Consolation

Consolation

Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy has been neglected by most Anglo-American philosophy departments. It is not unusual for students to come away from their undergraduate degree in philosophy with the basics of Russell, Quine, Kripke, and whatever else is marketed to be fashionable at the moment, but little to no exposure to the classical texts of the tradition. Boethius’s work fares particularly poorly in this regard, since he stands at beginning of the middle ages, and is thus easily disparaged as the representative of a benighted era.[1] This is a tendency I have tried to fight against in my courses.

I have made it a point to assign The Consolation in my introductory classes, because I believe that it is a crucial philosophical work in several regards. First, historically, it is necessary for understanding the development of Western philosophy. Boethius stands at the cusp of the classical and medieval eras. As the last classical thinker, Boethius was one of the last philosophers in the Western Roman empire to be fluent in Greek. It was through his Latin translations that the little of Plato and Aristotle known to the medieval world were preserved till the Renaissance.[2] Likewise, as the first medieval thinker, Boethius’ poetic and cosmological vision furnished the backdrop for the emerging era.

Second, The Consolation is vital for understanding the development of Western theology. Theology (θεολογια) is the domain of knowledge devoted to the understanding of God or Absolute Reality. In the Western tradition, this domain has largely been dominated by Christianity, a tradition holding an uneasy tension between, on the one hand, the intellectual inheritance of ancient Greek philosophy and, on the other, a dogmatic Abrahamic characterization of God rooted in the Old Testament of the Bible. In the twentieth century it became popular to portray the Greek portion of this inheritance as a fundamentally alien and corrupting element in Christianity, echoing Tertullian’s famous quip ‘what does Jerusalem have to do with Athens?’ According to this stereotype, the God of Greek philosophy offers only cold rationality, providing no solace to the heart and no answer to the tragedies of life. Comfort, these theologians contend, can only be found in the Abrahamic God of the Bible who steps into history to choose a particular people. Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy undermines this stereotype. For it shows how the Philosophy can, in fact, console even amid history’s most unbearable moments.[3]

This leads to the final domain in which Boethius’ work proves to be vital. As the title suggests, it provides us with psychological consolation when confronted with a seemingly brutal and chaotic world ruled by powers that have little concern for human happiness. If anyone had grounds for unhappiness, it was Boethius. Having devoted his life to scholarly study and serving his community in political office under the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, he found himself falsely accused of treason and sorcery, tortured, exiled, and jailed where he awaited execution by bludgeoning.[4] It was at this moment, imprisoned, looking back at the collapse of all he had worked for, and anticipating a gruesome death, that Boethius wrote his most enduring work. As a result, The Consolation is a testament to the salutary powers of philosophy in the tragedy of life.

Lady Philosophy

The work understandably begins with Boethius penning lamentations and grieving his sudden downfall at the hands of fortune. But then, unexpectedly, Boethius looks up to see standing before him a woman of “awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men” (I.i).[5] He can discern that she has existed for ages, yet she still radiates life and beauty. It is hard for him to see through his tears, but he can tell that her stature keeps changing. At times she is of normal human height, but at others she towers above him, sometimes rising so high that she transcends his view. Despite her shifting size, he can tell that she is radiantly dressed, although her clothes are “obscured by a kind of film as of long neglect, like statues covered in dust” (I.i), and it seems that patches have been torn from them at places. At the bottom hem her gown is the letter Π, for practical, and higher up is the letter Θ, for theoretical philosophy, the two being connected by a ladder. In her right hand, she holds a set of books, and, in her left, she carries a scepter. In this manner, Boethius personifies the idea of philosophia perennis, the view that there is a unified core of wisdom lying behind plethora of philosophical and religious views that have emerged through human history.[6]  

Philosophy comes to Boethius as a healer. She observes that he has been immersed in poetry and is surrounded by the Muses, but she is angered at the sight, since “they have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make him worse” (I.i). The muses have merely aroused his passions without directing them to a positive goal and have thereby habituated him to his “sickness of mind instead of curing” him (I.i). She then looks down at Boethius and recites her own diagnosis and lamentation:

