Boethius helps Cate agree that, "no man is a failure who has friends," just like she heard in the Christmas classic, It's a Wonderful Life.
It’s December, so it’s hard not to think about Christmas movies. One in particular has been on my mind. At the end of It’s a Wonderful Life, George Bailey’s brother declares him to be, “The richest man in Bedford Falls,” despite the financial ruin that has plagued him up to this point in the film. They conclude that, “No man is a failure who has friends.”
A week or two ago I joined some of students in a discussion of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Since teaching it previously, I’ve been thinking about something Lady Philosophy says to Boethius as he laments the apparent wealth and prosperity of the wicked.
Boethius observes that wicked men often have all they need, and then some. He says, “I seem to see the wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy,” while he, meanwhile, sits in prison, innocent of what he is accused.
In answer to his complaint, Lady Philosophy distinguishes between two types of good things. All men want the good in their lives, but some good things don’t do what they are supposed to for long. Lady Philosophy warns against the kind of happiness Boethius has observed among the wicked by saying, “The want that admits satisfaction necessarily still remains.”
She is arguing that such material goods as wealth and power can never ultimately satisfy because they constantly threaten diminishment, and as soon as they do diminish, the want you had at the beginning remains. You may go from poor to rich, and in so doing your desire for riches is temporarily satisfied. But as soon as you are poor again, the want for wealth resurfaces. It's a want that "admits satisfaction."
“The want that admits satisfaction necessarily still remains.”
Boethius’ Lady Philosophy, like others before her, goes on to argue that happiness lies in the self-sufficiency of truly good things. Whereas wealth and power will increase your dependance on themselves and the things that protect them, truly good things are, in a way, unthreatenable. Your satisfaction in them cannot diminish.
I think it must be this kind of good that makes George Bailey rich.
I don’t want to lapse into sentimentalism (as any argument about friendship is in constant danger of doing), but I think that other people must be a good in our life that falls into the second, less temporary category. Though no want can ever be truly satisfied on this earth, there comes a kind of fulfillment from right relationship that is unlike the happiness that money can buy. You cannot dominate or own true friends, nor can you reach the end of them. Relationship with another person is both something we want deeply, and something that will never admit satisfaction; loving someone is to always want more of them and for them.
Relationship with another person is both something we want deeply, and something that will never admit satisfaction; loving someone is to always want more of them and for them.
This might be why the line about riches at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life is so effective. George isn’t rich because a bunch of people gave him money; he is rich because he had people in his life that were willing to do so. Money he will need more of soon, but he already has the friends he needs.
So, when George Bailey is declared the richest man in Bedford Falls, I think it must be fairly true. He has a thing that will never leave him wanting because it refuses to be cheaply attained. He has found a good he will never find the end of: his friends.
Cate is the Head of Academics for K-12 at The Saint Constantine School. She is the founder and former Director of The Academy, an innovative, great books-based, dual-credit program at Houston Baptist University. She serves as the Director of Staff and Student Care for Wheatstone Ministries.
Cate has a Master of Arts in Spiritual Formation and Soul Care from Talbot School of Theology, and a degree in English Literature from Biola University, where she is a perpetual member of The Torrey Honors Institute. She writes and speaks regularly on education, homeschooling, and helping kids grow into mature Christian adults.