CH. I. The mystery of the seeming moral confusion. Philosophy engages to make this plain, and to fulfil her former promise to the full. — CH. II. Accordingly, (a) she first expounds the paradox that the good alone have power, the bad are altogether powerless. — CH. III. (b) The righteous never lack their reward, nor the wicked their punishment. — CH. IV. (c) The wicked are more unhappy when they accomplish their desires than when they fail to attain them. (d) Evil-doers are more fortunate when they expiate their crimes by suffering punishment than when they escape unpunished. (e) The wrong-doer is more wretched than he who suffers injury. — CH. V. Boethius still cannot understand why the distribution of happiness and misery to the righteous and the wicked seems the result of chance. Philosophy replies that this only seems so because we do not understand the principles of God’s moral governance. — CH. VI. The distinction of Fate and Providence. The apparent moral confusion is due to our ignorance of the secret counsels of God’s providence. If we possessed the key, we should see how all things are guided to good. — CH. VII. Thus all fortune is good fortune; for it either rewards, disciplines, amends, or punishes, and so is either useful or just.
Softly and sweetly Philosophy sang these verses to the end without losing aught of the dignity of her expression or the seriousness of her tones; then, forasmuch as I was as yet unable to forget my deeply-seated sorrow, just as she was about to say something further, I broke in and cried: ‘O thou guide into the way of true light, all that thy voice hath uttered from the beginning even unto now has manifestly seemed to me at once divine contemplated in itself, and by the force of thy arguments placed beyond the possibility of overthrow. Moreover, these truths have not been altogether unfamiliar to me heretofore, though because of indignation at my wrongs they have for a time been forgotten. But, lo! herein is the very chiefest cause of my grief — that, while there exists a good ruler of the universe, it is possible that evil should be at all, still more that it should go unpunished. Surely thou must see how deservedly this of itself provokes astonishment. But a yet greater marvel follows: While wickedness reigns and flourishes, virtue not only lacks its reward, but is even thrust down and trampled under the feet of the wicked, and suffers punishment in the place of crime. That this should happen under the rule of a God who knows all things and can do all things, but wills only the good, cannot be sufficiently wondered at nor sufficiently lamented.’
Then said she: ‘It would indeed be infinitely astounding, and of all monstrous things most horrible, if, as thou esteemest, in the well-ordered home of so great a householder, the base vessels should be held in honour, the precious left to neglect. But it is not so. For if we hold unshaken those conclusions which we lately reached, thou shall learn that, by the will of Him of whose realm we are speaking, the good are always strong, the bad always weak and impotent; that vices never go unpunished, nor virtues unrewarded; that good fortune ever befalls the good, and ill fortune the bad, and much more of the sort, which shall hush thy murmurings, and stablish thee in the strong assurance of conviction. And since by my late instructions thou hast seen the form of happiness, hast learnt, too, the seat where it is to be found, all due preliminaries being discharged, I will now show thee the road which will lead thee home. Wings, also, will I fasten to thy mind wherewith thou mayst soar aloft, that so, all disturbing doubts removed, thou mayst return safe to thy country, under my guidance, in the path I will show thee, and by the means which I furnish.’
Wings are mine; above the pole
Far aloft I soar.
Clothed with these, my nimble soul
Scorns earth’s hated shore,
Cleaves the skies upon the wind,
Sees the clouds left far behind.
Soon the glowing point she nears,
Where the heavens rotate,
Follows through the starry spheres
Phoebus’ course, or straight
Takes for comrade ‘mid the stars
Saturn cold or glittering Mars;
Thus each circling orb explores
Through Night’s stole that peers;
Then, when all are numbered, soars
Far beyond the spheres,
Mounting heaven’s supremest height
To the very Fount of light.
There the Sovereign of the world
His calm sway maintains;
As the globe is onward whirled
Guides the chariot reins,
And in splendour glittering
Reigns the universal King.
Hither if thy wandering feet
Find at last a way,
Here thy long-lost home thou’lt greet:
‘Dear lost land,’ thou’lt say,
‘Though from thee I’ve wandered wide,
Hence I came, here will abide.’
Yet if ever thou art fain
Visitant to be
Of earth’s gloomy night again,
Surely thou wilt see
Tyrants whom the nations fear
Dwell in hapless exile here.
Then said I: ‘Verily, wondrous great are thy promises; yet I do not doubt but thou canst make them good: only keep me not in suspense after raising such hopes.’
‘Learn, then, first,’ said she, ‘how that power ever waits upon the good, while the bad are left wholly destitute of strength.11 Of these truths the one proves the other; for since good and evil are contraries, if it is made plain that good is power, the feebleness of evil is clearly seen, and, conversely, if the frail nature of evil is made manifest, the strength of good is thereby known. However, to win ampler credence for my conclusion, I will pursue both paths, and draw confirmation for my statements first in one way and then in the other.
‘The carrying out of any human action depends upon two things — to wit, will and power; if either be wanting, nothing can be accomplished. For if the will be lacking, no attempt at all is made to do what is not willed; whereas if there be no power, the will is all in vain. And so, if thou seest any man wishing to attain some end, yet utterly failing to attain it, thou canst not doubt that he lacked the power of getting what he wished for.’
‘Why, certainly not; there is no denying it.’
‘Canst thou, then, doubt that he whom thou seest to have accomplished what he willed had also the power to accomplish it?’
‘Of course not.’
‘Then, in respect of what he can accomplish a man is to be reckoned strong, in respect of what he cannot accomplish weak?’
‘Granted,’ said I.
