Boethius and a Social Origin for Original Sin

I’m teaching the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius for the fifth time this semester, and today I remember that this book still stands as a magister of thought, provided I’m willing still to be a disciple.  As the old Roman invites me to higher and better ways to think, I feel like I’m reading this speech from Lady Philosophy, from book three, section two, for the first time today as I prepare some notes for today’s class session:

In all the care with which they toil at countless enterprises, mortal men travel by different paths, though all are striving to reach one and the same goal, namely, happiness, beatitude, which is a good which once obtained leaves nothing more to be desired.  It is the perfection of all good things and contains in itself all that is good; and if anything were missing from it, it couldn’t be perfect, because something would remain outside it, which could still be wished for.  It is clear, therefore, that happiness is a state made perfect by the presence of everything that is good, a state, which, as we said, all mortal men are striving to reach though by different paths.  For the desire for true good is planted by nature in the minds of men, only error leads them astray towards false good. (48)

I realize that, if any process-thought folks are reading this, they’re not going to be able to get past the passage on perfection, but for the rest of you, take a look at this articulation of the nature of goodness and of sin.  Whatever goodness is, it gets distorted in different ways, in different lives, living in different cultural moments, shaped by different historical distortions.  In other words, whatever goodness is, we can say that our current powers of reason aren’t quite up to grasping it, though our sense, logically, is that it would be good for any of our neighbors and even for ourselves.  But whatever goodness is, although we can assert that there must be true goodness logically, its content is always before us, always eluding our latest formulations.  Our current thoughts are always some sort of false good, even if they stand better, relatively speaking, to other possible articulations of goodness.  Thus true goodness must be, for us mortals, a matter for desire and not for final formulation.

Thus Boethius provides a framework, I think, for understanding the fact that, when we really slow down and watch our neighbors, we often see genuine goodness that we neglect in our own ways of life: it very well could be, within this framework, that my Muslim neighbors, because they’re led astray by a different sort of false good, don’t get as distorted by my own brands of false goodness.  Likewise, this framework allows for the possibility that my own false goods, because they’re concentrated where they are, allow for modes of good living that aren’t accessible to my other neighbors, perhaps Baptists, thus allowing for moral discernment without therefore diminishing the power of original sin (a phrase which, I grant, doesn’t appear in the Consolation) to function as an explanation for how the world goes.  By pluralizing the origins of original sin, perhaps Boethius gives the doctrine (unnamed) to us in a form that does more work than versions that assume that we’re all distorted in the same way.

In other words, what we’ve got with Boethius, I think, is a postmodern Platonist notion of goodness and wickedness, courtesy of the sixth century.  No wonder C.S. Lewis liked this guy so much!

Now to the matter of bringing this good stuff to my undergraduates in ways that invite them along into this old, old conversation.





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