Saturday with Socrates: Philosophy, Therapy and Mental Wellbeing – Stephen J. Costello, Ph.D.

Philosophy as Therapy: A Logotherapeutic Reading of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy.

May 4th, 2013, United Arts Club


Three Words in the Title

There are three signifiers we must first consider in the title of this conference: ‘philosophy’, ‘therapy’ and ‘wellbeing’. A philosopher, such as I am, always begins by defining his terms so we can continue with the conversation. Philosophy (philos sophia) is literally translated as the ‘love of wisdom’. When I was a student in UCD’s Philosophy Department I recall this definition being given: ‘Philosophy is the search or the quest through reflection on experience for a fundamental or ultimate understanding of all of reality and especially of man’. Philosophy ponders on the perennial questions of human existence through rational reflection rather than revelatory faith, thus distinguishing it from theology, questions such as: Does God exist, what is art, how can we know, how should we act – issues of importance in ethics, epistemology, ontology and aesthetics, to name but a few. Philosophy is critical and systematic. The philosophy of an individual refers to his basic beliefs or attitudes. There are some basic attitudes required in order to think. Examples of attitudes that some philosophers recommend include:

1 – Astonishment (Kierkegaard): unless one is astonished, for example about the difference of ideas on a same subject, one does not think. The poet and the philosopher, Saint Thomas Aquinas tells us, have this in common: they are moved by the mystery to marvel at being.

2 – Ignorance (Socrates/Plato): Unless one is conscious of one’s own ignorance, one’s lack, one does not think and cannot hear any new idea. 

3 – Suspension of judgment (Descartes): Unless one puts aside momentarily one’s own opinions and axiology, one will have a hard time reading or listening, and understanding a new or foreign theory.

4 – Authenticity (Sartre): Unless one dare say what he has to say, because he worries about other’s opinion or his own conscience, he cannot know what he thinks and is caught up in bad faith (mauvaise foi).    

5 – Sympathy (Edith Stein): If one does not trust others to a minimum degree and have sympathy with the human situation, one cannot hear their differences and objections and therefore cannot self-correct.

6 – Criticism (Hegel): Unless one is questioning or criticising one’s own ideas or other’s ideas (the work of “negativity”) one is indulging in mere opinion (doxa). 

7 – Autonomy (Kant): Unless one dares to know and think by oneself, one maintains oneself in a state of infantilism.

From its founding by Protagoras and Plato philosophy always opposed itself to sophistry as philosophy was interested in sophia and not just in rhetoric. The philosopher is not a saint or a sage; he is a lover of sophia and aletheia, of wisdom and truth. He is a peripatetic or traveller in the land of Being, wondering why there is something and not nothing. To this extent the philosopher’s fundamental attitude is that of wonder. To quote Plato: ‘To wonder is the mark of the philosopher. Indeed philosophy has no other origin’. Aristotle adds: ‘It is owing to their wonder that men both now begin and at first began to philosophise’. Viktor Frankl defined his logotherapy as a meaning-centred spiritual therapy or intervention that worked on attitudinal adjustment: this is philosophy as therapy or philosophical therapy.

So now we come to the second signifier: therapy. Therapy literally means ‘curing’ or ‘healing’. It is the attempted remediation of a health problem, hence the phrase ‘mental health’, which first comes from Plato. Indeed Plato viewed philosophy as a form of therapy. This practical understanding of philosophy as therapeia can be seen particularly in the stoics and has resurfaced in modern times with the work of Wittgenstein and Viktor Frankl to name but two. Psychotherapy addresses psychological problems, aiming to augment the client’s experiences of wellbeing. In ancient Greek psyche meant ‘soul’ so it is primarily a talking treatment involving one’s soul but psychology (literally a logos of the psyche) has long since abandoned its proper subject matter, as it seems to be more interested in statistics than in soul, more interested in the laboratory than the oratory. Psychotherapy has also lost its own soul because, in the main, psychotherapy brings to consciousness or mind instinctual factors whereas logotherapy deals with one’s spiritual aspirations not just one’s psychological aspects. Man is more than psyche, Frankl tells us; man is spirit. So one aim of logotherapy is to rid psychotherapy and psychology of their psychologism. Yes, man is more than psyche but he is also less. Man is soma (body), psyche (mind or soul) but also noös (spirit); this is his tri-dimensional ontology (philosophical anthropology). We are called, in Platonic fashion, to integrate these dimensions of our being. The aim: to achieve wellbeing.

This brings us to the third signifier: well-being refers to a positive condition or subjective state of contentment, to a sense of serenity or happiness (eudaimonia) even. Martin Seligman, the founder of so-called ‘Positive Psychology’ lists the ingredients of wellbeing in his book Flourish thus: a) positive emotion (of which happiness and life satisfaction are all aspects), b) engagement, c) relationships, d) meaning, and e) achievement. He offers exercises to enhance flourishing and to create and maintain positive mental attitude. But it was Plato, as I said, who first explicated the idea of mental health in his book The Republic, so let’s now turn to him briefly.


Plato on Mental Health

The primary model of mental health in the West was proffered by Plato who founded psychology. Plato, whom Freud calls ‘divine’, in his Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, divides the soul (self) into three parts, which will echo centuries later with Freud’s conscious, preconscious and unconscious map of the mind in his first topographical model and in his id, ego, superego in his second, as well as with Frankl’s existential philosophy which construes man as body, mind and spirit. Plato’s doctrine of anamnesis (remembrance) is a forerunner of the unconscious. Plato stresses the spiritual dimension of the person which Frankl labels the noölogical, where health resides. Harmony, for Plato as for Frankl, consists in the integration and unity of the disparate parts of the human personality, with all three elements performing their proper function (ergon). Justice is defined by Plato as inner harmony in Book Five of The Republic. It is man’s real concern and not to do with outward actions but rather with inner events and interests. He likens such self-mastery to a musical score with all three notes on a scale (high, middle and low) being in tune. So too with man: when he orders his soul to the Good (Agathon), to meaning, then the elements of his being will be in concord and unison, ‘fully one instead of many’, as Plato puts it (Plato, p. 221), a unitas multiplex as Frankl calls us following Thomas, a unity in muliplicity and diversity. Disorder is inner strife, an internal civil war (see Plato ibid.). Justice, by contrast, is health, happiness and harmony, in other words, order. As Plato puts it: such excellence (arête) ‘is a kind of mental health’ (p. 222), as we engage in an anamnetic quest for the origins and end of our being, from shadows in the Cave to sunlight exemplified by the Good, and occasioned by the opening of the soul to the divine ground of being Itself, which Frankl calls ‘ultimate meaning’, which is beyond the complete comprehension of mortal man. Mental health, so, would be the absence of a mental disorder, a kind of psycho-spiritual resilience. It is a pity that Plato’s model of mental health and Frankl’s development of it is not taught to our mental health professionals, who have no knowledge of this ancient philosophical pedigree and precursor to modern psychiatric practice. Frankl retrieves and renews this ancient Platonic philosophical tradition with the redeployment of Socratic dialogue in his logotherapy or ‘healing through reason’ but reason understood not in a narrow way as logic or calculation but as openness to perceive and receive reality. Logos is deeper than logic.


