In Honor of International Day of Happiness: Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness. Part I-Happiness and Good Fortune

“Philosophy Presenting the Seven Liberal Arts to Boethius” – image courtesy

Everyone strives for happiness in life, but you don’t have to be especially perceptive to notice that not everyone reaches the goal.  How much of this failure is one’s own fault? After all, we humans are vulnerable creatures, all more or less at the mercy of fortune.  Talent, beauty, intelligence, health, social privilege, a loving and secure family—these gifts are distributed unequally among us, and we may lose them against our wills.  This raises the question: How much of human happiness is a matter of good fortune or gift, and how much of it is under a person’s voluntary control?  Even the word happiness carries with it connotations of what is bestowed rather than earned (etymologically, it’s root is ‘hap,’ which means good luck; in fact, in most European languages, the word for happiness originally had the same reference to good fortune rather what has been merited through wise choices).

Contemporary virtue ethicists often argue that the purpose of life is happiness, and that if you hope to reach it, you ought to cultivate a good character.[1] But then what should we say to the man who cultivates virtue but to whom happiness is ultimately denied?  Do we simply acknowledge that there is an element of luck in anything a human pursues, including the highest good?  Must we admit that some among us are tragic figures, fated to a sorry end despite all hard fought efforts to change it?

Furthermore, if real tragedy is possible, then perhaps it is wrong to insist that happiness is the goal of life; perhaps instead, as Immanuel Kant argues, we should simply strive to be moral, without thinking this is in the service of anything else.  In his influential Metaphysics of Morals, Kant claims the following about a good will:

“Even if by some particular disfavor of fate, or by the scanty endowment of a stepmotherly nature, this will should entirely lack the capacity to carry through its purpose; if despite its greatest striving it should still accomplish nothing, and only the good will were to remain…then, like a jewel, it would still shine by itself, as something that has full worth in itself”.”[2]

The role of fortune in human life and its impact on happiness is the central theme of one of the most influential literary texts of the Middle Ages, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.  For Boethius (475-526), the questions surrounding fate and fortune were not merely academic but existential; a philosopher-statesman in the mold that Plato first outlined, Boethius finds himself unjustly accused of treason and sentenced to an untimely and cruel death. While imprisoned, without his library, his health, his friends or family, Boethius composes a deeply moving meditation on wisdom and happiness.

The book opens with a lament upon his own pitiful condition, which will set up a sharp contrast between Boethius and Lady Philosophy.  Boethius describes himself in a state of physical decline and despair; with “untimely white upon his head,” he describes himself as a “worn out bone bag hung with flesh.”  He yearns for the release of death, but complains that death’s ears are “deaf to hopeless cries” and death’s hands refuse “to close poor weeping eyes.”  Reflecting upon his earlier life, he writes:

Foolish the friends who called me happy then

For falling shows a man stood insecure.

While he is busy feeling sorry for himself, Lady Philosophy—wisdom personified—appears to him.  She is noted for her keen, burning eyes, a sign that she is able to see reality clearly.  She, unlike Boethius, is healthy, calm and unperturbed, of regal mien and dress.  She carries books in one arm (a symbol of her knowledge) and a scepter in the other (a symbol of her power to order and rule life in accordance with it). Philosophy is described as a physician who has come to diagnose and heal Boethius; she tells him he suffers from a “sickness of mind”—an amnesia, since he has forgotten what he once knew. This amnesia has been brought about not by his change of fortune, but his inordinate focus on his current plight, which stirs up in him vehement passions of grief, sadness, and anger. Philosophy is there to help him recover knowledge of himself and his true nature.  This knowledge, she tells him, will be his ultimate consolation and cure.

Philosophy uses rational argument to heal her patient.  She begins by arguing that the loss of good fortune is no genuine loss.  Fortune, she complains, flatters people and entices them with a false sense of happiness.  The happiness that good fortune grants is unreliable and insecure, as change is the very essence of fortune.  Boethius depicts Fortune as a lady gleefully and carelessly spinning a wheel that determines man’s fate.  When it is her turn to speak to Boethius, she warns him:

It is the game I never cease to play as I turn my wheel in its ever changing circle, filled with joy as I bring the top to the bottom and the bottom to the top.  Yes, rise up on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require.[3]

Fortune controls worldly goods: wealth, honors, power, fame, and pleasures.  Philosophy points out that none of these goods is ever wholly stable or secure. Thus, if a man sets his heart upon any of them he is bound to wind up anxious in his ongoing struggle to maintain them.

Real happiness, by contrast, cannot be lost to a man who possesses it.  Such a good is “self-sufficient” in that it lacks nothing and leaves nothing more to be desired once possessed.  A man who is truly happy is perfectly sated—he does not thirst or want for more.  Eventually, Philosophy comes to argue that the only candidate for such a complete and perfect good is God, and that the only way to participate in this good is to cultivate virtue.  This is meant to console Boethius, since the cultivation of virtue is the one thing she insists is under his complete control.

Tomorrow, Part II of Boethius, Philosophy, and Happiness continues with “Happiness and Love.”

[1] For example, see Rosalind Hursthouse’s claim that virtue is a “safe bet.” On Virtue Ethics, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 185

[2] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of morals. Edited and translated by Mary Gregor, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, p. 8.

[3] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Victor Watts.  London: Penguin Books, 1999, p. 25

Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.