Tuesday, 30 January 2001

The consolation of philosophy

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 1, op. 7. Apparently the code number for this piece is Sz40. Mozart and Scarlatti have K numbers (Koechel and Kirkpatrick respectively), Bach has BWV numbers (it's a German phrase meaning something like Bach Complete Works, or Bach Works catalogue or something like that), and it seems that Bartok has Sz numbers. I've no idea what or who that commemorates.

The last lost comic:

Dilbert. Not brilliantly drawn, but more accomplished than User Friendly. Similar to UF too in its office setting. However, Dilbert is more corporate: the characters are clearly working in a big organisation, not with a small ISP. Dilbert’s characters are more vivid than UF's, but it too has talking animal syndrome.

Dilbert was the last comic in the series of things I looked at each morning. Now I’ve given that up, and now I’ve described them all.

Just read:

Boethius, The consolation of philosophy.

This is a famous piece of ancient philosophy, and a pretty engaging read, given the genre. It’s written as a dialogue between Boethius (writing in the first person), who is in prison (as happened historically to him), and a visiting angel called Philosophy. The angel consoles Boethius by explaining the true nature of happiness, good, evil and all that sort of thing.

The work is divided into 5 Books, each about 25-30 pages long. The first is a general introduction, where Boethius explains his plight (falsely accused and in prison). In the second book, Philosophy explains how Boethius should forget his good fortune, as Fortune is a fickle mistress, whose very nature is change. This is very effective. For example:

What is it, mortal man, that has cast you down into grief and mourning? You have seen something unwonted, it would seem, something strange to you. But if you think that Fortune has changed towards you, you are wrong. These are ever her ways: this is her very nature. She has with you preserved her own constancy by her very change. She was ever changeable at the time when she smiled upon you, when she was mocking you with the allurements of false good fortune. You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess.

In Book 3, things get a little more abstract. Philosophy “proves” to Boethius that the highest good must in fact be God, and that the individual aspects of happiness that one can seek in normal life (fame, power, riches, etc) must all be conjoined in their ultimate expression in God. Thus, anyone desiring happiness must ultimately search for it through God. (This God is not necessarily Christian incidentally, though Boethius was Christian; the God being discussed here is quite an abstract entity.)

In Book 4, Philosophy discusses the nature of good and evil, and how it can come to pass that the evil can appear to prosper, while the good can suffer. Philosophy answers these problems by arguing that the wicked are in fact always unhappy because they never succeed in achieving true happiness. Further, when bad fortune assails the good, this is actually good because it’s 1) all part of God's higher plan, so that's OK, and 2) all fortune which seems difficult, either exercises virtue, or corrects or punishes vice.

Finally, in Book 5, Philosophy deals with the issue of free will when we suppose that God/Fate/Providence has perfect omniscience, thus seeming to lead to a contradiction. The contradiction arises because whatever events God has foreknowledge of must necessarily come to pass. This is true because for it to be otherwise would imply less than perfect foreknowledge. But if everything God has foreknowledge of is necessarily going to happen, then there's no scope for humans to have free will. Philosophy’s answer to this is a fairly slick one, arguing that God in fact knows everything from a vantage point outside of time, so that everything in the past, present and future appears to God as one moment, where it’s quite plausible for something to have free will and yet have God know all about it. The error in the contradiction argument is to bind God into the flow of time and suppose that God is somehow stuck at the start of time, looking forward and making necessarily true predictions.

An electronic text of an English translation is available from the University of Virgina, and is the source of my two quotes above.

Now reading:

Granta 64. Russia: the wild east. More on this when I finish it.

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