The ancients and medievals were fascinated with the concept of hierarchies. In fact, for many of them, the very fabric of their worldview was essentially hierarchic. All things were seen as originating from God as their source, and being directed toward God as their final end/good; and within this framework the entire universe was held as existing in ordered, purposeful relationships. This understanding of reality as ordered/hierarchic manifested itself in nearly every aspect of life and thought: family and community structure, political systems, ecclesiastical organization, theology, philosophy, and, as we’ll see, epistemology.
Pseudo-Dionysius wrote of the celestial hierarchy of angels, mirrored in the Church’s own hierarchy. St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas wrote of the hierarchy of existing beings, from inanimate objects, to living plants, to animals, to rational humans. Plato had explained reality as ordered from the material to the immaterial and ultimately to the Form of the Good. For all these classical thinkers, their belief in an ordered universe expressed itself through hierarchical relations.
Boethius was certainly no exception.
In his The Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote while he himself was actually in prison shortly before his execution, Boethius — “the last of the Romans and first of the scholastics”  — writes a narrative/dialogue between himself and the character Philosophy. In a profound state of grief at his own circumstances, Boethius wrestles intellectually with the lady Philosophy, trying to find answers to questions about happiness, fortune, chance, evil, God, freedom, and human nature. More than anything else, though, Boethius is trying to find “consolation” and healing through philosophical contemplation and rumination.
By the end of the book, however, the actual narrative is seemingly left behind, and the text becomes almost pure philosophical discourse, which is meant to illustrate the lifting and ascent of Boethius’ mind from his own emotional turmoil to the light of rationality and wisdom. This, in fact, was the central theme of the whole work: ascending from darkness to light, from sorrow to happiness, from the physical world to God. In other words, ascending a hierarchy.
Towards the conclusion, the lady Philosophy instructs Boethius on one final hierarchy which his mind must ascend: the hierarchy of knowledge. The surrounding context is a discussion about God’s foreknowledge and human free will. How can human freedom be maintained if we say that God foreknows all that is going to happen? Philosophy’s answer is that human reasoning is limited and finite and cannot be compared to the knowledge of God. Instead, we must acknowledge that the Divine Wisdom transcends human reason, and so the mind must be lifted up into the light of this Wisdom in order to fully understand. The ascent to Divine Wisdom thus follows this hierarchy:
- Sense perception
- Human reason
- Divine Wisdom/Intelligence
In sense perception, the senses examine something “as constituted in matter” . We receive the physical information of external things “as images impressed upon the mind from bodies round about” . Imagination “considers [the shape] of something alone without matter” , i.e. it envisions the physical qualities of a thing inside the mind, apart from the thing’s physical, external reality. Imagination thus transcends mere sense perception, because imagination can operate without the presence of the actual physical object. But “reason transcends imagination, too, and with a universal consideration reflects upon the species inherent in individual instances” . Reason abstracts all particulars of a thing and considers its intrinsic essence. For example, sense perception would be to see an individual triangle drawn on paper, which will have a specific size, color, etc. Imagination would be to close your eyes and picture the same triangle. But reason would be to know what a triangle actually is, what the definition of “triangularity” is. And that definition would be universal, transcending any particular triangle and applying to all triangles as such.
Lady Philosophy points out to Boethius that “the superior manner of knowledge includes the inferior, but it is quite impossible for the inferior to rise to the superior. The senses cannot perceive anything beyond matter; imagination does not consider universal species” . In other words, on the hierarchy of knowledge, the higher levels surpass the lower in the way and quality in which they know things.
Insects such as ants clearly have sense perception. Mammals likewise have sense perception, but they also have more developed brains which allow them the ability to form mental pictures or “phantasms” from the sense material stored in their minds. But humans alone of the beasts, in addition to both sense perception and imagination, have the power of reason, to grasp abstracted, universal essences. Each higher form has the abilities of the lower forms, but to a greater degree, and enveloped within their own qualitatively superior powers.
And so, concludes Philosophy, just as imagination transcends sense perception in its ability to know, and reason transcends imagination, so also the Divine Wisdom completely transcends human reason. The way God knows things is qualitatively higher than the way we know things.
The significance of this is at least twofold: first, it shows the pathway of ascent. Philosophy writes: “Let us, then, if we can, raise ourselves up to the heights of that supreme intelligence. There reason will be able to see that which it cannot see by itself” . Second, since the mode of knowledge something has is rooted in its nature, to lift our minds to the resplendent Divine Wisdom is to come to know God’s own nature. It is only once Boethius has transcended his own human reason, lifting upwards to the Divine Wisdom, that he can come to know the Divine Nature itself, and in so doing be healed of his own misery and despair. Thus Boethius’s ultimate consolation, his real happiness and escape from darkness, is knowing God Himself.
