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Providence Rules Fortune

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy, Book IV, Prosa 5



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`That is true,' I said; `but it is your kind office to unravel the causes
of hidden matters, and explain reasons now veiled in darkness; wherefore I
beg of you, put forth your decree and expound all to me, since this wonder
most deeply stirs my mind.'

Then said she, smiling, `Your question calls me to the greatest of all
these matters, and a full answer thereto is well-nigh impossible. For this
is its kind: if one doubt be cut away, innumerable others arise, as the
Hydra`s heads; and there can be no limit unless a man restrains them by the
most quick fire of the mind. For herein lie the questions of the directness
of Providence, the course of Fate, chances which cannot be foreseen,
knowledge, divine predestination, and freedom of judgment. You can judge
for yourself the weight of these questions. But since it is a part of your
treatment to know some of these, I will attempt to make some advantage
therefrom, though we are penned in by our narrow space of time. But

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if you enjoy the delights of song, you must wait a while for that pleasure,
while I weave together for you the chain of reasons.'

`As you will,' said I. Then, as though beginning afresh, she spake thus:

`The engendering of all things, the whole advance of all changing natures,
and every motion and progress in the world, draw their causes, their order,
and their forms from the allotment of the unchanging mind of God, which
lays manifold restrictions on all action from the calm fortress of its own
directness Such restrictions are called Providence when they can be seen to
lie in the very simplicity of divine understanding; but they were called
Fate in old times when they were viewed with reference to the objects which
they moved or arranged. It will easily be understood that these two are
very different if the mind examines the force of each. For Providence is
the very divine reason which arranges all things, and rests with the
supreme disposer of all; while Fate is that ordering which is a part of all
changeable things, and by means of which Providence binds all things
together in their own order. Providence embraces all things equally,
however different they may be, even however infinite: when they are
assigned to their own places, forms, and times, Fate sets them in an
orderly motion; so that this development of the temporal order, unified in
the intelligence of the mind of God, is Providence.

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The working of this unified development in time is called Fate. These are
different, but the one hangs upon the other. For this order, which is ruled
by Fate, emanates from the directness of Providence. Just as when a
craftsman perceives in his mind the form of the object he would make, he
sets his working power in motion, and brings through the order of time that
which he had seen directly and ready present to his mind. So by Providence
does God dispose all that is to be done, each thing by itself and
unchangeably; while these same things which Providence has arranged are
worked out by Fate in many ways and in time. Whether, therefore, Fate works
by the aid of the divine spirits which serve Providence, or whether it
works by the aid of the soul, or of all nature, or the motions of the stars
in heaven, or the powers of angels, or the manifold skill of other spirits,
whether the course of Fate is bound together by any or all of these, one
thing is certain, namely that Providence is the one unchangeable direct
power which gives form to all things which are to come to pass, while Fate
is the changing bond, the temporal order of those things which are arranged
to come to pass by the direct disposition of God. Wherefore everything
which is subject to Fate is also subject to Providence, to which Fate is
itself subject. But there are things which, though beneath Providence, are
above the course of Fate. Those things are they which are immovably set
nearest the

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primary divinity, and are there beyond the course of the movement of Fate.
As in the case of spheres moving round the same axis, that which is nearest
the centre approaches most nearly the simple motion of the centre, and is
itself, as it were, an axis around which turn those which are set outside
it. That sphere which is outside all turns through a greater circuit, and
fulfils a longer course in proportion as it is farther from the central
axis; and if it be joined or connect itself with that centre, it is drawn
into the direct motion thereof, and no longer strays or strives to turn
away. In like manner, that which goes farther from the primary
intelligence, is bound the more by the ties of Fate, and the nearer it
approaches the axis of all, the more free it is from Fate. But that which
clings without movement to the firm intellect above, surpasses altogether
the bond of Fate. As, therefore, reasoning is to understanding; as that
which becomes is to that which is; as time is to eternity; as the
circumference is to the centre: so is the changing course of Fate to the
immovable directness of Providence. That course of Fate moves the heavens
and the stars, moderates the first principles in their turns, and alters
their forms by balanced interchangings. The same course renews all things
that are born and wither away by like advances of offspring and seed. It
constrains, too, the actions and fortunes of men by an unbreakable chain of
causes: and these causes must be unchangeable, as they

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proceed from the beginnings of an unchanging Providence. Thus is the world
governed for the best if a directness, which rests in the intelligence of
God, puts forth an order of causes which may not swerve. This order
restrains by its own unchangeableness changeable things, which might
otherwise run hither and thither at random. Wherefore in disposing the
universe this limitation directs all for good, though to you who are not
strong enough to comprehend the whole order, all seems confusion and
disorder. Naught is there that comes to pass for the sake of evil, or due
to wicked men, of whom it has been abundantly shewn that they seek the
good, but misleading error turns them from the right course; for never does
the true order, which comes forth from the centre of the highest good, turn
any man aside from the right beginning.

