The Consolation of Philosophy


Wings are mine; above the pole

Far aloft I soar.

Clothed with these, my nimble soul

Scorns earth's hated shore,

Cleaves the skies upon the wind,

Sees the clouds left far behind.

Soon the glowing point she nears,

Where the heavens rotate,

Follows through the starry spheres

Phoebus' course, or straight

Takes for comrade 'mid the stars

Saturn cold or glittering Mars;

Thus each circling orb explores

Through Night's stole that peers;

Then, when all are numbered, soars

Far beyond the spheres,

Mounting heaven's supremest height

To the very Fount of light.

There the Sovereign of the world

His calm sway maintains;

As the globe is onward whirled

Guides the chariot reins,

And in splendour glittering

Reigns the universal King.

Hither if thy wandering feet

Find at last a way,

Here thy long-lost home thou'lt greet:

'Dear lost land,' thou'lt say,

'Though from thee I've wandered wide,

Hence I came, here will abide.'

Yet if ever thou art fain

Visitant to be

Of earth's gloomy night again,

Surely thou wilt see

Tyrants whom the nations fear

Dwell in hapless exile here.


Then said I: 'Verily, wondrous great are thy promises; yet I do not doubt but thou canst make them good: only keep me not in suspense after raising such hopes.'

'Learn, then, first,' said she, 'how that power ever waits upon the good, while the bad are left wholly destitute of strength.[K] Of these truths the one proves the other; for since good and evil are contraries, if it is made plain that good is power, the feebleness of evil is clearly seen, and, conversely, if the frail nature of evil is made manifest, the strength of good is thereby known. However, to win ampler credence for my conclusion, I will pursue both paths, and draw confirmation for my statements first in one way and then in the other.

'The carrying out of any human action depends upon two things--to wit, will and power; if either be wanting, nothing can be accomplished. For if the will be lacking, no attempt at all is made to do what is not willed; whereas if there be no power, the will is all in vain. And so, if thou seest any man wishing to attain some end, yet utterly failing to attain it, thou canst not doubt that he lacked the power of getting what he wished for.'

'Why, certainly not; there is no denying it.'

'Canst thou, then, doubt that he whom thou seest to have accomplished what he willed had also the power to accomplish it?'

'Of course not.'

'Then, in respect of what he can accomplish a man is to be reckoned strong, in respect of what he cannot accomplish weak?'

'Granted,' said I.

'Then, dost thou remember that, by our former reasonings, it was concluded that the whole aim of man's will, though the means of pursuit vary, is set intently upon happiness?'

'I do remember that this, too, was proved.'

'Dost thou also call to mind how happiness is absolute good, and therefore that, when happiness is sought, it is good which is in all cases the object of desire?'

'Nay, I do not so much call to mind as keep it fixed in my memory.'

'Then, all men, good and bad alike, with one indistinguishable purpose strive to reach good?'

'Yes, that follows.'

'But it is certain that by the attainment of good men become good?'

'It is.'

'Then, do the good attain their object?'

'It seems so.'

'But if the bad were to attain the good which is _their_ object, they could not be bad?'


'Then, since both seek good, but while the one sort attain it, the other attain it not, is there any doubt that the good are endued with power, while they who are bad are weak?'

'If any doubt it, he is incapable of reflecting on the nature of things, or the consequences involved in reasoning.'

'Again, supposing there are two things to which the same function is prescribed in the course of nature, and one of these successfully accomplishes the function by natural action, the other is altogether incapable of that natural action, instead of which, in a way other than is agreeable to its nature, it--I will not say fulfils its function, but feigns to fulfil it: which of these two would in thy view be the stronger?'

'I guess thy meaning, but I pray thee let me hear thee more at large.'

'Walking is man's natural motion, is it not?'


'Thou dost not doubt, I suppose, that it is natural for the feet to discharge this function?'

'No; surely I do not.'

'Now, if one man who is able to use his feet walks, and another to whom the natural use of his feet is wanting tries to walk on his hands, which of the two wouldst thou rightly esteem the stronger?'

'Go on,' said I; 'no one can question but that he who has the natural capacity has more strength than he who has it not.'

