The Watch-Tower of God's Providence - Bk. IV Ch. VI of "The Consolation of Philosophy" by Boethius

The Divine Weaver

Boethius was a politician in the 6th century AD. A deeply Christian man, but also intensely formed in the Greek philosophy of the Ancients. Through a series of events he was unjustly stripped of his position and condemned to death. Between his condemnation and his execution there was some downtime in prison. It is there that the Consolation of Philosophy takes its name. He called on the thing that had soothed his mind throughout his life with truth to once again bring peace back to him, as the injustice of the whole affair, as one can imagine, might corrupt someone to abandon their beliefs in despair. And so Lady Philosophy appears to him. 

The Consolation of Lady Philosophy (Bk. I Ch. I) 

Her appearance is described as ageless, yet larger than life and with fire in her eyes. Sadly, though, he dress was covered in a film of neglect, with pieces ripped out by evil men. And yet she held a book and scepter in her hands. Lady Philosophy becomes angry, though, seeing that Boethius had been filling his mind with poetry to try to soothe his emotions, instead of trying to aid his mind in reconciling with his fate. She curses them away, calling them "hysterical sluts," as the traditional muses of Ancient Greek artistic inspiration and memory were signs of emotion and art lacking reason and understanding. Only then can she begin to heal Boethius. 

On God's Providence (Bk. IV Ch. VI)

Jumping to Book IV to the topic of God's Providence, Lady Philosophy admits that this question of providence is a difficult and complex one. She compares it to the Hydra, in that when one thinks they have solved one part of it, many other problems emerge. In talking about Providence, she says that it is also necessary to talk about "... the course of fate, the haphazard nature of the random events of chance, divine knowledge and predestination, and the freedom of the will ...". Yet, given the situation, she is willing to take on this topic for Boethius. 

God's Simplicity and the Ordering of All Things

The beginning of her argument depends on one's understanding of God's "divine simplicity." [This refers to the identification of God with the ultimate and prime reality upon which all things depend. This is akin to Plato's idea of "The One" and Aristotle's "Thought Thinking Itself." The point is that God has no parts, time, change, movement, potential, or lack of any sort. Thus, God's perspective on creation is one in which our human past, present, and future, is but a simple and unchanging eternal present to him. God has one only thought and act, which is himself and all things through himself.] 

And so Lady Philosophy defines "Providence" as another word for God's mind and perspective. God has perfectly willed himself in his eternal act and also completed all that he wills to himself, i.e. creation. This is contrasted with "Fate." Fate refers to the multitude of means which God uses to complete his work in history, whether that be mathematics, physical law, suffering, evil, nature, randomness, chance, design, or human desire. 

"Providence is divine reason itself. It is set at the head of all things and disposes all things. Fate, on the other hand, is the planned order inherent in things subject to change through the medium of which Providence binds everything in its allotted place. Providence includes all things at the same time, however diverse or infinite, while Fate controls the motion of different individual things in different places and in different times. So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole is the foresight of Gods mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate." 

Lady Philosophy uses the example of a craftsman. The wood-worker, let's say, has the complete vision in his mind of the final product and the steps that will be taken to complete the product, and yet he has not taken his first swing of the axe. So too the mind of God. 

Another example she uses is a set of concentric circles of differing sizes, going smaller and getting closer together, and growing larger and getting further apart. In the center is simply a point which does not move. As one moves out from the point each circle depends on the one previous to it for its spinning and guidance. The more and more levels a circle is dependent on, the more complicated and interwoven it is in its dependence on the one's before it, until the most outside circle where the causal chain back to the middle is so complicated that it seems almost impossible to explain its workings. This, too, is an analogy of Providence and fate. God's simplicity is like the eternal and unchanging source from which the different forces of fate begin to work, some more perfect than others, but continuing down to the most simple of forces like chance or randomness. God's design in these outside rings seems non-existence or hard to see, but if one could unravel the causal chain back to the center, one would see that even randomness depends on the Divine mind. As Lady Philosophy calls it here, the "... indissoluble chain of causes..."

