Global Analysis with J.R. Nyquist

When Fortune Turns Against Us

by J. R. Nyquist, Global Analyst. April 3, 2009

The last surviving work of classical antiquity, The Consolation of Philosophy, was written by Ancius Boethius (c. A.D. 480-524), a Roman official imprisoned in the wake of a political conspiracy. The Consolation was the most influential philosophical book of the Middle Ages. In it, the doomed prisoner reflects on the real meaning of life: “While I was quietly thinking … to myself and giving vent to my sorrow with the help of my pen, I became aware of a woman standing over me.” The woman was Philosophy, appearing in female form. Philosophy, wrote Boethius, was a “nurse in whose house I had been cared for since my youth.” He turned to Philosophy and poured out his story as an innocent man falsely accused, imprisoned and awaiting execution. Philosophy patiently listened, then put the following question to Boethius: “Do you believe that this life consists of haphazard and chance events, or do you think it is governed by some rational principle?”

Boethius answered that he couldn’t believe in a haphazard reality. “In fact,” he said,” I know that God the Creator watches over His creation. The day will never come that sees me abandon the truth of this belief.” Philosophy admitted the belief was true enough. So why, she asked, was the prisoner so sick with grief when he understood that everything was in God’s hands? Surely, something was amiss in the man’s thinking. After a brief discussion Philosophy hit upon the “major cause” of Boethius’s illness: “…you have forgotten your true nature.”

When we don’t know who we are, we forget the real purpose of things. We imagine that “the wicked and the criminal have power and happiness.” But they don’t. Man comes into the world with nothing, and he leaves with nothing. What is there to lament? The happiness of good fortune is false happiness. Philosophy shows that our high expectations are ridiculous: “If after freely choosing her [Fortune] as the mistress to rule your life you want to draw up a law to control her coming and going?” The Goddess Fortuna says to the fallen man, “Yes, rise upon on my wheel if you like, but don’t count it an injury when by the same token you begin to fall, as the rules of the game will require. You must surely have been aware of my ways.”

It seems that we take our good fortune for granted, and when fortune turns ugly we lament the world’s unfairness. What do those who are blessed by fortune really know about the unfairness of the world? If the U.S. economy collapses and America goes hungry, will we remember the misfortunes of Bangladesh, Biafra, or Sudan? If millions suffer abroad, do we imagine that we are immune? The happiness of America, suggests Philosophy, is chance happiness. By its very nature, this happiness cannot last. It is temporal, it is transitory. One day our material happiness must turn to physical suffering and misery. This seems impossible to you, I know. You do not believe in Philosophy. You believe in your continued prosperity, that the economy will recover, that the barbarians will remain on the far side of the frontier, that your military is forever strong. But power and prosperity have made you stupid, so you are deluded. You have forgotten that whatever goes up must come down. That is the way of the world. Philosophy says to Boethius: “To him that enjoys it, happiness may seem full of delight, but he cannot prevent it slipping away when it will. It is evident, therefore, how miserable the happiness of human life is; it does not remain long with those who are patient, and doesn’t satisfy those who are troubled.”

Philosophy asks why we look for happiness outside ourselves when happiness lies within. “You are led astray by error and ignorance,” she says. The highest good cannot be taken away. It is something permanent, not transitory. Philosophy tells Boethius, “Since you are a man convinced by innumerable proofs that the human mind cannot die, and since it is clear that happiness which depends on chance comes to an end with the death of the body, it seems beyond doubt that if this happiness based on chance can bring pleasure, then the whole human race falls at death into misery. Yet we know that many men have sought the enjoyment of happiness through death and even through suffering and torment.”

The modern mind is unconvinced of this, and Americans are the quintessential moderns. We are also materialists who demand proof for everything. And the basest proof is the sensation of the body. Therefore we are hedonists who have turned our skepticism upon Philosophy’s itself. Look for happiness outside ourselves? “It seems as if you feel a lack of any blessing of your own inside you, which is driving you to seek your blessings in things separate and external,” says Philosophy to Boethius. These words apply to us – to Americans living in A.D. 2009. “And so when a being endowed with godlike quality in virtue of his rational nature thinks that his only splendor lies in the possession of inanimate goods, it is the overthrow of the natural order. Other creatures are content with what is their own, but you, whose mind is made in the image of God, seek to adorn your superior nature with inferior objects, oblivious of the great wrong you do your Creator.”

By looking for happiness in things, instead of within, we make ourselves “lower than those very things.” This is what we have done to ourselves. And so we are headed for a fall. We are headed for disappointment. Like Boethius, America has enjoyed first rank among nations. We have enjoyed wealth and authority. But this cannot last forever. There are those who envy us, and those who seek our destruction. In our arrogance and confidence we refuse to see what is coming. We still worship Fortune and have yet to seek the consolation of Philosophy.

© 2009 J. R. Nyquist

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J. R. Nyquist
Global Analyst and Author, "Origins of the Fourth World War"
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