Reason, Freedom, and Animality: Boethius, Consolation 2: On Reason and Human Annihilation
Some form of the word “reason” appears more than 100 times in The Consolation of Philosophy.Thank you to The University of Oslo’s Bibliotheca Polyglota website, whose Consolation material also includes translations in Old High German — from Notker Labeo, with its extensive … Continue reading The word’s frequency is no surprise, because Boethius, like ibn Tufayl and Anselm after him, wants at least to provide the appearance of proving otherworldly truths about divinity without the support either of scriptural authority or revelation. So, he offers us nothing but reasonable arguments, but not only that: “reason” also defines the category of humanity, so that the whole Consolation is also an enactment of Boethius’s humanness. Yet, as I’ll ultimately propose, the reason he demonstrates and follows leaves little room for anything recognizable as individual personhood.
The Consolation defines humans three times, in terms borrowed from Greek philosophy: humans are the “rational mortal animal” (17, 1p6);“Hocine interrogas an esse me sciam rationale animal atque mortale?” Page numbers are keyed to Walsh’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics. 1p6 = Book One, Prose section … Continue reading “a rational nature endowed with life” (29, 2p5);“Quid est enim carens animae motu atque compage quod animatae rationabilique naturae pulchrum esse iure videatur?” and finally, “Man is the two-footed rational animal” (107, 5p4).“Haec est enim quae conceptionis suae uniuersale ita definiuit: homo est animal bipes rationale.” Each definition has its own particular concerns, keyed to its local needs or its local atmosphere: the first, emphasizing human mortality, attests to Boethius’s anxiety in prison; the second, emphasizing human life rather than our animal mortality, distinguishes humankind from unliving, and therefore only falsely admirable, jewels; and the third, on human bipedality, emphasizes our paradigmatically upright form as a kind of disembodied embodiment, oriented as it is towards the heavens and consequentially — however theologically incoherent this spatial metaphor may be — towards God’s eternity.Bipedality in itself is not sufficient. From my How to Make a Human, 57: “A pertinent joke appears in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers. After Plato defines the human as a … Continue reading Whatever their different concerns, each of these definitions still have a common certainty of human rationality, which sets us above other inanimate or mortal creation, and which sets us nearly with God.
Reasons get us as close to God as motile animals, like cats and flies, are to us, or as close as merely sensible animals, like oysters, are to cats and flies. There are four, not three, ways of knowing: the senses, imagination, reason, and “intelligentia,” which Walsh translates as “understanding” (106 5p4): the latter “rises still higher” (“vero celsior”) than reason, “transcending the boundaries of the created world, it gazes on the simple Form with the unsullied sight of the mind.” While “reason is unique to the human race,” “understanding belongs solely to the divine” (108-9, 5p5). Human reason, unable to attain “God’s profundity” (90, 4p6)“diuina profunditate” or to “the simplicity of divine foreknowledge” (5p4),“diuinae praescientiae simplicitatem” can go so far as to conceive of the way God knows, but it itself cannot know as he does. Reason is limited way of knowing, like the first three, but it, at least, can sense its own limitations. It is not a faculty of full mastery.
“Reason” has another key meaning in the Consolation, seemingly distinct from the spiritual and epistemological faculty enjoyed by the mortal animal: “reasons” are arguments — in this case, irrefutable arguments, because Lady Philosophy, like Socrates, makes no mistakes — or reasons are causes, which we might take as a kind of “argument” of material forces or intentions. Despite the familiarity of this usage — we all know what it means to “give reasons” — the point is worth belaboring to help us apprehend the strangeness of the same word marking both our immortal soul and the quite temporal process of argumentative chains. In one of her several medical metaphors, when Lady Philosophy says “But now that the warming applications of my arguments are penetrating more deeply below your skin” (28, 2p5), the word Walsh translates as “arguments” is rationum, literally “reasons.” Likewise with “so as to prevent the argument [ratio] from advancing into infinity” (58, 3p10), where we find the same word Walsh rendered as “Reason” two sentences earlier: “Reason [ratio] in fact establishes that God’s goodness is such” (58, 3p10). Such reasons are particular to a thinking subject, able to apprehend the truth, explain it, and convince others of us. Reasons, however, can also be an impersonal cause — “aegritudinis tuae rationem” (1p6), which Walsh does as “the cause of your sickness” (17) — or an impersonal pattern, like the “reason by which [the heavens] are guided” (3p8),“caelum…regitur ratione” or the “Reason [ratio] that established that God’s goodness is such as to demonstrate further than perfect good resides within him” (58 3p10). Whether an argument, or cause, or a purpose, reason here is the principle of things being deliberately assembled into recognizable patterns.
