Article abstract: Adding knowledge of Greek thought to his Christian Roman background, Boethius became one of the most important mediators between the ancient and medieval worlds.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born into the patrician Roman family of the Anicii, whose members figure prominently in Roman history as far back as the Third Macedonian War in the second century b.c.e. The Manlius and Severinus families also could boast of eminent forebears. Boethius’ own father held several important offices under Odovacar, the first Germanic ruler of the Italian peninsula. In 480, the supposed year of Boethius’ birth, the old Roman families were adjusting and contributing to the reign of a “barbarian” king. When Boethius’ father died, perhaps in the early 490’s, another distinguished Roman, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, became the boy’s guardian.
An old tradition that Boethius was sent to Athens to study Greek has no basis in fact; he might as well have been sent to Alexandria, which by the late fifth century had replaced Athens as a center of Greek studies. Wherever he studied, it is clear that Boethius mastered Greek at a time when it was becoming a lost skill in Rome, and in the process he developed a strong interest in the great Greek philosophers on whom Roman thinkers had depended heavily for centuries. It is likely that Plato’s Republic convinced him of the advisability of philosophers entering public life, and he combined an ambitious program of study and writing with public service. As a young man, he married Rusticiana, his guardian’s daughter, with whom he had two sons. Boethius may have met the Ostrogothic king Theodoric, who had displaced Odovacar, in 500 when the ruler, who maintained his headquarters at Ravenna, visited Rome. At any rate, many of the traditional Roman offices persisted, and Boethius rose to the consulship in 510, when he was about thirty.
Boethius’ earlier writings cannot be dated with any confidence. Of his five theological tractates, De Trinitate (On the Trinity), dedicated to his father-in-law, Symmachus, shows his determination to use reason in support of a doctrine which he recognized as standing firmly on a foundation of Christian faith. His interest in harmonizing revealed religion with the discoveries of pre-Christian thinkers foreshadows the work of the medieval Scholastic philosophers many centuries later. On the Trinity represents his attempt to reconcile for intellectual Christians the seemingly contradictory doctrines that God was one but consisted of three persons.
In addition to the tractates, Boethius wrote on all four subjects of the ancient quadrivium: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, although his works on the last two subjects have not survived. His most voluminous extant works, however, deal with one of the subjects of the trivium: logic. He translated treatises by Aristotle and Porphyry, wrote commentaries on these works as well as on Cicero’s Topica, and produced original monographs on such subjects as categorical syllogisms and systems of logical classification. His overriding ambition, to harmonize the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, probably bogged down amid the pressures of his public career.
After serving as consul, he became a Roman senator according to ancient tradition, and in 520 or 522 he obtained an important post with authority over most other government positions, the magister officiorum, or Master of Offices. This appointment would have involved moving to Theodoric’s court at Ravenna and leaving behind the library at Rome that had sustained his scholarly endeavors. Also in 522, his sons were both appointed as consuls, although Boethius himself at this time could not have been much more than forty years of age.
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, or Master of Offices. This appointment would have involved moving to Theodoric’s court at Ravenna and leaving behind the library at Rome that had sustained his scholarly endeavors. Also in 522, his sons were both appointed as consuls, although Boethius himself at this time could not have been much more than forty years of age.
With family prestige at this high point, Boethius was drawn into the struggle between Italy’s Ostrogothic king and the Roman senate. Theodoric, who had been educated in Constantinople and who owed his kingship to the Eastern Roman emperor Zeno, brought with him a substantial retinue of his Germanic brethren, many of them subscribers to the Arian heresy, which held that Jesus was not coeternal with God the Father. Despite the potential for ethnic and religious conflict, Theodoric established a reputation for tolerance, impartiality, and devotion to the goals of peace and prosperity. Yet it was Theodoric who imprisoned, tortured, and eventually executed the renowned scholar and previously trusted official, Boethius.
