Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXXVIII - The Consolation of Philosophy
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
Also in the Library:
XXXVIII - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The text is in the public domain.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
P. 133. WHEN Philosophy had spoken this discourse she began to sing again, and these were her words: ‘I can from stories of old tell thee one that is very like unto what we are now discussing. Once upon a time, during the Trojan war, there lived, as it happened, a king named Aulixes (Ulysses), who held two countries under the Caesar. These countries were called Ithacige (Ithaca), and Retie (Rhaetia), and the Caesar’s name was Agamemnon. When Aulixes went with the Caesar to the war he had several hundred ships, and they were fighting about ten years. And when the king came from the Caesar homewards again and they had conquered the land he had no more than one ship, a three-banked galley. Then high winds and stormy seas beset him, and he was driven upon an island out in the Wendelsea (Mediterranean). Now a daughter of Apollo, son of Job (Jove), dwelt there. Job was their king, and feigned that he was thehighest god, and the silly folk believed him, for he was of the kingly clan, and in those days they knew no other god, but worshipped their kings for gods. Job’s father was also said to be a god; his name was Saturnus, and each of his sons likewise they accounted a god. One of them was the Apollo we just now spoke of. Now Apollo’s daughter was, men say, a goddess whose name was Kirke (Circe). She was said to be mighty in witchcraft, and dwelt in the island upon which the king we spoke of was driven. There she had a very great company of her thanes, and also of other maidens. No sooner did she look upon the shipwrecked king we have mentioned, whose name was Aulixes, than she fell in love with him, and each loved the other beyond all reason, so that for love of her he gave up all his kingdom and his kindred. And he tarried with her so long that his thanes could no longer stay with him, but, yearning for home and being minded to punish him, resolved to leave him. Now makers of fables started to make up a story, and said she changed the men with her witchcraft, and turned them into the shapes of wild beasts, and then cast upon them chains and fetters. One, they say, she changed into a lion, and when he should have spoken he roared. Some were boars, and when they should have been bemoaning their woes they grunted. Some became wolves, and howled when they should have spoken. Some became the kind of beast we call tiger. Thus was all the crew changed into various kinds of beasts, each into some one or other, save only the king. They shunned every sort of food that men eat, and hungered after such as beasts feed on. They had no likeness to men in body or in voice, yet each had his reason as he had before. Their reason was very sad for the miseries they were suffering.
‘Now the men who believed these false tales knew that she could not with her witchcraft change men’s minds, though she changed their bodies. Verily the power of the mind is great when measured with that of the body! By such ensamples thou mayest perceive that the power of the body heth in the mind, and every man is more harmed by the sins of his mind. The sins of the mind draw unto themselves the whole body, but the infirmity of the body cannot altogether draw in the mind.’
Then said I, ‘I grant that what thou saidst is true, namely, that it was not wrong to call men of wicked desires cattle or wild beasts, though they may have the likeness of men. Nevertheless, if I had power such as Almighty God has, I would not let the wicked harm the good as greatly as they now do.’
‘They are not,’ she said, ‘allowed to do so for as long a time as thou thinkest, but thou mayest understand that they are very speedily checked in their impunity, as I will forthwith prove to thee, although I have no time to spare for a fresh topic. If they had not the vain power they believe themselves to have, they would not suffer so great a penalty as they have to suffer. The wicked are ever more unhappy when they are able to carry out the evil they take delight in, than they are when they cannot do it, though foolish men may not believe it. ’Tis bad that a man should wish to do evil, but it is far worse that he should be able to do it; for the evil will scatters like smoke before a fire if the deed cannot be accomplished. The wicked have at one time and another three sorts of unhappiness: the first is that they desire evil, the second is that they are capable of it, and the third that they bring it to pass; for God hath elected to bestow punishment and misery on wicked men for their deeds of evil.’
‘It is even as thou sayest,’ I said, ‘nevertheless I could wish, if possible, that they had not the unlucky power to do evil.’
‘I fancy, however,’ said she, ‘they lose the power sooner than thou couldst wish or than they themselves expect, for nothing in this present life is lasting, though men may think it long. Very often the mighty power of the wicked fails exceeding suddenly, even as a great tree in the forest falls with a loud crash when least expected; and it is from dread of this that they are always very miserable. If, therefore, it is their wickedness that makes them miserable, is not the evil that lasts long worse than that which is short-lived? Even if the wicked never died I should say that they weru the most miserable and unhappy of men. If all those miseries are real which we long ago said the wicked had to undergo in the world here, it is clear that these miseries are endless or eternal.’
