Boethius, and David R. Slavitt. The Consolation of Philosophy. Harvard University Press, 2010.

Boethius to a College Student, How does Boetheus’s writing read in the 21st century

How does the reasoning in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, written in 524, hold up to the scrutiny of 21st-century college students? Perhaps there is a fundamental difference between him, the writer, and us, the readers, as a result of the time difference, that leads us to question certain rhetorical choices. Nonetheless, there are possible discrepancies in his arguments that we feel are constructive to discuss. 

  • Lady Philosophy deems the wealth given by fortune, monetarily and materialistically,  worthless, because “money is precious not when you have it but when it passes on from you to somebody else, in which case you don’t have it anymore” and more possessions become burdensome. This line of reasoning suggests the less one has the better off they are. Historically, however, acquiring wealth to conquer basic needs has been the path for civilizations to advance, as they gain the capacity to meet needs while focusing resources elsewhere. So it stands to reason that the wealthier one is, the less they worry about their own needs and the more capacity they have to explore philosophical thought. The path to the “perfect happiness” Lady Philosophy describes is found in her line of philosophical reasoning and thought, so why does she hold contempt for those who do not learn from her, “the dark earth…where wretched people fear their tyrant rulers”(108), because they do not have the wealth, that she dismisses, to reach her?

 

  • Another seemingly flawed argument laid out in the text is the proposed resolution of the existence of evil with a benevolent- omnipotent god. Lady philosophy attempts to reconcile these age-old concepts and while she appears to do so her argument has a number of internal contradictions and also lacks some external validity. To begin, in a 21st century English understanding the word omnipotent breaks down to Omni: all and potent: powerful suggesting that a being who is omnipotent should have the power to do all. 

Leading up to this argument for the coexistence of god and a world that seems to have evil she establishes a number of premises. 

  • goodness is powerful and wickedness is weak (109)
  • human action necessitates will and ability (109)
  • happiness is “the good itself” (110)
  • all men seek happiness regardless of good or evil (110)
  • men become good by obtaining “the good” (110)
  • the good obtain what they seek (110)
  • the good seek “the highest good” through virtues while the wicked seek it through the “whims of their desires” (112)
  • those who cannot achieve their goals should be viewed as “impotent” (112)
  • there is nothing more powerful than the highest good (114)
  • the highest good cannot do evil (114)
  • “a power that can only do good is omnipotent” (114)
  • “human beings who can also do evil, are not” (114) 
  • Within Lady philosophy’s argument the concept of “the highest good” and “the good” and “good” lack clear definitions, they seem to simultaneously be beings with agency, an attainable goal, and characteristics a person can have.  These ambiguous concepts transform her “argument” into more of a routine in linguistic gymnastics than a logically sound proof. The crux of her argument appears to rest on the fact that “the highest good” is incapable of evil… making it more omnipotent than humans, who in turn are capable of evil. The idea of omnipotence founded on incapability is inherently flawed and comes from a failure to fully resolve the problem of evil with a sound theodicy. 
  • Lady Philosophy argues that goodness is always rewarded by God and evil is always punished to prove that God is benevolent and omnipotent. Yet a key question that we had is what does it mean to be good or evil in this context? Lady Philosophy defines them in book four: “Good and evil are opposites of one another, as punishments and rewards are opposites, ” (117). Boethius was very likely operating under the assumption that readers would have shared understandings of what good and evil are, yet it’s glaring that the most concrete definition of the two is that they are in opposition to one another While modern readers may see this definition as cliche today, its fascinating that Boethius chose to define them in such vague ways. If good and evil must exist in opposition to one another what does this mean for recognition, rewards, and punishments?  

One thought on “Boethius to a College Student, How does Boetheus’s writing read in the 21st century

  1. This is an ambitious and welcome critique of Lady Philosophy’s argumentation, in both historical and logical/ rhetorical terms (although the distinction between the two perspectives doesn’t seem to hold entirely). I think your interrogation of the categories of “the highest good,” “the good,” and “good” as vague and perhaps inconsistent abstractions is especially provocative. We might ask, from a “21st-century,” or secular point of view, to what extent Philosophy allows for relativism regarding these concepts–as she seems to, for example, with the regulated system of punishments and rewards, or in the argument that given the state of Boethius’ family, the evil he’s suffering isn’t so bad after all–and how this works in the relation to the absolute concept of “the highest good.”
    The problem with the argument about wealth is I think an issue of class: she’s not talking about subsistence, but about the wealth of the elite being “costly” to manage and maintain. But your point that ideas about the relation between wealth (its accumulation and distribution) and happiness are historically specific is an important one. The argument you cite about value inhering not in the utility of consumption, but in the act of exchange, for example, could open up interesting questions about the very modern orthodoxies of neoclassical economics. That is, to flip your line of inquiry, we might also ask: what possibilities for historical critique does Boethius afford 21st-century readers?

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