Boethius - Consolation of Philosophy V



HERE she made an end and was for turning the course of her speaking to the handling and explaining of other subjects. Then said I: 'Your encouragement is right and most worthy in truth of your name and weight. But I am learning by experience what you just now said of Providence; that the question is bound up in others. I would ask you whether you think that Chance exists at all, and what you think it is?'

Then she answered: ' I am eager to fulfil my promised debt, and to shew you the path by which you may seek your home. But these things, though all-expedient for knowledge, are none the less rather apart from our path, and we must be careful lest you become wearied by our turnings aside, and so be not strong enough to complete the straight journey.'

'Have no fear at all thereof,' said I.' It will be restful to know these things in which I have so great a pleasure; and when every view of your reasoning has stood firm with unshaken credit, so let there be no doubt of what shall follow.'

'I will do your pleasure,' she made answer, and thus she began to speak: [141]

'If chance is defined as an outcome of random influence, produced by no sequence of causes, I am sure that there is no such thing as chance, and I consider that it is but an empty word, beyond shewing the meaning of the matter which we have in hand. For what place can be left for anything happening at random, so long as God controls everything in order? It is a true saying that nothing can come out of nothing. None of the old philosophers has denied that, though they did not apply it to the effective principle, but to the matter operated upon -- that is to say, to nature; and this was the foundation upon which they built all their reasoning. If anything arises from no causes, it will appear to have risen out of nothing. But if this is impossible, then chance also cannot be anything of that sort, which is stated in the definition which we mentioned.'

'Then is there nothing which can be justly called chance, nor anything "by chance"? ' I asked.' Or is there anything which common people know not, but which those words do suit? '

'My philosopher, Aristotle, defined it in his Physics1 shortly and well-nigh truly.'

'How? ' I asked.

'Whenever anything is done with one intention, but something else, other than was intended, results from certain causes, that is called chance: as, for instance, if a man digs

141:1 -- Aristotle,
Physics, ii. 3. [142] the ground for the sake of cultivating it, and finds a heap of buried gold. Such a thing is believed to have happened by chance, but it does not come from nothing, for it has its own causes, whose unforeseen and unexpected coincidence seem to have brought about a chance. For if the cultivator did not dig the ground, if the owner had not buried his money, the gold would not have been found. These are the causes of the chance piece of good fortune, which comes about from the causes which meet it, and move along with it, not from the intention of the actor. For neither the burier nor the tiller intended that the gold should be found; but, as I said, it was a coincidence, and it happened that the one dug up what the other buried. We may therefore define chance as an unexpected result from the coincidence of certain causes in matters where there was another purpose. The order of the universe, advancing with its inevitable sequences, brings about this coincidence of causes. This order itself emanates from its source, which is Providence, and disposes all things in their proper time and place.

'In the land where the Parthian, as he turns in flight, shoots his arrows into the pursuer's breast, from the rocks of the crag of Achëmenia, the Tigris and Euphrates flow from out one source, but quickly with divided streams are separate. If they should come together and again be joined in a single course, all, that [143] the two streams bear along, would flow in one together. Boats would meet boats, and trees meet trees torn up by the currents, and the mingled waters would together entwine their streams by chance; but their sloping beds restrain these chances vague, and the downward order of the falling torrent guides their courses. Thus does chance, which seems to rush onward without rein, bear the bit, and take its way by rule.'

'I have listened to you,' I said,' and agree that it is as you say. But in this close sequence of causes, is there any freedom for our judgment or does this chain of fate bind the very feelings of our minds too?'

'There is free will,' she answered.'Nor could there be any reasoning nature without freedom of judgment. For any being that can use its reason by nature, has a power of judgment by which it can without further aid decide each point, and so distinguish between objects to be desired and objects to be shunned. Each therefore seeks what it deems desirable, and flies from what it considers should be shunned. Wherefore all who have reason have also freedom of desiring and refusing in themselves. But I do not lay down that this is equal in all beings. Heavenly and divine beings have with them a judgment of great insight, an imperturbable will, and a power which can effect their desires. But human [144] spirits must be more free when they keep themselves safe in the contemplation of the mind of God; but less free when they sink into bodies, and less still when they are bound by their earthly members. The last stage is mere slavery, when the spirit is given over to vices and has fallen away from the possession of its reason. For when the mind turns its eyes from the light of truth on high to lower darkness, soon they are dimmed by the clouds of ignorance, and become turbid through ruinous passions; by yielding to these passions and consenting to them, men increase the slavery which they have brought upon themselves, and their true liberty is lost in captivity. But God, looking upon all out of the infinite, perceives the views of Providence, and disposes each as its destiny has already fated for it according to its merits: "He looketh over all and heareth all."1

'Homer with his honeyed lips sang of the bright sun's clear light; yet the sun cannot burst with his feeble rays the bowels of the earth or the depths of the sea. Not so with the Creator of this great sphere. No masses of earth can block His vision as He looks over all. Night's cloudy darkness cannot resist Him. With one glance of His intelligence He sees all that has been, that is, and that is to come.

