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.
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.
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...
(The entire section is 2104 words.)