Philosophy as Therapy

Epicurus: ‘As for diseases of the mind, against them Philosophy is provided of remedies, being, in that respect, justly accounted the medicine of the mind’. Philosophical practice is more about dialogue than diagnosis, and empathy than expertise. Practical philosophy can be employed in client counselling, group facilitation and organisational consulting – from crèches to cruise lines, from primary schools to prisons, from retirement homes to rehabilitation and remedial clinics. Philosophy offers clarification and consolation with its focus on getting to the essence of things, the nub of the matter, calmly. Its aim, as Wittgenstein tells us, is to produce thoughts that are at peace. It opposes itself or rather offers itself as an alternative to both psychiatry and psychological therapy because it is not just about solving problems or offering solutions than it is about creating the conditions for flourishing. The psychotherapist, unlike the psychiatrist, will at least have undergone years of personal therapy himself before he practises but he or she invariably lacks the philosophical formation that comes from serious and systematic scholarly study of the insights and ideas of the great philosophers, for example, Plato and Pascal, Socrates and Seneca, Epictetus and Emerson, Descartes and Dennett, Hegel and Heidegger, Spinoza and Sartre. How many here know that Spinoza, the 17th century rationalist has given a detailed taxonomy of the emotions in his Ethics or know that Kierkegaard gave the world the first classification of anxiety before the DSM in his The Concept of Dread or know that Heidegger brilliantly analyses the mood of boredom in his existentialist thought? None of this is taught either in psychology or psychotherapy. I recall meeting a therapist on a flight of stairs as we both prepared to go into our consulting rooms and asked her what type of therapist she was, to which she replied ‘a person-centred one’. I thought every therapist was a person-centred one! I asked her what was her philosophy of the person? She looked blankly then angrily at me and turned on her heel! But doesn’t every psychotherapeutic practice presuppose a philosophical anthropology? In academic departments of what goes by the name of psychology, Shakespeare isn’t taught despite Freud exclaiming that all of psychoanalysis is but a reflection on the plays of the great British bard. And what of Dostoevsky and Nietzsche – the greatest psychologists of morals of modern times? Philosophers, with their intimate knowledge of the history of ideas stretching back for more than 2,000 years as distinct from psychology’s one hundred, are placed as perhaps few others are to offer a hearing and space to those who seek it out to help suffering and acting persons with matters of living and dying.

            All this is not to say there are no problems with philosophical counselling in that one might say that they in turn should pay some attention to a nosology of mental illness and be up to date with psychological studies. It seems to me that Viktor Frankl, that great philosophical therapist, who was both philosopher and psychiatrist, offers a way with his logotherapy and existential analysis that draws on the best of all these disciplines without making a category mistake and collapsing into reductionism. 

            Existential analysis concerns itself with the givens of human existence:  freedom, responsibility, death, happiness, meaning and meaninglessness. It emphasises the four dimensions of human existence: the physiological, the psychological, the personal/spiritual and the social, in order to give a fuller picture of the person. Existential psychiatrists such as Medard Boss, Ludwig Binswanger, Igor Caruso, Rollo May and Viktor Frankl look to the philosophers for their inspiration and insights into the human condition. Boss, in his Daseinsanalysis, combined Freud with Heidegger. May drew on Kierkegaard. Binswanger was influenced by Martin Buber. R. D. Laing studied Sartre and Viktor Frankl was indebted to Max Scheler but who in their trainings in therapy bother to read the primary sources?

            Epictetus tells us that the philosopher’s school is a clinic. To be a philosopher does not involve having subtle or sophisticated thoughts but adopting a way of life. Pierre Hadot’s seminal work, Philosophy as a Way of Life is exemplary in the way it shows that ancient philosophy was the site of spiritual exercises as well as a therapeutics of the passions. For example, the spiritual exercises in Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations are practised, asserts Hadot, according to a method as rigorous as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The philosophy that is being offered to us acts on our spirit little by little like a medical treatment. So philosophy was understood as a living praxis, whose aim was to form more than to inform, to transform. Socratic dialogues in particular were intended as spiritual exercises whereby we give attention to ourselves – the famous adage being ‘know thyself’. Philosophy was intellectual, practical and spiritual – the ancient consolation. For example, the premeditation on future evils that may occur and the need to keep present in one’s mind and memory edifying examples that epic and history entrust to us. Philosophy had a tripartite structure: physics whose object is God as cause of being, logic which has God as norm of thought and ethics which has God as rule of life. This becomes in Augustine the Trinity of the Father, as principle of being, the Son as intellect and the Spirit as love. The unity of the three parts of philosophy reflects the reciprocal intensity of the divine Persons. Christianity was seen to be the philosophy, but a philosophy of lived praxis. Just as a carpenter doesn’t say ‘listen to my discourse about carpentry’ but builds a house, so too was philosophy to be practised. As Epicurus said: ‘Our only occupation should be the cure of ourselves’. Philosophy consisted of concrete exercises rather than a conceptual edifice. The philosopher was a philosopher because of his existential attitude, and for his practise of meditation, dialogue with oneself, examination of conscience etc. Slowly these spiritual exercises would become separated from philosophy and enter the monastic tradition which presented itself as a way of life in conformity with the divine Logos. Philosophy became more of a conceptual construction, a system and servant of theology. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises are a Christianised version of this earlier Greco-Roman tradition. We have the Greek Christian term of askesis which isn’t an asceticism exactly but rather a disciplining of desire. Subsequent Christian spiritual exercises have to be seen in the context of Hellenistic and Roman schools of philosophy. The aim is to become free from fear and anxiety and disordered desires (inordinate attachments). Each school of antiquity (Stoicism and Epicureanism etc) had its own therapeutic method which aimed to transform the self; a metamorphosis was the object, a Platonic perigagoe, or metanoia (conversion in the Christian sense), a dëcreation or unselfing.  Attention (prosoche) was the fundamental stoic spiritual attitude. It is a continuous vigilance and presence of mind. It is to live in the present and to be aware of one’s actions. By concentrating on the miniscule moment attention increases vigilance and allows us to accede to cosmic consciousness; by making us attentive to the infinite value of each instant. To this end a review of the day is recommended and to find out what depends on us and what is outside of our control, to discover, as Franl puts it, areas of freedom and areas of fate. Such spiritual exercises as reading, journal keeping, reflecting, examining one’s conscience, etc, are required for the cure of the soul, the care of the self. It is to open up the walls of the world to see the divine delight for we are born once only – twice is not permitted us. To philosophise, as Socrates taught us, is to learn how to dialogue. And meditation is the practise of dialoguing with oneself. Many of Plato’s dialogues depict the figure of Socrates as being ‘lost in thought’. It is both a therapeutic procedure as much as a spiritual exercise to look at one’s individuality and passions from the perspective of universality, objectivity and eternity. To look at one’s life through the long lens, therefore. The attentive person who lives meaningfully and mindfully is attuned to the order of his being, and to the flow within it of the divine Presence. Such attention brings peace to a perturbed mind. Attention to self and others is the philosopher’s fundamental attitude and the attitude also of the monk; but action and theory go hand in hand. Ignatius wished for his companions that they be contemplatives in the midst of the bustle and busyness of the world. Attention to the present is acceptance of the divine desire. As Iris Murdoch writes: ‘Pay attention; teach it to children’. To be attentive is to be anchored in oneself and to be accepting. As Epictetus writes: ‘Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen and your life will be serene’. This is to obey Socrates’ call, which is a summons to love. As Nietzsche noted: ‘the deepest insights spring from love alone’. Goethe similarly opined: ‘we learn only from those we love’. For Frankl, the salvation of man is in and through love. Like Boethius, Socrates was in love with a source of other-wordly ultimate attraction; their eyes, like Plato’s, were firmly fixed on the Beyond. To view the world as a totality as Wittgenstein tells us is to view it sub specie aeterinatis – under the auspices of eternity.  Marcus Aurelius puts it all in perspective when he asks: ‘what’s in a name? A mere noise, a faint echo. How many do not even know your name and how many will soon forget it? Soon you will have forgotten everything; soon too everything will have forgotten you’. So with this in mind the two pitfalls to be avoided are a weary pessimism and a naive optimism. Frankl advocates the case for a ‘tragic optimism’ – this is position is one of robust realism. Such an approach allows for the tragic triad of guilt, suffering and death but also the triumphant triad of healing, meaning and forgiveness. Paradoxically, by living in the present instant and paying attention to the moment we are living in the hit et nunc of eternity. By delimiting our desires we activate an inner resilience and achieve a joyous cheerfulness but one that is based on sorrow. Living each day as if it were the last but also as if it were the first. Life is a gradual process of disillusionment – everything can be taken from one, everything except one’s inner mental attitude. This is, in Frankl’s words, the last of the human freedoms. Cultivating a cosmic consciousness is to soar on angel’s wings and to see with the eyes of the eagle on the sometimes sad human scene. Heraclitus informs us that the Logos holds sway always and Goethe writes: ‘Throughout all things the Eternal pursues its course. Hold on to Being with delight’. This holding on to life is to remain steadfast, to keep on course, to act out well the part that has been given us. Happiness is harmony with the universe, with the Logos that steers through all things. Such an attitude permits true perception and ultimate peace. This is the properly human dimension which Frankl calls the noetic or noological dimension of being.

