From Boethius to Blake

“The relationship between the ever-changing course of Fate and the stable simplicity of Providence is like that between reasoning and understanding … or between the moving circle and the still point in the middle.”

Embedded in this quote from The Consolation of Philosophy, beautiful to contemplate in its own right, is a code that solves all of Boethius’s philosophical problems. Writing just as the classical period gave way to the medieval (late 5th/early 6th century), while he was personally awaiting execution, Boethius struggled with many common questions: (1) how do we explain fortune’s wheel, which turns up and down quite irrespectively of what one deserves; (2) how do we deal with the problem of evil; (3) can we justify our belief in free will when everything seems logically predetermined by external and pre-existing forces?

Boethius views Fate and Providence as descriptions of the same reality but from different orientation points. From the point of view of one who exists in time, events often seem to follow each other by chance, with no rhyme nor reason to rewards and punishments. But the point of view of the eternal sees the full history of the universe simultaneously. The question of how one thing leads to another is irrelevant, as time has evaporated and the whole of eternity lies before one like a unified tapestry with all threads woven as they should be.

If we accept the premise of these two orientation points, this solves problem # 1 directly. Problem # 2 he solves with the supplemental argument that all men strive for happiness, that true happiness is consonant with goodness, and evil is never actually rewarded, as evil people mistake their goal and must always fall short of happiness by virtue of their own evil. Problem # 3 is a bit more indirect. From the point of view of Providence, from the still point in the middle, all things are simultaneous. In Boethius’s sometimes theological diction, all things are “foreseen.” But from the point of view of people moving along the circle, they need to make decisions every day with practical and ethical implications. To Boethius, foreseen is not the same thing as fore-ordained. The omniscience at the center of the circle in no way mitigates the urgency of making the right decisions for those of us in motion.

Although one can detect concerns here that would occupy the Christian age, Boethius remains classical in a couple of key ways. His intellectual guide is always reason, his moral compass moderation and tranquility. Combine these with the sense of Providence and Plato’s metaphysics, and you have the basic framework of Christian Platonism that looms over the next millennium.

One could argue that John Milton’s Paradise Lost takes this medieval Christian worldview into the Renaissance. Milton’s Satan is the great Renaissance humanist, the high achiever who thinks it “better to reign in Hell than serve in Heaven.” Satan’s villainy, and his undoing, is his all-too-human pride, his tragic belief in his own self-sufficiency.

Whereas in this (necessarily simplified) line of reasoning, Milton smoothly transitions to the Renaissance, just as Boethius had smoothly bridged from classical to medieval, there is nothing smooth about William Blake’s emergence at the beginning of what would be called the Romantic period. Here we get a real rupture. Blake praised Milton for his concrete vision of divine reality, a panorama that rang true to Blake’s own visionary experience. Milton’s only flaw, to Blake, is that he misnamed the characters. The character Milton calls “Satan” is actually the Messiah, and the character Milton called “the Messiah” is actually Satan.

Shock value aside, there is a method to Blake’s madness. Milton’s Messiah represents reason and restraint, the chains that bind the human spirit in Blake’s cosmology. Milton’s Satan represents passion and excess and unrestrained will, all the redemptive forces that enable maximum human achievement and self-actualization.

All great writers, each with something to offer the questing spirit, but after Blake it’s suddenly a long way back to Boethius.

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8 thoughts on “From Boethius to Blake

  1. Pingback: Science and Philosophy | shakemyheadhollow

      • I have been writing about the uses of the chiasmus, for a little time. Your Boethius quote got me thinking of the form as pictorial expression of Fate, and as meditative device (Xian mandala etc). I was firing for a few minutes. Thanks

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        • Interesting. Have you blogged your chiasmus thoughts? I’d like to read. Your chiasmus, Boethius’s circle (center and circumference) – these seem worthy of chapters in Gaston Bachelard’s “Poetics of Space,” in which a physicist-philosopher muses about the symbolic power of spatial forms from a point of view akin to Jungian synchronicity/collective unconscious (as I recall). (You can now find a link to my Facebook on “About.”)

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