Front Page Titles (by Subject) XLI - The Consolation of Philosophy
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XLI - 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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P. 165. WHEN Philosophy had spoken this discourse she fell to singing, and these were her words:
‘Though Homer the good poet, that was best among Greeks, and Firgilius’ (Virgil’s) teacher—Firgilius was the best among the Laedenwara (Latins)—though Homer in his lays greatly praised the sun’s nature, and his powers, and his brightness, yet the sun cannot shine upon all things, nor even, in those things that it can shine upon, is he able to shine upon them all alike, nor to shine through them within. But it is not thus with Almighty God, that is the Creator of all things. He seeth and gazeth into all His creatures equally, and He may without untruth be called the True Sun.’
When Philosophy had sung this song, she was silent a little while.
Then said I, ‘A doubt has sorely perplexed me.’
P. What is it?
M. It is this. Thou sayest God gives to each man free choice to do as he pleases, whether good or evil, and thou sayest also that God knoweth everything before it comes to pass; further thou sayest nothing happens unless God will or suffer it, and lastly thou sayest that all must turn out as He hath appointed. Now I marvel why He suffereth wicked men to have freedom to do good or evil at will, when He knoweth beforehand that they will do evil.
P. 166.P.I can answer this point very easily. How would it please thee if there were an exceeding mighty king that had no free man in all his realm, but all were slaves?
M.I should think it unjust, and not at all seemly, if he were served by slaves.
P.Yet it were still more unmeet if God had in all His kingdom no free creature under His rule. For He created two reasonable creatures free, angels and men; to them He gave the great gift of freedom, that they might do good or evil, whichever they pleased.P. 167.To every man until his end He hath given an abiding grace, and with the grace an abiding law; that is, freedom to do what he will, and the law whereby He rewardeth each according to his deeds, both in this world and in the world to come, with good or evil, according as the man acts. Men may by virtue of this freedom compass whatsoever they please, but Death they cannot escape. Still, they can keep him back with good deeds, so that he comes later; yea, at times they put him off even until old age. If it be not in a man’s power to do a good deed, let him have the good intent, which is equally good.
M.Thou hast much comforted me in the doubt and perplexity I was in concerning this freedom. But I am still in much greater doubt, and sad wellnigh to despair.
P.What is this great sorrow?
M.It is about God’s foreordaining, for we hear it said at times that all must come to pass as God in the beginning purposed, so that no man can change it. Now, I think He doeth amiss when He showeth favour unto the good, and also when He chastiseth the wicked, if it be true that they are so made as to be unable to act otherwise. Vain is our labour when we pray, and fast, or give alms, if we have no more credit for it than those that in all things follow their own will, and run after their carnal pleasure.
Then said she, ‘This is the old complaint thou hast long been sounding, and many other men before thee. One of them was Marcus, whose second namewas Tullius, and who was called Cicero by a third name—he was a Roman chieftain, and a sage. He was greatly troubled with this very question, but could not bring it to any issue. The reason why neither he nor any man of that time could bring the question to any issue was because their minds were busied with desires of this world. But I tell thee that if what men say be true, then it was a vain commandment that God gave in the holy books that man should forswear evil and do good; and also where He said: “The more a man toileth, the greater the reward he shall receive.” I marvel that thou hast forgotten all we said before.’
‘What,’ I said, ‘have I forgotten, that we said before?’
Then said she, ‘We said that the divine purpose made all good and nothing evil, neither seeking to do evil nor ever doing it. Yea, we accounted that good which seemed evil to the common folk, namely, that a man is punished and chastised for his sin. Have we not also said in this very book that God purposed to bestow freedom upon men, and did so; and, if they used this freedom aright, that He would greatly honour them with life everlasting, and, if they misused their freedom, that He would punish them with death? He purposed that if they were guilly of any sin in this state of freedom they should atone for it in the free state with repentance; and that, if any one among them were so hard of heart as to repent not, he should suffer due punishment. All creatures He had designedto be without freedom, save angels and men. Inasmuch as other creatures are not free, they keep on with their ministry until the day of judgement; but men and angels, being free, dispense with service. What is there that men can say the divine purpose has resolved upon and not carried out? Or how can they say in excuse that they cannot do good, when it is written that God rewards each man according to his works? Why should any man therefore be idle, and not work?’
M.Thou hast quite freed me from my mind’s doubt as to the question I put to thee. But I would further ask thee of another matter that makes me doubt.
P.What is it?
M.I know sufficiently well that God knoweth all beforehand, both good and evil, ere it come to pass; but I am not sure whether all that he knoweth and hath resolved shall all take place irrevocably.