Biological psychiatry scomotises this personal dimension in its somatologism. It reduces man to a biological being, to his nervous system and neuro-transmitters but we are biopsychospiritual beings. Psychiatry has, in the main, followed Freud’s lead with his dream expressed in the Project that mental problems would eventually be explained in terms of physical ones. The idea here is that every mental disease is caused by a brain disease. This is where modern psychiatry has gone so very wrong, so wide off the mark. For there is no such thing as a mental disease; all disease is organic. Most of the many so-called mental illnesses in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders have never been shown to be caused by any brain disease, and yet the pharmaceutical industry and the psychiatrists who prescribe their pills for every ill are still committed to this erroneous medical model – to the myth of mental illness, to coin a phrase from the psychiatrist Thomas Szasz. And why, you might ask? Just the usual reasons: Power and profit. Psychiatrists may know biology but none of them is required as part of his formal training to undergo any personal psychotherapy which is mind-boggling to me. I guess they must have no problems. For years now we have been living in a pharmocracy where the medical model of reductionism has prevailed and is all pervasive in our discourse around mental health and illness. I can tell them there is more insight to be gleaned into the dynamics of anxiety in the pages of Kierkegaard then in the morphology of the DSM’s reduction of this mood to a ‘generalised anxiety disorder’. Surely we need to distinguish between ontological and psychological forms of anxiety at the very outset? If we take another example: depression. Not all sadness is depression and not all depression can be reduced to somatogenic depressive disorders; some are endogenous to be sure and some depressions are reactive, in other words, psychogenic in aetiology but Frankl was the first psychiatrist to distinguish noogenic neuroses where the reason is spiritual. A subtle classification is so necessary because while medication would be appropriate for a biochemical depression meditation is far more fitting for a spiritual one. An existential distress is not the same as a mental disorder. To take one final disturbing example, ADHD: attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. The symptoms include: being easily distracted, fidgeting, day-dreaming, struggling to follow instructions, having difficulty focussing on one task, dashing around, being in constant motion, impulsive, and experiencing an impatience in waiting for things they want. I can say for certain that they describe me on a good day! Thankfully I haven’t been diagnosed with it and put on Ritalin, the drug of choice. I am not denying by the way that ADHD exists but we simply have to distinguish between ‘normal’ (dare I say it?) boredom and ADHD, between creative day-dreaming and ADHD. Psychiatrists are far too quick in labelling and prescribing without therapeutic talk, in search of the quick fix. In 1987 ADHD was voted into existence by the American Psychiatric Association. Just ten years earlier they had removed homosexuality from its list of disorders. In that same year of 1987 half a million American children were diagnosed with ADHD. It 1996 it had risen to 5.2 million (10% of all schoolchildren in the States). The cure is Ritalin whose side-effects are nightmarish. The production and sales for this drug have skyrocketed. Good for psychiatry, bad for children. There is not one shred of medical evidence that ADHD is caused by any specific brain disease. Is anyone asking why are children having trouble paying attention at school? ADHD is one possible answer but there are others: no motivation, no discipline, diet, boredom, no meaning, indifferent parents etc. Szasz accused psychiatry of social control and scientism; Foucault the philosopher makes the same point. As Szasz puts it: ‘If you talk to God, you are praying. If God talks to you, you have schizophrenia’. ‘Mental illnesses’ are really problems in living, he contends. They are often ‘like a’ disease, which makes the medical metaphor understandable, but in no way validates it as an accurate description or explanation. Psychiatry is a pseudo-science that parodies medicine by using medical sounding words invented especially over the last 100 years. Drugs can’t cure the underlying issue, they simply contain it. Of course we need psychiatry but not to the extent that we have it. We also need practical philosophy, bibliotherapy, logotherapy, psychotherapy. These are all stripes on a tiger’s back – none of them is the tiger itself. Death is the only real cure. Finally, we need to say something about the influence of Freudian psychoanalysis, albeit briefly. Frankl, who personally knew Freud and respected him, builds on him. Frankl adds the height dimension to Freud’s depth dimension. Freud himself acknowledged, in a letter to Binswanger, that he was only working in the basement of the house of being but once the basement is built we can’t forget to roof it. Frankl says that the seat left vacated by Freud should be left permanently empty, that no one can measure up to him, that he, Frankl, is merely a dwarf standing on the shoulder of the giant. But it just so happens that the dwarf can see further than the giant himself. This respect for the Master didn’t stop Frankl from being critical of psychoanalysis which for him was too time consuming, expensive and didn’t deliver on therapeutic outcomes. He faults the Freudian assumption that shorter therapy does brings only short-term results. Analysis may bring awareness to the patient but it does little by way of adding the dimension of action. Logotherapy and existential analysis, by contrast, is analytic and therapeutic and contains within its clinical riches a repertoire of techniques that have proven to be efficacious. As someone who trained initially in psychoanalysis I have found the psychoanalytic practitioner’s condescending attitude towards other forms of intervention worrying to say the least. There are many theoretical problems with psychoanalysis as well not least Freud’s reductionism that can be witnessed in, for example, reducing conscience to the superego, God the Father to a sublimated father-image, love to sex etc. In reducing the higher dimensions of the psyche to the lower Freud commits a category mistake. (Jung, in contradistinction, elevated the lower into the higher thus committing subtle rather than gross reductionism; for example, if Freud pathologised religion, Jung psychologised it). Furthermore, Frankl would reject Freud’s bifurcation between consciousness and ‘the unconscious’ arguing instead that they form a psychic continuum. However, Frankl asserts that there is a dimensional barrier between instincts and spirit. In accepting that the unconscious is not only instinctual but also rational or spiritual, Frankl departs significantly from Freudian psychoanalysis. But analysis is not just psychoanalysis. One feature I want to briefly spend some time on by way of a final look at psychoanalysis is the Freudian assumption that the ‘cause’ must always be looked for. Throughout the corpus of his writings Freud assumes that psychoanalysis alone is curative with its emphasis on ‘causes of’ unlike therapy which is cosmetic by nature with its focus more on ‘reasons for’. This arrogant attitude is inherited by Freudians to this day and needs to be addressed head on.

