Boethius’ Consolation, Book IV, Prose IV

In prose IV of the fourth book, Boethius’ philosophical therapy now begins to address his own situation more and more closely. The Consolation began with Boethius complaining that the wicked flourish and the virtuous perish. Philosophy has already proven to Boethius’s satisfaction that the good are happy and the wicked wretched. Boethius is not entirely satisfied. Even if vicious are unhappy in their viciousness, it seems unjust for them to escape punishment for their wrongdoing.

Philosophy’s argument in this section will attempt to prove that already in this life the good are always rewarded for their goodness and the vicious always punished for their viciousness. Philosophy’s initial argument begins with a distinction between willing evil, having the capability to do evil and actually doing it. The person who does all three is the most wretched of all.

Now, on Philosophy’s account of things, the wicked “are happier being punished than if the penalty required by justice did not constrain them” (343). Presumably the constraints of a just punishment are meant to preclude the criminal from actually committing more evil actions. The criminal is then ‘happier’ in the sense that he cannot make himself more wretched by doing evil and his “misfortune is relieved by some share in the good” namely the justice of his punishment.

But if one accepts this scheme Philosophy has laid out, then she can argue to the conclusion she wishes to establish:

(1) It is just for the wicked to be punished and unjust for them to escape punishment.
(2) Everything that is just is good and everything unjust is evil.
(3) When the wicked escape punishment, then they have something within them that is evil because it is unjust.
(4) Therefore, escaping punishment (in the ordinary sense) makes the wicked “much less happy than those punished with just retribution” (345).

Philosophy concedes that this argument would seem to many people “unworthy not merely of belief, but even of a hearing” because “they think the freedom to commit evil and go unpunished for the evil done is a happy thing.”

This conclusion, if it stands, should assuage Boethius’s doubts about God’s kindly providential governance of the world because there seems to be a divine law that makes the wicked wretched by nature. Within society there is a system to punish the wicked and if that system should somehow fail, the result is not the triumph of the wicked, but an even more severe punishment for them.

What is perhaps the most remarkable about this argument is the understanding of the human penal system it involves. Boethius understands justice as a rehabilitation of the wicked, not as a retribution. Boethius makes a descriptive statement that punishment is adding something good to the evildoer. But perhaps it is better to understand this as a prescriptive statement that a just punishment ought to add something good to the one it punishes. It seems that not all punishments add something good to the one being punished, after all. Torture is a kind of punishment, but one assumes it is never done for the sake of rehabilitation.

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