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Return to Tolkien, Volume III

Click here for a biography of Boethius and the complete text of the "Consolation." Excerpts from that translation follow:


Happy is that death which thrusts not itself upon men in their pleasant years, yet comes to them at the oft-repeated cry of their sorrow. Sad is it how death turns away from the unhappy with so deaf an ear, and will not close, cruel, the eyes that weep. Is it to trust to FORTUNE'S fickle bounty, and while yet she smiled upon me, the hour of gloom had well-nigh overwhelmed my head. Now has the cloud put off its alluring face, wherefore without scruple my life drags out its wearying delays. 'Why, O my friends, did ye so often puff me up, telling me that I was fortunate ? For he that is fallen low did never firmly stand.

While I was pondering thus in silence, and using my pen to set down so tearful a complaint, there appeared standing over my head a woman's form, whose countenance was full of majesty, whose eyes shone as with fire and in power of insight surpassed the eyes of men, whose colour was full of life, whose strength was yet intact..further, that you may be assured that happiness cannot be fixed in matters of chance: if happiness is the highest good of a man who lives his life by reason, and if that which can by any means be snatched away, is not the highest good (since that which is best cannot be snatched away), it is plain that FORTUNE by its own uncertainty can never come near to reaching happiness. so fragile. You see, then, that the one is blown about by winds, is ever moving and ever ignorant of its own self...the other is sober, ever prepared and ever made provident by the undergoing of its very adversities. Lastly, good FORTUNE draws men from the straight path of true good by her fawning: ill FORTUNE draws most men to the true good, and holds them back by her curved staff.

FORTUNE REPLIES, "Oh man, wherefore do you recriminate with you daily complaints? What wrong have I done you? What goods have I bereft you of that were yours? Strive or argue with me concerning the possession of riches or of dignities before whatever judge you will, and if you may show me that any mortal man has ever received any of these things as his and his alone, then will I grant freely that those same things were yours which you now seek.

When nature brought you forth out of your mother's womb, I received you naked and wanting all things, and I nourished you with my riches, and was ready and eager to sustain you through my favor: and now that makes you impatient with me. And I surrounded you with all the abundance of all the goods that are in my control. Now it pleases me to withdraw my hand...Why do you complain then? I have done you no wrong. Riches, honors, and other such things are my servants and recognize me as their mistresses. They come with me, and depart when I turn way. I can confidently say that if those thing whose loss you complain of had been yours, you would not have lost them. Shall alone then be forbidden to exercise my right? Surely it is permissible for the sky to bring day and after dark night...But the desire of men which cannot be quenched-shall it force me to be steadfast, although steadfastness is strange to my ways? Such is my nature, and this game I play continuously.

I TURN THE WHIRLING WHEEL AND MY CIRCLE SPINS. I AM GLAD TO CHANGE THE LOWEST TO THE HIGHEST, AND THE HIGHEST TO THE LOWEST. MOUNT UP IF YOU WILL, PROVIDED YOU DO SO UNDER THIS CONDITION, THAT YOU WILL NOT MAINTAIN THAT I DO YOU WRONG THOUGH YOU DESCEND DOWN WHEN HE RULES OF MY GAME REQUIRE IT. is impossible even to imagine whence could come the so-called imperfect specimen. For nature does not start from degenerate or imperfect specimens, but starting from the perfect and ideal, it degenerates to these lower and weaker forms. If then, as we have shewn above, there is an uncertain and imperfect happiness to be found in the good, then there must doubtless be also a sure and perfect happiness therein.' [Note: This reasoning hangs upon Plato's theory of ideas and so is the opposite of the theory of evolution.] ' Yes,' said L' that is quite surely proved to be true.' ' Now consider,' she continued,' where it lies. The universally accepted notion of men proves that God, the fountain-head of all things,is good. For nothing can be thought of better than God, and surely He, than whom there is nothing better, must without doubt be good.Now reason shews us that God is so good, that we are convinced that in Him lies also the perfect good. For if it is not so, He cannot be the fountain-head; for there must then be something more excellent, possessing that perfect good, which appears to be of older origin than God: for it has been proved that all perfections are of earlier origin than the imperfect specimens of the same: wherefore,unless we are to prolong the series to infinity,we must allow that the highest Deity must befell of the highest, the perfect good.

