Summary of Parts I and II
Since the existence of evil was the stumbling block for Boethius at the end of the last book, it is examined more closely now. Boethius comments that he likes the sweet songs of Philosophy, but he has not yet forgotten his sorrow. He challenges her that even though good ultimately rules the world, evil still exists and goes unpunished. What is worse, when wickedness is in charge, it not only does not reward the good, it actively punishes the good. It is a mystery how this can happen in a world ruled by an omnipotent God.
Philosophy corrects his ideas, saying that the good are always strong, and the wicked always weak. Sin is always punished and virtue always rewarded. She tells him she will show him the path to bring him home, and she will give his mind wings. Then she recites a poem about the ascent of the soul to God where the soul says, “I remember” (p. 87).
Boethius says he is anxious for her to keep her promise to give his mind wings.
All human activity depends on will and power, she says. The instinctive direction of the human will is towards happiness, which is the same as the good. Both good men and bad men strive for the same thing—the good. The good men become good because they are already by nature virtuous. If the bad men obtain the good, they are no longer bad.
The power of good men is therefore stronger in the pursuit of good, and the bad are weaker and have to put forth more effort. Because they do not know how to gain the good, the bad are ignorant and weak through lack of self-control.
If the ignorant turn to vice on purpose, they not only cease to be powerful, they cease to exist at all, because existence and life derive from the good. Whatever “power” the evil have, therefore, comes from weakness, not strength. Since God has the supreme power, and that supreme power is goodness, evil cannot be counted as a form of power. The wise achieve their desire, while the wicked only get pleasure without the good.
Commentary on Parts I and II
The poem about the ascent of the soul to God includes a vision of Neoplatonic cosmology in which God, not earth, is the center of the universe. The reason humans like Boethius have trouble sorting out the truth is because earth is far from God, near the edge of darkness. The soul must traverse many spheres to get closer to the light. Philosophy says that this journey towards the light is possible for human beings.
Philosophy continues her argument that there is only one power in the universe (goodness). God rules the universe by Providence. The wicked may appear to have power, but they are sunk in ignorance and have no idea how to obtain the good, which is the same as life.
Goodness gives strength, and doing evil only makes people weak. They suffer the consequences, for sin is always punished, a sort of natural cause and effect. For instance, a person who pursues only bodily appetites will become sick and unbalanced. Those who try to control others through violence unleash a force by which they themselves are destroyed. In the long run, therefore, the wicked perish by their own evil acts. The good become happier the closer they rise to the light, the source of life.
Summary of Part III
Philosophy points out that the goal of every action is its own reward. Goodness itself is the common reward of human activity, for all people desire it and act to obtain it. The goodness gained from good actions cannot be removed from those who are good. The good man’s reward is his forever. The wicked cannot take goodness from them, for they must earn their own good. Goodness is happiness, so virtue is its own reward. The happy thus have access to the divine. Similarly, the punishment of the wicked is wickedness itself. Evil is like an infection or sickness.
Another way to see this is that everything that exists is naturally good. Anything that turns away from goodness ceases to exist. Someone lost in evil has sunk to the level of an animal. The evil diminish themselves by destroying their own nature. They lose their souls and end up as mere physical bodies. They are human in appearance only. On the other hand, goodness raises people above the human level so they participate in divinity.
Commentary on Part III
Philosophy’s definition of the human seems a bit radical, but it follows the lofty Platonic strain of these arguments, in which the human is made in the image of God and can participate directly in divinity through being good.
This view of human nature as essentially good is opposed to the Christian doctrine of original sin that sees human nature as fundamentally corrupt. Christianity generally posits the necessity for divine intervention to save human nature from its own evil tendencies. Boethius was a Christian, but he represents the line of philosophers who were Christian Platonists, combining certain concepts from Christianity with Platonic concepts. Boethius thus prefers to see humans as capable of perfection through their own efforts.
Philosophy argues that humans have free will and the ability to choose whether to rise to the level of the divine by exercising their inherent goodness, or to fall to the level of beasts by becoming evil. She ends the section with a poem about the adventures of the Greek hero, Odysseus, as an example.
When Odysseus and his men landed on the island ruled by Circe the witch, she enticed the men with food and drink, and through their gluttony they turned into animals, with only their minds left to mourn their fate. This symbolizes what happens to those who fall prey to outer temptations; they cease to exist as humans and become bestial.
Summary of Part IV
Boethius agrees that evil people are like beasts, but he still laments that they are free to bring destruction to good people.
Philosophy objects that it is not a matter of freedom. The evil are not free, for if they achieve their desire to do evil, they suffer. Evil men often suffer violent and unexpected ends, imposing a limit on how much evil they can do.
Commentary on Part IV
Philosophy has been trying to get Boethius to let go of his resentment towards the injustice done him by wicked men. This sense of resentment makes him miserable. She tries to convince him, based on the definitions they have already laid down about true happiness, that the evil suffer and the wise do not.
She concludes, “wickedness is a disease of the mind” (p. 101). How can Boethius despise someone who is mentally ill while he is healthy? What the wicked do is “suicidal,” so one should “love the good, show pity for the bad” (p. 101). Boethius replies to Philosophy that this all makes sense, but the opinions of ordinary men on the subject would deny what she has said.
She replies that one cannot heed the blind. According to “everlasting law,”(p. 99) if one turns the mind to higher things, there is no need of an outer reward, for the mind enjoys its own high state.
Similarly, if one turns the mind to lower things, there is no need for outer punishment, for that low state of mind is itself a form of suffering. The one who commits a crime is therefore more wretched than the one the crime was committed against. Consequently, there is no point in hating the wicked.