Those mighty kings sitting in state on their thrones…only take away their raiment of vain splendor and you will discern the festoons of heavy chains that bind them. (IV, i, pg. 115)
In the last section, we considered the question “How does God govern the universe?” In this section, Boethius addresses the question, “If God is just and good, why aren’t bad people punished for their misdeeds and why do good people sometimes suffer?”
The wicked always suffer. Boethius claims that those who do bad things and appear free from punishment, essentially create their own punishments. According to Boethius, bad or wicked people often get what they desire, but not what they need; by getting the bad things that they desire, as opposed to what is truly good for them, they create their own personal hell, thus, “the wicked who evade or avoid punishment are less happy than those who are justly punished” (IV, iv, pg. 123). While they may not believe they are punishing themselves because there was no ostensible adverse effect, they become warped and deformed on the inside. As Boethius says, “Those poisons are much more toxic that creep within and infect the mind and the soul, while they leave the outer shell untouched” (IV, iii, pg. 120).
We can explain this with a familiar example. Often people desire unhealthy “junk” food and think that it makes them happy. While they eat, they feel satisfied, but after a while, they often don’t feel well. In the long term, junk food does not sustain the body and it cannot provide the nutrients needed for the body to function. By consistently eating the things we mindlessly crave, we damage our bodies respectively. We get what we want in the moment, but in the long run the fulfillment of these desires results in sickness. In the same way, evil actions may seem pleasant in the short run, but bring their own punishments.
The actions of wicked people have implications for society as a whole, for their behavior results in two distinct groups of people: the victimizer and the victimized. Today, we show these victims mercy because we pity them for their suffering, and we ensure that the wicked receive retribution for the suffering they inflict on these victims. According to Boethius, however, we should show mercy to the wicked instead of the victims because the wicked “are fools and cannot think or help themselves. Therefore love the good, and pity the wicked” (IV, iv, pg. 128) We should show mercy to the wicked because they are more in need of it, for they themselves are the problem.
Good people are always rewarded. Boethius’ assertion about showing mercy to those who do wrong forces us to question what happens to those who do good. It appears that those who do good are not always rewarded for their actions. If, for instance, a student cheated on an exam and the teacher found out about it, all the students who took that test would be forced to retake it. The system apparently lacks justice; however, Boethius states that only some people are rewarded for the good that they do, while those who are not rewarded still benefit from their goodness because they learn from the experience. In this scenario, the other students learn the gravity of cheating both for themselves and others. It appears then, that people are either rewarded or instructed.
The concept of those who do good not receiving proper recompense can be incredibly hard to wrap one’s mind around. Boethius’ explanation provides some comfort, helping one to see there is, in fact, justice in the world. Boethius’ understanding of mercy for the perpetrators of evil rather than the victims of it is rather alien to us today, but it provides an important lesson in brotherly love and compassion. Rather than wishing pain on someone who clearly is suffering, we can offer them a path to what they truly desire–the good. Not only is this beneficial to them, but it is also beneficial to us and to society as a whole. It is not easy for good people to see bad people thriving, it is often baffling and embittering. It seems unfitting that someone who has lived a corrupt and unscrupulous life better than those who have held themselves to certain moral standards? According to Boethius, people who do evil are always punished, sometimes in a way that it is not obvious to everyone else, and good people are always rewarded, either explicitly or by instruction. The good are always in some way rewarded, and the bad are always in some way punished.
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