopher, or is a reflection of the male mind and thus not even female at all.

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Source

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard Green. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1962.

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