Boethius, Book III, Prose XII

Having proven that all things seek the good and that God is the good, the conversation turns in book III, prose XII to the theme of God’s governance over the world, preparing us for the discussion of providence and the existence of evil in later books.

Philosophy argues for three attributes of God’s governance. First, God’s governance is good, insofar as God has been shown to be the good himself. Second, God’s governance is voluntary. According to Philosophy, all things “are ruled voluntarily” by God’s governance insofar as they seek their own good, which is ultimately God himself (301). Therefore, nothing “while remaining true to its own nature would try to go against God” (303). Third, God’s governance is irresistible.

Philosophy’s account of God’s governance seems designed to assuage the worry of determinism or coercive divine heteronomy. She asserts that God himself is guiding the world, even irresistibly, but asserts that this is a good and kind guidance. The crucial step in her argument here is that the guidance is voluntary, coming from the natural desire of the creatures. Obeying your nature just is obeying God’s guidance and vice versa. But putting the claim this way immediately makes it seem suspicious for a variety of reasons. One worries about the naturalistic fallacy, about reifying social conventions into postulated concepts of human nature, etc. But we’ll leave these modern worries aside for a moment to pursue a different problem.

If a lion eats a gazelle, it is easy to see how his nature (carnivore) and his will (hungry) cooperate. Perhaps one can even understand the providence of God in the sense that God willed the lion to eat the gazelle precisely by making the lion this certain sort of predator and the gazelle this certain sort of prey. If this were the case, then the lion is obeying the guidance of God in eating the gazelle, insofar as he is following his nature. However, it seems impossible to infer God’s guidance on the level of the human moral order from physical nature.

The problem is that if obeying God means obeying your nature, then good acts = natural ones (since God is good) and wrong acts = unnatural ones. Suppose a rich person wants to justify exploiting a poor one. He could very well reason by analogy to the lion and the gazelle. “It is right for me to exploit the poor because it is natural for everyone to seek his own advantage competitively; I just happen to be better at it than they are.” But, of course, exploitation is wrong.

Philosophy could respond with a modus tollens argument. “If it is natural to exploit the poor, then it is good. It is not good, therefore it is not natural.” On this account of things Philosophy would be saying that the rich man’s justification is wrong because he has the wrong account of human nature. However to avoid circularity she would have to insist on the identity of “good” and “natural”.

To see why this is problematic, suppose Mary and Tom are both 16, unmarried and fall in love. Mary’s father comes home early from work one day and finds the two of them in flagrante delicto. Mary’s father might have a very strong intuition that something wrong is happening, but I can’t imagine him thinking there would be anything unnatural about it.

Philosophy would presumably have to say something like this. The proper account of human nature links our animality to our rationality in such a way that sexual desire, etc. must be repressed at certain moments in order for society to function smoothly. But this response is already pulling away from the simplicity of the lion analogy. The lion’s nature as a carnivore and his will to hunt seemed to cooperate perfectly. But it seems like Philosophy will be forced to say that the human nature will be divided against itself, with the practical reason as one part of human restraining a different part of the nature, the will.

But if human nature is divided against itself, then how is God guiding human moral order ‘voluntarily’ through our natures? Said another way, if Tom and Mary do something immoral through their natures, then how can God be guiding them through their natures? If we admit the nonidentity of nature and goodness, then Philosophy’s argument seems to be in trouble.


One Response to Boethius, Book III, Prose XII

  1. wtm1 says:

    “But if human nature is divided against itself, then how is God guiding human moral order ‘voluntarily’ through our natures?” Great job problematizing this, Shane! Keep up the good work on Boethius!

    And, congratz again! 😛

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