All of this considered within its narrative context, however, might seem a bit odd. For most people sitting in prison and awaiting their own execution, abstract metaphysical contemplation is not the most obvious or immediate source of comfort to which to turn. What is perhaps even more strange, and what has perplexed scholars for centuries, is that Boethius himself was a Christian (and indeed is a canonized saint), and yet mentions nothing explicitly of his faith in the Consolation. Almost all of the material from which he draws is taken from the ancient Greek philosophers or the neoplatonists. [*] Why a discourse with a personified Philosophy, rather than, say, an angel, or even Christ Himself? Why, in the hour of his darkness, does Boethius turn to intellectual pursuit in the first place, rather than some other means of emotional and existential nourishment?
There are various proposed answers to the question of the absence of explicit Christian reference in the Consolation, but I want to focus here on the broader question of “why philosophy?”
That most people today would not think of engaging in philosophical rumination in such a situation is a reflection of the impoverished understanding of philosophy we have inherited. But philosophy in its ancient and most profound sense was simply a love of wisdom (in the Greek, literally philo [love] sophia [wisdom]), a pursuit of knowledge and a devoted seeking after the sublime beauty of truth. Philosophy was not just a remote academic field, it was quite literally a “way of life”. Philosophy was about seeking truth in order to know how to live well. The ancient philosophers understood, at least in theory, that truth demands something of us. That our lives must be shaped by it, must accord to it. Why? Because “all men by nature desire to know” . It is the very nature of man to know, to seek knowledge; man is intrinsically directed towards truth. And not just knowledge/truth as in obscure facts, but knowledge of the deepest things, of the first things, the principles of things. This was wisdom in its richest meaning.
Hierarchy reflects order, and in an ordered universe, truth is comprehensive. It’s no mistake that Aristotle’s ethics is directly connected to his metaphysics. To know how we ought to live, we must first know what it means to be human; and knowing what it means to be human involves also understanding the reality in which humans exist. And the very foundation of that reality, its very source, is the Divine Wisdom. This is what Boethius discovers as he ascends from darkness to light, from despair to happiness, from the lower things to the higher things, to the heights of knowledge itself, and beyond. Philosophy is a love of wisdom and a seeking of truth; and so ultimately it is a love and seeking of God Himself. Man is intrinsically directed towards truth because he is the image of God, and God is Truth Itself. The wisdom of man is a participation in and a longing for the infinite fullness of the Divine Wisdom. As St. Augustine wrote:
“The human mind lies open to truth . . . It will be happy if it comes to find joy only in that truth by which all things are true . . . Where I discovered the truth there I found my God, truth itself” .
So when Boethius turns to philosophy for his consolation, he’s turning not to obscure, irrelevant questions, but rather to that Truth by which all things are true, to that Wisdom which fashioned the cosmos and in which alone the restless human mind can hope to find its peace.
Despite this, Boethius’ ascent is difficult, and he cannot do it alone, on his own effort. His mind is so entangled in the lowly things, his eyes so blinded by the dust, that he cannot on his own gaze upon the stars. That is the whole purpose of Lady Philosophy, arriving to aide and guide his journey upwards to the heavens. As one reads the narrative, one cannot help but recognize at least subtle affinities between the embodiment of Lady Philosophy and the personified Lady Wisdom from the biblical text of Proverbs 8, who declares that “I love those who love me, and those who seek me diligently find me” , and goes on to poetically describe how God created all things through Her. In other words, all things are created in, ordered by, and directed to the Divine Wisdom. And it is only by this Wisdom that man can hope to ascend to the knowledge of God, which is his final end, his beatitude, his ultimate good and happiness. So Lady Wisdom exhorts: “He who finds me finds life” .
This understanding of the Divine Wisdom came to be encapsulated in another term: the Logos. The Logos, as the Greeks understood it, was the ordering principle behind and intrinsic to all reality. What God’s Wisdom was to the Hebrews, the Logos was to the Greeks. Knowledge of this was the fundamental aim of all philosophical endeavor. And so it is into this context that St. John writes perhaps the most wondrous and profound words ever written:
“In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos was with God, and the Logos was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it . . . AND THE LOGOS BECAME FLESH AND DWELT AMONG US, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only-begotten Son from the Father” .
Here is where everything comes full circle. Insofar as man is by nature directed towards truth, he is directed towards the Divine Wisdom, the Logos, his fulfillment, beatitude, and ultimate happiness. But there is a problem: man is also incapable, on his own, of lifting himself to the Divine Wisdom, and hence is incapable of reaching his true fulfillment. Why? As St. Augustine expounds upon in his Confessions, we have become fixated on the lowly things, the finite goods that cannot fulfill our true nature. In the Christian tradition, this is the consequence of sin. Sin has corrupted the whole nature of man, such that we have become lower than the very beasts, driven by desire for pleasure and other lowly things which make our capacity for reason subservient to our senses. The effect is that we cannot hope to ascend the hierarchy of knowledge to the Divine Wisdom if we are imprisoned, beneath our dignity, on the first rung.
That is why the narrative of Boethius’s Consolation begins with him in such a state:
“[He lies] prostrate prisoner of night.
His neck bends low in shackles thrust,
And he is forced beneath the weight
To contemplate — the lowly dust” .
The tragedy of sin (one of them, at least) is that human nature, which is meant to be “free to contemplate the crimson sun, the frozen fairness of the moon . . . to comprehend and to commune with planets in their wandering ways”, and, through all this, to ultimately “comprehend and commune” with the Divine Itself, is instead imprisoned to its lusts and passions and mere senses and can only muster the strength to contemplate the dust beneath its feet.