And pattern is what keeps things from falling into chaos, while Reason, pattern’s cause and model, is the principle of irresistible order. Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that he believes “that the universe is guided by divine reason, and is not subject to random chance” (17, 1p6): divine is Walsh’s addition to “regimen inesse rationis.”Moreschini 23 agrees with Piper, reason’s guidance or “government” (Chaucer and Jean de Meun’s translation of regimen) suggests a kind of clockwork inexorability. What seems to be chance is nothing more than a conjunction of causes that we do not yet recognize, “descending from its source in Providence, and allocating all things to their due place and time” (98, 5p1). Rational argument is similarly irresistible. Boethius praises Lady Philosophy for “tuis rationibus inuicta” (4p1), your unconquerable reasons.Walsh’s translation, “beyond dispute by reason of your arguments” (71), obscures Boethius’s military metaphor. Metaphors like these are not rare in The Consolation. Boethius acquiesces to Lady Philosophy at one point with “for your entire discourse holds fast, linked together [nexa] with the strongest of arguments [rationibus]” (3p11, 61): nexa might be translated as bound or tied, while perhaps even recalling to Boethius’s readers the related word nexum, an obligation between creditor and debtor. The word appears in another form when Boethius says that “Nothing is more beautiful than a further conclusion, which reason advocates must be appended to [adnectendum] what went before” (59, 3p10):Moreschini 84; Piper has annectendum adnectendum, which contains a form of the word nexum, can also be done as “to tie or bind to.” Boethius elsewhere ominously describes Lady Philosophy’s reasoning as “weaving a labyrinth of arguments [rationibus] from which I cannot find my way out” (68, 3p12), and when Walsh has Boethius praise Lady Philosophy for “the way your arguments have turned out” (67, 3p12; conclusa est summa rationum), he might have emphasized how conclusa bears with its connotations of locking up or even imprisoning.As at 35, 2p7, “So are you aware of how confined [conclusi] and circumscribed is the fame which you struggle to extend and spread abroad?”
Though “no rational nature,” argues Lady Philosophy, “could exist if it did not possess freedom of will” (99, 5p2), reason’s relationship with inescapability would seem to suit it poorly for naming the spiritual quality that grants humans this freedom. While reason evidences itself by distinguishing “what must be avoided from what is desirable [optandave],” and evidences itself best by refusing the former and consenting to or seeking out the latter, it remains free only so long as we choose correctly. Reason is therefore not so much the faculty of free will as the faculty of making good choices, because any choice other than the good destroys our reason. For when we “devote ourselves to the vices,” which, in this argument, is synonymous with “lowering [our] eyes from the light of the highest truth down to the world of darkness below,” then we are disturbed by “perniciosis…affectibus” — which Walsh does as “destructive emotions,” but which might be done less misleadingly as destructive dispositions — which causes us at last to become slaves, paradoxically enough, “through the exercise of [our] freedom” (99 5p2). Reason judges and chooses and therefore bears moral responsibility for what it does; but reasons compel us, overwhelming us with their force; and the world is governed by reason, so that things do what they do in recognizable, predictable patterns. Reason chooses; reasons bind; reason makes patterns. Good choices are the acts of a free will; good choices do not so much liberate us as keep us in the free state that is ours by nature; bad choices put an end to freedom; and there is only one good choice.
What does that one good choice look like, in practice? It is notable that Lady Philosophy provides no actual guidance for how we ought to behave. At best, she advocates for indifference: indifference to all worldly goods or pleasures, a willingness to let them go, knowing that anything that we cannot have permanently is nothing that we ever truly had in the first place (21, 2p2). Wealth, honor, family: none of this is worth our attachment, and therefore Lady Philosophy offers Boethius no guidance in what he should do about these things, here in the tangle of actual, worldly decisions. Boethius tries to demonstrate his commitment to public service when he reminds Lady Philosophy, and posterity with it, that he thwarted the purchase of grain to feed the army during a famine, because doing so would have starved the civilian populace (8, 1p4): probably a good decision, but also certainly one that has none of the purity to which reason aspires, since soldiers, too, have to eat, and hungry soldiers will feed themselves, with little hesitation, at swordpoint. Practical, historical examples like these, not uncommon in the Consolation‘s first two books, drop away as its arguments become more rarified, that is, as it tends more and more to what it imagines as the purity of perfect reason. To a degree, the otherworldly disposition Lady Philosophy promotes can be blamed on the venue: since Boethius is in some kind of house arrest, his range of possible mental states has been winnowed down to anxiety or indifference. But Boethius offers philosophical indifference as a universal guide — or at least universal to subjects like himself — because he tethers his philosophy to a universal category. The imprisoned man seeking the pure concept is the very image of the philosopher, frustrated by the give and take of the actual world, seeking through pure reason an escape into the absoluteness of perfect concepts.
