Boethius Essay - Critical Essays



Boethius c. 480-c. 524/526

(Full name Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius) Roman philosopher.

Characterized by Edward Gibbon as "the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman," Boethius links the world of late antiquity with that of the Middle Ages. Although he is best known for the philosophical dialogue Consolatio Philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy, c.524), Boethius is equally significant in the history of Western civilization for his transmission of Greek and Roman thought to later centuries. Scholars have argued that, without Boethius, the Medieval West would have known little of such subjects as Aristotelian logic and ancient musical theory. An important commentator on Greek philosophy in his own right, Boethius succeeded in forging for the first time a philosophical vocabulary in the Latin language, thereby providing the foundation for the achievement of later Medieval philosophy. For over one thousand years, Boethius's writings were viewed as part of the common cultural inheritance of western Europe and as a storehouse of all kinds of information about the nature of the world. Significant elements of the Boethian worldview are to be found in the works of such writers as Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas More, and William Shakespeare. R. W. Southern has written that "if Aristotle, in Dante's famous phrase, was the 'master of those who know,' Boethius was the master of those who wanted to know. He was the schoolmaster of medieval Europe."

Biographical Information

Boethius was born into one of the oldest and most notable aristocratic families in the western part of the late Roman Empire. After the last Roman emperor in the West, Romulus, was deposed in 476, Boethius's father, Aurelius Manlius Boethius, served the Ostrogothic ruler of Italy, Odovacar, in several high administrative positions. Around 488 Boethius's father died, and the young boy became the ward of the illustrious and highly cultivated Roman senator Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus. Symmachus, who was to become one of Boethius's most important influences, is believed to have had a guiding role in the education of his charge. Although it is unclear exactly where Boethius received his instruction, by the time he reached manhood he was proficient in Greek and well-versed in philosophy and scientific thought. As a young man, Boethius entered into a successful political career, becoming a consul and senator in the year 510. In 522, the Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric, elevated him to the position of magister officiorum. Throughout his administrative career, Boethius devoted himself to intellectual pursuits, writing works on arithmetic, music, logic, and theology between the years 505 to 523. In 523, however, for reasons which still remain obscure, Boethius was implicated in a conspiracy against Theodoric and was imprisoned in Pavia. During his imprisonment he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy, a work concerned with the problems of evil, fate, and free will. At some point between the years 524 and 526 Boethius was executed.

Major Works

Scholars have divided Boethius's writings into four groups that include educational writings, logical writings, theological writings, and the Consolation of Philosophy. Written early in his career, the De institutione arithmetica (c.503) and the De institutione musica present translations of now-lost Greek texts on mathematics and music. While these are not original writings, they were of enormous importance in the foundation of the Medieval educational system. Similarly, many of Boethius's logical writings are translations of the works of such philosophers as Aristotle and Porphyry. Boethius wrote original commentaries on Aristotle's Topics, Categories, and Interpretation, as well as an important treatise, De hypotheticis syllogismis, which departs from Aristotle in its handling of linguistic concepts. Later in his career Boethius devoted his attention to bringing the rigor of ancient philosophy to bear on theological disputes within the Christian church. In five theological tractates, known collectively as the opuscula sacra (c.512-22), he analyzes such issues as the nature of the Trinity, the true, orthodox faith, and the contemporary Eutychian and Nestorian heresies. While these works have been praised for their original use of philosophical argument to defend orthodox Christianity, Boethius's masterpiece, the Consolation of Philosophy, has been commonly viewed as an ambiguous text, owing to the absence of any direct reference to Christianity in the work. Composed in the literary form known as Menippean satire, the Consolation contains alternating sections of poetry and prose and presents a dialogue between a grief-stricken narrator and the female personification of Philosophy. The narrative charts the progress from spriritual blindness to gradual enlightenment, as Philosophy clarifies the nature of evil in the world, the role of fortune in human affairs, the providence of God, and the existence of free will. The Consolation closes with an affirmation that everything which happens is in accordance with the will of God and that man is free to use his reason to conform to the divine will.

Critical Reception

Attention to the corpus of Boethius's writings has naturally focused on the Consolation of Philosophy. Edmund Reiss has maintained that it has "exerted a greater influence on Western thought and literature than any other book except the Bible." It was one of the first texts to be translated into European vernacular languages; in England alone, it appeared in versions by King Alfred, Chaucer, and Queen Elizabeth I. Additionally, there are powerful resonances of the Consolation in such works as Dante's Divine Comedy, Jean de Meun's Romance of the Rose, Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, and William Langland's Piers Plowman. In assessing his stylistic attainments, critics have occasionally faulted Boethius for failing to live up to the Classical Latin of Vergil and Cicero. Modern scholars, however, have tended to praise many of the poems in the Consolation and have asserted that in comparison with the ornate rhetorical excesses of his contemporaries, Boethius's lucid prose style is an impressive reflection of Classical literary values. Modern critics have also devoted increasing study to Boethius's theological tractates. While these works were a significant component of the intellectual heritage of such Medieval thinkers as John Scotus Erigena, Alcuin, and Aquinas, it is only in the twentieth century that they have begun to receive serious attention once again. Summing up the achievement of Boethius, Henry Chadwick has written that he "taught the Latin West to judge the validity of an inference, to be aware of the foundations of mathematics, and to envisage reason and revelation as related by very distinct ways of apprehending the mystery of God."

