Transcript: 119 - John Marenbon on Boethius

John Marenbon joins Peter to discuss Boethius' solution to the problem of divine foreknowledge.
Podcast series

Note: this transcription was produced by automatic voice recognition software. It has been corrected by hand, but may still contain errors. We are very grateful to Tim Wittenborg for his production of the automated transcripts and for the efforts of a team of volunteer listeners who corrected the texts.

Peter Adamson: I've already covered Boethius in a previous episode, but maybe we could start by just having you say something about who Boethius was.

John Marenbon: Although Boethius might be placed, as I think he is in this series, at the end of a series of Latin Church Fathers, really he's very different because he lived at the end of the 5th and beginning of the 6th century, spending most of his time in Rome, at a time when Italy was under the rule of the Ostrogoths. But Boethius belonged to the elite of Rome. This elite was allowed to go on living in a very traditional way, even given the illusion of some power. And somebody like Boethius received an extraordinarily good classical education which involved learning Greek, almost certainly from a Greek native speaker. And he had full access to what was going on in Greece and to the whole of the Neoplatonic and Aristotelian tradition, as it was still preserved in the Greek speaking world. So he's far more of a classical figure than somebody like Augustine, although Augustine is earlier. And unlike the church fathers, Boethius was indeed a Christian, but he was a Christian layman. He wasn't a priest or certainly not a bishop or anything like that. And he did indeed write some short theological works which seemed to relate to some theological controversies of the time, in which he was trying to use his great skills, especially as a logician, in order to argue for what he thought to be the right theological positions. But the majority of his work has nothing to do with Christian doctrine. And for most of his life indeed, what he was doing was putting into Latin various works on the liberal arts, on arithmetic and on music and so on. But then he was translating Aristotle's logical works and providing commentaries on them and also providing logical textbooks.

Peter Adamson: Well, what's the relationship then between all of these works? And I guess in particular, what's the relationship of these theological writings and the logical writings to his most famous work, which we're going to be talking about today, which is his Consolation of Philosophy?

John Marenbon: You might say there were two main sorts of relation. One is that when you read the Consolation of Philosophy, you're surprised that it's by a Christian author. And indeed, there were scholars in the past - nobody really follows them now - who thought that perhaps this was written by a different Boethius who was a pagan or perhaps Boethius at the end of his life had reverted to paganism. Which seems a silly suggestion because he, and his whole milieu, was a Christian milieu. But the Consolation of Philosophy is a consolation of philosophy." It's written without any explicit references to Christianity. And a work like that makes sense if you think of somebody whose background was translating and commenting on Aristotle. And indeed, this was part of a wider project, which he never completed, to translate Aristotle and everything by Plato he could find. So he is somebody who thinks of himself as belonging to the ancient tradition of philosophy, but fairly obviously sees no contradiction between that and being a Christian. And that's one thing which is explained by this earlier work. But also, when we turn to what I think is probably the most philosophically rigorous and interesting part of the Consolation, the fifth book and the argument about divine prescience and freedom, there Boethius, the logician, really comes to the fore. So he's obviously looking back, especially to ideas that he had when he was commenting on Aristotle's On Interpretation, though he's not just repeating them. But one couldn't imagine this argument without his basis as a logician.

Peter Adamson: Well, that, in fact, is what I wanted to really concentrate on in this interview, which is the fifth book of the Consolation of Philosophy - the most famous part of the most famous thing that he wrote. And there he engages with this problem, which is basically that if God knows the future - which he must because he's omniscient, then it looks like that might pose a problem for human freedom. Could you say a little bit about why that is in fact a problem?