144:1 -- A phrase from Homer (
Iliad, iii. 277, and Odyssey, xi. 1O9), where it is said of the sun. [145] He alone can see all things, so truly He may be called the Sun.' 1

Then said I,' Again am I plunged in yet more doubt and difficulty.'

'What are they,' she asked,' though I have already my idea of what your trouble consists?

'There seems to me,' I said,' to be such incompatibility between the existence of God's universal foreknowledge and that of any freedom of judgment. For if God foresees all things and cannot in anything be mistaken, that, which His Providence sees will happen, must result. Wherefore if it knows beforehand not only men's deeds but even their designs and wishes, there will be no freedom of judgment For there can neither be any deed done, nor wish formed, except such as the infallible Providence of God has foreseen. For if matters could ever so be turned that they resulted otherwise than was foreseen of Providence, this foreknowledge would cease to be sure. But, rather than knowledge, it is opinion which is uncertain; and that, I deem, is not applicable to God. And, further, I cannot approve of an argument by which some men think that they can cut this knot; for they say that a result does not come

145:1 -- This sentence, besides referring to the application of Homer's words used above, contains also a play on words in the Latin, which can only be clumsily reproduced in English by some such words as ' The sole power which can see all is justly to be called the solar.' [146] to pass for the reason that Providence has foreseen it, but the opposite rather, namely, that because it is about to come to pass, therefore it cannot be hidden from God's Providence. In that way it seems to me that the argument must resolve itself into an argument on the other side. For in that case it is not necessary that that should happen which is foreseen, but that that which is about to happen should be foreseen; as though, indeed, our doubt was whether God's foreknowledge is the certain cause of future events, or the certainty of future events is the cause of Providence. But let our aim be to prove that, whatever be the shape which this series of causes takes, the fulfilment of God's foreknowledge is necessary, even if this knowledge may not seem to induce the necessity for the occurrence of future events. For instance, if a man sits down, it must be that the opinion, which conjectures that he is sitting, is true; but conversely, if the opinion concerning the man is true because he is sitting, he must be sitting down. There is therefore necessity in both cases: the man must be sitting, and the opinion must be true. But he does not sit because the opinion is true, but rather the opinion is true because his sitting down has preceded it. Thus, though the cause of the truth of the opinion proceeds from the other fact, yet there is a common necessity on both parts. In like manner we must reason of Providence and future events. For even though they are foreseen because they are about [147] to happen, yet they do not happen because they are foreseen. None the less it is necessary that either what is about to happen should be foreseen of God, or that what has been foreseen should happen; and this alone is enough to destroy all free will.

'Yet how absurd it is that we should say that the result of temporal affairs is the cause of eternal foreknowledge! And to think that God foresees future events because they are about to happen, is nothing else than to hold events of past time to be the cause of that highest Providence. Besides, just as, when I know a present fact, that fact must be so; so also when I know of something that will happen, that must come to pass. Thus it follows that the fulfilment of a foreknown event must be inevitable.

'Lastly, if any one believes that any matter is otherwise than the fact is, he not only has not knowledge, but his opinion is false also, and that is very far from the truth of knowledge Wherefore, if any future event is such that its fulfilment is not sure or necessary, how can it possibly be known beforehand that it will occur? For just as absolute knowledge has no taint of falsity, so also that which is conceived by knowledge cannot be otherwise than as it is conceived. That is the reason why knowledge cannot lie, because each matter must be just as knowledge knows that it is. What then How can God know beforehand these uncertain future events? For if He thinks inevitable the [148] fulfilment of such things as may possibly not result, He is wrong; and that we may not believe, nor even utter, rightly. But if He perceives that they will result as they are in such a manner that He only knows that they may or may not occur, equally, how is this foreknowledge, this which knows nothing for sure, nothing absolutely? How is such a fore-knowledge different from the absurd prophecy which Horace puts in the mouth of Tiresias: " Whatever I shall say, will either come to pass, or it will not "?1 How, too, would God's Providence be better than man's opinion, if, as men do, He only sees to be uncertain such things as have an uncertain result? But if there can be no uncertainty with God, the most sure source of all things, then the fulfilment of all that He has surely foreknown, is certain. Thus we are led to see that there is no freedom for the intentions or actions of men; for the mind of God, foreseeing all things without error or deception, binds all together and controls their results. And when we have once allowed this, it is plain how complete is the fall of all human actions in consequence. In vain are rewards or punishments set before good or bad, for there is no free or voluntary action of the mind to deserve them and what we just now determined was most fair, will prove to be most unfair of all, namely to punish the dishonest or reward the honest, since their own will does not put them in the way of

