Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXXIV - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XXXIV - 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 chaunted this song and prayer, she began once more to discourse, and spake on this wise:
‘I think it first necessary that I should unfold to thee where the Highest Good is, now that I have explained to thee what it is; which was the perfect, which the imperfect good. But one thing I would first ask thee: Dost thou believe anything in this world is so good that it can bestow perfect happiness? I ask thee this because I do not wish any false image to deceive us in place of True Happiness. No man can deny that there is a certain Good, the highest, like a great and deep spring, whence many brooks and streamlets flow. Concerning any form of good we say that it is not perfect good, inasmuch as it lacks something; and yet it is not utterly lacking, for everything comes to naught if it has nothing good in it. By this thou mayest perceive that the less forms of good come from the greatest good, not the greatest from the less, even as a river does not become a spring, but the spring may become a river. And yet the river does in the end return to the spring; and so every form of good comes from God and again returns to Him, and He is the full and perfect Good that lacks no desire. Thou canst now clearly perceive that this is Good in itself. Canst thou not understand that if nothing were complete, then nothing would be lacking, and, if nothing were lacking, nothing would be complete? For, if anything be full, something else must be not full, and the converse is true, and moreover each thing is most complete in its own native place. Surely thou canst understand that if any of these earthly forms of good be lacking in regard to any desire and advantage a certain form of good must exist, complete as to every desire, and lacking in no advantage.’
‘Thou hast,’ I answered, ‘with great justice and reason overcome me and taken me captive, so that I cannot gainsay thee nor even imagine but that it is as thou sayest.’
Then spake Philosophy, ‘I would now have thee consider earnestly till thou perceive where Perfect Happiness lies. Dost thou not know that all mankind with one mind are agreed that God is the origin of all good things and the Lord of all creation? He is the Highest Good, and no man now doubts it; for nothing better, nor even equally good, is known to men. All reason tells us, and all men acknowledge the same, that God is the Highest Good, thereby betokening that all forms of good exist in Him; for if it were not so, then he would not be true to His name. If anything existed before Him or more perfect than He, it would be better than He, but inasmuch as nothing existed before Him, nor is more perfect, nor more precious, He is the Origin, and Source, and Pinnacle of all forms of good. It is quite evident that perfect good existed before imperfect good. Not to speak longer than we need, what we have to believe is that the Most High God is the most perfect in all good. The same God is, as we have before said, the Highest Good and the Best Happiness, seeing that it is generally known that the best kind of happiness exists in no other being but God.’
‘I grant this,’ I answered.
Then said she, ‘I entreat thee to understand clearly that God is full of every perfection, every goodness, and every form of happiness.’
‘I cannot quite understand,’ I answered, ‘why thou dost repeat what thou hast already said.’
‘I repeat it,’ she said ‘because I would not have thee believe that God, who is the Father and Beginning of all creatures, hath received from any outward source the high goodness of which He is full. Nor again would I have thee believe that He is not the same as His goodness and happiness; for if thou didst believe that His goodness was come from without, then would the source of it be better than He. But it is very great folly and sin to think thus of God, or to believe that anything existed before Him, or was better than or like unto Him. We must then allow that God is the best of all things. If thou believest that it is with God as with man, in whom the man himself, that is, soul and body, is one thing, and his goodness another; if, I say, thou believest that it is so with God, then must thou needs believe that there is a power greater than His, one that brings together His parts, as He does ours. Now, everything that is distinct from another is different, though they be joined; if then anything be distinct from the Highest Good, it is not the Highest Good. But it is grievous sin to believe concerning God that any good exists save in Him, or when separate from Him, for nothing is better than He, no, nor equally good. Therefore I say with perfect reason that that which is the beginning of all things is in its own nature the Highest Good.’
M. Thou hast most fairly convinced me.
P. Now, I told thee that the Highest Good and the Highest Happiness were one and the same thing.
M. That is so.
P. Well then, what are we to call this but God?
M. I cannot deny this, for I have already admitted it.
Then she said, ‘Canst thou understand the matter any the more clearly if I mention yet another example to thee? Suppose there were two kinds of good that could not exist together, and yet were both good, would it not be quite evident that neither was the other? Perfect good, then, cannot be divided. How can it be full and yet lacking? Therefore we say that Perfect Happiness and God are but one form of Good, and that is the highest; these can never be divided. Are we not then bound to admit that the Highest Good and the Godhead are one?’
‘Nothing is truer than this,’ I said; ‘we can find nothing better than God.’