‘What thou sayest,’ I said, ‘is wonderful and very hard for witless men to grasp; nevertheless I perceive that it is quite in keeping with our earlier discourse.’
‘I am not now speaking,’ said she, ‘to witless men, but to such as desire to get hold of wisdom; for it is a sign of wisdom when a man desires to hear it and lay hold of it. But if any foolish man doubt concerning any of the arguments we have used in this very book, then let him prove, if he be able, one thing or the other, either that one of the arguments is false or is not akin to the matter we are discussing, or, thirdly, let him understand and believe that we are on the right track. If he do none of these things, then he knows not his own mind.
‘But I can show thee yet other things that foolish men will think even harder to believe, though it is quite in keeping with the argument we are carrying on.’
‘Why, what is that?’ I said.
P. It is this, that the wicked, who suffer great misery and manifold punishment in this world for their sins, are far more unhappy than those who suffer no vengeance nor punishment in this world for their wickedness. Let no man, however, think I speak thus merely because I desire to blame vices and praise virtues, and to hold up this example as a warning to men and to draw them to virtue by the fear of punishment; it is for other reasons that I speak, and speak even more strongly.
M. For what other reasons wouldst thou speak, over and above those that thou hast mentioned?
P. Dost thou remember what we were saying, that the good always had power and happiness, and the evil never had either?
M. I do remember it.
P. What thinkest thou then? If thou seest a man very unhappy, and yet discernest some good in him, is he as unhappy as the man who has no whit of good in him?
M. Him I count the happier that has some good.
P. But what thinkest thou concerning him that hath no good, if he has some evil to boot? Why, thou wilt say he is even more unhappy than the other, by reason of the added evil.
M. Am I not bound to think so?
P. It is well that thou dost; and mark this with thy inmost mind, that the wicked have ever something good in the midst of their evil. This is their punishment, and this may well be accounted unto them for good. But they whose wickedness goes all unpunished in this world are held by sin more grievous and more harmful than any punishment in this world. That their wickedness goes unpunished in this life is the clearest sign of the greatest sin in this world, and an earnest of the direst penalty hereafter.
M. This I cannot deny.
P. The wicked are unhappier for being forgiven their sin when they deserve it not, than they whose sin is rewarded according to their deserts. For it is right that the wicked should be punished, and wrong that they be left unpunished.
M. Who gainsays this?
P. And no man can deny that what is right is altogether good, and what is wrong is wholly bad.
M. I am sore perplexed by this manner of speaking, and I wonder that so righteous a Judge should be willing to give any gift that is not just.
P. What makes thee say that?
M. Because thou saidst He did wrong in suffering the wicked to go unpunished.
P. ’Tis His glory that He is so generous and giveth so freely; ’tis much that He granteth in biding until the wicked perceive their sin and turn towards good.
M. Now I understand that it is not an everlasting grace that He granteth to the wicked, but a manner of delay and waiting for the Highest Judge. Methinks that for His delay and His patience He is the more unheeded; nevertheless I much like this manner of discourse, and it seems to go very well with what thou hast already said. But I entreat thee yet further to tell me whether thou thinkest the wicked have any punishment after this world, or the good any reward for their goodness.
Then she said, ‘Have I not already told thee that the good have reward of their goodness, both here and for ever, and the wicked reward of their evil, both here and in eternity? But I will now divide the wicked into two classes, for one part of them has everlasting punishment, having earned no mercy, and the other part shall be cleansed and refined in the heavenly fire, as silver is here. These, having deserved some measure of mercy, are allowed, after their troubles, to P. 140. come to eternal glory. Still further could I discourse to thee concerning the good and the wicked, if I had but time. But I dread lest I should lose sight of what we were seeking after, that is, our desire to convince thee that the wicked had honour neither in this world nor in the world to come. For thou wast of opinion that they had too much thereof, and didst think that a most fearful thing, and didst lament continually that they were under continual punishment; and I kept telling thee they were never free from punishment, though thou didst not think so. But nevertheless I know thou wilt lament that they have leave to work wickedness during so long a space of time. I told thee that this space is a very short one, and moreover I tell thee that the longer it is the more unhappy they are, and their greatest unhappiness would be for it to last until doomsday. Further, I told thee that they whose wickedness was unjustly pardoned were unhappier than they whose wickedness was justly punished. Yet thou art to believe that they who are unchecked are more unhappy than they who have met with punishment.’
