Born into a wealthy Roman family in 480, though Boethius had lost his father at an early age, he was adopted by an even more prominent family; well educated, Boethius wrote philosophical and theological treatises. He knew Greek and translated as well as commented on Aristotle. On top of this, he was a renowned public servant with the title ‘Master of Offices’, a title akin to a Prime Minister.
To say that Boethius had a good life may have been an understatement. That is until he was charged with treason, exiled, imprisoned, and awaited execution.
It is during this imprisonment as he waits for death in which he wrote his greatest work, The Consolation of Philosophy. He imagines philosophy personified as a woman who comforts him by telling him that human affairs are guided by divine providence. Both the imagery and concept of the work would become common stock for medieval ideas, to the point, where C.S Lewis said that “anyone who acquires a taste for the Consolation of Philosophy, becomes truly at home in the middle ages”. Yet, in interpreting this work, we difficulty in how the dialog between Reason and Faith is presented.
In his darkest hour, why would a Christian (Boethius) turn to philosophy instead of religion?
In the text, Lady Philosophy identifies the disease by which the male persona is suffering, specifically, false goods. Second, she will offer her diagnosis, the reason why these false goods cannot satisfy. Finally, she proposes the means of deliverance, the true good which will offer the perfect means of satisfaction which false goods cannot.
Textually, even though Boethius has read his St. Augustine, there is nothing in The Consolation of Philosophy that makes an argument based on Christian revelation or prophecy. There is a small handful of biblical echoes, but nothing like the scriptural vocabulary found in Augustine. It is as though that the Platonist inheritance in the Christian tradition, play no role at all; we seem to be working entirely in the domain of classical Greek philosophy. Why?
Some sources suggest that Boethius was never more than superficially Christian that his real loyalty was to Pagan philosophy. Others emphasize the Christian imagery of the Consolation as it is and present it as a thoroughly Christian work—one such critic of this approach even says that Lady Philosophy is an angel of God and directs Boethius back to God via philosophical argument. The third intermediate view, that which seems most plausible to Professor Williams, is that of Boethius set out to write a great philosophical work in order to emphasize what pagan and Christian philosophers had in common against the barbarian heretic (at the time, Boethius was imprisoned by the leader of the Ostrogoths). So Boethius’s tract would constitute a combination of the best of Catholicism and Pagan philosophy against the heretical movements.
Whether or not this is the correct approach, it remains in continuity with medieval philosophers who thought themselves in continual motion from the ancient traditions.
But to get back to the text: the prisoner’s complaint is that divine providence leaves human affairs ungoverned, so that the wicked have power and that the good suffer at their hands. It is not simply ‘why do bad things happen to good people’ but ‘why does God govern the rest of nature in an orderly way but allow human affairs to go on haphazardly and unjustly’? What prompts the question is Boethius’s own horrid situation.
Though the text considers a great many subjects, it starts simple enough, with Boethius considering the loss of his good fortune (he has lost his freedom, public office, and is the victim of unjust accusations). Philosophy replies that it is in the nature of fortune to be fickle; she says, “you think fortune has changed toward you, but you are wrong. Her character is always the same—she has merely shown you the fickleness which is her constant feature.” It is in this concept which Lady Philosophy introduces Fortune’s Wheel (Fortune, as portrayed in Roman and Hellenistic art, was almost always shown with spinning a wheel; though this depiction does not start with Boethius, it is by him that this image is transmitted to the Middle Ages). Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that he has accepted the good things which come with fortune, and now must accept the bad things; for fortune to stop, all good and bad would cease. Boethius is, in effect, mourning the loss of things which cannot bring true happiness. This is the disease by which Boethius is suffering—the pursuit of false goods.
But why are false goods false and unable to bring happiness? In order to answer this, we must compare them to True Goods.
In discussing True Goods, Lady Philosophy says that
“Mortal creatures only have one concern: they struggle in all sorts of ways to obtain it. They follow any number of paths to achieve it. But all this effort is aimed at one and only one goal—happiness. Happiness is a good that once obtained puts an end to any further desire. It is the highest of all goods and encompasses all goods within itself. If anything were outside, then it would be unworthy of desire. Everyone, as I have said, strives to obtain it, though by different paths; for a longing for the true good is implanted by nature in the human mind. But error diverts people towards false goods.”
In this passage, Lady Philosophy offers three things: (a) A theory of happiness; (b) a theory of motivation; and (c) and an explanation of wrongdoing. The theory of happiness is an abstract description of happiness; she doesn’t tell us concretely what happiness is like, she just tells us that whatever it is, it is a good which leaves nothing further to be desired. The theory of motivation is that all human beings, in everything that they do, are aiming at happiness; they take many different roads and work for it in many different ways, but their ultimate motivation has to be the search for happiness. It has to be the search for happiness because that motivation is implanted in us by nature. But if everyone naturally seeks happiness, and happiness is naturally a perfect and all-encompassing good, why is it that so many people miss the mark? This is where wrongdoing emerges; people do always aim for happiness, but because they fall into mistakes what happiness constitutes, they veer off course and fail to achieve their goal. The problem, Lady Philosophy remarks
“Misguided people seek to obtain happiness through wealth, public office, kingship, celebrity, and pleasure. Why do they do this? Because people believe that through wealth, they will obtain self-sufficiency, that through public office they will obtain respect, that through kingship they will obtain power, that through celebrity they will obtain renown, and that through pleasure they will obtain joy.”