“So sinks the mind in deep despair/ and sight grows dim; when storms of life/ inflate the weight of earthly care,/ the mind forgets its inward light/ and turns to trust the dark without./ This was the man who once was free to climb the sky with zeal devout/ to contemplate the crimson sun,/ the frozen fairness of the moon–/ astronomer once used in joy/ to comprehend and commune/ with planets on their wandering ways./ This man, this man sought out the source/ of storms that roar and rouse the seas;/ the spirit that rotates the world,/ the cause that translocates the sun/ from shining East to watery West;/ he sought the reason why spring hours/ are mild with flowers manifest,/ and who enriched with swelling grapes/ ripe autumn at the full of year./ Now see that mind that searched and made/ all nature’s hidden secrets clear/ lie prostrate prisoner of night. His neck bends low in shackles thrust,/ and he is forced beneath the weight/ to contemplate—the lowly dust” (I.ii).

Though she acknowledges Boethius’s wretched state, she claims that it is one he is ultimately responsible for. She had previously provided him arms to defend himself, but he abandoned them (I.ii). Yet her diagnosis remains optimistic. For, it is “only a touch of amnesia that he is suffering…. He has forgotten for a while who he is.” (I.ii). In fact, though Boethius thinks that he has been banished by evil men and the caprices of fate, ultimately it is he himself who chose self-banishment from his true homeland. She declares:

“The moment I saw your sad and tear-stained looks, they told me that you had been reduced to the misery of banishment; but unless you had told me, I would still not have known how far you had been banished. However, it is not simply a case of your having been banished from your home; you have wandered away from yourself, or if you prefer to be thought of as having been banished, it is you yourself that have been the instrument of it. No one else could ever have done it. For if you remember the country you came from, it is not governed by majority rule like Athens of old, but, if I may quote Homer, ‘One is its lord and one its king;’ and rather than having them banished, He prefers to have a large body of subjects. Submitting to His governance and obeying His laws of freedom. You seem to have forgotten the oldest law of your community, that any man who has chosen to make his dwelling there has the sacred right never to be banished. So there can be no fear of exile for any man within its walls and moat. On the other hand, if anyone stops wanting to live there, he automatically stops deserving it.

            And so it is not the sight of this place [i.e. his prison cell] which gives me concern but your own appearance, and it is not the walls of your library with their glass and ivory decoration that I am looking for, but the seat of your mind. That is the place where I once stored away—not my books, but—the thing that makes them have any value, the philosophy they contain” (I.v).

The true source of Boethius’ sorrow is thus his forgetfulness: He has forgotten his true nature (I.vi). “It is because you are confused by loss of memory that you wept and claimed you have been banished and robbed of all your possessions. And it is because you don’t know the end and purpose of things that you think the wicked and the criminal have power and happiness. And because you have forgotten the means by which the world is governed you believe these ups and downs of fortune happen haphazardly.” (I.vi). The rest of the work then consists of Philosophy applying various medicines of mind to Boethius to disabuse him of these mistaken beliefs. She starts with the gentlest remedies, and proceeds to stronger ones.

The Wheel of Fortune.

Boethius laments that fortune has changed towards him and has treated him unjustly. Philosophy thus begins her treatment by adopting Boethius’s perspective for the sake of argument and showing it to be mistaken on both counts. First, fortune has not, in fact, changed her nature and acted differently towards him. Rather, fortune has remained true to her capricious nature. Constant in her inconstancy, fortune has maintained her “own particular kind of constancy ” to Boethius (2.i). Because fortune bestows her favors randomly, Boethius had every reason to expect what would befall him if he were to trust in the goods she provides. As one says today, play stupid games; win stupid prizes.

“Once you have bowed your neck beneath her yoke, you ought to bear with equanimity whatever happens on Fortunes playground. If after freely choosing her as the mistress to rule your life you want to draw up a law to control her coming and going, you will be acting without any justification and your very impatience will only worsen a lot which you cannot alter. Commit your boat to the winds and you must sail whichever way they blow, not just where you want” (2.i).

