In the philosopher Boethius’ vision of God and of God’s justice, one suffers but endures—and awaits the end of suffering with noble resolve.
In fact, one might infer that Boethius describes a God Who is even more aloof from justice in the individual physical life than is the God of Job. The God implicit in Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy seems too concerned with long-range plans to be caught up in the physical difficulties of individuals, or even with the difficulties of humankind as a whole at a given point in human history. After all, according to Boethius, everything in history will work itself out over time, and each individual will receive his or her due recompense in the afterlife.
From this point of view physical reality has value insofar as it informs us through our experience that everything in this life is capricious, subject to change, transitory, and unworthy of our attention or desire. One major symbol of physical reality for the Boethian philosophy (which, as noted earlier, upheld Christian stoicism) became the image of the Wheel of Fortune.
According to this symbolic allusion, each of us is seated in a chair affixed to a vast wheel. Dame Fortune gives the wheel a spin, and it stops wherever it will, without rhyme or reason as regards our individual needs or actions. Some of us will be on top. Some of us will be on the bottom. The rest will be somewhere in between.
The meaning of the image is clear enough—that nothing in this life is secure, rational or predictable. Consequently, from such a perspective nothing material is worthy of our concern, be it material wealth, social status, physical health, or peace of mind. For as surely as we are in a state of felicity today, tomorrow may bring us a reversal of fortunes.
This sense of insecurity about physical reality was the basis for the debate in medieval Christianity about whether it is best to retire from the physical world and devote our lives to prayer and meditation (the vita contemplativa, or contemplative life) or to wage war against the forces of injustice and suffering by working in the world to assist humankind (the vita activa).
The Boethian philosophy does not imply that justice is nonexistent in the physical world, but Boethius does portray it as beyond our comprehension or attainment so long as we dwell within its precincts. Therefore, from Boethius’ perspective the just or appropriate response to physical reality is to focus attention on the much more important next life by preparing spiritually to enter that existence. For Boethius, physical activity not only seems lacking in any inherent spiritual value; it may also become an explicit deterrent to the just purposes of humankind, especially if we become obsessed with fame or wealth.
Whether Boethius intended it or not, his philosophy became a bulwark for the contemplative life and the ascetic ideal. It became the manifesto of a Christian stoicism, which affirmed that it is best simply to endure life until death ends the drudgery and pain that is man’s lot in the physical world.
Taken out of context, some passages from the Baha’i writings might seem to indicate an attitude closely aligned with the dreary Boethian assessment of physical reality and our participation in it:
Abandon not the everlasting beauty for a beauty that must die, and set not your affections on this mortal world of dust. – Ibid., p. 26.
Free thyself from the fetters of this world, and loose thy soul from the prison of self. Seize thy chance, for it will come to thee no more. – Ibid., p. 36.
Likewise, in another passage Baha’u’llah indicates that, as Boethius’ work implies, we may have to await the next life before we receive justice and recompense:
Sorrow not if, in these days and on this earthly plane, things contrary to your wishes have been ordained and manifested by God, for days of blissful joy, of heavenly delight, are assuredly in store for you. – Baha’u’llah, Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah, p. 329.
But this Baha’i passage does not stop here. It goes on to hint at a vast difference between the Baha’i view and Boethius’ implications about what should be our response to physical life:
Worlds, holy and spiritually glorious, will be unveiled to your eyes. You are destined by Him, in this world and hereafter, to partake of their benefits, to share in their joys, and to obtain a portion of their sustaining grace. – Ibid.
Baha’u’llah is addressing those who labor to follow his teachings and live a moral life, and makes it clear that spiritual endeavors bring existential rewards in this life as well as further bounty in the afterlife. Likewise, instead of implying the Manichaean view of physical reality as an inherently unspiritual reality, the Baha’i writings repeatedly assert that all physical creation as an emanation of God bears the imprint of the Creator—and has the capacity to convey some insight about the nature of spirituality.
But the Baha’i writings are more explicit still in rejecting the stoicism implicit in Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. According to the Baha’i teachings, to reject earthly life is to neglect the divine purposes for which physical reality and our experience in this reality have been created. Therefore, withdrawal from the world is viewed as inappropriate, unjust, a dereliction of divinely ordained duty and capacity.
The Baha’i writings do indeed caution us about the dangers of the physical world, but all are commanded to have a vocation, to earn a livelihood, and to contribute to society. Furthermore, the Baha’i writings do not portray these as incidental or arbitrary activities—simply something to occupy our time and keep us out of trouble. As we will later discuss, at the heart of this exhortation is the underlying fact that only through action does our knowledge about reality become experienced and confirmed:
Love ye all religions and all races with a love that is true and sincere and show that love through deeds and not through the tongue; for the latter hath no importance, as the majority of men are, in speech, well-wishers, while action is the best. – Abdu’l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu’l-Baha, p. 69.