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Book 3, Chapters 1 to 3

One chapter per week study of a book that profoundly influenced C. S. Lewis.

Book 3, Chapters 1 to 3

Postby magpie » 19 Sep 2005, 20:12

Having spent considerable time in the latter part of Book 2 demonstrating that mortal possessions and achievements cannot bestow happiness because they are not the highest good, Philosophy opens Book 3 by promising to lead Boethius to genuine happiness.
Even though you say that you want to hear more, your eagerness would be even greater if you knew where I am about to lead you.
But then she immediately resumes her analysis of that which does not satsify.
Just so, by first recognizing false goods, you begin to escape the burden of their influence; then afterwards true goods may gain possession of your spirit.
And indeed, many of her subsequent remarks in Chapter 2 and following as she continues to show the inadequacy of riches, honor, power, fame and pleasure seem to be replowing the familiar ground of Book 2. I wonder if this is not an inherent weakness in this sort of writing. It is always so much easier to identify what perfection is not that to define what it is. Unfortuately this means that the bulk of this work thus far has been markedly negative, a tone which offers me at least little in the way of "consolation."

In all fairness I must admit that Philosophy does offer a working definition of perfect good, albeit one that strikes me as rather tautological."
Now the good is defined as that which, once it is attained, relieves man of all further desires. This is the supreme good and contains within itself all other lesser goods. If it lacked anything at all, it could not be the highest good, because something would be missing, and this could still be desired. Clearly, then, perfect happiness is the perfect state in which all goods are possessed.
In other words, perfect happiness arises from possessing perfect good, and since throughout this work Philosophy regularly uses the terms "happiness" and "good" almost interchangeably, I am still not encouraged.
All this shows clearly that all men seek happiness; for whatever anyone desires beyond all else, he regards as the highest good. And, since we have defined the highest good as happiness, everyone thinks that the condition which he wants more than anything else must consitute happiness.
But just prior to this statement, she had demonstrated at length that it is impossible to "have it all" because each of the "lesser goods" must be obtained at the cost of the others. Nonetheless, after extolling in turn the inherent value of each of these goods (goods which she had dismissed as unworthy in Book 2), she declares that seeking them is part of the natural order.
And whatever men strive for in so many ways must be the good. It is easy to show how strong and natural this striving is because, in spite of the variety and difference of opinion, still all men agree in loving and pursuing the goal of good.


Then having praised these lesser goods, Philosophy begins her explanation of why each of them cannot bring true happiness.
Nature leads you toward true good, but manifold error turns you away from it. Consider for a moment whether the things men think can give them hapiness really bring them to the goal which nature planned for them.

In Chapter 3 Philosophy devotes her attention to proving the inadequacy of riches, but the same methodology will be used in subsequent chapters to discuss honor, power, fame, and pleasure. After an intense period of interrogation, she brings Boethius to admit that no amount of riches can provide true self-suffiency and concludes,
My present point is simply this; if riches cannot eliminate need, but on the contrary create new demands, what makes you suppose that they can provide satisfaction?
This requirement that any true good must be sufficient will be a cornerstone of her arguments in the following chapters. I suspect she begins with riches because, from a philosophical point of view, it is the easiest of these "lesser goods" to refute, and indeed many of her points had already been made earlier. Still, I have to wonder if it might also be the case that Boethius still harbored considerable regret for his now lost comforts. After all, he like us was only human.
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Postby Air of Winter » 20 Sep 2005, 22:47

magpie wrote:And indeed, many of her subsequent remarks in Chapter 2 and following as she continues to show the inadequacy of riches, honor, power, fame and pleasure seem to be replowing the familiar ground of Book 2. I wonder if this is not an inherent weakness in this sort of writing. It is always so much easier to identify what perfection is not that to define what it is. Unfortuately this means that the bulk of this work thus far has been markedly negative, a tone which offers me at least little in the way of "consolation."
In all fairness I must admit that Philosophy does offer a working definition of perfect good, albeit one that strikes me as rather tautological."
Now the good is defined as that which, once it is attained, relieves man of all further desires. This is the supreme good and contains within itself all other lesser goods. If it lacked anything at all, it could not be the highest good, because something would be missing, and this could still be desired. Clearly, then, perfect happiness is the perfect state in which all goods are possessed.
In other words, perfect happiness arises from possessing perfect good, and since throughout this work Philosophy regularly uses the terms "happiness" and "good" almost interchangeably, I am still not encouraged.


