Boethius’s Life: A Case Study that Solves the Evidential Problem of Evil (Apologetics – Essay)

Introduction

Over the past generation, the Evidential Problem of Evil has arisen as one of the most popular arguments against the existence of an omnipotent, omniscient, and omnibenevolent God. This is the idea that the existence of allegedly unjustified and gratuitous evil makes God’s existence highly unlikely. At the same time, when it was created, and for many centuries thereafter, the book The Consolation of Philosophy, by Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, was one of the most popular and influential books in the Western medieval world; it was a favorite of statesmen, poets, philosophers, theologians, and historians.[1] And just like the Evidential Problem of Evil today, in its time, the arguments in The Consolation of Philosophy had a great influence on its readers, and they are still relevant to philosophy today.

Now, what this essay aims to do is to bring together these two ideas and then argue that Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, in conjunction with Boethius’s whole life story, can provide an answer to the Evidential Problem of Evil. And it can do so by serving as a paradigmatic case where, using hindsight, it is possible to see how the Evidential Problem of Evil is undermined in Boethius’s case. This, in turn, can lead to the justified belief that the Evidential Problem of Evil can be reasonably undermined in all other cases as well. But to understand how such an argument can work, it is first necessary to understand both the Evidential Problem of Evil and the history of Boethius’s life.

The Evidential Problem of Evil

In its modern form, the Evidential Problem of Evil was first articulated by philosopher William Rowe in 1978. Over time, Rowe refined his argument so that it achieved its current, and strongest, form.[2] In brief, the Evidential Problem of Evil can be presented as follows:

Premise 1: An omnibenevolent being, who is also omniscient and omnipotent—meaning God—would stop any evil and/or suffering that He could. God would do this, unless doing so would mean losing some greater good or allowing some other evil that was equally bad or worse than the one not being prevented.

Premise 2: However, in this world, there do indeed exist instances of evil and/or suffering that God could have stopped without losing some greater good or permitting some equal or greater evil.

Conclusion: Therefore, God does not exist.[3]

And, informally, the argument can be summarized as follows: If God exists, He would not permit gratuitous or unnecessary evil in our world. And yet, there is indeed gratuitous and unnecessary evil in this world. Consequently, it is highly likely that God does not exist.

Now, this argument does have some initial plausibility. After all, it seems intuitive to believe that God would prevent evil and suffering from occurring, unless He had good reasons not to do so. At the same time, the argument has significant force because it implies that, in order to be justified and non-gratuitous, the evil and suffering that is permitted to occur by God must be specifically necessary to achieve a greater good or to prevent an equal or greater evil. So, some specific instance of evil or suffering must itself be necessary to achieve some greater good, or prevent some equal or greater evil, if it is to be considered allowable.

Note as well that a critical aspect of this argument is that it trades on a move from what human beings know, to what actually is the case. So, for example, take some horrible instance of evil, like the sexual assault of a young child. What the proponent of the Evidential Problem of Evil is doing is arguing that, as far as we know, there is no good state-of-affairs which would morally justify God permitting such a sexual assault to occur. Thus, to the best of our knowledge, this event is a gratuitous and unnecessary evil. However, then the move is made to claim that the event actually is, or very likely is, a gratuitous and unnecessary evil in real-life. Thus, there is a move from an epistemic claim to an ontological one. And this shift is noteworthy, because it will be referenced later on in the counter-argument to the Evidential Problem of Evil.

Additionally, because it will also be referenced later in this work, it is likewise relevant to note that when dealing with an argument like the Evidential Problem of Evil, it is necessary to deal with specific instances of evil in order to illustrate the argument properly. However, one point that Rowe made when first arguing for the Evidential Problem of Evil, was that even if some good reason could be discovered for God permitting the specific evil used to illustrate the argument, it would not be reasonable to believe that this could be done for all the examples of allegedly gratuitous evil that could be brought forth. Consequently, the proponent of the Evidential Problem of Evil would argue that the argument is successful, even if a number of specific cases of apparently gratuitous evil can be explained by the theist. In essence, the proponent of this argument is trying to stack the deck against the theist, by claiming that no matter how many specific cases of apparently gratuitous evil can be answered, it is most reasonable to believe that there is one more instance of evil just around the corner that cannot be properly justified. However, as we will see shortly, a similar technique can actually be used to great effect to counter the Evidential Problem of Evil.