Furthermore, fortune’s inconstancy, not only gives reason to doubt the goods she provides, but it also softens the misfortunes that one receives from her hand. For, since good and ill occur randomly, Boethius’ misfortune might be reversed just as easily as it occurred.

Second, Philosophy points out that fortune has not treated Boethius unjustly. To begin with, she notes that if one looks at his life objectively, Boethius, even in his current state, has received a better lot than other men. After his father died, he was adopted into an aristocratic family who loved him and gave him the best of educations. He was married to a loving and loyal wife and had two outstanding sons who became consuls together. Many men would trade their own lots for his, even given his current circumstances (2.iii).

“No man is so completely happy that something somewhere does not clash with his condition. It is the nature of human affairs to be fraught with anxiety; they never prosper perfectly and they never remain constant. In one man’s case you will find riches offset by the shame of a humble birth and in another’s noble birth offset by unwelcome publicity on account of the crippling poverty of his family fortunes. Some men are blessed with both wealth and noble birth, but are unhappy because they have no wife. Some are happily married but without children, and husband their money for an heir of alien blood. Some again have been blessed with children only to weep over their misdeeds. No one finds it easy to accept the lot Fortune has sent him. There is something in the case of each of us that escapes the notice of the man who has not experienced it, but causes horror to the man who has.” (2.iv).

Moreover, since the goods that fortune bestowed were all external, she has not treated him unjustly by taking them away. She has removed nothing that truly belonged to him. “If the things whose loss you are bemoaning were really yours, you could never have lost them” (2.ii). The true good is not something that fortune has the power to give or take.

Philosophy then sketches three general arguments for why man’s true happiness cannot be based on chance. First, she notes that true happiness would be the highest good for rational nature. She then asks us to compare permanent goods to goods that can be taken away. Permanent goods would be the better of the two. But this implies that goods that can be lost cannot be the highest good. For, if they were, one would have to endorse the contradictory claim that there is class of goods higher than the highest good. Since happiness is the highest good of rational nature, happiness must also be something permanent, and thus cannot be taken away by the whims of fortune. “Fortune by her very mutability can’t hope to lead to happiness” (2.iv).

Second, suppose that happiness was such that it could be lost at any time. One would either know this fact or be ignorant of it. If he knows it, then reason compels him to fear the loss of happiness. But such a life of fear conflicts with the supposition that such a man is happy. We do not count someone happy who lives in constant anxiety. Suppose, then, that he is ignorant of the fact that his happiness can be lost. This would mean that human happiness requires “the blindness of ignorance.” (2.iv). But, since man is a rational animal, this again leads to a contradiction. For the happiness of rational being cannot consist in ignorance.

Finally, philosophy appeals to Boethius’ belief in the immortality of the soul. It seems that the goods of fortune only extend over bodily life. So, if the goods of fortune were to constitute the true happiness of man, it would be necessary to believe that all men were miserable after death. But it is possible (even actual in many cases) to believe that the soul is happy after death. Indeed, many use this hope to help them endure death, “suffering and torment” (2.iv). Furthermore, “it seems that the happiness which cannot make men unhappy by its cessation, cannot either make them happy by its presence.” (2.iv).

The general lesson here is that true happiness is not to be found outside, but within.

“Why then do you mortal men seek after happiness outside yourselves, when it lies within you? You are led astray by error and ignorance…. If I ask you whether there is anything more precious to you than your own self, you will say no. So if you are in possession of yourself you will possess something you would never wish to lose and something Fortune could never take away” (2.iv).

The Illusory Goods of Fortune

Philosophy then proposes stronger medicine by analyzing the goods of fortune in detail and demonstrating that none of them are genuine. Even if they were not transitory, their possession would still fail to satisfy.  “Which is there among them that can ever belong to you or whose worthlessness is not revealed by a moment’s thoughtful consideration” (2.v)?