‘But I will wrap thee round,’ said she, ‘with yet another instance, so that thou mayest not find any way out; even as the wont of philosophers is to be ever seeking to show something new and unfamiliar, that they may therewith awaken the minds of their hearers.
‘Did we not prove that happiness and the divine nature were one? He therefore who has happiness has both, and he that has both, is he not supremely blessed? Knowest thou not that we say a man is wise who has wisdom, and righteous who has righteousness? And so also we name God that which has the divine nature and happiness, and every happy man is a god. Yet there is only one God; he is the stem and base of all forms of good; from Him these forms all come, and to Him they return, and He ruleth all. Though He is the beginning and foundation of all good men and all good things, yet the forms of good that issue from Him are many, even as all stars receive their light and brightness from the sun, yet some are more, others less bright. Likewise the moon shines according as the sun illumines her; when she is fully lighted up by him, she shines with all her brightness.’
Now when I understood this discourse I was dismayed and sore afraid, and I said, ‘Truly this is a wonderful and pleasing and rational discourse that thou art now speaking.’
‘Nothing,’ she said, ‘is more pleasing nor more wise than the matter of this discourse, and that which we are going to discuss; and so I think we had better join it on to our former discourse.’
‘Why, what is that?’ said I.
Then said she, ‘Well, thou knowest that I told thee that True Happiness was a good thing, and from True Happiness come and to it return all the other forms of good that we have spoken of. Even so from the sea the water makes its way into the earth, and there grows fresh; then it comes up at the spring, becomes a brook, then a river, then follows the course of the river until it comes again to the sea. But I would now ask thee how thou hast understood this discourse. Dost thou believe that the five forms of good we have often before mentioned, namely, Power, Honour, Fame, Independence, and Happy Temper—I wish, I say, to know whether thou believest these forms of good are members of True Happiness, even as there are many members in one man, yet all form one body; or on the other hand, whether thou dost think that each of the five forms of good gives rise to True Happiness, and then the (other) four make up the qualities of True Happiness. For instance, soul and body make but one man, and the man has many members; yet to these two, namely, the soul and the body, belong all the good points of the man, both of the spirit and of the flesh. Thus bodily excellence lies in a man’s being fair, strong, tall, and broad, and there are many other good points besides; yet they are not the body itself, for even if it lose any of these qualities it still remains what it was before. Again, the kinds of excellence belonging to the soul are caution, moderation, patience, righteousness, wisdom, and many like virtues.
M. I wish thou wouldst speak yet more clearly regarding the other good qualities belonging to True Happiness.
P. Have I not already told thee that happiness is a good thing?
M. Yes, and moreover thou saidst it was the Highest Good.
P. Dost thou still admit that Power, Honour, Fame, Independence, Good Temper, Blessedness, and the Highest Good, are all one thing, and this is good?
M. How shall I deny this?
P. What dost thou then believe that these things are, members of True Happiness, or True Happiness itself?
M. I see what thou wouldst know; but I would rather have thee speak to me about this matter, than ask me questions.
P. Canst thou not conceive that if the forms of good were members of True Happiness they would be in some measure divided; even as the members of man’s body are somewhat divided? But the nature of members is that they form but one body, and yet are not wholly alike.
M. Thou needest not labour the point; thou hast said quite clearly that the forms of good are in no wise separated from True Happiness.
P. Thou hast a right understanding of the matter, inasmuch as thou dost perceive that the forms of good are the same thing as happiness, and happiness is the Highest Good, which is God, and God is ever one and undivided.
M. There is no doubt about it; but now I should like thee to tell me something unfamiliar.
Then she said: ‘It is now evident that all the forms of good we spoke of belong to the Highest Good, and men seek a sufficiency of good, believing it to be the Highest Good. They also seek power and all the other advantages we have already mentioned, because they believe this to be the Highest Good. Thereby thou mayest know that the Highest Good is the roof to all the other kinds of good that men desire and take pleasure in, for no man takes pleasure in anything but what is good, or at least what looks like good. Many a thing they crave that is not perfect good, yet has some likeness to what is good. This is why we say that the Highest Good is the highest roof to all kinds of good, the hinge on which they all turn, and the thing for which all good is wrought by men; it is for this that men take pleasure in all kinds of good that they affect. This thou mayest very plainly perceive by considering that no man takes pleasure in the thing itself which he affects or does, but in that which he gains by its means; for he thinks that, if he compass his desire and carry through that which he has thought of, he has perfect happiness. Dost thou not know that no man rides from a desire to ride, but because by his riding he gains some profit? Some by riding gain better health, some greater activity, while others desire to reach some place that they have in view. Now, surely it is plain enough that men love nothing more dearly than the Highest Good, for every desire or deed of theirs arises from their wish to find therein the Highest Good. But some of them err in thinking they can have perfect good and perfect happiness from these present Kinds of Good; whereas Perfect Happiness and the Highest Good is God Himself, as we have often said.’
