The Hardboiled Optimism of Philosophy (Boethius)

In sections V, VI and VII of Book IV of the Consolation, Philosophy propounds a remarkably optimistic view. “Whatever you see happen here contrary to your expectation, is indeed right order in fact, though in your opinion it is perverse confusion” (367). Furthermore, since God providentially and infallibly directs all events “for the purpose either of rewarding or correcting the bad, every kind [of fortune] is good, since it is agreed to be just or useful” (375).

Even though the character Boethius finds no flaw in Philosophy’s argument, he, like modern readers, finds it inconceivable or paradoxical (377). Philosophy spends the second half of prose VII attempting to make this claim more persuasive by qualifying it in a way. It is true that what people ordinarily take to be “bad” fortune is really good in the sense that it exercises virtue or corrects vice, but it is also true that what people commonly take to be “good” fortune can be bad in the sense that it can corrupt virtue.

The radical implication of this claim is that “the fortune of those who indeed are either in possession of virtue, or making progress in it, or attaining to it, whatever that fortune may be, is all good, but for those who persevere in wickedness every kind of fortune is very bad” (379). But it is impossible for the same event to be good and bad in the same respect simultaneously, so the meaning of this claim must be that the goodness or badness of any event does not come from the event itself, but from the virtue of the one to whom it happens. To a good person like Boethius even false imprisonment and wrongful execution are good insofar as they furnish him an opportunity to develop his own virtue. To a wicked person fame, prosperity and power would themselves be a sort of punishment as they allow her to continue a life of vice.

This conclusion is a bit startling but compared to the assertion that everything that happens is good it seems completely straightforward. At least we can conceive how good things might turn out bad for bad people or bad things turning out good for good ones. The qualification helps the reader past the paradox Philosophy seemed to cause earlier.

Moreover, although this is not mentioned in the text, there are various points of view from which an action can be evaluated. The point of view under discussion here is that of the virtuous person suffering adversity. To him the events of fortune appear ambiguous in the sense that neither “good fortune” nor “bad fortune” is inherently beneficial or detrimental to the pursuit of virtue. However, this does not deny the existence of a different point of view (such as God’s) under which the act of imprisoning someone falsely is unambiguously bad and worthy of punishment.

That Philosophy is an optimist is undisputable. But her optimism is not facile. Nothing in the view she espouses implies that she must overlook the existence of evil. Quite to the contrary, Philosophy’s view calls for an active engagement with the world rather than blithe acceptance, for Philosophy says that “it is placed in your own hands, what kind of fortune you prefer to shape for yourselves; for all fortune that seems adverse, if it does not exercise or correct, punishes” (379).

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