Consolation of Philosophy:Summary of Book V Part I-VI

Book V


Summary of Parts I and II


Boethius tells Philosophy he wants her to go more deeply into the topic of chance. Is there such a thing as random chance ruling our lives? Perhaps that is how he ended up in prison.


Philosophy says if you define chance as randomness, there is no such thing. If God is maintaining order, there cannot be something random happening someplace, for “nothing comes out of nothing” (p. 116). Boethius replies, how about accidents? 


Philosophy mentions that Aristotle’s definition of chance in his Physics is, something done with one purpose, but getting a different result than was intended. Yet, it is not chance, for there are hidden causes. It may be that multiple and conflicting causes are at work, outside of the intention of the doers. If you define chance as an unpredicted or unexpected event, then perhaps you can say yes, though the events are still under the rule of law.


Boethius asks if there is such a thing as free will? Philosophy replies that there is freedom for rational creatures. Humans are rational and cannot exist without it. A rational creature must choose, though freedom may not be equal for all, depending on one’s clarity. Humans are more free when they participate in the contemplation of God, and less free when they act out of bodily desires. If they are wicked, they are mere slaves to their own destructive will. These choices are all visible to the eye of Providence, which predestines award or punishment according to merit. 


Commentary on Parts I and II


Providence is the all-knowing vision of God in eternity, who sees past, present, and future at once. Humans have free will, and God, watching the choice from on high, is ready with the “predestined” reward or punishment. 


The person’s fate is not actually predetermined by God but given by God as a natural consequence of the person’s free will. Philosophy says there is no chance or accident. Whether or not we can see all the causes, everything works out in an orderly and just fashion.


Summary of Parts III and IV


Boethius is puzzled how there can be freedom of will if God already knows what we will do. If it is known, isn’t it already decided then? It would not then be possible to change one’s mind.


Philosophy says that if something is to happen, it cannot be concealed from Providence. People wonder if foreknowledge of the future causes the future? How can God foreknow events that are still uncertain and being decided by an individual? If Providence is the same as certainty about the future, how meaningful is prayer, hope, and the relationship between God and human? 


Philosophy says this is an old debate, but human reasoning cannot understand “the immediacy of divine foreknowledge” (p. 124). Free will is not hindered by God’s foreknowledge, which is merely knowledge of what is about to happen. One can know something is going on without having any influence on it. It does not make what is happening inevitable. Seeing something and necessity are not the same thing.


Different creatures have different abilities to know.  Sense perception is the lowest faculty, common with animals. They only know things through their bodily senses. Imagination is a higher power because it does not depend on physical objects. Reason is higher still because it can understand the universal law by inference. The highest form of knowing is pure intelligence itself, and this intelligence sees the Idea or “simple form” in the mind of God (p. 126). This highest knowing, only available to God, sees “by a single glance of the mind” (p. 127). The lower kind of knowing cannot grasp the higher knowing.


Commentary on Parts III and IV


Philosophy gives a very important answer to Boethius’s question about free will and Providence. It is a hotly debated question in philosophy about how God can know the future if humans have free will. What if they have not decided yet? 


There are those who believe that predestination is what is really going on, and humans only think they have free will. If God already knows, for instance, which souls will be saved, why should humans even bother trying to be good? It has been predetermined, like loaded dice. 


Philosophy tells Boethius it may seem like a paradox, but God’s foreknowledge of how things will turn out does not interfere with human free will. 


She gives the answer that there are different forms of knowledge, and someone who has a lower ability cannot comprehend a higher ability. Animals, for instance, have sense perception, or knowing by the senses. Humans can go farther by imagining things that are not present. They can also use the mind to reason about the invisible laws of nature from inference. 


But an even higher knowledge like God’s comes from pure intelligence, which knows everything at once without regard to time. Humans know in sequence, one thing at a time, in terms of past, present, and future, but God can know immediately what is going on everywhere. That does not mean God is interfering with us.


Philosophy recites a poem about knowledge, explaining the passive model of the mind taught by the Stoics. Stoicism was a material philosophy founded by Zeno of Citium (335-263 BCE). Stoics thought the mind merely received sense impressions as on a wax tablet. 


As a Platonist, Boethius denied this model of knowledge. For him, the mind is spiritual and powerfully active, able to analyze and synthesize and know the truth beyond sense impression. Humans may not know like God knows, but they can participate with God in the divine nature of life through reason.


Summary of Parts V and VI


Philosophy continues the topic of different kinds of knowing. Reason belongs only to the human race, just as pure intelligence belongs to divinity. Divine intelligence comprehends the lower kinds of knowing, yet human reason refuses to believe that divine intelligence can see the future in a “boundless immediacy” (p. 131).


Eternity is the “complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life” (p. 132) while those who live in time experience past, present, and future. Humans catch a fleeting and transitory glimpse of life only. To experience the whole of life in the present moment is characteristic of the mind of God. His knowledge transcends change. 


Commentary on Parts V and VI


The book finishes with this discussion of God’s foreknowledge. Philosophy ends her teaching to Boethius in prison with this point in order to give him faith in Providence. Are his suffering and imprisonment simply due to chance or evil? Or can he have faith that God has foreseen all and that even the death of Boethius will be part of the good, of God’s providential foresight?


God sees what is happening in a never-ending present moment. The divine gaze “looks down on all things without disturbing their nature” (p. 135). If God is on high witnessing this fate for Boethius, then it is necessary for it to happen, though God is not causing it to happen. God is the “spectator from on high of all things” (p. 137). Therefore, Philosophy concludes, “Avoid vice . . . cultivate virtue; lift up your mind to the right kind of hope, and put forth humble prayers on high” (p. 137). 


She has comforted Boethius with the idea that God is near and part of our human nature. We are always free to be with God and part of the good, no matter what fate we are handed in the world by Fortune.