Wealth: We esteem wealth either for the power it confers or for its intrinsic properties. Consider the social power one wields by the possession of wealth. People believe that by hoarding money they will garner social support. But philosophy notes that the exact opposite is the case: The person who hoards money draws hatred to himself. Rather, it is the generous person, the benefactor, who gains esteem in the community. It is thus only with the relinquishing of wealth that one gains social power. Wealth, in fact, proves to be a very poor sort of social good, since it cannot be shared by all (2.v). Suppose instead that wealth is valued for its intrinsic properties. Take, for example, a precious diamond. Although beautiful to look at, it is of lesser value when compared to other beings. It sparkles, but it cannot move or reason. “Such things may be works of the Creator and may draw some minimal beauty of their own ornamental nature, but they are of an inferior rank to you as a more excellent creature, and cannot in any way merit your admiration” (2.v). In this manner, one undermines the proper order of nature when godlike reason debases itself to worship mere stones (2.v). “The condition of human nature is just this; man towers above the rest of creation so long as he recognizes his own nature, and when he forgets it, he sinks lower than the beasts. For other living beings to be ignorant of themselves, is natural; but for man it is a defect” (2.v).

Furthermore, wealth simply brings more cares. The more wealth you have, the more help you will need to protect it (2.v).  Philosophy uses this observation to furnish an additional argument against the claim that wealth is a genuine good. She notes that nothing truly good would harm its owner. But wealth does harm its owners. For example, the possession of wealth makes one a target of violent criminals. “You are shuddering now at the thought of club and knife, but if you had set out on the path of this life with empty pockets, you would whistle your way past any highwayman. How splendid, then, the blessing of mortal riches is! Once won, they never leave you carefree again” (2.v).

Political Office and Power: Consider first the case of political office. This office is either occupied by someone who is virtuous or vicious. If the office holder is virtuous, he is praised. But he is praised for his virtue, not his office. But, if the office holder is vicious, he brings catastrophe for the community, a disaster “greater than flood or volcanic eruption” (2.vi). When such men rule, people would rather abolish the office entirely than bear under tyranny and incompetence. So, in neither case is political office itself a good. “Honor is not accorded to virtue because of the office held, but to the office because of the virtue of the holder” (2.vi).

One might contend that political office is not an unqualified good, but the power that comes with it is. But philosophy undermines this claim as well. She first contends that when determining the value of a power we have to look at its scope. We would, for example, laugh at the pretensions of a mouse king, lording his position over a nest of mice. Now, the scope of political power is limited to control of the body. One can order someone to be imprisoned, tortured, killed, etc. But note how incredibly weak this domain is. “Could you discover anything more feeble than man, when often even a tiny fly can kill him either by its bite or by creeping into some inward part of him?” (2.vi). If a fly holds the same power as a king in this regard, the king has no grounds for boasting. Furthermore, when it comes to what is essential to man, sovereignty of mind, kings have no power. It is only through the body that one man can control another. “You cannot impose anything on a free mind, and you cannot move from its state of inner tranquility a mind at peace with itself and firmly founded on reason” (2.vi).  Philosophy reminds Boethius of the case of the philosopher Zeno. The tyrant Nearchus attempted to torture Zeno into betraying his comrades, but Zeno simply bit off his tongue and threw it in his face. “Nearchus had thought the tortures an occasion for barbarity, but Zeno made them an opportunity for heroism” (2.vi).

Not only does the sovereign have power only over the body (and not the soul), but, since he is himself embodied, he is liable to the very same acts of violence he inflicts on others. “There is nothing, in fact, which one man can do to another, which he cannot himself suffer at the hands of someone else” (2.vi). Philosophy observes how the Egyptian Busiris killed strangers who entered his land, but was himself killed by the stranger Hercules and how Regulus took many prisoners during the Punic War, but, in the end was taken captive himself. Such power, argues philosophy, is no real power, since it cannot ensure that one will not meet the same fate that one inflicts on others.

