Boethius’s Misguided Theodicy: The Consolation of Philosophy
By Justin McManus
Discoveries, Vol.4 (2002)
Introduction: Anicius Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy (c. 524) is a bold attempt to reconcile the gravity of the author’s imprisonment and impending death with a world governed by a just God. In arguing his classic theodicy, Boethius reiterates the Augustinian belief that evil is really nonexistent. By challenging any capacity that the wicked have for real action, Boethius sidesteps the problem of evil in a just world by disputing its actual influence. Yet the pain and suffering that so poignantly characterize the human condition must refute Boethius’s counterintuitive assertion. His abstraction, in fact, describes an ultimately absurd universe because he assembles it with a faulty style of argumentation. Boethius’s overreliance upon the equation of dissimilar concepts, for instance, results in a text that is laden with contradictions and often plagued by oversimplifications. More important, though, is his fundamentally flawed understanding of evil. Instead of seriously considering the possible benefits of injustice acknowledged by suffering, Boethius errs in assuming that the existence of evil is necessarily inconsistent with an all-loving, just God. Boethius’s dubious mode of argumentation and his fundamental misunderstanding of evil doom the theodicy of The Consolation to failure.
The most readily apparent flaw in Boethius’s theodicy is his tendency to equate dissimilar ideas. His reliance on equivalency surfaces most disturbingly when his imagined guardian, Philosophy, claims that real happiness is a uniform, undivided amalgam of self-sufficiency, power, fame, and glory. To prove her assertion, Philosophy awkwardly equates all of these components with happiness itself. First, she holds that because self-sufficiency is a state replete with power, the two ideals of self-sufficiency and power are really one and the same. Going further, she prompts Boethius to admit that one would revere rather than despise a self-sufficient being, so that self-sufficiency, power, and respect must all describe the same ideal. Using the same mode of argumentation, Philosophy continues to equate fame and finally true happiness with the other previously equated values. Yet there are two immediately obvious faults with this type of reasoning.