‘Then, dost thou remember that, by our former reasonings, it was concluded that the whole aim of man’s will, though the means of pursuit vary, is set intently upon happiness?’
‘I do remember that this, too, was proved.’
‘Dost thou also call to mind how happiness is absolute good, and therefore that, when happiness is sought, it is good which is in all cases the object of desire?’
‘Nay, I do not so much call to mind as keep it fixed in my memory.’
‘Then, all men, good and bad alike, with one indistinguishable purpose strive to reach good?’
‘Yes, that follows.’
‘But it is certain that by the attainment of good men become good?’
‘Then, do the good attain their object?’
‘It seems so.’
‘But if the bad were to attain the good which is their object, they could not be bad?’
‘Then, since both seek good, but while the one sort attain it, the other attain it not, is there any doubt that the good are endued with power, while they who are bad are weak?’
‘If any doubt it, he is incapable of reflecting on the nature of things, or the consequences involved in reasoning.’
‘Again, supposing there are two things to which the same function is prescribed in the course of nature, and one of these successfully accomplishes the function by natural action, the other is altogether incapable of that natural action, instead of which, in a way other than is agreeable to its nature, it — I will not say fulfils its function, but feigns to fulfil it: which of these two would in thy view be the stronger?’
‘I guess thy meaning, but I pray thee let me hear thee more at large.’
‘Walking is man’s natural motion, is it not?’
‘Thou dost not doubt, I suppose, that it is natural for the feet to discharge this function?’
‘No; surely I do not.’
‘Now, if one man who is able to use his feet walks, and another to whom the natural use of his feet is wanting tries to walk on his hands, which of the two wouldst thou rightly esteem the stronger?’
‘Go on,’ said I; ‘no one can question but that he who has the natural capacity has more strength than he who has it not.’
‘Now, the supreme good is set up as the end alike for the bad and for the good; but the good seek it through the natural action of the virtues, whereas the bad try to attain this same good through all manner of concupiscence, which is not the natural way of attaining good. Or dost thou think otherwise?’
‘Nay; rather, one further consequence is clear to me: for from my admissions it must needs follow that the good have power, and the bad are impotent.’
‘Thou anticipatest rightly, and that as physicians reckon is a sign that nature is set working, and is throwing off the disease. But, since I see thee so ready at understanding, I will heap proof on proof. Look how manifest is the extremity of vicious men’s weakness; they cannot even reach that goal to which the aim of nature leads and almost constrains them. What if they were left without this mighty, this well-nigh irresistible help of nature’s guidance! Consider also how momentous is the powerlessness which incapacitates the wicked. Not light or trivial12 are the prizes which they contend for, but which they cannot win or hold; nay, their failure concerns the very sum and crown of things. Poor wretches! they fail to compass even that for which they toil day and night. Herein also the strength of the good conspicuously appears. For just as thou wouldst judge him to be the strongest walker whose legs could carry him to a point beyond which no further advance was possible, so must thou needs account him strong in power who so attains the end of his desires that nothing further to be desired lies beyond. Whence follows the obvious conclusion that they who are wicked are seen likewise to be wholly destitute of strength. For why do they forsake virtue and follow vice? Is it from ignorance of what is good? Well, what is more weak and feeble than the blindness of ignorance? Do they know what they ought to follow, but lust drives them aside out of the way? If it be so, they are still frail by reason of their incontinence, for they cannot fight against vice. Or do they knowingly and wilfully forsake the good and turn aside to vice? Why, at this rate, they not only cease to have power, but cease to be at all. For they who forsake the common end of all things that are, they likewise also cease to be at all. Now, to some it may seem strange that we should assert that the bad, who form the greater part of mankind, do not exist. But the fact is so. I do not, indeed, deny that they who are bad are bad, but that they are in an unqualified and absolute sense I deny. Just as we call a corpse a dead man, but cannot call it simply “man,” so I would allow the vicious to be bad, but that they are in an absolute sense I cannot allow. That only is which maintains its place and keeps its nature; whatever falls away from this forsakes the existence which is essential to its nature. “But,” thou wilt say, “the bad have an ability.” Nor do I wish to deny it; only this ability of theirs comes not from strength, but from impotence. For their ability is to do evil, which would have had no efficacy at all if they could have continued in the performance of good. So this ability of theirs proves them still more plainly to have no power. For if, as we concluded just now, evil is nothing, ’tis clear that the wicked can effect nothing, since they are only able to do evil.’
‘And that thou mayst understand what is the precise force of this power, we determined, did we not, awhile back, that nothing has more power than supreme good?’
‘We did,’ said I.
‘But that same highest good cannot do evil?’
‘Is there anyone, then, who thinks that men are able to do all things?’
‘None but a madman.’
‘Yet they are able to do evil?’
‘Ay; would they could not!’
‘Since, then, he who can do only good is omnipotent, while they who can do evil also are not omnipotent, it is manifest that they who can do evil have less power. There is this also: we have shown that all power is to be reckoned among things desirable, and that all desirable things are referred to good as to a kind of consummation of their nature. But the ability to commit crime cannot be referred to the good; therefore it is not a thing to be desired. And yet all power is desirable; it is clear, then, that ability to do evil is not power. From all which considerations appeareth the power of the good, and the indubitable weakness of the bad, and it is clear that Plato’s judgment was true; the wise alone are able to do what they would, while the wicked follow their own hearts’ lust, but can not accomplish what they would. For they go on in their wilfulness fancying they will attain what they wish for in the paths of delight; but they are very far from its attainment, since shameful deeds lead not to happiness.’
