Great Books Written in Prison: Essays on Classic Works from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr. (2015)
Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy: Why Do the Innocent Suffer?
Anicius Boethius was a theologian of late antiquity who struggled to reconcile the apparent existence of evil with his belief in a just God. In his Consolation of Philosophy, written while in prison, Boethius asks why God would permit injustice to occur at all. His outlook derives from the Stoic tradition of pagan antiquity, which posits the existence of an overarching moral universe, and Boethius advances many ideas that would later become recurring themes of medieval thought. Following the classical model of a Platonic dialogue, he imagines a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy, who serves as his guide. Boethius had been imprisoned after falling out of favor with the current ruler, the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, and was eventually executed, though the exact circumstances of his downfall are hard to determine. Boethius ultimately sought to remain happy in spite of the existence of injustice, and his determined effort led him to consider free will, personal integrity, and the nature of God.—J.W.R.
Why is there any misery at all in the world? Not by chance surely. From some cause then. Is it from the intention of the Deity? But he is perfectly benevolent. Is it contrary to his intention? But he is almighty. Nothing can shake the solidity of his reasoning, so short, so clear, so decisive; except we assert, that these subjects exceed all human capacity.
—Hume, Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, Part X
The ancient philosopher Anicius Boethius knew there were many ways to land in prison, but what often seemed to him most vexing was that he saw himself as innocent—whereas the people who put him behind bars were guilty. He expected that ultimately he would be executed, and he had many long hours to contemplate this fate, probably about a year, before he was killed. But he was also highly learned, and so he tried to analyze his predicament philosophically. He eventually came to view his story as a particular instance of a far more general problem: If the world was created, as Boethius believed, by a god who is all-powerful, all-knowing, and good, then why do the innocent suffer and the wicked prosper? Why does there seem to be so little justice in the world? And why is there evil at all? Does God not care? Does God lack the power to turn wrong into right? How, indeed, can one be happy in the face of so much injustice, since even if the injustice strikes others, it is still terribly wrong? Boethius was working through questions and problems that have often beset thoughtful people in many parts of the world.
These questions are probably as old as thought itself, and they appear in many literary traditions, including those of the classical Greeks, the ancient Hebrews, and the early Christians—all of which were well known to Boethius. But one of the greatest attempts to seek out answers to such questions was Boethius’s own Consolation of Philosophy, which he composed while a prisoner and which he left behind, before being put to death in AD 524.
Prison has had different effects on many different people, but on Boethius the effect was to make him ever more reflective, ever more meditative, and ever more philosophical. His story is especially evocative because it is true, and because it concerns a man who suffered great injustice and still found a way to offer his readers an education in the things that he experienced. Boethius tried to supply a deeply philosophical consolation—to the effect that though we may suffer injustice, we may still call ourselves happy.
Boethius’s Service to the Ostrogoths
Many details of Boethius’s life are unclear. The oldest biographical account, other than remarks in his own writings, comes from Cassiodorus, who had known him and had also served in the Roman Senate before becoming a monk. Boethius is generally thought to have been born in or around Rome, sometime between 475 and 480, and to have died sometime between 524 and 526, after having been imprisoned at Pavia for about a year.
Boethius was a member of the ancient Roman aristocracy, and he lived at a time when his native Italy was ruled by Germanic conquerors, the Ostrogoths. The Ostrogoths had swept down upon the remains of the old Western Roman Empire, just as other Germanic tribes had done before them, and in Boethius’s day it was a given that these conquerors could not be dislodged. Instead, many reflective people in Italy had come to believe that the true task of men and women of good will, whether Roman or Germanic, was to try to make the best of a bad situation. Boethius accepted this view, and as a highly educated Roman, he was called to state service by the Ostrogoths’ preeminent leader, their powerful king Theodoric.
