St. Augustine and Boethius -- Integral relationship between Divine Providence and Freedom



The reality of freedom in the contemporary world is valued.  It should be valued.  Man was made in the image and likeness of God and therefore is freer than any other non-personal being.  It is very easy to see the tragedy that comes when there is an attempt to infringe upon or deny a person’s freedom.  A reflection on the Holocaust or the legalized slavery here in America brings this tragedy into clear focus.  Freedom is a good.  But there is the danger of isolating this good and exalting it above all as an end in itself.  Freedom loses its intelligibility and brings death when this is done.  One result of isolating freedom shows itself in the famous slogan “Pro – Choice”.  Another result is the denial of God so as to protect freedom.  “No God is going to tell me what to do…I’m FREE!”  These examples are based on a psuedo freedom, which is nothing more than a self-centered consuming attitude.  The person who calls this freedom is really enslaved and driven by what ever happens to be the strongest passion, which can differ from moment to moment.  

What does true freedom look like?  What explains freedom?  In other words, what’s the significance of having freedom?  It cannot be strictly to seek our own self-fulfillment because animals do that without freedom.  The transcendent nature of the human person is what explains freedom.  Freedom is presupposed when our lives are directed toward others.  We are given freedom to live for others not for ourselves.  Freedom is intimately connected with the “other” and they necessarily co-exist.  The ultimate “other” is God.  St. Augustine and Boethius affirm this necessary co-existence in the following writings:  Free Choice of the Will by St. Augustine and The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. 

St. Augustine starts his dialogue with the simple question: “Where does evil come from?”  This question is simple yet far from being easy to ascertain.  It is a question that is a major stumbling block to many people when it comes to the issue of believing in a loving God who is all – powerful and all – knowing.  How can there be a loving God we call “Father” and simultaneously experience horrid evils in the world?

The two characters in the dialogue, St. Augustine and Evodius, presuppose a Christian faith yet they seek to understand their faith more clearly.  This is a characteristic of all medieval philosophers: believing in order to understand later.  Augustine and Evodius know that God is the author of all creation but is not to be blamed for any evil in the world.  “Any evil” is actually too strong a statement because the dialogue actually distinguishes between two different kinds of evil:  one being the actual committing of evil and the other being the suffering of something evil.  God is in no way responsible for the first kind of evil but seeing that God is all – just He does give punishment to the deserving and therefore is responsible for the second kind of evil.  St. Augustine begins by discussing the nature of this first kind of evil. 

When we choose to do evil, for example in adultery, what is it that actually makes adultery evil?  In the dialogue there are several supposed solutions thrown out that fail to answer the question.  One solution was that God’s law forbids it.  Another solution was that it’s evil because you wouldn’t want others to do the same to you.  Another incorrect solution was the condemnation that follows a crime of adultery.  All of these solutions describe effects that flow from the evil of adultery but fail to address the evil directly.  Evil is a negation of proper order within a person.  The mind or reason should always be the director of the irrational passions of the human being.  When the person yields to some temporal passion, they are now ruled by something lower than their mind.  They become “out of order”.  This is that “blameworthy desire” that Augustine speaks of as being what makes adultery evil.  After a person loses self-possession, this ruling of temporal passions shows itself in the desire and love for lower things that can be taken away from us against our will as opposed to higher things such knowledge and virtue which cannot be taken against the will.  This loss of self – possession occurs within the person, particularly the soul. 

Ultimately, evil comes from the individual who has “yielded” themselves over to an inferior reality. 

At this point you may ask, “What’s the connection between this query of origin of evil and the co-existence of free will and Divine Providence?”  Augustine, from the very beginning, affirms Divine Providence.  It is against this backdrop that the question of the origin of evil appears.  The very fact that the experience of evil is hard to understand with the reality of God’s existence is indicative of the notion that this “ought” not be the case.  What should happen and what does happen are two different things.  One can only speak of the “ought” or the “should” only when there is a presupposition of freedom.  It does not make sense to say that a rock should be certain way and its unfortunate that it is not.  The rock has no freedom.  St. Augustine implicitly affirms the co-existence of Divine providence and free will.

