Boethius’ Consolation and Gibb’s How to be Unlucky

How to be Unlucky is by Joshua Gibbs and is published by The Circe Institute.  List price is $15.99, but Circe Institute has it discounted to $10.99.

Part of the story of this book begins with the unexpected and still largely unnoticed revival, renaissance, and reformation of classical Christian education.  As a renewed movement, it has been going on for some 25 years and is still in its infancy.  Many teachers, parents, pastors, and scholars have gotten into the movement and have had to play catch-up for a decade or two.  It is not a monolithic movement, nor is it confined to one branch or denomination of Christianity.

At this juncture in history, there are adults whose education was in classical Christian schools.  Overall, the results are astounding and impressive, but not everyone with a diploma from a CCE school is a walking compendium of Latin, logic, and rhetoric.  Even with the best of training, donkeys don’t win the Kentucky Derby.  Even if I had had the same instructors as Michael Phelps, I still would probably not be much past my faltering efforts at dog paddling.  Gifts and abilities differ.  So do schools.  So do teachers. And certainly, so do students.

From my impression from the book, Joshua Gibbs would not have been nominated for “Most Likely to Succeed” by his teachers.  I suspect he was subjected to that age-old saw of teachers, “He is smart enough, but he just doesn’t apply himself.”  (Or as we say where I live, “He just doesn’t apply hisself.”)  That’s okay because the B and C students are and should be the prime focus of teachers.  Let’s face it:  “A” students learn and excel under even the worst instruction, teaching, and curriculum.  It takes some real teaching to reach other students, but then again, sometimes we don’t. Then life and career and other matters step in and the gist of the lessons from school finally take root.

Joshua Gibbs describes himself as a less than stellar student who then became a teacher.  But it was in his fifth year of teaching that he had a “conversion experience.”  I don’t mean that he became a Christian at that point, but rather that he became a real student and thus started becoming a real teacher.  He was instructing a Medieval class on The Consolation of Philosophy  by Boethius.  I know something of what happened to him.

There is, first of all, the experience of reading a book, particularly a classic.  Quite frankly, sometimes classics leave us feeling good for having read them, but somewhat lost as to what the what big deal was.  “It’s a great classic because other people have said so,” is my occasional reaction, without my actually using those words in a classroom.

Then there is the experience of teaching a book, particularly a classic.  Here the teacher gets better at the nuts and bolts of the book.  You learn, instruct about, and test over characters, plot, setting, background, the author, and other aspects of the book.  There is a gnawing sense of guilt in all of this.  I approve of making students learn the basic story line and the names of key figures in the work. I am all for memorization of facts and mastery of details.  And the driven students make “A”s on those tests, proving we are good teachers.  But is the heart of Hamlet the list of characters or the rise and fall plot found in a tragedy, or recognition of key quotes?

At some point, hopefully, the teacher falls in love with the book.  At some point, he or she gets captured by the text, gets carried away, experiences some sort of ecstasy, enters Narnia, gets lost in the cosmos, undergoes a transformation, or whatever phrase might describe it.  It will more likely happen to the students if the teacher has had such an experience, but that is not an absolute.

This is the point where the teacher or reader has not just read, taught, studied, or written about the book, but has actually bought, embraced, identified with the book.  It will not be the same for every work, for I don’t think someone could sustain the emotional intensity.

But this is what happened to Joshua Gibbs during year five of teaching and when he finally entered in to the world of Boethius the author, Boethius the character, Lady Philosophy, and God who rules over all.

Personal testimony time:  Never read Boethius in high school, college, graduate school, on my own, or in my first 20 plus years of teaching.  Had barely heard of it.  Then one year when I was teaching Medieval Humanities, I invited my well-read friend Matt Smallwood to come talk about the book to my class.  Matt forgot his notes and he rambled.  I followed his talks, but was also using the free time to focus on something else.  The class was not assigned the book, but my son Nick may have read it.  I made some notes and promised myself that I would read the book, but didn’t.

Four years later when Medieval Humanities cycled around again, we read the book together in class.  I enjoyed it and think the class did as well.  Then after another four year cycle, the next group read through it.  For some reason, the class just didn’t seem to connect to the book.  Blame the teacher, if needed.  But I never reached a personal point where Consolation became one of my books.  It was never like Faulkner, Homer, Dostoevsky, or others among my favorites.

Back to Gibbs:  He writes, “By the time I finished Consolation for the first time, I understood that every great work of literature could be used as instruction in virtue.”  This doesn’t mean tacking on morals or lessons to the stories, but rather fleshing out the issues, examining the heart challenges, and exploring the human condition in the books we read.

How to be Unlucky is not a commentary to be used for lecture bullet points on Boethius.  It does explain a lot about the book, the author’s plight (in prison awaiting execution), and the issues he was grappling with.  But it is an examination of how Gibbs used passages to think through his own life, to apply the issues to his students’ experiences, and how to see God and virtue in the midst of life in a fallen world.

I hope that when I teach Consolation of Philosophy again, I have the good sense to read this book alongside Boethius.  But How to be Unlucky can be read as a stand-alone book with or without reading Boethius simultaneously.  It is a delightful look at two lives–that of Boethius from the late Roman period and that of Joshua Gibbs in our own time.

 

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