Theodoric was in fact quite conscious of tensions between his Gothic army and the Romans over whom he ruled, and he was also conscious of religious differences that tended to separate Romans from Goths. Most Romans in those days were orthodox Christians, who held that God the Father and God the Son were “the same in substance.” Most Goths, on the other hand, were Arian Christians, who held that the Father and the Son were only “similar in substance.” Expressed in ancient Greek, these two doctrines had only an “iota of difference between them,”1 and yet the difference was deep enough to generate profound resentments and occasional violence. Boethius was orthodox and Theodoric was Arian, yet none of this made any difference when Boethius was asked to contribute to the common good of the community. At Theodoric’s request, he accepted a series of important government appointments, and he ultimately rose to be master of the offices—the head of Theodoric’s civil service.
He said later that in choosing this path he had taken seriously a dictum of the Greek philosopher Plato—that the penalty for good citizens who refuse to participate in government is to be ruled by people worse than themselves. In his Consolation, he specifically relates Plato’s view that “commonwealths would be blessed if they should be ruled by philosophers or if their rulers should happen to have studied philosophy.” And he says that for Plato “it was necessary for philosophers to take part in government to prevent the reins of government falling into the hands of wicked and unprincipled men to the ruin and destruction of the good” (Bk. I, iv, 10).2
When Boethius was still a scholar, he said, he had been happy, but he believed he had a duty to serve the state, for the sake of others (I, iv, 10).
Theodoric had initially placed great confidence in Boethius. Over time, however, the Gothic king began to suspect him. Theodoric continually feared threats to his rule, and he was especially concerned about alleged plots from the powerful ruler of the Eastern Roman Empire, centered at Constantinople, the emperor Zeno. It seems likely that Theodoric’s fears were also stoked by ambitious men at court, and so, eventually, he ordered Boethius’s arrest.
Boethius explains in the Consolation that the immediate reason for his arrest was that he had tried to protect the Roman senate—which still existed and which functioned in those days as an advisory body to the king. He saw the senate as a target of unjustified attacks, though, in fact, many senators eventually deserted Boethius out of fear, or so Boethius says. Whatever the particulars, Boethius was finally brought down, and Theodoric seems to have become increasingly paranoid during this period, fearing intrigues from many different directions. (Not long after Boethius’s death, Theodoric even executed the Pope.)
After his arrest, Boethius was held at Pavia, and during his confinement he put the Consolation together, constructing it as a combination and merging of several different lines of thought. The Consolation (composed in Latin) contains the seeds of much that would later become widespread in Christian theology, but it also has much in common with the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and it contains many doctrines that had come down to Boethius from the older pagan tradition of ancient Stoicism.
Lady Philosophy and the Stoic Tradition
As a Roman patrician, Boethius was well versed in Stoicism, which stressed reason, the conscientious performance of one’s duty, and a serene acceptance of one’s external fate. The Stoics believed that as long as one did right and maintained a positive attitude, one’s life was a life worth living. To the wise, pain, defeat, opprobrium, and death should make no difference. The Consolation adduces arguments in favor of this outlook in books 1 and 2, and this much of the text might have been written almost as easily by a pagan philosopher as by a Christian one. All of these points would have been available to Boethius from his reading of earlier pagan classics.
Yet there is a strong Christian metaphysic in the Consolation too, as well as many echoes of the biblical personage Job, who shuns evil, yet suffers horrible calamities for no apparent reason. Just as Job sought to complain to God of the injustice of the world, so Boethius complains bitterly to a sort of internal philosophical advisor, whom he calls “Lady Philosophy.” Lady Philosophy personifies philosophy itself, and Boethius says that, having followed her lead, he has now been betrayed: “This, then,” he says to her, “is how you reward your followers.” He protests in the same way that Job does, and the intention of both men is to pose the same question to Heaven: Why do the innocent suffer, while the wicked prosper?
