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Book 3, Chapters 4 to 7

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

Book 3, Chapters 4 to 7

Postby magpie » 03 Oct 2005, 18:27

Having demonstrated that riches can never be sufficient to bestow true happiness, Philosophy goes on to critique honor, power, fame, and pleasure. In Chapter 4 she denies the ultimate value of honor by pointing out that, far from making men virtuous, public office only the more exposes their wickedness. Moreover, such honor is extremely transitory, dependent upon popular acclaim within a specific place and time. After providing a number of striking examples, she concludes,
For, as I said before, whatever does not have its own honor in itself, but depends on public whim, is sometimes valued highly, sometimes not at all. Therefore, if public honors cannot make those who have them worthy of reverence, and if, in addition, they are often tainted by the touch of wicken men, and if their value deteriorates with the passage of time, and if they are comtemptible in the eyes of foreigners, what desirable beauty do they have in themselves or give to others?
Here one is reminded of the French proverb, "The more things change, the more they remain the same." It does not take much effort to extend these comments to contemporary holders of public office whose high visibility renders their deficiencies and veniality painfully obvious. Enough said!

In Chapter 5, Philosophy then moves on to discuss power which ironically cannot even guarantee even simple security. No matter how much power one might amass, there will always be someone or something which cannot be brought under control, and threats continually lurk just beyond the edges of even the greatest empire. Superpowers beware.
What, then, is the nature of this power which cannot rid a man of gnawing anxieties nor save him from fear? Those who brag of their power want to live in security, but cannot. Do you consider a person powerful when you see him unable to have what he wants? Do you think a person mighty who is always surrounded by bodyguards, who is more afraid than those whom he intimidates, who puts himself in the hands of his servants in order to seem powerful?
And those who ally themselves with the powerful are no better off, perpetually subject to either the fall of their protector or their own loss of favor. One wonders who is the more anxious, the tyrant or the toady.

In Chapter 6 Philosophy refutes the value of fame with many of the same arguments which she used concerning honor, with a special emphasis upon the fickleness of popular opinion. It even appears that fame is given so cheaply that the virtuous ought to be embarrassed to receive it. And as in her discussion of honor, she points out that fame is neither universal nor permanent.
But since, as I explained earlier, there will always be some countries to which a man's fame does not extend, it follows that the person you think famous will be unknown in some other part of the world. In this discussion of fame, I do not think mere popularity even worth mentioning since it does not rest on good judgment, nor has it any lasting life.
Even with the vast spread of information provided by TV and the Internet, how many of today's celebrities will even show up as clues in crossword puzzles in the coming years? Andy Warhol had it right when he remarked that we get fifteen minutes of fame, and for some people even that seems a bit too long.

In Chapter 7 Philosophy rapidly dismisses pleasure with scorn as being the mere satisfaction of animal appetite.
What pleasure there may be in these appetities I do not know, but they end in misery as anyone knows who is willing to recall his own lusts. If they can produce happiness, then there is no reason why beasts should not be called happy, since their whole life is devoted to the fulfillment of bodily needs.
She even discounts the human joys of family lifle, regarding them as one more source of misery, and commends Euripides for his opinion "that the childless man is happy by his misfortune." In fact she regards any physical pleasure as irredeemably negative.
It is the nature of all bodily pleasure to punish those who enjoy it. Like the bee after its honey is given, it flies away, leaving its lingering sting in the hearts it has struck.
This attitude was by no means unique to Boethius, and was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages, an era which was marked by the juxtaposition of extremes: hedonism and asceticism, feasting and fasting, the economic pressures for high fertility and the spiritual glorification of celibacy. To what extent are we today the subconscious heirs of this tendency to dualism with its inablity to integrate body and spirit or to find balance in moderation?
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Re: Book 3, Chapters 4 to 7

Postby Air of Winter » 07 Oct 2005, 18:38

magpie wrote:Having demonstrated that riches can never be sufficient to bestow true happiness, Philosophy goes on to critique honor, power, fame, and pleasure.

The unremitting negativity of this is beginning to get to me. I admit that none of these things can bestow ultimate and inalienable happiness, but most of these things (and having children) are portrayed in the Old Testament as blessings from God to be enjoyed. It seems to me that they are being too strongly deprecated, that Philosophy's presentation is unbalanced and, again, probably more Stoic than coming from the Jewish tradition in early Christian thought. (I still haven't read any Stoics, so I can't be sure.) I don't blame Boethius particularly for not managing balance, under the circumstances -- I'm sure I'd do much, much worse -- but the fact remains that I don't think he's got it.

