May 14, 2012

Boethius on Mistaken Views of Happiness (part 1 of 2)

One of the essays I assign my Ethics students at the beginning of the semester is Alasdair MacIntyre's Plain Persons and Moral Philosophy: Rules, Virtues and Goods (included in the Macintyre Reader). One reason I use that short piece is that it introduces an important theme, the idea that we are all, whether we realize it or not, involved in the processes of asking and answering certain fundamental questions:
. . . on an Aristotelian view, the questions posed by the moral philosopher and the questions posed by the plain person are to a certain degree inseparable.  And it is with questions that each begins, for each is engaged in enquiry, the plain person often unsystematically asking"What is my good?" and "What actions will achieve it?" and the moral philosopher systematically enquiring "What is the good for human beings?" and "what kind of actions will achieve the good?"  Any persistent attempt to answer either of these sets of questions soon leads to asking the other.
In MacIntyre's view -- and I think he's right -- we are all of us committed to one or another -- some more some less consistently -- to one moral theory or another, whether explicitly, consciously, deliberately so, or whether only implicitly, accepting it perhaps as the default, following a trajectory of desire we have failed, avoided, or even not had the opportunity to think out.  When we see these sorts of moral matters from a different perspective, we imaginatively place ourselves in the perspective of another, rival moral theory.  When we leave one perspective behind and adopt another -- whether by a gradual process or a sudden conversions -- we shift our allegiance from one moral theory to another.

Moral Theory and Ordering Goods

In doing so -- in having any moral theory to work with -- we accept, even presuppose some ordering of the many, multiple, heterogenous and yet comparable goods which we experience or even just imagine.  That is indeed one of the central determinative features of each moral theory -- what it takes to be good things, what it takes to be bad, and how it arranges, orders, compares them to each other, what kind of opportunities it leaves open or closes off, what sort of sacrifices it demands or denigrates, what rules and principles for moral reasoning  it recognizes, and what sort of persons, what structures of motivations and desires, what concrete configurations of practical reason it holds out as models of good or bad.

MacIntyre, unapologetically but not without reason committed to a Thomist-Aristotelian moral tradition of Virtue Ethics fortified with Natural Law theory (after his transition from After Virtue through Whose Justice Which Rationality to Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry and beyond), says something very interesting in this short, rich, worthwhile essay:

A plain person who begins to understand his or her life as an uneven progress towards his or her good is thus to some significant extent transformed into a moral philosopher, asking and answering the same questions posed by Aristotle in the Nichomachean Ethics and Aquinas in his commentary on the Ethics and elsewhere.
What are those questions?  Among them is: what is the highest good?  What should the other goods constellate around and be understood in terms of?
The recurrent and rival claims of pleasure, of the pursuit of wealth, of power, and honor and prestige to be the ordering principle of human lives will each have to be responded to in turn; and in so responding, and individual will defining his or her attitude to those considerations which Aristotle rehearses in book 1 of the Nichomachean Ethics and which Aquinas reconsiders in the opening questions of the Ia-IIae of the Summa Theologiae, in the course of their extended dialectical arguments on the nature of the supreme good.

Aristotle, Aquinas, and MacIntyre

Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics and Thomas' so-called Treatise On Happiness both frame this set of questions and answers -- careful and comprehensive consideration of candidates for the true, the final, the supreme good -- in terms of happiness.  What is happiness? they ask, and then examine all of the commonly held, plausible views upon that subject -- those corresponding, as it turns out to most other moral theories one might raise up against their own as rivals.  Each candidate possesses some attractiveness, some reason why a person in grasping and seeking happiness under that object might think or feel him or herself to be on the right track.  But, when considered carefully, each of those possible sources or embodiments of happiness turn out to be deficient, lacking something, unable to entirely satisfy, to serve as the final end. 

I very much like both Aristotle's and Thomas' dialectical excursions into the marketplace, or rather bazaar, of ideas -- and I actually teach both of those texts in my own Ethics classes, a course specifically designed to meet the needs of plain persons, rather than the indulgences of a professional philosopher.  If you like, you can watch and listen to some of those class sessions here and here)

A considerable portion of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy develops a similar line of practical reasoning, critically examining -- or more properly speaking, remembering and revealing -- the relative merits of the goods we often presume or decide to be happiness.  The work is actually a dialogue in which Philosophia herself comes to console the downcast Boethius, a victim of clear injustice, in his prison cell.  What does actually provide him consolation in those circumstances is being brought back to the right beliefs -- and understanding them -- about the nature of happiness and related objects.  Philosophia, and Boethius following along, is engaged in precisely the sort of enquiry MacIntyre calls that of the moral philosopher.  And yet, like everyone else, including professional academics, he is also a plain person, asking not only what is the good?, but what is my good? in determinate, and in this case even desperate circumstances, deciding what his narrative still being lived out will be.

I think just for that reason -- the fact that Boethius' Consolation in some way exemplifies the interplay between universal and particular, joined by narrative and moral theory -- it deserves a place in what one might call (a bit tongue in cheek) the MacIntyrian canon.  Rereading the work, I noticed something else I found particularly interesting, something that takes its treatments of goods and happiness beyond those of Aristotle on Nichomachean Ethics book 1 and Thomas in the Summa.

