Boethius’ Consolation Part VI, Whether All Things Seek the Good?

The end of Prose X of Book III contains the most thorough presentation thus far of Boethius’s claim that all things seek the good, which is to say that all things really seek God. But a contemporary reader might have some worries at this point because there are at least two serious objections to Boethius’s point.

First, the Subjectivity Objection. According to this objection “good” is not an inherent property of objects or actions. Rather, a thing’s goodness is given to it by a subjective evaluation of some person or group of people.

Second, the Depravity Objection. Some people seem to desire evil things. Perhaps some of these people even desire evil things precisely insofar as they are evil, or insofar as they are taken to be evil.

One might be inclined to think that these are peculiarly modern problems, meaning that benighted Boethius was simply not aware of them. However, although Boethius did not read Kant or Spinoza, he could have been aware of something like the Subjectivity Objection through Protagoras’s statement that man is the measure of all things. Likewise, although Boethius did not know about the horrors of the holocaust, living in the decline of the Roman Empire presumably provided him ample opportunity to consider the nature of depravity. Perhaps these objections did not seem as strong or worthy of discussion to Boethius as they do to us, but it does seem appropriate to inquire how well Boethius’s account can respond to them.

Unfortunately, it is not immediately obvious how Boethius will successfully answer the Subjectivity Objection. So we must pass on to the Depravity Objection.

The first component of a Boethian response to the Depravity Objection is to note that Boethius’s whole argument here depends upon the identity of goodness (bonitas) and happiness (felicitas). But, even though all things seek the good, this does not preclude the possibility of choosing the wrong or the unpleasant. Boethius offers two scenarios under which this could be the case: misidentifying the good and pursuing a higher good.

One misidentifies the good, for instance, when one believes that wealth or fame is the good itself. Boethius allows that wealth or fame might bring a sort of transient sort of false happiness, but it will turn out to be fleeting because it is not true happiness. Nevertheless, the action of acquiring wealth was done in order to pursue the good.

Likewise, one can pursue something that is unpleasant for the sake of a more valuable good. Suppose my doctor advises me to take up horseback riding. I happen to find riding a horse unpleasant, but I believe my doctor that the exercise involved will improve my health, which would make me happy. So, I go riding even though it makes me unhappy in order to pursue my desire for health, which does make me happy (or at least, I believe it will make me happy).

But would these two scenarios under which one could choose the wrong allow Boethius to meet the Depravity objection? Suppose we take as an example of a depraved action St. Augustine’s juvenile pear theft, which he tells us he did just because it was wrong. How could Boethius respond to this story?

I think Boethius’s response should be that the depraved juvenile Augustine simply (mistakenly) identifies happiness with evil rather than goodness. Young Augustine does an evil action because it is evil, but this does not change the fact sthat young Augustine expected that stealing the pears would make him happy. Augustine’s problem is at least partially a cognitive mistake, but this does nothing to derail Boethius’ claim that all things seek the good because it is just a more extreme version of misidentifying the good, namely thinking that evil is the good.

But if this sort of garden-variety depravity does not count against Boethius’s claim, perhaps some more daring sort of depravity would. What would be required in order for a depraved act to count as a successful counterexample? It would have to be an act undertaken knowingly to be evil and with the expectation that doing this evil action would not make the agent happy. If there is such an example of radical depravity, then Boethius’s claim is in trouble.

But what could possibly motivate someone to pursue her own unhappiness except for the triumph of some greater good judged to be more important than her own happiness? Suppose a woman kills her children, knowing that doing so will make her unhappy, but judging it best for the children not to have to grow up with an abusive father. This is an example of a radically evil action, and yet it is still done for the sake of some greater happiness, although mistakenly.

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