Boethius’s Life

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born around the 470s in Italy.[4] In terms of his life, the relevant aspect to understand for the purposes of this work is that Boethius was an educated, competent, and driven individual who eventually worked for King Theodoric concerning several important matters of state. Essentially, Boethius was an influential and significant man in the King’s court. However, even though powerful, when his opponents accused him of disloyalty/treason to the King over a specific matter—also adding in the charge of sacrilege, meaning the practice of magic—Boethius fell from grace. His noble birth and great popularity did not help him at all.[5] Boethius himself claims that his opponents, who were his accusers, were dishonorable men, both implying and saying that he was falsely accused.[6] And most recent historians hold the view that Boethius’s imprisonment and eventual execution were politically motivated.[7]

In prison, while contemplating his fate, Boethius wrote his masterwork: The Consolation of Philosophy. Ultimately, Boethius was sentenced to death. Thus, Boethius was killed, his execution likely being carried out in a cruel and torturous manner.[8] And so, Boethius’s life is the story of an important, socially-useful, and educated man losing his worldly power, influence, and friends in the blink of an eye, and eventually being killed for what were likely false, politically-motivated, and unjustified charges against him.

An Answer to the Evidential Problem of Evil

So, how does Boethius’s life answer the Evidential Problem of Evil? First, note that if Boethius’s life was examined at the time that it occurred, his life, in numerous respects, would appear to be a perfect and paradigmatic example of gratuitous and unnecessary evil and suffering. Everything from his ignominious fall from grace, to his wrongful imprisonment, to his execution could be seen as being unnecessary and eminently preventable by God. Indeed, why did Boethius need to be wrongfully imprisoned and lose everything when such suffering could have been prevented by God? And why did he have to be executed at a relatively young age when he could have simply been imprisoned for life or executed much later on? Such questions point to the fact that numerous aspects of Boethius’s suffering appear gratuitous, and they would have appeared so to anyone viewing Boethius’s life at the time that it occurred.

However, in hindsight, it is possible to see how the above conclusion would be quite inappropriate in Boethius’s case. After all, Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy became an incredibly popular work; one whose popularity lasted for centuries. It directly influenced countless people, and its indirect influence through the works of people that were originally inspired by it is literally incalculable. For example, consider the following articulation of the influence of The Consolation of Philosophy from Jon Marenbon’s 2016 article about Boethius in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The influence of each area of Boethius’s philosophical writing was vast in the Middle Ages. Along with Augustine and Aristotle, he is the fundamental philosophical and theological author in the Latin tradition. … Though the influence of [Boethius’s] other works was great, the popularity and importance of the Consolation far exceeded it. …it remained a favourite through the later Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. Not until the time of Gibbon had it been reduced to an object of the historian’s condescending admiration. One measure of the extent and character of its readership is the translations, not merely into almost every medieval vernacular, but also into Greek and even Hebrew. …Boethius’s dialogue was a text which popularized philosophy outside the universities, and its literary features, as well as its arguments, inspired imitations and creative adaptations, from Alain of Lille’s De planctu Naturae (‘Nature’s Lament’) to, more distantly, Dante’s Convivio and even Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde. Philosophers and theologians, too, used the work…. For example, Aquinas’s account of the highest good in his Summa Theologiae IaIIe builds on the Consolation, and the definition of eternity given by Philosophy in Book V became the starting-point for almost every later medieval discussion of God and time. … [Boethius] was also an individual thinker, with pronounced tastes and views, no less (if no more) original than his Greek contemporaries; and also, in the Consolation, one of the rare philosophers whose thought, like Plato’s, cannot be neatly separated from the complex literary form in which it is expressed.[9]

