In Boethius’s work “The Consolation of Philosophy” the term or a variation of the term “wickedness” appears 108 different times. Conversely, the work could even be called “On: Wickedness” since this is the overriding theme of the work. For “Boethius” human beings are moral beings. It is only through wickedness that their natural tendency for good becomes corrupted. While wickedness may lead to material or social gain in the short term, wickedness prevents a person from achieving happiness. It is wickedness itself then, that is its own punishment since it will prevent a person from achieving their happiness.
Wickedness for Boethius not only cuts one off from the virtues, but also carries with it no higher punishment than its own possession. Writing from a prison where his freedom has been compromised, Boethius was writing at a time when the principles of his life have been put into question. He believes himself to be both a “good” man and a virtuous person. He wonders how, if he was a good man, could he end up so unfortunate and unhappy. He believes that he possesses the necessary requirements for happiness in virtue of his being virtuous, but instead finds himself in prison.
Boethius writes that “Goodness is happiness.” He sees an inseparable connection between goodness in one’s actions and intentions. He writes that it is “obvious that all good men obtain happiness in virtue of their being good” Under Boethius’s sense of justice, the good shall be rewarded and the bad, or the “wicked” should be punished for their offenses. This reward for Boethius is not some removed heaven, though he believes that is the ultimate reward for the good, but is an interior state of mind.
Boethius is writing from a very interesting setting which not just informs the work, but seems to be directly responsible for how he views happiness, since he must divorce the term happiness from free. The work is written from the unique perspective of a man imprisoned who is visited by Lady Philosophy who comes while he is lamenting his plight and false imprisonment. Lady Philosophy comes and argues against him having anything real to complain about since she insists that if he follows what he already believes to its logical conclusion, he will see that in order for true happiness to happen, it cannot depend on the whims of Fortune. Happiness must be constant; since Fortune brings triumphs with the same regularity it yields tragedies. His fall from grace leads Boethius to question his previous belief system. It is difficult for him to come to terms with the fact that while he earnestly believes in his own virtue of intentions and action, how is it he is imprisoned. Added to that is the fact that he sees so many wicked people who are free and reaping benefits not in spite of, but because of, their wickedness.
He asks the question, “What! Oh What! Are these now the goods and the reward which though didst promise to the men who would obey thee?” Is this, now, the saying which though formerly toldest me that the wise Plato said, which was that no power was right without right manners?” In short, Boethius begins the “Consolation of Philosophy” at a time when consolation is exactly what he needed to philosophically escape his fate, since he mentions no possibility of pardon in the physical world of which he considers himself a victim.
He appeals here to the philosophy of Plato, and when Lady Philosophy comes to him she reminds him that he who has studied Plato should know better than to be lamenting his fate in his cell. It is interesting therefore to see what of Plato’s philosophical worldview Lady Philosophy believes should be a comfort to him in a time like this. Boethius recalls the learning of Plato who in his Republic wrote both on personal justice and justice within the society. Boethius in the beginning sees himself as the victim of the injustice of society. For Plato the ideal society maximizes that happiness of those who belong to it. Boethius, as an incarcerated person has lost his freedom of mobility. He slowly comes to realize though that this is secondary to the freedom he still enjoys in his mind, a freedom that cannot be taken from him so long as he has the fortune of life. Since a good man thrives in a just society, the implication here is that Boethius is a good man in a disordered society. The only philosophical explanation is that if he has led a good life is that in order for a good man to have been locked away, it must be a wicked state where “The wicked are exalted through their crimes, and through their self-love. . . they may the better accomplish their wicked purpose, they are assisted with gifts and with riches.”
As things appear, goodness has lead to suffering and imprisonment and wickedness leads to material gain and political status. Things that most people associate with happiness or The Good Life, seem to be the prize for the wicked. This assumes though that the political status and power along with material possessions is capable of creating a permanent state of mental repose. Boethius, under the guidance of philosophy, knows better than this and Lady Philosophy has come to remind him of this.
When Lady Philosophy reminds him that one who has read Plato should not be lamenting his fate so much, she is appealing to the truths found within Plato and other philosophers that should provide Boethius with a cognitive life-raft from his current injustice. Plato concerns himself much with justice and while he would likely that Boethius is being treated unjustly in much the same way the state treated his teacher, Socrates, unjustly because of the implications of his teachings. Plato would agree with the conclusions that Lady Philosophy leads Boethius too: that wickedness is it’s own consequences, and that one cannot be unjust towards others and happy.
