Front Page Titles (by Subject) XXXIX - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XXXIX - 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 Philosophy had spoken this discourse, she began once more to chaunt, and these were her words:
‘Why do ye men distract your minds with unrighteous hatred, even as the waves driven by the wind stir up the sea? Why do ye blame your fate for having no power? Why can ye not await Death in nature’s course, since he is day by day hastening towards you? Can ye not see that every day he pursueth birds and beasts and men? Alas, that unhappy men cannot wait for him to come to them, but go to meet him, even as wild beasts that seek to slay each other. But it is not right for men to hate one another; it were right that each should reward the other for every deed according to his deserving, loving the good man, as it is right we should do, and showing mercy to the wicked, as we said before. Let us love the man, buthate his sins, and cut them away as we are best able.’
When she had done singing this song, she was silent a little while.
Then said I, ‘Now I see plainly that true happiness hinges on the merits of good men, and unhappiness on the deserts of the wicked. But I further say that I hold the joys of this present life to be no small blessing, and its sorrows no small evil, for I never yet saw nor heard of a wise man desiring to be outcast, poor, a stranger, and despised, rather than wealthy, honoured, powerful and famous in his own country. Accordingly, wise men say they can the more easily carry out and maintain their wisdom if their power be absolute over the people subject to them, and also in some measure over them that dwell near and round about them, saying that they are thus able to bring low the wicked and further the good. For the good man is ever worthy of honour, both in this present life and in the life to come; but the wicked man that cannot be held back from his wickedness is ever deserving of punishment, both in this world and in the next. But I marvel exceedingly why things fall out as they now often do, namely, that various punishments and manifold hardships come to the good, as they should do to the bad, and the blessings that should be the rewards of the good for their good deeds come to wicked men. Therefore I would now learn from thee what thou thinkest of these ups and downs. I should marvel far less if I knew that it happened by chance, without God’s will and without His knowledge. But Almighty God hath increased mine awe and mine astonishment by these things, for at one time He giveth blessings to the good and unhappiness to the wicked, as it is right He should always do; at another time He suffereth the good to have unhappiness and ill luck in many things, and the wicked to have blessings and success after their own heart. Therefore I cannot conceive save that it happens thus by chance, unless thou explain it still more reasonably in another way.’
Then after a long while she made answer, and said, ‘No marvel is it that one should think everything of this kind happens without design, when he cannot make out and show why God allows it. But thou art not to doubt that so good a Creator and Ruler of all things hath fashioned aright all that He hath created, and judgeth and governeth all with justice, though thou know not why He doth it in this or in that way.’
After having uttered this discourse she began to sing, and these were her words:
Pp. 146-147. ‘Which of the unlearned wondereth not at the course of the heavenly sphere and its swiftness, how every day it turneth round about all this earth? Or who marvelleth not that some stars have a shorter journey round than others, as those stars have that we call the Wain Shafts? These have so short a journey round because they are so near to the northern end of the axle round which all this vault of heaven is turning. Or who marvelleth not at this, save onlythose who know the reason why, that some stars have a longer journey round than others have, and they have the longest that circle round the middle of the axle, even as Boeties (Bootes) doth, and Saturn, the star which comes not back to where it once was till thirty winters be passed? Who wondereth not that some stars journey under the sea? This some men think the sun doth, when he goeth to his setting, but he is no nearer the sea then than he was at midday. Who wondereth not when the full moon is overcast with darkness, or again, that the stars shine before the moon, but give no light before the sun? At this they marvel, and at much of the same kind, yet do not marvel that men and all living things have a ceaseless and vain enmity among themselves. Or why do they not marvel that sometimes there is thunder, and at other times it is not heard? Or again, why do they not wonder at the strife of sea and winds, of waves and land, or why ice formeth and afterwards in the sun’s glare returneth to its own kind? The fickle folk marvel at what they see most seldom, though it be less a wonder, and think it is not of ancient creation, but hath newly arisen by chance. But they that become eager for knowledge and set themselves to learn, if God pluck away from their minds the folly with which they were covered before, cease to wonder at many things whereat they now are marvelling.’
