Verses I made once glowing with content;
Tearful, alas, sad songs must I begin.
See how the Muses grieftorn bid me write,
And with unfeigned tears these elegies drench my face.
But them at least my fear that friends might tread my path
Could not keep silent: they were once
My Green youth’s glory; now in my sad old age
They comfort me.
For age has come unlooked for, hastened by ills,
And anguish sternly adds its years to mine;
My head is white before its time, my skin hangs loose
About my tremulous frame: I am worn out.
Death, if he come
Not in the years of sweetness
But often called to those who want to end their misery
Is welcome. My cries he does not hear;
Cruel he will not close my weeping eyes.
While fortune favoured me—
How wrong to count on swiftly-fading joys—
Such an hour of bitterness might have bowed my head.
Now that her clouded, cheating face is changed
My cursed life drags on its long, unwanted days.
Ah why, my friends,
Why did you boast so often of my happiness?
How faltering even then the step
Of one now fallen. (Boethius, 131–133)
Thus begins one of the greatest early medieval works of philosophy, Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy. Boethius (c. 480–524) was an important Christian theologian (providing important articulations and defences of the historic Christian Faith in a number of theological tractates), philosopher (translating and commenting the logical works of Aristotle, some of the works of Plato, and a number of other important works), and politician. He was, in fact, a prominent counsellor to the barbarian emperor of the Roman Empire, Theodoric. Boethius was well educated, wealthy, and held a high position in society and government.
In an instant, due to the treacherous lies of those who were jealous of his rank, power, and wealth, Boethius found himself in prison––as he was unjustly accused of treason. Separated from his family, stripped of his rank, wealth, and honour, an imminent execution was his destiny (524 AD). All was lost. It is in this situation that Boethius penned not only the words that this article began with, but the entire work known as The Consolation of Philosophy.
Boethius was in the throes of despair. There is nothing more to live for, but death will not come. As he lamented his life, and the fortune that had befallen him, Lady Philosophy appeared to him in his cell and dismissed the “Muses of poetry.” The muses of poetry were giving words to Boethius’ despair, but, said Lady Philosophy, “Who let these theatrical tarts in with this sick man? Not only have they no cures for his pain, but with their sweet poison they make it worse. These are they who choke the rich harvest of the fruits of reason with the barren thorns of passion. They accustom a man’s mind to his ills, not rid him of them” (Boethius, 135). Lady Philosophy expelled the muses from the prison cell and set out to cure Boethius of his despair.
If indeed you magnify yourselves against me
And make my disgrace an argument against me,
Know then that God has put me in the wrong
And closed his net about me.
Behold, I cry out, ‘Violence!’ but I am not answered;
I call for help, but there is no justice.
He has walled up my way, so that I cannot pass,
And he has set darkness upon my paths.
He has stripped from me my glory
And taken the crown from my head.
He breaks me down on every side,
And I am gone,
And my hope has he pulled up like a tree.
He has kindled his wrath against me
And counts me as his adversary.
His troops come on together;
They have cast up their siege ramp against me
And encamp around my tent.
He has put my brothers far from me,
And those who knew me are wholly estranged from me.
My relatives have failed me,
My close friends have forgotten me.
The guests in my house
and my maidservants count me as a stranger;
I have become a foreigner in their eyes.
I call to my servant, but he gives me no answer;
I must plead with him with my mouth for mercy.
My breath is strange to my wife,
And I am a stench to the children of my own mother.
Even young children despise me;
When I rise they talk against me.
All my intimate friends abhor me,
And those whom I loved have turned against me.
My bones stick to my skin and to my flesh,
And I have escaped by the skin of my teeth (Job 19:5–20, ESV).
These are the words of Job, lamenting the great misery that has fallen upon him. Many other examples of lament can be found in this Old Testament book, as Job seeks to understand what has happened to him. He was a wealthy landowner in the middle east. He owned many buildings, flocks, and had a veritable army of servants that worked for him. He was married with 10 children (7 sons and 3 daughters). We are told that he was the greatest man in the east, blameless, and upright.
