According to Lady Philosophy in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, what is man’s ultimate goal in life and how is it achieved?
Lady Philosophy introduces the notion of an admirable goal in Chapter 1 of Book 3 as the “goal of true happiness” (3.1.5). She goes on to state that everyone pursues good things in order to be happy, and that happiness in its truest state is the highest good (3.2.2-4, 11). This is essentially the general thought of virtually all ancient philosophers (Walsh 132). For example, Plato articulates the idea of the Good as the highest form in his Republic. Aristotle, for his part, begins his Nicomachean Ethics as follows: “Every art and every investigation, and similarly every action and pursuit, is considered to aim at some good. Hence the good has been rightly defined as ‘that at which all things aim’” (1094a).
The paths or means of achieving happiness are many (wealth, power, pleasure, etc.) (3.2.12-20). However, Lady Philosophy begins to question whether these can truly deliver on their promise of bringing true happiness (3.3.1-4). Using wealth as an example, the fact that it can be lost or stolen is evidence of its insufficiency to make one truly happy: “So if riches cannot dispel want, and if indeed they create their own need, why should you men imagine that they provide sufficiency?” (3.3.19). After detailing the shortcomings of all these perceived paths of happiness, Lady Philosophy concludes that they are mere “byways” and “cannot guide a man to the goal that they promise” (3.8.1).
Now that false happiness is understood, Lady Philosophy begins to lead Boethius in an understanding of what true happiness is (3.9.1). True happiness is that which is simple (without parts) and undivided, lacking nothing outside itself (3.9.4, 13). In order to understand the source of true happiness, one must “invoke the Father of all things” (3.9.33), and this introduces the transcendent nature of happiness. Lady Philosophy’s poetic conclusion to Chapter 9 in Book 3 is worth quoting at length:
Father of earth and sky, You steer the world
By reason everlasting. You bid time
Progress from all eternity. Yourself
Unshifting, You impel all things to move.
No cause outside Yourself made you give shape
To fluid matter, for in You was set
The form of the ungrudging highest good.
From heavenly patterns You derive all things.
Yourself most beautiful, You likewise bear
In mind a world of beauty, and You shape
Our world in like appearance. You command
Its perfect parts, to form a perfect world.
Let my mind rise to your august abode,
And there, dear Lord, survey the source of good.
Then grant that, once I have attained the light,
My inward eye I may direct on You.
Disperse the fog and the encumbering weight
Of this earth’s bulk, and shine forth, clear and bright;
For in the eyes of all devoted men,
You are calm brightness and the rest of peace.
Men aim to see You as their starting-point,
Their guide, conductor, way, and final end. (3.9.m1-12, 31-40)
Lady Philosophy is essentially rooting true happiness in the metaphysical form of the highest good, which is God. We also see that all things come from God, which includes happiness, and therefore God ought to be our final end or goal. This becomes more explicit, and more philosophically articulated, in Chapter 10 of Book 3. The argument basically goes as follows:
- Nothing better than God can be imagined
- God is the source of all things
- True happiness is the perfect good
- Therefore, the highest and perfect good fully resides in the highest and perfect God
This argument is worth quoting at length:
The belief which human minds share demonstrates that God, the source of all things, is good; for since nothing better than God can be imagined, who can doubt that if something has no better, it is good? Reason in fact establishes that God’s goodness is such as to demonstrate further that perfect good resides within him. Were this not the case, he could not be the source of all things, for there would be something more preeminent, which would be in possession of perfect good, and would be seen to take precedence over things less complete. So to prevent the argument advancing into infinity, we must allow that the highest God is totally full of the highest and perfect good. Now we have established that the perfect good is true happiness, so true happiness must reside in the highest God. (3.10.7-10)
There is a hint of the ontological and cosmological arguments for God in this grounding of true happiness. We see the ontological aspect in that “nothing better than God can be imagined”. The cosmological aspect is seen in that God is “the source of all things”. Lady Philosophy continues to expound on the above passage, but the conclusion of everything is that “God is happiness itself” (3.10.17).
This notion of true happiness being found in God is also the central argument in Augustine’s On the Happy Life. Indeed, the same reasoning about the insufficiency of earthly things (e.g. wealth) is used to lead to the conclusion that true happiness is found in the ever-abiding God:
“Therefore,” I said, “[that which makes one happy] should be something ever abiding and not dependent upon fortune or subject to any accidents. For we can’t have whatever is mortal and perishable whenever we want it and for as long as we want it….
But these fortuitous things [e.g. wealth] can be lost. Therefore, he who loves and possesses these things can’t in any way be happy….
Therefore, we don’t doubt at all that if someone sets out to be happy, he should acquire for himself that which abides forever and can’t be taken away from him by any cruel act of fortune….
Does it seem to you,” I said, “that God is eternal and ever abiding?….
Then he who has God,” I said, “is happy.” (2.11)
Allow me to summarize Augustine’s argument in my own words: The object of our happiness if it is to be true and abiding happiness, must itself abide forever and not be subject to change. God is eternal and ever abiding, not subject to change. Therefore, he who has God is truly happy.
This is consonant with what we find in Psalm 16:11: “You will show me the path of life; in Your presence is fullness of joy; at Your right hand are pleasures forevermore.” True joy or happiness is to be had in the reconciled presence of God. Eternal pleasures are at His right hand, the place of honor. What else is at His right hand? The Son of God, Jesus Christ, who sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high after making purification for sins (Heb. 1:3). So these eternal pleasures at the right hand of God are blood-bought pleasures, which means we partake of these pleasures by partaking of Christ.
So, returning to Boethius, if God is true happiness, then how does one become happy? Lady Philosophy reasons that “since men become happy by achieving happiness, and happiness is itself divinity, clearly they become happy by attaining divinity…. Hence every happy person is God; God is by nature one only, but nothing prevents the greatest possible number from sharing in that divinity” (3.10.23, 25). While Walsh notes that this notion of deification or divinization is “particularly strong in Stoic thought,” (140) he also rightfully points to its doctrinal presence among early Christians, especially as found in 2 Peter 1:4, that through God’s divine power “he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them [we] may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire” (emphasis added). This Christian doctrine is known as theosis, and it has strong attestation in the early Church fathers. At the heart of this doctrine is participation in the divine nature through union with Christ; but the doctrine is certainly more nuanced than that, and it has been understood and expressed in various ways (see “Deification” in The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology 132-4).
After listening to Lady Philosophy’s reasoning, Boethius, who wrote this while awaiting his execution due to trumped-up charges, concludes that this teaching is valuable beyond measure; for knowing God, who is the good, is the most admirable goal of life (3.11.3). To be truly happy, then, is to know God, and in knowing him, to partake of his divine nature.
Augustine. On the Happy Life. St. Augustine’s Cassiciacum Dialogues, Vol. II. Translated by Michael P. Foley.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated with Introduction and Notes by P. G. Walsh, Oxford University Press, 1999.
The Cambridge Dictionary of Christian Theology, edited by Ian A. McFarland, et al., Cambridge University Press, 2011. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/detail.action?docID=691811.
 Fortune is also a central theme in the Consolation.