Boethius Additional Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: Combining Greek philosophy and his Christian Roman heritage, Boethius articulated a solution to the contradiction between divine omniscience and the freedom of human will that laid the foundation for medieval thought.

Early Life

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’s own father held several important offices under Odovacar, the first Germanic ruler of the Italian peninsula. In 480, the supposed year of Boethius’s birth, the old Roman families were adjusting and contributing to the reign of a “barbarian” king. When Boethius’s 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 Politeia (c. 388-366 b.c.e.; Republic, 1701) 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. In any event, many of the traditional Roman offices persisted, and Boethius rose to the consulship in 510, when he was about thirty.

Life’s Work

Boethius’s 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 he recognized as standing firmly on a foundation of Christian faith. His interest in harmonizing revealed religion with the discoveries of preChristians 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 (c. 45-44 b.c.e.; Topics, 1848) 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.

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—contrary to the Catholic position established at the Council of Nicea in 325 c.e.—that Jesus was not coeternal with God. Theodoric’s Roman subjects, as well as the emperor of the eastern Roman Empire (technically his ruler), were Catholic. 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 he also 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...

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(Critical Survey of Ethics and Literature)

A member of the Roman upper classes and a seminal Christian philosopher, Boethius served as a transition between the pagan classical world and the Christian one. An educated man, Boethius was among the first Western Christian writers to be well acquainted with classical Greek philosophical and ethical thought, including Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. He was also heavily influenced by Platonic thought and by the ethical views of the Stoics. Boethius combined these views with Christian morality to create a practical guide for living the moral life. Knowledge, according to Boethius, is based upon self-evident axioms revealed by God; building upon these axioms, humans can discover additional truths that bring them, ultimately, to the greatest good of all, which is God.


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Born in Rome about 480 c.e., the philosopher Boethius (boh-EE-thee-uhs), also called Boetius or Boece, was the last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics. The family must have been patrician, for his father was a consul under Odoacer in 487. At his father’s death, Boethius (full name Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius) became the ward of the senator Memmius Symmachus and later married his guardian’s daughter Rusticiana. Theodoric, Ostrogoth ruler of Rome beginning in 500, made Boethius consul in 510. Later, either because of his Christian beliefs or because he was conspiring with Emperor Justin the Elder of the Eastern Roman Empire, Boethius was arrested, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed there without trial in 524. Before his death, his sons had been appointed consuls.

While still in favor, Boethius had translated and commented on some of Aristotle’s writings, introducing him to the Western world in a work on which a great part of the educational practices of the Middle Ages was based. He also wrote treatises on many subjects: arithmetic, logic, and especially music. Other works, perhaps falsely attributed to him, dealt with Christian theology and immortalized him upon his death as the martyred Saint Severinus.

While imprisoned in Pavia, Boethius wrote five books in prose and verse entitled The Consolation of Philosophy, a work derived from Plato, Plotinus, and Aristotle. In the opening book, Boethius raises the age-old question: Why is it that the good are permitted to suffer in a world governed by an all-good God? Lady Philosophy, an allegorical figure probably representing Boethius himself, tells him that the absence of self-knowledge is the source of his confusion. She also comments on the practices of the Goddess Fortuna, the nature of true happiness, and the difficulties of reconciling God’s foreknowledge with humankind’s free will. The Consolation of Philosophy has influenced thinking ever since. Later medieval writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Jean de Meung, and William Langland incorporated its imagery and its teachings into their works. King Alfred translated the work into Anglo-Saxon (published at Oxford in 1698). Chaucer made an English translation of part of this dialogue, and later Queen Elizabeth I tried her hand at translating it. Even before the invention of printing, translations of Boethius existed in a dozen languages.