The Consolation of Philosophy culminates by proving that God’s omniscience does not prevent humans from exercising “free will.”Trans. P. G. Walsh for Oxford World’s Classics, 1999, 99; per Walsh, the most authoritative edition of The Consolation of Philosophy is Ludwig Bieler, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 94, … Continue reading Although God knows what we choose to do, his knowledge does not determine our choice. God’s knowledge does not determine our choice precisely because God does not have foreknowledge of what we will choose to do, because what seems to us “foreknowledge” is, to God, simply knowledge. We perceive things in time, whereas God perceives things from the perspective of unchanging eternity. All that we perceive as the motion of time appears to God as happening all at once; what seems to us like forward motion is to God a stable picture. And some small portion of that picture is the result of human choices, made for good or for ill.
Prior to this final proof, most of the Consolation has Boethius differentiating good from bad choices, It is not only that humans have free will; it is that we have the free will to make choices that matter, even in situations of the utmost constraint, like Boethius’s imprisonment as he awaited almost certain execution. The good choices on offer, however, leave no room for humans as such: free will balances us on the cusp of either beastliness or divinity, with the human itself nothing other than this temporary space set aside for meaningful choice. That is, as I will argue, while Boethius’s Consolation seems to be an argument about human free will, the only truly human act Boethius allows is the choice to be something other than human.
Lady Philosophy demonstrates that the good choice is one that aims at perfect existence. Perfect existence, and indeed the only kind of existence that actually merits the name, is unified, unchanging, self-sufficient, and eternal. Things exist when they are a “unity, but perish as soon as they cease to be one.” (62)III.11, “subsistere unumquodque dum unum est, cum uero esse desinit, interire.” Unity is maintained by following one’s nature. Fire seeks to rise; earth to fall (63); lions to roar and rage (43); and human beings — at least the only human beings truly worthy of the name — to follow the path of ultimate happiness.
And in seeking to “exist and to survive” (64), as all things naturally do, they seek to continue to be what they are. In doing so, they seek too to return to their origin:
All things in nature thus retrace
The paths acknowledged as their own;
They gladly then regain their base.
Assigned to them is this alone,
To seek as end their starting-place,
And make the world a stable zone.(44)“Repetunt proprios quaeque recursus / redituque suo singula gaudent / nec manet ulli traditus ordo / nisi quod fini iunxerit ortum / stabilemque sui fecerit orbem,” III.2.63-64
Lady Philosophy offers no sustained explanation of how the growth of living things harmonizes with the ideal of stasis; that would have to wait for Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. I imagine that Boethius imagines that the growth, thriving, and death of living things constitutes a cycle that sees them returning to their origin, so that, in a sense, when a seedling becomes a tree, and eventually falls and rots, nothing has actually happened, because nothing in nature has actually changed.
For in Boethius’s cosmology, true change seems impossible for nearly all worldly things, because Nature craves continuation (64). Since nearly everything in this subdivine world is subject to a chain of causes,(97) for most things, actual change never occurs. “People,” Lady Philosophy explains, “regard events as random and chaotic if they are unaware of the planned order of the world” (86).“Nec mirum, si quid ordinis ignorata ratione temerarium confusumque credatur” (IV.5, 120 There is, in fact, no chance. Nothing is “random and haphazard,” but rather everything is “governed by reason”(16)“Huncine, inquit, mundum temerariis agi fortuitisque casibus putas an ullum credis ei regimen inesse rationis?” I.6.23 — or, more precisely, by God, who is, at least, beyond human reason. And God’s plan, which is Providence, is carried out by Fate, which manages the mobile things of the created world, ensures that “all things happen as they should.” (86) Fortune, after all, is not random: seen properly, it is a wheel, and while a wheel might moves things, in a sense, a wheel itself goes nowhere.
