Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Boethius on Happiness and Blessedness: A Problem of Misleading Translations

Boethius: De arithmetica, De musica. Early 12th century.
Cambridge University Library, MS li.3.12, fol. 61v.
In his lap is a monochord.
Boethius (480–524) is, after Plotinus, the greatest author of the seminal period [c205–c533], and his De Consolatione Philosophiae was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin. It was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, and Greek; into French by Jean de Meung; into English by Alfred, Chaucer, Elizabeth I, and others. Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages.
                               ...C. S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, introducing his discussion of Boethius

The Consolation of Philosophy resides on my shelf of admired works, with the Enchiridion of Epictetus and Confessions of Augustine on one side, and Spinoza's Ethics on the other. Together these books have provided a foundation and stimulus in my searching for a worthy life.

The Consolation is in five divisions. Books 1–3 contrast two distinct modes of living: a life that is ruled by fortune, whether good fortune or misfortune, and a life that is steered by moral character. Books 4–5 discuss the nature of evil and tensions between ideas of divine providence and human freedom. Our concern here will be Books 1–3, where an ill-advised convention among modern English translations obscures Boethius's essential distinction between happiness (felicitas) and blessedness (beatitudo)—a distinction that he makes as carefully and consistently as St. Augustine had done a century-and-a-quarter earlierA most welcome exception to this ill-advised convention is a recent translation, to which we shall come at the end of this posting

The author's full name, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, reflects his Roman heritage of aristocratic status and privilege. In his early 40s he had risen to the position of intimate advisor to Emperor Theodoric. Then he suddenly found himself accused of treason. He was imprisoned, tortured, and executed.

Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy during his imprisonment. He describes himself as "pressed down by the heavy weight of my sorrow." 
Silent and alone, I was thinking about these things and began to record my tearful complaint, when it seemed to me that a woman appeared, standing over my head. She had a holy look, and her eyes showed fire and pierced with a more-than-human penetration. (Book 1, Section 1)
Though Boethius does not immediately recognize his imposing visitor, she is Philosophy, to whose service he had early dedicated his life.

At first Philosophy is severe with him:
Did I not give you all the weapons you needed, ones that would have kept your mind safe from harm? At least they would have, if you hadn't thrown them away. Do you recognize me? Why don't you say anything?
Then she relents somewhat and softens her tone:
When she saw that I was not just silent but totally speechless and completely unable to talk, she gently laid her hand upon my breast and spoke. "There's no real danger here. He's simply dazed, as one would expect of a man suffering under delusion. He's forgotten who he is for a moment." ...Saying this, she folded her gown, and with it wiped my tear-filled eyes. (1.2)
Boethius now recognizes his visitor and addresses her as "Queen of all Virtues" (omnium magistra virtutum). What Philosophy calls Boethius's "delusion" is that he has allowed his life's previous good fortune to define "who he is." Now amidst extreme misfortune, he finds himself "drowned in darkness."

Philosophy resolves that the time has come "for remedies instead of tears," and she sets Boethius upon a remedial course. She begins by encouraging him to tell his sad story: "You can't expect the benefits of treatment if you won't uncover your wound." (1.4) This Boethius is more than eager to do, filling half-a-dozen pages with his complaints and lamentations:
So then I collected my strength of mind and replied, "Do I still need to explain my bitter sorrow? Isn't it clear enough how Fortune has raged against me? ...Was this the way I used to look? ...Is this the reward I get for following you? (1.4)
Philosophy seizes upon Boethius's central complaint:
You suppose it's the changes of Fortune that have overthrown your soul. ...You believe that Fortune has changed towards you: you are wrong. These have always been her ways and nature. She's retained her character in her very fickleness towards you. She was just the same when she fawned on you and tricked you with the promises of a counterfeit happiness. ...Now you've given yourself to the rule of Fortune; you must conform yourself to her ways. Would you try to hold back the force of a wheel in motion? O most foolish of men! If Fortune began to be permanent, she would cease to be Fortune. (2.1)
Here, in the image that is probably the Consolation's most influential contribution to western intellectual tradition, Philosophy observes that Fortune spins her wheel, inevitably and arbitrarily, and the felicitas of those at the top has but one way to go.

Philosophy makes it clear that she is not "waging an inexorable war against Fortune." Happiness that comes from Fortune should be enjoyed, provided only that beneficiaries do not become so greatly dependent on good fortune for their sense of well being that they forget who they are as moral creatures.

This brings the narrative of Books 1–3 to its focal point. Happiness that is dependent on good fortune, says Philosophy, all too easily becomes false happiness (falsa felicitasthat cannot be trusted.  What then is the alternative? The alternative is the true and perfect happiness (vera et summa felicitas) of "blessedness" (beatitudo). Blessedness is "the highest good for a being living by reason," a quality that "Fortune can't take away from you." Blessedness, says the Queen of All Virtues, accompanies a life guided by true virtue, a life steered by God's "helm and rudder" (3.12) .

In a crucial passage Philosophy exclaims:
O mortals, why do you seek outside yourselves for the happiness that has been placed within you? Ignorance and error seem to overwhelm you. I'll show you briefly the foundation of the greatest happiness. (2.4)
The Latin word translated here as "foundation" is a form of cardo: "a hinge" or "a  point about which something turns." The Loeb Classical Library edition translates Philosophy's words nicely: "Let me briefly show you on what the greatest happiness really turns."