Providence and the Problem of Evil 

Following from this notion of God's divine simplicity is the conclusion that everything that happens through order and design is something made for the good. Evil and wickedness come about with the thwarting of God's design, "by mistake and error." Now Lady Philosophy recognizes that someone might complain that the fortunes or both the good and the bad seem to be confused and hard to understand, for bad things happen to good people and vice versa. But she responds by reminding Boethius that our human knowledge is so limited that it hinders us from having a true perspective. "It is because you men are in no position to contemplate this order that everything seems confused and upset." 

God, though, alone is able to know the inner minds of men. We may judge others based on their outward appearance, but God is able to understand the minds and thoughts of men. Only by understanding someone's inner life can they be judged to be truly good or evil. "And that the protector of the good and scourge of the wicked is none other than God, the mind's guide and physician. He looks out from the watch-tower of Providence, sees what suits each person, and applies to him whatever He knows is suitable. This, then, is the outstanding wonder of the order of fate; a knowing God acts and ignorant men look on with wonder at his actions." 

Examples of Providence 

And so given that the appearance of virtue is different than real virtue, is God's design really defeated or unfair? Is everything really ordered toward the good? Can God really use evil for the sake of good? "Whenever, therefore, you see something happen here different from your expectation, due order is preserved by events, but there is confusion and error in your thinking." In other words, since God knows the final end for which he deigns all things, he knows what each individual needs as a medicine to their own constitution as a person and their own situation. Like children with different needs and personalities, harshness and challenge may be needed for one, while softness and mercy may be needed for another. 

For most people, at different points in our lives and in different situations we are going to need a different medicine from God. Some times we need happiness and a light spirit, others we need challenge and suffering, others success, and other times failure. As she says, "Both kinds she brings to self discovery through hardship," and "There is no doubt that it is right that these things happen, that they are planned and that they are suited to those to whom they actually happen." 

And then there are the wicked. Even the wicked God seeks to give them what they need to potentially repent, and at the same time God uses them as a boon to the virtuous. God gives to every person what they need to lead them to the proper end of all things. Take some examples: "There is perhaps someone of such a headstrong and impulsive nature that poverty could the more easily provoke him to crime. His sickness if relieved by Providence with a dose of wealth as a remedy. Another man may see his conscience blotched with the wickedness of his deeds and compare his desert with the fortune he enjoys. Perhaps he will begin to fear the hardness of losing all the things whose enjoyment is so pleasant, and therefore change his ways and abandon wickedness in fear of losing happiness." 

God Can Even Use Evil Deeds for Good

Now just because God's providential simplicity brings about all things to their final end and even incorporates our free will and evil, doesn't me that we can justify being evil. Rather, we must always seek the good, as "it is only the power of God to which evils may also be good, when by their proper uses He elicits some good result." 

Here is the fundamental point which cannot be overlooked. Lady Philosophy says that God, in working all things the way he does described above, orders all things toward the good. This is key because the workings of providence, God allowing evil men to do evil things, and God using suffering in his work, all only justified when we consider the final end to which God is ordering all things, to Himself. And so, having a perfect end to all things, evil is ultimately eliminated. This idea is expressed in a radical statement by Lady Philosophy as she says, "Evil is thought to abound on earth. But if you could see the plan of Providence, you would not think there was evil anywhere." 

And so to those who doubt God's existence because of the presence of suffering and evil in the world miss the fundamental point. God's purpose isn't to offer us a utopia here on earth without any testing or trial. Rather, God doesn't remove all evil immediately, he uses it to bring the elect to Heaven through the harshness of testing, trial, and suffering. The final end of creation is to be united back to God, Himself. Therefore, in light of the purpose of all things, Heaven, God is supremely loving and good to humanity. For if he removed all suffering, there would be no appreciation for it, no growth, and no battle tested love in which to rejoice in forever. 


How should consider what success and failure are in our own lives given these passages? There is only one ultimate and objective success and failure, and that is Heaven or Hell. The rest are all relative to particular situations, and in their relativity obscure their true orientation of our lives towards Heaven or Hell. And so success may cause the damnation of our soul, and failure may be what makes us a saint. We can only really judge these things from God's ultimate and final perspective.