11 The paradoxes in this chapter and chapter iv. are taken from Plato’s ‘Gorgias.’ See Jowett, vol. ii., pp. 348–366, and also pp. 400, 401 (‘Gorgias,’ 466–479, and 508, 509).
‘No trivial game is here; the strife Is waged for Turnus’ own dear life.’
See Virgil, Æneid,’ xii. 764, 745: cf. ‘Iliad,’ xxii. 159–162.
When high-enthroned the monarch sits, resplendent in the pride
Of purple robes, while flashing steel guards him on every side;
When baleful terrors on his brow with frowning menace lower,
And Passion shakes his labouring breast — how dreadful seems his power!
But if the vesture of his state from such a one thou tear,
Thou’lt see what load of secret bonds this lord of earth doth wear.
Lust’s poison rankles; o’er his mind rage sweeps in tempest rude;
Sorrow his spirit vexes sore, and empty hopes delude.
Then thou’lt confess: one hapless wretch, whom many lords oppress,
Does never what he would, but lives in thraldom’s helplessness.
‘Thou seest, then, in what foulness unrighteous deeds are sunk, with what splendour righteousness shines. Whereby it is manifest that goodness never lacks its reward, nor crime its punishment. For, verily, in all manner of transactions that for the sake of which the particular action is done may justly be accounted the reward of that action, even as the wreath for the sake of which the race is run is the reward offered for running. Now, we have shown happiness to be that very good for the sake of which all things are done. Absolute good, then, is offered as the common prize, as it were, of all human actions. But, truly, this is a reward from which it is impossible to separate the good man, for one who is without good cannot properly be called good at all; wherefore righteous dealing never misses its reward. Rage the wicked, then, never so violently, the crown shall not fall from the head of the wise, nor wither. Verily, other men’s unrighteousness cannot pluck from righteous souls their proper glory. Were the reward in which the soul of the righteous delighteth received from without, then might it be taken away by him who gave it, or some other; but since it is conferred by his own righteousness, then only will he lose his prize when he has ceased to be righteous. Lastly, since every prize is desired because it is believed to be good, who can account him who possesses good to be without reward? And what a prize, the fairest and grandest of all! For remember the corollary which I chiefly insisted on a little while back, and reason thus: Since absolute good is happiness, ’tis clear that all the good must be happy for the very reason that they are good. But it was agreed that those who are happy are gods. So, then, the prize of the good is one which no time may impair, no man’s power lessen, no man’s unrighteousness tarnish; ’tis very Godship. And this being so, the wise man cannot doubt that punishment is inseparable from the bad. For since good and bad, and likewise reward and punishment, are contraries, it necessarily follows that, corresponding to all that we see accrue as reward of the good, there is some penalty attached as punishment of evil. As, then, righteousness itself is the reward of the righteous, so wickedness itself is the punishment of the unrighteous. Now, no one who is visited with punishment doubts that he is visited with evil. Accordingly, if they were but willing to weigh their own case, could they think themselves free from punishment whom wickedness, worst of all evils, has not only touched, but deeply tainted?
‘See, also, from the opposite standpoint — the standpoint of the good — what a penalty attends upon the wicked. Thou didst learn a little since that whatever is is one, and that unity itself is good. Accordingly, by this way of reckoning, whatever falls away from goodness ceases to be; whence it comes to pass that the bad cease to be what they were, while only the outward aspect is still left to show they have been men. Wherefore, by their perversion to badness, they have lost their true human nature. Further, since righteousness alone can raise men above the level of humanity, it must needs be that unrighteousness degrades below man’s level those whom it has cast out of man’s estate. It results, then, that thou canst not consider him human whom thou seest transformed by vice. The violent despoiler of other men’s goods, enflamed with covetousness, surely resembles a wolf. A bold and restless spirit, ever wrangling in law-courts, is like some yelping cur. The secret schemer, taking pleasure in fraud and stealth, is own brother to the fox. The passionate man, phrenzied with rage, we might believe to be animated with the soul of a lion. The coward and runaway, afraid where no fear is, may be likened to the timid deer. He who is sunk in ignorance and stupidity lives like a dull ass. He who is light and inconstant, never holding long to one thing, is for all the world like a bird. He who wallows in foul and unclean lusts is sunk in the pleasures of a filthy hog. So it comes to pass that he who by forsaking righteousness ceases to be a man cannot pass into a Godlike condition, but actually turns into a brute beast.’
Th’ Ithacan discreet,
And all his storm-tossed fleet,
Far o’er the ocean wave
The winds of heaven drave —
Drave to the mystic isle,
Where dwelleth in her guile
That fair and faithless one,
The daughter of the Sun.
There for the stranger crew
With cunning spells she knew
To mix th’ enchanted cup.
For whoso drinks it up,
Must suffer hideous change
To monstrous shapes and strange.
One like a boar appears;
This his huge form uprears,
Mighty in bulk and limb —
An Afric lion — grim
With claw and fang. Confessed
A wolf, this, sore distressed
When he would weep, doth howl;
And, strangely tame, these prowl
The Indian tiger’s mates.
And though in such sore straits,
The pity of the god
Who bears the mystic rod
Had power the chieftain brave
From her fell arts to save;
His comrades, unrestrained,
The fatal goblet drained.
All now with low-bent head,
Like swine, on acorns fed;
Man’s speech and form were reft,
No human feature left;
But steadfast still, the mind,
The monstrous change bewailed.
How little, then, availed
The potencies of ill!
These herbs, this baneful skill,
May change each outward part,
But cannot touch the heart.
