Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXXVI - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XXXVI - 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 that Philosophy had chaunted this lay very pleasantly and skilfully, I had still in my mind a trace of the sadness that I had formerly, and I said, ‘O Philosophy, thou that art the messenger and forerunner of the True Light, how wonderful it seems to me, what thou tellest me, for I perceive that all that thou hast said to me was told me by God through thee. I knew this also before in some measure, but this sadness had hampered me, so that I had clean forgotten it. Now the greatest part of my unhappiness comes from wondering why the good God should let any evil exist, or if it must exist, and He is willing to allow it, why He doth not right soon punish it. Now, thou mayest thyself understand that this is a wonderful thing; but there is also another thing that seems to me a still greater marvel, and that is, that folly and unrighteousness now rule over all the earth, while wisdom and other virtues besides have no praise nor honour in this world. They lie despised like dung in a midden, and evil men in every land are now in honour, and the good suffer manifold punishments. Who can forbear to sigh for this, and marvel at such a spectacle, that such evil should ever arise under the rule of almighty God, now that we know He hath knowledge thereof and desireth all that is good?’
Then said she, ‘If it be as thou sayest, then is this a horror more awful than any other, and a ceaseless wonder, just as if in a king’s court vessels of gold and silver were despised, and wooden ones held in esteem. It is not at all as thou thinkest; but if thou wilt call to mind all that which we have spoken about, with the help of that God concerning whom we are now speaking, thou mayest come to see that the good are always in power, but the wicked have none; that virtues are never without praise and reward, nor are vices ever unpunished, but the good are ever happy, and the bad unhappy. I can show thee very many examples of this, which may strengthen thee so that thou shalt have no reason for further lamenting. But I am now going to point thee out the way that will lead thee to P. 120.the heavenly city from which thou camest, as soon as thou perceivest through my teaching what True Happiness is, and where it lies. But first I must fledge thy mind, that it may raise itself up more easily before it shall begin to fly to the heights, so that it may fly free from hurt or care to its home, and leave behind all the confusion that it is now suffering from. Let it sit in my car, let it run forth on my way; I will be its guide.’
After that Philosophy had spoken this discourse, she began to sing, and said, ‘I have wings very swift, so that I am able to fly above the high roof of the heavens. But if only I might fledge thy mind with wings, so that thou mightest fly with me, then mightest thou look down upon all these earthly things. If thou couldest fly above the firmament, thou couldest see the clouds beneath thee, and mightest fly above the fire that lieth between the firmament and the air, and journey with the sun between the heavenly bodies, and thence come to the firmament and afterward to that cold star we call the star of Saturn. It is all of ice, and roameth beyond other stars high above any other heavenly body. When thou hast journeyed out beyond this, then thou art above the swiftly moving firmament, and leavest behind the highest heaven; and then at last thou mayest have thy share in the True Light. There one King reigneth; He hath authority over all other kings; He wieldeth the bridle and the guiding-rein of all the whirling span of heaven and earth; He is the one Judge, steady and bright; He driveth the car of all creation. But if ever thou come to that path and that place that thou hast now forgotten, then wilt thou say, “This is my true home; hence I came, and hence I was begotten; here will I now stand fast; never will I hence depart.” Nevertheless I know that if ever it shall happen to thee to desire or to be allowed to visit once more the darkness of this world, then wilt thou see that the unrighteous kings and all the overweening rich ones are very feeble and poor wretches, even those same men whom this poor folk now most sorely dreadeth.’
Then said I, ‘Ah, Philosophy, great and wonderful is that which thou dost promise, and I doubt not either that thou canst make it good. Yet I entreat thee not to hold me back longer, but to show me the way; for thou canst see that I am longing for it.’
‘Thou must first understand,’ said she, ‘that the good always have power, and the evil never any, nor any virtue; for not one of them sees that good and evil are always in conflict. If therefore the good always have power, then the wicked never have any, for good and evil are at bitter strife. But I should like further to show thee rather more clearly regarding each of the two, that thou mayest the easier believe what I tell thee, now about one, now about the other. There are two things at which every man’s thoughts are aiming, to wit, desire and power; if then any man lack one of the two, he cannot with the other bring aught to an issue. For no man will begin what he does not wish to do, unless he must needs do it; and, even if he does wish to do it, he cannot, if he have not the power. By this thou mayst perceive clearly that, if thou seest any man desiring what he has not, ’tis the power he lacks.’
M. That is true; I cannot deny it.
P. Next, if thou seest a man that is able to do what he wishes, thou hast no doubt that the power is his.
M. I have no doubt of it.
P. Every man is master of what is in his power.
M. I grant it.
P. Canst thou still remember what I once told thee, namely, that the minds of all men desire to come to True Happiness, though they earn it in diverse ways?
M. I remember it; it was clearly enough proved.
P. And dost thou remember that I told thee that goodness and happiness were all one, and he that seeks happiness seeks goodness?
M. I hold it quite fast in my memory.
P. All men, both good and wicked, desire to come to goodness, though in different ways.
M. What thou sayest is true.
P. It is clear enough that good men are good because they meet with good.
M. Quite clear.
P. And good men get the good they desire.
M. So I believe.
P. The wicked would not be wicked if they were to meet with the good they desire. They are wicked because they do not compass it, and they fail to get it because they seek it not aright.
M. It is even as thou sayest.
P. Therefore it is beyond doubt that the good have always power, while the wicked have none; for the good seek goodness aright, and the evil seek it wrongly.
M. He that does not believe this to be true has no belief at all in truth.
Then said she, ‘How thinkest thou? If two men are hastening to the same place, and have an equally great desire to get there, one of them having the use of his feet so as to be able to walk where he pleases, even as it would be natural for all men to be able, and the other being without the use of his feet and unable to walk, and yet longing to move on, and making shift to creep along the same path,—which of these two men thinkest thou the more able?’
