Category: Virtue


The Problem of Goodness

It is plain, then, that the only object sought for in all these ways is happiness. For that which each seeks in preference to all else, that is in his judgment the supreme good. And we have defined the supreme good to be happiness. Therefore, that state which each wishes in preference to all others is in his judgment happy.

~ St. Severinus Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, 3.2

Boethius suffered martyrdom in the sixth century. Once a Roman senator and philosopher of some renown, his political rivals—by his account, at least—accused him of a crime he didn’t commit: conspiracy to overthrow the king. Boethius was a Catholic, in the ancient sense of that term meaning “Orthodox,” but Rome had been conquered in the fifth century by the Visigoths (basically ancient, “high church” Jehovah’s Witnesses, if that makes any sense). While he had been able to maintain his place in society as an aristocrat, despite being a Catholic, over time he made the wrong enemies. He wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while awaiting execution.

One might expect Boethius to have struggled with what is called the “problem of evil” today. That is, if God is so good and powerful, how come the innocent suffer? Injustice certainly troubled Boethius; he experienced it firsthand. But throughout the work he expresses no doubt in the goodness of God. Instead, he questions the worth of his education. His problem is basically: “If the innocent suffer, what good is my degree?” That actually strikes me as a far more contemporary question.

In the ancient world, philosophy was the summit of higher education. Boethius, like Cicero before him, learned philosophy and decided to become a statesman to serve the common good. In some ways, Boethius marks the beginning of the scholastic era that so strongly formed the methodology of medieval academia. He may have been the first to articulate and follow a strict distinction between philosophy and theology. Sometimes philosophy may touch on theological topics, but to put it simply philosophy constitutes reasoned reflection on everyday reality for the sake of the good life, whereas theology is reasoned reflection on divine revelation.

The Consolation of Philosophy is a philosophical work. Boethius talks about God, and I plan to reflect here on some of what he says, but there are more references to ancient myth than the Bible or Church Tradition. So what is he trying to accomplish?

Boethius wants the work to be an apology, a defense, for philosophy. The work is a philosophical dialogue, in fact, between Boethius and Lady Philosophy—philosophy personified. She comes to console him in his suffering and assure him that, despite the manifest injustice he faces, his studies have not been in vain.

In what amounts to a brilliant summary of the patristic synthesis of ancient Greek and Biblical ethics, Lady Philosophy walks Boethius through all the reasons why riches, fame, and power—the things people so often mistake for happiness—do not of themselves satisfy us. Rather, she reminds him that “the essence of absolute good and of happiness is one and the same.” Virtue is the only true good and the source of all joy. Vice is the only true evil. It is possible for the wicked to have the pleasures of riches, fame, and power, but it is not possible for them to be happy. By contrast, even those unjustly awaiting their execution may be happy, despite their suffering, if they only have virtue.

But what is this goodness? What is this happiness? Lady Philosophy tells him plainly, “God is absolute happiness.” We might think of the Scripture, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things”—the things you worry over every day—“shall be added to you” (Matthew 6:33). Or this one: “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

The Consolation of Philosophy is beautifully written—Boethius even intersperses songs into the dialogue—and I happen to agree with the general thesis of the work, so naturally it appeals to me. I especially like, however, that, once again, it is not a theological apologetic. Boethius just assumes God exists and is good. He gives a few reasons for that belief in passing, but they aren’t the focus of the work. They are data to a different problem.

What I find fascinating is that, to me at least, Boethius ends up with something of the polar opposite of the “problem of evil.” Goodness is the problem that needs an explanation. We look around ourselves and see unimaginable injustice and suffering every day. But we also see and believe and, if we are so blessed, have even experienced something in this life that can only be called “good.” This goodness, so long as we agree with Lady Philosophy, is indifferent to circumstance. The rich, famous, and powerful have no more of it—and perhaps have even less—than the poor, ignominious, and weak. Anywhere and in any circumstances, in good or ill fortune, we can imagine a human being—even Buzz Aldrin on the surface of the moon, for example—to have access to it. Despite all the atrocities and hardships and toil of this life, goodness abides, and in that goodness we find the only thing worth the name “happiness” and, if we agree with Boethius, “God.”

Goodness is everywhere, untouched by evil, all the more victorious over it the stronger evil seems, all the brighter the darker evil becomes. If we want to wax philosophically, we might modify (for the better, in my opinion) Anselm of Canterbury’s ontological argument. In it he argued that existence is better than non-existence, therefore God, being the best imaginable thing, must exist. I find this question begging and thus unsatisfying. But if, like Boethius, we already presume the existence of the good, we need only ask, “What makes more sense: that the good is living and active or inert and passive?” Which of these two options deserves the name “good”?

I think, perhaps, Boethius touches on a much graver and more common dilemma. People may or may not believe in the existence of God, but trying to engage with them on that question often misses a far more important one: the real question all of us face is whether we believe in the good. If there is goodness, then there is meaning and hope and happiness and, indeed, God himself. And if there isn’t, then …

So, perhaps unintentionally, we arrive at theology after all. What are we who have that hope supposed to do? Write a treatise? Argue about it? No, rather “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Lord have mercy that I might carry that flame of goodness with me wherever I go.