In its true home, deep-set,
Man’s spirit liveth yet.
Those poisons are more fell,
More potent to expel
Man from his high estate,
Which subtly penetrate,
And leave the body whole,
But deep infect the soul.
Then said I: ‘This is very true. I see that the vicious, though they keep the outward form of man, are rightly said to be changed into beasts in respect of their spiritual nature; but, inasmuch as their cruel and polluted minds vent their rage in the destruction of the good, I would this license were not permitted to them.’
‘Nor is it,’ said she, ‘as shall be shown in the fitting place. Yet if that license which thou believest to be permitted to them were taken away, the punishment of the wicked would be in great part remitted. For verily, incredible as it may seem to some, it needs must be that the bad are more unfortunate when they have accomplished their desires than if they are unable to get them fulfilled. If it is wretched to will evil, to have been able to accomplish evil is more wretched; for without the power the wretched will would fail of effect. Accordingly, those whom thou seest to will, to be able to accomplish, and to accomplish crime, must needs be the victims of a threefold wretchedness, since each one of these states has its own measure of wretchedness.’
‘Yes,’ said I; ‘yet I earnestly wish they might speedily be quit of this misfortune by losing the ability to accomplish crime.’
‘They will lose it,’ said she, ‘sooner than perchance thou wishest, or they themselves think likely; since, verily, within the narrow bounds of our brief life there is nothing so late in coming that anyone, least of all an immortal spirit, should deem it long to wait for. Their great expectations, the lofty fabric of their crimes, is oft overthrown by a sudden and unlooked-for ending, and this but sets a limit to their misery. For if wickedness makes men wretched, he is necessarily more wretched who is wicked for a longer time; and were it not that death, at all events, puts an end to the evil doings of the wicked, I should account them wretched to the last degree. Indeed, if we have formed true conclusions about the ill fortune of wickedness, that wretchedness is plainly infinite which is doomed to be eternal.’
Then said I: ‘A wonderful inference, and difficult to grant; but I see that it agrees entirely with our previous conclusions.’
‘Thou art right,’ said she; ‘but if anyone finds it hard to admit the conclusion, he ought in fairness either to prove some falsity in the premises, or to show that the combination of propositions does not adequately enforce the necessity of the conclusion; otherwise, if the premises be granted, nothing whatever can be said against the inference of the conclusion. And here is another statement which seems not less wonderful, but on the premises assumed is equally necessary.’
‘What is that?’
‘The wicked are happier in undergoing punishment than if no penalty of justice chasten them. And I am not now meaning what might occur to anyone — that bad character is amended by retribution, and is brought into the right path by the terror of punishment, or that it serves as an example to warn others to avoid transgression; but I believe that in another way the wicked are more unfortunate when they go unpunished, even though no account be taken of amendment, and no regard be paid to example.’
‘Why, what other way is there beside these?’ said I.
Then said she: ‘Have we not agreed that the good are happy, and the evil wretched?’
‘Yes,’ said I.
‘Now, if,’ said she, ‘to one in affliction there be given along with his misery some good thing, is he not happier than one whose misery is misery pure and simple without admixture of any good?’
‘It would seem so.’
‘But if to one thus wretched, one destitute of all good, some further evil be added besides those which make him wretched, is he not to be judged far more unhappy than he whose ill fortune is alleviated by some share of good?’
‘It could scarcely be otherwise.’
‘Surely, then, the wicked, when they are punished, have a good thing added to them — to wit, the punishment which by the law of justice is good; and likewise, when they escape punishment, a new evil attaches to them in that very freedom from punishment which thou hast rightly acknowledged to be an evil in the case of the unrighteous.’
‘I cannot deny it.’
‘Then, the wicked are far more unhappy when indulged with an unjust freedom from punishment than when punished by a just retribution. Now, it is manifest that it is just for the wicked to be punished, and for them to escape unpunished is unjust.’
‘Why, who would venture to deny it?’
‘This, too, no one can possibly deny — that all which is just is good, and, conversely, all which is unjust is bad.’
Then I answered: ‘These inferences do indeed follow from what we lately concluded; but tell me,’ said I, ‘dost thou take no account of the punishment of the soul after the death of the body?’
‘Nay, truly,’ said she, ‘great are these penalties, some of them inflicted, I imagine, in the severity of retribution, others in the mercy of purification. But it is not my present purpose to speak of these. So far, my aim hath been to make thee recognise that the power of the bad which shocked thee so exceedingly is no power; to make thee see that those of whose freedom from punishment thou didst complain are never without the proper penalties of their unrighteousness; to teach thee that the license which thou prayedst might soon come to an end is not long-enduring; that it would be more unhappy if it lasted longer, most unhappy of all if it lasted for ever; thereafter that the unrighteous are more wretched if unjustly let go without punishment than if punished by a just retribution — from which point of view it follows that the wicked are afflicted with more severe penalties just when they are supposed to escape punishment.’
Then said I: ‘While I follow thy reasonings, I am deeply impressed with their truth; but if I turn to the common convictions of men, I find few who will even listen to such arguments, let alone admit them to be credible.’
