Tuesday, May 2, 2017
Boethius on Foreknowldge and Freedom (Notes:55)
God is grand and his will encompasses everything—he is wholly good and is inseparable from good. But, if this is the case, then the original complain still exists—if God is all-powerful, then why is it that the good suffer at the hands of the wicked?
Fundamentally, Lady Philosophy’s stance is to the contrary: the wicked, in fact, do not prosper while the good, in fact, remain powerful. This will lead us to Boethius conception of divine conception and foreknowledge. The facet of his text which he is most remembered for as a philosopher.
When Lady Philosophy finishes with her remarks outlining a grand vision of reality outlined by divine province, the prisoner remarks in turn:
“This is the very greatest cause of my sorrow that it is at all possible for evils to exist, or to go unpunished even though the ruler of the world is good. This fact alone you have to admit considers astonishment. But it leads to another and a greater problem. Because wicked dominates and flourishes, virtue does not merely lack its rightful reward but virtues is trodden underfoot by criminals and it pays the penalties that crimes deserve. And that this happens in the domain of a God who knows all things and has all power and furthermore wills only good things, is something which must amaze and distress absolutely everyone.”
Lady Philosophy argues that the powerful men are always the good. Whereas the wicked are always abject and weak. So, in fact, Lady Philosophy argues that bad things do not in fact happen to good people. How she rationalizes her position is that everything we do relies on will and power. In other words, we must both want something and have the power to obtain it. Since, therefore, everyone—both good and wicked—are in pursuit of happiness, then it is only the virtuously who actually obtain it; what the wicked lack is the power to obtain happiness.
The wicked, says Lady Philosophy, is that the wicked try to obtain happiness through their many desires, but this is not the right way to obtain happiness. They go about their search for happiness in the wrong way, hence their inability to obtain it—their lack of power is mirrored as a primal inability to conduct their selves properly (like walking on their hands instead of their feet). The wicked are necessarily frustrated, thwarted, and unsuccessful.
Lady Philosophy remarks, “Notice how evident then is the weakness of human beings; their natural inclination pushes them forward, practically forces them, in a direction of a happiness that they are incapable of reaching. Mark well the paralysis that grips the wicked, the goods that they seek but cannot attain are not trivial rewards; no, the wicked fail in their quest for the supreme crown. Night and day they direct all their energy to obtain this and this alone and yet they fail—fail in that very struggle which the power of the good is so conspicuous.”
Even so, all this denotes that evil has the power to do nothing, even when unjustly imprisoned individuals are wrongly jailed. Lady Philosophy says “The power to do evil isn’t really a power at all. Remember that the one who is all-powerful can’t do evil.” But does this satisfy her original intent on explaining how bad things always happen to the wicked and good things always happen to the virtuous?
She asks, what is the reward that everyone seeks? Happiness, of course, which is the same thing as goodness. The virtuously, therefore, have their reward simply in being good. No one, furthermore, can take that reward away since virtuous conduct is up to the virtuous person. It is a self-bestowed reward. The wicked turn against their own nature and in doing so turn away from God—goodness—and degrade their selves and their ability to seek happiness, thus they are caught in a self-destructive loop. In a literal sense, they are less than human, akin to animals.
Boethius, text version, of course, expresses the wish that these animals were never allowed to go on the rampage to begin with; Lady Philosophy counters with that they were never allowed at all. Their schemes often come to bad ends (to this, as my own observation, I can’t but help thing of villains from Saturday morning cartoons). And whereas when their schemes do succeed, this is actually worse for them rather than better as it is bad to desire evil but even worse to achieve evil.
Punishment, on the other hand, lightens their wretchedness since it gives them a share in something good—punishment is just and therefore good. We ought to pity the wicked rather than their victims.
Boethius express his desire to see the wicked relived of their misfortune so that he might not suffer at their hands unjustly. Lady Philosophy remarks that they would be relived sooner than he may think. She argues that since human life is so short, the human mind finds nothing tedious to wait for, especially since the mind is immortal. But Boethius is still disconcerted since, cutting through all the high-minded words and ideas, if he, Boethius, were simply allowed to be back home with his family, power, and reputation in-tact, then he could aid Wisdom in her quest and this would surely be better than being unjustly imprisoned; in effect, that even the wisest man would prefer family and power over disgrace and evil. Lady Philosophy rebuttals with that divine providence already rules the world (the perfect order of the stars and the natural world). But, of course, Boethius is adamant and Lady Philosophy relents that in order to answer his question several complicated issues must be addressed.
