The Consolation of Philosophy


From the Porch's murky depths

Comes a doctrine sage,

That doth liken living mind

To a written page;

Since all knowledge comes through


Graven by Experience.

'As,' say they, 'the pen its marks

Curiously doth trace

On the smooth unsullied white

Of the paper's face,

So do outer things impress

Images on consciousness.'

But if verily the mind

Thus all passive lies;

If no living power within

Its own force supplies;

If it but reflect again,

Like a glass, things false and vain--

Whence the wondrous faculty

That perceives and knows,

That in one fair ordered scheme

Doth the world dispose;

Grasps each whole that Sense presents,

Or breaks into elements?

So divides and recombines,

And in changeful wise

Now to low descends, and now

To the height doth rise;

Last in inward swift review

Strictly sifts the false and true?

Of these ample potencies

Fitter cause, I ween,

Were Mind's self than marks impressed

By the outer scene.

Yet the body through the sense

Stirs the soul's intelligence.

When light flashes on the eye,

Or sound strikes the ear,

Mind aroused to due response

Makes the message clear;

And the dumb external signs

With the hidden forms combines.


[R] A criticism of the doctrine of the mind as a blank sheet of paper on which experience writes, as held by the Stoics in anticipation of Locke. See Zeller, 'Stoics, Epicureans, and Sceptics,' Reichel's translation, p. 76.


'Now, although in the case of bodies endowed with sentiency the qualities of external objects affect the sense-organs, and the activity of mind is preceded by a bodily affection which calls forth the mind's action upon itself, and stimulates the forms till that moment lying inactive within, yet, I say, if in these bodies endowed with sentiency the mind is not inscribed by mere passive affection, but of its own efficacy discriminates the impressions furnished to the body, how much more do intelligences free from all bodily affections employ in their discrimination their own mental activities instead of conforming to external objects? So on these principles various modes of cognition belong to distinct and different substances. For to creatures void of motive power--shell-fish and other such creatures which cling to rocks and grow there--belongs Sense alone, void of all other modes of gaining knowledge; to beasts endowed with movement, in whom some capacity of seeking and shunning seems to have arisen, Imagination also. Thought pertains only to the human race, as Intelligence to Divinity alone; hence it follows that that form of knowledge exceeds the rest which of its own nature cognizes not only its proper object, but the objects of the other forms of knowledge also. But what if Sense and Imagination were to gainsay Thought, and declare that universal which Thought deems itself to behold to be nothing? For the object of Sense and Imagination cannot be universal; so that either the judgment of Reason is true and there is no sense-object, or, since they know full well that many objects are presented to Sense and Imagination, the conception of Reason, which looks on that which is perceived by Sense and particular as if it were a something "universal," is empty of content. Suppose, further, that Reason maintains in reply that it does indeed contemplate the object of both Sense and Imagination under the form of universality, while Sense and Imagination cannot aspire to the knowledge of the universal, since their cognizance cannot go beyond bodily figures, and that in the cognition of reality we ought rather to trust the stronger and more perfect faculty of judgment. In a dispute of this sort, should not we, in whom is planted the faculty of reasoning as well as of imagining and perceiving, espouse the cause of Reason?

'In like manner is it that human reason thinks that Divine Intelligence cannot see the future except after the fashion in which its own knowledge is obtained. For thy contention is, if events do not appear to involve certain and necessary issues, they cannot be foreseen as certainly about to come to pass. There is, then, no foreknowledge of such events; or, if we can ever bring ourselves to believe that there is, there can be nothing which does not happen of necessity. If, however, we could have some part in the judgment of the Divine mind, even as we participate in Reason, we should think it perfectly just that human Reason should submit itself to the Divine mind, no less than we judged that Imagination and Sense ought to yield to Reason. Wherefore let us soar, if we can, to the heights of that Supreme Intelligence; for there Reason will see what in itself it cannot look upon; and that is in what way things whose occurrence is not certain may yet be seen in a sure and definite foreknowledge; and that this foreknowledge is not conjecture, but rather knowledge in its supreme simplicity, free of all limits and restrictions.'