Fame: Philosophy presents two arguments for why fame is not an unqualified good. The first argument concerns the extent of fame. Suppose that one had succeeded in achieving worldwide fame. Philosophy points out that given how small the world is in comparison to the universe, one’s reputation even in this best of scenarios would be so heavily circumscribed as to be rendered inconsequential. “This [world] is the tiny point within a point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendor” (2.vii). Moreover, no one actually achieves this best case scenario, our reputation being bound up with our own particular language and culture. There are many peoples who will never learn of our accomplishments, and, even if they did, there is a good chance that they would appraise them differently. Since different cultures value different things, it is likely that what is lauded in one culture would be derided in another. Thus, fame is not only spatially, but also culturally circumscribed. Finally, philosophy points out that fame is also temporally circumscribed. Fame fades as cultures die and are lost in the depths of time. “When you think of your future fame you think you are creating for yourself a kind of immortality. But if you think of the infinite recesses of eternity you have little cause to take pleasure in any continuation of your name” (2.vii).

Philosophy’s second argument turns on our mortality. She notes that consciousness either ends in death or it doesn’t. If it does, fame is irrelevant. The chatter of those on earth will mean nothing to you if you do not exist. But, if consciousness does not end in death, it would exist in a different kind of reality and be unconcerned about what people said of it while it was embodied.  “If the mind stays conscious when it is freed from the earthly prison and seeks out heaven in freedom, surely it will despise every earthly affair. In the experience of heaven it will rejoice in its delivery from earthly things” (2.vii).

The lesson of these analyses, claims Philosophy, is that men have been captivated by a mistaken view of the good and that this confusion has been cemented in language. We call things good which are not true goods. “The reason for this is that you are accustomed to using the wrong words to refer to things which are by nature otherwise, and are easily proved to be so by their very operation. So neither riches, power nor high office can properly be called by these words. And lastly we may reach the same conclusion about Fortune as a whole. She has nothing worth pursuing, and no trace of intrinsic good; she never associates with good men and does not turn into good men those with whom she does associate” (2.vi).

The Value of Bad Fortune

Philosophy argues that when one thus has a clear view of reality, one can see that so called bad fortune is actually superior to good. When one has a run of good fortune one is lulled into the illusion that the external goods she offers constitute true happiness. But, when bad fortune comes, fortune reveals herself, “throws off her disguise and admits her game.” (2.viii). This can cause men to reappraise their situation and understand their true state. Hence, Philosophy claims that “Good fortune deceives, but bad fortune enlightened” (2.viii).

The True Good

Philosophy claims that all men desire the true good, “a good which once obtained leaves nothing more to be desired” (3.ii). This good would be absolutely perfect and contain within “itself all that is good” (3.ii). On pain of contradiction, it must lack for nothing, for, if it did, it would fail to be perfect. “Something would remain outside it, which could still be wished for” (3.ii).

Philosophy notes that this concept of perfect fulfillment is equivalent to that of happiness (beatitude). And, if we then examine what perfect happiness consists in, we come to find that it is self-sufficiency. What is self-sufficient, does not depend on any external good, having all it needs in itself. “In fact there is no other thing which could so successfully create happiness as a condition provided with all that is good, a condition of self-sufficiency with no wants” (3.ii).

Men mistakenly pursue the goods of fortune thinking that they will lead to self-sufficiency. But, in doing so, they mistake the parts of happiness for the whole, and abandon the very thing they seek. However, if one attains self-sufficiency, he will thereby also have the partial goods that other men seek, the true good being “one and undivided” (3.ix).  Consider the case of power. What is self-sufficient cannot be lacking in power, since, if it did, it would have to rely on something else, and thus fail to be self-sufficient.  So “self-sufficiency and power are of one and the same nature” (3.ix). What is self-sufficient would likewise be worthy of respect and fame (3.ix). And, as we saw earlier, whoever attained self-sufficiency would also be happy, since happiness is grounded in self-sufficiency. Hence, “sufficiency, power, glory, reverence and happiness differ in name but not in substance” (3.ix). The true good is thus a unity, a unity which the human mind mistakenly dissects into various components.  

“Human perversity, then, makes divisions of that which by nature is one and simple, and in attempting to obtain part of something which has no parts, succeeds in getting neither the part—which is nothing—nor the whole, which they are not interested in” (3.ix).

