Philosophy and Coercion: Boethius on Torture

I’ve written a few posts about non-coercive power and how it can be created and shared through genuine co-deliberation — or what I’ve been calling serious conversations. In the course of my work on this topic, I’ve discovered that good examples of non-coercive power, the kind of real-world examples that illustrate the concept with anecdotal detail and stick with you after you read them, are not so easy to find.

More often than not, history shows us the other side of the coin — namely, coercive power. This is the case when it comes to the history of philosophy as well; and philosophers have written and thought about coercive power and its exercise by the state at least since the days of Socrates.

The release of the Senate CIA Torture Report today sent me back to one of my favorite philosophers: Boethius (480-525 AD), who discussed coercion and torture in a work called The Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius wrote the Consolation while he himself was imprisoned — and, according to some sources, tortured — before being executed by Theodoric the Great. The Consolation takes the form of a dialogue between Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who appears to Boethius when he is at his most wretched.

Philosophy consoles Boethius

The  passage I remembered today is from Book 2 (Pr 6), where Philosophy argues that what we ordinarily prize as power is actually weakness, or just a temporary advantage that we are likely bound to lose. Another turn of Fortune’s wheel, and the torturer might suffer the very torments he inflicts: a vicious circle. Virtue lies in self-possession:

What, indeed, is this power which you think so very desirable? You should consider, poor earthly animals, what it is that you seem to have in your power. If you should see a mouse seizing power and lording it over the other mice, how you would laugh! But if you consider only his body, what is weaker than a man who can be killed by the bites of insects or by worms finding their way into him? For who can force any law upon man, except upon his body, or upon his fortune which is less than his body. You can never impose upon a free spirit nor can you deprive a rationally self-possessed mind of its equanimity. Once, when a certain tyrant tried to torture a free man into betraying the partners of his conspiracy against the tyrant, the man bit off his tongue and spat it in the raging tyrant’s face. In this way the torments which the tyrant inflicted as the means of his cruelty, this wise man made the means of virtuous action. Indeed, what can any man do to another which another may not do to him? We recall that Busirus, who was accustomed to kill his guests, was himself slain by his guest, Hercules. Regulus had bound many of his African captives in chains; but before long he was himself chained by his captors. How slight is the power of a man who cannot prevent someone else from doing to him what he does to others.

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