Thus, the problem is that we cannot on our own ascend the hierarchy of knowledge to the Divine. And so the only solution is that the Divine must invert the entire hierarchy and descend to us. And this It has in fact done, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Logos became flesh and dwelt among us. Our natures in ruin, our minds fixed upon lowly flesh and dust, we could not lift our minds to the Divine Wisdom; and so the Divine Wisdom lowered Itself into dust, became flesh, in order that It might ultimately lift us back towards Itself. We were imprisoned to our senses, and so the Divine Wisdom entered into the realm of our senses, in order that we might perceive Him by our senses, and in this be lifted back up, ascending the hierarchy until we reach that transcendent Light. We could comprehend only dust, and so He became dust. Our gaze becomes fixed on Him in the flesh, but it follows Him upwards in His ascension, transcending senses, imagination, and even reason, until it can finally rest in its proper place, beholding the Divine Essence in Beatific Vision.
First our senses perceive Him in the flesh; then our imaginations are captured by His story (think of Lewis’s and Tolkien’s consideration of the Gospel as the “True Myth”); then our reason is raised to fulfillment in the Divine Wisdom. Our nature can be perfected, the hierarchy can be ascended, but only because it was first descended by the Divine.
A similar epistemological interpretation of the Incarnation is also found in St. Athanasius’s On the Incarnation:
“For since human beings, having rejected the contemplation of God and as though sunk in an abyss with their eyes held downwards, seeking God in creation and things perceptible . . . for this reason the lover of human beings and the common Savior of all, takes to himself a body and dwells as human among humans and draws to himself the perceptible senses of all human beings, so that . . . [all might] know the truth and through him might consider the Father” .
It is extremely difficult to even begin to take in the profundity of the Incarnation. This epistemological angle is by no means the only (or even most significant) one from which the central Mystery of the Faith can be contemplated, by it is nonetheless powerful and overawing. In the Incarnation, the Logos, the ordering principle of the whole universe, became a human being, so that it might reveal to humanity the fullness of the Divine Wisdom. How startling, that that man hanging upon a cross, is He in Whom the whole cosmos holds together. The Greeks wanted to discern the Logos that they might learn how to live well as human beings. The Christians shouted that they had met the Logos in person, and had seen and experienced in Him what it means to be truly human.
So St. Justin Martyr wrote:
“For not only among the Greeks through Socrates were these things revealed by reason [logos], but also among the Barbarians [non-Greeks] were they revealed by logos personally, when He had taken shape, and become man, and was called Jesus Christ” .
“What we have, then, appears to be greater than all human teaching, because the whole rational principle became Christ, who appeared for our sake. For whatever either lawgivers or philosophers uttered well, they elaborated according to their share of logos by invention and contemplation . . . Therefore, whatever things were rightly said among all people are the property of us Christians. For next to God, we worship and love the logos who is from the unbegotten and ineffable God, since also He became man for our sakes, that, becoming a partaker of our sufferings, He might also bring us healing” .
St. Justin’s point is that whenever anyone, even pagan philosophers, reasoned to some truth, they were grasping at least a part or a seed of the underlying order and meaning of the universe — they were grasping at the Logos. But the Christian Faith contains the Logos in full, because it contains Him in the flesh. The wise men could look down upon the sleeping babe and say truly, “Within this little manger is contained the meaning and purpose of the entirety of existence”.
Hierarchies reflect order. Order is directed by the Logos. The hierarchy of knowledge was disordered through the fall of man, when our reason was lowered and subordinated beneath our senses, instead of ruling them as they were meant to. The hierarchy was thus disordered, and the only solution was for the Divine Wisdom to further disorder it by lowering Himself, so that it might ultimately be returned to proper order. The unfathomable depth of the Divine Wisdom is such that through disorder itself He can fashion perfect order.
Of course, Boethius himself never actually refers to the Incarnation at all, or to “sin”. But the principles running throughout his overall narrative and discussion can be applied to, and help make sense of, the profound, utterly incomprehensible, glorious reality of the Incarnation.
. See the introduction by Victor Watts, page xvii, of: Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
. Boethius. Consolation. 126.
. Ibid., 128.
. Ibid., 126.
. Ibid., 127.
. Ibid., 131.
[*]. See the introduction by Victor Watts of: Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. New York: Penguin Books, 1999.
. McKeon, Richard, editor. “Metaphysics” in The Basic Works of Aristotle. New York: Random House, Inc, 1941. 980a1.
. Augustine. Confessions. Translated by Henry Chadwick. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. 200.
. Proverbs 8:17, Revised Standard Version (RSV).
. Proverbs 8:34, RSV.
. John 1:1-15, RSV.
. Boethius. Consolation. 6.
. Saint Athanasius. On the Incarnation. Translated by John Behr. New York: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011. 65.
. St. Justin Martyr. The First and Second Apologies. Translated by Leslie William Barnard. New York: Paulist Press, 1997. 26.
. Ibid., 80-84.
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