We thus forsake the whole in pursuit of its parts.

“If a man pursues wealth by trying to avoid poverty, he is not working to get power; he prefers being unknown and unrecognized, and even denies himself many natural pleasures to avoid losing the money he has got. But certainly no sufficiency is achieved this way, since he is lacking in power and vexed by trouble; he is of no account because of his low esteem, and is buried in obscurity. And if a man pursues only power, he expends wealth, despises pleasures and honor without power, and holds glory of no account. But you can see how much this man also lacks; at any one time he lacks the necessaries of life and is consumed by worry, from which he cannot free himself, so he ceases to be what he most of all wants to be, that is, powerful. A similar argument can be applied to honor, glory, and pleasures, for, since any one of them is the same as the others, a man who pursues one of them to the exclusion of the others, cannot even acquire what he wants” (3.ix).

            At this point, Philosophy prays for illumination before she seeks to further elucidate the nature of this single simple good.

 “O Thou who dost by everlasting reason rule,/ creator of the planets and the sky, who time/ from timelessness dost bring, unchanging Mover,/ no cause drove Thee to mold unstable matter, but/ the form benign of highest good within Thee set. All things Thou bringest forth from Thy high archetype:/ Thou, height of beauty, in Thy mind the beauteous world/ dost bear, and in that ideal likeness shaping it,/ dost order perfect parts a perfect whole to frame./ The elements by harmony Thou dost constrain,/ that hot to cold and wet to dry are equal made,/ that fire grow not too light, or earth too fraught with weight./ The bridge of threefold nature mad’st Thou soul, which spreads/ through nature’s limbs harmonious and all things moves./ The soul once cut, in circles two its motion joins,/ goes round and to itself returns encircling mind,/ and turns in pattern similar the firmament./ From causes like Thou brings forth souls and lesser lives, / which from above in chariots swift Thou dost disperse/ through sky and earth, and by Thy law benign they turn/ and back to Thee they come through fire that brings them home./ Grant, Father, that our minds Thy august seat may scan,/ Grant us the sight of true good’s source, and grant us light/ that we may fix on thee our mind’s unblinded eye./ Disperse the clouds of earthly matter’s cloying weight; / shine out in all thy glory; for Thou art rest and peace/ to those who worship thee; to see Thee is our end,/ Who art our source and maker, lord and path and goal” (3.ix).

Philosophy then proceeds to argue that the true good is none other than God himself. She notes that the idea of God is equivalent to that of a good of which none greater can be conceived. Such a good would have to be perfect, for if it were imperfect, we could conceive of a good which was greater in respect to that imperfection. “Therefore, to avoid an unending argument, it must be admitted that the supreme God is to the highest degree filled with supreme and perfect goodness. But we have agreed that perfect good is true happiness; so that it follows that true happiness is to be found in the supreme God” (3.x). God does not merely possess supreme goodness or happiness; He is them. If they were in any way external to God, even logically, then there would have to be a principle external to God holding Him and his properties together through the exemplification relation. But this would entail the contradiction that God is perfectly self-sufficient and not perfectly self-sufficient. So, we must conceive of God and the highest good as one and the same.  “God is the essence of happiness.” (3.x).

God is thus the good that all men seek. When men seek for happiness, they are seeking for nothing less than deification. Philosophy explains:

“Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy. But by the same logic as men become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine. Each happy individual is therefore divine. While only God is so by nature, as many as you like may become so by participation” (3.x).

Philosophy argues that this yearning for divinity flames through the core of every living being. She notes that living beings seek to remain in existence and that to do so amounts to maintaining themselves as unities. Once the unity of an entity ceases, so does that entity. “Whatever seeks to subsist and remain alive desires to be one; take away unity from a thing and existence too ceases” (3.xi). Thus, “all things desire unity” (3.xi) and we have seen that this unity is the good. Therefore, all things seek the true good. And this true good, i.e. God, is thus the end of all things.

The good are in fact better off than evil men.