C. G. Jung, the Swiss psychologist, obverted the usual scientific paradigm of cause and effect in his analytical psychology. Cause-and-effect refers to the philosophical concept of causality, in which an action or an event will produce or provoke a certain response to the action in the form of another event. Science usually proceeds by way of straightforward cause and effect. Jung hypothesised that there was an acausal connecting principle at work, which he termed ‘synchronicity’. Synchronicity is the experience of two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance and that are observed to occur together in a meaningful manner. So, some events may be grouped by cause, others by meaning. A grouping of events by meaning need not, analytical psychology avers, have an explanation in terms of cause and effect. Jung coined the term to describe ‘temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events’ or simply ‘meaningful coincidence’. Jung felt it proved the existence of the so-called archetypes of the collective unconscious. The Jungians believe that life does not consist in a series of random or chance events but rather are expressions of a deeper order and logic (the undus mundus). In analytical psychology, new age mysticism meets with astrology and contemporary movements in modern science. There have been many critiques offered by way of response to Jung from philosophers as diverse as Marin Buber, Viktor Frankl and Ken Wilber but let’s just focus on Freudian psychoanalysis and its relationship to existential analysis on this precise point.

            In Freudian psychoanalysis the focus is regressive, returning to man’s childhood in order to uncover the supposed cause that created the neurotic symptom. In theology St. Thomas Aquinas argues that God is the first cause of the universe; He is the uncaused cause who caused all other things to be but He Himself is in need of no cause as He is a necessary Being rather than a contingent creature such as we are.

            Psychoanalysis looks for causes of such and such (in the past) rather than reasons for such and such (in the present). Existential analysis, by contrast, focuses more on present existential reasons for behaviour than frequently imaginary past causes. Viktor Frankl has a threefold view of causality: biological (somatogenic), mental/psychological (psychogenic) and spiritual (noögenic). But logotherapy employs various therapeutic techniques that work efficiently and effectively without always necessarily identifying the underlying initial causes of neurotic behaviour. Knowing or discovering the cause of something is not essential in existential analytic and logotherapeutic practice. When a building is on fire, isn’t it better to put out the fire first then find out (if you wish to) what caused it (assuming there is one cause and/or that it is discoverable at all)? This philosophical position pits Frankl against Freud, with the latter feeling that the only way to remove the symptom is to understand the cause that produced it and raise that to consciousness. Who’s right? Or, better put, which perspective on this subject is the more compelling or convincing, rather than ‘correct’?

            There are some illnesses that are only triggered by the mental not caused or even conditioned by the mental; an example would be psychosomatic illnesses. There is, moreover, a confusion between cause and effect; sometimes there is a reversal of relationships. In some cases it is not that the complexes and unconscious conflicts cause the illness or problem but rather that they are the effect of the problem in the present. When discussing the example of endogenous depression in his work, On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders, Frankl argues: ‘Now what is the case when a reef appears at low tide? No one will say that the reef is the cause of the low tide, but rather, through the ebbing tide it is merely exposed …. Thus it is valid to say: just as little as the reef is caused by the ebbing tide, is a psychosis caused by a psychological trauma, a complex or a conflict’.

We need to distinguish between causes (causing/causation) and triggering mechanisms (triggering). Psychotic illness (such as an endogenous depression) may be triggered by psychological complications or factors. Triggering, in a way, is a secondary cause, though not the only cause – more of a condition. To condition something doesn’t mean to effect or cause something. We philosophers distinguish between necessary and sufficient conditions.  The primary cause is a sufficient condition, while triggering is not only not a sufficient condition but also not a necessary condition. It’s a possible condition.

Fear of heights is an example that will bring out the distinction between reason and cause. The fear here could be traced back to the fear or anxiety due to insufficiency of education or equipment (in these two cases there would be a ‘fear of heights’) or oxygen (an ‘illness of heights’). The former has a reason, the latter a cause. The one is something psychological, and the other something somatic. This distinction between psychological reasons and biological causes is brought out in two further examples from Frankl: an onion is no reason for crying, but it can be the cause of the secretion of tears. Conversely, tickling is no reason for laughing (joking would be a reason), but rather the cause that releases a laugh reflex.

During an ebb of joy in the life of a person, some psychic traumas become evident although these traumas need not be the cause for the missing joy of life. If we take all the three dimensions of human beings into account (body, mind and spirit), this suggests that there are many and direct connections that go beyond the simple cause and effect schema. When someone is unhappy and drinks some whiskey or takes some drugs he becomes less unhappy and the whiskey or drugs are the cause of it. However, the reason for being unhappy persists – it has not been eradicated. Similarly, smoking can cause lung cancer but that’s not the reason why people smoke. There may be a predisposition to addiction or peer pressure or whatever. Exploring reasons and basic motivations is as important as exposing causes of illness. Blows of fate have no cause but provide sufficient reasons for disturbed conditions of serious physical and psychic illness and suffering.

In a discussion in Plato Not Prozac the author, Lou Marinoff, who practices philosophical counselling,  argues that this cause and effect model is in fact a fallacy which philosophers call post hoc ergo propter hoc. This means because one event happened before another, the earlier caused the later one (endemic in Freudian thinking). Of course, in some cases this may be true. But it is not necessarily or always true. If you were hit as a child, to take one of Marinoff’s examples, and you have difficulties in controlling your temper, you can’t conclude that the one caused the other. Perhaps it did but it may well be irrelevant. Even if it were causal there may be other contributing factors. Marinoff asks: ‘Did your mother’s rages teach you to be explosive when you’re angry? Or was it your father’s coldness? Both? Neither?’

