Last semester I made the mistake of changing the books I taught in my class on ancient philosophy–a mistake, in that it required me to do a lot more work than I would have liked in order to master a new thinker, all the while trying to organize my own dissertation proposal. However, in the end, I may have to consider it a “happy fault,” for my mistake enabled me to encounter again these challenging words from Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Richard Green (Dover, 2002):
“I am convinced that adverse fortune is more beneficial to men than prosperous fortune.”
In other words, problems are good for you. In fact, you would in some way be “worse off” if you did not have problems, if everything went your way, if you enjoyed unrelenting success and well-being.
Boethius does not attempt to “prove” this in any sort of deductive, mathematical way, yet he does go on to offer some evidence for it, a sort of “phenomenology” of what good and bad fortune does to people:
“Good fortune deceives, adverse fortune teaches. Good fortune enslaves the minds of good men with the beauty of the specious goods which they enjoy; but bad fortune frees them by making them see the fragile nature of happiness. You will notice that good fortune is proud, insecure, ignorant of her true nature; but bad fortune is sober, self-possessed, and prudent through the experience of adversity. Finally, good fortune seduces weak men away from the true good through flattery; but misfortune often turns them around and forcibly leads them back to the true good.”
Allow me to translate, again: Good fortune makes us fat, sassy, and smug. When everything is going our way, we don’t think we need to learn anything. Hell, people need to learn from us. After all, look how well things are going for us.
But our problems pop this bubble of ignorance and self-congratulation. We realize that we are jerks. That we are stupid. That we need help. That kindness is more valuable than cleverness. That maybe we ought to do a monthly budget. And so on.
Not only is this a valuable lesson in and of itself, but it is also a nice example of the way philosophy can help us in understanding challenging aspects of the faith such as the “Beatitudes” in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. If we are really honest with ourselves, some of those Beatitudes can initially be a bit horrifying–as chapter six of Luke’s Gospel has it, you are blessed if you are poor, hungry, weeping, hated, excluded, and insulted. But if it is naturally true, all religion aside, that these kinds of adversity can actually be good for us, we can be even more confident as believers that God can bring good out of them through his grace.