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.