‘True,’ said she; ‘they cannot lift eyes accustomed to darkness to the light of clear truth, and are like those birds whose vision night illumines and day blinds; for while they regard, not the order of the universe, but their own dispositions of mind, they think the license to commit crime, and the escape from punishment, to be fortunate. But mark the ordinance of eternal law. Hast thou fashioned thy soul to the likeness of the better, thou hast no need of a judge to award the prize — by thine own act hast thou raised thyself in the scale of excellence; hast thou perverted thy affections to baser things, look not for punishment from one without thee — thine own act hath degraded thee, and thrust thee down. Even so, if alternately thou turn thy gaze upon the vile earth and upon the heavens, though all without thee stand still, by the mere laws of sight thou seemest now sunk in the mire, now soaring among the stars. But the common herd regards not these things. What, then? Shall we go over to those whom we have shown to be like brute beasts? Why, suppose, now, one who had quite lost his sight should likewise forget that he had ever possessed the faculty of vision, and should imagine that nothing was wanting in him to human perfection, should we deem those who saw as well as ever blind? Why, they will not even assent to this, either — that they who do wrong are more wretched than those who suffer wrong, though the proof of this rests on grounds of reason no less strong.’
‘Let me hear these same reasons,’ said I.
‘Wouldst thou deny that every wicked man deserves punishment?’
‘I would not, certainly.’
‘And that those who are wicked are unhappy is clear in manifold ways?’
‘Yes,’ I replied.
‘Thou dost not doubt, then, that those who deserve punishment are wretched?’
‘Agreed,’ said I.
‘So, then, if thou wert sitting in judgment, on whom wouldst thou decree the infliction of punishment — on him who had done the wrong, or on him who had suffered it?’
‘Without doubt, I would compensate the sufferer at the cost of the doer of the wrong.’
‘Then, the injurer would seem more wretched than the injured?’
‘Yes; it follows. And so for this and other reasons resting on the same ground, inasmuch as baseness of its own nature makes men wretched, it is plain that a wrong involves the misery of the doer, not of the sufferer.’
‘And yet,’ says she, ‘the practice of the law-courts is just the opposite: advocates try to arouse the commiseration of the judges for those who have endured some grievous and cruel wrong; whereas pity is rather due to the criminal, who ought to be brought to the judgment-seat by his accusers in a spirit not of anger, but of compassion and kindness, as a sick man to the physician, to have the ulcer of his fault cut away by punishment. Whereby the business of the advocate would either wholly come to a standstill, or, did men prefer to make it serviceable to mankind, would be restricted to the practice of accusation. The wicked themselves also, if through some chink or cranny they were permitted to behold the virtue they have forsaken, and were to see that by the pains of punishment they would rid themselves of the uncleanness of their vices, and win in exchange the recompense of righteousness, they would no longer think these sufferings pains; they would refuse the help of advocates, and would commit themselves wholly into the hands of their accusers and judges. Whence it comes to pass that for the wise no place is left for hatred; only the most foolish would hate the good, and to hate the bad is unreasonable. For if vicious propensity is, as it were, a disease of the soul like bodily sickness, even as we account the sick in body by no means deserving of hate, but rather of pity, so, and much more, should they be pitied whose minds are assailed by wickedness, which is more frightful than any sickness.’
— Why all this furious strife? Oh, why
With rash and wilful hand provoke death’s destined day?
If death ye seek — lo! Death is nigh,
Not of their master’s will those coursers swift delay!
— The wild beasts vent on man their rage,
Yet ‘gainst their brothers’ lives men point the murderous steel;
Unjust and cruel wars they wage,
And haste with flying darts the death to meet or deal.
— No right nor reason can they show;
’Tis but because their lands and laws are not the same.
Wouldst thou give each his due; then know
Thy love the good must have, the bad thy pity claim.
On this I said: ‘I see how there is a happiness and misery founded on the actual deserts of the righteous and the wicked. Nevertheless, I wonder in myself whether there is not some good and evil in fortune as the vulgar understand it. Surely, no sensible man would rather be exiled, poor and disgraced, than dwell prosperously in his own country, powerful, wealthy, and high in honour. Indeed, the work of wisdom is more clear and manifest in its operation when the happiness of rulers is somehow passed on to the people around them, especially considering that the prison, the law, and the other pains of legal punishment are properly due only to mischievous citizens on whose account they were originally instituted. Accordingly, I do exceedingly marvel why all this is completely reversed — why the good are harassed with the penalties due to crime, and the bad carry off the rewards of virtue; and I long to hear from thee what reason may be found for so unjust a state of disorder. For assuredly I should wonder less if I could believe that all things are the confused result of chance. But now my belief in God’s governance doth add amazement to amazement. For, seeing that He sometimes assigns fair fortune to the good and harsh fortune to the bad, and then again deals harshly with the good, and grants to the bad their hearts’ desire, how does this differ from chance, unless some reason is discovered for it all?’
‘Nay; it is not wonderful,’ said she, ‘if all should be thought random and confused when the principle of order is not known. And though thou knowest not the causes on which this great system depends, yet forasmuch as a good ruler governs the world, doubt not for thy part that all is rightly done.’
Who knoweth not how near the pole
Bootes’ course doth go,
Must marvel by what heavenly law
He moves his Wain so slow;
Why late he plunges ‘neath the main,
And swiftly lights his beams again.
When the full-orbèd moon grows pale
In the mid course of night,
And suddenly the stars shine forth
That languished in her light,
Th’ astonied nations stand at gaze,
And beat the air in wild amaze.13
None marvels why upon the shore
The storm-lashed breakers beat,
Nor why the frost-bound glaciers melt
At summer’s fervent heat;
For here the cause seems plain and clear,
Only what’s dark and hid we fear.
Weak-minded folly magnifies
All that is rare and strange,
And the dull herd’s o’erwhelmed with awe
At unexpected change.
But wonder leaves enlightened minds,
When ignorance no longer blinds.
