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Foundations for a Humanitarian Economy: Re-thinking Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, written by William D. Bishop

In: History of Philosophy & Logical Analysis
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Thomas A. Corbin Department of Philosophy, Macquarie University Sydney, NSW Australia

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William D. Bishop. 2022. Foundations for a Humanitarian Economy: Re-thinking Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Abingdon, Oxon / New York, NY: Routledge. ISBN: 9781032127583; $59.95, £51 (hardback); 90 pages.

In this short book, William D. Bishop attempts to outline a set of economic principles which he presents as an alternative to those dominant today. He finds these principles in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. These principles provide tools for both critique and replacement, with Bishop’s reading of the Consolation attempting to identify the problems within today’s economy whilst simultaneously suggesting itself as their solution. The broad project holds merit, and Bishop successfully outlines several areas where Boethius does hold interest and potential utility for contemporary social and economic debates. However, there are issues with the book and, unfortunately, the work is not entirely successful in articulating or defending the claims it puts forward.

Bishop’s book is short, concluding at 90 pages, and is comprised of three chapters. Chapter one presents Boethius’s historical and intellectual context. Chapter two turns to focus on the Consolation itself, proceeding through a section-by-section summary of the entire work. Finally, in chapter three, the argument of the book begins and Bishop presents what he sees as the “economy of philosophy’s consolation” (39), focusing his attention on several main areas or principles which he claims, here and in the book’s conclusion, “support re-rooting economics” (74) away from its current neoliberal foundation.

Chapter one begins with a brief summary of the Consolation’s historical background, spending approximately one page introducing the reader to the Rome of Boethius. After this one-page introduction, we move on to a more specific biography of Boethius himself, again spending approximately one page on a summary of his life leading to his famous banishment and death. Due to the brevity of discussion, only the briefest of outlines is given here, however, for those unfamiliar with Boethius and his life this sketch would usefully situate them in preparation for later discussions. The remainder of the chapter then gives an overview of the intellectual context, focusing particular attention on Plato and Aristotle, before then moving on to introduce the Consolation itself and conclude with a discussion of its reception and influence. Although brief, this chapter is well written, easy to follow, and successfully introduces the reader to the most important historical and contextual elements of the Consolation.

Chapter two presents a section-by-section summary of the Consolation. Bishop isolates every section contained in each book, from book I to V, and presents a summary of each in turn. These summaries are short, typically between 1–2 paragraphs in length, and they are mostly factual, giving a summary statement of what actually happens in the original section rather than providing an interpretive commentary. The following is Bishop’s complete summary of Book III, section I, which is a typical example of the style of the chapter:

After listening to this song, Boethius pleads for Philosophia’s ‘sharp medicine’. She replies that he would be even more eager for healing if he realized that her medicine would bring him true happiness. But she says that first she will try to sketch an idea of the cause of happiness.

Bishop 2022, 26–27

There are some exceptions to this summary style, but where they occur and commentary is made in this chapter, Bishop does an excellent job of ensuring the reader understands precisely what is happening, that summary explanation has ceased and Bishop’s own interpretation has begun. Separating these two voices is not an altogether easy task (although it is crucial in a writing such as this), and Bishop should be commended for his success here.

Chapter two is, however, stylistically unusual. Within books dedicated to the history of ideas, it is not typical to be given a section-by-section summary of a primary text. Though unusual, there are benefits to this approach. On one hand, it introduces a new reader to the breadth of the text. Bishop, as we will see, is making several highly ambitious arguments in the following chapter and this does require the reader to have at least some familiarity with the Consolation. However, on the other hand, for readers already familiar with the original text, it is difficult to remain attentive whilst reading this section and there are other – potentially more effective – ways to achieve this same introductory end. For instance, more typically we might expect to see the explanation of the work being given either in the context of the argument being presented (that is, a new “humanitarian economy”) or, more often still, in the context of the problem that is motivating the book, perhaps using Boethius as a lens to identify issues with the currently dominant economic understanding as articulated within the contemporary literature. This alternative approach would still introduce new readers to Boethius but would also provide already familiar readers with new and useful information. It would also have the advantage of allowing a deeper understanding of the target problem of the book. This last point becomes important to the reader, and it is one we will return to in this review.

The next and final chapter is different to those preceding it. The preceding chapters do not introduce the argument of the book but instead provide a broad overview of who Boethius was (Ch. 1) and what the Consolation contains (Ch. 2). Chapter three therefore has a considerable argumentative burden placed upon it as it must both articulate and defend the books main claim.

