Consolation, Book III prose X:
For everything is said to be imperfect is held to be so by some loss of its perfection. Which is why, if something is seen as imperfect in any genus, there it is necessary that there be some perfect thing in it. For if you take away the perfection, it cannot even be imagined (fingi) how something might be held to be imperfect. For reality (natura rerum) does not take its origin from what is lower or unmade, but, proceeding from things whole and absolute, it falls down into these last, worn down things.
omne enim quod imperfectum esse dicitur id imminutione perfecti imperfectum esse perhibetur. Quo fit ut, si in quolibet genere imperfectum quid esse uideatur, in eo perfectum quoque aliquid esse necesse sit; etenim perfectione sublata unde illud quod imperfectum perhibetur exstiterit ne fingi quidem potest. Neque enim ab deminutis inconsummatisque natura rerum cepit exordium, sed ab integris absolutisque procedens in haec extrema atque effeta dilabitur.
Gerrigou- Lagrange argues that all the proofs for the existence of God are contained virtually in the principle that Boethius articulates here. I think he is right, but there is an ominous corollary to the point since, mutatis mutandis, all such proofs are virtually refuted or made impossible for one who thinks this principle is false or impossible. And since the whole edifice of Scholastic theology rests on the initial view we get of God from the arguments about his existence, one who considers Boethius’s axiom might see all scholastic theology as standing in the balance.
We can, I think, get a view of Boethius’ claim that makes it axiomatic. Imperfection is to fall short of something, and nothing can fall short of what doesn’t exist. We can’t play the game “you’re getting warmer- you’re getting colder” without some real object that we can be closer or further from.The axiomatic character of the claim is manifested in the words – imperfect = non-perfect, which presupposes that the perfect is already known and given before the imperfect is even thought of.
On the other hand, we can understand why someone would take exception with Boethius. It is not clear how this axiom is about nature – in fact, does it even make sense to speak of coming to be from the perfect? “Perfect” means done – it is not a term applied to initial conditions. The scholastics were aware of this, of course, and so they placed “the perfect” which is present at the beginning in the order of intention. But isn’t this to simply add an entire idealized order on top of the nature that we actually observe?
But a more radical objection to Boethius sees the very idea of perfect or imperfect as, at best, concepts of only limited application to nature. It might make some sense to speak of living things as maturing and thus as moving to a definite perfection, but most of the universe is neither alive nor presently involved with its generation or benefit. Is there any sense to speaking of weather patterns, planetary orbits, radioactive decay, tidal forces, the voyage of a photon from Rigel to Jupiter, etc. as perfect? So far as the Medievals knew about any of these things, they really did strive to relate them to some perfection – in general, they saw the cyclical motions of nature as essentially subordinate to the generation of life.
But the fundamental problem we have with seeing nature as Boethius sees it comes from being trained to see that the real view of nature is the one where the qualities of things recede into a background of mere lines and equations. Reality for us is the fact – shown by evidence, that is, the object appearing to us in a domain under our control. Whatever one wants to say about such a domain, there is no perfect or imperfect realities in it. The first sense we have of what is perfect or imperfect is from our ideas of good and evil (which might be why the first definition that Aristotle gives of “quality” is that in virtue of which a man is such-and-such), and good an evil are not under realities we control but realities that, fundamentally, we must accept. Thus in our very first idea of the perfect we divide it from fact (which gives rise to our strange, mythical oppositions of experience into facts and values, the objective and the subjective, the practical and the ideal, the quantifiable and qualia, etc.)