Boethius and the problem of evil

In Book IV of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius confronts a “knotty question” that faces every believer in God: “Even though there is a ruler of the universe who is good, there is nonetheless evil in the world, even evil that passes unpunished.” Consider how the biblical writers are vexed by the problem of evil:

  • Righteous are you, O LORD, when I complain to you; yet I would plead my case before you. Why does the way of the wicked prosper? Why do all who are treacherous thrive? (Jeremiah 12:1)
  • Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble? In arrogance the wicked hotly pursue the poor; let them be caught in the schemes that they have devised. For the wicked boasts of the desires of his soul, and the one greedy for gain curses and renounces the Lord. In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, “There is no God.” His ways prosper at all times; your judgments are on high, out of his sight; as for all his foes, he puffs at them. (Psalm 10:1-5)

  • Truly God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart. But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled, my steps had nearly slipped. For I was envious of the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. Therefore pride is their necklace; violence covers them as a garment. Their eyes swell out through fatness; their hearts overflow with follies. They scoff and speak with malice; loftily they threaten oppression. They set their mouths against the heavens, and their tongue struts through the earth. Therefore his people turn back to them, and find no fault in them. And they say, “How can God know? Is there knowledge in the Most High? Behold, these are the wicked; always at ease, they increase in riches. (Psalm 73:1-12)

  • Why do the wicked live, reach old age, and grow mighty in power? (Job 21:7)
  • So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted. (Habakkuk 1:4)

Lady Philosophy invites Boethius to engage in a dialectical exchange with her. If all men seek happiness, and happiness is the good, then the righteous obtain the good while the wicked do not. Therefore, can there be any doubt that “the good are always powerful while the wicked are abject and weak”?

The passage below fascinates me because Lady Philosophy examines three reasons for why the wicked “abandon virtue and pursue vice.”

Is it because they have no idea what things are good? But what is weaker than the blindness of ignorance? Or do they know what is good but nevertheless pursue those things for which they have an uncontrollable desire? In this way, too, they are weak because they do not have self-control and are unable to fight against vice. Or is it knowingly and willfully that they abandon the good and turn to vice? In this case, they are not merely powerless but they cease to exist, for those who do not pursue the end of all things may be said to have abandoned being.

The first reason is Platonic: wicked men are ignorant of the good, otherwise they would do the good. The second reason is Aristotelian: the wicked know the good but cannot do it because they are enslaved by inordinate desire. And the third reason is decidedly Christian: the wicked, knowing the good, choose wickedness for its own sake. The apostle Paul elucidates this final reason in his letter to the Romans:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things. (1:18-23)

 

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