The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (trans. V. E. Watts)

“But the greatest cause of my sadness is really this—the fact that in spite of a good helmsman to guide the world, evil can still exist and even pass unpunished (116).”

Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution after being convicted of treason against the Gothic Emperor Theodoric. Like the Book of Job, the book explores from a theological and philosophical perspective the question: how can evil flourish in a world ruled by an omnipotent, omniscient, and ultimately good G-d?

The work opens with Boethius lamenting his fate and writing poetry to express his grief over his unhappy situation. Lady Philosophy arrives to comfort him and restore him back to health, beginning by banishing the Muses of Poetry at Boethius’s side, those “women who kill the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the barren thorns of Passion. They habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them (36).” In this short symbolic moment, Lady Philosophy echoes Plato’s early distrust of poetry, condemning its ability to inflame our passions at the expense of reason. It makes us wallow in our emotions, both good and bad, without actually attempting to solve any problems. Ironically, Boethius’s work will be extremely influential on much medieval poetry, especially Dante and The Romance of the Rose.

By abandoning philosophy, Boethius has lost sight of the true nature of the world, believing that the wicked prosper and the good suffer. He blames fortune for his sad turn of events, but philosophy points out that his mistake is putting his trust in fortune in the first place, which by its very nature is fickle and constantly changing. He has mistaken where true happiness is to be found.

Most people think happiness is to be found in wealth, high offices, power over others, fame, and bodily pleasure. All of these are fake forms of happiness. It is incomplete or imperfect happiness. We think wealth will bring about a state of self-sufficiency and lack of want, but it actually produces the opposite effect by attracting the attention of criminals, requiring outside help to protect your money such as accountants, police, and lawyers (making one not self-sufficient), and often breeds further greed, creating more want rather than less. Boethius, who apparently was rich before his change of fortunes, reflects that his wealth didn’t free him from worry, nor did it relieve him of a larger feeling of absence in his life.

Philosophy tries to show high office has no value either. Whenever bad men manage to gain high office they often discredit the office, which should be impossible if the honor adhered within the office itself. When evil men acquire high office, their flaws become apparent to all and it actually disgraces them further in the opinions of men. On the occasions when an honest man occupies the high office, it is evident that it is not the office that confers honor on these men, but rather the virtue of these men that confers honor on these offices. Foreign people would have no reason to respect a man simply for holding a high office that doesn’t exist in their society, but they would respect a man who demonstrated himself wise and virtuous. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of offices that were once important and powerful positions at various times in Roman History, but lost their prestige over time. For all these reasons, Philosophy concludes there is no inherent worth in high office.  Even the fate of kings shows the futility of valuing high office and political power. Many a king has exchanged “happiness for ruin (87).” The very power they possess actually makes kings worry more because they can easily lose it by rebellion or unsuccessful wars waged against other nations. Even friendship, seen as a good in general, becomes corrupted by such power since most of your friends are only your friends because of your good fortune rather than personal qualities and will become your enemy the minute it benefits them, or at the very least will end their association with you as soon as your fortune changes.

Then there is Fame, which often honors men unworthy of praise and even when it honors a worthy philosopher it won’t mean anything to them because philosophers measure their happiness not by popularity, but by the dictate of their own conscience. It is also a product of chance and fortune. As the text puts it, “its acquisition is fortuitous and its retention continuously uncertain (89).” The pursuit of bodily pleasure is full of anxiety and remorse. It can even cause illness and pain.

The conclusion Philosophy draws from all this is that none of these are the true path to happiness because in many cases they don’t produce the good they promise, nor combines all goods perfectly, and cannot by themselves make a person happy.

True happiness is “the perfection of all good things and contains in itself all that is good (79).”  True happiness must be perfect in so far as it cannot lack anything. It must contain all things that are good. For this reason happiness is really about self-sufficiency. As Philosophy reasons, a person who is completely self-sufficient must be powerful in the true sense of power. If you attain self-sufficiency you also attain power by necessity. A person cannot be self-sufficient and lack power, otherwise they will need to rely on someone else and by extension not be self-sufficient. Such a person who possesses self-sufficiency and power would be regarded as worthy of veneration as well. If you’re self-sufficient then you’re revered and powerful.  So really being revered, powerful, and self-sufficient are one and the same thing.

“That which is one and undivided is mistakenly subdivided and removed by men from the state of truth and perfection to a state of falseness and imperfection (94).”

