Boethius presents us with a picture of happiness in which it is entirely a matter of choice and personal responsibility whether one attains it. If we are unhappy, it is a product of our own culpable ignorance—a failure to know ourselves, and thus a failure to take the means necessary to secure our ultimate, highest end.
I am inclined to think this is far too dismissive of human frailty and interdependence, and of our need to love and be loved by one another. One finds little talk of love in Boethius, or friendship. But how can we understand human happiness without putting love and friendship front and center of our account?
I disagree with Boethius that virtue is entirely within our control, since the cultivation of it depends on others, and is therefore not inoculated against good fortune. Virtue does not rise spontaneously in us, it requires training from those who possess it themselves. But not everyone in life is fortunate enough to be surrounded by virtuous and wise parents, teachers, or friends. Can we expect those born in unfortunate conditions, such as extreme poverty or broken and abusive homes, to come to the wisdom that Philosophy represents? And even if we come to possess it, wisdom itself is fragile. Iris Murdoch was wise in many respects, but during the last years of her life her rational capacities were slowly destroyed by Alzheimer’s disease.
Second, we may think that part of what it is to be wise is not only to recognize but accept and even embrace the fragility of human goodness. Setting aside the question whether Boethius was right to believe in eternal life and man’s potential participation in it, it seems that genuine self-knowledge includes both the recognition and embrace of our own radical vulnerability and dependence upon others. It is a fact about us that even the best things we can hope to attain for ourselves in this life—a loving family, meaningful friendships, knowledge and wisdom, etc—we may lose against our will. This inherent fragility does not denigrate these goods or our pursuit of them, but rather, reveals an important truth about human beings: we need to rely on others, and radically so. Human love grows in a space of mutual dependence and trust, and it depends on our recognition of our inherent exposure to evil and misfortune. Our happiness is not, as Philosophy insists, totally up to us. We need to be able to turn to others, to expose ourselves and share the burdens of the human condition. This is true for religious persons just as much as their secular counterparts.
Boethius is right, however, to stress that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we react to it. A wise person will know that suffering through life’s inevitable misfortunes and disappointments is the fate of us all, and that part of living well is possessing the ability to suffer well—to face our brokenness with a measure of fortitude. It is also true that some of us will have to suffer far more than others, and that some of this does come down to luck. Boethius is further correct to say that if we have cultivated the virtues, we will be better equipped to bear our burdens with a measure of grace. But virtue alone is not enough—we do need the love, support, and companionship of intimates and neighbors. Boethius was wrong, I think, to focus so much on “self-sufficiency.” None of us is self-sufficient, and it’s a mistake to strive to be.
Boethius, alone in his prison cell, certainly had no friends to turn to. But perhaps Boethius looked upon Aristotle, Plato and others as friends—guides to help him navigate his fallen state. Wisdom is reached in a manner that is mediated by tradition, and we may find in great works of art, literature, and philosophy a similar expansion of the self through others that can console us in our darkest hours. Philosophy too is a kind of friend and constant companion.
Finally, Boethius’s work can help us to see that there is something true in what Kant says about the good will. If we are extremely unlucky in life, we may accept our fate and yet not give in to total despair. If nothing else, a good person can rest in the knowledge that she could not have managed better for herself. While it may not be a perfectly happy death, it is a far cry the despairing thought that one’s life was a pointless waste.
Kant was wrong, however, to insist that the inevitability of luck shows that the pursuit of happiness is suspect, for he was wrong to insist that all that matters is the cultivation of a good will. It is not wrong to want to be happy and to direct one’s efforts towards this goal. But we must do so in a way that is clear eyed about what we are: vulnerable and dependent creatures, in need of giving and receiving love. All of us, like Boethius, stand more or less insecure. The key to happiness, then, is probably not to search for what is ultimately up to us—nothing seems to fit this description—but to seek, as best we can, and with the acknowledged help of others, to become the kind of person who loves rightly, and is thereby easy to love in return.
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.