148:1 -- Horace,
Staires, II. v. 59. [149] honesty or dishonesty, but the unfailing necessity of development constrains them. Wherefore neither virtues nor vices are anything, but there is rather an indiscriminate confusion of all deserts. And nothing could be more vicious than this; since the whole order of all comes from Providence, and nothing is left to human intention, it follows that our crimes, as well as our good deeds, must all be held due to the author of all good. Hence it is unreasonable to hope for or pray against aught. For what could any man hope for or pray against, if an undeviating chain links together all that we can desire? Thus will the only understanding between God and man, the right of prayer, be taken away. We suppose that at the price of our deservedly humbling ourselves before Him we may win a right to the inestimable reward of His divine grace: this is the only manner in which men can seem to deal with God, so to speak, and by virtue of prayer to join ourselves to that inaccessible light, before it is granted to us; but if we allow the inevitability of the future, and believe that we have no power, what means shall we have to join ourselves to the Lord of all, or how can we cling to Him? Wherefore, as you sang but a little while ago,1 the human race must be cut off from its source and ever fall away.

'What cause of discord is it breaks the

149:1 --
Supra, Book IV. Met. vi. p. 135. [150] bonds of agreement here? What heavenly power has set such strife between two truths? Thus, though apart each brings no doubt, yet can they not be linked together. Comes there no discord between these truths? Stand they for ever sure by one another? Yes,' tis the mind, o'erwhelmed by the body's blindness, which cannot see by the light of that dimmed brightness the finest threads that bind the truth. But wherefore burns the spirit with so strong desire to learn the hidden signs of truth? Knows it the very object of its careful search? Then why seeks it to learn anew what it already knows? If it knows it not, why searches it in blindness? For who would desire aught unwitting? Or who could seek after that which is unknown? How should he find it, or recognise its form when found, if he knows it not? And when the mind of man perceived the mind of God, did it then know the whole and parts alike? Now is the mind buried in the cloudy darkness of the body, yet has not altogether forgotten its own self, and keeps the whole though it has lost the parts. Whosoever, therefore, seeks the truth, is not wholly in ignorance, nor yet has knowledge wholly; for he knows not all, yet is not ignorant of all. He takes thought for the whole which he keeps in memory, handling again what he saw on high, so that he may add to that which he has kept, that which he has forgotten.' [151]

Then said she,' This is the old plaint concerning Providence which was so strongly urged Philosophy by Cicero when treating of Divination,1 and you yourself have often and at length questioned the same subject. But so far, none of you have explained it with enough diligence or certainty. The cause of this obscurity is that the working of human reason cannot approach the directness of divine foreknowledge. If this could be understood at all, there would be no doubt left. And this especially will I try to make plain, if I can first explain your difficulties.

'Tell me why you think abortive the reasoning of those who solve the question thus; they argue that foreknowledge cannot be held to be a cause for the necessity of future results, and therefore free will is not in any way shackled by foreknowledge.2 Whence do you draw your proof of the necessity of future results if not from the fact that such things as are known beforehand cannot but come to pass? If, then (as you yourself admitted just now), foreknowledge brings no necessity to bear upon future events, how is it that the voluntary results of such events are bound to find a fixed end? Now for the sake of the argument, that you may turn your attention to what follows, let us state that there is no foreknowledge at all. Then are the events which are decided by free will, bound by any necessity, so far as this goes?

151:1 -- Cicero,
De Divinatione, II.

151:2 -- Referring to Boethius's words in Prose iii. of this book, p.145. [152] Of course not. Secondly, let us state that foreknowledge exists, but brings no necessity to bear upon events; then, I think, the same free will will be left, intact and absolute. " But," you will say, " though foreknowledge is no necessity for a result in the future, yet it is a sign that it will necessarily come to pass." Thus, therefore, even if there had been no foreknowledge, it would be plain that future results were under necessity; for every sign can only shew what it is that it points out; it does not bring it to pass. Wherefore we must first prove that nothing happens but of necessity, in order that it may be plain that foreknowledge is a sign of this necessity. Otherwise, if there is no necessity, then foreknowledge will not be a sign of that which does not exist. Now it is allowed that proof rests upon firm reasoning, not upon signs or external arguments; it must be deduced from suitable and binding causes. How can it possibly be that things, which are foreseen as about to happen, should not occur? That would be as though we were to believe that events would not occur which Providence foreknows as about to occur, and as though we did not rather think this, that though they occur, yet they have had no necessity in their own natures which brought them about. We can see many actions developing before our eyes; just as chariot drivers see the development of their actions as they control and guide their chariots, and many other things likewise. Does any necessity compel any of those things [153] to occur as they do? Of course not. All art, craft, and intention would be in vain, if everything took place by compulsion. Therefore, if things have no necessity for coming to pass when they do, they cannot have any necessity to be about to come to pass before they do. Wherefore there are things whose results are entirely free from necessity. For I think not that there is any man who will say this, that things, which are done in the present, were not about to be done in the past, before they are done. Thus these foreknown events have their free results. Just as foreknowledge of present things brings no necessity to bear upon them as they come to pass, so also foreknowledge of future things brings no necessity to bear upon things which are to come.