Boethius’s argument is something like this: What God foreknows must be the case; what must be the case is not subject to human free choice; God foreknows all our future actions, therefore, our future actions, are not subject to human free choice.
Each premise should be taken one by one.
One: what God foreknows must be the case; if God knows today that I will Sin tomorrow, then I will, in fact, sin; if it was possible for me not to sin, then God was mistaken. But it is not possible for me to cause God to be mistaken since it is not possible for God to be mistaken. God is infallible and so what God knows must be the case. Two: what is the case is not subject to human free choice. Our freedom, if we are free at all, does not extend to things which must happen; it is not up to my free choice if something I drop falls to the floor since, according to the laws of nature, it must fall. If there is free choice at all, it must apply in the domain of things which do not have to happen. The next premise says that God foreknows all of our future actions. God’s foreknowledge is complete—nothing comes as a surprise to God. So it seems that this logical conclusion to this train of thought is evident and that there is little point to anything; but, this is not the case: St. Augustine, for instance, had remarked that foreknowledge does not cause our actions to happen, those actions are still free; but Lady Philosophy says that foreknowledge is simply the case, never mind why it is the case. Foreknowledge is a sign of necessity, God could not foreknow something unless it had to take place, argues Boethius. Lady Philosophy maintains that Boethius is not thinking about God’s knowledge in the right way; God’s knowledge, after all, is not on par with our—human—knowledge. For humans, we can only know the future concerning those events which has to happen (the sun rising, for instance), not what does not have to happen (the various articles of the nightly news). God, meanwhile, is outside of time. God does not have foreknowledge, he has knowledge. He is eternal—or, the complete and perfect possession of life all at once. God’s life, therefore, is not successive. God does not experience one thing after another; he has no past and no future, only an all-encompassing and eternal present. Consequently, his foreknowledge is analogous to our own vision of something present (as when one watches a chariot race or a football game). Necessity, therefore, comes in as follows: just because you see something that must be happening, does not eliminate the person’s free will in it happen—you watch a chariot make a right turn, but as you see it happen, it does not eliminate the chariot’s action or ability to perform it. This is conditional necessity. What has to happen period, is simple necessity—not what must happen given that God is seeing it, but what has to happen period. Conditional necessity is subject to human free choice; ultimately, Simple Necessity will win out since it must happen, but that does not destroy Conditional Necessity, that which must happen but in which we have a role via our agency and freedom, in making it happen according to our will (that which has, ultimately, been foreseen by God). So what was wrong with the original argument was that it was using two different definitions of free choice—necessity and must. Freedom and foreknowledge can co-exist.
AS a theory, this is a profoundly influential conception and would inform not only the middle ages but even the modern idea of necessity and must.
Has Boethius’s question been answered? It is a much debated question, especially since the text ends with but these final sentences
“God in his foreknowledge observes all things on high. And the eternal present of his vision always correspond to the future quality of our actions; dispensing rewards to the good and punishment to the wicked. The hope that we place in God and the prayers that we offer him are not fruitless, for when they are righteous, they cannot be ineffectual. Avoid vices, therefore, and cultivate virtues. Raise your mind to righteous hopes and pour forth humble prayers to heaven. A great obligation to behave honorably is imposed on you and you must not neglect it because you are under the watchful eye of the judge who foresees all things.”
Some commentators have suggested that it was Boethius’s goal to have the text-Boethius prove to Lady Philosophy that some issues of the world cannot be addressed by philosophy and that only Christianity—Faith—can address some other issues. The questions of the text, in other words, seem as important as ever.
But historical figures have found comfort in this text: King Alfred the Great, who translated it into Anglo-Saxon, thought of it as a book which one could turn to for comfort and reassurance in the face of adversity. Dante solace in it after the death of Beatrice, with one character in “The Inferno” describing Boethius as ‘your teacher’. Many other examples abound.
Despite this, the book has no real comfort to give. But, as Williams demonstrates, if one was to defend Lady Philosophy, then one would begin with this: Lady Philosophy has shown that God is in charge and in charge of everything, he knows everything and has complete power; since we know that God is goodness itself, we know that he always exercises this power in the best possible way. Furthermore, Lady Philosophy share with Boethius a concern for preserving free will, so she can’t offer a solution which overrides free will; so, yes, the wicked are allowed to exercise their free will but we cannot think that they somehow come out from under the governance of divine providence when they do that. Neither can we believe that their effects of their wicked actions escape God’s notice. Therefore, nothing is outside of God’s providence and it is all according to his will. It is up to the person to behave honorably and live up to God’s goodness in order to become closer to him.
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