“‘That the wicked are happier if they suffer punishment than if they are unrestrained by any just retribution. And do not have in mind what you may think, namely that wickedness is corrected by punishment and returned to the path of right by the fear of punishment, and is also an example to others to avoid punishable actions’” (97).
This passage from the Consolation of Philosophy is perhaps the most profound statement in the book. It appears here with a certain irony in the first place, because Boethius has done nothing to deserve his imprisonment and exile. Nevertheless, Philosophy knows his life is about to end, so she must help him review all the important questions in life and come to an understanding of how to answer them and apply them to his own life. Boethius must define happiness and understand justice and injustice so he can make peace with God about his situation before his death.
Now that we know how this remark fits Philosophy’s designs, we can analyze it from our human viewpoint. Man has long reduced crime and punishment to a single chain of events: someone commits a crime, the law administers just punishment, and the criminal (more often than not) suffers enough to learn his lesson. Philosophy insists this school of thought is flawed because it fails to take into account the emotional and spiritual forces already at work on the criminal at the time of his arrest. Most criminals suffer extreme guilt in their wrongdoings, but they do not know how to stop and correct their ways. The punishment they endure when they are brought to justice may take away their physical freedom, but freedom from their guilt is really what matters. After all, freedom and happiness are states of the mind, not of the body. One can be free to go wherever he pleases and do whatever he likes, but if he is wracked by guilt, he is neither happy nor truly free. Punishment lessens guilt, and for most criminals, and less guilt means more true happiness.
Many people pity convicted criminals. We imagine they must endure terrible emotional pain over the loss of their freedom. Sometimes we think that if they only had another chance at life under slightly better circumstances, they would turn from their wrongdoings. Yet Philosophy reminds us that crime results from a cycle of pride and impure thought that resides in the mind, not in one’s environment. With physical freedom gone, one can better concentrate on freeing his mind and soul. Now that Boethius is in prison, he has an enhanced ability to see how this principle works. At first he despaired, much as we suspect any prisoner would, over the loss of his freedom, but then he discovered how much of it actually remained. Philosophy has already established that governments have little power over the human mind and soul, and it is in these two realms which healing from guilt and making peace with God occur. Boethius does not have any guilt to overcome, but like anyone facing trials and punishments, he must make peace with God before he dies. Ironically, prison is the perfect place to go about that task. Here he can be alone with himself, Philosophy, and God. With Philosophy’s help, he comes to a greater understanding of himself and of the nature of God. In the end, Philosophy heals him of his bitterness and helps him set his mind and soul free on the way to their final resting place.