Principal English Translations

The Consolation of Philosophy (edited and translated by "I. T.") 1609

The Theological Tractates (edited and translated by H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand) 1918

The Consolation of Philosophy (translated by Richard Green) 1962

The Consolation of Philosophy (translated by V. E. Watts) 1969

Boethius 's De topicis differentiis (translated by Eleonore Stump) 1978


Edward Gibbon (essay date 1776-88)

SOURCE: "Chapter XXXIX," in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Vol. II, edited by J. B. Bury, The Heritage Press, 1946, pp. 1226-249.

[Gibbon 's monumental The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, written between 1776 and 1788, is recognized as the finest work of history in the English language and a seminal text in eighteenth-century thought. In the following excerpt from that work, Gibbon appraises Boethius as "the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman."]

The senator Boethius is the last of the Romans whom Cato or Tully could have acknowledged for their countryman. As a wealthy orphan, he inherited the...

(The entire section is 1785 words.)

Edward Kennard Rand (lecture date 1928)

SOURCE: "Boethius, the First of the Scholastics," in Founders of the Middle Ages, 1928. Reprint by Dover Publications, 1957, pp. 135-80.

[Rand was an eminent American classical scholar who, in addition to writing works on such authors as Vergil, Horace, and Ovid, provided one of the most influential twentieth-century accounts of Boethius, which appears below. Originally delivered as a lecture and reprinted later with minor alterations, Rand's overview of Boethius 's life and career is placed within the political context of sixth-century A.D. Italy.]

A century of barbarism had swept like a wave over Roman civilization, or dashed against its coasts, when there suddenly...

(The entire section is 11617 words.)

Howard Rollin Patch (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: "Imitations and Influence," in The Tradition of Boethius: A Study of His Importance in Medieval Culture, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1935, pp. 87-113.

[In the following excerpt, Patch examines the impact exerted by Boethius on Medieval and Renaissance writers, including Dante, King James I of Scotland, and Sir Thomas More.]

The most striking testimony of all to the power of the Consolatio appears in the attempt through many centuries to interpret its meaning in various adaptations and imitations. Something like this we have already observed [earlier], in varying ways, in King Alfred's rendering and the Provençal Boece and especially in...

(The entire section is 8476 words.)

Eleanor Shipley Duckett (essay date 1938)

SOURCE: "Philosophy in the Sixth Century," in The Gateway to The Middle Ages, The Macmillan Company, 1938, pp. 142-212.

[In the excerpt below, Duckett provides a general overview of Boethius's life and influence, asserting that "it was he who fanned the flame of conflict that was to occupy philosophical minds through all the Middle Ages -the struggle between Nominalism and Realism in their various forms. "]

[Boethius's] Consolation of Philosophy has been the meat of souls in distress, of minds in doubt, of editors, commentators and students in mediaeval browsings, all down the years from the sixth century to modern times. It was every whit as popular in...

(The entire section is 19741 words.)

C. S. Lewis (essay date 1964)

SOURCE: "Selected Materials: The Seminal Period," in The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, Cambridge at the University Press, 1964, pp. 45-91.

[Lewis was an acknowledged authority in the fields of Medieval and Renaissance literature, as well as an esteemed writer of fantasy and science fiction. In the following excerpt from a posthumously published work, he elucidates the extent to which the Consolation of philosophy helped to shape the standard Medieval perception of human affairs.]

[Boethius's] De Consolatione Philosophiae was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin. It was...

(The entire section is 3966 words.)

H. Liebeschütz (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Boethius and the Legacy of Antiquity," in The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy, edited by A. H. Armstrong, Cambridge at the University Press, 1967, pp. 538-64.

[In the following excerpt, the critic provides a survey of Boethius's importance in the history of philosophy, maintaining that the work of the Roman senator defines the point where antiquity ends and the Middle Ages begin.]

When we try to draw a borderline between antiquity and Middle Ages, in order to define the point where the history of medieval philosophy begins, the work of Boethius comes immediately to our mind. The last Roman and the first schoolman, the two titles...

(The entire section is 6200 words.)

Henry Chadwick (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: An introduction to Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence, edited by Margaret Gibson, Basil Blackwell, 1981, pp. 1-12.

[In the following essay, Chadwick surveys Boethius's career and achievement, maintaining that "he taught the Latin West to judge the validity of an inference, to be aware of the foundations of mathematics, and to envisage reason and revelation as related but very distinct ways of apprehending the mystery of God."]

By writing the Consolation of Philosophy Boethius provided all educated people of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance with one of their principal classics, a work of both intellectual profundity and literary delight...

(The entire section is 4852 words.)