John Marenbon: I perhaps want to start from saying that intuitively it's pretty obvious that there's a problem there. Just imagine if as soon as you went out every day, somebody popped a letter through your postbox, and when you came back in the evening, you saw that this letter recounted exactly what you had gone on to do during the course of the day. And that you then tried to do unexpected things, but you always found the letter corresponded. And then supposing you were told, 'well, this is not just somebody who's wonderful at guessing, this it actually must be the case because this letter doesn't express a guess, a well-founded belief about what you're going to do, but it expresses knowledge. So it must be true by definition.' And that seems to be what people are saying when they say God foreknows what will happen. So if you like, one can see intuitively that there's going to be a problem there. The question of how the problem is formulated, though, is much more difficult. And I think that most common interpretation of Boethius gets wrong the way in which he formulates the problem. It formulates it in a perfectly sensible way. And therefore mistakes quite how his solution fits the problem because it construes the solution as the solution to a problem understood in a way that he never understood it.

Peter Adamson: So what's the wrong way of understanding the problem?

John Marenbon: I think the wrong way of understanding it - and I'm going to try to put this without getting too technical, because it's the sort of thing where it would be the easiest to write things up on a blackboard with some logical notation. But the wrong way of construing it says that the problem for freedom is this: that if we say that God foreknows what I'm going to do, it's not just that God foreknows now what I'm going to do - God foreknew it yesterday. Indeed, God foreknew it from eternity. And so God's knowing that I'm going to do something is a fact about the past. So God already knows, God has come to know that's a fact about the past, that I'm going to have a cup of coffee after my lunch today. But we're dealing firstly with knowledge, so it's not God guessing, but it's God actually knowing. And secondly, because it's something in the past, it's necessary in the way that the past is necessary - you can't change it. It does seem that, by some well accepted logical laws, you can infer that if God has come to know that I'm going to have a cup of coffee after lunch today, then it's necessary that I have that cup of coffee. Of course, you can say the same about anything that I do. So anything that I do or anybody does, because God foreknows all things in this way, is necessary. And a vital stage in the argument is that God has come to know it's a fact about the past. And Boethius, when he's giving the solution to the problem - and one thing which everybody agrees is he spends a lot of time talking about time and eternity. He says that in some sense, at least, God does not relate to time in the way that other things do. This is often taken as being the assertion by Boethius that God is atemporal. So if you apply any sort of temporal qualification to God, such as God 'did this, God will do this, God does this,' if you're talking about the present, or 'God knew, God knows, God will know,' you're making an incorrect assertion because you're treating God as something temporal.

Peter Adamson: So then the solution to the supposed problem is this?

John Marenbon: Exactly. Then the solution is perfectly easy if you accept that. So the problem relies on thinking that, on asserting that God's having come to know that what I'll do is a fact about the past. It's not a fact about the past because no facts about God affect about the past. End of the problem. However, I don't think that's at all how Boethius sees it.

Peter Adamson: And in fact, when he sets up the problem, he doesn't make a big deal about the fact that God already knew things in the past.

John Marenbon: Absolutely, that's precisely right. I mean, that's the striking thing about it. And so the first thing is that he doesn't mention that. Secondly, in order to put in a more precise way the argument that I've tried to give rather informally, you have to have an apparatus of propositional logic, which Boethius simply didn't have. And if you look at his work on propositional logic - he wrote a textbook on hypothetical syllogisms - you see that he didn't understand propositional logic. So he just couldn't have made that argument properly. And the other thing is that if that had been his argument, it would be very simple, very straightforward - but in fact, you find a lot of detailed argumentation between putting forward the problem and bringing up this idea of eternity. And that would just be pointless if that were the way to go about it.

Peter Adamson: Okay, well, it seems then like these other interpreters looked at the solution and then thought, well, this must be the problem because at least the solution about eternity would be a solution to that problem.

John Marenbon: That's right. And also because the problem certainly was formulated in that way from the 13th century onwards.

Peter Adamson: So they're reading back later. Okay, well, if that isn't the problem, then what is the problem?

John Marenbon: I think Boetius sees the problem like this: We know that there is a God who knows everything, and knowing is grasping something for certain. But only what's fixed can be grasped for certain. So if the truth about the sort of action which my having a cup of coffee is something which might go one way or the other - because I might choose to have the cup of coffee or not - so if this thing was going to happen in the future is uncertain, unfixed in this way, it's just not something that any being could grasp for certain. And yet we know that the world is such that there is a God who does grasp these things for certain. And it's not just that God gets them right. It's that they're grasped for certain. And so they are being considered by God as things which are fixed, because otherwise he wouldn't be grasping for certain.

