Jun 14, 2012

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

Last month, in an earlier post, I brought Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy into a conversation that, among Virtue Ethicists, tends to circle around the works and thought of two figures, Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.  Both thinkers, as contemporary Virtue Ethicist Alasdair MacIntyre argues, carry out something very important in the Nicomachean Ethics and the Treatise On Happiness, a dialectical examination of various possible contenders to the good for human beings, i.e. happiness -- and what each one of us has to do within the story comprising our own lives, according to MacIntyre, is to carry out a moral inquiry analogous to those landmark dialectical, universal, and in that sense rather abstract investigations of moral philosophy.  For you see, as human beings, as plain persons, we really live in the concrete, we ask about particular goods and whether they will make us happy.  We work these matters out, not necessarily divorced from universal considerations, but within specific contexts and situations.

Boethius' own inquiry into happiness bridges the gap between a philosophical, universal moral inquiry into happiness and a personal, particular, even pressing situation in which he finds himself -- a prison cell, unjustly accused, his happiness in whole and in its parts seemingly undone by an unreliable fortune.  Philosophia -- wisdom, or at least its pursuit, personified -- comes to his aid, engaging in discourse, exhortation, dialogue with the glum philosopher and courtier, and among the topics over which they range is precisely that one:  what is happiness?  Who has got it right, and who has got it wrong?  And most importantly -- what makes this philosophical -- why are the wrong views wrong?  What's wrong about them?  To answer that, of course, also requires setting out something more about what's right, rather than just that it is right.

 Common Views on Happiness

Just to recap, what were the possible -- and popular -- candidates human beings typically put forth and then pursue as happiness?  Wealth, money, possessions, reputation, glory, power, offices -- none of these external goods turn out to satisfy entirely -- or even to make good on the promises they make, to provide the good specific to them:
No one doubts that a man in whom he has seen evidence of bravery is brave. .. In the same way music makes a man a musician, medicine makes him a doctor, and rhetoric makes him an orator; for it is the nature of anything to perform the office proper to it.  It does not become mixed up in the operations of contrary things and actually repels opposites.

But riches are unable to quench insatiable greed;  power does not make a man master of himself if he is imprisoned by the indissoluble chains of wicked lusts; and when high office is bestowed on unworthy men, so far from making them worthy, it only betrays them and reveals their unworthiness.  
What other goods are there that offer the possibility of happiness?  Just as much in our own time -- in fact, in so many more ways -- some see happiness residing with the goods of the body:  one's own physical attractiveness, strength, or a state of health, for instance, or beauty exhibited by physical things outside of oneself, which one can enjoy.  Pleasure of all varieties is also a contender, is it not?  But, that is not complete enough to be happiness -- and often enough, the direct quest for pleasure ends up ruling out or cutting the seeker off from other desired goods.

Thus far, Boethius has traced a path similar to those of Aristotle and Aquinas, examining goods, desires for them, and the kind of life centered by them.  Aristotle will propose two happy lives, one of engagement, active practice of the moral (and certain  intellectual) virtues, and one of contemplation, pursuing and enjoying knowledge or wisdom.  Thomas Aquinas will go further and place full happiness in God alone.  The goods or activities of the soul Aristotle identified with happiness are insufficient once placed within the theological horizon Thomas glimpses, though he does grant that happiness is experienced through the soul.  Where does Boethius fit in?  Somewhere between these two luminaries, or if you like, lighthouses, as we'll soon see.

The Unity of the Good

Philosophia identifies the fundamental mistake made by all those who consider external or bodily goods to be or to lead to happiness, and it's not a mistake which takes the form of being entirely wrong, of having fully missed the mark, of giving an answer that is completely incorrect.
That which is one and undivided is mistakenly subdivided and removed by men from the state of truth and perfection to a state of falseness and imperfection.
Self-sufficiency, power, being revered or respected, even fame or glory -- rightly considered, understood in terms of a being fully possessing them -- coincide in one good, rather than compete as rival goods.  The dialogue continues:
If there were, then a being self-sufficient, able to accomplish everything from its own resources, glorious and worthy of reverence, surely it would also be supremely happy?

How any sorrow could approach such a being is inconceivable; it must be admitted that provided the other qualities are permanent, it will be full of happiness.

And for the same reason this conclusion, too, is inescapable; sufficiency, power, glory, reverence and happiness differ in name, but not in substance.
That is, for modern readers, a rather startling conclusion -- and admittedly, Boethius does not argue for this substantial identity quite as well as one might like (as does, say, Anselm in his Monologion).  But, set that aside for the moment, so that we can see where he takes this line of practical reasoning.
Human perversity, then, makes divisions of that which by nature is one and simple,  and in attempting to obtain part of something which has no parts, succeeds in getting neither the part -- which is nothing -- nor the whole, which they are not interested in.
For Boethius, who is typically Platonist in this stance, the goods we encounter, experience, enjoy, are but imperfect participations in The Good.  So, even when we abstract away from the individual particulars -- this wealth and that wealth, this pleasure and that pleasure, and so on -- to form more universal conceptions of wealth as such or pleasure as such, yearning then for the self-sufficiency wealth promises or the full and pure enjoyment with which pleasure draws our desires -- these conceptions remain but partial, cloudy, and thus deceptive images of the genuine, undivided good transcending the realm and values of individual or imagined goods.