‘Nothing,’ said I, ‘ever seems to me so true as do thy words at the moment when I am listening to them. But if I turn to the opinion of the common folk, not only do they refuse to believe thy story, but even to listen to it.’
‘No marvel,’ she answered. ‘Surely thou knowest that those men who have not sound eyes cannot gase with ease full upon the sun when he is shiningbrightest, nor even on fire or on aught that is bright do they care to look, if the eyeball be diseased. Even so sinful minds are blinded with their wicked desire, so that they are unable to behold the light of the Bright Truth, that is to say, the Highest Wisdom. They are like fowls of the air and beasts that can see better by night than by day; for the day blinds and darkens their eyes, and the darkness of night lightens them. Therefore these purblind minds account it the greatest happiness that a man be allowed to work evil, and his deed to go unpunished; and for this reason they care not to follow up an inquiry until they discern what is right, but turn them to their unrighteous desires and go in quest thereof. I know not therefore what it avails for thee to show me unto foolish men, that never go in search of me. Not to these do I ever speak, but to thee, for thou art minded to track me out, and toilest harder than they do on the trail. I care not what they think; I set greater store on thine opinion than on theirs, for they are all gazing with both eyes, of the mind and of the body, on these things of the earth, and have their joy therein. But thou alone at times glancest with one eye at the things of heaven, whilst with the other thou art still looking at the things of earth. Fools think that everybody is as blind as themselves, and that none can see what they themselves cannot. This folly is as if a child were born quite healthy and well formed, and remained thriving in every excellence and virtue while still a child, and so throughout its youth, until he became perfect in everyfaculty, and then not long before middle age became blind of both eyes, and likewise so blinded in the eyes of his mind as to remember nothing of what he had ever seen or heard, and yet should deem himself in every respect as perfect as he ever had been, regarding all men as like unto himself, and of the same way of thinking. He may be foolish enough to believe this, but are we going to think as he does? I do not think so; but I should like to know what thou thinkest of those men whom we spoke of and held to be more like beasts than men. How much wisdom is theirs? Methinks they have none.
‘I would prove to thee yet another very true proposition, but I know the common folk will not believe it, namely, that they that are punished are happier than they that punish them.’
At this I marvelled, and said, ‘I wish thou wouldst make it plain to me how such can be the case.’
P. Dost thou perceive that every man that desires evil and does it is worthy of punishment?
M. I perceive it quite clearly.
P. Is not he then a wisher and a worker of evil that punishes the innocent?
M. It is as thou sayest.
P. Dost thou think they that are worthy of punishment are miserable and unhappy?
M. I do not only think so; I know it full well.
P. If thou hadst to decide, which wouldst thou deem the more worthy of punishment, him that punished the innocent, or him that suffered the penalty?
M. The cases are not alike. I would help him that was without guilt, and chastise the man that had harmed him.
P. Then he that works evil seems to thee more wretched than he that suffers it?
M. My belief is that every unjust punishment is a wrong in him that inflicts it, not in him that suffers it, for the wickedness of the first makes him wretched. I perceive that is a very just proposition thou layest down, and quite in keeping with what thou didst prove before; but yet I know the common folk do not think so.
‘Thou hast a right understanding of the matter,’ she answered, ‘but pleaders at times defend them that have less need of them; they speak in behalf of those who are wronged, not of those that do the wrong. It were more needful for them that harm the innocent that some one should speak for them before those in authority, and demand that punishment should be inflicted upon them as great as the wrong they did to the innocent. Even as the sick man needs to be brought to the physician, to be tended by him, so he that works mischief needs to be taken before the magistrate that his vices may be cut out and burnt. I do not say it is wrong to help the innocent and plead his cause; but I say that it is better to bring the guilty man to judgement, and that the pleading does no good either to the wrong-doer or to him that pleads for him, if they desire that the wrong should not be punished according to the measure of the guilt. I am sure that if the guilty had but a spark of wisdom, and if they at all understood that they might atone for their sins by the punishment that befell them in this world, they would not call it punishment, but would say it was their cleansing and bettering. They would then seek no advocate, but would gladly suffer those in authority to illtreat them at their pleasure. We should not scourge a man that is sick and in pain, but should take him to the physician to be tended.’
[P. 133. ]Ithacige means literally ‘the island of Ithaca,’ the ending -ige, akin to the modern English -ey or -y, or its Norse equivalent, being found in many modern names, such as Athelney, Bermondsey, &c.
[P. 140. ]Doomsday. The Latin has aeterna.