Monday, December 29, 2014

Excerpt from "The Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius

From The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (ca. 524AD)Book II

Lady Philosophy is explaining to the suffering, imprisoned Boethius the danger of the charms of Fortune and her deceitful gifts of riches.

“Come now, suppose that the gifts of fortune were not transient and purely temporary, is there any among them which could ever become truly yours or which on proper examination is not seen to be worthless? Are riches either really yours or precious by their own nature? If so, what part of them especially, the gold, or the piles of money? But riches are more splendid in the spending than in the getting, since avarice makes men hated, but liberality make them famous. Yet if that cannot remain with a man which passes to another, then money is precious just when it passes over to others, and in being liberally given ceases to be possessed. If all the money there is in the world were heaped together in one man’s possession, it would make all the rest of men live in lack of it. The voice wholly fills the ears of many hearers simultaneously, but your riches cannot pass to many unless they are split into small parts first. When that is done, those who part with money must necessarily become poorer. Well then, O riches, how poor and mean you are! You can neither be wholly possessed by many nor come to any man without impoverishing others!
Are your eyes attracted by glittering jewels? But even if their sparkling is in any way wonderful, the light is the gems’, not men’s, and I am amazed that men admire them so. What is there, lacking the structure and movement of the living spirit, which a living, rational being could rightly think beautiful? Although through the work of the Creator and because of their own peculiarities they have something of the lower kind of beauty, yet they are so far beneath your excellence as a man that they did not by any means deserved you admiration.
Does the beauty of the countryside delight you? As why should it not? It is a beautiful part of the whole creation, which is beautiful. So we sometimes take pleasure in the calm aspect of the sea, and so also we admire the sky with its stars and the moon and the sun. Does any of these things belong to you? Dare you boast of the splendor of any of them? Are you adorned with flowers in spring? Is it your plenteousness which grows big with summer fruits? Why are you captivated by empty pleasure, why embrace external goods as though they were your own?  Fortune will never make yours what nature has made otherwise. The fruits of the earth are surely intended for the sustenance of living things. But if you want to satisfy your needs, which is enough for nature, there is no need to ask fortune for abundance. For nature is content with few things and small: if you want to overlay that satisfaction with superfluity, then what you add will be either unpleasant or positively harmful.
Perhaps now you think it fine to be admired in a variety of clothes? If their appearance is pleasing to the eye, I admire either the material itself or the skill of the tailor. But perhaps a great household of servants makes you happy? If they are wicked in their ways, they are ruinous burden on the house and highly dangerous to the master himself; but if they are honest, how can the honesty of others be counted among your own possessions? So it is clearly shown by all this that, of what you count among your goods, none of it is a good of yours. And if they have no beauty in them which you should seek, why should you grieve when they are lost or rejoice when you hold on to them? If they are beautiful by their own nature, what has that to do with you? For they would have pleased of themselves quite separated from your possessions. It is not that they are precious because they form part of your riches, but you preferred to count them among your riches because you thought them precious.
But what do you so noisily demand of fortune? You want, I think to banish need with plenty. But yet you achieve exactly the opposite. For you need a good many aids to help you guard your many kinds of precious furniture! And it is true that they need very many things who have very great possessions, while they need least who measure their sufficiency by the requirement of nature, not by the excesses of ambitions vanity.  Have you no personal good of your own within yourself, that you seek your goods in other things, externally? Is the state of nature so upside-down that man, a living and rational—and therefore godlike—animal, can only appear splendid to himself by the possession of lifeless stuff? Other things are content with what is their own; but you men, like God in your minds, seek to bedeck your nature, excellent that it is, with lower things, and do not see how greatly you injure your maker. He wanted man to be above all earthly things; you men reduce your worth to less than that of the lowest. For if it is agreed that the good of anything is of higher worth than that whose good it is, then when you judge the lowest things to be your goods, you put yourselves in your own estimation lower than them—and entirely deservedly! For the nature of man is such that he is better than other things only when he know himself, and yet if he ceases to know himself he is made lower than the brutes. For it is natural for other animals not to have this self-knowledge; in man it is a fault. How far from your true state have you wandered when you think you can be at all improved by the addition of the beauties of other things! That cannot be; if something seems fine because of its wrappings, it is the wrappings that are praised, while what is covered and hidden by them persists no less foul and ugly underneath. Now I maintain that nothing is good which harms its possessor. Am I wrong? Of course not, you answer. Yet riches have often harmed their possessors, since every man of base character, and therefore the more greedy for others’ goods, thinks himself the only one really worthy to possess all the gold and jewels there are. So you who know anxiously fear to be attacked and murdered, had you entered on this life’s road an empty-handed traveler, would laugh at robbers. O marvelous blessedness of mortal riches! When you have gained that, you have lost your safety.” (pp 199-207)

Boethuis The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by H.F. Stewart, E.K. Rand and S. J. Tester (1973, Harvard, Loeb Classical Library)

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