Humans are defined as human by their reason. Reason’s goal is to attach itself to pure concepts, abstracted from any local commitments into the purity of universality. God, unified and limitless, is the ultimate universal subject, and therefore reason’s goal, in seeking after such universality, is to become divine. That, in fact, is the end of our humanity, in the sense of its being both our goal and our disappearance. For if we can only truly exercise our reason without losing it by seeking after the true good, then our reason, properly used, leads us to annihilate our particular individuality by disappearing into the chain of causes and the divine will.Which, if I remember correctly, is more or less where Ibn Rushd, aka Averroes, tends, whereas the disindividuating mystical annihilation set out by Marguerite Porete instead aims at something beyond … Continue reading While Boethius does not allow us to get so far as God’s intellect, in positing its existence, and in seeking to join ourselves, at least, with the rational way of the only existence that can be true existence, we are seeking to get ourselves to the great One of rightness. We seek to become the Unmoved Movers ourselves, and through that, to bind everything that exists in the Mastery of our reason.
I wonder what consolation the Consolation might have offered if it hadn’t rested on the premise of an Unmoved Mover, the single final cause. What if it had started with, and stayed with, the welter of causes and effects down here, oriented towards nothing in particular? I wonder what a more conversational than argumentative model might have offered.Here I think of Denis Diderot’s Le Rêve de d’Alembert as a model. And I wonder what responsibility reason and reasons might load us with when there can be no chance of being the master by serving the Master, when our obligation could only be, instead, to get along with things as best we can.
|↑1||Thank you to The University of Oslo’s Bibliotheca Polyglota website, whose Consolation material also includes translations in Old High German — from Notker Labeo, with its extensive commentary — Old French (from Simon de Freine and Jean de Meun) — Middle English, from Chaucer, and Modern English, from Elizabeth I.|
|↑2||“Hocine interrogas an esse me sciam rationale animal atque mortale?” Page numbers are keyed to Walsh’s translation for Oxford World’s Classics. 1p6 = Book One, Prose section 6. For the sake of convenience, citations from the Latin are generally from the 1882 Piper edition, because that version, used by the Oslo Website, is what I used to conduct my search for the word “reason.” If necessary, I have compared the Piper to Claudio Moreschini’s authoritative edition for Teubner.|
|↑3||“Quid est enim carens animae motu atque compage quod animatae rationabilique naturae pulchrum esse iure videatur?”|
|↑4||“Haec est enim quae conceptionis suae uniuersale ita definiuit: homo est animal bipes rationale.”|
|↑5||Bipedality in itself is not sufficient. From my How to Make a Human, 57: “A pertinent joke appears in Diogenes Laertius’s Lives of Eminent Philosophers. After Plato defines the human as a ‘two-legged creature without feathers,’ the Cynic Diogenes, Plato’s frequent irritant in this work, plucks a chicken, presents it to the Academy, and declares it to be ‘Plato’s Man,’ whereupon Plato eludes the challenge by adding to his definition ‘having broad nails.’ If Diogenes had persisted in his joke by producing a circus-trained elephant or even a legless human, Plato would presumably have had to retreat from proof by physical form and to reveal his underlying purpose, which is not to find an adequate corporeal definition for humans but to declare humans human and animals animal regardless of evidence, corporeal or otherwise. In excluding the plucked chicken or the trained elephant, Plato would make only a provisional definition of the human, yet he would gain greater assurance of his ability to define what is not human. In so doing, although he would evacuate the human of any claim to an essence, he would be able to do what really matters for the human, to put animals in their place.”|
|↑7||“diuinae praescientiae simplicitatem”|
|↑9||Moreschini 23 agrees with Piper|
|↑10||Walsh’s translation, “beyond dispute by reason of your arguments” (71), obscures Boethius’s military metaphor.|
|↑11||Moreschini 84; Piper has annectendum|
|↑12||As at 35, 2p7, “So are you aware of how confined [conclusi] and circumscribed is the fame which you struggle to extend and spread abroad?”|
|↑13||Which, if I remember correctly, is more or less where Ibn Rushd, aka Averroes, tends, whereas the disindividuating mystical annihilation set out by Marguerite Porete instead aims at something beyond the strictures of reason.|
|↑14||Here I think of Denis Diderot’s Le Rêve de d’Alembert as a model.|