So, over time, the good that The Consolation of Philosophy produced and the evil that it prevented, has been astronomical. And the good that it produced, and the evil it prevented, came about not only from the Consolation itself, but also through the writings and actions of others who were inspired by the Consolation and used its wisdom and insights to great effect. Thus, Boethius’s signature work, The Consolation of Philosophy, has ultimately produced incalculable good in this world and stopped countless evils as well.

But note that for a human being to write a book like The Consolation of Philosophy—arguably the greatest piece of prison literature of all time—it would almost certainly take actually being falsely imprisoned, just as Boethius was. After all, human beings learn from experience, and often the deepest lessons of life need to be learned via hard personal experience. And so, it could only be through the actual experience of genuine loss, true injustice, and false imprisonment that Boethius could focus and write something as sincere as The Consolation of Philosophy. Furthermore, it would only be by experiencing a total reversal of fortune—where he truly lost every human good, including all power, money, prestige, and freedom—that Boethius could come to a genuine and experiential understanding that those things did not matter and that God was the greatest good, which is precisely the conclusion that he comes to in The Consolation of Philosophy.[10] In essence, it was only by experiencing the life that he did—moving from a place of power and prominence, to unjust imprisonment and death—that Boethius would have been able to write a book that had the content, nature, scope, and staying-power that The Consolation of Philosophy does indeed have.

Even Pope Benedict XVI understood this to be the case. In his March 12, 2008 General Audience, the former Pope wrote the following about Boethius:

His most famous work is undoubtedly De Consolatione Philosophiae [The Consolation of Philosophy]which he wrote in prison to help explain his unjust detention. In fact, he had been accused of plotting against King Theodoric for having taken the side of his friend Senator Albinus in a court case. But this was a pretext. Actually, Theodoric, an Arian and a barbarian, suspected that Boethius was sympathizing with the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. Boethius was tried and sentenced to death. He was executed on [the] 23rd [of] October 524, when he was only 44 years old. It is precisely because of his tragic end that he can also speak from the heart of his own experience to contemporary man, and especially to the multitudes who suffer the same fate because of the injustice inherent in so much of [so-called] “human justice”. Through this work, [The Consolation of Philosophy]he sought consolation, enlightenment and wisdom in prison. And he said that precisely in this situation he knew how to distinguish between apparent goods, which disappear in prison, and true goods such as genuine friendship, which even in prison do not disappear. The loftiest good is God: Boethius—and he teaches us this—learned not to sink into a fatalism that extinguishes hope.[11]

Notice how Benedict XVI articulates the fact that it is “precisely” because of Boethius’s experiences that he is able to speak from the heart to other men, and it is “precisely” in his imprisonment that Boethius learned how to distinguish between apparent goods and true goods. This reinforces the point being made that if Boethius was not the man that he was, and if he had not personally experienced precisely what he did experience, then The Consolation of Philosophy, as it is, would likely have never been written. And if that had happened, then the great goods and prevented evils that Boethius’s book brought to multitudes of people also would have never occurred.

At the same time, it is even possible that Boethius’s belief and/or devotion to God was saved by being imprisoned in the way that he was, thereby potentially saving Boethius’s soul. This means that not only was it possible that Boethius’s apparently gratuitous suffering served as a catalyst for the great good that came from his book, but his suffering may have even served the incalculable good of saving his own soul. And while this claim is just speculation, note that it is not an unreasonable one, for it stems from the knowledge that great riches, fame, and worldly power routinely draw people into sin and away from God. By contrast, tragedy, imprisonment, and one’s impeding death often focus the mind on the significant things in life, such as one’s belief and devotion to God. Thus, it is possible that this may have applied to Boethius as well, which means that Boethius’s suffering may have served an even greater purpose than his book: namely, keeping his very soul from damnation.

