Front Page Titles (by Subject) XL - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XL - 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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THEN Philosophy ceased from her singing and said unto me: ‘Dost thou now perceive whither this discourse is tending?’
‘Tell me,’ I answered, ‘whither.’
P. I will say this to thee, that every fate is good, whether men think it good or bad.
M. Methinks it may easily be so, though we may at times deem otherwise.
P. There is no doubt that every fate is good that is just and profitable; for every lot, be it pleasant or unpleasant, cometh to the good man either to constrain him to do better than he did before, or to reward him for having done well before. Again, every lot that befalls the wicked man comes to him also for these two reasons, whether his lot be a harsh or a pleasant one. If a hard lot befalls the wicked, then it comes as a reward of his wickedness, or as a rebuke and warning to him not to do it again.
At this I fell to wondering, and said: ‘This is a most truly just reasoning of thine.’
P. It is as thou sayest; but I desire, if it please thee, that we should turn for a while to the opinion of the common folk, lest they say we speak above man’s measure.
M. Say as thou wilt.
P. Dost thou think that what is useful is good?
M. I think it is.
P. Every lot is useful that instructs or punishes.
M. That is true.
P. An adverse lot is good for those that are fighting against sins and striving to be good.
M. I cannot gainsay this.
P. What thinkest thou of the good fortune that often befalls good men in this world, like a foretoken of everlasting good? Can men say it is an evil fate?
At this I smiled and said, ‘No man says so, but says it is very good, as indeed it is.’
P. What thinkest thou concerning the unlooked-for fate that often threatens to chastise the wicked? Do people think it is good fortune?
M. No, they do not deem it good, but miserable.
P. Let us refrain from thinking as the common folk think; for if we think as they do we shall forsake all reason and all righteousness.
M. Why do we forsake it any the more?
P. Because ordinary men say that every harsh and unlovely lot is evil; but we must not believe this, for every lot is good, as we said before, be it harsh, or be it pleasing.
At this I was afraid, and said: ‘What thou sayest is true; yet I know not who would dare to say so to foolish men, for no fool could believe it.’
Hereupon Philosophy made earnest protest, and said: ‘No wise man therefore should take thought nor trouble himself over-much as to how his lot will turn out, or whether a hard or a gentle fate is to befall him, any more than a stout man-at-arms should trouble himself how often he is to fight. His praise is none the less, nay, is doubtless the greater; so also is the wise man’s meed the greater, the fiercer and crueller the fate that befalls him. No wise man therefore should desire a life of ease, if he cares aught for virtue or any honour in this world here, or for life everlasting after this world. But every wise man must ever resist both harsh and mild fortune, lest for the one he wax over-confident and for the other come to despair. He must rather follow the middle way between a hard fate and a mild one, so that he crave not a gladder lot and greater ease than is meet; nor again a harsh one, for of neither is he able to endure an excessive measure. But which of the two they shall choose lies in their own power. If therefore they desire to take the middle path, they must allot themselves a pleasant and care-free fortune, and then God will deal out to them a lot of hardship both in this world and in the world to come, according to what they are able to bear.
P. 162. ‘Ah! ye wise men; walk, all of you, in the way pointed out by the famous examples of the noble ones and the ambitious men that lived before you! Why will ye not inquire after the wise men and those thatcoveted honours, what manner of men they were that came before you? And why will ye not, when ye have found out their manner of life, copy them with might and main? For they strove after honour in this world and set themselves to win good report with good works, and wrought a goodly ensample for those that came after. Therefore by virtue of their good deeds they now are dwelling above the ‘stars in bliss everlasting.’
Here endeth the fourth book of Boethius, and beginneth the fifth.
After Philosophy had held this discourse, I said: ‘Very true is thy teaching; but I would remind thee of the manifold doctrine thou didst promise me concerning the foreordained purpose of God. But I would first know from thee whether there is anything in what we often hear men say about certain things, that they happen by chance.’
P. I would rather hasten on to make good my earlier promise to thee, and point out to thee the very shortest way I can find to thy native land. But it is indeed far from our way, from the way we have chosen to follow. It were therefore more profitable to turn to that concerning which thou hast asked me, and to get to understand it. But I dread to lead thee hither and thither into bypaths away from thy road, so that thou mayest not be able to find the way again.
M. Thou needest not dread it; nevertheless, I P. 164 shall be right glad if thou wilt lead me whither I ask thee.
P. I will teach thee by parables, as I have all along done; and yet I will say this, that there is nothing in that which men say, to wit, that a thing happens by chance. For each thing comes from some thing, and so does not happen by chance; whereas if it came from nothing it would happen by chance.
M. But whence came the name in the first place?
P. My favourite Aristotle treated of it in the book called Fisica (Physica).
M. How did he treat of it?
P. Men used formerly to say, when anything unlooked for took place, that it happened by chance; just as if a man were to dig in the earth, and find a gold-hoard there, and then said it happened by chance. Why, I know that if the delver had not dug the earth, and no man had hid the gold beforehand, he would not have found it. Therefore it was not found by chance; but the divine predestination instructed him that it wished to hide the gold, and afterwards him that it wished to find it.
Then said I, ‘I perceive that it is as thou sayest; but I would ask thee whether we have any freedom or any power as to what we shall do, or what we shall not do; or does the divine foreordaining or Fate compel us to will?’
P. We have great power, and there is no reasoning creature but has freedom. He that has reason can judge and discern what he is to desire and what he must shun. Every man has freedom, inasmuch as he knows what he wishes, and what he does not wish; yet not all reasoning creatures have like freedom. Angels have power to judge aright and a good purpose, and all that they desire they get with great ease, for they desire nothing wrong. Nothing has freedom and reason save angels and men. Men have always the more freedom the nearer to divine things they set their thoughts, and have the less freedom the closer they apply their minds’ desire to worldly honours. They have no freedom when of their own will they bow themselves to vices; for as soon as they turn their minds from God they become blinded with folly. Howbeit, there is one God Almighty in His high city, who seeth every man’s thoughts, and discerneth his words and his deeds, and rewardeth each according to his deserving.
[P. 162. ]Ah! ye wise men, &c. The Latin carmen contains an account of the labours of Hercules, and numerous other mythological allusions, none of which are noticed by Alfred, who merely expands and reiterates the central idea
[P. 164 ]Bk. v. metr. 1 is omitted