In a moment, with no warning, all of this was brutally removed. Raiders killed his servants and drove off his flocks, natural disasters destroyed his buildings, killed his children, and destroyed what was left of his belongings. He was struck with a debilitating illness. From health and wealth to sickness and poverty in a moment. Job despaired of life, but death would not take him. His wife told him to curse God and die. Friends came to Job’s side, to “be there for him”. However, their words cut like the pieces of pottery that Job was using to scrape the sores that covered his body. Despondent, Job wishes only to know: “why has God treated me this way?”
In the Summa Theologiae II-II, question 20, Thomas Aquinas discusses despair. His approach appears, to us, somewhat strange: Is despair a sin and the greatest of sins? What is the relationship between despair, unbelief, and sloth? In this question, Aquinas distinguishes between 2 types of despair: (1) despairing of salvation, and (2) despairing of ever obtaining some earthly good.
In the first type, despair, explains Aquinas, is the opposite of Hope (which he treats as a theological virtue [Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 17, a. 5, respondeo]). Hope, for Aquinas, is an act of the will whereby, without actually seeing or possessing that future good which we so ardently desire, which is not entirely impossible to obtain (even if we it is only possible to obtain that good through divine grace), we continue to desire it. He notes that though things of this earth may be hoped for, when we hope for eternal life, the things of this world appear to us as less important (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 2, a. 2, ad 2, 3). Indeed, our perspective is so changed that these earthly goods are only good insomuch as they draw us closer to God—our final end, that which we truly desire. Hope, as a theological virtue, has eternal life—eternal union with God—as its primary end, and that good which it desires. Hope, then, is tending towards God; Despair, as the opposite of Hope, is withdrawing from God. Hope is looking towards the source of the pinpoint of light we see from the bottom of our pit; Despair is turning away from that light, no longer believing that help is coming, contenting ourselves with the darkness that surrounds us.
Now, says, Aquinas, “the true opinion of the intellect about God is that from Him comes salvation to mankind, and pardon to sinners” (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 20, a. 1, respondeo). Hope, then, in conformity with a true opinion, looks to God for salvation and forgiveness. Despair, on the other hand, is both a sin and the cause of sin, for, rather than looking to God for salvation and forgiveness of sins, it abandons this hope, and believes that God “refuses pardon to the repentant sinner, or that He does not turn sinners to Himself by sanctifying grace” (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 20, a. 1, respondeo.). This first type of despair is a sin because it denies that salvation and forgiveness are to be found in God. The despair of salvation and forgiveness, for Aquinas, is one of the worst sins, “For unbelief is due to a man not believing God’s own truth; while the hatred of God arises from man’s will being opposed to God’s goodness itself; whereas despair consists in a man ceasing to hope for a share of God’s goodness” (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 20, a. 3, respondeo).
Aquinas goes on to argue that despair (no longer hoping to obtain happiness) can be born in man in two way: (1) it may be born of sin—when man no longer recognizes the good of spiritual things, having been drawn away by the temporal and ephemeral goods of this earth; and (2) it may be born of sloth—that is, “a sadness that casts down the spirit” (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 20, a. 4, respondeo). He notes that “the fact that a man deems an arduous good impossible to obtain, either by himself or by another, is due to his being over downcast, because when this state of mind dominates his affections, it seems to him that he will never be able to rise to any good” (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 20, a. 4, respondeo).
For Aquinas, then, when despair is considered as the opposite of “Hope in God for salvation and the forgiveness of sins.” Despair is both a sin (for it no longer pursues God) and the cause of sins (for, when we turn from God, we turn to sin). To despair in this way—when it is caused by overwhelming grief in one’s own sins, leading one to despair of being forgivable—is not without remedy. Turning from the sin of despairing of God implies recognizing that salvation and forgiveness of sins are from God, independent of the type or quantity of the sins. The repentant sinner who turns to God for salvation and forgiveness is met with open arms and is welcomed home.
However, despair may be considered in another sense, and it is primarily in this sense that we are discussing it in this text. In this second sense, despair can be portrayed, as despairing of “obtaining that which he had no natural capacity for obtaining, or which was not due to be obtained by him; for instance, if a physician were to despair of healing some sick man, or if anyone were to despair of ever becoming rich” (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 20, a. 1, ad 2). In this sense, one’s despair is in relation to earthly good and of one’s own earthly life. In light of difficult circumstances which have befallen us, we lose all hope of obtaining the good life on this earth. Like Boethius and Job, we have lost hope for this life and the goods of this life that we were pursuing. Death always shows up when he is not wanted and is never there when desired! This is the sense in which we can say that Boethius and Job were in despair. Many people find themselves despairing in this sense, even while they maintain their hope in God for their salvation and forgiveness of sins. This second type of despair is also due to becoming downcast, it can also be the cause of sin, and it leaves us wondering: “what we are doing?” “How did we get to where we are now?” “where is God in all of this?” and, “will there be no end to our misery?” “Is this the end?”