The interesting point that Lady Philosophy makes here, one that sets him apart from many philosophers, is that these false goods do not even provide part of an aspect of happiness for the sake of which they are pursued. Though many philosophers note that wealth does not bring happiness, what Boethius does is that these goods do not even bring the partial happiness that they are thought to bring. So, to demonstrate, when wealth does not bring you self-sufficiency, according to Boethius, wealth actually makes you dependent on other people to guard your money; in fact, no amount of money will free you from worry. Self-Sufficiency, then, is illusory. When people seek public office for the respect we cannot regard these people are worthy of respect simply because they hold office if we consider them unworthy of the office. If a person is wise that person is worthy of respect in an office or out of office. Furthermore, honors bestowed upon the common folk, cannot impart such dignity (a claim which is in accordance with the aristocratic dismissal). People seek kingship for the sake of power, but even a king does not have the power to dismiss cares or worries, rebellions or overthrow; Kings do not even have the power to win friends who will protect them from such dangers since their so-called friends will desert them when things get tough. Whatever happiness does come from kingship is limited, since kingship itself is limited. Since true happiness must be complete—that which leaves nothing else to be desired—then kingship is not a proper road to happiness. When people seek celebrity, they seek glory for the sake of renown. But glory is often deceptive. Even deserved glory cannot add to the self-assessment of the wise man (‘if I know I am deserving of glory, then I do not need you to tell me that’). People seek pleasure for the sake of joy, but bodily pleasures bring pain, illness, and melancholy in their train. Besides, one has bodily pleasures in common with the beasts of the fields and we clearly cannot call the beasts of the fields blessed or happy—how can our happiness consist of something which we share with the lower animals? Even honorable pleasures, such as those of the family, can go sour: your children might disappoint you, and you may disappoint your children.
These are the false goods which misguided people seek. But Lady Philosophy true thrust here is not to simply deconstruct why these false goods cannot bring happiness, but the diagnosis.
The problem is that people seek these goods as though they were separate things, but when in fact, they are one. They can only be obtained in one, all-encompassing good. She says,
“This good is, by its very nature, one and simple; but human perversity breaks it up. As long as it strives to seize a part of the thing that has no parts, it obtains neither a portion nor a whole. It does not obtain a portion because there are no portions. It does not obtain the whole because it does not desire or aim at the whole. So true and perfect happiness is a single thing, a one thing, that makes a person self-sufficient and venerable and powerful and renowned and joyful all at once. But where can such happiness be found? Well, certainly not in mortal and transient things.”
Here the Platonist influence is strong. Only a good which comes into being and does not pass away—only an eternal and permanent good, can offer the real thing, happiness. In Platonism, we think of perfect things as their imperfect paradigms, not the other way around—we do not need sensible things to make sense of intelligible things, we need intelligible things to make sense of the sensible things that merely imitate them in a fragmented way. So, there must be a perfect good which is the source of all goods. That good has to be in God since nothing better than God can be imagined. God is, of course, goodness itself. Goodness is not a feature that God has but Goodness is what God is.
This claim is associated with the doctrine of Divine Simplicity, that which argues that God has no parts of any kind. He has no metaphysical parts (in God, there is no distinction between him and his various parts or attributes; nothing is distinct from God). So God is not a composite of various distinct attributes. He is a simple, part less being.
Boethius puts this doctrine to work in a clever way. He has already argued that happiness is a single, part less good, which this one all-encompassing good must be in God. This means that divinity and happiness are the same things. If that one all-encompassing good is the divine nature, it follows that for us to become happy, means for us to become divine. (As a sentiment, this is associated more with modern Eastern, rather than Western, Christianity.) Recall that we can identify the imperfect goods can be recognized as imperfect because they are partial, the perfect good must be a unity; so ‘the one’ and ‘the good’ are the same, unity and goodness are the same. We can see this, according to Lady Philosophy, by looking out into the natural world and noticing that things strive to maintain their unity and integrity—things resist violence which eliminates its unity and so strive toward the perfect good. This good, the one God, governs the universe; how do we know this? Because we see the way in which all the disparate natures that inhabit the universe form a single, coherent, system. They form a cosmos, not a heap of stuff, but an organized universe; we have already seen that creatures have an inherent strive toward preserving their unity, so it follows that they submit to God’s will on their own accord. God rules by pulling, a kind of seduction to his willing subjects. Since God can do anything, anything except evil, then it follows that evil is nothing.