Casting back looking for causes in one’s past to explain current present problems is further problematic because there may be connections you can’t see. Plus, memory isn’t perfect. Moreover, what good would finding the causes of your current discomfort or distress do you? Marinoff again: ‘Knowing you have a cavity doesn’t stop your pain – getting it filled does’. Some people will feel better knowing the cause of their symptoms but that doesn’t mean the symptoms will disappear. Knowing the cause of one’s psychic pain and having no way to reduce it will make some people feel even worse. The problem with the psychological therapies is that they mimic the medical model and, as the psychologist Abraham Maslow, pointed out, if the only tool in your tool box is a hammer, a lot of things start looking like nails.

There are vast resources in the 2000 year history of philosophy (which isn’t even a school subject) especially in the Stoics and the Epicureans that can really help us how to live. Epicurus: ‘Empty is the argument of the philosopher which does not relieve any human suffering’. Philosophy unlike psychiatry is liberating not limiting, creative not constrictive, and offers real insights not just information. Gerd Achenbach might have opened the first philosophy clinic in 1981 in Germany but practical philosophy is an ancient idea with roots in the divine Plato. It is perhaps the world’s second oldest profession whose time has come again! And with Dr Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy we have the best of philosophy, I would argue, with the best of therapy. As Paracelsus, the Renaissance physician-philosopher put it: illnesses arise from nature but their cure comes only from the spirit.



The subtitle of Prof Viktor Frankl’s very first book, penned in a concentration camp, The Doctor and the Soul, is ‘From Psychotherapy to Logotherapy’, implying from the very outset that there is some difference between these two disciplines. Logotherapy is a therapy which starts from man’s spirit; it recognises and respects man’s psycho-physico-spiritual unity. Frankl labels it ‘a psychotherapy in spiritual terms’ (Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, p. 29). The aim of logotherapy initially was not to supplant but to supplement psychotherapy. Frankl tells us that psychoanalysis is its indispensable foundation (see The Will to Meaning, p. 10). However, over the years logotherapy developed into its own independent system, and few logotherapists are rooted in Freud and in existential philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Max Scheler, as Frankl was. Indeed, in 1984 at the first Argentine Congress on Logotherapy, according to Omar Lazarte, people present remember Frankl saying that he supported himself on two pillars (see Lazarte, ‘Reflections on Viktor E. Frankl’s Anthropology’, Existential Psychotherapy of Meaning, 2009, p. 181) – Freud and Heidegger.

Frankl delineates the differences between logotherapy and psychotherapy thus: ‘Psychotherapy endeavours to bring instinctual facts to consciousness. Logotherapy, on the other hand, seeks to bring to awareness the spiritual realities (Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, p. 43). Logotherapy indeed is specifically designed to help and ‘handle those suffering over the philosophical problems with which life confronts human beings’ (Frankl, The Doctor and the Soul, p. 46). Logotherapy, unlike, nearly all of the psychotherapies, with the exception of psychosynthesis, takes explicit account of the spiritual sphere which Frankl calls the noetic or noölogical.

Unity of course does not designate wholeness which involves the integration of somatic, psychic and the spiritual aspects of the human person. ‘Without the spiritual as its essential ground, this wholeness cannot exist’ (Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, p. 34). The spiritual self emerges from unconscious depths.

Logotherapy is the clinical application of Frankl’s existential analytic approach. Already in 1926 logotherapy ‘had extended beyond the scope of psychotherapy beyond the psyche, beyond the psychological dimension to include the noölogical dimension, or the logos’ (Frankl, Man’s Search for Ultimate Meaning, p. 67). So Franklian psychology, in its clinical praxis, is both a therapy and an analysis; it is a logo- not a psycho-therapy just as it is an existential analysis rather than psycho-analysis. Franklian existential analysis differs quite radically from the existential analysis of Boss and Binswanger, Caruso and May, in that it draws in its philosophical dimensions more from Max Scheler’s phenomenology and philosophical anthropology, as evidenced especially in logotherapy’s tri-dimensional ontology, rather than in the Heideggerianism of the other schools of continental existential analysis.

So let us be clear: logotherapy is not a psychotherapy; it is a noetic therapy. It is a noölogy rather than a psychology and is best considered, I would argue, as a philosophical form of praxis. Didn’t the great Eric Voegelin, that Platonic scholar par excellence, not tell us that Frankl, in modern times, was revitalising the older Platonic tradition of philosophy as a therapeia with his ‘Socratic dialogue’? (see Eric Voegelin, 1990, Published Essays 1966-1985, pp. 278-9). Many commentators place logotherapy within the humanistic and integrative school but logotherapy is existential, personalist and, with its explicit reference to transcendence, it may also be construed as a trans-personal theory and therapy.

Peter Sarkany’s seminal paper, ‘Outlines of Viktor Emil Frankl’s Religious Philosophy’ is instructive in this regard and my analysis agrees in the main with his. In it Sarkany argues that logotherapy and existential analysis is rooted in the philosophical dimension and that its theory of personality is transpersonal (Sarkany, p. 168). In another article, ‘An Outline of the Philosophical Care of the Soul: Phenomenology, Existential-Analytic Logotherapy and Philosophical Counselling’, Sarkany outlines the case made superbly by Pierre Hadot in his Philosophy as a Way of Life that logotherapy be considered as a philosophical therapy which has as its principal aim the cure or ‘care of the soul’, as Frankl puts it. This Platonic concern for ‘care of the self or soul’ ruptures in the Middle Ages and in Modernity but is alive and well in the twentieth-century in the work of Wittgenstein, Jan Patocka, Jaeger, Foucault, Hadot and others. Logotherapy has much in common with this older philosophical tradition which views philosophy not only as a noetic therapy but also as a practical system of spiritual exercises which were developed by the Stoics and others and which find their way into logotherapy as dereflection, Socratic dialogue and attitude modification.

The new movement of ‘philosophical counselling’ which started in 1981 by Gerd Achenbach in Cologne and which continues to be practised by others such as Lou Marinoff, are heirs to this tradition too. Logotherapy returns us to the therapeutic tradition of classical Greek philosophy. Care of the soul is practised primarily, though not exclusively, through Socratic dialogue. Logotherapy and existential analysis is a kind of philosophical ministry. Sarkany observes: ‘logotherapy can be perceived and practised as a kind of philosophical counselling’ (Sarkany, p. 132). It is Frankl who has realised with his logotherapy the ancient dreams of healing by reason and has fulfilled their therapeutic ambitions. However, logotherapy goes beyond philosophical counselling in that Frankl has also developed and incorporated into his practice a psychiatric classification of the neuroses and psychoses, as evinced in his On the Theory and Therapy of Mental Disorders. More than anything, though, logotherapy is a practical philosophy, a way of living meaningfully and mindfully.

There is another thinker who argues similarly and that is Reinhard Zaiser and I would like to draw briefly on his paper, ‘Working on the noetic dimension of man: philosophical practice, logotherapy and existential analysis’, where he asserts that we can discover the ancient spiritual exercises in contemporary logotherapy and he makes the point that most philosophical practitioners are actually doing logotherapy.

He begins by stating that philosophical practice and logotherapy have a lot in common in that both are working with similar methods on the noetic dimension of man. Zaiser calls Frankl ‘a pioneer of philosophical practice’ (Zaiser, p. 83). Zaiser writes: ‘In principle, the spiritual exercises by the ancient philosophers are nothing more than the methods of logotherapy: Socratic dialogue, modification of attitudes, paradoxical intention, dereflextion, existential analysis of dreams, and mystagogy’ (Zaiser, p. 83). Zaiser also reads Lady Philosophy in Boethius’ description of her in his The Consolation of Philosophy as a logotherapist. So now we discuss Boethius and his famous best-selling book.