Like philosophically minded civil servants before and after his time, Boethius found much to distress him in government, including rampant corruption. “Private pillage and public tributes,” as he put it, depleted the treasury, and when he interceded to protect principled officials from the clutches of greedy courtiers, he made influential enemies. His troubles mounted when he rose to the defense of a fellow ex-consul and senator named Albinus, who was suspected of treason. It appears that Boethius was motivated primarily by a desire to defend the reputation of the senate as a whole from suspicions of complicity in the alleged treachery. Boethius apparently admitted to the suppression of evidence which he considered damaging to the integrity of the senate, a course of action inevitably leading to charges against him. Accused of plotting against Theodoric in favor of Justin I, the reigning Eastern emperor, Boethius was conveyed to Pavia in 522 and imprisoned there. Under the strain of a conviction he considered entirely unjustified, he produced his masterpiece, De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy). If his previous writings and his government service had made him a notable man, this work commanded the attention of the West for more than a thousand years thereafter.
Although conceived as a tribute to philosophy and exhibiting features of his plan to synthesize the best in Greek philosophy, The Consolation of Philosophy endures as a human record of doubt, discouragement, and suffering transformed by a rethinking of basic philosophical tenets into a triumph of the spirit. Even more than his Christian faith, philosophy sustained Boethius in his two years of confinement. This work consists of five main divisions or “books,” each formed of alternating verse and prose sections. The prose parts develop the situation and introduce the thoughts which it generates; the verses concentrate lyric bursts of emotion and meditations on his plight.
To dramatize the conflicts within him, Boethius resolves his mental and emotional state into two components represented by the discouraged prisoner and an awesome visitor to his cell, Lady Philosophy. She listens to his complaints and gradually brings him around to the reaffirmation and fuller understanding of conviction, which his ordeal has undermined. In some poems is heard the prisoner’s voice, in some the sage counselor’s. In this way, Boethius externalizes and gives artistic shape to the inner dialogue which he must have conducted in his cell to forestall despair. First, Philosophy must convince him that Fortune, while not a source of happiness, is not truly the prisoner’s enemy either. Her presumed benefits—worldly prosperity, honors, and other pleasures which the historical Boethius had enjoyed—have no intrinsic value. The source of all goodness is God, who permits evil and an apparently random distribution of adversity and prosperity. Boethius’ questions lead Philosophy to the relationships of fate, chance, God’s omniscience, Providence, and free will. With the prisoner now able to view the mind as free to surmount all human confinement, book 5 plumbs the deeper problem of human freedom in general. Philosophy upholds the paradoxical freedom of the will in the sight of an omniscient and providential God. At length she convinces Boethius that no human or divine necessity stands in the way of the most valid exercise of the will: the pursuit of virtue.
Though presumably reconciled to his unjust sentence, Boethius reached no reconciliation with his accusers, and he died in prison in 524, either from the effects of torture or by explicit order. Almost immediately his friends and admirers began to regard him as a martyr for his faith; his local followers in Pavia acclaimed him as a saint. The existing evidence suggests that he suffered and died not for specifically religious convictions but for moral and political ones. Even after his other works ceased to be generally read, The Consolation of Philosophy continued to attract readers and translators. He would have been pleased to know that two of England’s greatest monarchs, Alfred the Great in the ninth century and Queen Elizabeth I seven centuries later, became philosopher-kings enough to make their own translations. Like his beloved Plato, Boethius had found a form for his philosophy that earned for it the status of a literary classic.
Although Boethius possessed both literary ability and the discipline of a professional writer, it took imprisonment to make him a philosophical poet. His earliest admirers valued not only his thought but also the integrity and courage that shine through both metrical and prose sections of The Consolation of Philosophy. These readers, members of an increasingly Latinate culture, could hardly have appreciated fully his efforts to keep the West in touch with Greek antiquity. At the same time, the rise of vernacular tongues and the Church’s adaptation of Latin to its own purposes meant that the classical Latin verse forms which Boethius could still practice proficiently became a lost art. In this sense, he can be considered the last of the classical Latin poets as well as one of the last representatives of Greco-Roman culture generally.
Boethius also became that quintessentially medieval scholar, the Catholic theologian, and although little of the theologian shows through in his last work, there is not the slightest reason to believe that he ever abjured Christianity. On the contrary, he was believed to have been put to death for trying to protect the Church from persecution by heretics. None of his medieval enthusiasts saw anything remarkable in his exclusion of specifically Christian doctrine from The Consolation of Philosophy. He was simply operating as a philosopher and thus keeping theology and philosophy distinct.
