Jan 15, 2023
“The ultimate pattern of events is determined, while the specific events that form that pattern are entirely undetermined.”
You know Plato and Aristotle, Augustine and Aquinas, Kant and Hegel, but do you know Boethius?
My mappa mundi of Western Civilization is maddeningly simplistic. I divide it into three great and, so far at least, symmetrical epochs: Classical, Medieval and Modern.
I date the Classical era from the 5th century BCE: the rise of pre-Socratic philosophy, the golden age of Greek theater, and the dawn of Athenian democracy (Pericles); it ended in the 5th century CE, one millennium later.
The Fall of Rome (476 CE) kick-starts the Middle Ages. Another millennium passes and now Machiavelli and the rest of his ‘Renaissance gang’ are busy bringing down the curtain on the greatest social ‘experiment’ of all time, call it ‘Christendom’ or ‘Feudalism’ as you will.
So, the Modern era begins (c. 1500 CE); are we still in its grip today? Precedent says that we are only halfway through this third epoch. Hope and prayer say otherwise!
Perhaps history is unfolding according to an inverse Fibonacci series (1, 1, 2, 3, 5…). This would preserve intact the first two 1,000 year eras; but it would mercifully shorten the so-called Modern epoch to just 500 years, followed by a succession of much shorter post-Modern epochs: 333 years (now), 200 years, 120 years, etc.
Who knows? Could happen! The rate of change does seem to be accelerating.
We should be so lucky! Have we seen the backside of the ‘Enlightenment’? Are we on the cusp of something new? Is this “the dawning of the Age of Aquarius” we heard so much about in the ‘60s? Ok, I’ll curb my enthusiasm!
The 20th century borrowed liberally from the New Testament’s Apocalypse: two world wars, the holocaust, the atomic bomb, climate change… The grip of La Technique (per Jacques Ellul) on our economy has never been tighter, while its first cousin once removed, propaganda, thoroughly dominates our intellectual, social, and political lives.
Are there any promising counter indications (i.e., grounds for hope)? Well, in the art world, we celebrate the demise of representationalism and the return to the Gothic ideal in the work of Picasso, Kandinsky, et al. Now we are once again looking beneath the surface: we’re exploring what things are, not just how they look or how they work.
In science, too, we have overthrown the tyranny of Newtonian spacetime. 20th century physics pulled off a spectacular trifecta: relativity (Einstein), quantum mechanics (Heisenberg et al.), and non-locality (John Bell).
Finally, literature: Ulysses (Joyce) represents the rediscovery of syntagm (vs. system). Pound, Eliot, Stein, Becket, Robbe-Grillet, et al., joined Joyce in rotating the ‘world’ 90 degrees, from a horizontal orientation (sequence) to a vertical orientation (coincidence).
The classical, medieval and modern epochs each produced a gaggle of philosophers, but out of that scrum, a man called Boethius unexpectedly emerges. He bestride the millennia like a Colossus - sorry Homer.
Boethius was a Christian, but scholars are uncertain about the depth of his conviction. By the end of the 5th century, Christianity had become chic. It was the way forward for any aspiring philosopher. Jupiter and Juno were yesterday’s news!
Yet, his most famous work, The Consolation of Philosophy, though thoroughly monotheistic, makes no mention of Christianity or any of its differentiating doctrines. Instead, the work displays Boethius’ profound familiarity with Greco-Roman mythology and classical history.
He was a prominent personal advisor to the Ostrogoth emperor Theodoric, an Arian (i.e., a heretic, at least by today’s standards). Yet, Boethius is venerated, with official sanction, as a Christian martyr in at least one region of Italy.
Be that as it may, Boethius proposed solutions to mainstream philosophical problems, the like of which are not seen again until the late medieval/early modern period (1200 – 1950). Let’s explore:
All events, to the extent that they are free, seek Good and shun evil. What else could events possibly do? By pursuing something, events automatically confer on it the moniker, ‘Good’.
Emerging events assess the world as it is, evaluate that world according to criteria (i.e., values) we call ‘the Good’, and act to modify that world so that it more closely conforms to that ‘Good’. Not your cup of chai? No problem, Goodbye!
Of course, in our spatio-temporal world, things don’t always turn out exactly as we intend. The best laid plans… and all that.
“Everything that is good is so through participation in goodness.”
“If there is something to which all things are inclined, it will be the sum of all good…”
“Even things which are believed to be inanimate also desire, in a similar way, that which is their own… Furthermore, that which is suitable to each thing, they preserve, just as they destroy what is harmful.”
