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Boethus: The Consolation of Philosophy

Fate and Providence 1 (Book IV, Prose 6)

"It remains," I said, "for you to explain this apparent injustice I'm suffering now (that is, Boethius' imprisonment, torture, and impending execution)."

"The question you're asking," Lady Philosophy replied with a smile, "is the grandest of all mysteries, one which can never be explained completely to the human intellect, for, when one problem is removed, many more arise to take its place, and arise and arise unless the mind is keen and awake. For the problem you raise touches on a number of difficult questions: the simplicity of Providence, the nature of Fate, the unpredictability of Chance, 2 divine and human knowledge, predestination, and free will. You know the difficulty involved in these questions; nevertheless, I will try to answer them in the short space allotted us."

Then, as though she were beginning for the first time, Philosophy said, "The coming-into-being of all things, and the entire course that changeable things take, derive their causes, their order, and their forms from the unchanging mind of God. The mind of God set down all the various rules by which all things are governed while still remaining unchanged in its own simplicity. When the government of all things is seen as belonging to the simplicity and purity of the divine mind, we call it 'Providence.' When this government of all things is seen from the point of view of the things that change and move, that is, all things which are governed, from the very beginning of time we have called this 'Fate.' We can easily see that Providence and Fate are different if we think over the power of discernment each has. Providence is the divine reason, the divine logos , and only belongs to the highest ruler of all things: it is the perspective of the divine mind. 'Fate,' on the other hand, belongs to the things that change and is the way in which Providence joins things together in their proper order. Providence views all things equally and at the same time, despite their diversity and seemingly infinite magnitude. Fate sets individual things in motion once their proper order and form has been established. In other words, Providence is the vision of the divine mind as it sees the unfolding in time of all things, and sees all these things all at once, whereas the unfolding of these events in time, seen as they unfold in time, is called Fate. Even though the two are different, the one depends on the other, for the complex unfolding of Fate derives from the unity of Providence. Think of it this way: a craftsman imagines in his mind the form of whatever thing he intends to make before he sets about making it; he makes it by producing in time through a succession of acts that thing that he originally conceived of in his mind. God, in his Providence, in a unified and simple way, orders all things that are to be done in time; Fate is the unfolding in time through a succession of acts in the order God has conceived. Therefore, whether or not Fate is worked out by angelic spirits serving God, or by some "soul," or nature, or the motions of the stars, or the devil himself, or by none or all of these, one thing you can be certain of: Providence is the unchangeable, simple, and unified form of all things which come into and pass out of existence, while Fate is the connection and temporal order of all those things which the divine mind decided to bring into existence. This leads to the conclusion that all things subject to Fate are in turn subject to Providence; therefore, Fate itself is subject to Providence.

"However, some things subject to Providence are not in turn subject to Fate. For example: consider the example of spheres orbiting around a central point. The sphere closest to the center inscribes a motion very much like the center itself, since its orbit is very small, whereas the outermost sphere circles about in a massively wide orbit which increases in size the farther the sphere retreats from the center. If any of these spheres were to occupy the center, it would become simple like the center and cease to move in space. In this very same way are things related to the divine mind: whatever is at the greatest distance from the divine mind is the most entangled in the nets of Fate; whatever is nearest to the divine mind approaches the center of everything. If anything should adhere directly to the divine mind, it ceases to move and frees itself from the necessities of Fate. We conclude that the changing course of Fate is to the immovable unity of Providence as reasoning is to intellect, as that which comes into and passes from existence is to that which always exists, as time is to eternity, as a circle to its center. Fate moves the heavens and all the stars, governs the basic elements and their combinations, and transforms these mixtures and combinations of elements in reciprocal change. Fate renews all mortal things by allowing them to reproduce into similar creatures. This same power, this Fate, connects all the actions and fortunes of humanity into an unbreakable chain of causation; these causes have their origin in unchangeable Providence, therefore, these causes, too, must be unchangeable. This is how things of the world are governed: all things are produced and affected by an unchangeable order of causes that originate in the unity and simplicity of the divine mind, and this unchangeable order of causes, because it never changes, controls the changeable things which would, without this governance, fall into chaos and disorder. Therefore, even though to you, since you do not understand the unchanging order that governs all things, the changeable things of this world may seem to be chaotic and disordered, still everything is governed by a set and proper order which directs everything in existence towards the Good. Nothing whatsoever is ever done or created for the sake of evil, which includes the actions of evil men, which also are directed towards the good even though their perverted and wretched wills do not conceive this. The order which derives from the center of all things does not turn anyone from their proper course.