I finally get it -- at least, I've just understood why this book was important to Lewis. I'm not sure I can describe it very well, but we're looking at some of the intellectual underpinnings for the Argument from Desire. It's described most overtly in Surprised by Joy, and I think in at least one other essay, and (to my mind) most strongly and movingly in The Pilgrim's Regress.

All of these things that people pursue are goods, and yet every one of them fails to wholly satisfy; and there is a nameless desire in mind for something none of these goods of the world can sate. And it is very odd that humanity possesses, not merely unsatisfied desires, but a kind of desire that cannot ever be satisfied by any known good of the world. That is the argument. And I admit it: this is strange.

And then there is the direct experience of the Elusive Other, the light that sometimes seems to invest some part of the world and to shine through it, without ever being contained or reachable through the thing which has, for the moment, become a lens to see it through. The experience and the argument run together, and The Consolation is part of the background for the argument.

As far as defining 'good' itself goes: I don't think it's possible, in the usual sense. It's such a fundamental concept that every attempt winds up being circular. It's one of those things that can only be defined by pointing at many instances of it, until the mind abstracts the similar quality in the instances. But given the idea of the good, I don't have any problem with the attempt to define what perfect goodness would be.

I wonder about this idea of the perfect good. One of the reasons I've never been especially attracted to Buddhism is the idea that all the individual creatures should merge back into their source and lose their individuality, as if it were an evil. But it seems to me that there is much good to be lost that way, as if it is well that particular things should exist. -- I have no idea how to phrase this, except to note that I wouldn't be much more comforted by the idea that my grandfather had ceased to exist because he achieved Nirvana than I am by the idea that he has ceased to exist simply.

Then having praised these lesser goods, Philosophy begins her explanation of why each of them cannot bring true happiness.
Nature leads you toward true good, but manifold error turns you away from it. Consider for a moment whether the things men think can give them hapiness really bring them to the goal which nature planned for them.


That nature planned for them? :think: Why Nature? I'd have suspected Nature of being the world, and fickle Fortuna as being part of it; but it seems as if the correct opposition is not between God and Nature, in Boethius' mind. I think this may be Boethius' Christianity starting to show: it seems as if all Nature, even the unstable and changing part below the Moon, has an end. Here is not chance but teleology.

I suspect she begins with riches because, from a philosophical point of view, it is the easiest of these "lesser goods" to refute, and indeed many of her points had already been made earlier. Still, I have to wonder if it might also be the case that Boethius still harbored considerable regret for his now lost comforts. After all, he like us was only human.

I shouldn't wonder if he did.
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Postby magpie » 23 Sep 2005, 18:43

Air of Winter wrote:All of these things that people pursue are goods, and yet every one of them fails to wholly satisfy; and there is a nameless desire in mind for something none of these goods of the world can sate. And it is very odd that humanity possesses, not merely unsatisfied desires, but a kind of desire that cannot ever be satisfied by any known good of the world. That is the argument. And I admit it: this is strange.

The question then arises whether this is a longing now realized by Boethius in his quest for true wisdom or whether it is "hard-wired" into the human psyche. Philosophy argues the latter:
And, as I said, all men try by various means to attain this state of happiness; for there is naturally implanted in the minds of men the desire for the true good, even though foolish error draws them toward false goods.
But if such is indeed the case, why is humankind so universally subject to this "foolish error"? This dilemma would seem to be related to what you term
Air of Winter wrote:the Elusive Other, the light that sometimes seems to invest some part of the world and to shine through it, without ever being contained or reachable through the thing which has, for the moment, become a lens to see it through.
That this object of ulitmate desire is so elusive might well stand as Boethius' definition of the condition of fallen and unredeemed humanity.

