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Definition: Boethius from Philip's Encyclopedia

(Anicius Manlius Severinus) Roman statesman and philosopher under Emperor Theodoric. He was imprisoned on a charge of conspiracy. In prison at Pavia, where he was subsequently tortured and executed, he wrote On the Consolation of Philosophy (523). Next to the Bible, this was medieval Europe's most influential book.

Summary Article: Boethius from The Classical Tradition

Roman philosopher and scholar, ca. 476-ca. 524 ce. Standing at the crossroads of ancient and medieval times, between pagan philosophy and Christian faith, between Greek learning and Western Latinity, Boethius shaped medieval thinking and writing in a number of important ways. His Consolation of Philosophy was almost uninterruptedly translated and commented on from the 8th century onward, and it inspired internationally renowned poets such as Dante and Chaucer. It was, moreover, the text that Sir Thomas More, among many others, took as his guide to life. Boethius' translations of and commentaries on the Aristotelian corpus of logical texts provided the Scholastics with the basic tools of reasoning and argumentation. And in his theological treatises he showed the Scholastics how to use these tools of reason in explaining Christian dogmas such as the Trinity.

Boethius' education and cultural background prepared him for this role as mediator of ancient learning. He was educated in the best of Roman aristocratic households, where study of the Roman classics and Neoplatonic philosophy went hand in hand with a reading of Christian authors. Boethius saw himself primarily as a scholar, but given his aristocratic background, it was natural for him to take up offices under the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, who ruled over Italy. Boethius was consul in 510 and later, probably, prefect of Rome. In 522 he rose to prominence by becoming Master of Offices at Theoderic's court in Ravenna. Soon thereafter, however, he was accused, surely unjustly, of leading a conspiracy against the king and condemned to death. In prison he wrote his masterpiece, finding consolation in the lessons of Lady Philosophy.

Boethius' plan to translate and comment on the works of Aristotle and Plato was entirely in line with the program of his Neoplatonic masters, including Plotinus, Porphyry, and Proclus. It was especially from the writings of Porphyry (d. ca. 305) that he learned how to reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle by interpreting Aristotelian logic and the doctrine of the 10 categories as pertaining to the sensible world, and Plato's metaphysics as concerned with the realm of intelligible being. From his study of these Neoplatonic texts Boethius inherited and passed on a number of philosophical problems, such as the status of universals, future contingency, and the relationship among words, thoughts, and things. Though his attempts to resolve these problems were not always successful, they inspired later thinkers to come up with their own theories. His commentaries on, for instance, Porphyry's Isagoge, Aristotle's Categories and De interpretatione, and Cicero's Topics formed the backbone of the curriculum in the schools of early medieval Europe and later in the arts faculties of the universities. The structure of this curriculum, too, owed much to Boethius, who had coined the term Quadrivium, that is, the Fourfold Path, by which he meant the four mathematical disciplines: astronomy, geometry, arithmetic, and music. As the cosmos was believed to be structured in a mathematical way, the quadrivial arts were the sine qua non for a deeper knowledge of the cosmos and the place of human existence in it. Here, as well, Boethius was a crucial transmitter of ancient learning. His textbooks on music and arithmetic were widely read and commented on. In the 12th century the Platonic notion of the mathematical structure of the cosmos would lead to a rationalist exploration of nature by thinkers such as Adelard of Bath, William of Conches, and Thierry of Chartres.

The belief that study of the liberal arts leads to a higher understanding of the cosmos is also the central theme of the Consolation of Philosophy. Lady Philosophy appears to Boethius in his prison, showing him that true happiness resides not in the transitory world we live in but beyond it, in the eternal abode of God. By discursive reasoning Boethius is led to understand that behind this apparently disordered and unjust world there is a fundamental stability imposed by the Creator. The philosophical problems from Boethius' earlier studies recur here: the nature of true happiness, necessity and chance, the eternity of God, and divine providence versus human freedom.