"Now, your original question concerns the apparent confusion and disorder which seems to be manifestly shown forth when good men both prosper and suffer, and evil men both prosper and suffer and get both what they want and what they do not want. First, is human judgement so perfect that it can discern who is truly good and who is truly evil? If that were true, why do humans disagree so often, so that the same person is thought by one group to deserve the highest rewards and is thought by another group to deserve the most miserable punishments? Even if I were to grant that some people can somehow distinguish between good and evil people, would that person also be able to look inside the soul and, like a doctor examining a body, discern the inner condition of the person? . . . Now the health of the soul is virtue, and the sickness of the soul is vice. Now, who else is the physician of the soul but God, who preserves and rewards the good and punishes the wicked, and who sees in the great panorama of Providence what is best for everyone? Here is the great conclusion about Fate we have been tending to: divine wisdom understands and does what humanity, in their ignorance, never can understand.

"Because of this ignorance, I will confine myself to explaining what your limited intellect can understand about the divine mind. You may see a man and judge him to be just and good; Providence, which sees all things including the inner condition of the man, may view the man completely otherwise. Thus the poet Lucan wrote that even though Cato was on the side of the conquered, the gods were on the side of the conquerors. 3 Therefore, when something happens which appears contrary to your opinion of right and wrong, it is your opinion which is wrong and confused, while the order of things is right. Let me give you an example. Suppose we have a man who is so fortunate that he seems to be the beloved of God and men. This man may be so weak that were he to suffer any adversity at all, even the slightest, he would buckle and collapse and forsake all virtue and goodness if he did not feel it brought him any profit. Therefore, God in his wise governance spares this poor man any adversity that might ruin his virtue, so that he who cannot bear suffering need not suffer. Suppose we have another man, perfectly virtuous, saintly, and truly beloved of God; this man may also be kept free from illness because it is not right for him to suffer any adversity at all. . . . To other people, Providence mixes both prosperity and adversity according to the condition of their souls; Providence gives suffering to those who would be ruined by too much prosperity, and tests others with sufferings and difficulties who would strengthen their virtue and patience with such sufferings. Most humans are of two types: some are terrified of burdens they can easily bear, while others dismiss burdens they are, in fact, unable to bear. Providence leads both these types through various trials to self-knowledge. Some people earn fame through glorious death or by not breaking down under the most horrific torture; these people prove that evil cannot overcome goodness: it is beyond doubt that these adversities were good, just, and beneficial to the ones who suffered them.

"Let us look at evil men. Sometime their lives are easy and sometimes painful; the source of both of these effects is the divine mind and both of these effects are wrought for the same reasons. Of course, no-one marvels when wicked people suffer, since everyone believes they deserve what they get, for such suffering and punishment prevents others from committing crimes and urges those who are suffering to reform their ways. Yet, evil men who prosper are an extremely powerful argument for good people, for they see, in the prosperity of the wicked, how they should judge the good fortune the wicked often enjoy. The prosperity of the wicked lead to another good, for if it is in the nature of a particular wicked man to be driven to violence and crime if he suffer poverty, Providence prevents this by granting him great wealth. Such a man might compare his evil nature to the good fortune he is enjoying and grow terrified at the possibility of losing his good fortune; he may then reform and behave uprightly as long as he fears losing his wealth. Some evil men who undeservedly enjoy worldly prosperity are driven to ruin by their reprobate character; some evil men have been given the right to heap adversity on the good so that the latter may be tested and strengthened. You see, there is just as much disagreement between evil men and other evil men as there is between evil and good men, because such evil men are frequently in conflict with themselves and their consciences, and are frequently wracked with guilt and self-hatred at their foolishness. From this Providence works the great mystery in which the evil make other evil men good. For when an evil man finds himself unjustly suffering because of other evil men, that man flares with anger and loathing for those evil men and returns to virtue because he cannot stand to be like the men he hates. To the divine mind alone are all evil things good, because the divine mind brings about good effects from these seemingly evil causes. All things are part of a predetermined order, so that when something moves from the place it has been assigned, it moves into a new order of things. As far as Providence is concerned, there is nothing, nothing whatsoever, that is left to Chance. . . .

"It is sufficient for humans to understand one and only one thing: God, who has created everything in nature, also governs all things and directs them towards good. Since God preserves all things, which are, after all, in his image, God also excludes necessarily, all evil from the boundaries of his government. If you consider only Providence as the governor of all things, you will conclude that evil, which seems to exist all over the universe, does not exist.