After presenting a more accurate view of goodness, Philosophy points out that the good are, in fact, better off than the evil. She begins by presenting a series of three arguments to show that good men are more powerful than evil ones. The first argument turns on an analysis of successful action. She notes that there are two components to successful action: (a) desire and (b) execution. Now, as seen in the previous section, both good and evil men desire the true good. So, if there is a difference in power between them, it must turn on whether or not they successfully execute an action that achieves their desire. Consider first the good. They are successful in achieving their goal: In being good, they attain the good. But the wicked fail to carry out their intentions. If they wicked attained the good, they would not longer be wicked. So, the good actually carry out what they intend, but the wicked fail to do so.  “Since, then, both groups want goodness, and one obtains it and the other doesn’t, surely there can be no doubt of the power of the good and the weakness of the bad?” (4.ii).

Philosophy’s second argument concerns what she calls natural action. She asks one to consider a case in which two people undertake a natural task. One person carries it out by a natural process, the other by a contrived one. For example, suppose two people attempt the natural task of walking. The first does it by simply stepping forward and walking on his feet to his destination. The second stands on his hands and tries to muscle himself to the finish line upside down. The former, claims philosophy, would be more powerful than the latter since he pursues a natural end by a natural means. She then argues that this same analysis holds when we consider good and bad men. “The supreme good is the goal of good men and bad alike, and the good seek it by means of a natural activity—the exercise of their virtues—while the bad strive to acquire the very same thing by means of their various desires, which isn’t a natural method of obtaining the good” (4.ii). Hence, it is again the good that are powerful and the wicked that are weak.

Finally, Philosophy contends that evil is a mere privation of good. Evil is a lack, not a positive reality in itself. Thus, to the extent that the wicked do evil, they, in fact, do nothing. Such non-action is not a power, but an extinguishing of it.

 “Men who give up the common goal of all things that exist, thereby cease to exist themselves. Some may perhaps think it strange that we say that wicked men, who form the majority of men, do not exist; but that is how it is. I am not trying to deny the wickedness of the wicked; what I do deny is that their existence is absolute and complete existence. Just as you might call a corpse a dead man, but couldn’t simply call it a man, so I would agree that the wicked are wicked, but could not agree that they have unqualified existence. A thing exists when it keeps its proper place and preserves its own nature. Anything which departs from this ceases to exist, because its existence depends on the preservation of its nature” (4.ii).

“To the objection that evil men do have power, I would say that this power of theirs comes from weakness rather than strength. For they would not have the power to do the evil they can if they could have retained the power of doing good. This power only makes it more clear that they can do nothing, for if, as we concluded a short time ago, evil is nothing, it is clear that since they can only do evil, the wicked can do nothing” (4.ii).

Thus, contrary to Boethius’ perspective at the outset of the work, it is the good who are powerful and the wicked who are impotent. Furthermore, Philosophy goes on to point out that the good never fail to obtain their reward and that the wicked necessarily suffer. For, to the extent that the good are good, they are happy, rising to divinity.

“Goodness is happiness, and therefore it is obvious that all good men obtain happiness in virtue of their being good. But we agree that those who attain happiness are divine. The reward of the good, then, a reward that can never be decreased, that no one’s power can diminish, and no one’s wickedness darken, is to become gods” (4.ii).

Similarly, to the extent that the wicked are wicked, they necessarily suffer by being cut off from the good. “The punishment of the wicked is their very wickedness” (4.ii). Indeed, the more men corrupt themselves through evil, the more they lose their human nature.

“Anything which turns away from goodness ceases to exist, and thus that the wicked cease to be what they once were. That they used to be human is shown by the human appearance of their body which still remains. So it was by falling into wickedness that they also lost their human nature. Now, since only goodness can raise a man above the level of human kind, it follows that it is proper that wickedness thrusts down to a level below mankind those whom it has dethroned from the condition of being human” (4.iii).