As it happened, Boethius wrote out the whole of the Consolation as a conversation between himself and Lady Philosophy, who attempts to console him by explaining the transient nature of earthly fame, wealth, and honor, and by extolling the superiority of virtue, the intellect, and what she calls the “one true good.” Lady Philosophy is of course a creation of Boethius’s imagination, and his conversation with her is his invention—to express philosophical ideas. But she is vividly drawn in his text, and she appears in his cell quite suddenly, just as he is in the middle of lamenting his fate. Boethius depicts himself as speaking with the Muses of Poetry, who attend him in his sorrow, and they induce him to write poetry: “So sinks the mind in deep despair,” Boethius writes in verse, “And sight grows dim; when storms of life / Inflate the weight of earthly care, / The mind forgets its inward light / And turns in trust to the dark without” (I, ii, 5).
Boethius portrays Lady Philosophy as tall and ethereal, and he says she wears a garment of imperishable fabric, “covered with the dust of long neglect.” There are Greek letters on her garment, from the letter Pi to the letter Theta, and these letters represent the two basic kinds of sciences according to the ancient philosopher Aristotle—the practical and the theoretical.
Lady Philosophy explains that she has learned of Boethius’s predicament, and so she has appeared to him to offer help in his hour of need. He suffers, she says, not because of enemies or external circumstances, but because of his own internal sickness, which is his inordinate attachment to material and earthly things. Referring to his study of philosophy during earlier periods of his life, she admonishes him, “I gave you arms to protect you and keep your strength unimpaired, but you threw them away. Surely you recognize me? And yet you do not speak. Is it shame or is it astonishment that keeps you silent?” She lays her hand on his breast and says, “It is nothing serious, only a touch of amnesia.” He has forgotten who he is, she explains, and so she promises to “wipe a little of the blinding cloud of worldly concern” from his eyes (I, ii, 6).
As it turns out, Lady Philosophy refers often to God in her remarks, yet the Consolation, as a philosophical text, does not invoke any particular religion. There is no reference to Jesus or to Christianity per se—or to any other religion. Nevertheless, Boethius’s god is much like the god of the biblical Job in that Boethius sees God not only as eternal and all-knowing, but also as the source of all that is good. And like Job, Boethius questions the universal order of the world; both men protest that they are victims of injustice, and they demand an explanation.
One of the points to which Boethius’s conversation with Lady Philosophy will tend is the idea that as a mere mortal Boethius cannot understand God’s ways, or, as he puts it later, “it is not allowed to man to comprehend in thought all the ways of divine work or expound them in speech” (IV, vi, 109). God’s actions, it seems, are far beyond human understanding, and this of course is a common biblical theme.
Yet one of the most striking things about the Consolation is that, while defending the notion that God is actually just and fair, Boethius gives voice, for the sake of argument, to the opposing view: the thesis that God is not just and not fair. For example, in one of the many poetic sections of the book (which alternates between prose and verse), Boethius asks,
Why else does slippery Fortune change
So much, and punishment more fit
For crime oppress the innocent?
Corrupted men sit throned on high;
By strange reversal wickedness
Downtreads the necks of holy men [I, v, 16].
Fortune as Fickle
Early in his conversation with Lady Philosophy, Boethius indicates that he had been favored by Fortune and that he had come to believe that he fully deserved Fortune’s benefits. It was not until he suffered that he began to reflect on whether he had really deserved his seeming good fortune after all. Just as the biblical Job had sought to question and challenge God in the heavens, complaining of his fate, so Boethius, in his prison cell, poses similar challenges to Lady Philosophy. He seeks to understand why evil exists in the world, and he seeks to understand it in terms of reason and common sense, not blind faith.
Boethius is particularly distressed that the wicked so often seem to enjoy prosperity.
I seem to see the wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy; I seem to see all the most desperate of men threatening new false denunciations; I seem to see good men lying prostrate with fear at the danger I am in while all abandoned villains are encouraged to attempt every crime in the expectation of impunity or even in the hope of reward for its accomplishment; and I seem to see the innocent deprived of peace and safety and even of all chance of self defense [I, iv, 14–15].