Peter Adamson: When you say that God knows them for certain, I guess what you mean is something like when God reflects on his knowledge that you'll have a cup of coffee, one of the things that he knows about it is that it couldn't be false, that you're going to have a cup of coffee. Is that the idea? I mean, it couldn't be false because I know it. So how could it be false?

John Marenbon: In a way it's even simpler for Boethius, because if you look at his commentary on On Interpretation, he makes the claim there that if you ever assert the proposition "E will happen," the meaning of that is: that it will happen in such a way that it couldn't not happen. So the correct way for us to talk about, for instance, a future sea battle, is not to say there will be a sea battle tomorrow or won't be a sea battle tomorrow, but because of that, if I say there will be a sea battle tomorrow and a sea battle takes place, I still would have been wrong because my assertion that there will be a sea battle in his view means a sea battle is going to take place in such a way that it couldn't not take place.

Peter Adamson: Just as if I assert I'm talking to you now, what I mean by that is I'm talking to you now, and it can't not be the case.

John Marenbon: Yes. And he thinks that applies to statements about the future. So if you want to make a statement about a contingent future you have to say the sea battle will take place, but it will take place in such a way that it might not have taken place. So if God simply knows the proposition 'the John will have his coffee after lunch,' and not 'John will have his coffee after lunch in such a way that he mightn't,' that means that God would be grasping the proposition, and would be knowing the proposition that I'm going to have my coffee after lunch, and it couldn't be otherwise. But of course if you want to maintain that, in fact, I'm free to have my cup of coffee or not, then you'd have to say that in that case, God had a false belief - but that can't be the case. So in order to ensure that God doesn't have false beliefs, we have to admit that nothing happens contingently.

Peter Adamson: Okay. So it sounds to me like the problem then really emerges from a certain understanding that he has about knowledge rather than a worry about past truth. And given that, then how does his solution really work? Because what he actually does say is that God is, if not timeless, then eternal in the sense that everything is present to God. How is that relevant for solving this problem put in terms of knowledge rather than past truth?

John Marenbon: Well, I think one needs to think of the intermediate steps. And the important intermediate step is the challenge which is made to the principle that if one has a belief about something which is not like the way the thing is, then that belief isn't knowledge but false belief. Now, that principle, you might call it the likeness principle, so the little likeness between beliefs which are going to be true and the way things are. Well, that might seem to be pretty obvious. It might seem very odd to suggest that you could have a belief which was in some way unlike the way in which the things really are, about which the belief is. And yet that belief should be true and should be knowledge.

Peter Adamson: Can you give me an example of the sort of thing you mean? So in what way is a belief supposed to be like the object of the belief?

John Marenbon: In this particular case, the position of the problem hinges on saying that given that we are dealing with an event which is unfixed, then the belief has to be congruent with that in seeing it as something unfixed.

Peter Adamson: So in the human case, if I'm thinking, 'oh, John might have a cup of coffee after lunch, he usually does.' I might even then believe that you will, but I'll believe it in a way that's uncertain. And the thought is that I have this uncertain belief which matches an uncertain event.

John Marenbon: Exactly. And if we take two cases of you having a belief about my having a cup of coffee after lunch. In both cases, you believe that I'm going to have a cup of coffee after lunch. And in fact, I am. So in a certain sense, it's true. But in the first case, you believe it in the way that you've just described. In the second case, you believe it, but you believe I'm going to have a cup of coffee as a matter of necessity. Now, so long as we're not determinists, you might say, well, in the second belief, you've got things wrong. You have indeed predicted what I'm going to do, but your belief isn't congruent with the way in which things are.

Peter Adamson: Right. Just as if I thought, well, one plus one is probably two. I would make the same mistake in the other direction because I would be taking something to be uncertain when it is in fact certain. And then I guess what Boethius would want to say is just that God is certain about things that are in themselves uncertain. Is that right?