You can’t have the true form of any of these without the other. It is due to the limitations of man’s rational capacity that men want to separate the concepts from each other and end up conceiving them as different ideas, which then leads them to seek power on its own, without self-sufficiency and reverence in mind. By separating these concepts from each other, these isolated goods become imperfect and corrupted versions. Reverence means not the sort inspired by fear, which would be a fake type of reverence, but the sort willingly given because it is impossible not to admire the qualities of the person. Power is not mere political power (as outlined earlier), but the power one has over one’s own fears and emotions, the power of a Socrates to drink the hemlock without a second thought. Such a self-sufficient being would be supremely happy. If he wasn’t happy, then it would be because he is lacking something, and he would therefore not be self-sufficient since he needs something outside himself. So for Boethius, these ideas differ in name, but not in substance.

A large part of his argument for happiness and later G-d rests in his conception of perfection. Imperfection is defined as the absence of perfection. Imperfect happiness (wealth, political power, fame, etc.) is imperfect because it is ephemeral and doesn’t contain in itself all the things that are good. Likewise, seeking the wrong type of power (political power) is itself a corruption of the perfected idea of power. This is why Boethius’s definition of happiness mentions that happiness contains all goods things and perfected versions of all things that are good. We are able to define something as imperfect only because we are able to conceive a perfect version of that thing. In order for a version of happiness to exist that is imperfect there must also exist a version of happiness that is perfect because imperfection can only be defined by what it is lacking and the small amount of perfection in which it partakes.

The allegorical Lady Philosophy argues that “It is the universal understanding of the human mind that G-d, the author of all things, is good. Since nothing can be conceived better than G-d, everyone agrees that that which has no superior is good.” Since G-d has no superior, then if perfect good exists, it must adhere in that which has no superior. If G-d didn’t contain perfect goodness, then something must exist superior to Him, and if something exists that is superior to G-d then this superior being must possess perfect goodness. To “avoid an unending argument, it must be admitted that the supreme G-d is to the highest degree filled with supreme and perfect goodness.” As previously defined, perfect goodness is true happiness. Happiness contains all of which is good. So it also follows that true happiness is found in G-d since G-d is the supreme good. From earlier arguments about the human desire to subdivide that which is unified, Boethius views the supreme good as being the same thing as happiness; therefore G-d who is the supreme good is also the essence of happiness.

Boethius wonders if there is a divine plan by a good and all-powerful G-d, why does it seem many evil men prosper in the world? One response, Philosophy offers is that it may seem like the evil prosper and the good often suffer, but that is because we have limited human minds (we are not infinite beings) and cannot see the whole picture; otherwise we would see how everything is for the best. However, Boethius doesn’t stop there in trying to explain the problem of evil. Using the arguments already outlined, he argues that since goodness is happiness, then a good person, who is good in the true sense, must be happy.

Boethius implies that the power of evil is an illusion. They seek false happiness in the form of worldly power. When they acquire wealth, fame, high office, etc. it might seem like they are doing well in the world and happy, but as the earlier arguments laid out show, it is a false happiness and evil men who seek these things are full of wants and desires that are not satisfied. Boethius defines evil as nothing, since it is the one thing an omnipotent G-d cannot do who is capable of doing anything. By extension, these worldly pleasures amount to nothing in the end. A person dies and they are gone, they never manage to satisfy their desires, or fortune takes them away from them before death; in essence, they are transitory and unsatisfying. As outlined earlier, things like wealth, high office, and such have their own flaws that prevented from truly bringing happiness.

All people, good or bad, seek the good because they seek happiness, but evil men never obtain the good. Evil men cannot obtain the good, while they are evil, for if they did then they would stop being evil. So the evil in this sense are essentially powerless to fulfill that which they desire most, while good man through their virtue, self-sufficiency, and faith in G-d (the very essence of happiness and goodness) can obtain happiness and the good, which proves they are powerful since they have the means to obtain what all men truly desire. The power evil men do possess comes from weakness rather than strength. Evil ends up being its own punishment since it prevents one from ever achieving the desire of all human beings (to be good and happy).

Next, Boethius attempts to understand how divine foreknowledge (omniscience) can be reconciled with freewill. Seeing something will occur in the future doesn’t mean that one has influenced it. Just because you can predict something with 100% accuracy doesn’t mean you caused that thing to happen.


3 thoughts on “The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (trans. V. E. Watts)

  1. Pingback: The Romance of the Rose by Guillaume de Lorris and Jean de Meun (trans. Charles Dahlberg) | The Consolation of Reading

  2. Pingback: The Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus | The Consolation of Reading

  3. Pingback: The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards) | The Consolation of Reading

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