13 To frighten away the monster swallowing the moon. The superstition was once common. See Tylor’s ‘Primitive Culture,’ pp. 296–302.
‘True,’ said I; ‘but, since it is thy office to unfold the hidden cause of things, and explain principles veiled in darkness, inform me, I pray thee, of thine own conclusions in this matter, since the marvel of it is what more than aught else disturbs my mind.’
A smile played one moment upon her lips as she replied: ‘Thou callest me to the greatest of all subjects of inquiry, a task for which the most exhaustive treatment barely suffices. Such is its nature that, as fast as one doubt is cut away, innumerable others spring up like Hydra’s heads, nor could we set any limit to their renewal did we not apply the mind’s living fire to suppress them. For there come within its scope the questions of the essential simplicity of providence, of the order of fate, of unforeseen chance, of the Divine knowledge and predestination, and of the freedom of the will. How heavy is the weight of all this thou canst judge for thyself. But, inasmuch as to know these things also is part of the treatment of thy malady, we will try to give them some consideration, despite the restrictions of the narrow limits of our time. Moreover, thou must for a time dispense with the pleasures of music and song, if so be that thou findest any delight therein, whilst I weave together the connected train of reasons in proper order.’
‘As thou wilt,’ said I.
Then, as if making a new beginning, she thus discoursed: ‘The coming into being of all things, the whole course of development in things that change, every sort of thing that moves in any wise, receives its due cause, order, and form from the steadfastness of the Divine mind. This mind, calm in the citadel of its own essential simplicity, has decreed that the method of its rule shall be manifold. Viewed in the very purity of the Divine intelligence, this method is called providence; but viewed in regard to those things which it moves and disposes, it is what the ancients called fate. That these two are different will easily be clear to anyone who passes in review their respective efficacies. Providence is the Divine reason itself, seated in the Supreme Being, which disposes all things; fate is the disposition inherent in all things which move, through which providence joins all things in their proper order. Providence embraces all things, however different, however infinite; fate sets in motion separately individual things, and assigns to them severally their position, form, and time.
‘So the unfolding of this temporal order unified into the foreview of the Divine mind is providence, while the same unity broken up and unfolded in time is fate. And although these are different, yet is there a dependence between them; for the order of destiny issues from the essential simplicity of providence. For as the artificer, forming in his mind beforehand the idea of the thing to be made, carries out his design, and develops from moment to moment what he had before seen in a single instant as a whole, so God in His providence ordains all things as parts of a single unchanging whole, but carries out these very ordinances by fate in a time of manifold unity. So whether fate is accomplished by Divine spirits as the ministers of providence, or by a soul, or by the service of all nature — whether by the celestial motion of the stars, by the efficacy of angels, or by the many-sided cunning of demons — whether by all or by some of these the destined series is woven, this, at least, is manifest: that providence is the fixed and simple form of destined events, fate their shifting series in order of time, as by the disposal of the Divine simplicity they are to take place. Whereby it is that all things which are under fate are subjected also to providence, on which fate itself is dependent; whereas certain things which are set under providence are above the chain of fate — viz., those things which by their nearness to the primal Divinity are steadfastly fixed, and lie outside the order of fate’s movements. For as the innermost of several circles revolving round the same centre approaches the simplicity of the midmost point, and is, as it were, a pivot round which the exterior circles turn, while the outermost, whirled in ampler orbit, takes in a wider and wider sweep of space in proportion to its departure from the indivisible unity of the centre — while, further, whatever joins and allies itself to the centre is narrowed to a like simplicity, and no longer expands vaguely into space — even so whatsoever departs widely from primal mind is involved more deeply in the meshes of fate, and things are free from fate in proportion as they seek to come nearer to that central pivot; while if aught cleaves close to supreme mind in its absolute fixity, this, too, being free from movement, rises above fate’s necessity. Therefore, as is reasoning to pure intelligence, as that which is generated to that which is, time to eternity, a circle to its centre, so is the shifting series of fate to the steadfastness and simplicity of providence.
‘It is this causal series which moves heaven and the stars, attempers the elements to mutual accord, and again in turn transforms them into new combinations; this which renews the series of all things that are born and die through like successions of germ and birth; it is its operation which binds the destinies of men by an indissoluble nexus of causality, and, since it issues in the beginning from unalterable providence, these destinies also must of necessity be immutable. Accordingly, the world is ruled for the best if this unity abiding in the Divine mind puts forth an inflexible order of causes. And this order, by its intrinsic immutability, restricts things mutable which otherwise would ebb and flow at random. And so it happens that, although to you, who are not altogether capable of understanding this order, all things seem confused and disordered, nevertheless there is everywhere an appointed limit which guides all things to good. Verily, nothing can be done for the sake of evil even by the wicked themselves; for, as we abundantly proved, they seek good, but are drawn out of the way by perverse error; far less can this order which sets out from the supreme centre of good turn aside anywhither from the way in which it began.
‘“Yet what confusion,” thou wilt say, “can be more unrighteous than that prosperity and adversity should indifferently befall the good, what they like and what they loathe come alternately to the bad!” Yes; but have men in real life such soundness of mind that their judgments of righteousness and wickedness must necessarily correspond with facts? Why, on this very point their verdicts conflict, and those whom some deem worthy of reward, others deem worthy of punishment. Yet granted there were one who could rightly distinguish the good and bad, yet would he be able to look into the soul’s inmost constitution, as it were, if we may borrow an expression used of the body? The marvel here is not unlike that which astonishes one who does not know why in health sweet things suit some constitutions, and bitter others, or why some sick men are best alleviated by mild remedies, others by severe. But the physician who distinguishes the precise conditions and characteristics of health and sickness does not marvel. Now, the health of the soul is nothing but righteousness, and vice is its sickness. God, the guide and physician of the mind, it is who preserves the good and banishes the bad. And He looks forth from the lofty watch-tower of His providence, perceives what is suited to each, and assigns what He knows to be suitable.