“When I had done thus baying my unabated grief, she said, with a calm expression, unaffected by my complainings: ‘When I saw you weeping in your grief I knew at once that you were wretchedly banished; but how remote was that banishment I should not have known if your speech had not told me. But how far from your homeland have you strayed! Strayed, not been driven, I say; or if you prefer to be thought of as driven, then how far have you driven yourself! For in your case it could never have rightly been possible for anyone else to do this. You must remember what your native country is: not one like that of the old Athenians, governed by the rule of the many, but ‘there is one rule, one king,’ who delights in associating with his subjects, not in driving them out; to be guided by his hand and obey his justice is true freedom … But since you are buffeted by a tumult of different emotions, and grief and anger and sorrow pull you in different directions, for that is the state you are in, you are not yet ready for strong medicines, so we shall for a little use milder ones, so that by our gentler touch what has swollen hard under the influence of all these passions and worries may soften and become fit to be treated with a sharper, stronger physic” (Boethius, 163–165).
Lady Philosophy suggests to Boethius that, in a certain sense, Boethius is sick. Boethius has been chased from his peace, not by any person (not even by Theodoric, nor by those who lied about Boethius), nor by any circumstances (neither losing his prestige, nor his wealth, nor his family), but by himself. He is the one who chased himself out of his homeland. However, the situation can be remedied, and it is to this that Lady Philosophy sets herself. She will begin by asking him a number of questions, to gage the gravity of the illness. Her series of questions brings her to the conclusion that Boethius’ illness is quite advanced.
“Now I know,” she said, “that other, more serious cause of your sickness: you have forgotten what you are. So I really understand why you are ill and how to cure you. For because you are wandering, forgetful of your real self, you grieve that you are an exile and stripped of your goods; since indeed you do not know the goal and end of all things, you think that evil and wicked men are fortunate and powerful; since indeed you have forgotten what sort of governance the world is guided by, you think these fluctuations of fortune uncontrolled. All these are quite enough to cause not merely sickness but even death. But I thank the author of all health that you have not yet wholly lost your true nature. The best kindler of your health we have is your true opinion of the governance of the world, that you believe it to be subject not to the randomness of chance events but to divine reason” (Boethius, 169–171).
Boethius’ grief, sorrow, and despair are due to him having forgotten who he is, what is the end of all things, and how this world is governed. Thankfully, says Lady Philosophy, there is a remedy to this illness. The remedy is to remember what he already knows: that this world is not governed by chance but by divine sovereignty. Boethius’s despair is caused by a forgetfulness which was created by becoming overwhelmed by his grievous situation. The remedy is to remember what Boethius has forgotten: God is sovereign. In the rest of the Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius is led by Lady Philosophy to explore the very questions she has just asked him, in order to judge the gravity of his condition: Is this world run by chance or is it directed by reason? What kind of governance governs the world? What is the end of all things? Where have all things come from? What is man? Answering these questions bring Boethius to the conclusion that man is free, and that God, who knows everything, is absolutely sovereign.
Then the Lord answered Job
out of the whirlwind and said:
“Who is this that darkens counsel
By words without knowledge?
Dress for action like a man;
I will question you, and you
make it known to me
Where were you when I laid
the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—
Surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
Or who laid its cornerstone,
When the morning stars sang together
And all the sons of God shouted for joy? (Job 38:1–7)
Out of the whirlwind, the Lord answered Job. When God answered Elijah, who was hiding out in a cave in the wilderness, depressed and despondent, it was not out of the whirlwind, nor in the earthquake, nor in the fire, but in a still small voice (1 Kings 19: 11–13). How many times have I heard preachers tell the churchgoers that when times are rough, and we despair, we need to get into a quiet place to hear the still small ever-present voice of God? This is certainly how it was for Elijah. However, this is not how it was for Job. “The Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” In the chaos that his life had become, Job wished he could have an audience with God, to plead his case,
“O, that I knew where I might find him,
that I might come even to his seat!