'But you will say that there is no doubt of this too, whether there can be any foreknowledge of things which have not results bounden by necessity.

For they do seem to lack harmony:

and you think that if they are foreseen, the necessity follows;

if there is no necessity, then they cannot be foreseen;

nothing can be perceived certainly by knowledge, unless it be certain.

But if things have uncertainty of result, but are foreseen as though certain, this is plainly the obscurity of opinion, and not the truth of knowledge. For you believe that to think aught other than it is, is the opposite of true knowledge. The cause of this error is that every man believes that all the subjects, that he knows, are known by their own force or [154] nature alone, which are known; but it is quite the opposite. For every subject, that is known, is comprehended not according to its own force, but rather according to the nature of those who know it. Let me make this plain to you by a brief example: the roundness of a body may be known in one way by sight, in another way by touch. Sight can take in the whole body at once from a distance by judging its radii, while touch clings, as it were, to the outside of the sphere, and from close at hand perceives through the material parts the roundness of the body as it passes over the actual circumference. A man himself is differently comprehended by the senses, by imagination, by reason, and by intelligence. For the senses distinguish the form as set in the matter operated upon by the form; imagination distinguishes the appearance alone without the matter. Reason goes even further than imagination; by a general and universal contemplation it investigates the actual kind which is represented in individual specimens. Higher still is the view of the intelligence, which reaches above the sphere of the universal, and with the unsullied eye of the mind gazes upon that very form of the kind in its absolute simplicity. Herein the chief point for our consideration is this: the higher power of understanding includes the lower, but the lower never rises to the higher. For the senses are capable of understanding naught but the matter; imagination cannot look upon universal or natural kinds; reason cannot comprehend [155] the absolute form; whereas the intelligence seems to look down from above and comprehend the form, and distinguishes all that lie below, but in such a way that it grasps the very form which could not be known to any other than itself. For it perceives and knows the general kind, as does reason; the appearance, as does the imagination; and the matter, as do the senses, but with one grasp of the mind it looks upon all with a clear conception of the whole. And reason too, as it views general kinds, does not make use of the imagination nor the senses, but yet does perceive the objects both of the imagination and of the senses. It is reason which thus defines a general kind according to its conception: Man, for instance, is an animal, biped and reasoning. This is a general notion of a natural kind, but no man denies that the subject can be approached by the imagination and by the senses, just because reason investigates it by a reasonable conception and not by the imagination or senses. Likewise, though imagination takes its beginning of seeing and forming appearances from the senses, yet without their aid it surveys each subject by an imaginative faculty of distinguishing, not by the distinguishing faculty of the senses.

'Do you see then, how in knowledge of all things, the subject uses its own standard of capability, and not those of the objects known? And this is but reasonable, for every judgment formed is an act of the person who judges, and therefore each man must of necessity perform [156] his own action from his own capability and not the capability of any other. 'In days of old the Porch at Athens1 gave us men, seeing dimly as in old age, who could believe that the feelings of the senses and the imagination were but impressions on the mind from bodies without them, just as the old custom was to impress with swift-running pens letters upon the surface of a waxen tablet which bore no marks before. But if the mind with its own force can bring forth naught by its own exertions; if it does but lie passive and subject to the marks of other bodies; if it reflects, as does, forsooth, a mirror, the vain reflections of other things; whence thrives there in the soul an all-seeing power of knowledge? What is the force that sees the single parts, or which distinguishes the facts it knows? What is the force that gathers up the parts it has distinguished, that takes its course in order due, now rises to mingle with the things on high, and now sinks down among the things below, and then to itself brings back itself, and, so examining, refutes the false with truth? This is a cause of greater power, of more effective force by far than that which only receives the impressions of material bodies. Yet does the passive reception come first, rousing and stirring

156:1 -- Zeno, of Citium (342-270 B.C), the founder of the Stoic school, taught in the Stoa Poekile, whence the name of the school. The following lines refer to their doctrine of presentations and impressions. [157] all the strength of the mind in the living body When the eyes are smitten with a light, or the ears are struck with a voice's sound, then is the spirit's energy aroused, and, thus moved, calls upon like forms, such as it holds within itself, fits them to signs without and mingles the forms of its imagination with those which it has stored within.

