(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

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."