Title of Work : Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy



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Title of Work: Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
Date of Meeting: 3/20/09
Preparer of Notes: Paulie from the Block
Summary of Book IV:

In this book, Boethius begins to raise a series of questions for Philosophy based on all that has come before. Specifically, the question of evil in a world governed by an omnipotent and good God is the central dilemma of this book. Philosophy answers by demonstrating that not only does evil not prevail in the world, but in fact evil men are both powerless and (shockingly), non-existent. Furthermore, she shows that no evil can harm a good man, and that the wicked harm themselves in their very vice. Finally, Boethius turns to the question of fate and providence, since seemingly indifferent fate could account for the injustice in the world, but not providence. Philosophy responds by distinguishing between providence (the divine reason itself by which all things are ordered) and fate (the order and disposition as it is seen in the unfolding of events in time).


Summary of Book V:

Boethius begins this final book by inquiring about chance, to which he is answered by Philosophy with Aristotle’s classic definition. Then he raises the much more difficult question of the possibility of free human choice in a world governed by divine providence. To this question, Philosophy affirms the reality of both. Eventually the question resolves itself to that of foreknowledge and freedom: If God has perfect foreknowledge, and if whatever he foresees must happen, how can human beings freely choose what happens? If human choices are free, and so uncertain and unnecessary, how can God know them? Philosophy answers that God does not know as we know, but knows all things outside of time as eternally present. God’s foreknowledge is an eternally present knowledge.


Central Insights, Definitions, Quotations, Take Home:





Detailed Notes:
Book IV

Prose 1: Boethius: Given the divine government of all things, how can there be evil, and, more importantly, how can evil go unpunished?

Philosophy: There is no evil, and evil never goes unpunished.



  1. The good are always powerful and the evil always weak and futile

  2. Vice never goes unpunished nor virtue unrewarded

  3. The good prosper and the evil suffer misfortune


Prose 2: The good always have power and the wicked do not; since good and evil are contraries, we can prove this in two ways (by showing the good to be powerful; by showing the evil to be weak). Furthermore, evil turns out to be nothing.

  1. The good are powerful

    1. Human action depends upon both will and power (without will, nothing is attempted; without power, nothing is actually achieved)

    2. In Book III, we showed that happiness is the good, and that all (good and bad) have their purpose in striving to attain the good

    3. Since men become good by attaining the good, then good men attain what they seek, while evil men do not

    4. So good men are powerful while evil men are impotent

  2. The evil are impotent

    1. Suppose two persons have the same natural function assigned

      1. One accomplishes this action by natural means

      2. The other uses unnatural means, and even then doesn’t accomplish the action, but only pretends to do so

      3. The more powerful of these two is the former, and the latter is impotent

    2. Likewise, good men seek the highest good via the natural means of the virtues

    3. Evil men seek the same good indeed, but by means of concupiscences, which are both false goods, as well as unnatural

    4. Hence the evil men are impotent to attain the goal they actually seek

  3. Furthermore, evil men do not exist

    1. A thing is which maintains its place in nature and acts in accord with its nature

    2. Whatever fails to do this loses its existence which is proper to its nature

    3. Furthermore, God cannot do evil, but God can do all things, and therefore evil must not be a really existing thing

  4. Platonic doctrine upheld: only the wise can do what they want to do; the wicked can follow their desires, but they cannot accomplish what they want.


Prose 3: The good are always rewarded, and the wicked are always punished

  1. The aim or goal of an action = the reward of that action

  2. Happiness is the good for which all human actions are done

  3. Good men always achieve this end, because they accomplish their proper action

  4. Therefore one can only lose this reward by ceasing to be virtuous

  5. And, conversely, wickedness itself is a punishment for the wicked man, since in being wicked the wicked man does not achieve his end, and thus loses his human nature and the possibility of happiness


Prose 4: The wicked are miserable, impotent, and to be pitied (despite appearances)

  1. Boethius objects that, although vicious men are punished within themselves in their own sins, still it is terrible that they are allowed to ruin good men

  2. But Philosophy responds first by saying that the evil man is worse off for being able to accomplish his will, and so this is necessary for their punishment

  3. A (Platonic) paradox: the wicked are happier when they are punished than when they evade justice

    1. If an unhappy man receives some good, then he is more happy than he was

    2. Punishment, inasmuch as it is just, is a good

    3. Thus, when wicked men receive punishment, they must be more happy; if they avoid punishment, they become more evil, and increase their misery

  4. Even more paradoxically, those who injure others are more unhappy than those whom they injure

    1. Since the wicked are unhappy, for them to do evil is to the misery of more evil

    2. But the recipient of the injury has justice, and thus the good, on his side

    3. The corollary of this is a shocking one: we ought to abolish hatred – for no one hates a good man, and hating an evil man is senseless, akin to hating (rather than sympathizing with) someone who has a disease.