The influence of the Consolation on medieval thought and literature was immense. It was translated into all the major vernacular languages and therefore reached a massive readership, virtually unparalleled in the Middle Ages. Among its translators were King Alfred, Notker III of St. Gall, Chaucer, Jean de Meun, and Queen Elizabeth I. These translations, often accompanied by Latin commentaries (sometimes translated into the vernacular as well), became a source of knowledge of mythological lore (the fable of Orpheus, Ulysses and his comrades, the labors of Hercules), of Roman history and literature, and various other kinds of information, dutifully expounded by glossators. The literary genre of the work—a dialogue in prosimetrum, prose alternating with verse, which Boethius may have derived from Martianus Capella's The Marriage of Philology and Mercury (late 5th cent.)—was often imitated in later centuries: for instance, in Adelard of Bath's De eodem et diverso (On the Same and the Different), Bernardus Silvestris' Cosmographia (Cosmography), and Alan of Lille's De planctu Naturae (The Complaint of Nature), all in the 12th century alone. More generally, the Consolation is an important source for the medieval penchant for personification and visionary poetry. This can also be seen in the works of Chaucer, who exploited various Boethian motifs and ideas such as necessity, chance, destiny, and cosmic love, most notably in the Knight's Tale and Troilus and Criseyde. For the poet Dante, the Consolation was the book that won him over to the love of philosophy. Dante's conception of the force of love owes much to Boethius' hymn on the "love by which heaven is ruled" (2, metrum 8). As a token of gratitude, he placed Boethius in Paradise, alongside Augustine and Thomas Aquinas.

In the Renaissance Boethius continued to be read and praised, even though some Humanists found his Latin faulty. Erasmus could not believe that the jejune prose sections and the well-crafted poems of the Consolation were written by one and the same author. Lorenzo Valla accused Boethius of having disfigured Latin by encouraging the development of abstruse metaphysics and technical dialectic. Other Humanists were uneasy about the rejection of the Muses by Lady Philosophy at the bedside of the sick Boethius (1, prose 1). He was defended, however, by important Humanists such as Albertino Mussato, Petrarch, Boccaccio, and Coluccio Salutati, who solved the problem by distinguishing between two kinds of Muses: the "theatrical tarts," who represented low, obscene poetry, and those who had Lady Philosophy's approval ("my Muses"), that is, those of serious poetry conveying philosophical or scientific truths.

The search for philosophical truths underlying the text of the Consolation became all the more pressing: the work contains no allusions to Christian faith or to Christ himself, while it advocates heterodox Platonic teachings such as the preexistence of the soul. In the 19th century this pursuit culminated in a thoroughly "pagan" reading of the Consolation and a denial of the authenticity of the theological treatises traditionally attributed to Boethius. With the discovery of a fragment from a lost work by Cassiodorus, a near contemporary, in which Boethius is referred to as the author of "a book on the Holy Trinity and some chapters of dogmatic theology and the book against Nestorius," that interpretation had to be rejected. Modern scholars continue to debate the precise character of Boethius' Christian faith and its relationship to Neoplatonic philosophy. What is beyond doubt is Boethius' importance for the continuity of classical learning in the Middle Ages.

  • Chadwick, Henry, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy (Oxford1981).
  • Galonnier, A., ed., Boèce, ou la chaîne des savoirs (Louvain-la-Neuve2003).
  • Gibson, Margaret, ed., Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence (Oxford1981).
  • Hoenen, Maarten and Nauta, Lodi, eds., Boethius in the Middle Ages: Latin and Vernacular Traditions of the "Consolatio Philosophiae" (Leiden1997).
  • Marenbon, John, Boethius (Oxford2003).
  • Nauta, Lodi, "Magis sit Platonicus quam Aristotelicus: Interpretations of Boethius' Platonism in the Consolatio Philosophiae from the Twelfth to the Seventeenth Century," in The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages ed. Gersh, Stephen and Hoenen, Maarten (Berlin2002) 165-204.
L. N.
© 2010 Harvard University Press (cloth) © 2013 Harvard University Press

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