In The Consolation of Philosophy, the topic of human happiness is approached from the viewpoint of the early Christian writer Boethius. In his work, he constructs a narrative which imagines a Lady Philosophy incarnate come to help him rediscover what he has lost sight of – ultimate human purpose and how to achieve this. Boethius the author speaks to us through this character of Lady Philosophy, rather than his own stand-in in the proses and poems which make up the book. Because the Boethius of the narrative has lost his way, Philosophy eases him back into the habit by explaining what happiness is not before she can explain what it is.
It is in this section that Lady Philosophy, and therefore Boethius, asserts that there is no true link between the goods of mortal fortune and human happiness, why these goods only push the natural tendencies of man to their good or bad extremes, and why there is no real distinguishing feature between good and bad fortune. Between books two and three, Boethius makes a point of there being no real link between happiness and fortune. In book two, he argues that worldly goods like wealth and power are only good insomuch as they are gotten rid of.
One who desires wealth must spend it to unlock any of its potential, or hoard it while developing a esperate fear of losing it, while one who desires the latter may commit all sorts of misdeeds in the pursuit, only finding after he reaches his goal that it was all for naught, or worse, that it has caused him undue stress. Lady Philosophy remarks that nothing which causes a man harm can be ultimately good, and dismisses the goods of fortune thusly. She brings up that, while a rich man must travel the road carefully for fear of being murdered for his fortune, a pilgrim may walk confidently because he has nothing at all to lose.
She compares this to Boethius’ situation, as he has been unjustly sentenced to death. This sentence could have potentially been avoided, had it not been for the earthly fortune of fame. Through Lady Philosophy, Boethius explains that all earthly goods can only be of this world, and are therefore ultimately fleeting. Even beyond this reasoning, good of fortune almost never last a lifetime; it is the nature of fortune, the nature of chance to be ever-changing. Boethius uses the classical metaphor of the goddess Fortune at her wheel, spinning it around and around until those that were once on the top are now on the bottom, and vice versa.
In this analogy, Boethius presents the argument that the only way to be spared Fortune’s whims are to keep to the inside of the wheel – neither reveling in her blessings, nor despairing at her sudden and seemingly unreasonable pitfalls. The Boethius of the narrative offers a rebuttal to Lady Philosophy that he did not desire worldly goods for selfish, greedy reasons; he only wanted to demonstrate a good, honorable life for others. To do so, he believed that fame and political power would help him achieve his goal. In response, Lady Philosophy replies that fame, being a good of fortune, is fleeting, and therefore useless.
Glory, the desire for a long-lasting legacy, will be forgotten. It may take onths, years, or centuries, but everything must march in step with time. Human memory does not last nearly as long as we would like to believe, and the author Boethius understands this, explaining to his literary counterpart that, even if one would be remembered by mankind, that mankind takes up a phenomenally small space. Less than one-quarter of the earth may be populated by humanity, given the landmass calculations at the time, on this small planet which hurtles through the stars.
In this reality, the desire for fame is not only unwise for its being a temporary fortune but laughable in its small scope. What is nteresting in Boethius’ work is that, though ultimately dismissed as worthless, the goods of fortune are never discussed as being ultimately detrimental. Lady Philosophy never states that wealth, fame, or political prowess are harmful to the good man on their own – only that they may enhance a man’s goodness, or likewise a man’s tendency toward vice. The man inclined towards charity may make good use of wealth, while the man inclined towards greed will not make good use of his temporary good fortune.
In discussing the connection between happiness and fortune, one must address what is commonly referred to as bad fortune. The downfalls of men, the floods, the wars, the raids on one’s homestead and the loss of family and friends all happen with at least as much frequency as wealth, health, and power. Boethius addresses these supposedly bad fortunes through a somewhat stoic attitude. In the mind of the stoic, only the reasoning power of the mind and the purity of one’s soul are actually within the realm of command.
The body, the family, and all other exterior goods are subject to the whims of Fortune and chance. In this scenario, the only way one can truly be hurt by bad fortune is if one allows oneself to be. If a man’s health eclines, the man has no true real reason to be concerned, because it was never the man’s property at all. Rather, his body belonged to God. Boethius comes from this tradition, and explains, through his Lady Philosophy, that there is no such thing as truly bad fortune. To the good man, the goods of fortune are meant to be used well, but not to be wept for when they are taken away.
Likewise, so-called bad fortunes lead to opportunities to realize that the goods of fortune were never one’s own to begin with, and give the sufferer the opportunity to grow. In these arguments, Boethius offers the advice to not rely n the goods of fortune for one’s happiness. Even though the highest elation may be reached at momentary points, it will soon enough drop to the lowest depths of depression. Instead of living on the outside of the wheel, Boethius encourages us not to fight fortune, whether she leads us up or down the wheel, but to accept what is coming to us.
Those goods of fortune we commonly associate as being good – wealth, notoriety, health – can be put to good use, but cannot be allowed to become our masters. These make good tools, but terrible owners. When we find ourselves in times of strife, on the other hand, we must ealize that nothing is owed to us, and that we should realize that we can only affect what we can. This is the true happiness that Boethius will allude to in the following chapters; that which keeps us content in our knowledge of the world, and allows us to peruse the ultimate good of God.
I can certainly understand the desire not to have one’s mental wellbeing attached to any external physical good. As someone who has struggled with both anxiety and depression, the need to regulate my state of mind is very real. In this, the stoic approach to happiness – not to allow oneself to be trapped by the highs and lows of life – akes perfect sense to me. However, Boethius’ argument hinges on the concept that the ultimate goal of human existence is perfect happiness, which I do ultimately take issue with.
I agree with his arguments that will arise in book four, largely consisting of how the ultimate good is God, that because good causes happiness, then happiness is God. However, I do not believe that God has necessarily called upon us to be perfectly happy without disturbance. In the Christian narrative, Christ suffered physically and presumably mentally to save humanity from its sins. Christians are generally said to be called pon to take up suffering in Christ’s image to help their fellow man.
Though we cannot allow ourselves self-pity and gluttony in mortal fortune, it is unjust both to ourselves and to others to expect that we do not feel compassionate sadness or joy at the failures or successes of our neighbors, friends, or any others we are called upon to help. In short, if our ultimate goal is truly contented happiness, I agree with Boethius’ conclusions, but I believe that goal may need some further discussion. Boethius argues that there is no link between the goods of fortune and an happiness. Because the happiness that may be derived rom mortal goods is fleeting, it cannot be truly good.
These gifts of chance cannot be good because they cause harm to they that hold them. In his Consolation, Boethius states these things clearly, while outlining his approach to life-long happiness. He also discusses how the supposed pitfalls of fortune cannot truly be considered bad since they can offer a teaching moment for those that they fall upon. Later on, Boethius will discuss what good truly is, having established in these two books what it certainly is not, and it is in there that many of Boethius’ more strange arguments begin to come forth.