Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXIV - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XXIV - 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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AFTER she had sung this song Philosophy stopped singing and was silent awhile, and after musing deeply in her mind said: ‘Every mortal man afflicts himself with many and various cares, and nevertheless all desire to come by diverse paths to one end; that is, they desire by diverse deserts to reach one happiness. Now this is no other than God, who is the beginning and end of every good thing, and He is the Highest Happiness.’
‘Then,’ said Mind, ‘this seems to me the Supreme good, that man should neither heed nor care about any other good when he hath that which is the roof of all good things; for it encompasses them all round about, and contains them. It would not be the Supreme Good if there existed any outside it, for it would then be apt to desire some good not in its own possession.’
Then Philosophy answered and said, ‘It is quite clear that this is the Highest Happiness, for it is both roof and floor of all good. What can that be but the Highest Happiness, that hath in itself all other kinds of happiness; and from which, itself lacking or needing nothing, they all proceed, and to which they return, as all water proceeds from and returns to the sea? No brook is too small to seek the sea; afterwards it passeth from the sea into the earth, and so it goeth winding through the earth till it cometh again to the same spring from which it flowed at first, and so again to the sea. Now this is a similitude of True Happiness, which all mortal men desire to get, though they think to come at it by various ways. For each man hath a natural good in himself, and each mind desires to acquire true good, but is hindered by these fleeting joys because it is more prone thereto. For some men think that the greatest happiness is for a man to be so rich as to need nothing more, and all their life long they yearn after this. Some think that the highest good is to be the most honoured by their fellows, and they strive thereafter with might and main. Others think it lies in sovereign power, and desire either themselves to rule or to attach to themselves the friendship of the powerful. Again, some are persuaded that the best thing is to be famous and widely known, and to have a good name, and they labour thereafter both in peace and in war. Many men account it the greatest good and the greatest happiness to be always merry in this present life, and to satisfy every desire. Some, when they seek wealth, seek it to get more power by it, so that they may with impunity enjoy these worldly pleasures and riches. Many again desire power to enable them to amass enormous wealth, or from a wish to spread abroad their name and fame. Such among others are the frail and corruptible honours that afflict the soul of man with yearning and ambition; he thinks he has acquired some notable good when he has received the flattery of the crowd, but I think he has purchased a very false distinction. Some men desire wives most earnestly, for the begetting of many children, and also for a pleasant life. Now I assert that the most precious of all this world’s blessings is True Friendship, which must be accounted not a worldly good, but a heavenly blessing; for it is not false Fate that produces it, but God, who createa natural friends in kinsmen. For every other thing in this world man desireth either because it will help him to power, or to get some pleasure, save only a true friend; him we love for love’s sake and for our trust in him, though we can hope for no other return from him. Nature joins friends together and unites them with a very inseparable love; but by means of these worldly goods and the wealth of this life we oftener make foes than friends. By these and many other reasons all men may be shown that all bodily excellencies are inferior to the qualities of the soul. For instance, we think a man is strong in proportion to the bulk of his body; and a comely and active body gives satisfaction and cheerfulness to its possessor, aud good health makes him merry. Now in all these bodily enjoyments men seek simple happiness as it seems to them, for every man accounts that the best and highest good for him which he loves above all things, and thinks he shall be truly happy when he shall have attained it. And yet I do not deny that happiness and prosperity are the highest blessings of this life of ours, for the reason just given; and when a man is convinced that the possession of a thing will bring him great happiness, then he desires it most. Is not this semblance of false happiness clearly revealed, namely possessions, honours, power, and vain glory, and carnal pleasure? Speaking of carnal pleasure, Epicurus the philosopher, when investigating all the various kinds of happiness we have spoken about, said that pleasure is the highest good, for all the forms of happiness we have spoken of flatter and encourage the mind. Pleasure, however, alone flatters the body most exclusively.
‘Let us talk yet further on the nature of men and their strivings. Though their minds and natures be obscured, and they be hastening on the downward course to evil, yet they desire the highest good, as far as their knowledge and power go. Even as a drunken man knoweth that he should go to his home and his rest, but cannot find the way thither, so it is with the mind when it is weighed down with the cares of this world, for drugged and led astray therewith it cannot find the direct road to what is good. Nor do men think that they at all err that desire to get hold of so much that they need not strive after more; but they believe they can gather together all these blessings, so that not one thereof be lacking, knowing no higher good than to get together into their own power the most valuable things, and thereby satisfy every need. But God only is without need, not man; God, being self-sufficing, needeth nothing besides what He hath in Himself. Dost thou then account those foolish who think that thing deserving of most honour which they judge to be most perfect? No, surely not, I think that this is not to be despised. How can that be evil which the mind of every man thinketh good, and striveth after, and desireth to possess? No, it is not evil, but the highest good. Why then is not power to be accounted one of the highest blessings of this life? Is power, the most valuable of all worldly possessions, to be reckoned a feeble and useless thing? Are good report and fame to be accounted nothing? No, no, it is wrong to count these things as naught, for every man thinketh his own object of desire the best. But we know, of course, that no poverty, nor hardship, nor sorrow, nor grief, nor melancholy, can be happiness. Why, then, need we talk about happiness any further? Doth not every man know what it is, and know too that it is the Highest Good? and yet nearly every one seeks the highest happiness in very trifling things, thinking it his, if he hath obtained that which he craveth most at the time. Now these eager cravings are for wealth, honours, authority, worldly splendour, vain glory, and carnal pleasures. All these do men desire, for by their means they hope to attain to a state when they shall be lacking in no desire, neither in honour nor power nor fame nor pleasure. And their desires, though so various, are reasonable. By these examples a man may see clearly that every one desires to compass the highest good wherever he may recognize it and wherever he may know how to seek it aright; but he seeketh it not by the straightest path, for that lieth not in this world.’