Study Guide

A Confederacy of Dunces Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

By John Kennedy Toole

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius's The Consolation of Philosophy is Ignatius's favorite book. He refers to it constantly throughout the novel, and when he sees a pornographic picture of a nude woman reading it, he just about falls in love, and actually contemplates having a girlfriend—a prospect which at all other times he treats with horror.

We know that this means that all of you diligent readers are going to go out right now and read The Consolation of Philosophy backward and forward, and possibly in the nude like Lana Lee. Right? Okeydoke. Go ahead. We will wait.

Waiting…

Waiting…

Waiting…

Hold on… Do you mean to tell us that you haven't run right out to get your hands on the nearest copy of this text written a few thousand years ago? All right, fine. We'll cut you some slack this time and tell you what it is. Just don't say we never did anything nice for you.

What It Is

So what is The Consolation of Philosophy anyway? Well, as Ignatius says:

"The book teaches us to accept that which we cannot change. It describes the plight of a just man in an unjust society. It is the very basis for medieval thought." (7.88)

The book was written around the year 524 by the Roman philosopher Boethius while he was awaiting trial for treason. You would think that awaiting trial for treason would dry up your inspiration, but not for Boethius, apparently. Maybe having a name like Boethius made him used to adversity. Who knows? Anyway, as Ignatius says, the book recommends stoicism and resignation in the face of adversity.

The Consolation of Philosophy serves two related purposes in the novel. First, Boethius is a foil for Ignatius. So though Ignatius is supposedly a follower of Boethius, he does the opposite of everything Boethius says.

Boethius urges stoicism; Ignatius complains constantly about his valve, his nerves, the abuse he suffers, and pretty much anything and everything he can think of. Boethius faces torture and eventual brutal execution at the hands of an unjust law, but does not complain, while Ignatius commits forgery and then whines to himself that "At this point his nervous system could not manage a court trial. He would break down completely before the judge" (14.2). Yup, these two are definitely not cut from the same cloth.

Perhaps best exemplifying Boethius's role as Ignatius's foil, though, is that Boethius wrote, "No man can ever truly be secure until he has been forsaken by Fortune." In contrast, Ignatius is constantly railing against Fortuna and begging the wheel to spin him good luck. It's like these two aren't even having the same conversation.

Ignatius recommends that everyone follow the path of Boethius, but we suspect that this is because if everyone behaved like Boethius, no one would complain of injustice or abuse, and Ignatius could just go around happily abusing people and taking their stuff without anyone bothering him. Ignatius thinks of himself as a just man in an unjust society, no doubt, but really the appeal of Boethius seems to be that it gives him the excuse to be an unjust man and screw society.

Deus Ex Boethius

The Consolation of Philosophy's second role is as a plot mechanism. Ignatius, somewhat sadistically, sends the book to Officer Mancuso to comfort him in his bathroom stall (though in fact, the book just "made him more depressed" (8.58)). And then, when Mancuso tries to arrest George, the boy grabs the book, he hits Mancuso in the head with "all fifteen dollars of its price" (8.75), and steals it.

George then takes the book to Lana Lee, who uses it as a prop in her pornographic pictures, and when George tries to store the pictures in Ignatius hot dog cart, Ignatius looks at them and falls in love with the woman in the image. So he seeks her out at the Night of Joy, precipitating a catastrophe that ends with Lana in jail. Patrolman Mancuso discovers the stolen book at the bar and sends it back to Ignatius. At which point, Ignatius cries out in melodramatic agony:

"Ironically, the book of Fortuna is itself bad luck. Oh, Fortuna, you degenerate wanton!" (13.40)

Ignatius is right; the book is itself a kind of wheel of fortune, spinning by happenstance through the novel, and uniting all the disparate actions and characters into a single rush, which eventually carries Ignatius out of New Orleans for good.

But what Ignatius perhaps doesn't quite realize is that it's him, not the book, which is the degenerate wanton. Specifically, Ignatius keeps using the book to try to control Fortuna, and satisfy his own very un-philosophical desires. He sends the book to Mancuso in the first place not so much out of charity as in order to get his mother to stop bothering him, and then he pursues Lana Lee because her naked body in juxtaposition with the book has filled him with something that looks a lot like lust.

In other words, the book is a spur, not to stoicism, but to appetite. The wheel that turns is not Fortuna, but desire—if Ignatius can even tell them apart.

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