Providence and Free Will (Book V, Prose 4 and 6)


If it is granted that Providence sees everything, (past, present, and future), that means that God, from the perspective of Providence, knows in advance everything we are going to do. If that were true, it implies that human beings really don't have any choice in the matter, that our actions have been "predestined" before we even decide to act. Boethius is now convinced that there is no evil in the world, but is now puzzled by this problem of the relation between God's Providence and human "free will," for if all things are predestined, how can we be responsible for our actions? How can we be punished or rewarded if we are not responsible for our actions? The question hinges on the notion of "necessity," which simply defined, means that things happen because of some extrinsic rule either enforced from above or implanted in the very nature of things. Boethius is asking, is the universe "mechanistic"? If God knows things in the future, have their outcomes already been "determined"? Philosophy will answer the question by redefining "necessity." Pay close attention; this rather obtuse and high-falutin' argument will form one of the cornerstones in the development of Enlightenment rationality and science of which we are the heirs.

Prose 4

Philosophy replied, "This is an old enigma about Providence and has occupied your mind for much of your life; no-one, however, has ever really thought about the problem carefully. The reason the problem is so enigmatic is because human reason can never really understand the unity and simplicity of the divine mind. If human beings could understand the divine mind, the problem would disappear. . . .

"Let us start with the following supposition: foreknowledge exists but does not impose necessity on the things it has foreknowledge of. If this were true, the will of human beings would still be independent and absolutely free. Your answer to this would be: even if foreknowledge does not impose necessity, it still indicates that the things it has foreknowledge of will necessarily happen, so that, even if there were no foreknowledge, the possible existence of such foreknowledge would show that the future outcome of all things is somehow necessary. In order to prove that foreknowledge can exist, we first need to prove that all things happen through necessity, since foreknowledge indicates such a necessity. If necessity did not govern things, then no foreknowledge could exist. All proofs depend not on outside arguments, but on deduction from proper and necessary causes. How can it happen, then, that the things which are foreseen will not happen? However, we are not arguing that the things which are foreseen will not happen, only that they have nothing in their natures which make it necessary that they should happen, that is, that there can be divine foreknowledge without necessity. Look now, we see things happening around us all the time . . . do you think these things are happening out of necessity just because you see them happening?" "No," I replied. . . . "Then, since these things happen without necessity, these very same things are not determined by necessity before they happen. Therefore, some things are destined to occur at some future time which are not determined by necessity. . . . For just as knowledge of things which are occurring right now before our eyes does not imply that they are happening out of necessity, so also divine foreknowledge of the things of the future imposes no necessity on those things or their outcomes. "But you'll answer that the question concerns the existence of divine foreknowledge, that there can be no foreknowledge of things which do not occur by necessity. These two things, you'll say, are utterly incompatible: things foreseen must necessarily happen, and if this necessity were not there, those things could not be foreseen. You will say that any knowledge, including foreknowledge, qualifies as knowledge only if it knows things that are certain; so that if uncertain things (anything not governed by necessity) are known as certain (such as divine foreknowledge), this knowledge is, in reality, opinion, not knowledge. . . . The origin of your error in these matters is your assumption that whatever is known is known by the nature of the thing known. However, this assumption is false. Everything which is known is known not according to its own nature and power, but by the capacity and power of the knower. "Confused? Let me give you an example: a body that is round is known to be round in one way through touch and in another way through vision. The vision, which remains at a distance from the round body, takes in the entire body all at once by means of reflected light, but the touch must make contact with the body and understand it in parts by moving about the surface. A human being is understood in different ways by the senses, the imagination, the reason, and the intellect: the senses understand the form as it is constituted in matter; the imagination understand the form without the matter; the reason goes far beyond this in comprehending the universal form of the species which inheres in particular things; the intellect is higher than all these, and passes beyond the universe and sees clearly with the mind the pure Form itself.

Prose 6

"Since we have shown that knowledge is not based on the thing known but on the nature of the knower, let us consider the nature of the Divine Being and what sort of knowledge it has. All rational creatures judge the Divine Being to be eternal, so we should start by explaining the nature of eternity, for this will reveal to us the nature of the Divine Being and the capacity of divine knowledge.