'With regard to feeling the effects of bodies, natures which are brought into contact from without may affect the organs of the senses, and the body's passive affection may precede the active energy of the spirit, and call forth to itself the activity of the mind; if then, when the effects of bodies are felt, the mind is not marked in any way by its passive reception thereof, but declares that reception subject to the body of its own force, how much less do those subjects, which are free from all affections of bodies, follow external objects in their perceptions, and how much more do they make clear the way for the action of their mind? By this argument many different manners of understanding have fallen to widely different natures of things. For the senses are incapable of any knowledge but their own, and they alone fall to those living beings which are incapable of motion, as are sea shell-fish, and other low forms of life which live by clinging to rocks; while imagination is granted to animals with the power of motion, who seem to be affected by some desire to seek or avoid certain things. [158]

But reason belongs to the human race alone, just as the true intelligence is God's alone. Wherefore that manner of knowledge is better than others, for it can comprehend of its own nature not only the subject peculiar to itself, but also the subjects of the other kinds of knowledge. Suppose that the senses and imagination thus oppose reasoning, saying, " The universal natural kinds, which reason believes that it can perceive, are nothing; for what is comprehensible to the senses and the imagina-tion cannot be universal: therefore either the judgment of reason is true, and that which can be perceived by the senses is nothing or, since reason knows well that there are many subjects comprehensible to the senses and imagina-tion, the conception of reason is vain, for it holds to be universal what is an individual matter comprehensible to the senses." To this reason might answer, that " it sees from a general point of view what is comprehensible to the senses and the imagination, but they cannot aspire to a knowledge of universals, since their manner of knowledge cannot go further than material or bodily appearances; and in the matter of knowledge it is better to trust to the stronger and more nearly perfcct judgment." If such a trial of argument occurred, should not we, who have within us the force of reasoning as well as the powers of the senses and imagination, approve of the cause of reason rather than that of the others?

It is in like manner that human reason thinks that [159] the divine intelligence cannot perceive the things of the future except as it conceives them itself.

For you argue thus: " If there are events which do not appear to have sure or necessary results, their results cannot be known for certain beforehand:

therefore there can be no foreknowledge of these events; for if we believe that there is any foreknowledge thereof, there can exist nothing but such as is brought forth of necessity."

If therefore we, who have our share in possession of reason, could go further and possess the judgment of the mind of God,

we should then think it most just that human reason should yield itself to the mind of God, just as we have determined that the senses and imagination ought to yield to reason.

'Let us therefore raise ourselves, if so be that we can, to that height of the loftiest intelligence.

For there reason will see what it cannot of itself perceive, and that is to know how even such things as have uncertain results are perceived definitely and for certain by foreknowledge; and such foreknowledge will not be mere opinion, but rather the single and direct form of the highest knowledge unlimited by any finite bounds.

'In what different shapes do living beings move upon the earth! Some make flat their bodies, sweeping through the dust and using their strength to make therein a furrow without break; some flit here and there upon light wings [160] which beat the breeze, and they float through vast tracks of air in their easy flight. 'Tis others' wont to plant their footsteps on the ground, and pass with their paces over green fields or under trees. Though all these thou seest move in different shapes, yet all have their faces downward along the ground, and this doth draw downward and dull their senses. Alone of all, the human race lifts up its head on high, and stands in easy balance with the body upright, and so looks down to spurn the earth. If thou art not too earthly by an evil folly, this pose is as a lesson. Thy glance is upward, and thou dost carry high thy head, and thus thy search is heavenward: then lead thy soul too upward, lest while the body is higher raised, the mind sink lower to the earth.

'Since then all that is known is apprehended, as we just now shewed, not according to its nature but according to the nature of the knower, let us examine, so far as we lawfully may, the character of the divine nature, so that we may be able to learn what its knowledge is.

'The common opinion, according to all men living, is that God is eternal. Let us therefore consider what is eternity. For eternity will, I think, make clear to us at the same time the divine nature and knowledge. ' Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life. This will appear more clearly if we compare it with temporal [161] things. All that lives under the conditions of time moves through the present from the past to the future; there is nothing set in time which can at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. It cannot yet comprehend to-morrow; yesterday it has already lost. And in this life of to-day your life is no more than a changing, passing moment. And as Aristotle1 said of the universe, so it is of all that is subject to time; though it never began to be, nor will ever cease, and its life is co-extensive with the infinity of time, yet it is not such as can be held to be eternal. For though it apprehends and grasps a space of infinite lifetime, it does not embrace the whole simultaneously; it has not yet experienced the future. What we should rightly call eternal is that which grasps and possesses wholly and simultaneously the fulness of unending life, which acks naught of the future, and has lost naught of the fleeting past; and such an existence must be ever present in itself to control and aid itself, and also must keep present with itself the infinity of changing time. Therefore, people who hear that Plato thought that this universe had no beginning of time and will have no end, are not right in thinking that in this way the created world is co-eternal with its creator2

161:1 -- Aristotle,
De Cæelo, 1.

161:2 -- Boethius speaks of people who 'hear that Plato thought, etc.,' because this was the teaching of some of Plato's successors at the Academy. Plato himself thought otherwise, as may be seen in the
Timæus, e.g. ch. xi. 38 B., 'Time then has come into being along with the universe, that being generated together, together they may be dissolved, should a dissolution of them ever come to pass; and it was made after the pattern of the eternal nature that it might be as like to it as possible. For the pattern is existent for all eternity, but the copy has been, and is, and shall be, throughout all time continually.' (Mr. Archer Hind's translation.) [162] For to pass through unending life, the attribute which Plato ascribes to the universe is one thing; but it is another thing to grasp simultaneously the whole of unending life in the present; this is plainly a peculiar property of the mind of God.