Henry Chadwick (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Evil, Freedom, and Providence," in Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and philosophy, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1981, pp. 223-53.

[In the following essay, Chadwick provides a detailed analysis of the Consolation of Philosophy, exploring such features of the work as its combination of Platonic and Stoic philosophies and its treatment of the problem of evil and free will.]

Since the Renaissance, and especially since the scientific revolution of the seventeenth century altered our understanding of the nature and structure of our environment, Boethius has come to seem a rather lonely and forgotten foreigner in a world grown strange....

(The entire section is 11749 words.)

Anna Crabbe (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Literary Design in the De Consolatione Philosophiae, " in Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence, edited by Margaret Gibson, Basil Blackwell, 1981, pp. 237-74.

[In the following essay, Crabbe explores the literary influences on Boethius 's theme and style, paying particular attention to the works of Ovid and Augustine.]


Champion of Philosophy, orator to kings, theologian, poet, supreme logician: the achievements of Boethius compose a multicoloured garment. Yet just as the brief literary portrait supplied by Cassiodorus [in his Anecdoton Holderi] seems dulled by its omission of the Consolatio, so the sum...

(The entire section is 10708 words.)

Helen Kirkby (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "The Scholar and His Public," in Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence, edited by Margaret Gibson, Basil Blackwell, 1981, pp. 44-69.

[In the following essay, Kirkby details the social and intellectual milieu of Boethius, describing him as "a man writing and acting consciously in the Roman tradition of his aristocratic ancestors, finding the origins of his intellectual pursuits in their traditions, moved to take up public office by their example, and losing his life in defence of what he saw as the most sacred Roman institution."]


Sometime in the mid-530s, Cassiodorus Senator embarked on a project to found a Christian school...

(The entire section is 7624 words.)

Edmund Reiss (essay date 1982)

SOURCE: "Form and Method in the Consolation;' in Boethius, Twayne Publishers, 1982, pp. 131-53.

[In the essay below, Reiss analyzes the structure, dialogue form, and interweaving of prose and verse in the Consolation of Philosophy.]

Structural Patterns

Whereas linear progression is the most obvious structural pattern of the Consolation, this progression involves much more than a simple movement from a beginning to an ending, or a simple change of the narrator from despair to hope and from ignorance to understanding. As the work develops and consolation yields to instruction and to an awareness of truth, so simplicity yields...

(The entire section is 8350 words.)

Thomas F. Curley III (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "How to Read the Consolation of Philosophy," in Interpretation: A Journal of Bible & Theology, Vol. 14, Nos. 2-3, May-September, 1986, pp. 211-63.

[In the following essay, written shortly before the critic's death in 1984, Curley analyzes the philosophical content, structure, and genre of the Consolation of Philosophy.]


Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy, for centuries one of the most widely read and revered books in the West, is now little more than a historical curiosity. Most, but not all, educated people have heard of it; some have read it; very few seem to like it. But the reasons for the...

(The entire section is 24320 words.)

Seth Lerer (essay date 1984)

SOURCE: "Boethian Silence," in Medievalia et Human-istica, No. 12, 1984, pp. 97-125.

[In the following essay, Lerer explores Boethius's notions of communication, dialogue, and rhetoric in the theological tractates and the Consolation of Philosophy.]

Twenty years ago, in a landmark article, Joseph Mazzeo [in Journal of the History of Ideas 23 (1962)] identified St. Augustine's "rhetoric of silence" as the notable characteristic of his broader "attempt to assimilate classical rhetoric to Christian needs." Readers of Augustine long before Mazzeo recognized the Saint's attempted synthesis of Ciceronian rhetoric and Biblical narrative, and his contrast, expressed in...

(The entire section is 8132 words.)

Seth Lerer (essay date 1985)

SOURCE: "Language and Loss in Book Three," in Boethius and Dialogue: Literary Method in "The Consolation of Philosophy," Princeton University Press, 1985, pp. 124-65.

[In the following excerpt, Lerer analyzes the thematic and stylistic patterns of the third book of the Consolation of Philosophy, calling it "a book of transformations, as its poetry turns mythological narrative and Senecan tragedy into an almost religious cosmology, and its prose turns the language of Aristotelian dialectic into a suitable medium for philosophic inquiry."]

The third book of the Consolation is perhaps the most philosophically rewarding and the most methodologically...

(The entire section is 10098 words.)

Further Reading

Chamberlain, David S. "Philosophy of Music in the Consolatio of Boethius." Speculum XLV, No. 1 (January 1970): 80-97.

Analysis of Boethius's ethical and metaphysical approach to music in the Consolation of Philosophy, which contrasts to his earlier treatment of the subject in De musica.

Coolidge, John S. "Boethius and 'That Last Infirmity of Noble Mind'." Philological Quarterly XLII, No. 2 (April 1963): 176-82.

Argues for a Boethian influence in John Milton's poem "Lycidas."

Coster, Charles Henry. "The Fall of Boethius: His Character." In...

(The entire section is 704 words.)