So, the point here is to understand that during Boethius’s life, anyone viewing his life at the time that it occurred would have been quite rational in claiming that Boethius experienced gratuitous evil and suffering, and that there was no justifiable reason for that suffering. However, with the benefit of 1500 years of hindsight, it is entirely rational to claim the exact opposite: namely, that there was a fully justifiable reason to permit what initially appeared to be Boethius’s gratuitous evil and suffering, and this reason was the writing of The Consolation of Philosophy, and the good that came from it over the course of centuries. So, even though the justifiable reason for Boethius’s suffering was not visible at the time that the suffering occurred, nor would it be visible until many years thereafter, it was ultimately justifiable nonetheless. Furthermore, note as well that for God, 1500 years is a sliver of time, so who knows how much more good will come from Boethius’s work in future years. In fact, given its past history, it is quite reasonable to assess that more good will indeed come from it. And as an example of this, note that the very author of this essay has himself gained a great deal of consolation from Boethius’s writings ever since the author was first exposed to them.

Thus, Boethius’s case serves as a clear example where, at the time of its occurrence, the evil suffered by Boethius would have undoubtedly appeared gratuitous to persons viewing Boethius’s situation contemporaneously. And yet, with the benefit of centuries of retrospection, such an assessment is shown to be grossly incorrect, and an abundantly justifiable reason for such suffering readily presents itself.

And note that much like the Evidential Problem of Evil, this argument moves from what is known by human beings to a claim about what actually is. Indeed, the argument claims that history can allow an individual to know that Boethius’s suffering led to greater goods than the suffering itself, and this, in turn, is extrapolated to mean that his suffering was ultimately justified in reality. Consequently, and as per the Evidential Problem of Evil, such a conclusion thereby absolves God of any failing for allowing Boethius to suffer the evils that he did.

Some Objections

As with any argument, some objections can be mounted against this one. The first of these would be to claim that God could have brought about the wisdom found in Boethius’s book without requiring Boethius to suffer or experience the evils that he did. But it is difficult to see how this could be the case given that, as previously argued, it is reasonable to believe that Boethius’s unique and heartfelt piece of prison literature could not have been produced had he not had the specific life-experiences that he had. Nor would Boethius’s work likely have had such popularity had it not been for the fact that it was Boethius himself who had actually been imprisoned. After all, writing a book about someone else’s imprisonment is surely interesting, but it is not in the same league as a book written by the prisoner himself, especially when the book is about being consoled through the injustices of earthly life. Thus, it is reasonable to believe that the success of The Consolation of Philosophy, both in terms of its content and its appeal, was necessarily linked to who produced it and how it was produced. Without these specific factors necessarily being in place, it is likely that no one would be speaking about The Consolation of Philosophy today, and that not much good would have come from it. Thus, Boethius’s specific experiences were necessary to write The Consolation of Philosophy, and to therefore bring about the great goods that it produced.

Also note that the argument in this work is not taking the route of so-called skeptical theism, a position which posits that human beings should not expect to know the things that God knows, and so humans should not expect to know whether or not there are good reasons for a particular evil to have occurred.[12] Instead, this essay’s solution shows that when examined with the benefit of historical hindsight, a case of evil that appeared to be a paradigmatic instance of gratuitous suffering at the time of its occurrence—meaning the unjust arrest and death of Boethius—actually resulted in great goods that most likely would not have been achievable without the existence of this evil, thereby providing a justifiable reason for its occurrence. Thus, this argument is not a case of appealing to skepticism about the human ability to know God’s reasons for permitting a certain evil to occur; rather, it is claiming that hindsight actually gives human beings the positive knowledge to see how and why God would permit an allegedly gratuitous instance of evil to happen. Consequently, any objections to skeptical theism do not apply in the case of this argument.