Yet there is a degree of freedom among created things. Although humans mistakenly believe that things happen randomly, they should instead realize that true chance operates only through humans. Everything else does what it ought to and must do, sticking to the chain of causes and following its nature. Only humans swerve. Our choices can, however, return us to our origins, ultimately removing that element of chance from ourselves by returning us to what we ought to be. To get there, we ought to seek the ultimate happiness, which is the happiness that can never change and can never be taken from us. We should seek, therefore, those things that are static, self-satisfied, unified, and eternal, with the goal of becoming God himself. For “every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest number from sharing in that divinity”(59).III.x, 84, “”Omnis igitur beatus deus. Sed natura quidem unus; participatione vero nihil prohibet esse quam plurimos.” At 78, Boethius argues similarly, but in the plural: … Continue reading
Yet swerving from that goal of becoming divine does not orient us towards or lock us within our mere humanity. Rather, choosing temporary or local goods, like wealth, family, fame, or honor, means choosing choosing a life that causes us to exist less than we would have had we made good choices. For anyone or anything that eschews its nature damages itself, and therefore loses its existence as itself, which is to say, it ceases to be. Wicked people, therefore, exist less than people who seek the good (76 and 78).“ita vitiosos malos quidem esse concesserim, sed esse absolute nequeam confiteri” (IV.2, 106 For Boethius, no middle way is possible.
Humans who make good choices are God or at least gods, whereas those who make bad choices are beasts, or like beasts. Boethius seems unsure how to classify the wicked in relation to animality. Although Lady Philosophy argues that “you cannot regard as a man one who is disfigured by vices” (78).IV.iii, 110 “quem transformatum vitiis videas hominem aestimare non possis”, her examples insist instead on comparisons: the greedy are “comparable to a wolf”(79)“lupi similem dixeris,” “cani comparabis,” &c; the disputatious, dogs; the conniving, foxes; the bellicose, lions; the cowardly, deer; the lazy, donkeys; and so on, in all these cases like these animals. Yet she concludes with “In this sense, he who abandons goodness and ceases to be a man cannot rise to the status of a god, and so is transformed into an animal” (79)III.iii, 111, “Ita fit ut qui probitate deserta homo esse desierit, cum in divinam condicionem transire non possit, vertatur in beluam.”: that “in this sense,” ita fit, might also be translated, as Tester did for the Loeb Classical Library, more simply as “So”(321), as a conclusion to a chain of reasoning rather than a final drawing back from the full implications of an argument.
Even being human might not be enough, however, as those who make bad choices might be likened to imperfect or inadequate humans. Lady Philosophy compares wicked humans to blind people. (83)IV.iv, 117: “caeco” Those who do not attend to her arguments are “utter idiots” (85)IV.iv, 118, “stultissimus”: Walsh’s translation feels anachronistically clinical, as stultissimus might instead be rendered “the dullest” or “the slowest” or even just “the most foolish.” Walsh offers a similarly offputting anachronism when he has Lady Philosophy accuse Boethius of complaining “neurotically” (26), when Boethius’s own anxius could of course be done as “anxiously.” Walsh’s encoding of analogies between the philosophically misguided and disabled people witnesses to a philosophical tradition of ability and dehumanization that runs through the whole of we loosely call “Western philosophy.”
Likewise with Boethius’s contempt for slaves. Notions of self-control or self-mastery — phrases that are still very much with us — are of course phrases whose origins lie in imagining the body as the slave of the rational self. Doing otherwise means becoming a slave oneself. Lady Philosophy argues that anyone who serves their body is a “slave,” (51)III.viii, 74, “servum” and that “the furthest degree of slavery is reached” by those who “devote themselves to vices.”(99)V.ii, 139, “Extrema vero est servitus cum vitiis deditae rationis propriae possessione ceciderunt.” Furthermore, the subject of virtue, the master of themselves, because they are indifferent to their bodily needs, are not “effete” (42, 75).III.ii, 62, “sine viribus”; IV.ii, 106, “Sed quid enervatius ignorantiae caecitate?” Here again, Walsh’s values slip in, as they must with any translator: sine viribus could be done as “without virtue” or “powerless,” although “effete” is probably not far off the mark, as vir is Latin for man. As for Walsh’s second “effete,” enervatius could be done as “weakened.”