Chapter three starts helpfully with a statement of the question firmly on the readers mind, “What is the economy of philosophy’s consolation and how does it differ from mainstream economics?” (39). Over the next 35 pages (the length of the chapter), Bishop attempts to answer this question and he starts with a summary statement of his reading:

Consolation presents an economy with the following alternative attributes: wealth as inner happiness derived from virtues in contrast to inner poverty from hoarding outer possessions; self sufficiency through recollection of the Whole in opposition to infinit desire for base pleasures; development as fruition from the Good instead of progress defined as infinite growth; the Good as transcendental practice rather than exchange value; and Truth as philosophy’s consolation in place of market calculation.

Bishop 2022, 39

These attributes do receive further discussion, but before turning to them individually Bishop first clarifies the significance of an economy defined by these attributes. In short, the economy of Boethius, the “humanitarian economy” which Bishop believes he has identified, is one focused on

[…] the satisfaction of basic human needs to enable it to focus on the transcendental purpose of Truth-seeking, and participation in the Good.

Bishop 2022, 40

The economy of the Consolation is, we find, one which attempts to remove material wants and satisfy basic human needs, needs which Bishop lists as “food, shelter, clothing, work, and security” (40). However, the mere satisfaction of basic needs is not – or does not appear to be – the motivation driving the need for an alternative economy, rather, that it is the “participation in the Good”. The above listed economic attributes or principles allow for this participation by altering the goal of people’s lives away from the accumulation of material possessions (which Bishop argues to be demanded by the principles of a neoliberal economy), towards their own “higher nature”. Bishop clarifies what he means by “higher nature” in explicitly Aristotelian terms. He writes:

Human nature is a combination of the rational mind and the instinctive desire of the animal body. The spirit (mind) within the soul strives ‘upwards’ while the animal strives earthwards, and the mediation of virtue propels the rational spirit towards the authentic Good.

Bishop 2022, 45

The division of spirit from animal here overlays the division of “the Good” from consumerism in Bishop’s argument. We are, Bishop claims, comprised of this combination of the animal and the spiritual. However, neo-liberalism speaks only to the animal to the point that it starves the spiritual. As he writes later in the chapter,

[…] animals adapt well to their native ecosystem, but if the animal nature in the human dominates, this opposes the higher order of nature.

Bishop 2022, 48

The humanitarian economy that Bishop finds is one which satisfies only the basic needs of the animal and thereby provides the necessary space and motivation to resuscitate the spiritual. An economy defined by the above listed attributes found in Boethius’s Consolation (wealth as inner happiness, self-sufficiency, development, the Good and Truth) will, Bishop claims, allow for the titular “humanitarian economy” in that it allows individuals to achieve their higher human nature.

At this point the reader (at least, this reader) does struggle to gain a firm grasp on the claims being made in the work. It is clear that Bishop sees issues with the current economy, yet very limited clarification or specifics are given regarding precisely what these issues are. For example, it is natural for the reader to assume that the target of the book is the collection of principles underpinning neoliberal economics. However, the term ‘neoliberal’ appears only nine times in the entire work and in every instance only a very broad common use meaning can be extracted. For example, Bishop writes:

[…] the modern neoliberal economy encourages self-interest, which potentially leads to separation and isolation from reality as a whole.

Bishop 2022, 54

He does not then continue to explore or support this point, instead moving on to a discussion of the common good as understood by Boethius. Consequently, it is unclear how the critique offered of the current economic principles amounts to more than a general concern regarding current social or environmental issues. In fact, in several areas this ‘general concern approach’ is the only explicit motivation given by Bishop. For instance, he writes:

Indeed, now that awareness is growing that the abstract nature of modern economics is instrumental in environmental and social destruction, the ideas discussed by Boethius become livingly relevant in finding an alternative foundation for the economy.

Bishop 2022, 41

Limited discussion is made of precisely what the current economic principles are (see page 59, paragraph 3 and 4, for one such discussion) which are leading to this destruction. This is not an insignificant problem when the book presents itself as resolving the underlying issues preventing us from occupying an economy which is acceptably “humanitarian”. This lack of terminological and argumentative clarity is a common theme not limited to neoliberalism; far too many terms are used briefly and in passing without direct discussion or qualification. For example, terms like ‘alienation’, ‘Gaia’, ‘just distribution’, ‘equality’ and ‘equity’, are frequently used in what appears to be load bearing ways (that is to say, ways which support the thesis claim of the book regarding the importance of Boethius), with no clarification given on precisely how these terms are understood or how they could be applied. In effect, this makes it hard to understand the thesis of the book as it is not clear what problem it is that it attempts to solve.

