Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V. E. Watts, Penguin Classics, 1969.
I think I had read this several years ago and didn’t really get it. I went through a pretty strong anti-theist phase in my late teens, and I think that’s why I wanted to read it. (I was the kind of asshole who liked to spend his free time watching YouTube videos of Christopher Hitchens ranting at people. I’ve gotten better. I watch a lot of Chess videos now.)
It’s not surprising that I couldn’t appreciate it. I would have been too busy complaining about the faults in the argument to actually get much out of it. I’m not any more personally religious than I was then, but I’m more open-minded, so it was easier to just find the interesting in what is, even though it’s not explicitly Christian, a work basically of theodicy.
That issue of theodicy I think confirms something I’ve been coming to for a while now. There is a common strain in New-Atheist thinking that religion arises out of a fear of death. We’re frightened of the fact that we have to cease to exist, so we make up myths that help us grapple with the fact. Corollary to that would be Christopher Hitchens’ idea that what really gets us going is that our deaths aren’t shared: “someone’s going to tap you on the shoulder and tell you it’s time to leave, but no, just you, the party’s going on without you.”
I used to believe that. There are religions without an afterlife and religions that barely talk about it. Indeed, in some Buddhism, the whole goal is annihilation, and the afterlife is a trap. I think stronger in our minds is not so much our fear but our goodness, and it is that need for goodness, and here I mean cosmic goodness, the sense of a moral order, that characterizes so much of religion. (This is the sense I use the term “theodicy,” which traditionally is just a vindication of God. Here, I use it to mean the attempt to understand or create moral coherence in a world that apparently lacks it.)
It’s no wonder that much of Boethius’ consolation takes the form of a theodicy: awaiting execution, Boethius is trying to find a way that, no matter the horrors of his current situation, there may yet be moral coherence to it.
Our abhorrence to the moral senselessness of the world is natural and maybe inevitable. We want the world to be fair. It is as simple as the comfort given to nerds: one day, your bully will work for you. This is less common now that people like Marc Zuckerberg have made nerdiness cool and rapaciousness nerdy, but the point remains. Nerdiness is cool because people like Zuckerberg have made what used to seem its vulnerability the harbinger of future success.
The history of the 21st century has rightly exposed meritocracy for the sadistic farce that it is, but note that meritocracy is also a theodicy. Self-help influencers are its priests, there to explain to you why your status as millionaire remains “temporarily embarrassed,” and what you can do to change that. The worshipers at this cult of merit inhabit a kind of paradoxical threshold: they haven’t “made it” yet, but they are on the staircase, which entitles them to offer their pipe-dream flagellants onto the rest of us with the smiling, apparently well-intentioned advice that, “you deserve what you have,” which is to say, “you deserve what you are.”
The pitiable absurdities to which people will sink in order to grapple with the unfairness of the world are nothing new. I will summarize Boethius logic that 1. all people aspire to the same thing: goodness, even if they don’t know it. 2. If they aspire to wickedness, they have been led astray. 3. Since they actually aspire to goodness, by achieving their evil ends they have actually not gotten what they wanted. 4. Because getting what you want is the only proof that you have power, wicked people must have no power, because they don’t get what they want, which is goodness.
It is a testament to the bleakness of the world, perhaps, that smart people can be brought to such absurdity. It gets worse, unfortunately. Not only does the world’s indifference bring Boethius to such absurdity, it brings him to his own form of brutality. I will not go into too much detail of the logic, but it is enough to summarize it in Boethius’ own words.
Because they are driven by their wickedness from goodness, and so from God, “those who commit an injustice are more unhappy than those who suffer it … when someone is done an injury, the misery belongs not to the victim but to the perpetrator.” I’ll leave it to you to pick an atrocity and try to pity its perpetrator.
This is of course the intractable problem in any theodicy, for as theodicies are made to console, so too they are made to justify. We had the promise of heavenly reward for a time. We’ve had others. We may have finished with meritocracy for a bit. There will be more.