Boethius: the Wicked, Harm, and the Good

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Boethius in his Consolation of Philosophy argues that the wicked cannot harm the good. To establish this claim, first he argues that the good are more powerful than the wicked. The weaker cannot harm the more powerful. Therefore, the wicked cannot harm the good.

The structure of Boethius’s argument is as follows:

  1. The wicked are weaker than the good.
  2. The weaker cannot harm the more powerful.
  3. Therefore, the wicked cannot harm the good.

Boethius’s identification of the sources of power and weakness is crucial for his argument. The wicked is weaker on account of its vices while the good is more powerful on account of its virtues. He does not deny that the wicked might have wealth, fame, and other transient goods; however, these goods are not what make one truly powerful. What makes people truly powerful are those qualities of character that no one can take away. These qualities of character are not vulnerable to the harm of the wicked.

Boethius’s assumption of what is harm and what constitutes harm are essential for his contention that the wicked cannot harm the good. To him, if something can destroy someone’s eternal goods, then it is truly harmful. The wicked can take away someone’s wealth, fame, or power, but they cannot take away someone’s virtues. For instance, no external force can take one’s virtues like self-control and self-sufficiency. Therefore, the wicked can never destroy the eternal goods in a good person. Subsequently, he cannot truly harm the good.

Is this argument convincing? To answer this question, one needs to rule out all the possibilities that make virtues of character, such as self-sufficiency, vulnerable; for example, one can imagine a situation in which higher authorities take away the land of farmers whom Boethius identifies as men who can exercise self-sufficiency. In other words, Boethius’s notion of self-sufficiency seems to have rested on the factors that are not under the control of the agent. However, this criticism does not appreciate the strength of his argument, since self-sufficiency in particular and moral virtues in general are the internal characteristics of a soul and not external goods that can be taken away from the agent. For instance, in the case of confiscation of the land of a self-sufficient farmer, he still can practice his self-sufficiency. In other words, self-sufficiency is not dependent on external factors. One can be virtuous even if he/she has not adequate external tools to practice them. As a person’s ability to write is not dependent on having a pen, being virtuous is not dependent on external tools. A writer without a pen still can write in his/her mind or and a honest person whom has been denied opportunities to speak still can be honest. For this reason, I think Boethius’s argument that the wicked cannot harm the good is convincing, given the fact that taking away someone’s transient goods does not constitute true harm, but temporary hurdles in the life of the good.

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Augustine and Ease of Good Will

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Is Good Will Easy to Have?

Augustine in FCW 1 argues that it is easy to have a good will. One only has to will a good will to have one. According to Augustine, good will is “a will by which we seek to live rightly and honorably, and to attain the highest wisdom” FCW 1.12, p.19). If Augustine believes that a good will is easy to have, that implies that the will to live rightly and honorably and to attain the highest wisdom is easy too. I did not find this claim convincing, since there are some empirical counter-examples that challenge this claim. My thesis is that despite what Augustine maintains, having a good will is not easy.

Augustine’s argument can be roughly formulated as follows:

  • [Nothing can be defeated except by a superior, an equal, or an inferior.]
  • [What is better or superior has more power, what is equally good has equal power, what is inferior or less good has less power]
  • What is better cannot be defeated by its inferior.
  • What is better cannot be defeated by an equal.
    1. Definition: a good will is “a will by which we seek to live rightly and honorably, and to attain the highest wisdom.”
  • What is better cannot be defeated by its superior.
    1. A superior is superior by virtue of being more virtuous. So it would not be virtuous if it defeated what is good.
  • Therefore, it is easy to have a good will.

Augustine, to prove that having a good will is easy, begins with a general statement that introduces three possibilities. A good will, according to Augustine, can be defeated by its inferior, equal, or its superior. Toward the end of Book 1, he explores the ability of each possibility to defeat a good will. An inferior cannot defeat what is better, since it is weaker. An equal cannot defeat it either because it has no sufficient strength to do that, or perhaps what is equally good has no “desire” to defeat its equal, and it becomes inferior if it wants to defeat what is equally good. A superior cannot defeat it either, since it is superior by virtue of being more excellent. It will become inferior if it defeats a good thing. Consequently, if all the possibilities cannot defeat what is better, then he can infer that if good will is what is better, then it cannot be defeated. As a result, Augustine concludes that a good will is easy to have.

Although one, through a charitable reading of Augustine, can admit that his argument is valid, but the soundness of the argument is not beyond doubt. In fact, it is possible that what is better can be defeated by its inferior, namely inordinate desires as inferior can defeat a will for seeking excellent goods. Augustine admits that inordinate desires are inferior to good will, which is a will to seek the most excellent things. However, it is plausible to imagine a situation that inordinate desires defeat a good will. An Augustinian response to this objection would be that only for a fool, which is a person who values transient goods more than eternal goods, the desire for inordinate desires can defeat a good will. On the other hand, for a wise person who lives a well-ordered life, good will always prevails; therefore, it is easy for them to have a good will. If it is Augustine’s argument, it seems that he says that for a wise person, it is easy to have a good will. However, if that is the case, does not he argue that a good will is easy for wise people, but hard for fools? A wise person has a certain character where having a good will is easy for them while for a fool it is not easy. If that is Augustine’s position, it is hard to reject, since it is a trivial truth: a good will is easy to have once one has it, but it is hard to have once a person does not have a suitable character for it. However, the problem with this argument is that in its premises, it presupposes the truth of a claim that it intends to establish its truthfulness.

However, there is a major problem with Augustine’s contention that having a good will is easy. This claim is problematic if we take it as a universal claim about all types of characters. It also would be problematic if we understand it to be applicable only to wise individuals. A universal understanding of Augustine’s claim is problematic for the simple reason that it is not easy for a fool to have a good will. It is also problematic if we understand it as a claim about the wise only, since they already have a good will by virtue of being wise. As a commonsensical judgment, if what has happened throughout history and human societies reflects human will, one is inclined to believe that good will either was not easy to have or if it is easy, it is easy to ignore. Augustine himself witnessed the dark aspect of humanity in his own time. It might be due to these concerns that later Augustine admits that an unaided will cannot overcome evils, and one needs God’s grace to live rightly.