Boethius: Medieval philosophy


AT this point I mentioned to Philosophy that herein lay the chiefest cause of my grief, that, while there exists a good ruler of the universe, it is possible that there should be evil at all, still more that it should go unpunished, that wickedness should reign and flourish, and that virtue not only lacks its reward, but is even thrust down and trampled under the feet of the wicked and suffers punishment in place of crime.

Then said she, "It would indeed be infinitely astounding and of all monstrous things most horrible if, as thou esteemest, in the well-ordered home of so great a householder, the base vessels should be held in honour and the precious left to neglect. But it is not so. Thou shalt learn that by the will of God the good are always strong, the bad always weak and impotent; that vices never go unpunished, nor virtues unrewarded; that good fortune ever befalls the good and ill fortune the bad. For since, as I have already insisted, the absolute good is happiness, the good must be happy, for the very reason that they are good.

"In like manner, wickness itself is the reward of the unrighteous. Unrighteousness degrades the wicked below man's level. Thou canst not consider him human whom thou seest transformed by vice. The covetous man surely resembles a wolf. A restless, wrangling spirit is like some yelping cur. The secret fraudulent schemer is own brother to the fox. The passionate man, frenzied with rage, we might believe to be animated with the soul of a lion. The coward may be likened to the timid deer. He who is sunk in ignorance and stupidity lives like a dull ass. He who wallows in foul lusts is sunk in the pleasures of a hog."

Then said I, "This is very true. But inasmuch as the vicious vent their rage in the destruction of the good, I would this licence were not permitted them."

"Nor is it," said she. "Yet if that licence which thou believest to be permitted them were taken away, the punishment of the wicked would in great part be remitted. For verily, incredible as it may seem to some, it needs must be that the bad are more unfortunate when they have accomplished their desires than if they are unable to get them fulfilled."

"Yet," said I, "I earnestly wish they might speedily be quit of this misfortune by losing the ability to accomplish crime."

"They will lose it." said she, "sooner than perchance thou wishest or they themselves think likely. Their great expectation, the lofty fabric of their crimes, is oft overthrown by a sudden and unlooked-for ending, and this but sets a limit to their misery. And here is a further consideration. If baseness of its own nature makes men wretched, as it does, it is plain that a wrong involves the misery of the doer, not of the sufferer."

On this I said, "I see how there is a happiness and misery founded on the actual deserts of the righteous and wicked. Nevertheless, I wonder in myself whether there is not some good and evil in fortune as the vulgar understand it. Surely no sensible man would rather be exiled, poor and disgraced, than dwell prosperously in his own country, powerful, wealthy and held in high honour. But now my belief in God's governance doth add amazement to amazement--for, seeing that He sometimes assigns fair fortune to the good and harsh fortune to the bad, and then again deals harshly with the good, and grants to the bad their hearts' desire, how does this differ from chance, unless some reason is discovered for it all?"

She answered, "This is what that extra-ordinary mystery of the order of destiny comes to--that something is done by One who knows, whereat the ignorant are astonished. It is the divine power alone to which things evil are also good, in that, by putting them to suitable use, it bringeth them to the end to some other good issue; for order in some way or other embraces all things, so that even that which has departed from the appointed laws of order, nevertheless falleth within an order, though another order, that nothing in the realm of Providence may be left to haphazard.

"Let us be content to apprehend this only, that God, the Creator of universal nature, likewise disposeth all things and guides them to good; and while He studies to preserve in likeness to Himself all that He has created, He banishes all evil from the borders of His commonweal through the links of fatal necessity. Whereby it comes to pass that, if thou look to disposing Providence, thou wilt nowhere find the evils which are supposed so to abound on earth."


SHE was about to pass on to other matters, when I broke in, saying, "I am even now experiencing one of the many difficulties which beset the question of Providence. I want to know whether thou deemest that there is any such thing as chance, and, if so, what it is?"

She made answer, "If chance be defined as a result produced by random movement without any link of casual connexion, I roundly affirm that there is no such thing as chance at all. What place can be left for random action when God constraineth all things to order? For ex nihilo nihil is sound doctrine which none of the ancients gainsaid. Now, if a thing arise without causes, it will appear to have arisen from nothing. With our good Aristotle, we may define what men commonly call chance as being an unexpected result flowing from a concurrence of causes where several factors had a definite end. But the meeting and concurrence of these causes arise from that inevitable chain of order which disposes all things in their due time and place."

"I agree that it is as thou sayest. But in this series of linked causes is there any freedom left to our will, or does the chain of Fate bind also the very motions of our souls?"

"There is freedom," said she; "nor, indeed can any creature be rational unless he be endowed with free will. For that which has the natural use of reason, of itself distinguishes what is to be shunned or desired. Now, everyone seeks what he judges desirable and avoids what he thinks should be shunned. Wherefore, beings endowed with reason possess also the faculty of free choice and refusal."

Then I said, "But now I am perplexed by a problem yet more difficult. If God foresees everything and can in no wise be deceived, that which He foresees to be about to happen must come to pass."

She answered, "Without doubt all things will come to pass which God foreknows as about to happen, but of these certain proceed of free will. The freedom of men's will stands unshaken and laws are not unrighteous, since their rewards and punishments are held forth to wills unbound by any necessity. God, Who foreknoweth all things, still looks down from above, and the ever-present eternity of His vision concurs with the future character of all our acts, and dispenses to the good, rewards, to the bad, punishments. Our hopes and prayers also are not fixed on God in vain. Therefore, withstand vice, practice virtue, lift up your souls to right hopes, offer humble prayers to Heaven. Great is the necessity of righteousness laid upon you if ye will not hide it from yourselves, seeing that all your actions are done before the eyes of a Judge who seeth all."

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