...Its [HAPPINESS] origin, wherefore I would conclude that that which is the origin of all things, according to the truest reasoning, is by its essence the highest good." Most truly,' I said.'You agree that the highest good is happiness ? " Yes.' 'hen you must allow that God is absolute happiness ?
I cannot deny what you put forward before,and I see that this follows necessarily from those propositions.' Look then,' she said,'whether it is proved more strongly by this too: there cannot be two highest goods which are different. For where two good things are different, the one cannot be the other; wherefore neither can be the perfect good, while each is lacking to the other. And that which is not perfect cannot be the highest, plainly. Therefore if two things are highest good, they cannot be different. Further, we have proved to ourselves that both happiness and God are each the highest good. Therefore the highest Deity must be identical with the highest happiness.' No conclusion,' I said, could be truer in fact, or more surely proved by reason, or more worthy of our God.' ' Besides this let me give you corollary, as geometricians do, when they wish to add a point drawn from the propositions they have proved. Since men become happy by acquiring happiness, and happiness is identical with divinity, it is plain that they become happy by acquiring divinity. But just as men become just by acquiring the quality of justice, and wise by wisdom, so by the same reasoning, by acquiring divinity they become divine. Every happy man then is divine. But while nothing prevents as many men as possible from being divine, God is so by His nature, men become so by participation.

This universe would never have been suitably put together into one form from such various and opposite parts, unless there were some One who joined such different parts together; and when joined, the very variety of their natures, so discordant among themselves,would break their harmony and tear them asunder unless the One held together what it wove into one whole. Such a fixed order of nature could not continue its course, could not develop motions taking such various directions in place, time, operation, space, and attributes,unless there were One who, being immutable,had the disposal of these various changes. And this cause of their remaining fixed and their moving, I call God, according to the name familiar to all. Then said she,' Since these are your feelings,l think there is but little trouble left me before you may revisit your home with happiness in your grasp.

But we have shewn that happiness is the identical good for the sake of which all actions are performed. Therefore the absolute good is the reward put before all human actions. But good men cannot be deprived of this. And further, a man who lacks good cannot justly be described as a good man; wherefore we may say that good habits never miss their rewards. Let the wicked rage never so wildly, the wise man's crown shall never fail nor wither.
And the wickedness of bad men can never take away from good men the glory which belongs to them. Whereas if a good man rejoiced in a glory which he received from outside, then could another, or even he, may be, who granted it, carry it away. But since honesty grants to every good man its own rewards, he will only lack his reward when he ceases to be good.And lastly, since every reward is sought for the reason that it is held to be good, who shall say that the man, who possesses goodness, does not receive his reward ? And what reward is this? Surely the fairest and greatest of all.Remember that corollary which I emphasized when speaking to you a little while ago; and reason thus therefrom. While happiness is the absolute good, it is plain that all good men become good by virtue of the very fact that they are good. But we agreed that happy men are as gods. Therefore this is the reward of the good, which no time can wear out, no power can lessen, no wickedness can darken; they become divine. In this case, then, no wise man can doubt of the inevitable punishment of the wicked as well. For good and evil are so set, differing from each other just as reward and punishment are in opposition to each other:hence the rewards, which we see fall to the good, must correspond precisely to the punishments of the evil on the other side. As,therefore, honesty is itself the reward of the honest, so wickedness is itself the punishment.

