The Consolation of Philosophy



CH. I. Boethius asks if there is really any such thing as chance.

Philosophy answers, in conformity with Aristotle's definition

(Phys., II. iv.), that chance is merely relative to human purpose,

and that what seems fortuitous really depends on a more subtle form

of causation.--CH. II. Has man, then, any freedom, if the reign of

law is thus absolute? Freedom of choice, replies Philosophy, is a

necessary attribute of reason. Man has a measure of freedom, though

a less perfect freedom than divine natures.--CH. III. But how can

man's freedom be reconciled with God's absolute foreknowledge? If

God's foreknowledge be certain, it seems to exclude the possibility

of man's free will. But if man has no freedom of choice, it

follows that rewards and punishments are unjust as well as useless;

that merit and demerit are mere names; that God is the cause of

men's wickednesses; that prayer is meaningless.--CH. IV. The

explanation is that man's reasoning faculties are not adequate to

the apprehension of the ways of God's foreknowledge. If we could

know, as He knows, all that is most perplexing in this problem

would be made plain. For knowledge depends not on the nature of the

thing known, but on the faculty of the knower.--CH. V. Now, where

our senses conflict with our reason, we defer the judgment of the

lower faculty to the judgment of the higher. Our present perplexity

arises from our viewing God's foreknowledge from the standpoint of

human reason. We must try and rise to the higher standpoint of

God's immediate intuition.--CH. VI. To understand this higher form

of cognition, we must consider God's nature. God is eternal.

Eternity is more than mere everlasting duration. Accordingly, His

knowledge surveys past and future in the timelessness of an eternal

present. His foreseeing is seeing. Yet this foreseeing does not in

itself impose necessity, any more than our seeing things happen

makes their happening necessary. We may, however, if we please,

distinguish two necessities--one absolute, the other conditional on

knowledge. In this conditional sense alone do the things which God

foresees necessarily come to pass. But this kind of necessity

affects not the nature of things. It leaves the reality of free

will unimpaired, and the evils feared do not ensue. Our

responsibility is great, since all that we do is done in the sight

of all-seeing Providence.



She ceased, and was about to pass on in her discourse to the exposition of other matters, when I break in and say: 'Excellent is thine exhortation, and such as well beseemeth thy high authority; but I am even now experiencing one of the many difficulties which, as thou saidst but now, beset the question of providence. I want to know whether thou deemest that there is any such thing as chance at all, and, if so, what it is.'

Then she made answer: 'I am anxious to fulfil my promise completely, and open to thee a way of return to thy native land. As for these matters, though very useful to know, they are yet a little removed from the path of our design, and I fear lest digressions should fatigue thee, and thou shouldst find thyself unequal to completing the direct journey to our goal.'

'Have no fear for that,' said I. 'It is rest to me to learn, where learning brings delight so exquisite, especially when thy argument has been built up on all sides with undoubted conviction, and no place is left for uncertainty in what follows.'

She made answer: 'I will accede to thy request;' and forthwith she thus began: 'If chance be defined as a result produced by random movement without any link of causal connection, I roundly affirm that there is no such thing as chance at all, and consider the word to be altogether without meaning, except as a symbol of the thing designated. What place can be left for random action, when God constraineth all things to order? For "ex nihilo nihil" is sound doctrine which none of the ancients gainsaid, although they used it of material substance, not of the efficient principle; this they laid down as a kind of basis for all their reasonings concerning nature. Now, if a thing arise without causes, it will appear to have arisen from nothing. But if this cannot be, neither is it possible for there to be chance in accordance with the definition just given.'

'Well,' said I, 'is there, then, nothing which can properly be called chance or accident, or is there something to which these names are appropriate, though its nature is dark to the vulgar?'

'Our good Aristotle,' says she, 'has defined it concisely in his "Physics," and closely in accordance with the truth.'

'How, pray?' said I.

'Thus,' says she: 'Whenever something is done for the sake of a particular end, and for certain reasons some other result than that designed ensues, this is called chance; for instance, if a man is digging the earth for tillage, and finds a mass of buried gold. Now, such a find is regarded as accidental; yet it is not "ex nihilo," for it has its proper causes, the unforeseen and unexpected concurrence of which has brought the chance about. For had not the cultivator been digging, had not the man who hid the money buried it in that precise spot, the gold would not have been found. These, then, are the reasons why the find is a chance one, in that it results from causes which met together and concurred, not from any intention on the part of the discoverer. Since neither he who buried the gold nor he who worked in the field _intended_ that the money should be found, but, as I said, it _happened_ by coincidence that one dug where the other buried the treasure. We may, then, define chance as being an unexpected result flowing from a concurrence of causes where the several factors had some definite end. But the meeting and concurrence of these causes arises from that inevitable chain of order which, flowing from the fountain-head of Providence, disposes all things in their due time and place.'