John Marenbon: That's right. Yes. But what Boethius wants to do is to say that actually that principle is wrong. So he puts forward what I like to call the modes of cognition principle - which is to say that one has to consider knowledge not from the things known, not from the point of view of things known, but from the point of view of the knower. And that knowers at different levels will know the same things, the same, we might say, the states of affairs in different ways. But they can all be said to have knowledge. This is sometimes said to be Iamblichus' principle because you find something a bit similar in Iamblichus, and certainly Boethius was influenced by it. But I think it's a bit different because in Boethius, as you don't find, I think, in Iamblichus or anybody else taking up this principle, the whole emphasis falls on the really difficult case of knowing for certain something which by its very nature is uncertain. And what then follows the explanation about God and his relation to time is an explanation about how that can be, what it is about the nature of God, which is quite different from the nature of humans, which permits him to know in this way. And that's how it fits together.

Peter Adamson: Namely, the fact that everything is present to him, past, present, and future are all present to him in the way that they're not to us.

John Marenbon: That's absolutely right, yes. But the other thing that I want to stress, and this again is against various other interpretations, is that the way that you've put it is all that Boethius is committed to. So quite a lot of people, and I said before in the ordinary way of, the most common way of explaining this, that people often talk about Boethius saying that God is atemporal. A way in which they often catch this up, which also seems to me a bit problematic, is to say that as a metaphysical fact about God, God's existence is simultaneous with past, present, and future. Now in parenthesis, I think if something is atemporal, you can't say its existence is simultaneous with, because simultaneity is a temporal motion. You say that its existence is such that you can't place it temporally at all. But a lot of people want to have this perhaps rather funny view that metaphysically it's the case that past, present, and future are simultaneous with God's, as they say, atemporal existence. And therefore, because of this metaphysical status, God grasps everything at once and grasps everything as being present, because it really is present. Whereas I think all that Boethius commits himself to, and what seems to be more likely his position, is that God, because of the way in which God exists, he is able to know what really is the future, but just as we know the present, just in the same way as we know the present, because it's, as it were, present to him.

Peter Adamson: Right, and that's why he compares God's situation to the situation of a human who's watching something happening right now, like a chariot race.

John Marenbon: Exactly, yes. That's right, yes.

Peter Adamson: That's interesting. So speaking of the future, I guess one thing about Boethius is that he's often treated as if he were a medieval figure. I mean, you mentioned at the beginning that in some ways he's more classical than some of the earlier Latin church fathers, but to the extent that he's taught in universities nowadays, he's usually taught in courses on medieval philosophy. And I guess that, to some extent, that's justified because he was very influential in the medieval period. So do you see him as kind of the beginning of medieval philosophy in a way?

John Marenbon: For the reasons I was saying, which you've just summarized, it would be wrong to see him himself as the beginning of medieval philosophy, since he's so thoroughly a classical figure. And one of the important things about medieval Latin philosophy is that hardly any of the philosophers themselves knew any Greek. They had to rely on a rather limited range of translations in the Greek, a lot of which indeed were made by Boethius himself. Now, that position is not so different from that of some of the Church fathers. I mean, you think of Augustine. Certainly there were certain Greek sources available to him in translation which weren't available later on. But again, he was mostly a thinker who was limited to what he could know from translation. And that's very, very different for Boethius. So rather than consider him as the first medieval thinker, I suppose I think of him as a thinker without whose works one can't imagine what medieval philosophy would have been. And I suppose you could say in some sense, well, surely that applies to almost any of the big sources. But there is a particularly vital role which he plays and the only other person who seems to play so important a role, or perhaps two people, one is Aristotle himself. But it's Aristotle that's transmitted via Boethius. And the other is Augustine. Medieval philosophy would have turned out in a very different sort of way. And I suppose in fact for both to Augustine and Boethius, we can almost sort of test this because Augustine and Boethius are tremendously important in the Latin tradition. But they have a limited importance in the Byzantine tradition - though they do, especially Boethius, get translated at some point - and are of no importance in the Arabic tradition. Though those traditions did have the other ancient authors. So one can gauge in some way the influence of Boethius and indeed Augustine by making such a comparison. 


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