'And further, God should not be regarded as older than His creations by any period of time, but rather by the peculiar property of His own single nature. For the infinite changing of temporal things tries to imitate the ever simultaneously present immutability of His life: it cannot succeed in imitating or equailing this, but sinks from immutability into change, and falls from the single directness of the present into an infinite space of future and past. And since this temporal state cannot possess its life completely and simultaneously, but it does in the same manner exist for ever without ceasing, it therefore seems to try in some degree to rival that which it cannot fulfil or represent, for it binds itself to some sort of present time out of this small and fleeting moment; but inasmuch as this temporal present bears a certain appearance of that abiding present, it somehow makes [163] those, to whom it comes, seem to be in truth what they imitate. But since this imitation could not be abiding, the unending march of time has swept it away, and thus we find that it has bound together, as it passes, a chain of life, which it could not by abiding embrace in its fulness. And thus if we would apply proper epithets to those subjects, we can say, following Plato, that God is eternal, but the universe is continual.

'Since then all judgment apprehends the subjects of its thought according to its own nature, and God has a condition of ever-present eternity, His knowledge, which passes over every change of time, embracing infinite lengths of past and future, views in its own direct comprehension everything as though it were taking place in the present. If you would weigh the foreknowledge by which God distinguishes all things, you will more rightly hold it to be a knowledge of a never-failing constancy in the present, than a foreknowledge of the future. Whence Providence is more rightly to be understood as a looking forth than a looking forward, because it is set far from low matters and looks forth upon all things as from a lofty mountain-top above all. Why then do you demand that all things occur by necessity, if divine light rests upon them, while men do not render necessary such things as they can see? Because you can see things of the present, does your sight therefore put upon them any necessity? [164]

Surely not. If one may not unworthily compare this present time with the divine, just as you can see things in this your temporal present, so God sees all things in His eternal present. Wherefore this divine foreknowledge does not change the nature or individual qualities of things: it sees things present in its understanding just as they will result some time in the future. It makes no confusion in its distinctions, and with one view of itS mind it discerns all that shall come to pass whether of necessity or not. For instance, when you see at the same time a man walking on the earth and the sun rising in the heavens, you see each sight simultaneously, yet you distinguish between them, and decide that one is moving voluntarily, the other of necessity. In like manner the perception of God looks down upon all things without disturbing at all their nature, though they are present to Him but future under the conditions of time. Wherefore this foreknowledge is not opinion but knowledge resting upon truth, since He knows that a future event is, though He knows too that it will not occur of necessity. If you answer here that what God sees about to happen, cannot but happen, and that what cannot but happen is bound by necessity, you fasten me down to the word necessity, I will grant that we have a matter of most firm truth, but it is one to which scarce any man can approach unless he be a contemplator of the divine. For I shall answer that such a thing [165] will occur of necessity, when it is viewed from the point of divine knowledge; but when it is examined in its own nature, it seems perfectly free and unrestrained. For there are two kinds of necessities; one is simple: for instance, a necessary fact, "all men are mortal "; the other is conditional; for instance, if you know that a man is walking, he must be walking: for what each man knows cannot be otherwise than it is known to be; but the conditional one is by no means followed by this simple and direct necessity; for there is no necessity to compel a voluntary walker to proceed, though it is necessary that, if he walks, he should be proceeding. In the same way, if Providence sees an event in its present, that thing must be, though it has no necessity of its own nature. And God looks in His present upon those future things which come to pass through free will. Therefore if these things be looked at from the point of view of God's insight, they come to pass of necessity under the condition of divine knowledge; if, on the other hand, they are viewed by themselves, they do not lose the perfect freedom of their nature. Without doubt, then, all things that God foreknows do come to pass, but some of them proceed from free will; and though they result by coming into existence, yet they do not lose their own nature, because before they came to pass they could also not have come to pass.

