Gold THE GEOFFREY CHAUCER PAGE


Divine Providence

Boethius, The Consolation of Philosphy, Book V, Prosa 6



Page 160

`Eternity is the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life.
This will appear more clearly if we compare it with temporal

Page 161

things. All that lives under the conditions of time moves through the
present from the past to the future; there is nothing set in time which can
at one moment grasp the whole space of its lifetime. It cannot yet
comprehend to-morrow; yesterday it has already lost. And in this life of
to-day your life is no more than a changing, passing moment. And as
Aristotle said of the universe, so it is of all that is subject to time;
though it never began to be, nor will ever cease, and its life is co-
extensive with the infinity of time, yet it is not such as can be held to
be eternal. For though it apprehends and grasps a space of infinite
lifetime, it does not embrace the whole simultaneously; it has not yet
experienced the future. What we should rightly call eternal is that which
grasps and possesses wholly and simultaneously the fulness of unending
life, which lacks naught of the future, and has lost naught of the fleeting
past; and such an existence must be ever present in itself to control and
aid itself, and also must keep present with itself the infinity of changing
time. Therefore, people who hear that Plato thought that this universe had
no beginning of time and will have no end, are not right in thinking that
in this way the created world is co-eternal with its creator

Page 162

For to pass through unending life, the attribute which Plato ascribes to
the universe is one thing; but it is another thing to grasp simultaneously
the whole of unending life in the present; this is plainly a peculiar
property of the mind of God.

'And further, God should not be regarded as older than His creations by any
period of time, but rather by the peculiar property of His own single
nature. For the infinite changing of temporal things tries to imitate the
ever simultaneously present immutability of His life: it cannot succeed in
imitating or equalling this, but sinks from immutability into change, and
falls from the single directness of the present into an infinite space of
future and past. And since this temporal state cannot possess its life
completely and simultaneously, but it does in the same manner exist for
ever without ceasing, it therefore seems to try in some degree to rival
that which it cannot fulfil or represent, for it binds itself to some sort
of present time out of this small and fleeting moment; but inasmuch as this
temporal present bears a certain appearance of that abiding present, it
somehow makes

Page 163

those, to whom it comes, seem to be in truth what they imitate. But since
this imitation could not be abiding, the unending march of time has swept
it away, and thus we find that it has bound together, as it passes, a chain
of life, which it could not by abiding embrace in its fulness. And thus if
we would apply proper epithets to those subjects, we can say, following
Plato, that God is eternal, but the universe is continual.

'Since then all judgment apprehends the subjects of its thought according
to its own nature, and God has a condition of ever-present eternity, His
knowledge, which passes over every change of time, embracing infinite
lengths of past and future, views in its own direct comprehension
everything as though it were taking place in the present. If you would
weigh the foreknowledge by which God distinguishes all things, you will
more rightly hold it to be a knowledge of a never-failing constancy in the
present, than a foreknowledge of the future. Whence Providence is more
rightly to be understood as a looking forth than a looking forward, because
it is set far from low matters and looks forth upon all things as from a
lofty mountain-top above all. Why then do you demand that all things occur
by necessity, if divine light rests upon them, while men do not render
necessary such things as they can see? Because you can see things of the
present, does your sight therefore put upon them any necessity?

Page 164

Surely not. If one may not unworthily compare this present time with the
divine, just as you can see things in this your temporal present, so God
sees all things in His eternal present. Wherefore this divine foreknowledge
does not change the nature or individual qualities of things: it sees
things present in its understanding just as they will result some time in
the future. It makes no confusion in its distinctions, and with one view of
its mind it discerns all that shall come to pass whether of necessity or
not. For instance, when you see at the same time a man walking on the earth
and the sun rising in the heavens, you see each sight simultaneously, yet
you distinguish between them, and decide that one is moving voluntarily,
the other of necessity. In like manner the perception of God looks down
upon all things without disturbing at all their nature, though they are
present to Him but future under the conditions of time. Wherefore this
foreknowledge is not opinion but knowledge resting upon truth, since He
knows that a future event is, though He knows too that it will not occur of
necessity. If you answer here that what God sees about to happen, cannot
but happen, and that what cannot but happen is bound by necessity, you
fasten me down to the word necessity, I will grant that we have a matter of
most firm truth, but it is one to which scarce any man can approach unless
he be a contemplator of the divine. For I shall answer that such a thing