In addition, one of the things Boethius finds particularly galling is that he is falsely accused—because he has striven to do good:
I will just say that the final burden which adversity heaps on her victims, is that when some accusation is made against them, they are believed to have deserved all that they suffer. And so, stripped of every possession, thrust from my offices, and with my reputation in ruins, for doing a favor I have received a punishment [I, iv, 14].
In these same passages, Boethius tells Lady Philosophy that he considers himself one of the unhappiest of all men and wishes for death. Indeed, the first book of the Consolation opens with profound grief:
I who once wrote songs with joyful zeal
Am driven by grief to enter weeping mode…
Old age came suddenly by suffering sped,
And grief then bade her government begin:
My hair untimely white upon my head,
And I a worn out bone-bag hung with flesh.
Death would be a blessing if it spared the glad
But heeded invocations from the wretch.
And now Death’s ears are deaf to hopeless cries,
His hands refuse to close poor weeping eyes.
While with success false Fortune favoured me
One hour of sadness could not have thrown me down.
But now her trustless countenance has clouded,
Small welcome to the days that lengthen life.
Foolish the friends who called me happy then:
For falling shows a man stood insecure [I, i, 1].
Lady Philosophy’s replies to these laments with a series of arguments, posed in the form of questions and much like the sort of conversation that one sees in a Platonic dialogue. Lady Philosophy explains that she will seek to cure Boethius of his “sickness” by offering him a series of treatments—from gentle treatments to harsh ones. The gentle treatments, being arguments that are conceptually easier to grasp, are drawn from the Stoic tradition, but the harsh and stringent one will be more abstract and difficult, being philosophical reasonings about the nature of reality and goodness, which in later centuries would become core elements of Christian metaphysics.
One of Lady Philosophy’s key contentions, drawn from the ancient Stoic tradition, is that we truly control only our own will—not the external world. Our conduct and our attitude are within our power, but all external things are ultimately beyond our power. If we then seek to found our happiness on things that we cannot control, we will ultimately be defeated—and unhappy.
According to Lady Philosophy, Fortune is fickle: “Inconsistency is my very essence,” she says, as she puts words into the mouth of Fortune. “It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top” (II, ii, 25). She invokes the famous Wheel of Fortune, which carries the low up high, and brings the high down low, and she says that the apparent goods of the external world are merely transient. What happens to those who chase after material things, she says, is that they become slaves—out of fear of losing the very things they chase.
Moreover, there is no truly bad fortune, she insists. On the contrary, the loss of anything material or temporal should not be cause for sorrow, because the only things of real value are things within ourselves; they are our virtues, which can never be taken away. Lady Philosophy’s views of good or bad fortune recall those of the ancient Stoic philosopher Epictetus, who said: “Never say of anything, ‘I have lost it’; but, ‘I have returned it.’”3Lady Philosophy warns against calculating one’s happiness according to more suffering or less suffering; in fact, we all receive what appears to be good fortune and bad fortune (II, ii, 25). But in truth, “nothing is miserable except when you think it so, and vice versa, all luck is good luck to the man who bears it with equanimity” (II, iv, 31).
In Lady Philosophy’s view, the deceptive nature of apparent good fortune even applies to the friends that fortune sends our way. “The friend that success brings you becomes your foe in time of misfortune. And there is no evil more able to do you injury than a friend turned foe” (III, v, 57).
Boethius’s Emphasis on Moral Motivation
A profound moralism underlies most of Boethius’s remarks on these matters, and he is particularly concerned with moral motivation. He is often concerned with why we do what we do, and he asks why we should even care to do right. What reason can we have to be just, he asks, in a world that often seems so unjust?