Boethius is engaged in a dialogue with Lady Philosophy.  This conversation explicitly deals with the co – existence of free will and Divine Providence. 

He starts off with the question of whether not the idea of “chance” is a reality.  Lady answers him in two different ways.  First, she deals with the strict sense of the meaning chance.  Chance in this sense means a random occurrence without a logical cause.  She denies this idea of chance due to God’s order being imprinted on every being.  There is nothing that randomly occurs.  She does affirm the idea of chance in a secondary sense.  Chance occurs when something happens that is not intended and there is an aspect of surprise associated with the “chance” event. 

The non – existence of chance against the backdrop of Divine Providence brings into question the reality of free will.  If God is above all and omniscient, his knowledge, whether it is of the past, present, or future must be certain.  He obviously is aware of people’s future and knows it with exactitude.  Well if God knows what a person’s future holds and there is no deviation from it, is the person truly free?  Does God’s foreknowledge impose necessity on the future or is it simply a pointer to something already predetermined[1]?  Either approach assumes that an individual is predestined.

If this is the case, that there cannot be a co – existence of free will and Divine providence, “the extent of the disruption of human affairs is obvious[2]”.  With the dismissal of freedom, the realities of justice, goodness, and evilness become unintelligible.  Our existence is significantly reduced to that of the animals.  Our nature ceases to be transcendent and becomes immanent just like the animals.  We simply have reason tacked on to our “animality” with no essential difference.  “It is pointless, therefore, to hope for anything or pray to escape anything.”[3]  God becomes a monster creating some people simply to destroy them.  True love becomes an impossibility and the world crumbles.

This elimination of free will is inevitable when a human’s mode of knowing is transferred on to God.  Lady Philosophy says, “Everything that is known is comprehended not according to its own nature, but according to the ability to know of those who do the knowing”[4].  God’s way of knowing is drastically different than ours due to His way of existing is different than ours.  He exists outside of time and is present to all His creation.  This presence enables Him to see the entire world and all elements of time at one time.  It is said that God knows everything in the eternal “now”.  To take the structure of the Lady’s example, let’s examine our experience when we are present to some event.  We can be observing a basketball game and our observance in no way determines any of the player’s movements or decisions.  Some things we observe our necessary in themselves such as the fact that all players are subject to gravity and therefore not allowed to float away!  We also observe things that are conditionally necessary depending on the decision of the executer.  “If you know someone is walking, it is necessary that he is walking”[5].  God is intimately present to all things and knows them with certitude and this in no way infringes upon the human person’s freedom. 

Augustine and Boethius both affirm the co – existence of Divine providence and free will.  Augustine does it indirectly through his discussion of the nature of evil and Boethius does it directly and explicitly.  God has given us our existence as a gift.  As St. Paul says, “What have you that you have not received?” (1 Cor 4:7).  This idea of gift implies that there is an active receiver.  Now grant it none of us ask to be born yet we still find ourselves in a position where we are called upon to receive our existence and therefore take possession of ourselves.  God is not simply “Creator” and we are the passive effects.  Active reception presupposes that one is free to do so.  Freedom in the human person is only meaningful when it is used by us to open us to the outside world, ultimately to the Lord.  Freedom exalted as an end in itself disconnected from Divine providence is nothing but slavery.  This psuedo freedom turns us in upon ourselves and we lead a selfish life constantly striving to satisfy our appetites.  We are given freedom for the good.  Freedom and responsibility are inseparable.      





[1] Boethius, book V.  The Consolation of Philosophy. Prentice – Hall , Pearson Education.  Upper Saddle River, NJ. P.155-156

[2] Ibid. p. 153

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. p. 157

[5] Ibid. p. 167

Related Media
See more
Related Illustrations
See more