When Philosophy had chaunted this lay, she was silent a little.
Then said I, ‘It is even as thou sayest; but I would have thee show me somewhat more plainly concerning the thing that has troubled my mind most, concerning which I have already asked thee; for it has ever been thy wont to be willing to point out to every mind things secret and little known.’
At this she began to smile, and said unto me, ‘Thou art tempting me to the greatest of themes, and the hardest to explain. This explanation all philosophers have sought after and toiled at very earnestly, and scarcely any of them has come to a conclusion of the matter; for it is the nature of the discussion and inquiry that no sooner is one doubt settled than countless others are stirred up. It is like the serpent told of in the old story, that had nine heads, and, when one of them was struck off, seven more always grew where the one head had been. And it came to pass that the famous Erculus (Hercules), son of Job (Jove), came to it, and could not bethink himself how to overcome it by any wile, until he heaped firewood round it, and burnt it with fire. So it is with this subject thou art asking me about; a man can hardly get quit of it once he enters upon it; and he never reaches a clear conclusion, save he have an understanding keen as fire. For the man that would inquire into it must first know what the onefold providence of God is, and what Fate is, what happens by chance, and what are divine intelligence, divine predestination, and human freewill. Now, thou canst perceive how heavy and how difficult it is to explain all this; but nevertheless I will set to work P. 149. to teach thee somewhat, for I have noted that it is a powerful remedy for thy sorrow if thou understandest aught of this, though it be a long task for me to teach thee. For it is nigh unto the time when I had purposed to take other work in hand, and as yet I have not done with this; methinks also thou art a little tired and deemest these long arguments too wearisome, as though thou wouldst now be glad of some singing. I know thou desirest it, but thou must bear up for a time; I cannot now put it so soon into song, nor have I leisure for it, for it is a very long story.’
‘Do as thou wilt,’ I answered.
Then she began to speak in a very remote and roundabout fashion, as though she were not alluding to the subject, and yet she led up to it, saying, ‘All creatures, both the seen and the unseen, the motionless and the moving, receive from the unmoving, unchanging, and undivided God their due order, form, and proportions; and, inasmuch as it was so created, He knoweth why He made all that He hath made. Nothing of what He hath made is without use to Him. God ever dwelleth in the high city of His unity and mercy; thence He dealeth out ordinances many and various to all His creatures, and thence He ruleth them all. But regarding that which we call God’s providence and foresight, this exists as long as it abides with Him in His mind, ere it be brought to pass, and while it is but thought. But as soon as it is accomplished we call it Fate. From this every man may know that Providence and Fate are not only two names, but two things. Providence is the Divine Reason, and lieth fast in the high Creator that knoweth how everything shall befall ere it come to pass. But that which we call Fate is God’s working day by day, both that which we see, and that which is not seen of us. The divine forethought holdeth up all creatures, so that they may not fall asunder from their due order. Fate therefore allots to all things their forms, places, seasons, and proportions; but Fate comes from the mind and the forethought of Almighty God, who worketh whatsoever He will according to His unspeakable Providence.
‘Even as every craftsman thinks over and marks out his work in his mind ere he take it in hand, and then carries it out altogether, so this changing lot that we call Fate proceeds according to His forethought and purpose, even as He resolveth that it shall be done. Though it seem to us manifold, partly good, partly evil, yet it is to Him good, pure and simple, for He bringeth it all to a goodly conclusion, and doeth for good all that He doeth. When it is done, we call it Fate; before, it was God’s forethought and His purpose. Now Fate He setteth in motion by means of the good angels or the souls of men, or the lives of other creatures, or through the heavenly bodies, or the divers wiles of evil spirits; at one time through one of them, at another through all. But it is manifest that the divine purpose is single and unchanging, and rules everything in orderly wise, and gives unto all things their shape. Now some things in this world are subject to Fate, others are in no way subject; but Fate, and the things that are subject to her, are subject to divine Providence. Concerning this I can tell thee a parable, so that thou mayest the more clearly understand who are the men that are subject to Fate, and who are they that are not.