One Case to Solve Them All

Finally, and as mentioned earlier, proponents of the Evidential Problem of Evil argue that even if a theist could provide reasons for why God would permit an apparently gratuitous evil to happen in some specific case, it would still be unreasonable to believe that justifiable reasons exist in all cases of allegedly gratuitous evil.

However, as a concluding point, this essay seeks to argue that not only is this sentiment incorrect, but the opposite is true: namely, that a paradigmatic case of allegedly gratuitous evil like Boethius’s can actually give us the confidence to believe that there are justifiable reasons for every single instance of allegedly gratuitous evil that has ever existed. After all, if, in hindsight, it is possible to see how a paradigmatic incident of apparently gratuitous evil—meaning the case of Boethius—turned out to bring overwhelming goods to vast numbers of people over centuries of time, goods that would not have existed otherwise, then, in light of this knowledge, it is reasonable to believe that justifiable reasons also exist in other cases of allegedly gratuitous evil, even though we may not currently know what those reasons are. And this belief is even more reasonable when it is realized that, as per the Evidential Problem of Evil, all that is needed for it to be permissible for God to allow some evil to occur is that some equal or slightly greater good results from the evil, or that some equal or slightly worse evil, is prevented by the allowed evil. But in the case of Boethius, many greater goods resulted from his suffering, and many greater evils—like human despair—were prevented, and all this occurred over many centuries, and could continue to occur in the future. Thus, if God could do this in Boethius’s case, then it is eminently reasonable to believe that in other cases of allegedly gratuitous evil, God could have also ensured, over the full course of time, that some equal or greater good, or equal or greater evil, was either created or prevented due to the original evil that was permitted. And so, the case of Boethius, because it is such a paradigmatic case of apparently gratuitous, but ultimately justifiable evil, gives us a reason to believe that God has good reasons for permitting evil in all other cases as well, regardless of whether or not they appear gratuitous to us at the time that they occur. Thus, Boethius’s life, and the aftereffects that it had, actually give us a solid and rational reason to reject the Evidential Problem of Evil. And if we could add more examples like Boethius’s, as we surely could, then this would only increase our reasons for denying the cogency of that problem.

Furthermore, what is also often overlooked in the discussion of the Evidential Problem of Evil is the fact that the existence of allegedly massive amounts of gratuitous evil is itself something that points to the existence of the transcendent and the divine. In fact, in some cases, the existence of brutal and overwhelming evil is the only thing that moves certain people to believe in the divine, especially the obstinate. But since, both qualitatively and quantitatively, the salvation of even one soul is a greater good than any amount of finite suffering by any amount of finite individuals, then if even one soul could be saved—that otherwise would not be saved—through the contemplation of allegedly gratuitous evil and genuine suffering, then God would be justified in allowing such allegedly gratuitous evil and suffering to occur in order for it to be reflected upon. Thus, an argument could be made that no instance of gratuitous evil is genuinely gratuitous, as all such instances serve the justifiable purpose of saving certain obstinate individuals who would otherwise not be saved except through the contemplation of such evil and suffering.[13] (And while this argument will not be unpacked here, the author has developed such an argument in the past.)

Conclusion

Ultimately, the life of Boethius provides us with a case study where, with the benefit of hindsight, it is possible to see that the Evidential Problem of Evil fails. Yet such a case study is more than a simple one-off event, because if the Evidential Problem of Evil fails in such a paradigmatic case as that of Boethius, then it can be reasonably believed that it fails in all other cases as well. Consequently, far from being a nearly fatal argument against theism, Boethius’s life exposes the Evidential Problem of Evil for what it truly is: an emotionally strong, but, ultimately, a rationally weak reason to reject belief in the existence of God. Indeed, in the end, that is all that the Evidential Problem of Evil really is. And so, from a philosophical perspective, and regardless of its popularity, this so-called problem should not bother the theist very much at all.

