Boethius’s Consolation Part IV, Whether Perfect Happiness Exists?

That all things seek the good is a key component of the Philosophy’s therapy for Boethius. There are partial goods one can attain, riches, fame, power and so forth, but this are all transitory and are as liable to make one unhappy as happy. The good itself should bring perfect, self-sufficient happiness to the one who possesses it. But does this kind of perfect happiness actually exist?

Boethius offers an argument that perfect happiness does exist at a crucial moment in the text (Prose X of Book III). It seems to me that his argument runs thus:

(1) “Everything which is called imperfect is held to be imperfect because of some diminution of what is perfect” (275).

Exactly what (1) is supposed to mean is not yet clear, so Boethius says:

“Hence it happens that if in any class something seems to be imperfect, there must also be something perfect of this class; for if we take away perfection altogether, it cannot even be imagined how that which is held to be imperfect can exist” (275).

I think what Boethius means is something like this: Suppose there is a class F and let x be an imperfect F and y be a perfect F.

(2) If x is imperfectly F, then there exists some y such that y is perfectly F.

The payoff of Boethius’s argument should be:

(3) Because we know imperfect happiness exists, therefore we know that perfect happiness must exist as well by (2).

But why should (2) be the case? I can think of two salient objections:
First, it is very hard to say what it would mean for ordinary objects to be perfect. One might call a chair ‘perfect’ upon sitting down when tired, but this perfection is not an intrinsic attribute of the chair: it is an attribute the chair receives extrinsically in virtue of the desire of the person sitting on it to sit down comfortably. But for Boethius’s argument to work, perfection cannot be an extrinsic attribute, because then the possession of perfection is entirely relative. The perfect chair might turn out to be imperfect just a few minutes later when that same person decides to try to stand on the chair to change a light bulb and finds it just an inch too short.

Second, even supposing that we did come up with a way to speak of the intrinsic perfection of some class of things, how exactly is the existence of the imperfect supposed to entail the real instantiation of perfection? Why should the existence of imperfect empirical chairs point to the reality of a perfect idea of the chair itself?

Boethius adds a sentence that seems meant to address precisely this worry of mine, but I think it actually just exposes all the more clearly the presupposition which animates (1) and (2):

The universe did not take its origin from diminished an unfinished beginnings, but proceeding from beginnings whole and completely finished it lapses into this latest, exhausted state (275).

It seems to me that Boethius’s entire argument rests upon this ancient picture of the world as beginning in perfection and furnished with more or less the same entities as we have now. Over time things begin to slowly decay and it is this slow decay that is responsible for the wickedness and baseness of our present condition. If we were to accept this view then (2) would seem reasonable, because we could refer any existing empirical x to its ideal precursor in the halcyon golden age.

This is ultimately why Boethius’s argument for the existence of perfect happiness fails to persuade us: we do not believe in the golden age.

One Response to Boethius’s Consolation Part IV, Whether Perfect Happiness Exists?

  1. wtm1 says:

    Shane,

    Thanks for this! You are very perceptive here, and you’re explication makes a lot of sense. This notion of decline from original perfection seems to pop up everywhere.

    In any case, I take your comments to be a deconstruction of the ‘forms’, at least in the Platonic sense (correct me if I am wrong!). Here is a question: in what ways are Aristotle’s classifications / categories of beings / things stistinguished from the Platonic notions of forms? This is likely an absurdly simple question, but since I am not a philosopher I will fearlessly ask it!

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