The Consolation of Philosophy

The Consolation of Philosophy Summary and Analysis of Book V


Now Boethius has decided that Philosophy's arguments must be true, but he still questions, "What are we to make of chance?" Chance, or random occurrence without any sequence of causes, cannot exist in the mind of God as Philosophy has described it. "If God imposes order on things," Boethius says to Philosophy, "then there is no opportunity for random events."

Philosophy answers that any chance event that occurs had its own set of hidden causes, whether or not they are perceived by human beings. Whether or not these causes appear to have relation to each other, they are nevertheless governed by Providence.

Boethius then asks how can there be free will in this close-knit chain of events. To this Philosophy asserts that there must indeed be free will, because no rational nature could exist without it. Judgment and the ability to choose are inherent in a rational nature. The more rational a person is, and the more they choose virtue and the pursuit of true happiness in God, the freer that person is. If a person is wicked or enslaved to vice, that person becomes progressively less and less free, and controlled by vice and error.

Here Philosophy returns to the subject of the mind of God, and his one act of knowing everything that has occurred, past and present. Just because God knows what a person with free will is going to choose, doesn't mean that he directed it. God knows all things before they happen, but he doesn't interfere with the free will of human beings.

Boethius protests, saying that these two things are oppositional. How can God know about something before it happens, but therefore not control or direct the free choices of human beings?

Philosophy enters into another long explanation of the mind of God. God does not "know" the world in the same way that human beings do. God is outside of time, so he doesn't view the world in a progression of events. For God no future event is uncertain, no past event forgotten. God knows the world in one single act, which includes knowledge of all the choices of all human beings from the beginning of the world to the end. Therefore he doesn't influence these choices, but he knew of them as part of the whole foreknowledge of the world perceived in one single instance.

This raises the problem of the efficacy of prayer, but Philosophy counsels that prayer is the one way of communicating with God. Even if the future is already ordained (actually not ordained, since, to God, it has already happened) we still must strive to join ourselves with our Creator through prayer. We are temporal creatures, and we can only understand things in a temporal way. This doesn't mean we can't participate in eternity by striving to be one with God.

Philosophy says that it is still important to strive for virtue, for God is always watching and judging. That the world has already happened for God is a mystery to us, but we are temporal and cannot hope to fully understand eternity.


This last book of The Consolation of Philosophy raises the most questions of any of the books of The Consolation of Philosophy. The idea of foreknowledge and Providence have been debated for centuries. This argument was even referred to in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. There is no reason to believe that this debate will cease anytime soon.

What is at issue is a central philosophical question of whether or not the world is predetermined or subject to chance. Philosophy walks a middle ground here, saying that God knows all things since he perceives the world in one instance of knowing, but in that instance of knowing he didn't force the choices of all the people in the world. He just knows how it happened, all at once.

Since there is no logical way to support this argument, the idea of the single instant of knowing must be taken as given. Boethius has set up the arguments in the previous books so that this is the only possible solution. He gives credit to Aristotle for this idea, but the preceding arguments and proofs are all his own. Providence is the ordering of all things by God, and he had a plan for his world, but he didn't necessarily influence the choices of the people in it. Fate is simply the events that must occur because, for God, the whole world including all future people and events has already happened. Philosophy is right to call it a mystery.

Free will is very important in this Book because it is a necessary component of Catholic faith. If there were no free will there would be no accountability for sin on earth, and sin is held accountable and confession, and possibly punishment, are necessary for redemption. Boethius had to reconcile the idea of free will to the idea of Providence in order to remain orthodox.

The passages about the wicked being less free than the virtuous are also a part of the free will argument. If the wicked have free will, then can their choices could be considered as valid as the choices the virtuous make? Not so, says Philosophy, for their choices come to be controlled by their vices, not by their sound judgment. The more evil a human being becomes, the less free and less human he or she becomes.

The subject of prayer comes up at the end of this book. If God knows all things, then what is the use of praying to him? Philosophy admonishes Boethius that he should not cut off the one communication conduit he has with God. Prayer is a path to virtue, and the book ends with Philosophy advising Boethius to cultivate virtue as much as possible since God sees and is the judge of all things.

The difficulties with this ordering of the world are plain to a modern reader. For example, even if God does know everything that happens on earth in one instant, he, in his omniscience, can still intervene and could guide the evil towards good if he chose. This would destroy free will, but would it also take away from the idea that God is also all good? If he could prevent someone from turning down the path of evil, why doesn't he?

Free will must be retained, in order to make human beings accountable for their actions and not merely puppets of God. Also, the lack of substance of evil (evil doesn't really exist, it's just a lack of good and has no real power except over unimportant things like the body and possessions) means that God isn't allowing evil to happen, because evil doesn't really exist.

Much depends on faith in these five Books of Boethius, but many logical arguments are contained in it, too. Boethius seems to strain for orthodoxy at times, but that doesn't make the philosophy any less brilliant, or the "consolation" any less real. Again, a modern reader must never forget the context of Boethius' work: he is in a desperate position, striving for a dollop of happiness amidst misery. If his work contains logical fallacies and shortcomings, so be it - the object is consolation, and that object, it seems, is achieved.