Lady Philosophy’s attempts to answer such questions often turn on the idea of happiness, though the notion of happiness that she invokes is sometimes elusive and abstract. In fact, Boethius was well acquainted with the question of why we should bother to do right, because it is the subject of a famous discussion in Plato’s Republic, from which Boethius often drew. In book 2 of the Republic, the character Glaucon argues that people do right only for the sake of rewards and to avoid punishments, and he asserts further that no one would bother to do right rather than wrong were it not for these incentives. To buttress this view, he tells the story of a man who acquires a ring of invisibility that allows him to practice injustice without penalty, and he says that anyone with a similar ring would regard justice as a waste of time. In Glaucon’s telling, just conduct is merely a means to something else, a means to all the external, transient things that Lady Philosophy sees as a trap for the weak-minded.
In contrast to Glaucon’s view (but in keeping with the general outlook of Plato), Boethius seeks to promote disinterested morality—morality for its own sake rather than for a reward. In fact, something similar seems to be at stake in the story of the biblical Job as well, because at the beginning of the story Satan complains to God that Job is righteous only because he has been rewarded. “Touch in all he has,” Satan says to God, “and he will curse you to your face.” Much of the wager between Satan and God is about Job’s true motivation—the question of why he does what he does.
Lady Philosophy asserts that happiness (or felicity, as it is sometimes translated) is based on integrity. In other words, our happiness depends on our virtues, and not on external goods. And apparent bad fortune is often good fortune, precisely because it helps us to discover our integrity and helps to free us from bondage to earthly things. In fact, she says, no one is ever truly secure in this kind of happiness until finally forsaken by Fortune.
All this comes in the form of the “gentle” treatments that Lady Philosophy had promised early on in the story—the treatments that had been based on the tenets of ancient Stoicism. But there are also the harsher, more stringent treatments that Lady Philosophy had promised, and these turn out to consist in abstract, metaphysical reasonings, and it is here that Boethius conveys doctrines that would have much influence in later Christian theology.
Specifically, through a series of questions and inferences, Lady Philosophy argues that there is actually no such thing as evil in the first place. Evil is not really something, she says but rather, only the absence of something, as darkness is the absence of light, or coldness is the absence of heat. Evil is just the absence of goodness, she maintains, and goodness is everywhere present in the world, because God has made only good things. With these propositions, Boethius then seeks to explain how an entirely good god could still make a world that contains what we perceive as evil.
On this view of things, evil is not part of creation at all but rather a gap or vacancy in creation, where God, for reasons that we cannot fathom, has chosen to leave a blank. This outlook is often called the privative theory of evil—evil being only a privation of goodness—and this theory had already been articulated at considerable length by Augustine.4
This philosophical treatment is stringent, because it requires the patient to follow a chain of abstract argumentation and then to draw further corollaries. For example, on this privative view of evil, human wickedness becomes a kind of nothingness, because wickedness is a form of evil and evil does not exist. As a result, then, the souls of the wicked tend toward nonexistence. The wicked extinguish themselves through their own transgressions, and thus they supply a kind of punishment for themselves. The good, by contrast, become ever more real through their own, conscientious actions.
In addition, Lady Philosophy asserts that humans are naturally good and that if they then become evil, they cease to be human at all, because they cease to conform to their own nature. Evil people are thus sub-human. This is part of Lady Philosophy’s claim that evil does not really exist in itself, but is only a lack of goodness, or life, or health: “The result is that you cannot think of anyone as human whom you see transformed by wickedness” (IV, iii, 94).
Lady Philosophy says that nothing external can give true happiness; instead, she contends that happiness must come from within and that one’s virtue is all that one truly has. She equates happiness with the good and asserts further that since God, the creator, is the supreme good, all people are actually seeking God when they seek happiness, though they do not always know it.
Lady Philosophy also insists that all these effects come about as a result of our free will, our free choices in life, and not from any force applied to us externally, by circumstance or by God. Our will is free, she says, and yet at the same time God knows all things eternally, even how each of us will choose when we choose freely. In other words, our will is free and yet God knows how we will choose anyway—and Lady Philosophy says there is no contradiction in this position.