The resulting anthropological picture sketched by Philosophy is one in which humanity is uniquely characterized by its choice as to what it will be. Whereas other beings simply are what they are, men and women must choose who they will become: either gods or beasts. “So what happens is that when a man abandons goodness and ceases to be human, being unable to rise to a divine condition, he sinks to the level of being an animal” (4.iii). In this manner, Faust’s condition becomes the human condition:

“Zwei Seelen wohnen, ach! in meiner Brust,/ Die eine will sich von der andern trennen; / Die eine hält, in derber Liebeslust,/ Sich an die Welt mit klammernden Organen;/ Die andre hebt gewaltsam sich vom Dust/  Zu den Gefilden hoher Ahnen./ O gibt es Geister in der Luft,/ Die zwischen Erd und Himmel herrschend weben/ So steiget nieder aus dem goldnen Duft/ Und führt mich weg zu neuem, buntem Leben!/ Ja, wäre nur ein Zaubermantel mein,/ Und trüg er mich in fremde Länder!/ Mir sollt er um die köstlichsten Gewänder,/ Nicht feil um einen Königsmantel sein. (Faust: Der Tragödie erster Teil, Vor dem Tor).” [Two souls, alas! Are lodg’d within my breast, which struggle there for undivided reign. One to the world, with obstinate desire, and closely-cleaving organs, still adheres; above the midst, the other doth aspire, with sacred vehemence, to purer spheres. Oh, are there spirits in the air who float ‘twixt heaven and earth dominion wielding, stoop hither from your golden atmosphere, lead me to scenes, new life and fuller yielding! A magic mantle did I but possess, abroad to waft me as on viewless wings, I’d prize it far beyond the costliest dress, nor would I change it for the robe of kings. (trans. Swanwick).]

The upshot of this philosophical anthropology is that the wicked would actually be happier if they were punished by society than if they were to remain unpunished (4.iv). Philosophy argues as follows: Pure misery is worse than misery offset by something good. Furthermore, it is analytically true that the punishment of the wicked is just, and their escape from punishment is unjust. And, again, justice is by definition good and injustice bad. Hence, when the wicked are punished they receive a good. So, if there are two wicked people, one of whom is punished by society and the other escapes punishment, the former receives a good that the other lacks. But this means that the misery of the punished man is offset by a good, while the misery of the unpunished man is undiluted. Therefore, “the wicked are much more unhappy when they are unjustly allowed to go scot free, than when a just punishment is imposed upon them” (4.iv).

Philosophy thus reminds Boethius that once one has a true grasp of reality, there is no place for hatred:

 “This is why among wise men there is no place at all left for hatred. For no one except the greatest of fools would hate good men. And there is no reason at all for hating the bad. For just as weakness is a disease of the body, so wickedness is a disease of the mind. And if this is so, since we think of people who are sick in body as deserving sympathy rather than hatred, much more so do they deserve pity rather than blame who suffer an evil more severe than any physical illness” (4.iv).

And all shall be well and/ all manner of thing shall be well/ when the tongues of flame are in-folded/ into the crowned knot of fire/ and the fire and the rose are one.[7]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.


[1] Unfortunately, this attitude is not limited to the middle ages but also extends back even to the classical era with even Plato and Aristotle being picked out for scorn. Who needs the Greeks after the advent of geniuses like Kripke?

[2] We can only imagine what history would have looked like if he had lived to finish his project of translating the works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin. I suspect that if he had done so, the so called dark ages would never have existed.

[3] It is also worth asking to what extent the Biblical stories really do offer comfort. There is a long history of contending that the commands to ritual genital mutilation, genocide, rape, and slavery contained in these texts contradict the higher spiritual and moral aspirations of humanity and any God worthy of the name.

[4] The political intrigue resulting in these false accusations likely had much to do with tensions between the Eastern Emperor in Constantinople and Theoderic the ruler of the Western empire and between Arian and Orthodox forms of Christianity. If so, disputes in Christian theology were responsible for Boethius’ death. Sadly, this is not an infrequent state of affairs for Christendom’s greatest thinkers.

[5] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Watts (New York: Penguin, 1999).

[6] We learn later that it is these partial philosophies that have ripped away portions of her gown claiming to possess the whole (I.iii).

[7] T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding” in The Four Quartets.

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