‘I cannot imagine,’ I said, ‘how I can deny this.’
Then said she, ‘Let us now leave the matter, and trouble no more about it, since thou hast got to know so thoroughly that God is ever the indivisible and perfect Goodness, and that His goodness and His happiness came not to Him from without, but have always been, are now, and ever shall be contained in Himself.’
When Philosophy had uttered this discourse, she began again to chaunt, and these were the words she sang:
P. 100. ‘Ah well, ye men, let each that is free make for goodness and happiness; and let him that is now held captive by the unprofitable love of this world seek freedom, so that he may come to happiness. For this is the one resting-place from all our toils; and this haven alone is ever calm after all the storms and billows of our hardships. It is the only refuge, the sole comfort of poor mortals after the misery of this present life. But golden gems and silver, and jewels of every kind, and all this wealth of the present in no wise give light to the eyes of the mind, nor whet their keenness to the beholding of True Happiness; but they blind the eyes of the mind even more than they sharpen them. All things that here please in this life of the present are earthly and therefore fleeting. But the marvellous Brightness that lighteneth all things and ruleth them will not suffer souls to perish, but will give them light. If then any man be able to see with clear mind’s eye the brightness of the heavenly Light, he will say that the brightness of the sun’s shining is as darkness when measured with the everlasting brightness of God.’
When Philosophy had chaunted this lay, I said, ‘I grant what thou sayest, for thou hast shown its truth with wise argument.’
P. What price wouldst thou pay to be able to understand True Goodness, and what manner of thing it is?
M. I should rejoice with an exceeding great joy, and I would pay a sum beyond counting that I might see it.
P. Well then, I will show it thee; but one thing I charge thee, and that is, not to forget in the showing of it what I have already taught thee.
M. No, indeed, I shall not forget it.
P. Did we not say before that this present life that we here desire is not the Highest Good, being diverse and divided into so many parts that no man may have all without being lacking in some respect? I showed thee at the time that the Highest Good is found where all forms of good are united, melted as it were into one ingot. Perfect good exists when all the kinds of good that we formerly spoke of are gathered together into a single kind of good; then there will be no form of good lacking; all the forms of good will form a unity, and this unity shall be eternal. If they were not eternal, they would not be so much to be desired.
M. This has been said; I cannot doubt it.
P. I said before that that was not Perfect Good which was not all combined, for Perfect Good is that which is all combined and indivisible.
M. I think so too.
P. Dost thou then think that all things that are good in this world are good because they contain in themselves some goodness?
M. What else can I believe? Surely it is so.
P. Yet thou must believe that Oneness and Goodness are the same.
M. This I cannot deny.
P. Canst thou not conceive that everything may go on existing, both in this world and the world to come, as long as it is undivided, but when divided it will not be altogether what it was before?
M. Say that to me more plainly; I cannot quite make out what thou wouldst be at.
P. Knowest thou what man is?
M. I know he is soul and body.
P. Well, thou knowest that it is man so long as soul and body are undivided; and not man, once they are divided. So too the body is body while it has all its limbs; if however it lose any limb, it is no longer quite as it was before. The same holds good of anything; nothing remains what it was, once it begins to suffer loss.
M. Now I understand.
P. Dost thou think there is any creature that of its own will does not wish to exist for ever, but would of its own accord perish?
M. I cannot conceive of any living thing knowing its own likes or dislikes that would care to perish of its own accord; for every creature would like to be healthy and alive, at least of those that I consider to have life; I am not sure about trees and plants, and such creatures as have no soul.