Piety and Propriety

When Abba Theodore was supping with the brothers, they received the cups with silent reverence, and did not follow the usual custom of receiving the cup with a “Pardon me.” And Abba Theodore said: “The monks have lost their manners and do not say ‘Pardon me.'”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers, 15.20

Adam Smith, the founder of modern economics, was actually a moral philosopher. While his Wealth of Nations is better known today, he actually published another book seventeen years earlier: The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

This book is fascinating and bizarre. It is like no other book on ethics or morality that I’ve read. Indeed, one might even think of it more as a work of moral psychology, or maybe, in a uniquely anthropological and natural-philosophical way, a book of meta-ethics.

He does not begin by delineating a fundamental, normative principle or principles for moral action. Instead, he tries to answer the question: How do we become moral? He wants to be descriptive before being prescriptive. Continue reading

10 Years Orthodox

Now I do not fear God, but I love him: for love casteth out fear.

~ St. Antony

January 11 was the tenth anniversary of my chrismation. Chrismation is typically done at the same time as baptism, but since I had already been baptized, and the Orthodox Church confesses “one baptism” in the Creed and thus does not re-baptize, I was received into the Church by chrismation. Continue reading

I am going through the pangs of being born. Sympathize with me, my brothers! Do not stand in the way of my coming to life—do not wish death on me. Do not give back to the world one who wants to be God’s; do not trick him with material things. Let me get into the clear light and manhood will be mine.

St. Ignatius of Antioch, To the Romans, 6.2

My good friend Nathan (“Basil”) has produced a wonderful new film about 1) the stories of religiously unaffiliated persons or “nones” and 2) the story of how he went from being a none to finding the Orthodox Church.

You can watch the trailer above.

There is a press release here.

The film has a website, where you can request to host a screening, here.

Continue reading

Get Born

patriarch_nicholas_mystikos_baptizes_constantine_vii_porphyrogennetosNow, it is certainly required that what is subject to change be in a sense always coming to birth. In mutable nature nothing can be observed which is always the same. Being born, in the sense of constantly experiencing change, does not come about as a result of external initiative, as is the case with the birth of the body, which takes place by chance. Such a [spiritual] birth occurs by choice. We are in some manner our own parents, giving birth to ourselves by our own free choice in accordance with whatever we wish to be … moulding ourselves to the teaching of virtue or vice.

~ St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, 2.3

Birth is a common spiritual metaphor, but—at least in my own case—I do not think the depth of this metaphor is contemplated often enough. Continue reading

Racism and Asceticism

40a3c679a8a8c232f2bfaf15d6698bdfAt a meeting of monks in Scete, the old men wanted to test Abba Moses. So they poured scorn on him, saying: “Who is this blackamoor that has come among us?” Moses heard them, but said nothing. When the meeting had dispersed, the men who had given the insults, asked him: “Were you not troubled in your heart?” He answered: “I was troubled, and I said nothing.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

Today is the feast day of St. Moses the Ethiopian, also known as St. Moses the Black. (I’ll give you three guesses why.)

As this saying shows racism is not new. No doubt it grows naturally (however viciously) from our tribal pasts, when one’s society was also one’s extended family. Not only were customs and culture shared, so was DNA and, thus, common physical characteristics. Continue reading

The Mark of a Man

Abba Poemen said: “The mark of the true monk only appears under temptation.”

~ Sayings of the Desert Fathers

We could easily say the same for any man or woman. It is a strange thing about life that sometimes its best blessings, rightly understood, are tragic. Continue reading

An Ascetic Epitome

There are a few similar sayings from the desert fathers to the one below, but I think it might be the most expansive. In any case, I think it stands alone just fine—one could consider every post on this blog as commentary on this one saying. It is an epitome of the ascetic life. The part that sits with me the most right now is “in deep humility.” Those three words are profound enough for me. Continue reading

Hell is ignorance, for both are dark; and perdition is forgetfulness, for both involve extinction.

~ St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, 62

I confessed in my last entry that I do not think often about hell, despite the fathers’ commendation of the practice. One way to remedy that is to reflect more here. St. Mark the Ascetic offers a radically different view than the common adage, “Ignorance is bliss.” Rather, he warns, “Hell is ignorance.” Continue reading

The Ladder of Humility: Step 10

The tenth degree of humility is, not easily to lay hold on occasions of laughing. For it is written: “He who laughs loud is a fool.” [Ecclesiasticus 21:20]

~ Rule of St. Benedict, 7

At what point do I just declare myself totally unqualified to comment on St. Benedict’s ladder of humility? This step, about something so simple—laughter—is extremely difficult in our time or, at least, for me. The average person, even people in poverty, in the United States enjoys entertainment once the luxury of royalty alone. Every day we are met with hundreds of invitations to “easily lay hold on occasions of laughing.” What are we to do? Is our culture so depraved? Or, on the other hand, is this step of the ladder now passé? Neither. Continue reading