Philosophy's argument literally hinges on this sentence from Book 2, Section 4, where attention turns from felicitas to beatitudo.  Section 2.4 is four pages in length. In the three pages that precede this hinge sentence, felicitas occurs ten times and beatitudo three times. In the section's one subsequent page, beatitudo occurs seven times and felicitas three times, and this prevalence of beatitudo continues throughout the remainder of the Consolation.

How unfortunate that English translations of the Consolation almost uniformly ignore this crucial turning point in vocabulary. Most translations, without so much as a footnote, simply continue using "happiness" to translate both felicitas and beatitudo. For readers of Boethius in English, the point on which Philosophy's argument turns is simply lost.

Boethius's discussion of beatitudo climaxes in Book 3, Section 10, where Philosophy comprehensively develops her theme that "the greatest good is blessedness." How can English readers possibly follow Philosophy's lesson when they are reading that the greatest good is "happiness"?

Instead of being equipped for exploring Boethius's conviction that blessedness is "the highest good for a being living by reason," English readers are presented with what Boethius would regard as something worse than nonsense: "the highest good is happiness"; "it must be confessed that happiness is itself God"; "happiness is itself divinity"; "we have shown that God and true happiness are one and the same."

One edition, in a footnote to 3.10, offers a labored rationale for rendering the beatitudo of God as God's "happiness":
That God is happiness seems an odd claim since we do not attribute states like happiness to God. Perhaps Boethius is thinking that because God lacks nothing and unhappiness is a result of some lack, God is not unhappy and thus happy.
An accurate understanding, and a far simpler, is that Boethius never says that God is happiness. The claim he does make, that God is blessedness, is not odd at all. It accords with Boethius's perennial tradition, as in the words of the Psalmist:
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel from everlasting, and to everlasting.
O Lord of hosts, blessed is the man that trusteth in thee.
In the paragraph that opens this posting, C. S. Lewis mentions translations of De Consolatione by Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I. Both of these pioneering translators are true to Boethius's distinction between felicitas and beatitudo. Their word choices vary somewhat, and their spelling variants are an outright entertainment. But in general Chaucer translates felicitas with some form of wilefulnesse, and beatitudo with some form of blissfulness. Elizabeth's two basic words are felicity and blissednes. 

In contrast, English translations over the past century have obliterated Boethius's distinction. This tabulation of word usage in in the climactic Section 10 of Book 3 reflects the overall pattern:

How are we to account for this ostracizing of "blessed"? One factor is certainly the dominant influence of the Loeb Classical Library translation of 1918, revised in 1973. Most modern translators have relied on Loeb's Latin text, and Loeb's English translation appears on each facing page. 

The Latin text is clear, and I believe that a translator's duty is to render it accurately so that English readers may do their own struggling with the text, their own deciding about its meaning and value, about happiness and blessedness.

One Boethius commentator writes in a footnote:
I have tried to use 'felicity' to render felicitas...leaving 'happiness' for beatitudo. 'Happiness' might be thought a little weak for beatitudo. But words like 'bliss' or 'blessedness', which are sometimes used for it, have too many overtones of the afterlife.
I find it strange that a translator should be spooked by "overtones of the afterlife" in the Consolation. Catholic tradition considers Boethius a martyr and has canonized him under the name St. Severinus. In this work, however, Boethius nowhere evokes his Christian faith as a source of consolation. The consolation of philosophy is his theme, consolation that can enable him to continue a worthy life on earth, despite his having been upended by Fortune.

When Philosophy speaks of blessedness as eternal she is not referring to duration in an afterlife. Her definition of "eternity" is densely philosophical: "Eternity is total and perfect possession at one time of unlimited life." By this definition, "God is eternal but the world is only perpetual" (5.6).

Philosophy's consolation is that mortals, though immersed in the perpetual passage of time, are able to "participate" (participare) in the eternal blessedness of God. They do this by freeing themselves from felicitas that depends on the spin of Fortune's wheel, by devoting themselves instead to lives that swivel on god-given virtue, particularly on the virtues known as "cardinal" (again, from cardo, "hinge"): prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance. These hinge virtues and their ancillaries are their own reward. The reward is beatitudo: "worthiness inherent in virtue" (dignities propria virtuti). "So virtue itself becomes the reward of the virtuous...." (4.3).

Boethius himself embodies that worthiness. With immense fortitude he transcended the heavy weight of his sorrow to create an artistic work of ethical wisdom that his biographer Henry Chadwick has called a "dazzling masterpiece."

I am grateful that I can end this posting on a positive note. In 2012 Ignatius Press published an exemplary version of The Consolation of Philosophy that is faithful to Boethius's distinction between happiness and blessedness. The volume is edited and and translated by Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman. They write:
Here we translate felicitas as "happiness": we will translate beatitudo as "blessedness." ...It is useful to remember that the English word "happiness" literally refers to luck or "hap"—that is, Fortuna—while "beatitude" refers to the ultimate joy given by God. ...Blessedness, beatitudo, Boethius sees as the result of seeking God, the highest Good (summum bonus)....

Happy the day that Ignatius Press blessed us with this remedial edition (from which I have taken most of the passages quoted above).