Plato’s Republic is a dialogue where Socrates the character discusses the idea of virtue. It promotes a society where people are free to pursue the occupations of their choice He uses virtue of an individual to investigate virtue of the state. Plato saw justice, and the freedom to pursue one’s vocation to find happiness as necessary for a Utopian society. They are able to exercise this liberty unhindered by other citizens or the state. Ostensibly, Boethius has been denied the freedom to pursue the occupation of his choice. But since philosophy has been the consolation of his life and his pursuit, and since philosophy is not something that requires physical freedom, he is not without a freedom to pursue the occupation of his choice, and Lady Philosophy reminds him of this.
As a translator of Plato’s student, Aristotle, Boethius was well aware of Aristotle’s notions of happiness and the realization that the highest notions of happiness by both thinker’s estimation was immutable and therefore immune the consequences of fortune. Aristotle concludes that happiness is the goal or end of existence. That happiness was the most important “end” made it the thing to spend one’s life seeking. For Aristotle the virtuous person is a happy person regardless of circumstance. He writes in his Nicomachean Ethics that, “As far as its name goes, most people virtually agree, since both the many and the cultivated call it happiness, and suppose that living well and doing well are the same as being happy”
He united the idea of happiness and of living what he calls “the good life.” He noted that while most people do not agree with a universal definition of happiness, Aristotle makes a distinction that the masses and wise men come to different conclusions. He sees wisdom to be the highest rank of virtue and though: They disagree about what happiness is, and the many do not give the same answer as the wise” that the wise’s definition was preeminent.
The masses, believe happiness to be something external and tangible that has the power to elevate them to a higher plain. Aristotle realizes that the majority of people see things that give ease or respect or prosperity are aspects of how most define happiness. He notes however that these things are fickle and subject to change, and the desire of each man to them differs.
Because the masses have frequently changing and differing notions of what makes them happy, Aristotle dismisses these in search of something constants and universal A fickle notion of happiness could not be of the higher order since the higher order is the realm where unchanging and immutable things change.
The overriding question was that if Boethius is unable to find the reward of happiness regardless of his circumstances, then is his entire philosophical learning suspect? If the wicked are free and rewarded, then would not wickedness rather than virtue have been a higher end to pursue. Lady Philosophy reminds Boethius that the thing he has been denied was not of the highest order to begin with. She asks “If dignity and power were good of its own nature, and had power of itself, would it follow the most wicked men as it now sometimes doth?” She reminds him of the horrible things that rules such as Caesar and Nero brought because power had been afforded wicked men. But the conclusion is that “We cannot easily say that the wicked are good, though they may have power.” The wicked then, may have gains in certain areas, they might even gain control of an entire empire, but according to the conclusions of Boethius this is night the highest goal and purpose in life. More so, wickedness is seen as not just a lack of virtue but also the punishment of it's own possession. He writes, “is its own reward, so the punishment of the wicked is their very wickedness. Now, no one who suffers a punishment doubts that he suffers something evil. So, if they are willing to examine themselves, I do not think men can consider themselves immune from punishment when they suffer the worst evil of all: evil is not so much an infliction as a deep set infection.”
The consequence of wickedness is dramatic. Boethius believes that it deprives a possessor of it of their humanity. “The result is that you cannot think of anyone as human who you see transformed by wickedness.” The state of mind of a wicked person is the state of mind of an animal. And since Boethius believed that humankind was of the highest rank of species, and that animal and an animal state of mind is a degradation of the virtues of being human, the wicked suffer the loss of themselves due to their wickedness. He uses the example of Nero, who despite having had all the freedoms and material splendors of a king, what was important, the respect of wise men was something he did not have and something that all of the gems he adorned himself could not buy him. That he gave riches to those he favored Boethius asks if this was for their better or if it came at their loss and concludes the approval of the wicked is worse than their disproval.
However, Boethius’s central point has nothing to do with material wealth or power, but with that of happiness. Like Aristotle and Plato before him, he concludes that happiness is the highest end for man and that the wicked are suffer the ultimate consequence of being barred from experiencing true happiness. For vices, never go punished, which leads Boethius to ultimately conclude that “the good are always happy, and the wicked unhappy.”
Aristotle. Trans. Ross, W. D.. Nicomachean ethics. Raleigh, N.C.: Alex Catalogue, 2000. Print.
Boethius, Anicius. The consolation of philosophy. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2008.
Plato. The Republic. Baltimore, Md.: Penguin Books. 1995