'Now, the supreme good is set up as the end alike for the bad and for the good; but the good seek it through the natural action of the virtues, whereas the bad try to attain this same good through all manner of concupiscence, which is not the natural way of attaining good. Or dost thou think otherwise?'

'Nay; rather, one further consequence is clear to me: for from my admissions it must needs follow that the good have power, and the bad are impotent.'

'Thou anticipatest rightly, and that as physicians reckon is a sign that nature is set working, and is throwing off the disease. But, since I see thee so ready at understanding, I will heap proof on proof. Look how manifest is the extremity of vicious men's weakness; they cannot even reach that goal to which the aim of nature leads and almost constrains them. What if they were left without this mighty, this well-nigh irresistible help of nature's guidance! Consider also how momentous is the powerlessness which incapacitates the wicked. Not light or trivial[L] are the prizes which they contend for, but which they cannot win or hold; nay, their failure concerns the very sum and crown of things. Poor wretches! they fail to compass even that for which they toil day and night. Herein also the strength of the good conspicuously appears. For just as thou wouldst judge him to be the strongest walker whose legs could carry him to a point beyond which no further advance was possible, so must thou needs account him strong in power who so attains the end of his desires that nothing further to be desired lies beyond. Whence follows the obvious conclusion that they who are wicked are seen likewise to be wholly destitute of strength. For why do they forsake virtue and follow vice? Is it from ignorance of what is good? Well, what is more weak and feeble than the blindness of ignorance? Do they know what they ought to follow, but lust drives them aside out of the way? If it be so, they are still frail by reason of their incontinence, for they cannot fight against vice. Or do they knowingly and wilfully forsake the good and turn aside to vice? Why, at this rate, they not only cease to have power, but cease to be at all. For they who forsake the common end of all things that are, they likewise also cease to be at all. Now, to some it may seem strange that we should assert that the bad, who form the greater part of mankind, do not exist. But the fact is so. I do not, indeed, deny that they who are bad are bad, but that they _are_ in an unqualified and absolute sense I deny. Just as we call a corpse a dead man, but cannot call it simply "man," so I would allow the vicious to be bad, but that they _are_ in an absolute sense I cannot allow. That only _is_ which maintains its place and keeps its nature; whatever falls away from this forsakes the existence which is essential to its nature. "But," thou wilt say, "the bad have an ability." Nor do I wish to deny it; only this ability of theirs comes not from strength, but from impotence. For their ability is to do evil, which would have had no efficacy at all if they could have continued in the performance of good. So this ability of theirs proves them still more plainly to have no power. For if, as we concluded just now, evil is nothing, 'tis clear that the wicked can effect nothing, since they are only able to do evil.'

''Tis evident.'

'And that thou mayst understand what is the precise force of this power, we determined, did we not, awhile back, that nothing has more power than supreme good?'

'We did,' said I.

'But that same highest good cannot do evil?'

'Certainly not.'

'Is there anyone, then, who thinks that men are able to do all things?'

'None but a madman.'

'Yet they are able to do evil?'

'Ay; would they could not!'

'Since, then, he who can do only good is omnipotent, while they who can do evil also are not omnipotent, it is manifest that they who can do evil have less power. There is this also: we have shown that all power is to be reckoned among things desirable, and that all desirable things are referred to good as to a kind of consummation of their nature. But the ability to commit crime cannot be referred to the good; therefore it is not a thing to be desired. And yet all power is desirable; it is clear, then, that ability to do evil is not power. From all which considerations appeareth the power of the good, and the indubitable weakness of the bad, and it is clear that Plato's judgment was true; the wise alone are able to do what they would, while the wicked follow their own hearts' lust, but can _not_ accomplish what they would. For they go on in their wilfulness fancying they will attain what they wish for in the paths of delight; but they are very far from its attainment, since shameful deeds lead not to happiness.'


[K] The paradoxes in this chapter and chapter iv. are taken from Plato's 'Gorgias.' See Jowett, vol. ii., pp. 348-366, and also pp. 400, 401 ('Gorgias,' 466-479, and 508, 509).


'No trivial game is here; the strife Is waged for Turnus' own dear life.'


See Virgil, AEneid,' xii. 764, 745: _cf_. 'Iliad,' xxii. 159-162.