Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 5

Lady Philosophy consoles Boethius. Detail of an illustration for the Consolation of Philosophy by the Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), c. 1465. Image courtesy of the Getty Museum.

Summary of Book 5:

Like a fireworks display that leaves many of the most impressive fireworks for the end, Boethius has left his most impressive arguments for this final chapter. Having ended the discussion of evil in the previous chapter, Boethius asks Lady Philosophy first whether chance exists (she replies with Aristotle's answer: chance does not exist as a cause of things, but it does exist in the sense of our perception of things happening unexpectedly or from an unforeseen mix of causes). Next he asks whether free will exists. She says yes; there is more free will though, the closer you are to god, because the more constrained or trapped in earthly desires you are, the less free will you have. She ends up by asserting that god looks out and sees all, like the sun (or like a better, higher, more all-seeing sun). (This in fact presages later aspects of the argument, though more immediately it sets up an objection by Boethius).

Boethius then raises his tough question: but if god can foresee everything, then everything must already be foreordained, and we can not truly have free will. This leads to all sorts of consequences: we know all happens according to providence, so with no free will, it is all caused by God. It is unjust to reward the good or punish the bad, because these are not their own decisions, their actions are not truly their own. There is thus no justice, and also no reason to pray to god. In fact all good, and all evil are both caused by god, so the belief that god is perfectly good is destroyed.

In addition to numerous interesting side arguments, many linking back to Aristotle, the ultimate argument Lady Philosophy makes in response is that God's knowledge is different from, and beyond the grasp of, human knowledge. The idea then that God's knowledge of the future causes or indicates a constraint on the present ("imposes a necessity") is false, based on the false model of our own understanding. Lady Philosophy points out that if we see or know something in the present, this does not make the existence of that thing dependent on our knowledge: if I see a man sitting, I see this because he is sitting; however, the reverse is not true: he is not sitting because I see him sitting. There is also a very interesting point where this is extended into the future with the concept of [apprehension or intimation]: the image of a charioteer seeing what is about to happen in a race, but this knowledge of the charioteer does not force what he foresees to happen (it is both not the cause of that thing happening, nor is it impossible for something else to happen). (Here the relevance of the earlier discussion of "chance," is revealed, as it sets up the limitation of human knowledge of how things work). So with apprehension or foresight of this nature, we can "see the future" but this does not make things happen, nor even ensure that they will happen. [Another example: if I see that a lamp is about to fall off a table; I then reach out and grab it. My foresight was true even though the thing foreseen did not end up happening. This means there can be both foresight and free will; though god’s foresight will of course be much more complex than that of individual humans.]

The biggest argument however, is when Lady Philosophy introduces the idea that things are not known on account of their own nature or power, but through the power of those knowing. Several statements of neo-Platonism are given to show how and why the ancient Stoics were wrong for imagining that knowledge is the “impress” of other bodies on our senses and minds; instead this is accompanied by an active intelligence which we are born with, and which seeks to recover its lost knowledge that it had from some previous or originary union with god. Back to our ways of knowing: Lady Philosophy points out that seeing and touching, as two different senses, give us distinct knowledge of an object. This is an interesting opening up to a relativist/phenomenological theory of knowledge; however, Boethius will subordinate this to a strictly hierarchical model. As in relativism, human knowledge is decentered; but in this case, it is placed in relationship to God's perfect knowledge. The hierarchy is (starting from the bottom): 1) senses; 2) imagination; 3) (human) reason and intelligence; 4) God's perfect intelligence/knowledge etc. Each of these up the scale knows what is known by previous levels, but add something more. Lady Philosophy dismisses the objection that there is something specific [aka concrete, material, etc.] known through the senses but lost in abstraction by reason; this is contradicted by the entire theory of knowledge in ancient times and neo-Platonism in particular, whereby reason gives you true knowledge against which any empiricist argument cannot hold a candle. So anyway, we misunderstand God's knowledge when we try to think of it on the model of human intelligence, just as the latter would be misconstrued if modeled on the senses [as the Stoics had, as a matter of fact].

This leads to the question of eternity, which God possesses but we do not. Eternity is not just an infinite amount of time, but is outside of and not subject to time, and is experienced simultaneously: thus to God, the present, future, and past are all present and visible. Recalling Plato, the visible world/universe we live in is just a flawed copy of the original which is God. God, not being stuck in time, naturally sees what we don't see and his vision of the future is not complicated by our freedom in the present. Thus, God's knowledge of the future does not contradict our possession of free will, nor does our possession of free will contradict the perfection of God's future knowledge. Therefore, (to counter at the very end Boethius's objections from the beginning), justice exists, and prayers are worthwhile. So be a good person!


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