Boethius was a prominent 6th century philosopher, public figure and exceptional Greek scholar under the Gothic emperor Theodoric. Born in Rome, he was a member of an ancient and aristocratic family who fell from favour and was imprisoned in Pavia. His father had attained to the consulship, as would Boethius’ two sons. His family exerted huge influence. He married Rusticiana, daughter of Symmachus, Prefect of Rome and Head of the Senate. Boethius himself was a senator by the age of 25 but was imprisoned by King Theodoric the Great who thought he was conspiring with the Eastern Roman Empire. He was executed in 524.

While waiting for his brutal execution, he penned The Consolation of Philosophy, a philosophical treatise on fortune, death, happiness and attitude. It is a dialogue of alternating prose and poetry (39 poems to be exact) between the ailing prisoner and his ‘nurse’ Philosophy, whose instruction in the nature of fortune and happiness bring him to health and enlightenment. From time to time it reads like a logotherapeutic session. He regarded the hour of his greatest happiness as being when he was in prison and he heard that his two sons were appointed consuls together. But though actively engaged in politics, Boethius considered philosophy to be his summum vitae solamen. He was also a Christian who wrote a number of treatises and tracts in theology and may be seen as a forerunner of the scholastics.


The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy is, as the title says, a type of consolation – a moral meditation and medication. The book talks a lot about illness, remedy and cure. It was a hugely popular work in mediaeval Europe and Boethius’ ideas suffuse the thought of both Chaucer and Dante, with Dante setting Boethius among the twelve lights in the heaven of the Sun. Dante tells us that the words of Boethius provided him with his greatest consolation after the death of Beatrice. The Consolation of Philosophy combines poetic intensity with brilliant philosophical insight in a light and lyrical manner. While drawing on medical metaphor it is primarily a meditation and moral medication that is being offered by Boethius’ therapist, as he is bid to reconsider his conception of happiness.

Boethius stands at the crossroads of the Classical and Mediaeval worlds. The title of his work says it all – it is less about argument than it is about the consolation that philosophy can bring generally and in the face of death particularly. Boethius’ book restores and celebrates a Platonic tradition of dialoguing – it is somewhat akin to Plato’s The Last Days of Socrates, which similarly discusses Socrates’ final hours before his own execution by hemlock in 399. Boethius’ book tells of Philosophy, personified throughout, as descending to Boethius from on high and leading him by various paths to God Himself. The schema is Platonic and mirrors Plato’s description in Book VII of the Republic of the soul’s ascent in the famous allegory of the Cave – from seeing shadows to seeing the sun as a metaphor for the Form of the Good. We may also compare the book to Sir Thomas Moore’s Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation, which was also written in prison and under the threat of execution. Boethius’ bitter experiences led him, in the work we are here considering, into a re-description and re-examination of the nature of happiness. In its conversational commentary and tone it is akin to the writings of Pseudo-Dionysius and St. Augustine. It is a philosophical rather than theological consolation, so there is no talk of the Trinity or Paradise or the Incarnation etc. He draws a distinction between faith and reason. The Boethian doctrine of salvation is the ascent of the individual by means of philosophical introspection to the knowledge of God; it is close to Neoplatonic philosophy and post-Augustinian Christianity.

The method of Boethius’ execution varies in the sources; he was perhaps killed with an axe or a sword, or blugeoned to death. According to another version a rope was attached round his head and tightened till his eyes bulged out, then his skull was cracked.

Boethius is recognized as a martyr for the Catholic faith by the Roman Martyrology, his feast day being October 23rd. He was declared a saint by the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1883, and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI explained the relevance of Boethius to contemporary Catholics by linking his teachings to an understanding of divine Providence.

            Turning now to the text itself. We see Boethius in a state of much distress and deep despair – from happy youth to hapless age. As the first poem opens: ‘Foolish the friends who called me happy then/Whose fall shows how my foothold was unsure’ (Boethius, 1969, p. 35). As Boethius is giving vent to his sorrow and anger, he becomes aware of a woman standing over him, with an awe-inspiring appearance and burning eyes. On the bottom of her gown there is embroidered two Greek letters: Pi and Theta, which correspond to the two kinds of philosophy, practical (Pi) and contemplative (Theta). Pi is praxis; theta is theory (teoria). The former includes moral philosophy and ethics, the latter metaphysics, theology and physics. Philosophy is defined, so, as both theory and practice on her gown. This nurse who comforts the imprisoned Boethius can be considered, as my logotherapy colleague and theologian Reinhard Zaiser has pointed out, as I said, the first female logotherapist and existential analyst, helping her noetically depressed patient change his attitude toward his suffering and thus his life. Boethius is describing and drawing on the ancient philosophical practice of Platonic therapeia.

            Lady Logotherapist consoles Boethius by discussing the transitory nature of fame and wealth (“no man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune”), and the ultimate superiority of things of the mind, which she calls the “one true good” and which Frankl labels the noetic core of the spiritual person. She contends that happiness comes from within, and that one’s virtue is all that one truly has, because it is not imperilled by the vicissitudes of fortune, what Frankl calls ‘the blows of fate’. In The Consolation, Boethius answered religious questions without reference to Christianity, relying solely on natural philosophy and the Classical Greek tradition. He believed in the correspondence between faith and reason. The truths found in Christianity would be no different from the truths found in philosophy. It is, thus, a work written by a Platonist who happens also to be a Christian: it is not a Christian work. The philosophical message of the book fits in rather well with the religious piety of the Middle Ages. Readers were encouraged not to seek worldly goods such as money and power, but to seek internalised virtues instead. For Frankl, the very pursuit of these material things is that which thwarts their attainment. Evil had a purpose, to provide a lesson to help change for good. Because God ruled the universe through Love, prayer to God and the application of Love would lead to true happiness. The book is heavily influenced by Plato and his dialogues. Found within The Consolation are themes that have echoed throughout the Western canon: the female figure of wisdom that informs Dante (a kind of archetype of the Wise Old Woman), the ascent through the layered universe that is shared with Milton, the reconciliation of opposing forces that find their way into Chaucer’s The Knight’s Tale, and the Wheel of Fortune so popular and prevalent throughout the Middle Ages. It is a fusion of allegorical tale, Platonic dialogue, and lyrical poetry.