Bishop is correct that Boethius, and classical authors more broadly, can offer us effective critical tools which can be wielded against the arguments and assumptions underpinning today’s neoliberal economics. There are very good examples of this form of scholarship, perhaps most recent being Egar Garcia’s (2022) Emergency: Reading the Popol Vuh in a Time of Crisis. Garcia’s work provides an excellent model of the bourgeoning “critical antiquities” literature through his use of the Popol Vuh as a tool to explore and transform the emergencies of colonialism which became all the more visible and urgent through the Covid-19 pandemic. However, where Garcia focuses on precise contemporary issues, Bishop does not, and that makes it very difficult to be persuaded by his claims.

That being said, there are places in the work where the reader is given insights into how Bishop sees this “humanitarian economy” working in practice. For example, he writes:

[…] the economy of Consolation is an inversion of an economy based on infinite growth where consumption, profiteering, and greed develop the potential to force a person into material and spiritual destitution. […] Naturally the economy of ‘consolation’ will meet needs such as housing, physical nourishment, clothing, education and security, but it will do so by distinguishing needs from wants that might divert attention from participation in the Good. Material poverty, as distinguished from destitution, enables full concentration on the object of one’s concern. For example, Jesuits taking the vow of poverty, chastity, and obedience are liberated to pursue their vocation free from material distraction.

Bishop 2022, 46, emphasis mine

The picture this example paints is not immediately comforting. It is one thing to suggest consumerism leads to social, economic, or environmental problems. It is quite another entirely to suggest that a viable alternative to this is a return to feudal Europe or monasticism. This may appear an uncharitable reading of Bishop’s claim. However, both here and elsewhere, the work presents an extremely romantic view of the feudal world understood as the outcome of an economy defined as an “ethical economy” which “engendered [and] encouraged moral behaviour” (42). He does note that this economy would exist under “very different circumstances” today, which is fortunate, however it isn’t clear how different it really could be if driven by precisely the same principles. More work is needed to clarify the claims being made here, particularly regarding the practical exhibition of the “humanitarian economy” being argued for, as without this the reader struggles to fully understand what it is they are being persuaded of.

The lack of terminological and argumentative clarity in the work is an issue, and unfortunately it is compounded by another. Above, I stated that chapter two of Bishop’s work, the section-by-section summary of Boethius, was unusual and that there might be more effective ways to present such a summary, such as in the context of the identification of a target problem or existing scholarship. This was presented as merely a suggestion, as there is nothing incorrect’with the chapter as Bishop decided to present it. However, it is a problem that no alternative discussion of the existing scholarship is provided.

Bishop is the first to advance Boethius in the economic terms he does, but he is certainly not the first to critique neoliberalism nor suggest the kinds of alternatives he does. The book contains little to no explanation or exploration of this highly relevant literature, and this creates challenges. There is no chapter or sub-section of this book which looks at similar arguments, which contextualises itself in existing scholarship, or which directly engages with neoliberal economics or with economic literature more broadly. Very few alternative arguments are mentioned to the ones presented, almost no relationships between itself and existing claims are clarified, and no literature review is even cursorily conducted. The significance of this oversight is large, and it makes reading, understanding, and recommending this work challenging.

Bishop’s project does hold promise. There are relevant and potentially useful tools in Boethius which might be used effectively in contemporary economic debates. For example, the critique of material wealth given in the Consolation does offer, as Bishop suggests, a valuable critical lens which can be held up against neoliberal approaches and assumptions. However, it is nonetheless difficult to recommend this book. For one, it is not obvious who the target audience is or should be. Without a discussion of the relevant existing literature the book does not situate itself in a given scholarship in a way which lends itself to existing debates. The only area of literature it is unquestionably part of is the Routledge published series in which it exists, the Economics and Humanities book series edited by Sebastian Berger. In the series information at the start of the work it states that,

[…] students and academics who are fundamentally dissatisfied with the state of economics and worried that its crisis undermines society will find this series of interest.

Bishop 2022, ii

This may well be true, and for those who are fundamentally dissatisfied and who are looking for novel economic alternatives, this book very well may be of interest. However, for those looking for a clearly articulated and robust argument which can be applied directly to contemporary debates, they, unfortunately, may need to look elsewhere.

Bibliography

Garcia, E. (2022). Emergency: Reading the Popol Vuh in a Time of Crisis. University of Chicago Press.

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