The Consolation of Philosophy


Th' Ithacan discreet,

And all his storm-tossed fleet,

Far o'er the ocean wave

The winds of heaven drave--

Drave to the mystic isle,

Where dwelleth in her guile

That fair and faithless one,

The daughter of the Sun.

There for the stranger crew

With cunning spells she knew

To mix th' enchanted cup.

For whoso drinks it up,

Must suffer hideous change

To monstrous shapes and strange.

One like a boar appears;

This his huge form uprears,

Mighty in bulk and limb--

An Afric lion--grim

With claw and fang. Confessed

A wolf, this, sore distressed

When he would weep, doth howl;

And, strangely tame, these prowl

The Indian tiger's mates.

And though in such sore straits,

The pity of the god

Who bears the mystic rod

Had power the chieftain brave

From her fell arts to save;

His comrades, unrestrained,

The fatal goblet drained.

All now with low-bent head,

Like swine, on acorns fed;

Man's speech and form were reft,

No human feature left;

But steadfast still, the mind,

Unaltered, unresigned,

The monstrous change bewailed.

How little, then, availed

The potencies of ill!

These herbs, this baneful skill,

May change each outward part,

But cannot touch the heart.

In its true home, deep-set,

Man's spirit liveth yet.

_Those_ poisons are more fell,

More potent to expel

Man from his high estate,

Which subtly penetrate,

And leave the body whole,

But deep infect the soul.


Then said I: 'This is very true. I see that the vicious, though they keep the outward form of man, are rightly said to be changed into beasts in respect of their spiritual nature; but, inasmuch as their cruel and polluted minds vent their rage in the destruction of the good, I would this license were not permitted to them.'

'Nor is it,' said she, 'as shall be shown in the fitting place. Yet if that license which thou believest to be permitted to them were taken away, the punishment of the wicked would be in great part remitted. For verily, incredible as it may seem to some, it needs must be that the bad are more unfortunate when they have accomplished their desires than if they are unable to get them fulfilled. If it is wretched to will evil, to have been able to accomplish evil is more wretched; for without the power the wretched will would fail of effect. Accordingly, those whom thou seest to will, to be able to accomplish, and to accomplish crime, must needs be the victims of a threefold wretchedness, since each one of these states has its own measure of wretchedness.'

'Yes,' said I; 'yet I earnestly wish they might speedily be quit of this misfortune by losing the ability to accomplish crime.'

'They will lose it,' said she, 'sooner than perchance thou wishest, or they themselves think likely; since, verily, within the narrow bounds of our brief life there is nothing so late in coming that anyone, least of all an immortal spirit, should deem it long to wait for. Their great expectations, the lofty fabric of their crimes, is oft overthrown by a sudden and unlooked-for ending, and this but sets a limit to their misery. For if wickedness makes men wretched, he is necessarily more wretched who is wicked for a longer time; and were it not that death, at all events, puts an end to the evil doings of the wicked, I should account them wretched to the last degree. Indeed, if we have formed true conclusions about the ill fortune of wickedness, that wretchedness is plainly infinite which is doomed to be eternal.'

Then said I: 'A wonderful inference, and difficult to grant; but I see that it agrees entirely with our previous conclusions.'

'Thou art right,' said she; 'but if anyone finds it hard to admit the conclusion, he ought in fairness either to prove some falsity in the premises, or to show that the combination of propositions does not adequately enforce the necessity of the conclusion; otherwise, if the premises be granted, nothing whatever can be said against the inference of the conclusion. And here is another statement which seems not less wonderful, but on the premises assumed is equally necessary.'

'What is that?'

'The wicked are happier in undergoing punishment than if no penalty of justice chasten them. And I am not now meaning what might occur to anyone--that bad character is amended by retribution, and is brought into the right path by the terror of punishment, or that it serves as an example to warn others to avoid transgression; but I believe that in another way the wicked are more unfortunate when they go unpunished, even though no account be taken of amendment, and no regard be paid to example.'

'Why, what other way is there beside these?' said I.

Then said she: 'Have we not agreed that the good are happy, and the evil wretched?'

'Yes,' said I.

'Now, if,' said she, 'to one in affliction there be given along with his misery some good thing, is he not happier than one whose misery is misery pure and simple without admixture of any good?'

'It would seem so.'

'But if to one thus wretched, one destitute of all good, some further evil be added besides those which make him wretched, is he not to be judged far more unhappy than he whose ill fortune is alleviated by some share of good?'

'It could scarcely be otherwise.'

'Surely, then, the wicked, when they are punished, have a good thing added to them--to wit, the punishment which by the law of justice is good; and likewise, when they escape punishment, a new evil attaches to them in that very freedom from punishment which thou hast rightly acknowledged to be an evil in the case of the unrighteous.'