Lady Philosophy, as Logotherapist, tells her patient that it is a time for healing not lamenting. When he turns to look at his physician (the piece is replete with medical metaphors) he discovers it was his nurse in whose house he has been cared for since childhood – Philosophy. He gains some consolation from knowing that many illustrious philosophers suffered similar fates: Anaxagoras was banished from Athens, Zeno was tortured, while Socrates was put to death. While Boethius displays his grief, Philosophy remains unperturbed, stoic like in silence, and says that Boethius is full of grief and alternating between fits of rage, wrath, anguish and disturbing passions and so in need of a cure. The cause of his illness is that he has forgotten his true nature and Philosophy, as analyst, attempts to restore his health so that treacherous passions become dispelled in the resplendent light of truth. He is told to banish grief as his mind is clouded and bound in chains. Frankl would similarly suggest we need to move from reacting to responding. At the level of the instincts we are driven, but at the level of spirit we are drawn. We are pushed by the past but pulled by the future. Through free choice and responsibility we are ultimately deciding beings, suffering and acting persons. Lady Logotherapist tells him she prefers ‘gentler medicines’ (p. 49) but no less potent. She tells him that in ‘discovering his state of mind’ she can cure him (see p. 50). She bids him let go of his emotional distractions and concentrate on the meaning of the moment and the ‘purpose of things’ (p. 51) in true logotherapeutic fashion. The best hope of restoring her patient to health is to help him attune his life to the divine Logos and order his life to the mysterious meaning of his present suffering. ‘In dark clouds/Hidden/The stars can shed/No light’. The mind is clouded where grief holds sway.

            In Book II (there are five in all), Lady Philosophy who, we are told, falls silent for a while like an analyst to let her patient speak, says that she has discovered and diagnosed the nature of his condition – that he has been pining for his former good fortune and this has catapulted him into the slough of despondency. She puts some maieutic questions to Boethius: what type of happiness is it which is destined to pass away? Philosophy reveals that change and inconstancy is Fortune’s normal behaviour and that Fortune has lured and enticed him with a false happiness that is ephemeral. Just as a farmer entrusts his seed to the fields, he balances the bad years against the good and so should he have done. Things change quickly on the wheel of chance and in one short hour one can see ‘happiness from utter desolation grows’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 56). Wealth, honours, fame and power are all under Fortune’s jurisdiction. In life there are both fruit and flowers, cloud and cold – inconstancy is Fortune’s very essence and sometimes ‘the overthrow of happy realms’ is carried out ‘by the random strokes of Fortune’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 58) and the mind of man is plummeted in a ‘deep seated melancholy’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 59). Philosophy says that this is not a cure for Boethius’ condition but an application to help soothe his grief and console his heart. Philosophy reminds him of how fortunate he has been in so many ways, having enjoyed the blessings of a wife and two consular sons etc. Lady Logotherapist bids him ‘not dwell on it’ (ibid.). It is sound therapeutic advice summed up unwittingly by Queen Elizabeth when she visited Ireland: bow to the past but don’t be bound by it. If we can’t change our situation, Frankl for his part tells us, we are challenged to change ourselves. Boethius is suffering because of his ‘misguided belief’ (p. 61) and it is his beliefs or attitudes that Lady Logotherapist is seeking to changing in Boethius’ existential analytic session. She admonishes him gently thus:


 ‘You are a happy man, then, if you know where your true happiness lies, since when the chief concern of mortal men is to keep their hold on life, you even now possess blessings which no one can doubt are more precious than life itself. So dry your tears. Fortune has not yet turned her hatred against all your blessings’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 62).


Philosophy continues:


‘But I can’t put up with your dilly-dallying and the dramatization of your care-worn grief-stricken complaints that something is lacking from your happiness. No man is so completely happy that something somewhere does not clash with his condition. It is the nature of human affairs to be fraught with anxiety…. Some men are blessed with both wealth and noble birth, but are unhappy because they have no wife. Some are happily married but without children … Some again have been blessed with children only to weep over their misdeeds. No one finds it easy to accept the lot Fortune has sent them…. Remember, too, that all the most happy men are over-sensitive. They have never experienced adversity and so unless everything obeys their slightest whim they are prostrated by every minor upset, so trifling are the things that can detract from the complete happiness of a man at the summit of fortune…. No one is so happy that he would not want to change his lot if he gives in to impatience. Such is the bitter-sweetness of human happiness…. It is evident, therefore, how miserable the happiness of human life is; it does not remain long with those who are patient, and doesn’t satisfy those who are troubled’ (Boethius, ibid., pp. 62-63).


Philosophy reveals the secret of happiness: that it lies within. She observes:


‘Why then do you mortal men seek after happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within you? …. I will briefly show you what complete happiness hinges upon. If I ask you whether there is anything more precious to you than your own self, you will say no. So if you are not in possession of yourself you will possess something you would never wish to lose and something Fortune could never take away. In order to see that happiness can’t consist in things goverend by chance, look at it this way. If happiness is the highest good of rational nature and everything that can be taken away is not the highest good – since it is surpassed by what can’t be taken away – Fortune by her very mutability can’t hope to lead to happiness’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 63).


Such a happiness, based on chance and which comes to an end at death, is unreliable as Fortune changes all the time. This is a false happiness but Philosophy says to Boethius she knows he is convinced that the human mind cannot die and so others have sought happiness actually through death and even suffering (actualising attitudinal values in relation to part of Frankl calls ‘the tragic triad’ of human existence). She proclaims: ‘It seems that the happiness which cannot make men unhappy by its cessation, cannot either make them happy by its presence’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 64). Ultimately it is fear that prevents us from being happy. Frankl would ask us this: rather than fighting or fleeing from fear, what would happen if we actually and actively wished to have happen the things we feared most, as desire cancels out fear. He found with this logotherapeutic technique he could cure lots of people suffering from various anxieties and phobias. He called it ‘paradoxical intention’.

            Philosophy then proceeds to show up how barren and poor riches really are: from precious stones to the beauty of the countryside, the sea, the sun, the stars and sky and moon, flowers and fine clothes etc., none of which belong to man. Life is full of plenty as well as poverty, pearls as well as perils. And he who has much, wants much. Philosophy poetically exclaims: ‘O happy was that long lost age/ Content with nature’s faithful fruits’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 68).

            Like riches, power, fame and high office, Fortune is not worth pursuing either and is of no intrinsic good or value. However long a life of fame and fortune is, ‘when compared with unending eternity it is shown to be not just little, but nothing at all’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 74). A philosopher (someone who deserves the title) practises virtue and seeks out heaven in freedom and despises earthly affairs. Fortune may seem to bring happiness but deceives man with her smiles. As Fortune is capricious, wayward and inconstant so also is human happiness – ‘how fragile a thing happiness is’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 76). Frankl stresses that it is meaning we should seek rather than the pursuit of happiness which leads more often than not to ego-absorption rather than self-transcendence. Boethius is encouraged to attend to the beauty of the countryside in his mind’s eye – to look upon the sea, the stars, the sky, the sun (Frankl does likewise) and practice virtue and ethical values as he prepares to leave the existential vacuum.

            ‘The world in constant change

Maintains a harmony,

And elements keep peace

  Whose nature is to clash’.


Here he is told to get in touch with the profound unity of his being, which is the integration of psyche and soma but more: to unify also the noetic part of his personality structure. This will produce the harmony and wholeness for which he is unconsciously seeking and lead to ultimate health. ‘The centre must hold’ as Iris Murdoch tells us, perhaps by way of response to Yeats’ ‘things fall apart, the Centre cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world’.


Book II ends with Philosophy crying:

‘Love promulgates the laws

For friendship’s faithful bond.