P. 151. ‘All this moving and changing creation turns round the unmoving, the unchanging, and the undivided God, and He ruleth all creatures as He purposed in the beginning, and still doth purpose. The wheels of a waggon turn upon its axle, while the axle stands still and yet bears all the waggon and guides all its movement. The wheel turns round, and the nave next the wheel moves more firmly and securely than the felly does. Now the axle is as it were the highest good we call God, and the best men move next unto God just as the nave moves nearest the axle. The middle sort of men are like the spokes, for one end of each spoke is fast in the nave, and the other is in the felly; and so it is with the midmost man, at one time thinking in his mind upon this earthly life, at another upon the divine life, as if he looked with one eye heavenwards, and with the other earthwards. Just as the spokes have one end sticking in the felly and the other in the nave, while in the middle the spoke is equally near either, so the midmost men are at the middle of the spokes, the better sort nearer the nave, and the baser nearer the fellies, joined, however, to the nave, which in turn is fixed to the axle. Now, the fellies are fastened to the spokes, though they roll onthe ground; and so the least worthy men are in touch with the middle sort, and these with the best, and the best with God. Though the worst men turn their love towards this world they cannot abide therein, nor come to anything, if they be in no degree fastened to God, no more than the wheel’s fellies can be in motion unless they be fastened to the spokes, and the spokes to the axle. The fellies are farthest from the axle, and therefore move least steadily. The nave moves nearest the axle, therefore is its motion the most sure. So do the best men; the nearer to God they set their love, and the more they despise earthly things, the less care is theirs, and the less they reck how Fate veers, or what she brings. So also the nave is ever sound, let the fellies strike on what they may; and nevertheless the nave is in some degree severed from the axle. Thereby thou mayest perceive that the waggon keeps far longer whole the less its distance from the axle, and so also those men are most free from care, both in this present life of tribulation and in the life to come, that are firmly fixed in God. But the farther they are sundered from God, the more sorely are they confounded and afflicted both in mind and in body.
‘That which we call Fate is, compared to divine Providence, what reflexion and reason are when measured against perfect knowledge, and as things temporal compared with things eternal, or, again, like the wheel compared with the axle, the axle governing all the waggon. So with the forethought of God; it governeth the firmament and the stars, and maketh the earth to be at rest, and measureth out the four elements, to wit, water, earth, fire, and air. These it keepeth in peace; unto these it giveth form, and again taketh it away, changing them to other forms and renewing them again. It engendereth everything that groweth, and hideth and preserveth it when old and withered, and again bringeth it out and reneweth it when it pleaseth. Some sages, however, say that Fate rules both weal and woe of every man. But I say, as do all Christian men, that it is the divine purpose that rules them, not Fate; and I know that it judges all things very rightly, though unthinking men may not think so. They hold that all are good that work their will, and no wonder, for they are blinded by the darkness of their sins. But divine Providence understandeth it all most rightly, though we in our folly think it goes awry, being unable to discern what is right. He, however, judgeth all aright, though at times it seems to us otherwise.