Rad Miksa

Non Nobis Christus, Non Nobis, Sed Nomini Tuo Da Gloriam

Written:  26 February 2019

References / Links:

Axxr. 8 November 2018 at 11:38 am. Comment on Rod Dreher, “Political Mental Maps: Matt In VA’s Political Conversion.” The American Conservative (website). 8 November At http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/matt-in-va-political-conversion-gay/comment-page-1/#comment-8796713.

Benedict XVI. “General Audience: Boethius and Cassiodorus.” At Vatican.va, 12 March 2008, at http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20080312.html.

Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. W.V. Cooper. Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library. At http://www.documentacatholicaomnia.eu/03d/0480-0524,_Boethius,_The_Consolation_Of_Philosophy,_EN.pdf.

Graves, Dan. “Boethius Executed for Treason.” At Christianity.com, April 2007, at http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/boethius-executed-for-treason-11629706.html.

Kaylor, Noel Harold Jr. “Introduction: The Times, Life, and Work of Boethius.” In A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages, ed. Noel Harold Kaylor Jr. and Philip Edward Phillipes, 1-46. Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2012.

Marenbon, John. “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.” In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta. At http://www.plato.stanford.edu.

McBrayer, Justin P. “Skeptical Theism.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. At http://www.iep.utm.edu/skept-th/.

Shiel, James. “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.” In The Encyclopedia Britannica. At http://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius.

Trakakis, Nick. “The Evidential Problem of Evil.” In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. At http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-evi/#H2.

Turner, W. “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.” In The Catholic Encyclopedia, New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907.

——-

[1] W. Turner, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius,” in The Catholic Encyclopedia (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907); James Shiel, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius,” in The Encyclopedia Britannica, at http://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius.

[2] Nick Trakakis, “The Evidential Problem of Evil,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden. at http://www.iep.utm.edu/evil-evi/#H2.

[3] Trakakis, “The Evidential Problem of Evil.”

[4] Shiel, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.”

[5] Shiel, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.”; Turner, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.”

[6] Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. W.V. Cooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 6.

[7] Noel Harold Kaylor Jr, “Introduction: The Times, Life, and Work of Boethius,” in A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages, ed. Noel Harold Kaylor Jr. and Philip Edward Phillipes (Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill, 2012), 5.

[8] Dan Graves, “Boethius Executed for Treason,” at Christianity.com (April 2007), at http://www.christianity.com/church/church-history/timeline/301-600/boethius-executed-for-treason-11629706.html.

[9] John Marenbon, “Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius,” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. Edward N. Zalta, at http://www.plato.stanford.edu.

[10] Benedict XVI, “General Audience: Boethius and Cassiodorus,” at Vatican.va, 12 March 2008, at http://www.vatican.va/content/benedict-xvi/en/audiences/2008/documents/hf_ben-xvi_aud_20080312.html.

[11] Benedict XVI, “General Audience: Boethius and Cassiodorus.”

[12] Justin P. McBrayer, “Skeptical Theism,” in The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ed. James Fieser and Bradley Dowden, at http://www.iep.utm.edu/skept-th/.

[13] In a case of serendipity, the day after this section was drafted, I came across a comment on a website which illustrates this point quite nicely. A commentator named ‘Axxr’ explained how, after a “long period of denial and rationalization,” he had to concede that genuine evil—“not just bad or undesired or unfortunate or suboptimal or tragic [events], but evil [ones]”—actually existed, and that it was the existence of evil which forced him to deny secular-materialism and embrace a different metaphysical perspective. And while this is just a random comment on the internet, that is actually the point: that for certain average individuals, it is the existence of evil—genuine and horrendous evil—that leads them away from a materialistic points-of-view towards a more transcendent position. Axxr, 8 November 2018, comment on Rod Dreher, “Political Mental Maps: Matt In VA’s Political Conversion.” The American Conservative (website), 8 November 2018, at http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/matt-in-va-political-conversion-gay/comment-page-1/#comment-8796713.

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