M. There is no likeness; he that walks is mightier than he that creeps, inasmuch as he can go where he wishes more easily than the other; say what else thou wilt, every man knows this.
P. It is just the same with the good and the wicked; each of them by his nature desires to reach the Highest Good. But the good man is able to go where he pleases, for he seeks it by the right way, whereas the wicked man may not go where he desires, for he seeks it amiss. But perhaps thou mayest not think so.
M. Nay, that, and naught else, is what I think concerning thine argument.
P. Very rightly thou dost conceive the matter, and this is also a token of thy health; even as it is the wont of leeches when they look upon a sick man, and behold in him any benign symptom, to tell him of it. Methinks therefore that thy nature and thy habits do make a stout stand against folly.
I am now persuaded that thou art ready to take in my teachings; and therefore I would bring together for thee a number of arguments and instances whereby thou mayest the easier grasp what I am about to tell thee. Learn then how feeble the wicked are, in that they cannot reach the place where creatures without sense desire to go, and how much more feeble they would be if they had not a natural bent thereto. Behold with how grievous a bond of folly and misery they are bound! Lo, children, when they can only just walk, aye, and old men, as long as they have power to walk, strive after some credit and renown, children riding their sticks and playing manifold games wherein they imitate their elders. Fools also will not take in hand any thing from which they may look for praise or reward; but they do what is worse, running hither and thither all abroad under the roof of all creation; and that which is known to creatures without sense is to fools unknown. Now virtues are better than vices, for every man has to admit, whether he will or no, that he is the mightiest that is able to reach the highest roof of all things created, even God. There is naught above Him, nor beneath Him, nor round about Him, but all things are within Him and in His power. God must be earnestly loved.Pp. 125-127. Didst thou not say a while ago that he was most able to journey that had the power to walk, to the world’s end, if he wished, so that no part of this earth should lie beyond? Even the same thou mayest think concerning God, as we have already said that he is mightiest that can go to Him; for anywhere beyond he cannot go.
From all these reasonings thou mayest understand that the good are always powerful, and the bad are bereft of all might and virtue. Why then, thinkest thou, do they forsake virtues and cleave to vices? Methinks thou wilt say it is from ignorance that they know not how to tell them apart. But what dost thou take to be more sinful than want of reason? Why do they acknowledge that they are ignorant? Why will they not seek after virtues and wisdom? ’Tis sloth, I know, besets them and overcomes them with languor, and ’tis greed that blinds them. We have said that nothing is worse than want of common sense; but what are we to say if men of sense possess vices, and will not seek after wisdom and the virtues? Thou wilt say, I know, that unchastity and intemperance beset them; yet what is weaker than the man who is overborne out of measure by his frail flesh, if he cease not after a time, and wrestle with his vices with all his might? But what wilt thou say if a man chooses not to combat them, but of set purpose forswears all good and does evil, being yet able to reason? I call him weak and altogether a thing of naught; for whosoever forswears the common God of all goodness, without a doubt he is naught. But whosoever desires to be virtuous desires to be wise; he then that is virtuous is wise, and he that is wise, the same is good. He that is good is happy; he that is happy is blest, and he that is blest is a god, according as we showed it forth in this very book. I now think that foolish men will marvel at what I said a while ago, that wicked men were naught, seeing they are more in number than the others. But even if they were never to believe it, yet it is true nevertheless; the wicked man we can never account pure and single-hearted, any more than we can call or account a dead man a living one. The living man is of even less account than the dead, if he repent not of his sin; but he that liveth an unruly life, and will not be true to his own nature, the same is naught.
Yet I fancy thou wilt say the cases are not alike; that the wicked man is able to do evil though not good, whereas the dead man can do neither; but I say unto thee that the power of the wicked comes not from any virtue but from sins. If the wicked were ever good, they would do no evil. That a man can do evil is not power, but weakness; and if that be true which we proved before, that there is no evil, then he that works evil does naught.
M. What thou sayest is indeed true.
P. Have we not shown that nothing is mightier than the Highest Good?
M. It is even as thou sayest.
P. Nevertheless it can do no evil.
P. Does any one think that a man is strong enough to do all he pleases?
M. No man in his senses thinks this.
P. Well, but wicked men can do evil.
M. Alas! would that they could not!
P. It is evident that they can do evil, but not good, for the reason that there is no evil; but good men, if they have full power, are able to turn to good everything they please. Now, full power is to be reckoned the highest form of good, for not only power, but also the other kinds of good, and the virtues we long since named, are firmly fixed in the Highest Good. Even as the wall of every house is firmly set both on the floor and in the roof, so is every kind of good firmly seated in God, for He is both roof and floor of every form of good. Power is ever to be desired to the end that good may be done; for the best kind of power is for a man to have the ability and the will to do good, with less or more speed, as he may chance to have. For whosoever desireth to do good, the same desireth to possess goodness and with goodness to dwell. Therefore was Plato’s saying true enough, when he said that only the wise can turn to good what they please, but the wicked cannot even begin to do what they would. Yet perhaps thou wilt say the good at times begin what they cannot bring to an issue; but I say they always accomplish it. Though they may not be able to bring to pass the deed, yet they have the full purpose; and the unwavering purpose is to beaccounted an act performed, for it never fails of its reward, here or in the next world. Though the wicked work their will, yet it availeth not; and their purpose is not lost to them, for they are punished for it here or elsewhere; such power hath their wicked will over them. They cannot compass the good they desire, for they seek it with the will, not by the right way. The wicked will hath no fellowship with happiness.
[P. 120. ]The heavenly city. A commentary has paradysum. The Latin is domum.
[Pp. 125-127. ]An expanded and very free version.