It’s hard, even for Boethius, to describe Being from the perspective of a stone. Suffice to say, there is something about a stone that works to preserve its stoniness.
Was Boethius, therefore, a proponent of panpsychism? We don’t have enough evidence to make that call, but his ontology certainly does not rule it out.
“… The end of all things is the good…namely God.” The final cause.
“Mortal men travel by different paths, though all are striving to reach one and the same goal… It is the perfection of all good things and contains in itself all that is good.”
“The chief point and reason, therefore, for seeking all things is goodness…all things are desired for the sake of the good in them… God is to be found in goodness itself and nowhere else.”
Boethius demonstrates that Good, Being, Unity, Love and God are different names for a single concept.
“When…objects differ (conflict) they are not good, but…it is through the acquisition of unity (harmony) that these things are good…”
“Everything that is remains and subsists just so long as it is one, but perishes and dissolves immediately it ceases to be one.” To be is to be one; to cease being is to become ‘legion’.
Think of your own body; it is made up of 35 trillion cells, but you experience those cells as one body. We use ‘the body is breaking down’ as a euphemism for death.
“Men who give up the common goal (unity, harmony)…thereby cease to exist themselves.” We are only so long and to the extent that we keep our focus on the Good.
1500 years on from Boethius, we have memes of our own:
“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” (The Who)
But this is not at all what Boethius had in mind:
The more things change, the more they become one!
Becoming one is just about the opposite of staying the same.
“The world in constant change maintains a harmony… If Love relaxed the reins, all things that now keep peace would wage continual war.”
“If you do away with perfection (aka God), it is impossible to imagine how that which is held to be imperfect could exist…” Without some universal unifying force (e.g., God or the Good), the world would disintegrate into an ever-finer grained multiplicity, culminating in heat death.
Imagine all the matter/energy in the universe, inert and spread out smoothly throughout the universe. Hmm, sounds a bit like Genesis before God’s creative act:
“The world was without form or shape with darkness over the abyss and a wind sweeping across the waters, (1: 1-2)” aka the CMB (Cosmic Microwave Background).
“That which is the origin of all things is in its own substance supremely good.” An ‘origin’ qua origin can only be one. Once that unity is lost, so is the power of origination.
“Evil is nothing, (so) it is clear that since they can only do evil, the wicked can do nothing.” Our choice is not merely between good and evil, it is between something and nothing. To be is to be good; not to be good is not to be.
“We must see everything that exists as good…anything that turns away from the good ceases to exist.”
Like all children, we initially understand freedom as ‘freedom from’ – freedom from the ministrations of parents, teachers, and civil authorities. Later, we tack on ‘freedom to’ – freedom to speak, assemble, pursue happiness, etc.
But there are even bigger fish to fry. External constraints can be annoying (ask any teenager), but internal constraints can be, and usually are, fatal.
We are born free, not omnipotent, but free, free to be all that we can be. Anything that interferes with my ability to realize my full human potential is, in that instance at least, evil.
Born free, most of us allow ourselves to be imprisoned, not by evil men (sic) but by our own attachments: “But if to care and want you’re prey, no king are you, but slave.”
We are in prison, a prison of our own making; but incredibly, we know the way out of this prison. Exit signs abound and there are no locks on any doors, no gates are barred, and yet we huddle together in the prison yard, bemoaning the lot, calling out for a savior.
We noted earlier that no one knowingly and freely chooses lesser good in preference to greater good; and yet we all do so, nearly all the time. Born free, we are no longer free. Each of us is in a prison of her own design.
The wisdom of all cultures, east and west, is full of blueprints, maps and escape manuals. Arguably, these constitute the sum of all human reflection.
Liberation is what the Buddha was all about; but perhaps the opening verse of the Book of Psalms says it best: “Happy is the man (sic) who does not follow the counsel of the wicked…the law of the Lord is his joy, and on his law, he meditates day and night.”
We are ‘happy’ only to the extent that we participate in the Good, and participation in the Good is only possible in the context of Freedom. Luckily, we are free; we only just need to recognize that!
“Submitting to His (God’s) governance and obeying his laws is freedom.” For Boethius, freedom and virtue are one and the same. Failure to act virtuously in a particular situation is testimony to the hold evil has over us.
No one voluntarily does anything that is less than ‘good’; therefore, anyone who tries to do anything other than ‘good’ does so as a result of compulsion (imposed externally or internally). Compulsion is the manifestation of evil in the life of a human being (or any other entity endowed with free will).
