Book IV of the Consolation begins the discussion of God’s providence and the problem of evil. Boethius has asked why, if God is sovereign, omniscient, omnipotent and good, do evils happen to the virtuous and the vicious escape unpunished (313-315)? Philosophy’s counterargument will attempt to show that this is not actually the case, but rather the virtuous are always rewarded and the vicious always punished, even within this life—there is no discussion of final judgment, heaven or hell in the first two chapters.
Her argument begins from the premise that good and evil are contraries: if “good is powerful, the weakness of evil is evident” and vice versa (319). (“Power” here seems to mean “power to attain one’s desires.”) Now this suggests two subarguments to her. First she will attempt to prove the strength of the good and second she will attempt to prove the weakness of evil.
The first step in her argument is an observation about moral psychology. All human action presupposes two factors, will and ability. In order to do X, one must will X and have the ability to do X. The second step in the argument draws on the earlier discussion in which Philosophy argued that everyone wants the good. This second proposition is problematic, as I discussed in my paper of 26 March, but Boethius gives his assent to it.
This gives Philosophy what she needs to finish her first subargument about the power of the good people. “All men, therefore, good and evil alike strive . . . to arrive at the good.” But if both good and evil people desire the good, then it is clear that the good are superior in that they have the ability to obtain what they desire and the evil do not, because if the evil were to obtain the good, then they would not be evil but good.
Philosophy proposes a striking image to compare the weakness of evil with the strength of goodness. The virtues are the natural functions by which one can obtain the good and happiness. The good person cultivates virtue and obtains happiness. The evil person is trying to obtain happiness like a man walking on his hands is trying to walk because he is trying to obtain happiness by means of his “fluctuating desire” (323) rather than by its natural function, the virtues.
The second subargument Philosophy offers is meant to demonstrate the other half of her claim that good is powerful and evil weak. Her argument begins by asking why the wicked pursue vice (325)?
She can imagine only three possible reasons they might pursue vice: first, if they are simply ignorant, lacking knowledge of what things are to be pursued; second, if they know what should be pursued but are unable to control their desires; third, if they willingly turn aside from the good and choose to pursue vice knowingly. The first and second options seem quite clear. If someone is wicked in virtue of their ignorance or lack of self-control, then Philosophy has what she seeks, namely that evil is weak. However, the admission of the third possibility is surprising, because so far Philosophy has not seemed to allow for the possibility of such a thing as pursuing evil rather than good, indeed this would seem to contradict her earlier arguments that all things seek the good.
Of course, Philosophy is aware of this, because she says, “in this case they cease not merely to be powerful, but simply to be: for those who leave aside the common end of all things that are, at the same time also leave off being” (325-327). Philosophy then makes the very counterintuitive argument that if the wicked can do evil and evil is nothing, therefore the wicked can do nothing and whatever can do nothing is surely the weakest of all.
Something seems unsatisfactory about all this. If this argument stands, then one could reformulate Philosophy’s earlier claim that everything seeks the good in this way: “All things seek the good, except for everything that doesn’t seek the good, which isn’t really a thing, properly speaking.” Formulating it this way, Philosophy’s argument seems to fall prey to what Anthony Flew calls the “No True Scotsman Fallacy.”
“All things seek the good.”
“But Nero is a thing and seeks evil.”
“But all true things seek the good.”
In order to convince, Philosophy needs to provide an independent argument that Nero is not really a thing, although he appears to be one.