'"What then," you may ask, " is the difference [166] in their not being bound by necessity, since they result under all circumstances as by necessity, on account of the condition of divine knowledge? " This is the difference, as I just now put forward: take the sun rising and a man walking; while these operations are occurring, they cannot but occur: but the one was bound to occur before it did; the other was not so bound. What God has in His present, does exist without doubt; but of such things some follow by necessity, others by their authors' wills. Wherefore I was justified in saying that if these things be regarded from the view of divine knowledge, they are necessary, but if they are viewed by themselves, they are perfectly free from all ties of necessity: just as when you refer all, that is clear to the senses, to the reason, it becomes general truth, but it remains particular if regarded by itself. " But," you will say, " if it is in my power to change a purpose of mine, I will disregard Providence, since I may change what Providence foresees." To which I answer, " You can change your purpose, but since the truth of Providence knows in its present that you can do so, and whether you do so, and in what direction you may change it, therefore you cannot escape that divine foreknowledge: just as you cannot avoid the glance of a present eye, though you may by your free will turn yourself to all kinds of different actions." "What?" you will say, " can I by my own action change [167] divine knowledge, so that if I choose now one thing, now another, Providence too will seem to change its knowledge?" No; divine insight precedes all future things, turning them back and recalling them to the present time of its own peculiar knowledge. It does not change, as you may think, between this and that alternation of foreknowledge. It is constant in preceding and embracing by one glance all your changes. And God does not receive this ever-present grasp of all things and vision of the present at the occurrence of future events, but from His own peculiar directness. Whence also is that difficulty solved which you laid down a little while ago, that it was not worthy to say that our future events were the cause of God's knowledge. For this power of knowledge, ever in the present and embracing all things in its perception, does itself constrain all things, and owes naught to following events from which it has received naught. Thus, therefore, mortal men have their freedom of judgment intact. And since their wills are freed from all binding necessity, laws do not set rewards or punishments unjustly. God is ever the constant foreknowing overseer, and the ever-present eternity of His sight moves in harmony with the future nature of our actions, as it dispenses rewards to the good, and punishments to the bad. Hopes are not vainly put in God, nor prayers in vain offered: if these are right, they cannot but be answered. Turn [168] therefore from vice: ensue virtue: raise your soul to upright hopes: send up on high your prayers from this earth. If you would be honest, great is the necessity enjoined upon your goodness, since all you do is done before the eyes of an all-seeing Judge.'

Page 169

A Note on the Translation

The present translation of 'THE CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY' is the work of Mr. W. V. COOPER, B.A., King's College, Cambridge, who has thus carried on the tradition of English renderings of Boethius's famous work, the list of translators beginning with the illustrious name of Alfred the Great. The recent Millenary, celebrated at Winchester, has perhaps justified the issue of this first of twentieth-century versions. The Frontispiece, taken from an Elzevir Sallust printed in 1634, has been chosen by way of illustrating both the fortune of the author and his famous idea of the changeableness of Fortune's Wheel.
I. G.
December 19, 1901. [170]


(See Book 1l., Prose iii. p. 32)

BOETHIUS'S first wife was Elpis, daughter of Festus. The following epitaph has been handed down as that of Elpis, and has been said by some to have been written by Boethius himself: --
was my name, and Sicily my home,
Where I was nursed, until I came from thence
An exile for the love I bore my lord:
Apart from him my time was full of tears,
Heavy the day, laden with care the night,
(But with him all was joy and peace and love)
And now, my pilgrim's journey o'er, I rest
Within this sacred place, and witness bear
Before the throne of the Eternal Judge on high.

170:1 -- Elpis is a Greek word meaning hope

170:2 -- This line is lost from the original Latin. [171]


THE incompatibility of the sufferings of good men, the impunity and success of bad men, with the government of the world by a good God, has been a subject of thought alllong men ever since religion and abstract questions have occupied the thoughts of mankind. The poetical books of the Bible are full of it, particularly, of course the book of Job, which is a dramatic poem entirely devoted to the subject. The New Testament contains much teaching on the same question. Among the Greeks the tragedians and later philosophers delighted in working out its problems. But from the sixth to the seventeenth centuries of our era the De Consolatione of Boethius, in its original Latin and in many translations, was in the hands of almost all the educated people of the world. The author's personal history was well known. He was a man whose fortunes had risen to the highest pitch possible under the Roman Empire; who had himself experienced the utter collapse of those fortunes, and was known to have sustained himself through imprisonment and even to torture and an unjust death by the thoughts which he left to mankind in this book.

It is a work which appealed to Pagan and Christian alike. There is no Christian doctrine relied upon throughout the work, but there is also nothing which could be in conflict with Christianity. Even the personification of Philosophy, though after the form of a pagan goddess, is precisely like the 'Wisdom' of Solomon in the Apocrypha; and the same habit of thought led the Jews to personify the 'Word' of God, and use it as identical with God Himself; and the same led to that identifying of the ' Word with Christ, which we find in the first chapter of St. John's Gospel. [172]

So, if there is nothing distinctly or dogmatically Christian in the work, there is also nothing which can be condemned as pagan, in spite of the strong influence of pagan philosophy, with which Boethius was intimate .

