25 May, 2008

Deal or no deal?

I wonder how many sermons and homilies have been preached, based on the television show Deal or No Deal. I also wonder how many of these sermons have been informed by the learned writings of a philosopher who had something to say about losing the ultimate deal.

One of the more pleasant aspects of graduate study was having the time to read the best Christian books by the best Christian authors.* Among these was Boethius' Consolations of Philosophy.

What do I always remember when I think of this book? This photograph:

Do not let this photograph give you the wrong idea; I finished and appreciated very much Boethius' take on life. It had just been a long day, and I was beat.

So who is this Boethius character, and what does he have to do with Deal or No Deal? Simply put: If you think your life is unfair, well, you're right. Life is unfair. Boethius' life was unfair, too.

However, Boethius fancied himself a Christian philosopher, so rather than complain about how his life was so unfair, he whiled away his time in jail trying to understand why, if the world was ruled by a just and reasonable God, it seemed as if a capricious goddess named Fortuna ran the show instead. He describes his thoughts as a conversation with Sapientia, that is, Wisdom personified as a woman. Actually, if my memory serves, the conversation tends to be dominated by Sapientia, who occasionally scolds Boethius for being so shallow.

That's rather remarkable. Boethius was a learned man in an age where learning had become rare. One of his life's great works was an attempt to preserve the ideas of Greek philosophy by translating them from Greek into Latin, making them more accessible to Westerners who were less and less likely to understand Greek. The premature end of his life cut that short, but I understand that the completed aspects of this project had an immense influence on the Middle Ages.

Yet Sapientia scolds him for being shallow. Why? For remarks like this:

In omni adversitate fortunae
infelicissimum est genus infortunii fuisse felicem.

(In every adversity of fortune,
the most unhappy kind of misfortune
is to have been happy.)
To this, she replies,
Adeo nihil est miserum nisi cum putes, contraque beata sors omnis est aequanimitate tolerantis. Quis est ille tam felix, qui cum dederit impatientiae manus statum suum mutare non optet?

I will observe that nothing is miserable unless you should think it so, and to the contrary a blessed lot is for all who endure calmly. What man is so happy, that when the hand of insufferability causes his status to change, he is delighted by it?
It's been too long since I've read this; I remember the spirit of these quotes, but I found them online, traced them back to the original Latin (also online), and translated them.

Anyway, what brings him to mind when I watch Deal or No Deal? The profound unfairness of the game, actually. It's a game based very much on chance: you have to be picked to play, you have to pick the right cases, etc. No skill or merit is involved at all. If that doesn't look a lot like how many of us start our lives, I don't know what does.

Even in the course of the game, the outcome can be determined by capricious chance. A few weeks ago, they had some spinwheel that could double, triple, or halve your earnings. One contestant's modest winnings were halved; another's were doubled. Why? Because the wheel of Fortune stopped that way. They couldn't very well affect its outcome deliberately.

Last week, meanwhile, they had a bizarre contraption where a woman picked a ball from the air, and that ball determined how many million-dollar cases she received. That strikes me as grossly unfair to all the players who came before her and had only one million-dollar case to shoot for (and often lost it quickly).

So, yeah, life's unfair to losers, and this awful television show really drives that point home. It's not particular fair to winners, either; Boethius for example spent most of his life as a successful civil servant, public citizen, and scholar, only to end up losing his head on account of a king's paranoia.

Strangely, I can't really remember the point of the book, except that Sapientia tells Boethius that if he wishes to enjoy the fortunes of Fortuna, he can hardly reject her misfortunes as well, as that is her nature. But Sapientia gives, gives, and gives again; with every new gift, more becomes available, even at the moment of death. From Boethius' Christian perspective, of course, Sapientia is not merely human wisdom, or philosophy, but is informed and enlightened by the wisdom of God.

I think I'll read that book again. Don't know how I'll find the time, though.

It turns out that I should refer to him as St. Boethius. I had forgotten about that.

*In may case, of course, it may be said of me what President Lincoln is reputed to have said after hearing a lecture by a scholar of his day: Never has anyone dived so deeply into the wells of knowledge, and come up so dry.


Brandon said...

The point of the book:

And since this is the way things are, this remains unchanged for mortals: an inviolate freedom of independent judgment. [The] Laws [of providence] are not unjust, and they assign rewards and punishments to wills that are free of every necessity. God also remains unchanged, looking down from on high with foreknowledge of all things....Nor are hopes and prayers placed in God in vain; they cannot help but be effective, provided that they are blameless. Therefore, all of you: Avoid vices, cherish virtues; raise up your minds to blameless hopesl extend your humble prayers into the lofty heights. Unless you want to hide the truth, there is a great necessity imposed upon you--the necessity of righteousness, since you act before the eyes of a judge who beholds all things.

It's easy to forget the 'St.' part for Boethius; he was never on the universal calendar, and his feast day (October 23) is not widely celebrated. He is on some local calendars, though, from what I understand.

jack perry said...

Thank you. :-) I was hoping you might have something to say about it.

Looking at your weblog, I wonder if the reason I made the connection between the show & Boethius is that you've posted so much on Boethius—and most of that in the past 5 months!

Brandon said...

I teach the Consolation in my intro philosophy courses, so I end up reading and re-reading it (or reading about it); hence the posting.