In time, Boethius’ versatility was bound to recommend him to scholars, among them the recoverers of the Greek heritage that had slipped almost completely from sight in the centuries between the breakup of the Roman Empire and its comeback through Arabic sources beginning in the eleventh century. Successive waves of intellectuals, from the Scholastics of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to the scientists of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, were in a better position than were early medieval people to understand the import of Boethius’ pursuit of Greek learning. By modern times, Boethius could be seen as a pivot between the ancient and medieval worlds generally, between classical and Christian Latinity, and between pre-Christian Hellenism and Renaissance Humanism.
Had he lived longer and found more extensive opportunities to translate Greek texts and synthesize Greek thought, Boethius might well have forestalled the loss of the Greek intellectual heritage, but his work was sufficient to demonstrate that “pagan” philosophy could animate the life of a practicing Christian and even provide spiritual sustenance in adversity. It is hardly surprising, then, that The Consolation of Philosophy held its grip on posterity for so long. Revered by the two greatest Catholic medieval poets—Dante and Geoffrey Chaucer—translated by Renaissance Protestants such as Queen Elizabeth I and Henry Vaughan, and admired by later skeptical historians such as Edward Gibbon and Arnold Toynbee, Boethius achieved a universal appeal. Because there are greater and more representative philosophers, theologians, and poets in his tradition, Boethius is far less generally known than Plato or Saint Thomas Aquinas or Dante, but it is difficult to think of another figure of Western civilization who combined so competently all of these activities. This competence is particularly astonishing given the nature of the early sixth century, the beginning of the period long designated the “Dark Ages.”
Bark, William. “Theodoric vs. Boethius: Vindication and Apology.” American Historical Review 49 (1944): 410-426. In this and other articles, Bark examines with a critical eye the legends that have encrusted Boethius’ life over the centuries. He focuses on the political events and theological controversies against which the relationship between the Ostrogothic king and his Roman subordinate must be read.
Barrett, Helen M. Boethius: Some Aspects of His Times and Work. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1940. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. One of the older books on Boethius, Barrett’s remains a good introduction. It provides an introductory historical survey, sets Boethius firmly in this context, and interprets the scanty details of his life in a balanced and sensible way. Subsequent scholarship has supplemented but rarely contradicted the picture of Boethius given here.
Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy and the Theological Tractates. Translated by H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953. The question of the value of Boethius’ own account of his ordeal is controversial. Although a work of fiction, The Consolation of Philosophy uses its fictional elements primarily to dramatize the conflicts within a popular and successful man whose career has ended in rejection and imprisonment. No reader is likely to confuse the imaginative and factual portions of his story.
Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981. Unlike other writers, who have tended to concentrate on the Christian, the poet, the philosopher, or the educational theorist, Chadwick aims to show Boethius’ career as a unified whole. He has succeeded in writing the most comprehensive book about his life and work.
Coster, C. H. “Procopius and Boethius.” Speculum 23 (1948): 284-287. While not trying to revive Boethius’ long-standing reputation as a Christian martyr, Coster argues that he was so understood for centuries and that protection of the Church against heresy may have been among his motives in opposing Theodoric.
Gibson, Margaret, ed. Boethius: His Life, Thought, and Influence. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981. This book contains a variety of Boethian material, including two valuable biographical essays. John Matthews studies Boethius as a thoroughgoing Roman affirming ancient traditions and offices against the Ostrogothic king. Helen Kirkby stresses Boethius’ determination to continue the Roman habit of enriching Latin culture with Greek philosophical and educational thought.
Procopius. Procopius, with an English Translation by H. B. Dewing. London: W. Heinemann, 1914-1940. Volumes 3 and 4 of this set include Procopius’ The Gothic War and incorporate for the first time details of Boethius’ life in the record of political struggle in the Italian peninsula. Procopius was a Byzantine historian whose life overlapped that of Boethius.
Reiss, Edmund. Boethius. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982. Reiss argues the case against accepting too literally the autobiographical details in what he regards as a highly polished work of fictional art. He tends to reject the assumption that the quotations and other specific knowledge demonstrated in The Consolation of Philosophy constitute a feat of memory by a prisoner without access to a library.