At this she smiled and said, ‘Thou needest not have any more doubts concerning the one kind of creatures than about the other. Canst thou not see that each plant and each tree will grow best in land that suits it best and is natural and familiar to it, where it feels that it can grow quickest and wither slowest? Some plants and trees have their home on hills, some in fens, some on moors, others among stones, others again in bare sand. Take any tree or plant thou wilt from the place where its home is and its habits of growth, and set it in an unfamiliar spot; it will not grow there at all, but will wither, for the nature of every country is to bring forth plants and trees like itself, and it does so in this case. It nurses them and helps them very carefully so long as their nature allows them to grow. Why, thinkest thou, does every seed creep into the earth and grow into shoots and roots but because it wants the trunk and the tree-top to stand the firmer and the longer? Canst thou not understand, though thou canst not see it, that all the part of the tree that grows in the course of twelve months begins at the roots, and, growing upwards to the stem, passes along the core and the bark to the top, and afterwards along the boughs, until it springs forth in leaves and flowers and shoots? Canst thou not perceive that every living thing is most tender and delicate inside? Why, thou canst see how a tree is clad and wrapped about with the bark against winter and stiff gales, and also against the sun’s heat in summer. Who can help wondering at such creatures of our Creator, and at the Creator too? And, though we marvel at Him, which of us can duly set forth our Creator’s will and power, how His creatures grow and wane when the time comes for it, and are once more renewed from their seed, as if they were a new creation? Lo, they live once more, and in a measure seem to live for ever, for every year they are created afresh.
‘Dost thou yet perceive that the dumb creatures would like to live for ever, as men do, if they were able? Dost thou yet understand why fire tends upwards, and earth downwards? Why is this, save because God made the home of the one on high and of the other below? for every creature tends most to go where its home and its nature chiefly lie, and shuns that which is hostile to it or unfitting or unlike. Lo, stones, being of an inert and stubborn nature, are hard to cleave asunder, and likewise come together with pains, if they have been parted. If therefore thou cleavest a stone it will never be united as it before was, but water and air are of a somewhat more yielding kind; they are very easy to cleave, but are soon joined again. Fire, however, can never be divided. Not long ago I said that no creature would perish by its own desire; but now I am more concerned with nature than desire, for these sometimes are diversely minded. Thou mayest know by many tokens that nature is very mighty. It is a very mighty act of nature that to our body all its strength comes from the food we eat, and yet the food passes out through the body. But its savour and its virtue pass into every vein, even as when a man sifts meal the meal passes through each hole, and the bran is sifted out. So also our spirit journeys very far without our will or control, by reason of its nature, not of its will; this happens when we are asleep. Lo, the beasts and also the other creatures covet what they desire rather by virtue of nature than will. It is unnatural for any being to desire danger or death, yet many a thing is constrained to seek one or the other, for the will is stronger than nature. Sometimes the will is stronger than nature, sometimes nature overcomes the will. Such is the case, for example, with carnal desire; it is natural to every man, and yet is sometimes withheld from its natural action by a man’s will. All love of lechery is of nature, not of the will.
‘By this thou mayest plainly perceive that the Creator of all things hath bestowed one desire and one common nature upon all His creatures, and that is the desire of living for ever. For each being it is natural to desire to live for ever, in so far as its nature may admit. Thou needest not have the doubt thou hadst before, concerning the creatures that have no soul; all creatures, whether possessing souls or not, desire to exist always.’
‘Now I understand,’ said I, ‘what I was before in doubt about, that is, that every creature is desirous of living for ever. This is very apparent in the begetting of offspring.’
P. Dost thou then perceive that every thing that thinks of existence thinks of being combined, whole, undivided? For if it is divided it is not whole.
M. That is true.
P. That is to say, all things nevertheless have one desire, to wit, the desire of living for ever, and with this single desire they crave the one good thing that lives for ever, namely God.
M. It is even as thou sayest.
P. Well then, thou mayest clearly perceive that that which all things and all creatures wish to have is a thoroughly good thing.
M. No man can speak more truly; for I am sure all things created would flow asunder like water, and would not keep peace nor due order. They would fall apart in great disorder and come to naught, as we long since said in this very book, were there not one God to guide and govern and control them. But now, inasmuch as we know that there is one Ruler of all things, we must needs allow, whether we will or no, that He is the crowning roof to all kinds of good.
At this she smiled upon me and said: ‘Well, well, my child, truly thou art exceeding happy in thine understanding, and I am very glad of it. Thou hast very nearly come to know what is right, and that very thing which thou didst before profess thyself unable to understand thou wouldst now agree to.’
‘What was that which I said I could not understand?’ I said.
‘Why, thou didst say,’ she answered, ‘that thou knewest not the end of every creature; but learn now that the end of every creature is that which thou hast thyself named, even God. To Him all creatures are wending; they have no good to seek beyond this, nor can they find anything higher or outside Him.’
[P. 100. ]Ah well, ye men, &c. Allusions in the Latin carmen (bk. iii. metr. 10) to Tagus, Hermus, and Indus are omitted by Alfred.