‘This, then, is what that extraordinary mystery of the order of destiny comes to — that something is done by one who knows, whereat the ignorant are astonished. But let us consider a few instances whereby appears what is the competency of human reason to fathom the Divine unsearchableness. Here is one whom thou deemest the perfection of justice and scrupulous integrity; to all-knowing Providence it seems far otherwise. We all know our Lucan’s admonition that it was the winning cause that found favour with the gods, the beaten cause with Cato. So, shouldst thou see anything in this world happening differently from thy expectation, doubt not but events are rightly ordered; it is in thy judgment that there is perverse confusion.
‘Grant, however, there be somewhere found one of so happy a character that God and man alike agree in their judgments about him; yet is he somewhat infirm in strength of mind. It may be, if he fall into adversity, he will cease to practise that innocency which has failed to secure his fortune. Therefore, God’s wise dispensation spares him whom adversity might make worse, will not let him suffer who is ill fitted for endurance. Another there is perfect in all virtue, so holy and nigh to God that providence judges it unlawful that aught untoward should befall him; nay, doth not even permit him to be afflicted with bodily disease. As one more excellent than I14 hath said:
‘“The very body of the holy saint
Is built of purest ether.”
Often it happens that the governance is given to the good that a restraint may be put upon superfluity of wickedness. To others providence assigns some mixed lot suited to their spiritual nature; some it will plague lest they grow rank through long prosperity; others it will suffer to be vexed with sore afflictions to confirm their virtues by the exercise and practice of patience. Some fear overmuch what they have strength to bear; others despise overmuch that to which their strength is unequal. All these it brings to the test of their true self through misfortune. Some also have bought a name revered to future ages at the price of a glorious death; some by invincible constancy under their sufferings have afforded an example to others that virtue cannot be overcome by calamity — all which things, without doubt, come to pass rightly and in due order, and to the benefit of those to whom they are seen to happen.
‘As to the other side of the marvel, that the bad now meet with affliction, now get their hearts’ desire, this, too, springs from the same causes. As to the afflictions, of course no one marvels, because all hold the wicked to be ill deserving. The truth is, their punishments both frighten others from crime, and amend those on whom they are inflicted; while their prosperity is a powerful sermon to the good, what judgments they ought to pass on good fortune of this kind, which often attends the wicked so assiduously.
‘There is another object which may, I believe, be attained in such cases: there is one, perhaps, whose nature is so reckless and violent that poverty would drive him more desperately into crime. His disorder providence relieves by allowing him to amass money. Such a one, in the uneasiness of a conscience stained with guilt, while he contrasts his character with his fortune, perchance grows alarmed lest he should come to mourn the loss of that whose possession is so pleasant to him. He will, then, reform his ways, and through the fear of losing his fortune he forsakes his iniquity. Some, through a prosperity unworthily borne, have been hurled headlong to ruin; to some the power of the sword has been committed, to the end that the good may be tried by discipline, and the bad punished. For while there can be no peace between the righteous and the wicked, neither can the wicked agree among themselves. How should they, when each is at variance with himself, because his vices rend his conscience, and ofttimes they do things which, when they are done, they judge ought not to have been done. Hence it is that this supreme providence brings to pass this notable marvel — that the bad make the bad good. For some, when they see the injustice which they themselves suffer at the hands of evil-doers, are inflamed with detestation of the offenders, and, in the endeavour to be unlike those whom they hate, return to the ways of virtue. It is the Divine power alone to which things evil are also good, in that, by putting them to suitable use, it bringeth them in the end to some good issue. For order in some way or other embraceth all things, so that even that which has departed from the appointed laws of the order, nevertheless falleth within an order, though another order, that nothing in the realm of providence may be left to haphazard. But
‘“Hard were the task, as a god, to recount all, nothing omitting.”
Nor, truly, is it lawful for man to compass in thought all the mechanism of the Divine work, or set it forth in speech. Let us be content to have apprehended this only — that God, the creator of universal nature, likewise disposeth all things, and guides them to good; and while He studies to preserve in likeness to Himself all that He has created, He banishes all evil from the borders of His commonweal through the links of fatal necessity. Whereby it comes to pass that, if thou look to disposing providence, thou wilt nowhere find the evils which are believed so to abound on earth.
‘But I see thou hast long been burdened with the weight of the subject, and fatigued with the prolixity of the argument, and now lookest for some refreshment of sweet poesy. Listen, then, and may the draught so restore thee that thou wilt bend thy mind more resolutely to what remains.’
14 Parmenides. Boethius seems to forget for the moment that Philosophy is speaking.
Wouldst thou with unclouded mind
View the laws by God designed,
Lift thy steadfast gaze on high
To the starry canopy;
See in rightful league of love
All the constellations move.
Fiery Sol, in full career,
Ne’er obstructs cold Phoebe’s sphere;
When the Bear, at heaven’s height,
Wheels his coursers’ rapid flight,
Though he sees the starry train
Sinking in the western main,
He repines not, nor desires
In the flood to quench his fires.
In true sequence, as decreed,
Daily morn and eve succeed;
Vesper brings the shades of night,
Lucifer the morning light.
Love, in alternation due,
Still the cycle doth renew,
And discordant strife is driven
From the starry realm of heaven.
