Essay / Philosophy

Boethius and Divine Simplicity

Perhaps you have heard of the term “divine simplicity.” The basic meaning is that God is one – he has no distinct or separate parts that can in any way be in conflict with each other. Often this doctrine is employed in the context of discussions concerning the divine character. One might say that God’s justice and mercy were at odds with each other, for instance, and then qualify or correct that by means of divine simplicity, arguing that because God is one, his mercy is a just mercy, and his justice is a merciful justice. The implications of divine simplicity for how we think about the attributes of God are immense.

In Boethius we find an altogether different use for this ancient doctrine. At the conclusion of Book III, Boethius says to Lady Philosophy: “You are playing with me, aren’t you, by weaving a labyrinth of arguments from which I can’t find the way out…. Or are you creating a wonderful circle of divine simplicity?” The answer is the latter, but it is the way that she is crafting this circle that is so fascinating.

God, being the end toward which all things move, the being and source of happiness, is in himself simple. This means that in God, happiness, goodness, fame, power and all other qualities mutually inform each other, being ultimately inseparable. But Boethius’ concern is not simply God’s character—rather, he is intent upon helping us understand our nature and condition amidst the turmoil of life, that we might be cured of the crippling lack of understanding which so ravages our lives.

We seek happiness. We long for it, and order our whole lives in attempts to obtain it. But how we do this is of vital importance. One well-trod path is to focus on one thing that which promises to bring us the joy we long for. Money offers us its services in this regard, and for the more sophisticated, power itself. As it turns out, however, pursuing any one thing such as power, fame or happiness proves to be inherently unstable, for power needs self-sufficiency, lest we be easily deprived of it at the whim of fortune. Likewise, fortune without happiness is of little use. Upon reflection, we aim not at one thing, but at a whole host of mutually informing goods. Pursuing any one of these at the expense of the others is self-defeating, for in and of themselves, apart from the others, they are not satisfying.

Why is this the case? Why is it that pursuing good things, such as love, power or justice, will ultimately wreak havoc on our lives? Boethius’ answer is that divine simplicity is just as relevant to human existence as it is to the divine. Because God is both simple and the source of fulfillment for all of creation, only divine simplicity will ultimately satisfy us. Being designed by God for God, nothing short of the divine simplicity will bring human existence to the flourishing it so desperately seeks. We long for divine simplicity.

Unpacking this statement, we long for a host of goods in the proper relationship and harmony to each other, which are only properly found in God. And it is only through participation in the divine life, that we will find this simplicity—the harmony of goodness and righteousness, power and constancy, fame and self-sufficiency…

The resources implicit within this vision of the relation between the good life and divine simplicity are immense. On the one hand, it demands that we continually seek to fill out the goods, virtues and divine characteristics for which we seek with other goods, virtues and divine attributes with which they properly belong. In other words, we can only properly strive to participate in the divine love and mercy by filling that out with the holiness and wisdom of God. The simplicity of God demands that we ever be on the move toward a fuller appreciation and participation in other aspects of the one and simple divine life. On the other hand, it points out and explains the incredibly destructive power of these goods when divorced from other aspects of the divine life. Mercy divorced from goodness is all too willing to leave a wound to fester into deadly infection, to slaughter the innocent to prevent pain and suffering. Justice divorced from wisdom is far too ready to blindly unleash judgment upon the victim. Self-sufficiency apart from compassion leaves others to rot as we embrace an artificial and self-satisfied complacency, surrounded by artificial environments.

The key to understanding ourselves, others, and broader cultural trends, Boethius implies, is not merely a matter of understanding that which we value most, but understanding how that which we most value relates to the whole life and character of God, within which it finds its meaning. Only in this way will the happiness, freedom, power, or other things that we seek be satisfied.

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