I would lay my case before him
and fill my mouth with arguments.
I would know what he would answer me
and understand what he would say me.
Would he contend with me
in the greatness of his power?
No; he would pay attention to me.
There an upright man could argue with him,
and I would be acquitted forever by my judge” (Job 23:3–7).
From the depths of his despair, Job cries out,
“And now my soul is poured out within me;
Days of affliction have taken hold of me.
The night racks my bones,
And the pain that gnaws me takes no rest.
With great force my garment is disfigured;
It binds me about like the collar of my tunic.
God has cast me into the mire,
And I have become like dust and ashes.
I cry to you for help and you do not answer me;
I stand, and you only look at me.
You have turned cruel to me;
With the might of your hand you persecute me.
You lift me up on the wind;
You make me ride on it,
And you toss me about in the roar of the storm.
For I know that you will bring me to death
And to the house appointed for all living” (Job 30:16–23).
“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.” From out of the chaos itself, God answered Job. What answer does God give to Job? The same answer that Lady Philosophy gave to Boethius: God is sovereign. In a series of questions, God points Job towards nature, shows Job its inner workings, and asks Job, “Do you understand any of this? Are you the one that brings these things to pass, and causes each of these things to act according to its nature? Is it to you that each part of creation looks to for guidance?” Lady Philosophy, one might suggest, is much gentler with Boethius than God is with Job. Lady Philosophy takes her time, bringing Boethius slowly but surely to recognize the sovereignty of God over all things; and if sovereign over all things, then over my situation as well. God, when he answers Job, cuts straight to the punch, “Shall a faultfinder contend with the Almighty? He who argues with God, let him answer it” (Job 40:2). It is as if God is saying to Job, “Hey, remind me who is in charge here?” Job gets the point, “I know that you can do all things, and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted” (Job 40:2).
For both Boethius and Job, the remedy for the second type of despair—wherein we despair of life and earthly goods because of horrible circumstances that have befallen us—is to remember that God is Sovereign. Regardless of what is happening, God is still in control, God is not surprised, and God knows what He is doing. This is, in fact, the very message that Jesus, God incarnate, told his disciples when on earth:
“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:25–30).
The age-old remedy for the second type of despair is to remember that God is sovereign. Certainly, more could be said. We could go on to discuss how developing fortitude (and the four parts of fortitude: magnificence, confidence, patience, and perseverance) in situations which are of small difficulty, can prepare us to act virtuously when the difficulty increases and situations become seemingly impossible (Aquinas, ST II-II, 1. 123, a. 9, respondeo). We could discuss how developing the virtues of fortitude, by the working of the Holy Spirit, will prepare us for those times when life takes those turns, which we know it will, which cause us to collapse in despair, languish in sorrows, and cry out for death to finish the job. These virtues will not keep us or save us from those moments, but they will help us pass through them. Fortitude is the virtue that could be described as not giving up even when the going gets tough (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 123, a. 3, respondeo; a. 4, respondeo). It is by the virtue of fortitude that we “hold firmly the good of reason against every evil whatsoever,” (Aquinas, ST II-II, q. 123, a. 4, respondeo) even against death.
However, perhaps when we are in the midst of despair itself, it is not the time to talk about preparing for these times (except to remind ourselves that these difficult times could be used—if we come at them in the right way, if we use them as opportunities for developing the virtues of Fortitude—to prepare for harder times to come). Rather, it is time for a remedy, a timely reminder, a meditation on the sovereignty of God.“For the nature of his knowledge as we have described it, embracing all things in a present act of knowing, establishes a measure for everything, but owes nothing to later events. These things being so, the freedom of the will remains to mortals, inviolate, nor are laws proposing rewards and punishments for wills free from all necessity unjust. There remains also as an observer from on high foreknowing all things, God, and the always present eternity of his sight runs along with the future quality of our actions dispensing rewards for the good and punishments for the wicked. Nor vainly are our hopes placed in God, nor our prayers, which when they are right cannot be ineffectual. Turn away then from vices, cultivate virtues, lift up your mind to righteous hopes, offer up humble prayers to heaven. A great necessity is solemnly ordained for you if you do not want to deceive yourselves, to do good, when you act before the eyes of a judge who sees all things” (Boethius, 433–435).