Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus

(ca. 480–ca. 526)
   Boethius was a late Roman statesman, philosopher, and poet.He is best known for his CONSOLATION OF PHILOSOPHY, written while he languished in prison at Pavia awaiting his eventual execution under Theodoric the Ostrogoth. The Consolation, an attempt to justify the ways of God to men and to reconcile God’s foreknowledge with human free will, was one of the most-read texts in the Western world for more than 1,000 years. In addition, Boethius’s treatises on logic, on music, and on arithmetic were authoritative textbooks in European education for hundreds of years, and his theological tracts provided a model for what became the scholastic method of high medieval philosophy. Boethius was born into one of the most respected patrician families of late Rome.When his father died, the child Boethius was raised by Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, one of the richest and most powerful men in Rome. Boethius was always close to Symmachus, and married his daughter Rusticiana. Aside from introducing him to orthodox Christianity, Symmachus gave Boethius a thorough education in the major Greek philosophers. It is possible he studied with some of the Neoplatonic teachers of Athens or Alexandria, but there is no way to know with certainty. In any case, his Greek was proficient enough that at an early age he set himself the goal of translating all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin.He was quite probably the most educated Roman of his generation. Sometime after 500 Boethius entered the service of the Ostrogothic emperor of Rome, Theodoric. Theodoric had conquered Rome in 493 and was crowned emperor of the West at Ravenna, ostensibly with the support of the Byzantine emperor, to whom he owed nominal allegiance. Boethius rose under Theodoric’s rule and became a consul in 510, when he began to serve in the Senate. By 522, the year he saw both his sons made consuls, Boethius had been named magister officiorum (master of offices) by Theodoric, in effect functioning as the emperor’s prime minister. But in 524, for reasons that remain controversial, Boethius fell out of favor with Theodoric and was imprisoned.
   It is clear that by this time, Theodoric had broken with Constantinople and its emperor, Justin (519–527). A Roman senator,Albinus, was charged with conspiring with Justin to overthrow Theodoric. Boethius rose to Albinus’s defense, which raised suspicions about his own loyalty. It has been suggested that prior to this time, Boethius had been instrumental in helping heal a schism between the Roman and Byzantine churches, and this may have raised Theodoric’s suspicions as well. Add to this the fact that Theodoric was a strong proponent of the Arian sect against orthodox Christianity, and there seems to have been plenty of reason for Theodoric to have been suspicious about Boethius’s loyalty. Arrested and accused of treason, Boethius was imprisoned at Pavia in 523, and after a long confinement, was condemned without a trial, and was ultimately tortured to death sometime between 524 and 526.
   Aside from the Consolation, composed in prison, Boethius’s works fall into three categories. Most numerous are his logical treatises. Of these, his translation and commentary on Porphyry’s Isagoge (itself an introduction to Aristotle’s Categories) was especially influential. In his commentary, Boethius began the discussion of universals that became one of the most hotly debated questions in late medieval philosophy: Do universals have an existence apart from bodies themselves, Boethius asks. His answer, that universals exist not solely in sensible bodies but are understood apart from them, sparked a debate between Realists and Nominalists that lasted for centuries. Further, Boethius’s translations of Aristotle’s Prior and Posterior Analytics were the main sources for the study of Aristotelian logic in the Middle Ages. Collectively, Boethius’s were the most important texts on logic before the 12th century, and were known as the logica vetus (old logic).
   Boethius’s next-largest group of texts are his instructive works on mathematical disciplines. Dedicated to his father-in-law Symmachus and apparently written at his request, these four texts, mainly translations of Greek originals, deal with the four chief mathematical disciplines as conceived by the Neoplatonists: Arithmetic, Music, Geometry, and Astronomy. Named the quadruvium by Boethius, these four disciplines ultimately became known as the quadrivium, the scientific and mathematical branch of the seven LIBERAL ARTS in the medieval education system, and Boethius’s works became the standard texts for some of these subjects. In particular his Instituione musica was the chief musical textbook in schools for 1,000 years.
   Boethius is also generally credited with the composition of five short treatises on theology, known as the Opuscula sacra. Scholars question the authenticity of the fourth of these treatises (on the “Catholic Faith”). The others, dealing with such subjects as the Trinity and Christology, show the influence of St. AUGUSTINE, but also show a good deal of originality, especially in the way that Boethius uses philosophical terms and methods in solving theological questions, his scrupulous use of logic, and his distinction between faith and reason. This method of dealing with theological issues served as a model for later medieval philosophers, and has led some scholars to name Boethius the first “scholastic” philosopher.
   Finally, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy became the book for which he is chiefly remembered. Written in the ancient classical form of Menippean satire, in which sections of prose and poetry alternate, the text is essentially a dialogue between the character Boethius and Lady Philosophy, who through her arguments leads Boethius from despair to confidence and consolation. The text begins with Boethius bewailing his own innocent suffering, and questioning why God would allow the good to suffer and evil to go unpunished. Philosophy shows him that the wicked are always unhappy, that virtue is always its own reward, that Fortune is fickle and anyone trusting in her gifts is bound to lose them, that Divine foreknowledge is not the same as predestination, and that humans do possess free will. The book, virtually unknown in its own time, went on to become very popular over the next few centuries, not only in its original Latin but also in several vernacular languages of Europe, into which it became one of the first texts to be translated. King ALFRED THE GREAT himself made a translation of the text into OLD ENGLISH in the ninth century, and CHAUCER made his own MIDDLE ENGLISH translation in the 14th, while JEAN DEMEUN translated it into French in the 13th.
   After St.Augustine, Boethius must be regarded as the most influential Latin thinker in the earlier medieval period, acting as the vehicle through which a great deal of classical thought was transmitted to the Latin Middle Ages. The Consolation’s focus on the traditions of Greek thought with which Boethius was conversant make it essentially the last great record of classical antiquity passed on to Latin Europe. And its huge popularity made its influence on European literature enormous.
   ■ Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by P. G.Walsh. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
   ■ Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981.
   ■ Gibson,Margaret, ed. Boethius: His Life, Thought, and Influence. Oxford: Blackwell, 1981.
   ■ Marenbon, John. Boethius. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.
   ■ Reiss, Edmund. Boethius. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.
   ■ O’Daly, Gerard. The Poetry of Boethius. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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