Tuesday, November 06, 2012

Boethius on Politics

Saint George Catholic Church, in Affton, Missouri, USA - parish center during elections

Taken at Saint George Church, in Affton, Missouri, showing election signs. The church offered hourly Masses for the election today.

Saint Anicius Manlius Severinus Bo√ęthius (ca. 480 — 524/525 AD), wrote a moving philosophical and spiritual work on the meaning of political power, happiness, and fortune. Of a noble Roman family, Boethius held high office, working for a heretical barbarian King, but he eventually fell from the king's favor. He wrote the book, The Consolation of Philosophy, while imprisoned and awaiting execution.

Why is it, he asked, that good men suffer under the wicked? How can a man be happy if he doesn't have the good things in life? In politics we see undeserving men being given great power, and these men lord over others to either help or harm their fellow men. Fortunes are made and they are lost; men hold high office one day and are disgraced the next.

In the book, Boethius meets Lady Philosophy, who reminds him that the favors of Fortune, such as wealth, fame, honor, and power, are fleeting. It is the nature of Fortune to be fickle, and a man cannot lay permanent claim on these things. They are freely given, and just as quickly taken away. A common illustration during the Middle Ages shows Fortune's wheel; some people go up, gaining prestige, and then they are flung off of the wheel when their time has come.

The Wheel of Fortune, from Vol. 1 of Boccaccio’s De Casibus Virorum Illustrium (On the Fates of Famous Men), 1467. [Source and attribution.]

Lady Philosophy explains that man's happiness cannot come from the gifts of Fortune, because they do not properly belong to persons but rather are external. Anyone who places their trust in money, power, or fame may very quickly realize how empty those gifts are, and if they do not have a strong interior life of virtue, they could lose everything in a moment, and their happiness proves to be illusory.

It is important to know that virtue, with a will conformed to God, is the true source of happiness, for these are internal to a person and properly belong to him.

Evil, we learn, is not a thing unto itself, but instead is only the absence of good. No man, not even a politician, is evil in himself, but only his will can be evil insofar as it does not conform to virtue and to God. Evil, being merely the absence of good, has no being in itself; consider a disease: it may harm a body, but if the disease kills the body, the disease itself loses existence.

No politician, if he is successful, can be said to be completely evil, for goodness is required for any kind of success, and even wicked tyrants can be converted with grace. Power, being external, can only be wielded well insofar as a man has some goodness left in him.

Boethius teaches that a man in whom evil grows, or rather in whom goodness decreases, becomes insatiable, and turns against nature. No amount of wealth, power, or fame becomes enough. Wealth is spent protecting wealth; power is expended in protecting power; fame is increased by the support of the wicked and not the virtuous. The evil man turns to destruction and killing. He eventually loses those good things, the higher things, that are properly a part of a human person, and he increasingly resembles an animal, giving in to lusts and other base instincts. Eventually he becomes impotent, his wealth and power becomes ineffectual. If he does not turn back, he will lose himself altogether.

Under the modern political process, the attempt is made to defeat evil men in elections, but this rarely seems to work for obvious reasons. The older method of Christendom, conversion of the wicked, is sadly left untried.


  1. Thanks for posting this. I have had to stop reading several of my favorite Catholic websites in the past few days because all their gloom, doom, despair and handwringing about the End Of America (And Possibly The World) As We Know It was about to drive me barking mad. I mean, I literally can't read some of these blogs right now without having a panic attack about how terrible the future is going to be. So I decided to tune them out (except for your site, Mark, which I always enjoy) and concentrate on things I CAN control -- praying more, serving my family well, serving the public well (in my job) and being attentive and kind to those I meet. Sitting in front of the computer (years ago it would have been the TV) worrying certainly isn't going to convert anyone!