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Boethius: From the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ – Is The Pursuit Of Goods, Happiness?

Title added by Hygeia, since this is an excerpt from a very tightly weaved masterpiece.

Lady Philosophy is addressing the author, Boethius (note from Hygeia)…‘The whole concern of men, which the efforts of a multitude of pursuits keep busy, moves by different roads, yet strives to arrive at one and the same end, that of happiness. Now that is the good which, once a man attains it, leaves no room for further desires. And it is the highest of all goods, containing in itself all that is good, for if there were anything lacking in it, it would not be the highest good, since there would remain something outside it which could be desired. So it is clear that happiness is that state which is perfect since all goods are gathered in it.

This it is, as I have said, that all men strive to obtain by various paths; for the desire for the true good is naturally inborn in the mind of men, but they are led astray after false goods. Now some men believe that the highest good is to want nothing, so that they labour to abound in riches; but others hold whatever is most worthy of honour to be the good, and strive to be honoured and respected by their fellow citizens for the distinctions they receive. There are some who think that the highest good lies in the greatest power; these either wish themselves to rule, or try to attach themselves to those who rule. But for those who think fame is something very good hasten to spread their name abroad, made glorious through some skill in war or peace. More, however measure their enjoyment of the good in terms of joy and gladness, and think it most happy to abandon themselves to pleasure.

And there are those too who interchange and intermingle these various aims and motives, such as those who desire riches for the sake of power or pleasure, or those who seek power for the sake of wealth or to advance their own fame. So, to these and to all other such things are the aims and purposes of men’s acts and prayer related: So noble rank and the support of the populace are sought after because they appear to acquire some sort of renown, or a wife and children are sought after for the pleasure they give; but the most sacred kind of good is that of friendship, a good reckoned not a matter of fortune but of virtue, while any other kind is chosen for the sake of power or delight.

Now all the goods connected with the body can easily be related to the things mentioned above: physical strength and size seem to provide influence; beauty and swiftness, fame; and health, pleasure. In all of these things it is obviously happiness alone that is desired; for whatever a man seeks above all else, that he reckons the highest good. But we have defined the highest good as happiness; wherefore each man judges that state to be happy which he desires above all others.

So now you have as it were set before your eyes the delineaments of human happiness: wealth, honour, power, glory, pleasure. Epicurus looked only at these things, and consequently decided that for him the highest good was pleasure, since all the others seemed to bring delight to the mind.

But I turn back to the endeavours of men: for man’s mind, though the memory of it is clouded, yet does seek again its proper good, but like a drunken man cannot find by what path it may return home. For are they really wrong, who strive to lack nothing? But surely there is nothing else so conducive to perfect happiness as a condition possessing plenty of all goods, needing no other’s help, but being self-sufficient. Are they indeed mistaken, who think that whatever is best is also worthy of reverence and respect? Of course not: for that cannot be base and contemptible which the efforts and labour of almost all men strive to obtain. Is power not be accounted a good? Why, surely we are not to think that to be feeble and lacking in vigour which it is agreed is more excellent than all else? Is fame rated as nothing? Yet it cannot be set aside that all that is most excellent also seems to be most famous.

Is there any point in saying that happiness is not worried or depressed, nor subject to pain or vexation? Since even in the least things men seek that which they delight to have and to enjoy. These surely are the things men want to gain, and for that reason they desire riches, high office, the rule of men, glory and pleasure, because they believe that through them they will achieve sufficiency, respect, power, celebrity and joy. The good is therefore that which men pursue in so many different endeavours; and we can easily see how great is nature’s power in this, since although opinions vary and differ so much, yet they agree in loving the same end, the good.’

‘Consolation of Philosophy’, Book III, Chapter 2, (page 233-237). Loeb Classical Library. 1973 new edition. More about Boethius here: Picture legend: Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel. Picture credit:
Boethius: From the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ – Is The Pursuit Of Goods, Happiness?

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