'I cannot deny it.'

'Then, the wicked are far more unhappy when indulged with an unjust freedom from punishment than when punished by a just retribution. Now, it is manifest that it is just for the wicked to be punished, and for them to escape unpunished is unjust.'

'Why, who would venture to deny it?'

'This, too, no one can possibly deny--that all which is just is good, and, conversely, all which is unjust is bad.'

Then I answered: 'These inferences do indeed follow from what we lately concluded; but tell me,' said I, 'dost thou take no account of the punishment of the soul after the death of the body?'

'Nay, truly,' said she, 'great are these penalties, some of them inflicted, I imagine, in the severity of retribution, others in the mercy of purification. But it is not my present purpose to speak of these. So far, my aim hath been to make thee recognise that the power of the bad which shocked thee so exceedingly is no power; to make thee see that those of whose freedom from punishment thou didst complain are never without the proper penalties of their unrighteousness; to teach thee that the license which thou prayedst might soon come to an end is not long-enduring; that it would be more unhappy if it lasted longer, most unhappy of all if it lasted for ever; thereafter that the unrighteous are more wretched if unjustly let go without punishment than if punished by a just retribution--from which point of view it follows that the wicked are afflicted with more severe penalties just when they are supposed to escape punishment.'

Then said I: 'While I follow thy reasonings, I am deeply impressed with their truth; but if I turn to the common convictions of men, I find few who will even listen to such arguments, let alone admit them to be credible.'

'True,' said she; 'they cannot lift eyes accustomed to darkness to the light of clear truth, and are like those birds whose vision night illumines and day blinds; for while they regard, not the order of the universe, but their own dispositions of mind, they think the license to commit crime, and the escape from punishment, to be fortunate. But mark the ordinance of eternal law. Hast thou fashioned thy soul to the likeness of the better, thou hast no need of a judge to award the prize--by thine own act hast thou raised thyself in the scale of excellence; hast thou perverted thy affections to baser things, look not for punishment from one without thee--thine own act hath degraded thee, and thrust thee down. Even so, if alternately thou turn thy gaze upon the vile earth and upon the heavens, though all without thee stand still, by the mere laws of sight thou seemest now sunk in the mire, now soaring among the stars. But the common herd regards not these things. What, then? Shall we go over to those whom we have shown to be like brute beasts? Why, suppose, now, one who had quite lost his sight should likewise forget that he had ever possessed the faculty of vision, and should imagine that nothing was wanting in him to human perfection, should we deem those who saw as well as ever blind? Why, they will not even assent to this, either--that they who do wrong are more wretched than those who suffer wrong, though the proof of this rests on grounds of reason no less strong.'

'Let me hear these same reasons,' said I.

'Wouldst thou deny that every wicked man deserves punishment?'

'I would not, certainly.'

'And that those who are wicked are unhappy is clear in manifold ways?'

'Yes,' I replied.

'Thou dost not doubt, then, that those who deserve punishment are wretched?'

'Agreed,' said I.

'So, then, if thou wert sitting in judgment, on whom wouldst thou decree the infliction of punishment--on him who had done the wrong, or on him who had suffered it?'

'Without doubt, I would compensate the sufferer at the cost of the doer of the wrong.'

'Then, the injurer would seem more wretched than the injured?'

'Yes; it follows. And so for this and other reasons resting on the same ground, inasmuch as baseness of its own nature makes men wretched, it is plain that a wrong involves the misery of the doer, not of the sufferer.'

'And yet,' says she, 'the practice of the law-courts is just the opposite: advocates try to arouse the commiseration of the judges for those who have endured some grievous and cruel wrong; whereas pity is rather due to the criminal, who ought to be brought to the judgment-seat by his accusers in a spirit not of anger, but of compassion and kindness, as a sick man to the physician, to have the ulcer of his fault cut away by punishment. Whereby the business of the advocate would either wholly come to a standstill, or, did men prefer to make it serviceable to mankind, would be restricted to the practice of accusation. The wicked themselves also, if through some chink or cranny they were permitted to behold the virtue they have forsaken, and were to see that by the pains of punishment they would rid themselves of the uncleanness of their vices, and win in exchange the recompense of righteousness, they would no longer think these sufferings pains; they would refuse the help of advocates, and would commit themselves wholly into the hands of their accusers and judges. Whence it comes to pass that for the wise no place is left for hatred; only the most foolish would hate the good, and to hate the bad is unreasonable. For if vicious propensity is, as it were, a disease of the soul like bodily sickness, even as we account the sick in body by no means deserving of hate, but rather of pity, so, and much more, should they be pitied whose minds are assailed by wickedness, which is more frightful than any sickness.'