The Mistake of Separating Goods from The Good

Seeking any one of the goods of life in a way subordinating the others to it, negating, passing up, ignoring those other goods, becomes a losing proposition, a strategy guaranteed -- on a metaphysical as well as moral level -- to fail.  After running through the dialectic of wealth, Philosophia notes:
A similar argument can be applied to honor, glory, and pleasure, for, since any one of them is the same as the others, a man who pursues one of them to the exclusion of the others cannot even acquire the one he wants.

But suppose someone should want to obtain them all at once and at the same time.

Then he would be seeking the sum of happiness.  But do you think he would find it among these things which we have shown to be unable to confer what they promise?
 She urges a reversal of perspective to Boethius, who complies, saying:
. . .true and perfect happiness is that which makes a man self-sufficient, strong, worthy of respect, glorious and joyful.  . . . I can see that happiness to be true happiness which, since they are all the same thing, can truly bestow any one of them.
So, this is the condition to be sought after by human beings who really want to strive after the happiness, whose desire is indelibly implanted within the depths of our souls -- but whose shape, form, content we can make so mistakes about.  There is, however, another step which has to be taken:
Do you think there is anything among these mortal and degenerate things which could confer such a state.

No I don't. . .

Clearly, therefore, these things offer man only shadows of the true good, or imperfect blessings, and cannot confer true and perfect good.
If you think about this for a moment, and you're willing to indulge some flippancy on my part in the midst of such profundity on Boethius's part, that's a real kick in the pants at that point in the dialogue.  Only such a state as has been sketched would be genuine happiness for a human being.  But nothing within the realm of experience can provide or produce such a condition.  It will turn out that God is and enjoys such happiness.  But, given our difference from God, how does that help us?

Theosis, or Becomming-God

For Boethius, contemplation of God is an avenue into happiness.  He calls knowing the good itself -- seeing God --  "infinitely valuable."  But, is that what happiness is, just contemplating something outside of, higher than oneself?  Losing oneself, perhaps, leaving oneself behind, in that contemplation?  As it turns out, there's more to the picture than this.  One dimension to it is what Christian theology terms theosis
Since it is through the possession of happiness that people become happy, and since happiness is in fact divinity, it is clear that it is through the possession of divinity that they become happy.  But by the same logic as mean become just through the possession of justice, or wise through the possession of wisdom, so those who possess divinity necessarily become divine.  Each happy individual is therefore divine.  While only God is so by nature, as many as you like can become so by participation.
So, in addition to the finite, imperfect human being enjoying happiness through contemplating God, goodness and happiness itself -- which seems, frankly, a bit lacking in certain respects -- the human being also participates in happiness, and presumably knowledge of happiness, in a way involving his or her own transformation, an assimilation to God.  Still, how does that happen?  Perhaps through that very process of contemplation?  Or does it too involve activity of a more practical, less theoretical type?  Later on, we learn:
Well, the supreme good is the goal of good men and bad men alike, and the good seek it by means of a natural activity -- while the bad strive to acquire the very same thing by means of their various desires, which isn't a natural method of obtaining the good.
Here, we've reached a point where Boethius, having gone on as far as Thomas Aquinas -- who tells us that happiness is not any good of the soul, but only God, although happiness is enjoyed through the soul -- seems to circle back towards Aristotle, for whom happiness, at least in one of its forms, does consist in a life of virtuous activity.
Now, as we have shown that happiness is the very same good which motivates all activity; so that goodness itself is set as a kind of common reward of human activity.  But goodness cannot be removed from those who are good;  therefore goodness never fails to receive its appropriate reward.
At least for one who has firmly established the distinctive human kinds of goodness in his or her soul, virtue, this goodness cannot be removed from them as external goods and goods of the body can.  But, this differs from Aristotle's account.  Boethius does understand the process of rooting out the vices and cultivating the virtues as a gradual and participational approximation to God.

What we can say then, to tie all these numerous threads back together, is that in Boethius' work, a dialectical weighing of potential answers to the correlative questions, What is the good for human beings? and What is my good? similar to, complementary with, but differing from those of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas, gets carried out -- one which raises and resolves likewise the other two questions MacIntyre so rightly regards as interconnected with the first two:  How does a person attain the good for human beings?, and more pressingly, with greater particularity, What do I have to do to attain the good for me?  Boethius answers that the good ultimately lies in God, but that it can be ours as well, through the path of wisdom, and through the path of virtue, which in the end coincide.

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