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“Grasp the real questions” – Part II

As promised in part I, it was important to “grasp the real questions” and learn about the classics, about philosophy and theology. Boethius was an early middle age philosopher, and also a saint, who was able to wonderfully synthesize philosophy and theology. His “Consolation of Philosophy” is a must read, as he has Lady Philosophy organize and explain all of reality. Below is a compelling section of Book III where he discusses the nature of happiness.

What has any of this to do with the environment? Boethius also has Philosophy put nature in its place, that is a part of Creation, which is good, but must not be understood as the highest Agent of the highest good. From the Stoics through the Latins like Lucretius and Cicero there was a strong Naturalistic tendency in Western thought. Augustine, using Plato, rescues the centrality of God and resist this naturalism, while Boethius nails naturalism’s coffin and puts ‘nature in its place’. Another one that got nailed by Boethius was Fortune, represented by a wheel, full of ups and downs (that’s where we get our modern ‘wheel of fortune from’). A life lived according to nature and fortune is an unhappy life, subject to the same inconsistency as nature and fortune itself.

Here an extract of the text on happiness (the whole book is available online here):

Prose II
Philosophy discusses ‘the highest good’

She lowered her eyes for a little while as though searching the innermost recesses of her mind; and then she continued:– ‘The trouble of the many and various aims of mortal men bring them much care, and herein they go forward by different paths but strive to reach one end, which is happiness. And that good is that, to which if any man attain, he can desire nothing further. It is that highest of all good things, and it embraces in itself all good things: if any good is lacking, it cannot be the highest good, since then there is left outside it something which can be desired. Wherefore happiness is a state which is made perfect by the union of all good things. This end all men seek to reach, as I said, though by different paths. For there is implanted by nature in the minds of men a desire for the true good; but error leads them astray towards false goods by wrong paths.

‘Some men believe that the highest good is to lack nothing, and so they are at pains to possess abundant riches. Others consider the true good to be that which is most worthy of admiration, and so they strive to attain to places of honour, and to be held by their fellow-citizens in honour thereby. Some determine that the highest good lies in the highest power; and so they either desire to reign themselves, or try to cleave to those who do reign. Others think that renown is the greatest good, and they therefore hasten to make a famous name by the arts of peace or of war. But more than all measure the fruit of good by pleasure and enjoyment, and these think that the happiest man is abandoned to pleasure.

‘Further, there are those who confuse the aims and the causes of these good things: as those who desire riches for the sake of power or of pleasure, or those who seek power for the sake of money or celebrity. In these, then, and other things like to them, lies the aim of men’s actions and prayers, such as renown and popularity, which seem to afford some fame, or wife and children, which are sought for the pleasure they give. On the other hand, the good of friends, which is the most honourable and holy of all, lies not in Fortune’s but in Virtue’s realm. All others are adopted for the sake of power or enjoyment.

‘Again, it is plain that the good things of the body must be accounted to those false causes which we have mentioned; for bodily strength and stature seem to make men more able and strong; beauty and swiftness seem to give renown; health seems to give pleasure. By all these happiness alone is plainly desired. For each man holds that to be the highest good, which he seeks before all others. But we have defined the highest good to be happiness. Wherefore what each man desires above all others, he holds to be a state of happiness.

‘Wherefore you have each of these placed before you as the form of human happiness: wealth, honours, power, glory, and pleasure…  ‘But to return to the aims of men: their minds seem to seek to regain the highest good, and their memories seem to dull their powers. It is as though a drunken man were seeking his home, but could not remember the way thither.

Prose VIII
All these vanities are actually harmful

‘There is then no doubt that these roads to happiness are no roads, and they cannot lead any man to any end whither they profess to take him. I would shew you shortly with what great evils they are bound up. Would you heap up money? You will need to tear it from its owner. Would you seem brilliant by the glory of great honours? You must kneel before their dispenser, and in your desire to surpass other men in honour, you must debase yourself by setting aside all pride. Do you long for power? You will be subject to the wiles of all over whom you have power, you will be at the mercy of many dangers. You seek fame? You will be drawn to and fro among rough paths, and lose all freedom from care. Would you spend a life of pleasure? Who would not despise and cast off such servitude to so vile and brittle a thing as your body? How petty are all the aims of those who put before themselves the pleasures of the body, how uncertain is the possession of such?…

To put all these points then in a word: these things cannot grant the good which they promise; they are not made perfect by the union of all good things in them; they do not lead to happiness as a path thither; they do not make men blessed.[38]

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