Front Page Titles (by Subject) XVI - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XVI - Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy [520 AD]
King Alfred’s Version of the Consolations of Boethius. Done into Modern English, with an Introduction by Walter John Sedgefield Litt.D. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1900).
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WHEN Philosophy had sung this song, she began to speak again; and said, ‘What more can I say to thee concerning the honour and power in this world? With this power ye men would fain rise to heaven, if ye could. That is because ye do not remember nor even understand the nature of the heavenly power and honour, which is your own, seeing ye came from heaven. Now, if your wealth and your power (which ye now call honours) fall into the hands of an utterly bad man, and most unworthy to have them, as, for instance, this very Theodoric, and long ago the Caesar Nero, and many others like unto them, will he not act as they did, and yet do? They destroy and ravage all thecountries subject to them, or anywhere within their reach, even as fire consumeth the dry heath, or as the burning brimstore of the mount we call Etna that is in the isle of Sicily; or like unto the flood that was of old in Noah’s days. I think thou wilt remember that your forefathers, the Roman senators, in the days of Torcwine [Tarquin], the haughty king, were forced by his pride to banish the name of king from Rome for the first time, and would have banished in their turn, for their pride, even those chief men that had helped to drive him out, had they been able; for the rule of those men pleased the Roman senators yet worse than the former rule of the kings. If then it happens, as it seldom does, that power and honour fall to a good and wise man, what is there that deserves our liking but the virtues and honourable character of the good king himself, and not of his power? For power is never a good thing, save its possessor be good; for when power is beneficent this is due to the man who wields it. Therefore it is that a man never by his authority attains to virtue and excellence, but by reason of his virtue and excellence he attains to authority and power. No man is better for his power, but for his skill he is good, if he is good, and for his skill he is worthy of power, if he is worthy of it. Study Wisdom then, and, when ye have learned it, contemn it not, for I tell you that by its means ye may without fail attain to power, yea, even though not desiring it. Ye need not take thought for power nor endeavour after it, for if ye are only wise and good it will follow you, evenP. 36though ye seek it not. Tell me now, O Mind, what is the height of thy desire in wealth and power? Is it not this present life and the perishable wealth that we before spoke of? O ye foolish men, do ye know what riches are, and power, and worldly weal? They are your lords and rulers, not ye theirs. Suppose ye saw a mouse, a ruler and lawgiver of mice, exacting tribute of them, how marvellous it would seem to you, and with what laughter would ye be shaken! And yet compared with his mind a man’s body is as a mouse’s body compared to a man’s. Now, if ye think of it, ye may easily believe that man’s body is more frail than that of any other living thing. The smallest fly can hurt it, and gnats with their tiny stings poison it; and even little worms torment man within and without, and sometimes nearly kill him, yea and even the little flea may kill him. Such creatures may harm him within and without. Again, one man can injure another only in the body, or at least in those worldly possessions that ye call happiness. But no man can harm the discerning mind, nor make it other than it is; and this is very evident in the Roman prince called Liberius, who was put to many tortures for refusing to tell the names of his comrades in the plot to kill the king, who had unjustly oppressed them. When he was led before the cruel king and commanded to say who his accomplices were, he bit off his own tongue and dashed it in the king’s face. And so it fell out that that which the king meant as a punishment brought praise and honour to this wise man. What harm can one man do another, and not suffer the same from him; or, if not from the same man, then from another? We have also learnt about the savage tyrant Bosiris the Egyptian. It was the custom of this oppressor to receive every comer with great honour, and treat him as a friend immediately on his coming; but afterwards, before it was time for his departure, he would have him put to death. Now it happened that Erculus [Hercules], son of Jobe [Jove], came to him, and the king thought to treat him as he had treated many a former visitor, drowning him in the river called Nile. But Erculus was the stronger, and drowned him instead, very rightly and by God’s will, even as he had drowned others. And Regulus too, that most famous captain that fought against the Africans; he had won an almost unspeakable victory over them, and, when the slaughter was over, he had the enemy tied together and laid out in heaps. But very soon after it came to pass that he himself was bound in