Page 165

will occur of necessity, when it is viewed from the point of divine
knowledge; but when it is examined in its own nature, it seems perfectly
free and unrestrained. For there are two kinds of necessities; one is
simple: for instance, a necessary fact, "all men are mortal "; the other is
conditional; for instance, if you know that a man is walking, he must be
walking: for what each man knows cannot be otherwise than it is known to
be; but the conditional one is by no means followed by this simple and
direct necessity; for there is no necessity to compel a voluntary walker to
proceed, though it is necessary that, if he walks, he should be proceeding.
In the same way, if Providence sees an event in its present, that thing
must be, though it has no necessity of its own nature. And God looks in His
present upon those future things which come to pass through free will.
Therefore if these things be looked at from the point of view of God's
insight, they come to pass of necessity under the condition of divine
knowledge; if, on the other hand, they are viewed by themselves, they do
not lose the perfect freedom of their nature. Without doubt, then, all
things that God foreknows do come to pass, but some of them proceed from
free will; and though they result by coming into existence, yet they do not
lose their own nature, because before they came to pass they could also not
have come to pass.

'"What then," you may ask, " is the difference

Page 166

in their not being bound by necessity, since they result under all
circumstances as by necessity, on account of the condition of divine
knowledge? " This is the difference, as I just now put forward: take the
sun rising and a man walking; while these operations are occurring, they
cannot but occur: but the one was bound to occur before it did; the other
was not so bound. What God has in His present, does exist without doubt;
but of such things some follow by necessity, others by their authors'
wills. Wherefore I was justified in saying that if these things be regarded
from the view of divine knowledge, they are necessary, but if they are
viewed by themselves, they are perfectly free from all ties of necessity:
just as when you refer all, that is clear to the senses, to the reason, it
becomes general truth, but it remains particular if regarded by itself. "
But," you will say, " if it is in my power to change a purpose of mine, I
will disregard Providence, since I may change what Providence foresees." To
which I answer, " You can change your purpose, but since the truth of
Providence knows in its present that you can do so, and whether you do so,
and in what direction you may change it, therefore you cannot escape that
divine foreknowledge: just as you cannot avoid the glance of a present eye,
though you may by your free will turn yourself to all kinds of different
actions." "What? " you will say, " can I by my own action change

Page 167

divine knowledge, so that if I choose now one thing, now another,
Providence too will seem to change its knowledge?" No; divine insight
precedes all future things, turning them back and recalling them to the
present time of its own peculiar knowledge. It does not change, as you may
think, between this and that alternation of foreknowledge. It is constant
in preceding and embracing by one glance all your changes. And God does not
receive this ever-present grasp of all things and vision of the present at
the occurrence of future events, but from His own peculiar directness.
Whence also is that difficulty solved which you laid down a little while
ago, that it was not worthy to say that our future events were the cause of
God's knowledge. For this power of knowledge, ever in the present and
embracing all things in its perception, does itself constrain all things,
and owes naught to following events from which it has received naught.
Thus, therefore, mortal men have their freedom of judgment intact. And
since their wills are freed from all binding necessity, laws do not set
rewards or punishments unjustly. God is ever the constant foreknowing
overseer, and the ever-present eternity of His sight moves in harmony with
the future nature of our actions, as it dispenses rewards to the good, and
punishments to the bad. Hopes are not vainly put in God, nor prayers in
vain offered: if these are right, they cannot but be answered. Turn

Page 168

therefore from vice: ensue virtue: raise your soul to upright hopes: send
up on high your prayers from this earth. If you would be honest, great is
the necessity enjoined upon your goodness, since all you do is done before
the eyes of an all-seeing Judge.'


Translated by: W.V. Cooper, J.M. Dent and Company. London, 1902.
Back to Geoffrey Chaucer Page | (Or use your browser's back button to return to the previous page.)

Last modified: June 7, 2006
Copyright © The President and Fellows of Harvard College

Gold Texts on this page prepared and maintained by L. D. Benson (ldb@wjh.harvard.edu)