P.It need not all take place irrevocably, but part of it must so happen, namely, that which is necessary for us and willed by Him. Some things, however, are of such a nature that there is no need for them, yet there is no harm in their happening, nor again in their not happening. Bethink thyself in thine own case whether thou hast ever resolved upon any thing so firmly that it seems to thee never capable of change, and that thou canst not do without it; or again, thou mayest be so uncertain in any course that it matters not to thee whether it take place or not. Many athing God knows of before it happens, and which He knows will harm His creatures if it happen. He knows it, not because He wishes it to happen, but because He wishes to prevent it from happening, even as a good steersman, by the raging of the sea, is aware of a great wind ere it come. He bids furl the sail and sometimes lower the mast, and let go the cables, and by making fast before the foul wind he takes measures against the storm.
Then said I, ‘Greatly hast thou helped me in the matter, and I marvel why so many wise men have been at such pains therein and found so little certainty.’
‘Why dost thou marvel thereat,’ she said, ‘when it is so easy to understand? Knowest thou not that many things are not perceived as they really are, but in accordance with the measure of the understanding that inquires into them? Now Wisdom is of such kind that no man of this world can conceive her as she really is; but each strives according to the measure of his wit to understand her, if he may. But Wisdom is able to perceive us exactly as we are, though we may not be able to perceive her exactly as she is; for Wisdom is God. He beholdeth all our works, both good and evil, before they come to pass, before even they arise in thought; but He doth not any the more constrain us so that we are obliged to do good, nor hinder us from doing wrong, for He hath given us freedom. I can show thee an example, so that thou mayest the more easily understand the argument. Lo now, thou knowest that sight and hearing and feeling perceive a man’s body and yet do not apprehend it alike. The ears perceive what they hear, and yet do not altogether apprehend the body as it really is; touch may grope and feel that it is a body, but it cannot feel if it be black or white, fair or foul. But the sight, in the first moment that the eyes look upon it, takes in the whole form of the body. But I would show thee yet another argument, that thou mayest know what thou didst marvel at.’
‘What is it?’ I said.
Then said she, ‘It is this, that a man perceives separately what he discerns in another man; he perceives him separately with the eyes, separately with the ears, and separately by his imagination, reason, and intuition. There are many living creatures without motion, such as shell-fish, that nevertheless have a certain measure of reason, for they could not live if they had no jot of it. Some are able to see, some to hear, some to feel, others to smell. But moving creatures are more like unto men, for they all have not only that which creatures without movement have, but more to boot; they are like men in loving what they love, hating what they hate, shunning what they abhor, and seeking what they love. Now men have all that we have said, and in addition the mighty gift of reason, while angels have unerring intelligence (intuition). Creatures are thus made to the end that those without movement may not exalt themselves above those that move, nor strive with them; and thatmoving creatures may not rise above men, nor men above angels, nor angels above God. It is pitiful that the greater part of men seek not after that which has been given them, to wit, reason, nor seek that which is above them, possessed by angels and wise men, that is to say, intuition. But most men do like beasts in that they desire worldly delights like beasts. If, however, we had any portion of the unhesitating understanding that angels have, we might perceive that this understanding is far better than our reason. Though we think upon many things, we have but little perfect understanding free from doubt; but the angels have no doubt concerning any of the things they know, for their perfect knowledge is as much better than our reason, as our reason is better than the understanding of beasts or any part of the wit vouchsafed them, whether to those that move or to those that move not. But let us raise our minds as high as we can towards the crowning point of the highest intelligence, that thou mayest most speedily and easily come to thine own home whence thou didst once issue. There thy mind and thy reason may see clearly everything that is now in doubt, both as touching the divine foresight whereof we have often spoken, and concerning our freedom, and all things besides.’
After Philosophy had spoken this discourse, she began to sing, and these were her words:
‘Lo! thou mayest perceive that there are many creatures moving over the ground most diverse in form and movement. Some lie with the whole body on the ground and move by creeping, so that neither feet nor wings help them; others are two-footed, others four-footed, others again flying, yet all are bent down towards the ground and seek there whatsoever they desire or need. But man alone walketh upright; and this is a token that he shall turn his thoughts rather upwards than downwards, lest the mind be lower than the body.’
[P. 165. ]Though Homer, &c. Alfred means that Homer was Virgil’s master and model in poetry. In metr. xxx, however, he is called Virgil’s ‘friend.’
[P. 166. ]I can answer this point very easily, &c. Henceforward to the end of the book Alfred entirely recasts his original. Boethius’ language becomes abstract and difficult, and could hardly have been rendered even freely into the English of Alfred’s day.
[P. 167. ]Bk. v. metr. 3 is omitted, and also metr 4.