their fetters. Lo, now! what is the good of power, thinkest thou, when it cannot in any wise prevent him that holds it from suffering the same ill that he once did to others? Is not power in this case a thing of naught? Again, dost thou think that if honour and power were wittingly good, and had control over themselves, they would obey the most infamous men as they now often do? Knowest thou not that contraries by their nature and habit may not mix nor have any intercourse? Nature abhors such admixture, which is as impossible as that good P. 38. and evil should live together. But thou seest clearly that this present authority and worldly prosperity and dominion are not good of their own nature and by their own will, and have no control over their own actions, cleaving as they do to the worst men, and suffering them to be their lords; for it is certain that the most infamous men often attain to power and honours. If then power of its own nature and by its own might were good, it would never countenance evil, but good men. The same may be looked for in all blessings brought by Fate during our life here, both with respect to powers of mind and to possessions, for at times they fall to the basest of men. Surely no man doubts that he is strong that is seen to perform a feat of strength, just as, if he gives evidence of any other quality, we doubt not but that he really has it. [Here endeth the first book of Boethius, and beginneth the second.] For example, music makes a man a musician, and physic makes him a physician, and logic makes him a logician. Likewise the law of nature prevents good from mixing with evil in a man, and evil with good. Though both be in a man, either is separate from the other, for, nature not allowing contrary things to mingle, the one shuns the other, and strives to be itself alone. Wealth cannot make a miser not covetous, nor sate his boundless greed; nor can power render its owner powerful. Since, therefore, every creature shuns its opposite, and strives amain to repel it, what two things can be more opposed than good and evil, which we never findconjoined? Thus, then, thou mayest understand that if the joys of this present life had control over themselves and were good in their own nature they would ever cleave to him who used them for good and not for evil. But when they happen to be good they are so by the goodness of him that uses them for good, and he gets his goodness from God; whereas, if a bad man have them, they are evil by reason of the evil of him that doth evil with them, and through the working of the devil. Of what good is wealth therefore, when it cannot satisfy the boundless greed of the covetous, or power, which cannot make its possessor powerful, his desires binding him with their unbreakable fetters? Though power be given to a bad man, it doth not make him good or excellent if he was not so before, but it revealeth his wickedness if he was wicked before, and sheweth it in a clear light if before it was not manifest. For, though he aforetime desired evil, he knew not how he could fully display it until such time as he should have attained to full power. This comes, O men, from your foolish delight in making a name, and calling that happiness which is no happiness, and that excellent which hath no excellence; for such things declare by their end, when it comes, that they are neither one nor the other. Therefore it must not be thought that wealth and power and honours are true happiness. Briefly, then, we may say that of the worldly joys brought by Fate not one is to be desired, for in them is to be found no natural goodness; and this is clear because they never attach themselves to the good, nor make good the evil man they most often flock to.’
After Philosophy had finished this discourse, she began to chaunt again, and said, ‘Lo, we have heard what cruelties, what ruin, what adulteries, what sins, and what savage deeds were wrought by the unrighteous Caesar Nero. Once he had the whole city of Rome set on fire at the same time after the fashion of the burning of Troy of old, wishing to see how long and how brightly it would burn, compared with the latter town. Again, he commanded all the wisest men of Rome to be put to death, nay, even his own mother and brother; yea, even his own wife he put to the sword; and for such deeds he was never the sorrier, but was the more merry and rejoiced therefor. Nevertheless, during such deeds of wrong, all the world, from east to west, and from north to south, was subject to him; all was his dominion. Dost thou think the divine power could not have taken his power away from this unrighteous Caesar, and put an end to his madness, if it had so pleased? Yes indeed, I know it could if it had wished. Alas, what a grievous yoke he laid on them that were living on earth in his days, and how often was his sword stained with innocent blood! Is it not now clear enough that his power was not good of itself, since he to whom it was given was no good man?’
[P. 36 ]The Roman prince called Liberius. This name arises from mistaking the meaning of the Latin liberum quendam.
[P. 38. ]Here endeth the first book, &c. A mistake, for the first book really ends with chap. vi. p 11.