I recently finished reading Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy. It was both fun to read and provocative.
What struck me most was how much this sort of philosophy has in common with today’s positive psychology (e.g., Seligman, Gilbert), not to mention Dr. Phil, Oprah, and various talk radio hosts. This makes sense, as the observed phenomena of human psychology are the same now as they were 1,500 years ago.
The differences come in the “treatments” for the “ailments”—though when it comes to positive psychology, little progress has been made, as you will see if you read the Greco-Roman moralists or someone like Boethius. In them, you’ll find the same advice as today on topics like habituation to pleasure, positional goods and accepting death. Not surprising.
Since Boethius’ work is in the Christian tradition (though I dare say his conception of “God” is probably quite different from someone’s today), this got me thinking about religion and its usefulness. The following assertions seem likely to be true:
- Progress is change for the better, and the only source of such progress is science. Without science, we’d all be much worse off. But…
- Religion isn’t necessarily bad. There are helpful religious doctrines and harmful ones. Without religion, we might all be worse off. In any event, religion isn’t going away. It appears to be a human universal.
- Religion shouldn’t be thought of as always conflicting with science. The two domains do different things. When there is a clash between the two on some factual matter (such as the age of the Earth), religion needs to yield. Still, that leaves plenty of room for religion to thrive.
- Religion’s purpose is to armor us against “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” Or, as psychologists might today put it, religion’s purpose is to help us develop a robust “psychological immune system,” something which we we all need.
- Religious intolerance makes little sense. It’s Martin Seligman trying to Burn Daniel Gilbert at the stake for disagreeing with him.