In sum, the self-sufficient, freely acting subject of happiness is an able-bodied, gender normative man, while the wicked are, at best, inadequate humans. Zakiyyah Iman Jackson’s point obtains here, that groups targeted for dehumanization by the powerful are never simply stripped of their humanity. Boethius’s wicked preserve just enough of it for godlike philosophers to regard them with contempt.
The problems with Boethius’s argument are likely obvious to us, because of our distance from his sixth-century context. We don’t serve Romanized “barbarian” kings; we are not caught between our Christianity — followed by the Eastern Roman empire, which insists on the unified body and godhood of Christ — and the Christianity of our king, who believes otherwise. Nor are we steeped in the Christianized Neoplatonism of the era, although I am increasingly convinced of the presence of the values of this Neoplatonism in what generally passes as “Western Thought.” That is, what Boethius advocates might finally not strike us as being as alien as all that.
For example, in arguing that everything we think we know is wrong, Boethius strikes me as having much in common with ideology critique. Though the common people suffer from false consciousness, through the efforts of Lady Philosophy, or Marx, or the “redpilling” of Jordan Peterson and his ilk, we can perhaps see things as they really are, or at least realize that the way we see thing is incorrect.
Most striking to me is that there is nothing particular for a human to be. We can aim at being godlike, or we can fall into bestiality, or the subhuman categories of slave, prisoner, or a man who is, like a woman, weakened. But a human is only human when they seek to become something still more than what they are, when reason seeks to “look upon what she cannot of herself observe” (109).V.v, 154, “ratio videbit quod in se non potest intueri”
|↑1||Trans. P. G. Walsh for Oxford World’s Classics, 1999, 99; per Walsh, the most authoritative edition of The Consolation of Philosophy is Ludwig Bieler, Corpus Christianorum Series Latina 94, 1957, rev. 1984. Since Walsh’s translation, another still more authoritative edition has appeared — per Philip Edward Philips, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius: A Chronology and Selected Annotated Bibliography,” in A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages, ed. Noel Harold Kaylor, jr. and Philip Edward Phillips (Brill, 2012), 554 — Claudio Moreschini’s, for Teubner, 2005. Latin quotations from the Consolation are from the Moreschini. V.1, , “arbitrii libertas.”|
|↑2||III.11, “subsistere unumquodque dum unum est, cum uero esse desinit, interire.”|
|↑3||“Repetunt proprios quaeque recursus / redituque suo singula gaudent / nec manet ulli traditus ordo / nisi quod fini iunxerit ortum / stabilemque sui fecerit orbem,” III.2.63-64|
|↑4||“Nec mirum, si quid ordinis ignorata ratione temerarium confusumque credatur” (IV.5, 120|
|↑5||“Huncine, inquit, mundum temerariis agi fortuitisque casibus putas an ullum credis ei regimen inesse rationis?” I.6.23|
|↑6||III.x, 84, “”Omnis igitur beatus deus. Sed natura quidem unus; participatione vero nihil prohibet esse quam plurimos.” At 78, Boethius argues similarly, but in the plural: “Now we have agreed that those who are happy are gods; and so the reward of good men … is to become gods,” IV.iii,109, “Sed qui beati sint deos esse conuenit. Est igitur praemium bonorum…nullius fuscet improbitas, deos fieri.”|
|↑7||“ita vitiosos malos quidem esse concesserim, sed esse absolute nequeam confiteri” (IV.2, 106|
|↑8||IV.iii, 110 “quem transformatum vitiis videas hominem aestimare non possis”|
|↑9||“lupi similem dixeris,” “cani comparabis,” &c|
|↑10||III.iii, 111, “Ita fit ut qui probitate deserta homo esse desierit, cum in divinam condicionem transire non possit, vertatur in beluam.”|
|↑11||IV.iv, 117: “caeco”|
|↑12||IV.iv, 118, “stultissimus”|
|↑13||III.viii, 74, “servum”|
|↑14||V.ii, 139, “Extrema vero est servitus cum vitiis deditae rationis propriae possessione ceciderunt.”|
|↑15||III.ii, 62, “sine viribus”; IV.ii, 106, “Sed quid enervatius ignorantiae caecitate?”|
|↑16||V.v, 154, “ratio videbit quod in se non potest intueri”|