But it is not my intention to discuss these now. My object has been to bring you to know that the power of evil men, which seems to you so unworthy, is in truth nothing; and that you may see that those wicked men, of whose impunity you complained, do never miss the reward of their ill-doing; and that you may learn that their passion, which you prayed might soon be cut short, is not long enduring,and that the longer it lasts, the more unhappiness it brings, and that it would be most unhappy if it endured for ever.

For Providence is the very divine reason which arranges all things, and rests with the supreme disposer of all; while FATE is that ordering which is apart of all changeable things, and by means of which Providence binds all things together in their own order. Providence embraces all things equally, however different they may be,even however infinite: when they are assigned to their own places, forms, and times, FATE sets them in an orderly motion; so that this development of the temporal order, unified in the intelligence of the mind of God, is Providence.

The working of this unified development in time is called FATE. These are different, but the one hangs upon the other.For this order, which is ruled by FATE,emanates from the directness of Providence.Just as when a craftsman perceives in his mind the form of the object he would make, he sets his working power in motion, and brings through the order of time that which he had seen directly and ready present to his mind. So by Providence does God dispose all that is to be done, each thing by itself and unchangeably;while these same things which Providence has arranged are worked out by FATE in many ways and in time. Whether, therefore, FATE works by the aid of the divine spirits which serve Providence, or whether it works by the aid of the soul, or of all nature, or the motions of the stars in heaven, or the powers of angels, or the manifold skill of other spirits, whether the course of FATE is bound together by any or all of these, one thing is certain, namely that Providence is the one unchangeable direct power which gives form to all things which are to come to pass, while FATE is the changing bond,the temporal order of those things which are arranged to come to pass by the direct disposition of God. Wherefore everything which is subject to FATE is also subject to Providence, to which FATE is itself subject. But there are things which, though beneath Providence, are above the course of FATE.

Those things ate they which are immovably set nearest the primary divinity, and are there beyond the course of the movement of FATE. As in the case of spheres moving round the same axis, that which is nearest the centre approaches most nearly the simple motion of the centre,and is itself, as it were, an axis around which turn those which are set outside it. That sphere which is outside all turns through a greater circuit, and fulfills a longer course in proportion as it is farther from the central axis;and if it be joined or connect itself with that centre, it is drawn into the direct motion thereof, and no longer strays or strives to turn away. In like manner, that which goes farther from the primary intelligence, is bound the more by the ties of FATE, and the nearer it approaches the axis of all, the more free it is from FATE. But that which clings without movement to the firm intellect above, surpasses altogether the bond of FATE. As, therefore,reasoning is to understanding; as that which becomes is to that which is; as time is to eternity; as the circumference is to the centre:so is the changing course of FATE to the immovable directness of Providence. That course of FATE moves the heavens and the stars, moderates the first principles in their turns, and alters their forms by balanced interchangings. The same course renews all things that are born and wither away by like advances of of spring and seed. It constrains, too, the actions and FORTUNES of men by an unbreakable chain of causes:and these causes must be unchangeable, as they proceed from the beginnings of an unchanging Providence. Thus is the world governed for the best if a directness, which rests in the intelligence of God, puts forth an order of causes which may not swerve. This order restrains by its own unchangeableness changeable things, which might otherwise run hither and thither at random.

Wherefore in disposing the universe this limitation directs all for good, though to you who are not strong enough to comprehend the whole order, all seems confusion and disorder. Naught is there that comes to pass for the sake of evil, or due to wicked men, of whom it has been abundantly shewn that they seek the good, but misleading error turns them from the right course; for never does the true order, which comes forth from the centre of the highest good, turn any man aside from the right beginning. ' But you will ask, " What more unjust confusion could exist than that good men should sometimes enjoy prosperity, sometimes suffer adversity, and that the bad too should sometimes receive what they desire, sometimes what they hate ? " Are then men possessed of such infallible minds that they, whom they consider honest or dishonest, must necessarily be what they are held to be? No, in these matters human judgment is at variance with itself, and those who are held by some to be worthy of reward, are by others held worthy of punishment. But let us grant that a man could discern between good and bad characters.