O happy race of men

If Love who rules the sky

Could rule your hearts as well!’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 77).


            Book III begins by Philosophy telling Boethius that she is trying to bring him to his true destination, which is true happiness. She criticises him thus: ‘Your mind dreams of it … but your sight is clouded by shadows of happiness and [you] cannot see reality’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 78). Boethius begs her to show him the nature of true happiness, which Philosophy promises to do. She tells him that ‘all are striving to reach one and the same goal, namely, happiness, which is a good which once obtained leaves nothing more to be desired. It is the perfection of all good things and contains in itself all that is good’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 79). And, like Frankl, she asserts that perfect good does not, as some suppose, reside in wealth or respect, in fame, enjoyment, in power, position, popularity (whose ‘acquisition is fortuitous and its retention continuously uncertain’) (Boethius, ibid., p. 89) or pleasure. All men desire happiness and are looking for it in all these pursuits but they will not find it in these, though some people through the possession of these, snatch at a false appearance of happiness. But nothing satisfies greed – it is insatiable and once dead ‘his fickle fortunes him forsake’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 84). Philosophy says of the pursuit of bodily pleasures that it is ‘full of anxiety and its fulfilment full of remorse’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 90) and if bodily pleasure can produce happiness, why then the animals are very happy because their whole life is directed to the fulfilment of their bodily needs and requirements. All these paths to happiness are side-tracks. The distinction between pleasure and happiness here accords with the logotherapeutic perspective in that Frankl views pleasure as somatic and happiness as psychical. Joy as spiritual happiness would be noetic (see my book The Ethics of Happiness, for a fuller treatment of the subject).

            If you want to hoard money you have to take it by force; if you want high office you will have to grovel to those who bestow it; if you want to outdo others in honour you will have to humiliate yourself by begging; if you want power you will have to expose yourself to risks and plots; if you want fame you will find yourself on a hard road and worn with care; if you decide to lead a life of pleasure some others will pour scorn on you and see you as a slave of the body. All these things are puny as is man himself when compared to an elephant in size, a bull in strength, a tiger in speed. ‘Look up at the vault of heaven … and stop admiring things that are worthless’ (Boethius, ibid.). Beauty is ephemeral too. The point here is that the mind should concentrate more on the eternal than the evanescent.


‘The sleek looks of beauty are fleeting and transitory, more ephemeral than the blossom in spring. If, as Aristotle said, we had the piercing eyesight of the mythical Lynceus [one of the Argonauts who could see in the dark and discover hidden treasure] and could see right through things, even the body of an Alcibiades [an Athenian military leader of the fifth century, whom we will encounter later on; he was famous for his wealth and beauty and notorious of the use he made of them, as the footnote tells us], so fair on the surface, would look thoroughly ugly once we had seen the bowels inside’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 92).


These things ‘are not the way to happiness and cannot by themselves make people happy’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 93).

            The supreme good is happiness but it is not, as Eudoxus or Epicurus believed, to be found in pleasure. Man is a drunkard who cannot find his way home. Happiness is, rather, a state of self-sufficiency with no wants. True ‘and perfect happiness is that which makes a man self-sufficient, strong, worthy of respect, glorious and joyful’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 96). Nothing in the mortal state of things can furnish such a state of complete happiness – they are only shadows of the truly good. Only an imperfect happiness exists in perishable goods, which means ‘that there can be no doubt that a true and perfect happiness exists’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 99). God is filled with supreme and perfect goodness. And the perfect good is true happiness, so it follows that true happiness is to be found in God. This is Philosophy’s conclusion. ‘God is the essence of happiness’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 101). And ‘supreme happiness is identical with supreme divinity’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 102), a position Aquinas will adopt. Through the possession of happiness people become happy and since happiness is divinity it is through the possession of divinity that a person becomes happy. ‘Each happy individual is therefore divine’ (ibid.). Heaven is man’s true homeland and ‘God is happiness itself’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 110). Boethius’ tragic melody and tearful melancholy is over and he addresses Philosophy thus: ‘The conclusion of this highest of arguments has made me very happy, and I am even more happy because of the words you used. I am now ashamed of the stupidity of all my railing’ (Boethius, ibid., pp. 111-12). This is the ultimate attitudinal adjustment.

            But in Book IV, Boethius admits that the greatest cause of his sadness is the realisation that evil exists and the wicked go unpunished and virtue unrewarded. Philosophy, as logotherapist, answers thus: all men desire the good, and happiness is the good itself and both good and bad men strive to reach the good and men become good by acquiring goodness so they obtain what they are looking for. But if the wicked obtained what they want – that is goodness – they could not be wicked. Both groups want it but only one attains it so it demonstrates the power of the good and the weakness of the bad.  They desire good through the things that give them pleasure but they don’t obtain it, ‘because evil things cannot reach happiness’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 123). Philosophy says simply: ‘Goodness is happiness’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 124) and the punishment of the wicked is their very wickedness. Someone who ‘robs with violence and burns with greed’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 125) is like a wolf; someone who is wild and restless and is forever engaged with lawsuits is like a dog yapping; the person who lies in ambush in order to steal is like a fox; the person of quick temper is like a lion; the timid coward is like a hind; the lazy person is like an ass; the fickle person is like a bird with ever-changing interests; the person wallowing in impure lusts and filth is like a sow. ‘So what happens is that when a man abandons goodness and ceases to be human, being unable to rise to a divine condition, he sinks to the level of being an animal’ (Boethius, ibid.).

            So the good are happy while the bad are unhappy and they are more unhappy, according to Philosophy, if they go unpunished. When the wicked receive their punishment they receive something good since the punishment itself is good because of its justice. ‘So the wicked are much more unhappy when they are unjustly allowed to go scot free, than when a just punishment is imposed on them’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 129). Punishment must alternate between a penal severity and a purifying mercy. The wicked are used to the dark and haven’t yet come into the light. Further, Philosophy opines that those who commit an injustice are more unahppy than those who suffer it. Plato had said that it was better to suffer injustice than to do it. The guilt of the wicked could be cut back by punishment ‘like a malignant growth’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 131) and wickedness is compared to ‘a disease of the mind’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 132). Health means goodness and wickedness sickness (a Platonic motif).

            Philosophy, (and Boethius too), brings this dialogue to an end by saying that evil is necessary for some good. We think of the sufferings of Job. Philosophy/Logotherapy addresses Boethius thus: ‘Providence stings some people to avoid giving them happiness for too long, and others she allows to be vexed by hard fortune to strengthen their virtues of mind by the use and exercise of patience’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 139).

            The Consolation of Philosophy concludes with these words of Lady Logotherapy’s: ‘Avoid vice, therefore, and cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope, and put forth humble prayers on high’ (Boethius, ibid., p. 169). The logotherapeutic session has ended with words of hope and meaning that motivate and strengthen Boethius’ inner resolve and noetic resilience and helps him face his fate without flinching. As Frankl remarks in his Man’s Search for Meaning: ‘Man is that being who invented the gas chambers of Auschwitz; however, he is also that being who entered those gas chambers upright, with the Lord’s Prayer or the Shema Yisrael on his lips’.


Thank you.




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