`But you will ask, " What more unjust confusion could exist than that good
men should sometimes enjoy prosperity, sometimes suffer adversity, and that
the bad too should sometimes receive what they desire, sometimes what they
hate? " Are then men possessed of such infallible minds that they, whom
they consider honest or dishonest, must necessarily be what they are held
to be? No, in these matters human judgment is at variance with itself, and
those who are held by some to be worthy of reward, are by others held
worthy of punishment. But let us grant that a man could discern between
good and bad characters. Can

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he therefore know the inmost feelings of the soul, as a doctor can learn a
body`s temperature? For it is no less a wonder to the ignorant why sweet
things suit one sound body, while bitter things suit another; or why some
sick people are aided by gentle draughts, others by sharp and bitter ones.
But a doctor does not wonder at such things, for he knows the ways and
constitutions of health and sickness. And what is the health of the soul
but virtue? and what the sickness, but vice? And who is the preserver of
the good and banisher of the evil, who but God, the guardian and healer of
minds? God looks forth from the high watch-tower of His Providence, He
sees what suits each man, and applies to him that which suits him. Hence
then comes that conspicuous cause of wonder in the order of Fate, when a
wise man does that which amazes the ignorant. For, to glance at the depth
of God`s works with so few words as human reason is capable of
comprehending, I say that what you think to be most fair and most conducive
to justice`s preservation, that appears different to an all-seeing
Providence. Has not our fellow-philosopher Lucan told us how the
conquering cause did please the gods, but the conquered, Cato? What then
surprises you when done on this

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earth, is the true-guided order of things; it is your opinion which is
perverted and confused. But if there is any one whose life is so good that
divine and human estimates of him agree, yet he must be uncertain in the
strength of his mind; if any adversity befall him, it may always be that he
will cease to preserve his innocence, by which he found that he could not
preserve his good fortune. Thus then a wise dispensation spares a man who
might be made worse by adversity, lest he should suffer when it is not good
for him to be oppressed. Another may be perfected in all virtues, wholly
conscientious, and very near to God: Providence holds that it is not right
such an one should receive any adversity, so that it allows him to be
troubled not even by bodily diseases. As a better man 63 than I has said, "
The powers of virtues build up the body of a good man." It often happens
that the duty of a supreme authority is assigned to good men for the
purpose of pruning the insolent growth of wickedness. To some, Providence
grants a mingled store of good and bad, according to the nature of their
minds. Some she treats bitterly, lest they grow too exuberant with long

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continued good fortune; others she allows to be harassed by hardships that
the virtues of their minds should be strengthened by the habit and exercise
of patience. Some have too great a fear of sufferings which they can bear;
others have too great contempt for those which they cannot bear: these she
leads on by troubles to make trial of themselves. Some have brought a name
to be honoured for all time at the price of a glorious death. Some by
shewing themselves undefeated by punishment, have left a proof to others
that virtue may be invincible by evil. What doubt can there be of how
rightly such things are disposed, and that they are for the good of those
whom we see them befall? The other point too arises from like causes, that
sometimes sorrows, sometimes the fulfilment of their desires, falls to the
wicked. As concerns the sorrows, no one is surprised, because all agree
that they deserve ill. Their punishments serve both to deter others from
crime by fear, and also to amend the lives of those who undergo them; their
happiness, on the other hand, serves as a proof to good men of how they
should regard good fortune of this nature, which they see often attends
upon the dishonest. And another thing seems to me to be well arranged: the
nature of a man may be so headstrong and rough that lack of wealth may stir
him to crime more readily than restrain him; for the disease of such an one
Providence prescribes a remedy of stores of patrimony: he may see

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that his conscience is befouled by sin, he may take account with himself of
his fortune, and will perhaps fear lest the loss of this property, of which
he enjoys the use, may bring unhappiness. Wherefore he will change his
ways, and leave off from ill-doing so long as he fears the loss of his
fortune. Again, good fortune, unworthily improved, has flung some into
ruin. To some the right of punishing is committed that they may use it for
the exercise and trial of the good, and the punishment of evil men. And
just as there is no league between good and bad men, so also the bad cannot
either agree among themselves: nay, with their vices tearing their own
consciences asunder, they cannot agree with themselves, and do often
perform acts which, when done, they perceive that they should not have
done. Wherefore high Providence has thus often shewn her strange wonder,
namely, that bad men should make other bad men good. For some find
themselves suffering injustice at the hands of evil men, and, burning with
hatred of those who have injured them, they have returned to cultivate the
fruits of virtue, because their aim is to be unlike those whom they hate.
To divine power, and to that alone, are evil things good, when it uses them
suitably so as to draw good results therefrom. For a definite order
embraces all things, so that even when some subject leaves the true place
assigned to it in the order, it returns to an order, though another, it may
be, lest aught

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in the realm of Providence be left to random chance. But "hard is it for me
to set forth all these matters as a god," nor is it right for a man to
try to comprehend with his mind all the means of divine working, or to
explain them in words. Let it be enough that we have seen that God, the
Creator of all nature, directs and disposes all things for good. And while
He urges all, that He has made manifest, to keep His own likeness, He
drives out by the course of Fate all evil from the bounds of His state.
Wherefore if you look to the disposition of Providence, you will reckon
naught as bad of all the evils which are held to abound upon earth.

`But I see that now you are weighed down by the burden of the question, and
wearied by the length of our reasoning, and waiting for the gentleness of
song. Take then your draught, be refreshed thereby and advance further the
stronger.

Translated by: W.V. Cooper, J.M. Dent and Company. London, 1902.
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