Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy (Possessions)

Even if the gifts of Fortune were not momentary and uncertain, there is nothing about them that can ever really be made your own, and they are vile in themselves if you look at them carefully. Are riches naturally precious, or are they precious because of some virtue of yours? What is precious about them, the gold metal or the pile of money? Wealth seems better when it is spent than when it is in the bank, for avarice makes men hated, but liberality makes them popular. But that which is given away is no longer possessed, so that money is more precious when it is generously got rid of. And if all the money in the world were acquired by one man, everyone else would be penniless. The sound of a voice can be given equally to many hearers, but money cannot be distributed among many persons without impoverishing those who give it up. Riches, then, are miserable and troublesome: they cannot be fully possessed by many people, and they cannot be acquired by some without loss to others.

The brilliance of jewels is eye-catching, but the thing of special value is the light of the gems rather than in the eye of the beholder. I am amazed that men prize them so highly. For what is there about a thing which lacks the life of the soul and the articulation of the body which can rightly be thought beautiful by human beings who have living, rational natures? It is true that all things derive a certain beauty from the Creator and from their own variety; but they are too far beneath your excellence for you to marvel at them.

You are, of course, delighted by the beauty of the open fields. And why not, since this is a beautiful part of a very beautiful creation. In the same way we are pleased by a serene sea, we admire the sky, the stars, the sun and the moon; but do any of these things belong to you? How then can you glory in their splendor? You are not adorned with spring flowers, nor are you laden with summer fruit. When you act as though such external goods are your own, you are deluded by foolish satisfaction. Fortune can never make things yours which nature made foreign to you. No doubt the fruits of the earth are given to animals and men for their food; but, if you simply wish to satisfy the demands of nature, there is no reason why you should struggle for the superfluities of Fortune. For nature’s needs are few and small; if you try to glut yourself with too many things, you will find your excesses either unpleasant or positively harmful.

Or perhaps you pride yourself on fine clothes. Well, if they are handsome to look at, I would admire either the quality of the material of the skill of the tailor. Perhaps you think that a large number of servants can make you happy… [but] how can their honesty be considered any virtue of yours?

Therefore, it ought to be clear that none of these things which you are inclined to take credit for really belong to you. And if there is no desirable beauty in these things, why should you regret losing them, or be particularly elated to possess them? If they are beautiful by nature, what is that to you? They would be pleasing to you even if they belonged to someone else. They are not precious because you have them; you desire to have them because they seem precious.

What then do you want from Fortune with all your strident demands? I suppose you are trying to avoid poverty by acquiring possessions. But you will find just the opposite: you will need more in order to keep the various valuable things you have. Those who have much, need much; and, on the contrary, those who limit their possessions to their natural needs, rather than to their excessive ambitions, need very little. Do you try to satisfying your desires with external goods which are foreign to you because you have no good within you which belongs to you? What an upside-down state of affairs when a man who is divine by his gift of reason thinks his excellence depends on the possession of lifeless bric-a-brac! Other creatures are content with what they have; but you, made in the likeness of God by virtue of your reason, choose ornaments for your excellent nature from base things, without understanding how great an injury you do to your Creator. God wished the human race to be superior to all earthly things, but you have lowered your dignity below the level of the most trivial things. For, if it is true that the good thing in which something else finds its good is more precious than the something else which counts it his good, then when you judge vile things to be your goods, you lower yourself beneath them by your own estimate and so deservedly become so. For a man is constituted so that when he knows himself he excels all other things; but when he forgets who he is, he becomes worse than the beasts. It is natural for other living things not to know who they are, but in man such ignorance is vice. Your error is painfully evident if you suppose that a man can improve himself by adding ornaments that are not his own. It cannot be done; for if a thing attracts attention by added decoration, that which is added is praised, but that which is covered and disguised remains as base as ever.

Moreover, I deny that anything can be considered good which harms the one who has it… And riches are frequently harmful to those who possess them. Desperate men are greedy for things that belong to others and think that possession alone is enough to make a man worthy of riches and jewels… What a blessing worldly riches are: when you have them, you have lost your safety!


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