Boethius on Good and Happiness

The rival goods not only fall short of happiness' demands and requirements, revealing pocks and imperfections when examined by the critical eye.  They not only fail to respond to the full exigencies inworked to our natures as rational beings, which express themselves as desires and inclinations, even inchoate and inarticulate urgencies and sentiments, just as much as deliberately reasoned-out ends, plans, and resolutions.  In  a series of dialectical progressions that would be reminiscent of Hegel if his own thought was not more than a millennium off in the future, the Consolation shows these goods simply to be shifting sand when understood in their ordinary senses.  Whatever solidity they possess lies not in themselves, but where they meet in a good transcending and realizing them.

That's enough preliminary I think -- now on to some of the key passages, in which what I've described actually takes place.
. . . happiness is a state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good, a state, which, as we said, mortal men are striving to reach though by different paths.  For the desire for the true good is planted by nature in the minds of men, only error leads them astray towards false good.

Some men believe that perfect good consists in having no wants, and so they toil in order to end up rolling in wealth.  Some thing that the true good is that which is worthy of respect, and so struggle for position in order to be held in respect by their fellow citizens.  Some decide that it lies in the highest power, and either want to be rulers themselves, or try to attach themselves to those in power.  Others think the best thing is fame and busy themselves to make a name in the arts of war or peace.  But post people measure the possession of the good by the amount of enjoyment and delight it brings, convinced that being abandoned to pleasure is the highest form of happiness.

Others again confuse ends and means with regard to these things, such as people who desire riches for the sake of power and pleasure, or those who want power for the sake of money or fame.  So it is in these and other such objectives that the aim of human activity and desire is to be found. . . .
Will these necessarily bring happiness, though?  Earlier, Philosophia reminded Boethius:
It is the nature of human affairs to be fraught with anxiety; they never prosper perfectly and they never remain constant.  In one man's case you will find riches offset by unwelcome publicity on account of the crippling poverty of his family fortunes. Some men are blessed with both wealth and noble birth, but are unhappy because they have no wife.  Some are happily married but without children, and husband their money for an heir of alien blood.  some again have been blessed with children only to weep over their misdeeds. . .

No one is so happy that he would not to change his lot if he gives in to impatience.  Such is the bitter-sweetness of human happiness.  To him that enjoys it, it may seem full of delight, but he cannot prevent it slipping away when it will.
None of the limited goods over which fortune has greater control than do we can make good on the promises they make. A few examples:
Wealth which was thought to make a man self-sufficient in fact makes him dependent on outside help.  In which case, what is the way in which riches remove want? . .  Far from being able to remove want, riches create a want of their own.

It is said, when a man comes to high office, that makes him worthy of honor and respect.  Surely such offices don't have the power of planting virtue in the mind of those who hold them, do they?  Or removing vices?  . . . More often than removing wickedness, high office brings it to light.

What sort of power is it, then, that strikes fear into those who possess it, confers no safety on you if you want it, and which cannot be avoided when you want to renounce it?

There is no support either in friends you acquire because of your good fortune rather than your personal qualities.  The friend that success brings you becomes your foe in time of misfortune.  And there is no evil able to do you injury more than friend turned foe.

What Goods Reveal Themselves As

At last we come to the first moment of dialectical transformation, where these seemingly so solid goods turn out to be empty, hollow, not only in comparison to something greater, but on their own ground, on their own account, on the basis of what they promised to the desiring human being
There is no doubt, then, that these roads to happiness are side-tracks and cannot bring us to the destination they promise. . . .If you try to hoard money, you will have to take it by force.  If you want to be resplendent in the dignities of high office, you will have to grovel before the man who bestows it; in your desire to outdo others in high honor you will have to cheapen and humiliate yourself by begging.  If you want power, you will have to expose yourself to the plots of your subjects and run dangerous risks.  If fame is what you seek, you will find yourself on a hard road, drawn this way and that until you are worn with care.  Decide to lead a life of pleasure, and there will no one one who will not reject you as the slave of that most worthless and brittle master, the human body. . . . The sleek looks of beauty are fleeting and transitory, more ephemeral than the blossom in spring.

The sum of all this is that because they can neither produce the good they promise nor come to perfection by the combination of all good, these things are not the way to happiness and cannot by themselves make people happy.
The second important dialectical moment -- one apparently negative but leading beyond it to a positive development which I'll discuss in the follow-up post to this one -- lies in a realization of the seeming incompatibility of these limited goods.
If a man pursues wealth by trying to avoid poverty, he is not working to get power; he prefers being unknown and unrecognized, and even denies himself many pleasures to avoid losing the money he has got. . .  And if a man pursues only power, he expends wealth, despises pleasures and honor without power, and holds glory of no account.  but you can see how much this man also lacks; at any one time he lacks the necessaries of life and is consumed by worry, from which he cannot free himself, so he ceases to be what he most of all wants to be, that is, powerful.  A similar argument can be applied to honor, glory, and pleasures, for,since any one of them is the same as the others, a man who pursues them to the exclusion of the others cannot even acquire the one he wants.
There is a riddle here to unravel -- the good, the object and satisfaction of desire -- seems to be necessarily scattered over all sorts of goods.  The pursuit of any of them somehow excludes the other goods, and then places in one's hands something other than the true object of desire.

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