In making these remarks, Boethius has in mind a doctrine also defended by Augustine—to the effect that God is outside of time. God is said to be eternal in the same way that the truth of the Pythagorean Theorem is eternal. It makes no sense to ask when the theorem is true, or to ask what would be the case before it was true or after it is true. The theorem simply is true, and it is eternally so. Questions of when, before, and after are out of place. In a similar way, Boethius conceives of God as being outside of time such that questions of when, before, and after are out of place. God’s material universe unfolds in time, and if it should last forever, it would then be perpetual, meaning it would last for an infinite time. But God is not perpetual, according to Boethius; God is eternal, meaning outside of time altogether.
God knows eternally what our free choices will be, he says, and yet God does not determine these choices for us—any more than the spectators at a chariot race determine how a charioteer will choose to turn his horses, even though everyone knows that a good charioteer will turn his horses at the far end of the track.
All these positions are strongly Augustinian, and Boethius apparently sees Christian theology as being not merely an intellectual curiosity, but as a true support in times of trial. And though the idea that wickedness makes us nothing, whereas conscience makes us real, may seem like a profoundly obscure hypothesis, it nevertheless expresses a recurring theme in later moral philosophy—the idea that our sense of self is strongest when we act from principle rather than from purely selfish motives. To act from selfish motives and only selfish motives is to feel less like a person, more like a thing. (As Jean-Jacques Rousseau would remark more than twelve centuries later, “To be governed by appetite alone is slavery. But obedience to a law that one prescribes to oneself is freedom.”)5
In Lady Philosophy’s telling, there is a just and good god who is beyond our understanding. God is just, she says, but we cannot see God’s overall plan for the world, especially when Fortune and Fate seem so disordered. And Lady Philosophy admits that this is indeed a mystery—for everything takes place simultaneously for God, and we, like Job, in our temporal world, cannot understand this.
Ultimately, she says, happiness is the pursuit of God through intellectual and spiritual means. This is the supreme good, and the only good worth pursuing. All earthly goods, by contrast, are false, and only our intellect and our virtues can lead us to the true good of the soul. Happiness, as Lady Philosophy interprets it, is certainly not the restoration of one’s worldly fortune (including wealth, home, and livestock, as happens at the end of the Book of Job). Reward is not the purpose. Instead, the good man is happy despite his seeming misfortunes. Material misfortune is not significant, and divine retribution in the form of physical torment is not important either. The just man who suffers injustice, Boethius tells us in the end, is happy anyway.
Perhaps, as Lady Philosophy asserts, understanding the suffering of the innocent will always be a mystery. But for us the important question remains how we should live our lives.
1. In Greek, “the same in substance” was written homoousios, whereas “similar in substance” was written homoiousios.
2. Plato’s views appear in the Republic at 473b–d.
3. Epictetus continues, “Is your child dead? It is returned. Is your wife dead? She is returned. Is your estate taken away? Well, and is not that likewise returned? ‘But he who took it away is a bad man.’ What difference is it to you who the giver assigns to take it back? While he gives it to you to possess, take care of it; but don’t view it as your own, just as travelers view a hotel.” The Enchiridion, written in AD 135.
4. The privative theory of evil is defended, for example, in book 7 of Augustine’s Confessions.
5. Rousseau makes these remarks in book 1, chapter 8, of his Social Contract.
Augustine, Confessions. Trans. E. J. Sheed. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2006. Print.
Boethius, Anicius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. Victor Watts. New York: Penguin Classics, 1999. Print.
Epictetus. The Enchiridion in All the Works of Epictetus, Which Are Now Extant; Consisting of His Discourses, Preserved by Arrian, in Four Books, the Enchiridion, and Fragments. Trans. Elizabeth Carter. London: J and F Rivington, 1768. Print.
Hume, David. Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion. Cambridge, MA: Hackett, 1998. Print.
Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. The Social Contract. Trans. Maurice Cranston. New York: Penguin Classics, 1968. Print.