Boethius Comes to the Beltway

Article excerpt

Byline: Jon Meacham

Pat Sajak is somewhat better known than Boethius (and Vanna White surely is), but this being Holy Week for Christians, let us take a moment to consider the philosopher who defined the wheel of fortune long before the game show. A sixth-century Roman Christian with a tragic sensibility about the intrinsic limitations of the world, Boethius wrote Consolation of Philosophy while imprisoned, and he framed his work as a conversation between himself and the personification of "Philosophy," who at a critical juncture speaks in the voice of Fortune: "Inconstancy is my very essence; it is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top." Comforting words, but as I have grown older I have become more skeptical of them: they feel more like an excuse than an explanation.

Yes, we are all subject to chance, and at times we fail to bend the world to our purposes. But we are also creatures of free will, and sometimes we make our own luck. Or, to put it in Boethian terms, we can sometimes slow the wheel or speed it up. Not always, but occasionally--and occasionally is about the best we can hope for in any case.

In politics, it is tempting to apply the Boethian framework to Washington and argue that what is up must come down, and what is down must come up, thus minimizing the role of free will in the workings of statecraft. While it is true that campaigning and governing are subject to chance, it is also true that human agency can play a role in trying to make the best of an inherently inconstant reality in public life.

I found myself thinking about Boethius and his wheel in light of President Obama's victory in the health-care wars and the Republicans' implacable opposition to the administration on this and everything else. I could see how, if I were a Republican pol, I could rationalize the health-care defeat as a bad spin of the wheel, and reassure myself that Obama's luck is unlikely to hold all year. …