I suspect that anyone who really didn't value any of the lesser goods would be unable to grasp the greatest. If one doesn't care for reflected goodness anywhere, how would one care for goodness viewed directly?

I don't want to make it sound as if I disagree with Boethius completely, or think that what he's saying has no applicability at all. It is possible to pursue all these lesser goods in a fashion in which they become more evil than good, and I think it's not infrequently done. I have presently decided not to seriously pursue commercial publication of my fiction because I cannot seem to disentangle good motives from bad; the necessity of seeking publicity in order to achieve commercial success becomes so thoroughly tainted with vainglory that I ought not to do it (and probably wouldn't really enjoy it if it worked, owing to the insecurity that Philosophy is pointing out). If I had better control of the bad motives, if I could shelve them more easily, commercial success would be an innocent thing for me to pursue; as it stands, it is not.

This attitude was by no means unique to Boethius, and was prevalent throughout the Middle Ages, an era which was marked by the juxtaposition of extremes: hedonism and asceticism, feasting and fasting, the economic pressures for high fertility and the spiritual glorification of celibacy. To what extent are we today the subconscious heirs of this tendency to dualism with its inablity to integrate body and spirit or to find balance in moderation?

I don't know. It seems to me that condemnation of innocent pleasure is as bad as indulgence in tainted pleasure -- I think it makes it more likely for people to do the latter, if they don't distinguish the latter from the former, since it's pretty much impossible not pursue any sort of pleasure at all. I will have to give this some thought.

Lewis took a more balanced view than Boethius did; I don't remember where the quote is, but he was saying that Christianity was commendable for being a middle way between the life-affirming religions of the western Pagans and the life-denying religions of the East. There is much about life that is good, but if it interferes with pursuit of a greater good then we may have to set it aside.
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Re: Book 3, Chapters 4 to 7

Postby magpie » 10 Oct 2005, 17:17

Air of Winter wrote:The unremitting negativity of this is beginning to get to me.
You too!! I thought it was just me. I suppose that is because Boethius is trying to describe happiness in terms of what it is not. If he came right out and said what it is, he would have a very short book, perhaps no book at all. I am reminded of Maurice Maeterlinck's play L'Oiseau Bleu, in which two children set out to find the blue bird of happiness. After many frustrating adventures they return home only to discover that their pet dove is blue. They would have been much better off seeing this in the first place, but then there would have been no story. That seems to be the way it is with all of us. We chase all sorts of inadequate goods before we gain wisdom. At least that has been true for me. Sigh!

I suspect that anyone who really didn't value any of the lesser goods would be unable to grasp the greatest. If one doesn't care for reflected goodness anywhere, how would one care for goodness viewed directly?
I'll go farther and ask how we would even know what goodness is. The most difficult person to convince of the reality of divine love is one who has never experienced genuine human love.

It seems to me that condemnation of innocent pleasure is as bad as indulgence in tainted pleasure -- I think it makes it more likely for people to do the latter, if they don't distinguish the latter from the former, since it's pretty much impossible not pursue any sort of pleasure at all.
I agree. That has always been the dark side of puritanical absolutism. I once did a paper on alcoholism, and discovered that the rates of alcohol abuse are significantly higher among members of religious groups which completely forbid alcohol than they are among those groups which use alcohol within socially sanctioned boundaries.
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re: Book 3, Chapters 4 to 7

Postby amx » 11 Oct 2005, 00:00

I am struck by how similar this is in theme to Ecclesiates, Soloman's writings about trying to fathom the meaning of life. He too finds most of man's pursuits to be a "chasing after the wind." Soloman's conclusion is we are all here to obey God. I am expecting Boethius's conclusion to be similar. I haven't read that far yet. Much of this seems to be a wordier version of Solomans thinking. Hmmm CSLewis was influenced by Boethius who was influenced by Soloman who was influenced by the gift of wisdom bestowed by God. Not quite seven degrees of separation.
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re: Book 3, Chapters 4 to 7

Postby magpie » 12 Oct 2005, 16:23

Hi amx, welcome aboard. :) Good to have you with us.

Your observation about the similarity with Eccesiastes makes some sense. As a Christian Boethius would have been aware of the Bible, even though he uses no scriptural references in this work. It is possible that, like many both before and after his time, he was making a strict distinction between philosophy and theology, or more to the point Christian doctrine since he does mention God in a theistic fashion. Another influence which is not named but certainly sensed is that of St. Augustine with whose works Boethius most certainly would have been familiar.
"Love is the will to extend one's self in order to nurture one's own or another's spiritual growth."
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