Consolations of philosophy
How a forgotten medieval philosophy can help if you lose your job
Everyone has a portal of possibility and a place on the gigantic wheel endlessly turning in the cosmos. But events are not always in your power to control. Here, British TV writer Matt Graham shares his battle to keep a sense of self in Hollywood – in a culture where failure is everyone’s nightmare
In fifth century Italy, just after the end of the Western Roman Empire, a man was arrested for a crime he didn’t commit. He knew the sentence would almost certainly be death.
Locked up awaiting trial in a lonely castle overlooking the endless marshes around Ravenna, and trying to come to terms with a world so horrifically unfair that something like this could happen, he penned a classic text that today has been virtually forgotten. His name: Boethius.
The text he wrote delivered a simple message: in the face of an incomprehensible, cruel universe, the author advised the reader to be optimistic. To make his point, he created a complex metaphor he called The Wheel of Fortune. Everyone had a fixed place, he said, on a gigantic wheel endlessly turning in the cosmos – a wheel that would turn, carrying you up to the heights and plunging you down to the depths alternately. His message: Hope – because eventually, when you’re down in the depths, the wheel will inevitably carry you upwards again.
Millions have lost their jobs during Covid. Losing one’s employment is a situation almost everyone can relate to. You feel powerless – and you usually blame yourself. This is why it’s so demoralising an experience to go through.
However, if you look hard enough, you can usually find consolation in the fact that it was most likely due to events beyond your control. This is what Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius’ great work, is all about, and that’s where his Consolation lies.
Here lies the problem though: recognising that events are not always in your power to control is a major step in the modern world. It goes against everything that our success driven, goal oriented culture stands for – and it takes a major effort of willpower to admit. I know this because I’ve been through it. Here’s how it happened for me:
This summer, while the world struggled with the worst pandemic since the Spanish Flu of 1919, I barely noticed: I’d actually hit the jackpot, career-wise. In Hollywood, I had sold a show. The buyer was a large studio based in a country (which I’m not going to name) who wanted “an international touch” on their new show.
The show promised to be exciting – in the vein of True Detective or Se7en – its main character was an obsessive, independently wealthy female detective who solved murders in order to make sense of her own disaster zone life, faced with a killer who might not even be human and called into question all her personal sacrifices. Solving murders empowered her – the only thing that allowed her to make sense of her life, like completing a jigsaw puzzle, and she had to hold her own in a world where men traditionally ruled the roost, even though her abilities made her infinitely more competent than her mostly male colleagues.
The problem was, right from the off, no one else apparently saw her like this.
Needless to say, I was soon warned by the all male development team with which I was working that such a character was “not realistic” and needed a male “mentor character” to “bounce ideas off.” It was inconceivable to any of them that such a character could ever be in charge of her own destiny financially, and that she might pursue police work out of choice – rather than need.
This character caused endless problems while the studio struggled with “figuring her out”. A studio memo which came by email from a male producer (a former actor) in his fifties suggested we create a scene where the character would get undressed in front of a mirror in soft light, and reveal a necklace or other “intimate” item of jewellery. Other notes flooded in in the same vein, all purportedly aimed at making the character more “realistic”. Gradually their solution emerged; she became sidelined in favour of a more familiar male detective who’d previously only been a supporting character, and who could “show her the ropes” and who, the team suggested, she would eventually probably sleep with. The #metoo movement didn’t seem to carry a lot of weight with any of them.
The show was based on a book that the studio had the rights to – The Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep to our Blade Runner – a book so poorly written that virtually no one involved had read it. The book contained a female sidekick who was portrayed in such base, sexist terminology that I found myself – as a man – gasping with shame when I read it. A little background about me – I’m male, but my favourite movies growing up were the Aliens trilogy, and the central female character of Ripley firmly influenced my voice as a writer – her character, always in a world of men dismissing her for her gender, along with a lot of bullying at school in my teens firmly shaped my world outlook and my voice.