Prose 5: Boethius renews his question: Why does an all-good and all-powerful God sometimes seem to reward the wicked with happiness, and afflict the good with sorrow? Aside from the happiness and misery that come to good and evil men’s souls according to their merits, still good things come to the wicked, and evil comes to the good. If things happened by chance, this would be understandable. But how is this compatible with God and his governing providence?
Prose 6: A distinction is now made by Philosophy between Providence and Fate; providence is shown to direct all things toward the good.

  1. The questions involved in the compatibility of Providence with human action are: the simplicity of Providence, the course of Fate, unforeseeable chance, divine knowledge and predestination, and free will.

  2. We can consider the government of all things by the divine mind in two ways:

    1. Providence: considers this government as belong to the purity of the divine mind

      1. This is the divine reason itself which belongs to the most high ruler of all things and which governs all things

      2. The unfolding of temporal events as this is present to the divine mind

      3. The immovable and simple form of all things which come into being

    2. Fate: considers the divine government with reference to the things which it moves and governs

      1. This belongs to all mutable things and is the disposition by which Providence joins all thing in their own order

      2. The unfolding of events as it is worked out in time

      3. The moving connection and temporal order of all things

    3. God by his Providence simply and unchangeably disposes all things that are to be done, even though the things themselves are worked out by Fate in many ways and in the process of time.

  3. Some things are more subject to fate than others, since some stray further away from the center of divine providence than other things.

  4. We can only see confusion and disorder, because we can only view divine governance from the side of Fate, and not from within the center of Providence

    1. We do not know the hearts of man, and cannot fully distinguish between good and evil men: so how are we to know if the workings of Fate are punishing, testing, rewarding, etc.?

    2. Furthermore, we do not know the limits or the extents of natural dispositions – some troubles are given to test, others are given good fortune, because adversities would ruin them and cause them to despair and commit evils.

    3. Providence often brings it about that the wicked make other wicked men good, which is something we could not bring about on ourselves

  5. Nevertheless, Providence is a mystery, and cannot be easily penetrated. We must simply maintain that Providence governs all things to their good end, and then we will see that the evil in the world is actually non-existent.


Prose 7: Restatement of the thesis that all fortune is good

  1. All fortune has as its purpose either the reward or trial of good men, or the correction and punishment of the wicked, and thus must be good because it is clearly either just or useful

  2. One can make of one’s fortune what one will; for any fortune which seems difficult either tests virtue or corrects and punishes vice.



Book V

Prose 1: Chance is discussed, and is defined in traditional Aristotelian terms

  1. In one sense, chance does not exist

    1. Define chance as: an event produced by random motion and without any sequence of causes

    2. Since we have already established the fact of divine governance, then there can be no such thing of chance in this sense

  2. In another sense (that taken by Aristotle in the Physics), there is chance

    1. Chance is defined as: an unexpected event brought about by the occurrence of causes which had other purposes in view (i.e. a ‘coincidence of causes’)

    2. This is more than compatible with divine Providence, and, indeed, it is Providence which brings together the disparate orders of causes


Prose 2: Strong affirmation of free will – rational natures must necessarily have free will

  1. Any being, which by its nature has the use of reason, must also have the power of judgment

  2. Judgment distinguishes between what should be desired and what should be avoided

  3. In rational creatures, there is the freedom of desiring and shunning (else what would the judgment be for?)

  4. But human beings are more or less free, depending on what they turn themselves toward: if they contemplate the divine mind, they are more free; if they yield and consent to the passions, they are less free.


Prose 3: Boethius presents a series of arguments which are designed to prove that divine providence and human freedom are in fact incompatible.