‘All men, both good and bad, are seeking after the Highest Good; but the wicked cannot come to the roof-tree of all things good because they seek not rightly thereafter. Perhaps thou wilt now say to me, “What wrong can be greater than to allow it to happen, as it does at times happen, that unmixed evil befalls the good in this world, and good unalloyed comes to the wicked, while at other times the lots of both good and wicked are intermingled?” But I ask thee whether thou thinkest anybody is so shrewd as to be able to discern the nature of every man, so that he be neither better nor worse than the other judges him to be? Why, I know this cannot be, for often a habit is wrongly judged, of which some men say it is worthy of reward, and others that it is worthy of punishment. Though one may perceive what another does, he cannot know what he thinks; though he may be able to learn part of his will, he cannot learn it all. I can readily show thee an example whereby thou mayest understand it more clearly, though undiscerning men cannot understand it. Why does a good physician give to one healthy man a mild and sweet drink, and to another a bitter and strong one; and again, in the case of sick men, to one mild drink and to another strong, to one sweet and to another bitter? I know everybody that is ignorant of the craft will marvel why they do so; but the physicians do not marvel at all, for they know that which the others know not, namely, how to discern and know apart their diseases, and likewise the means wherewith to combat them. Now what is the soul’s health but righteousness? What is its disease but wicked ways? Who, therefore, is a better physician of the soul than He that created it, even God? He showeth honour to the good, and punisheth the wicked. He knoweth what reward each deserves, and it is no wonder, for He beholdeth it all from the roof on high, and thence He mixeth and measureth out to each according to his deeds.
‘This, then, we call Fate, when the discerning God that knoweth every man’s need worketh or suffereth aught that we do not look for. I can in a few words P. 155. give thee yet another example whereby man’s reason may apprehend the divine nature, that is to say, the case where we judge a man in one way and God judges him in another. Sometimes we think he is better, but God knows he is not so. When aught of good or evil befalls a man in greater measure than thou thinkest he deserves, it is not God’s unrighteousness but thy dullness not to be able to discern it aright. Yet it oft comes to pass that men judge a man in the same way as God judgeth him. Often it happens that many men are so infirm, both in mind and body, that they are not able to do any good, nor desire, if they can help it, to do evil, and are also so restive that they can bear no suffering with patience. Therefore it often happens that God in His loving-kindness will not lay too grievous an affliction upon them, lest they forsake their harmlessness and grow worse if checked and afflicted. Some are fully possessed of every virtue, right holy and just men, and such God thinketh it wrong to afflict; yea, even death, which all men have by their nature to suffer, He maketh more gentle to them than to other men. The wise man of old said that the divine power sheltered its loved ones under the spread of its wings, and shielded them as carefully as a man shields the apple of his eye. Many strive to please God, desiring of their own will to suffer many hardships, for they seek to have greater honour and repute and credit with God than those whose lives are softer. Power in this world also often comes to very good men, to the end that the might of the wicked be destroyed. To some men God giveth both good and evil mingled, for they deserve of either; some He bereaveth very soon of their wealth in which they are most happy, lest for over-long happiness they exalt them beyond measure and pass thence to pride. Others He suffereth to be oppressed with sore affliction, that they may learn the virtue of patience during their long hardship. Some men dread tribulation more than they need, though they are able to bear it with ease; others buy honourable reputation in this present life by their own death, thinking they have nothing to buy fame with save their own lives. Some men have been in days gone by unconquerable, so that none could subdue them with any torture; and these were an example to their successors not to be mastered by it. In them it was manifest that by reason of their good deeds they had the virtue of being unconquerable. But the wicked for their evil deeds were punished and subdued, that their chastisement, while deterring others from doing the like, might lead to repentance those whom it was afflicting at the time. This is a very clear token to the wise man that he is not to love worldly happiness beyond measure, for often it comes to the worst of men. But what are we to say of the present well-being that often comes to the good man? What else is it but a token of the weal to come, and a beginning of the reward that God hath in store for him in return for his good will? I think also that God gives happiness to many wicked men because He knoweth their nature and their will to be such that they are none the better but only the worse for any affliction. But the good physician, even God, healeth their minds with riches, wishing them to understand whence the well-being comes to them, and to court Him lest He part them and their wealth, and to turn their ways unto good and forswear their sins and the wickedness they once did in their adversity. Some, however, are the worse if they have wealth, for they are overweening for it and revel in it out of measure.