Boethius was a mere 1,400 years ahead of his time. Elsewhere in this issue of ATM, we looked at how Pope Leo XIII and Philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, both espoused similar views of freedom and compulsion.
The popular Christian notions of Providence and Omniscience (foreknowledge) seem radically incompatible with this Freedom. Freedom suggests that we are the authors of our own acts. We might not control the outcome of events, but we are solely responsible for their initiation. We act!
Providence, on the other hand, refers to God’s role in the unfolding of events (personal or cosmic). This is what Einstein meant when he asked if the universe ‘had a bias toward good’; it is also what the preacher means when she says that God has a ‘master plan’ for each of us and for the cosmos.
It is under Providence that we’ll find the concepts of Divine Benevolence and Omnipotence. God acts!
Omniscience refers to God’s foreknowledge of events. It assumes that God knows immediately and eternally every detail of cosmic history. This would appear to preclude all contingency and therefore eliminate any role for Freedom. We are presented with a ‘block universe’ in which everything that is to happen has ‘already happened’...in the mind of God. Nobody acts!
Each of these concepts is vastly more nuanced than we have space to explore here. Each could consume volumes…and has. Still, based just on this thumbnail, it is hard to see how these three connotatively disparate concepts could apply jointly to a single reality.
But perhaps that is the ‘consolation of philosophy’ – to see the synonym behind every antonym.
The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius’ masterwork, is divided into 5 books, each in turn further divided into chapters. The last chapter of the penultimate book and the entirety of the final book are devoted to one topic:
“You are urging me to the greatest of all questions, a question that can never be exhausted…the oneness of providence, the course of fate, the haphazard nature of the random events of chance, divine knowledge and predestination, and the freedom of the will.”
This area of inquiry remains a major focus, even today, of theological and religious speculation. In the end, if I understand him correctly, Boethius got it right, but his reasoning can be hard to follow.
Rather than quote Boethius at length (as I did above), I think it would be more profitable for all concerned if I were to present an organized summary of his views on this topic.
Boethius believed that Freedom, Providence, and Omniscience are, in fact, entirely compatible, but to see that we need to look at the world through fresh eyes:
God is eternal (aka timeless), God is good, God creates.
The universe is real. It’s not a figment of God’s imagination, and because It is real, it is free.
Real existence is only possible in the context of real freedom.
To be is to be free.
The created universe extends in both space and time. Even if that extension were infinite (Aristotle), that infinity would, in no way equal, or even resemble, eternity which is another name for God. (See ATM’s Eternity vs. Immortality.)
From the perspective of the spatio-temporal universe (us), events may be sorted into past, present, and future.
From the perspective of eternity (God), there is no past or future, just a single all-encompassing present. So, God ‘experiences’ all spatio-temporal events as happening immediately and simultaneously.
From that perspective, events fit together perfectly. Each event makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the final pattern. Therefore, each event is ‘necessary’ in its relationship to other events and to the whole. There is no wiggle room here.
On the other hand, a nexus of entirely different events could have generated the exact same pattern, in which case those events would each be ‘necessary’.
The ultimate pattern harmonizes all events, regardless of their details, by resolving all conflicts into contrasts that perfectly instantiate God’s values.
Therefore, we may say that the ultimate pattern of events is determined, while the specific events that form that pattern are entirely undetermined.
Human beings (and perhaps other entities as well) are free to act (in the real pursuit of Good, i.e. God) or not (in the imaginary pursuit of ‘pleasure’, i.e. idols).
Freedom acts in pursuit of God’s values; Providence harmonizes those acts into a pattern that perfectly instantiates those values; God has eternal knowledge of that pattern.
From God’s perspective, it is the pattern that is ultimately real. The specific acts that form that pattern are the province of the created (i.e., free) world.
Let us fall back on the old metaphor of an oriental rug. God prescribes the pattern and monitors ‘events’ to ensure that that pattern is emerging from the weave. We are the five-year-olds, working up to 16 hours each day, in dimly lit spaces, tying knots. We know nothing of patterns; our only concern is to tie a good knot.
Ultimately, though, our efforts, however painful, are redeemed in the magnificence of the final design. Boethius offers us this consolation, only days before he is bludgeoned to death. Thank you, Mr. B!
Image: Boethius woodcut. Holbein. 1537.
David Cowles is the founder and editor-in-chief of Aletheia Today Magazine. He lives with his family in Massachusetts where he studies and writes about philosophy, science, theology, and scripture. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.