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Review: The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

The Consolation of Philosophy: Revised Edition (Penguin Classics)The Consolation of Philosophy: Revised Edition by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In this work from 524 AD, Lady Philosophy (philosophy personified) leads the imprisoned author, Boethius, through discussions about fortune, happiness, justice, predestination, and free will. Through logical reasoning, they make deductions that build throughout their conversation. They often refer to the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. Lady Philosophy and Boethius believe in a monotheistic God similar to that of Christianity, although there’s no explicit mention of Christianity.

There are a few main themes. One is that happiness doesn’t come from wealth, power, dignity, fame, or material pleasures; in fact, it comes from independence from material things, but ultimately from God, its true source. Another theme is that God knows and controls everything, but that this doesn’t impinge on man’s free will.

I read this because The Tolkien Professor podcast recommended it for its treatment of the doctrine of predestination and free will, which I’ve never felt I’ve quite understood. This book made things a little clearer, but it remains a nebulous concept.

I listened to the free LibriVox audibook based on the translation by H.R. James.

God’s nature
The world isn’t governed by random hazard, but God the creator rationally governs his work.
All things proceed from God.

Human nature
Humans have a spark of true knowledge from God, but they can forget it.
Humans are insatiably covetous.
People are naturally good. Those who are too weak to be good are evil. All men seek good, but some fail to achieve it because of their perversion.

Fortune and material possessions
Humans are never content; they always have something they’re discontented about. The better a man’s fortune, the more sensitive he is to misfortune.
All passes; neither good fortune nor material things last.
The more possessions a man has, the more care they require; they end up owning him. A man with fewer possessions is free of the worry they involve.
There’s no such thing as misfortune. All fortunes are either just (such as punishment for evil) or useful (such as the correction of bad behavior).

Happiness
Happiness doesn’t come from wealth, power, dignity, fame, or pleasures. It comes from independence, especially from material things.
All men are pursuing happiness.
Happiness doesn’t depend on fortune or material possessions.
God is the source of highest good and happiness.

Justice
We misinterpret the good as suffering and the evil as being rewarded, but the good are always favored and evil always punished.

Predestination and free will
God guides all events in his providence. Humans can’t fully understand His plans.
Free will exists despite God’s foreknowledge and providence, even though humans can’t understand the apparent paradox.
God is eternal, and lives in an eternal present; there’s no past or future. Because He’s outside of time, the time-dependent concept of foreknowledge doesn’t actually make sense.

A paraphrase of the discussion of free will from Book 5, Song 5:
Compare two events: the sun rising, and a man walking. At the moment of their occurrence, they must be taking place; yet the sun’s rising, before it took place, was necessarily obliged to be, while the man’s walking wasn’t. The things which to God are present exist without doubt. But some come from the necessity of things, and others from the power of the agent. From the standpoint of the divine knowledge, all things take place of necessity; but considered of themselves, from a human standpoint, they’re free of necessity.

So, if it’s in a man’s power to change his purpose, does that make providence void, since you could change something God foreknows? You can change your purpose, but providence is inescapable, just as it’s impossible to escape a present spectator. God’s ever-present comprehension and survey of all things comes not from his seeing future events, but from his very nature. So man’s will exists despite providence and foreknowledge, and humans are still responsible for their own actions.

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