‘Many men also are given worldly wealth that they may reward the good for their goodness and the wicked for their wickedness. For the good and the wicked are ever at odds, and sometimes also the wicked fall out among themselves. Yea, even a single wicked man is always in conflict with himself, for he knows that he does wrong, and knows what reward to look for, but will not cease from it nor even allow himself to repent thereof, and then, being in constant dread, cannot be at peace with himself. Often also it happens that the wicked man gives up his wrong-doing out of wrath at another man’s misdeed, wishing to rebuke the other by shunning his ways. Then he strives with all his might, endeavouring to be unlike the other, for ’tis the wont of the divine power to work good out of evil. But no man is allowed to know all that God hath purposed, nor yet to explain what He hath made. It suffices him therein to know that the Creator and Ruler governeth all things, and rightly fashioned all that He hath created, and hath wrought no evil nor yet worketh it, but driveth away every wrong from His kingdom. But if thou wilt inquire into the high power of Almighty God, then thou wilt perceive evil in nothing, though now there seems to thee much evil here on this earth. Therefore it is right that the good should have an excellent reward of their goodness, and that the wicked should have punishment for their wrong-doing. That which is right is not evil, but good. But I perceive that I have wearied thee with this long discourse, for now thou wouldst fain hear a song. Well then, hear one, for ’tis the medicine and the drink thou hast long been craving, so that thou mayest the more readily receive my teaching.’
After Philosophy had uttered this discourse she began once more to sing, and her words were on this wise:
‘If thou desire with clear mind to apprehend the high Power, behold the luminaries of the high heavens. These bodies keep up the ancient peace wherein they were created, so that the fiery sun toucheth not that part of the heavens where the moon journeyeth, nor doth the moon touch the part where the sun runneth, as long as he is there. The star we call Ursa never cometh into the west, though all other stars journey with the heavenly sphere after the sun round the earth. This is no marvel, for it is very nigh unto the upper end of the axle. But the star we call the evening star, when seen in the west, betokeneth eventide. Then it passeth with the sun into the earth’s shadow until it overtaketh the sun from behind and riseth in front of him. Then we call it the morning star, forit riseth in the east, and bodeth the sun’s coming. The sun and the moon have parted between them day and night in even degree, and reign most peacefully through the divine foresight, and will serve Almighty God unweariedly till the day of doom. God suffereth them not to be both in one quarter of the heavens, lest they destroy other creatures. But the peace-loving God ordereth all things and atoneth them that are in conflict. Now wet shunneth dry; now He mingleth fire with cold; the light and bright fire flieth upwards, and the heavy earth abideth beneath. By the King’s command earth bringeth forth every fruit and growing thing year by year, and the hot summer drieth and getteth ready seeds and fruits, and fruitful autumn bringeth them to ripeness. Hail and snows and oft-falling rain wet the earth in winter, and the earth receiveth the seed and maketh it to grow in the spring. But the Lord of all things feedeth in the earth all growing crops and bringeth them all forth, hiding them when it pleaseth Him, making them to appear when He will, and taking them away when He will. While creatures are ministering unto Him, the Highest Creator sitteth upon His high seat, whence He wieldeth all things with His guiding reins. ’Tis no marvel, for He is King, and Master, and Wellspring, and Beginning, and Law, and Wisdom, and Righteous Judge. He sendeth all creatures on His errands, and biddeth them all return. If the one unchanging King had not stablished all things created, they would all have fallen and burst asunder and come to naught. Nevertheless they have one thing in common—their single love in the serving of such a Master; and they rejoice that He ruleth them. No wonder is it, for they could not be at all, did they not serve their Maker.’
[Pp. 146-147. ]Alfred has availed himself of the commentaries for most of his astronomical notes here. The Wain Shafts are for the Latin Arcturi sidera.
[P. 149. ]For it is nigh unto the time, &c. Alfred may here be alluding to himself and his literary plans.
[P. 151. ]This long and tedious simile of the wheel was suggested by a commentary.
[P. 155. ]The wise man of old said, &c. This is apparently a wild shot by Alfred at the meaning of the Greek quotation, ἀνδρὸς δὴ ἱερον̂ δέμας αἰθέρες οἰκοδόμησαν. A quotation from Lucan is omitted, and further on a line from the Iliad.