When asked to pitch the adaption to screen, my idea was simple – to turn this female sidekick into the central character of the TV show, allowing her to have her revenge on the chauvinist male writer, whose own fawning autobiographical bio at the front of the book depicted him as a Renaissance Man whose authorial prowess was merely a sideshow to his career as a superstar lawyer and big game hunter – his mother almost certainly still did his washing. The central idea of the show I pitched was to recast this sidekick as a complex, ambitious female character who would appeal to modern international audiences. That was the idea, anyway. Now it seemed like everyone had forgotten it, afraid, as someone told me off the record, that the producers were afraid they’d make the mostly male TV audience at home uncomfortable.
The studio now brought in a new local director to provide “authenticity”, and that’s when everything went really wrong. I had not been party to whatever deal they’d given the director to take charge, but I rapidly came to understand what it was. A personal friend of the head of the studio (a super wealthy but paranoid Howards Hughes-like recluse who by all accounts only trusted a few people – including his brother, the producer of the show; the two were a dismal parody of the hit series Succession – the brothers had inherited the studio from their tycoon father who’d founded it), they’d told him he had carte blanche to make whatever show he wanted regardless of what had already been developed – presumably something they saw as a fix for the creative chaos over the main character – and within a few weeks, the hard work of the last three years had gone out of the window, as he threw out the central ideas for the show and set to work by himself making a brand new story known only to him. An email with suggestions by myself was met with an angry call at 6am from the director, warning me to stay out of his way creatively. He liked to speak with his kid running around the background, as if to say “Look, I’m a dad – so I’m really a good guy.”
By the time I got the call that I’d been fired, I had in truth long expected it. I had been put in a situation over which I had zero power and influence and I was reaping the rewards. I was exposed, and without friends and allies – I was for the chopping block.
The phone call that I’d been so afraid of plunged me deeply into financial insecurity, and an introspection that I’m still dealing with. But it didn’t kill me, and I’ll move on. I have to be content with the fact that the universe is simply a bigger place than me – and sometimes it moves against you. Being caught in a toxic work environment can happen to anyone.
It doesn’t matter what walk of life you find yourself in. If you’re a lawyer, a doctor or a welder, acknowledging that you have zero control over your work environment is tough – but it’s ultimately reassuring and is the basis of what Boethius was saying.
Boethius had far bigger problems than mine; he was on trial for his life for a crime he had not committed. His work, The Consolation of Philosophy, became a benchmark of medieval philosophy and resonated deeply with people who lived in times of turbulence when things weren’t always fair or just and where bad things just happened to good people. His secret was Hope, because sure enough, your fixed place on the wheel was also your salvation, because while you could be sure it would plunge you into the depths when you were riding high, you could also be sure that in times of need, it would bear you back up into the light. Hope is something that can be drawn on – a reserve you can access to help you though.
His simple message of Hope has been lost today in a time when we’re absolutely certain we control our destiny through that most odious of words, “Productivity.”
The fact is: you don’t, no matter how much today’s self help entrepreneur ethos convinces us that you do. It’s a dangerous delusion created by an excessive belief in the self – a belief encouraged by today’s inward looking world in which success is fetishised above all.
In reality, no matter how many followers you possess, the world is a much bigger place than you. Hope is really all you have – and it’s a valuable commodity.
What’s so good about this?
Bad luck can happen to anyone.
Our culture, in which success is fetishised, places a huge pressure on everyone involved as we like to think we control our own destiny.
The truth is, most things aren’t in your control even though we like to think that they are, and Boethius shows us the way to accept the misfortunes of life is by acknowledging this simple reality. We’re off the hook.
Check out his book, The Consolations of Philosophy, written 1500 years ago and yet still relevant.
Meet the writer
Matt Graham is a TV writer, originally from London, now based in Los Angeles. He’s the writer of the hit series Oliver Stone’s: The Untold History of the United States. As well as a great many TV scripts for Hollywood, he’s the writer of much published short fiction and a novel, The Night Driver. Matt’s the survivor of a plane crash in Panama and a roadside mock execution in Nigeria. He’s worked as a crime reporter in South America as well as a ranch manager in Colorado. He’s lived all over the world, and his great unifying passion in life is the search for the sleaziest bars imaginable. Sometimes he wakes up wondering whether or not it’s all just been a strange dream – the kind that jolts you from REM at 3am and leaves you staring at the ceiling. Follow @muzurphulus.