For though some have held that the Christianity of Boethius was foisted upon him, with his canonisation as St. Severinus, after his death by those who thought he must have been too good a man to have been a heathen, and though the authenticity of his theological works also has therefore been doubted, yet we may now be almost certain that he was a Christian, and an orthodox Christian, for if it is true that he wrote those works, he combated Arianism during his life, and during his imprisonment he was engaged upon a treatise on the Unity of the Trinity, as well as upon this work. Here perhaps lies an explanation of what must seem strange to us at first sight, namely, that a Christian should apparently look to Philosophy rather than to his religion for comfort in persecution and support at the approach of death. But it is to be feared that in his day, and in the society in which he moved, Christianity meant to many who professed it little more than a subject for rivalry and argument among sects and for the combating of heresies. With many of the contemporaries of Boethius, therefore, a new book of comfort sought for in Christian doctrine would not have had much influence, and there seems to be no reason why people of our own day, even those who draw the greatest help from their religion, should not enjoy the additional comfort which solaced an honest and pious thinker in a time of apparently intolerable and incredible misfortune.

The wide learning of Boethius may be partly shewn by a list of some of his writings, which included original works and translations in many branches of study. For instance, he translated into Latin a great number of Aristotle's works on different subjects, such as those on Rhetoric, Logic, the Categories, etc. He translated three books of Euclid, and wrote other mathematical works. He translated and wrote books upon Music and Mechanics, and one upon Astronomy. His theological [173] works included treatises against the Nestorians and Arians.

But his Consolation is the work upon which his fame rests. The veneration in which this book was held in the middle ages and onward is abundantly shewn by the numerous translations made of it. It was very early rendered into German, and later on translated into the French of the day by Jehan de Meun and others in later times; into Greek by Maximus Planudes, into Italian and Spanish. In England translations have appeared at intervals during the last thousand years. For just that space of time has passed since that noble educator of his people, Alfred the Creat, translated it with Asser's help, thinking, it would seem, that this work was most worthy of his people's reading of all books after the Bible. But his version does not give us a very true knowledge either of Boethius or his Consolation. It is of the greatest value to the student of Alfred, because there are many indisputably genuine sayings and opinions of that wise man. There are wise thoughts upon kingly duty and many definitely Christian maxims. These were outside the theme of Boethius, though wise themselves and deeply interesting as Alfred's own work. Furthermore, the more abstruse parts are wholly omitted, probably as being of little use for King Alfred's subjects.

In later times that most versatile scholar, Queen Elizabeth translated it. Chaucer, Sir Thomas More, and Leslie, Bishop of Ross, the adviser of Mary, Queen of Scots, wrote imitations of it. Robert of Lincoln (Grossetàte) commented upon it. In the sixteenth century appeared Colville's very fine translation. Translations in verse appeared in the seventeenth century by Harry Coningsby and Lord Preston; others followed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Its influence is to be found perhaps even in the oldest English poetry of pre-Conquest times; it is certainly very marked in Chaucer, Gower, Spenser, and many another later poet. And in Italy, Dante makes St. Thomas Aquinas point out the spirit of Boethius in Paradise with these words: --


'Now if thy mental eye conducted be
From light to light as I resound their fame,
The eighth well worth attention thou wilt see.
Within it dwells, all excellence beholding,
The soul who pointed out the world's dark ways,
To all who listen, its deceits unfolding.
Beneath in Cieldauro lies the frame
Whence it was driven; from woe and exile to
This fair abode of peace and bliss it came.'

Paradiso, x. 121 ff (Wright's translation.)


  • 470. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, born of most distinguished family.

  • 493. Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king, becomes sole master of Italy.

  • 51O. Boethius consul.

  • 522. His two sons consuls, and Boethius distributes enormous largesses.

  • 526. While using his influence as Theodoric's 'magister officiorum ' for the purity of the government and the welfare of the Italians, Boethius was charged with treason. Without his being allowed to defend himself, his property was confiscated, and he himself condemned to death. He was imprisoned at Ticinum (Pavia), tortured, and brutally put to death at Calvenzano. His father-in-law, Symmachus, was also executed.

  • 722. Liutprand, king of the Lombards, erected a tomb to his memory in the Church of S. Pietro Ciel d'Oro at Pavia. (See the quotation from Dante above.)

  • A few words on Theodoric may conclude this note.

    Theodoric was born A.D. 455, educated at Constantinople as a hostage of the Emperor Leo, and succeeded his father as King of the Ostrogoths in 475. His [175] youth was spent chiefly in war. He attacked his ally, the Emperor Zeno, in 487. To save Constantinople, Zeno gave him leave to expel Odoacer from Italy. Practically the whole Gothic nation migrated with Theodoric's army to Italy, where Odoacer was thrice defeated. He consented to allow Theodoric to reign jointly with him, but he was conveniently assassinated very soon afterwards, and Theodoric ruled till he died in 526, leaving the country certainly in a better state than that in which he found it, having ruled with moderation on the whole, and choosing good ministers such as Boethius. But in his last years he became influenced by unscrupulous men, informers, barbarian Ostrogoths, who oppressed the Italians, and the most bitter Arian sectaries, by each of which classes Boethius was hated as an honest and powerful minister, a protector of the oppressed Italians and as an orthodox Christian.


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