Eternity is the entire and perfect possession of endless life at a single instant. This becomes clear when we consider temporal things: whatever lives in time lives only in the present, which passes from the past into the future, and no temporal thing has such a nature that it can simultaneously embrace its entire existence, for it has not yet arrived at tomorrow and no longer exists in yesterday. Even one's life today exists only in each and every transient moment. Therefore, anything which exists in time . . . cannot properly be considered eternal, for anything in time does not embrace the infinity of life all at once, since it does not embrace the future or the past. Only that which understands and possesses the infinity of endless life, that lacks no future nor has lost any past, can properly be considered eternal. Such an eternal thing fully possesses itself, is always present to itself, and possesses all the infinity of changing time before itself. . . . God should not be thought of as older than creation, but rather prior to it in terms of simplicity and unity. For the endless motion of the things in time imitate the single present of God's changeless intellect. . . . Since every intellect understands according to its own nature, and since God lives in an eternal present, with no past or future, His knowledge transcends the movement of time and exists only in a single, simple, unified present. This knowledge encompasses all things, the endless course of the past and the future, in one single vision as if the infinity of things past and present were occurring in a single instant. Therefore, if you consider the divine foreknowledge through which God knows all things, you will conclude that it is not a knowledge of things in the future but a knowledge of an unchanging present. That is why it is called Providence rather than "prevision," because it sees everything not from their inferior perspective but from above, as it were. Why then, do you think that the things which Providence sees in its eternal present are governed by necessity whereas the things which you see in your present you don't regard as being governed by necessity? Does your vision of things impose necessity on the things which are present before you?" "Not at all," I replied. Lady Philosophy continued, "If we may properly compare God's vision to human vision, He sees all things in an eternal present just as humans see things in a non-eternal present. If you consider divine vision in this light, it follows that divine foreknowledge does not change the nature or the properties of individual things: it simply sees those things as present which we would regard as future. The intellect of God is not confused or changeable: He knows all things intuitively, whether these things happen of necessity or not. Think of it this way: you may happen to see at one and the same time a man walking down the street and the sun shining in the sky; even though you see both of these at one and the same time, you recognize that one action is a voluntary action, the man walking down the street, and the other is necessary, the shining of the sun. In this manner, the divine mind looks down on all things and, without intervening and changing the nature of the things it is viewing, sees things as eternally present but which, in respect to us, belong to the future. Therefore, when God knows that something is going to happen in the future, he may know a thing which will not happen out of necessity, but voluntarily; God's foreknowledge does not impose necessity on things. "But you might answer that whatever God foresees as happening must necessarily be happening. Now, if we were to be absolutely precise about this word, "necessity," I would have to agree with your objection. But I would answer that a future event may be necessary as regards God's knowledge or vision of it, but voluntary and undetermined in regards to its own nature. How can I say this? There are two types of necessity. One is simple, as when we say that all humans are necessarily mortal. The other is conditional, as when you see a man walking, it is necessary that he's walking, or else you wouldn't see him walking. For whenever a thing is known, it is known as it is and as it must be. This conditional necessity, however, does not imply simple necessity, for it is not caused by the particular nature of the thing, but on some condition added to the thing. No necessity forces the walking man to walk: he has voluntarily chosen to move himself forward using his feet. However, as long as he's walking, he is necessarily moving himself forward using his feet. In the same manner, if Providence sees anything in its eternal present, it follows that this thing exists necessarily in the way Providence sees it, but it may not exist the way it does out of some necessity in its nature. So God sees future things that are the result of human free will; these things, then, are necessary, on the condition that they are known by God, but, considered only in themselves, they are still free in their own natures. . . . Since all this is true, we can conclude that the freedom of human will remains completely independent of God's foreknowledge, and the laws which prescribe rewards and punishments are just since they provide rewards and punishments for the free actions of the human will rather than reward or punish things that happen of necessity. God sees us from above and knows all things in his eternal present and judges our future, free actions, justly distributing rewards and punishments . . . Translated from the Latin by Richard Hooker ((c)1994)



1 "Providence" means more than "foreknowledge" or "prevision," it also implies "governance." God not only knows everything, but somehow governs everything through a chain of causation.
2 Boethius will later define Chance as the explanation given to any outcome which occurs from a sequence of causes which had other purposes in mind. For instance, someone plowing a field unearths a treasure chest; since the discovery of a treasure chest was not in the plowman's mind when he began to overturn the soil, he ascribes the discovery of treasure to "Chance." There are, Boethius will argue, causes that are "above" the causes we know or think about.
3 Cato was considered one of the most virtuous men of Rome. In the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey, Cato sided with Pompey and killed himself when Caesar triumphed, preferring to die rather than live under an unjust regime. Lucan is the author of the epic poem about this battle, the Pharsalia , which sides with Pompey (even though Lucan is writing at the time of Nero) and paints Julius Caesar as a monster. The remark quoted here is meant to be facetious: Lucan believes Cato made the right judgement whereas the gods absurdly favored the most wicked man in the conflict.

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