Thus, in wondrous amity,
Warring elements agree;
Hot and cold, and moist and dry,
Lay their ancient quarrel by;
High the flickering flame ascends,
Downward earth for ever tends.
So the year in spring’s mild hours
Loads the air with scent of flowers;
Summer paints the golden grain;
Then, when autumn comes again,
Bright with fruit the orchards glow;
Winter brings the rain and snow.
Thus the seasons’ fixed progression,
Tempered in a due succession,
Nourishes and brings to birth
All that lives and breathes on earth.
Then, soon run life’s little day,
All it brought it takes away.
But One sits and guides the reins,
He who made and all sustains;
King and Lord and Fountain-head,
Judge most holy, Law most dread;
Now impels and now keeps back,
Holds each waverer in the track.
Else, were once the power withheld
That the circling spheres compelled
In their orbits to revolve,
This world’s order would dissolve,
And th’ harmonious whole would all
In one hideous ruin fall.
But through this connected frame
Runs one universal aim;
Towards the Good do all things tend,
Many paths, but one the end.
For naught lasts, unless it turns
Backward in its course, and yearns
To that Source to flow again
Whence its being first was ta’en.
‘Dost thou, then, see the consequence of all that we have said?’
‘Nay; what consequence?’
‘That absolutely every fortune is good fortune.’
‘And how can that be?’ said I.
‘Attend,’ said she. ‘Since every fortune, welcome and unwelcome alike, has for its object the reward or trial of the good, and the punishing or amending of the bad, every fortune must be good, since it is either just or useful.’
‘The reasoning is exceeding true,’ said I, ‘the conclusion, so long as I reflect upon the providence and fate of which thou hast taught me, based on a strong foundation. Yet, with thy leave, we will count it among those which just now thou didst set down as paradoxical.’
‘And why so?’ said she.
‘Because ordinary speech is apt to assert, and that frequently, that some men’s fortune is bad.’
‘Shall we, then, for awhile approach more nearly to the language of the vulgar, that we may not seem to have departed too far from the usages of men?’
‘At thy good pleasure,’ said I.
‘That which advantageth thou callest good, dost thou not?’
‘And that which either tries or amends advantageth?’
‘Is good, then?’
‘Well, this is their case who have attained virtue and wage war with adversity, or turn from vice and lay hold on the path of virtue.’
‘I cannot deny it.’
‘What of the good fortune which is given as reward of the good — do the vulgar adjudge it bad?’
‘Anything but that; they deem it to be the best, as indeed it is.’
‘What, then, of that which remains, which, though it is harsh, puts the restraint of just punishment on the bad — does popular opinion deem it good?’
‘Nay; of all that can be imagined, it is accounted the most miserable.’
‘Observe, then, if, in following popular opinion, we have not ended in a conclusion quite paradoxical.’
‘How so?’ said I.
‘Why, it results from our admissions that of all who have attained, or are advancing in, or are aiming at virtue, the fortune is in every case good, while for those who remain in their wickedness fortune is always utterly bad.’
‘It is true,’ said I; ‘yet no one dare acknowledge it.’
‘Wherefore,’ said she, ‘the wise man ought not to take it ill, if ever he is involved in one of fortune’s conflicts, any more than it becomes a brave soldier to be offended when at any time the trumpet sounds for battle. The time of trial is the express opportunity for the one to win glory, for the other to perfect his wisdom. Hence, indeed, virtue gets its name, because, relying on its own efficacy, it yieldeth not to adversity. And ye who have taken your stand on virtue’s steep ascent, it is not for you to be dissolved in delights or enfeebled by pleasure; ye close in conflict — yea, in conflict most sharp — with all fortune’s vicissitudes, lest ye suffer foul fortune to overwhelm or fair fortune to corrupt you. Hold the mean with all your strength. Whatever falls short of this, or goes beyond, is fraught with scorn of happiness, and misses the reward of toil. It rests with you to make your fortune what you will. Verily, every harsh-seeming fortune, unless it either disciplines or amends, is punishment.’
Ten years a tedious warfare raged,
Ere Ilium’s smoking ruins paid
For wedlock stained and faith betrayed,
And great Atrides’ wrath assuaged.
But when heaven’s anger asked a life,
And baffling winds his course withstood,
The king put off his fatherhood,
And slew his child with priestly knife.
When by the cavern’s glimmering light
His comrades dear Odysseus saw
In the huge Cyclops’ hideous maw
Engulfed, he wept the piteous sight.
But blinded soon, and wild with pain —
In bitter tears and sore annoy —
For that foul feast’s unholy joy
Grim Polyphemus paid again.
His labours for Alcides win
A name of glory far and wide;
He tamed the Centaur’s haughty pride,
And from the lion reft his skin.
The foul birds with sure darts he slew;
The golden fruit he stole — in vain
The dragon’s watch; with triple chain
From hell’s depths Cerberus he drew.
With their fierce lord’s own flesh he fed
The wild steeds; Hydra overcame
With fire. ‘Neath his own waves in shame
Maimed Achelous hid his head.
Huge Cacus for his crimes was slain;
On Libya’s sands Antæus hurled;
The shoulders that upheld the world
The great boar’s dribbled spume did stain.
Last toil of all — his might sustained
The ball of heaven, nor did he bend
Beneath; this toil, his labour’s end,
The prize of heaven’s high glory gained.
Brave hearts, press on! Lo, heavenward lead
These bright examples! From the fight
Turn not your backs in coward flight;
Earth’s conflict won, the stars your meed!
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:51