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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