  1. The argument for the incompatibility of divine foreknowledge (a necessary component of providence) and human freedom

    1. Whatever God’s Providence forsees will happen, must happen

    2. God foreknows eternally not only all the acts of men, but also their plans and wishes

    3. Therefore all of the acts, plans, and wishes of man must happen

    4. Therefore there is no free will

    5. (Or, conversely, to affirm free will seems to deny God’s providence, because it would mean that God’s foreknowledge could not necessarily see into a contingent and free act)

  2. Furthermore, Boethius rejects the specious argument which maintains that Providence foresees what is to come because it will happen – because this puts the necessity in the act, and makes God dependent upon the act (rather than vice versa)

  3. Summary of the argument:

    1. It is necessary that either

      1. Things which are going to happen are foreseen by God

      2. or, What God foresees will in fact happen

    2. Either way, the freedom of the human will is destroyed

    3. For the outcome of something known in advance must necessarily take place (if that knowledge is true, i.e. certain, knowledge)

    4. Therefore there can be no freedom in human decisions and actions, since the divine mind, foreseeing everything without possibility of error, determines and forces the outcome of everything that is to happen

  4. Boethius now points out the implications of the lack of human freedom

    1. There is no point in rewarding and punishing the good and wicked

    2. Vice and virtue no longer have any meaning

    3. God must be responsible for human vice

    4. There is no point in hoping or praying for anything


Prose 4: In order to see that Providence does not preclude human freedom, we must distinguish between human and divine knowledge

  1. It is a mistake to think that certain foreknowledge actually causes necessity in the voluntary things that do happen

  2. The root of this error is to assume that whatever is known, is known only by the force and nature of the things which are known

  3. But in fact, everything which is known is known not according to its own power but rather according to the capacity of the knower

  4. The capacity of the divine knower is to foreknow things in such a way that this knowledge does not impose necessity upon the contingent things known


Prose 5: Distinguish between human and divine intelligence

  1. Human knowing

    1. There is a passivity to human knowing – external bodies effect the body, creating sensible stimuli

    2. Still, the soul judges these stimuli via its own power, which is active rather than passive

  2. Divine knowing

    1. Because God is a pure intelligence, He knows in a way that does not involve the sensible impressions of the body

    2. If the divine reason is so much above the human reason in the way in which it knows, then we should now consider the way in which this supreme knowledge is able to know contingent future events, and to know them certainly


Prose 6: The problem of Providence and free will is solved once we understand the simplicity and eternal present of divine knowledge, and when we distinguish between simple and conditional necessity

  1. Since everything knows according to its nature, and an aspect of God’s nature is that He is eternal, then we must investigate the nature of His eternity

    1. Eternity is the whole, perfect, and simultaneous possession of endless life.

    2. It is not an endless progression from past to present to future

    3. Rather, whatever being is eternal must be in full possession of itself, always present to itself, and must hold the infinity of moving time present before itself

    4. God is eternal, but the world is merely perpetual

  2. God’s knowledge, which must be according to His nature, therefore transcends all movement of time and abides in the simplicity of its immediate present

  3. Thus, God’s foreknowledge is not, properly speaking, the foreknowledge of future events, but rather the knowledge of a never changing present

  4. This, in turn, means that God’s “fore”knowledge does not imply necessity for contingent, eternally present things

    1. Simple necessity is the necessity in which a thing cannot be other than it is: i.e., men are mortal

    2. Conditional necessity is the necessity in which whatever is known to in fact be the case, is the case: i.e., when someone is known to be walking, then he must necessarily be walking (yet this is not simply necessary)

    3. The same future even its necessary with respect to God’s (eternally present) knowledge of it (this is conditional necessity); but free and undetermined if considered in its own nature (thus it does not have simple necessity)

  5. “There is no doubt, then, that all things will happen which God knows will happen; but some of them happen as a result of free will.”

    1. God has an immediate vision of all things not from the outcome of future events, but from the simplicity of his own nature.

    2. Since this is true, the freedom of the human will remains inviolate

    3. If you will face it, the necessity of virtuous action imposed upon you is very great, since all actions are done in the sight of a Judge who sees all things


Questions, Notes

Note how Boethius tackles (convincingly, to my mind) the problem of Divine Foreknowledge and human freedom. However, it still remains an open question how God can order all things to His own ends, when human beings can freely choose as they will. Clearly, knowledge is needed for this ordering, but so too is the Divine will. I don’t think that Boethius answers how God can will everything for good, and yet men can freely will evil.





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