Air of Winter wrote:One of the reasons I've never been especially attracted to Buddhism is the idea that all the individual creatures should merge back into their source and lose their individuality, as if it were an evil. But it seems to me that there is much good to be lost that way, as if it is well that particular things should exist. -- I have no idea how to phrase this, except to note that I wouldn't be much more comforted by the idea that my grandfather had ceased to exist because he achieved Nirvana than I am by the idea that he has ceased to exist simply.
Your critique of Buddhism (and by extension of Hinduism as well) very much matches my own. I am reminded of the several places in The Screwtape Letters where Lewis contrasts the difference between the diabolical and divine attitudes toward human individuality. Whereas the function of Hell is to absorb (devour) the human soul to the point where all identity is lost, the redeemed individual becomes "more himself."
Lewis wrote:Of course I know that the Enemy also wants to detach men from themselves, but in a different way. Remember, always, that He really likes the little vermin, and sent an absurd value on the distintness of every one of them. When He talks of their losing their selves; once they have done that, He really gives them back all their personalitiy, and boasts (I am afraid, sincerely) that when they are wholly His they will be more themselves than ever. (Letter XIII)
For me, the emphasis on incarnation which I encounter in Lewis is much more helpful than the disembodied concept of wisdom which I have thus far found in Boethius.

Air of Winter wrote:That nature planned for them? Why Nature? I'd have suspected Nature of being the world, and fickle Fortuna as being part of it; but it seems as if the correct opposition is not between God and Nature, in Boethius' mind. I think this may be Boethius' Christianity starting to show: it seems as if all Nature, even the unstable and changing part below the Moon, has an end. Here is not chance but teleology.
I suspect, but am not certain, that Boethius may be using "Nature" here in a way which is similar to St. Augustine's concept of "the heaven of heavens" in Book 12 of The Confessions as a means of expressing that part of Creation which is the timeless and immutable manifestation of God's intended order but is itself not coeternal with God. However, having said that, I am also struck by how little overt Christianity there is in The Consolation. Thus far Boethius has, through his references to God and the Creator, shown himself a theist, but not specifically Christian.
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Postby Air of Winter » 27 Sep 2005, 02:51

magpie wrote:That this object of ulitmate desire is so elusive might well stand as Boethius' definition of the condition of fallen and unredeemed humanity.

:floundering:

I always had trouble seeing the justice of the Fall -- a couple of people eat a fruit and all of creation is subjected to death and pain for the foreseeable future? -- but set that aside, and there was one thing about the (old Earth) creationist version of Christianity that I believed, which seems metaphysically superior to most other religions (maybe all of them). There was the idea that the world was broken, that Nature was distorted and abnormal, that it was never intended to be so, in the beginning. I don't think most other Western religions say, "The way the world is is deeply wrong," and the Eastern religions, while there are some thoughts in that general direction, don't develop the idea in a fashion that seems nearly as correct. They say the cause of the problem is ignorance and individuality rather than evil itself.

This doesn't work all that well in non-creationist versions, though, so far as I can see. In them the cruel wastefulness of evolution makes the world a place of death and pain from the beginning. :??:
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Postby magpie » 30 Sep 2005, 01:26

Air of Winter wrote:
magpie wrote:That this object of ulitmate desire is so elusive might well stand as Boethius' definition of the condition of fallen and unredeemed humanity.

:floundering:

I always had trouble seeing the justice of the Fall -- a couple of people eat a fruit and all of creation is subjected to death and pain for the foreseeable future?


Although I do not take the account in Genesis 3 as a literally accurate account of an event, I do perceive in this narrative a highly perceptive description of our fallen condition. Creation is not broken simply because Eve fell off her diet. The temptation of the serpent was far more powerful than that:
You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.
It is this innate tendency to make ourselves the recipient of our worship which causes the "object of our ultimate desire" to be so elusive. We can hardly expect to encounter this Other when all of our senses and energies are perpetually turned toward ourselves. Moreover in this frantic quest for self-deification, human beings have ravaged the environment and despoiled their brethren, leaving behind that ruined world in which both Boethius and current humanity have been condemned to "flounder."
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