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Boethius (c. 480 - c.524)

 

Roman philosopher, theologian, and statesman, whose translations of and commentaries on Aristotle deeply influenced the thought in the medieval Latin West. Boethius' best known work is De consolatione philosophiae (Consolation of Philosophy), composed in prison while he was waiting for execution. It was one of the most widely read books in medieval times, after the Vulgate Bible. Bertrand Russell wrote in A History of Western Philosophy (1946): "During the two centuries before his time and the ten centuries after it, I cannot think of any European man of learning so free from superstition and fanaticism."

Old age came suddenly by suffering speed,
And grief then bade her government begin:
My hair untimely white upon my head,
And I a worn out bone-bag hunting with flesh.
Death would be blessing if it spared the glad
But heeded invocations from the wretch.

(from The Consolation of Philosophy, trans. by Victor Watts)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born into the distinguished Christian family of the Anicii. A member of it, Olybrius, had been emperor in 472, four years before the last emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was deposited. Boethius' father had been a consul. After he died, Boethius was raised by the senator and historian Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus. Later he married Symmachus' daughter, Rusticana.

Little is known of Boethius' life. The oldest known biography of Boethius was written by Cassiodorus, his senatorial colleague. It is possible that he was born in Rome, completed there his schooling, and continued his education in Alexandria. In 510 Boethius became consul under Theodoric the Great (d. 526), the Ostrogothic king of Italy. In his court in Ravenna Theodoric gathered together skilled administrators, Germanic poets, and Latin men of letters. Boethius could read Greek fluently at a time, when intellectual life was rapidly degenerating. Contemplative by nature, he was a balance to the emperor, a man of action.

Theodoric employed Boethius to reform the coinage, to make sundials, water-clocks, movable spheres and astrological devices. About 520 Boethius rose to the position of magister officiorum, a powerful post which combined both military and civil function. Effectively he was the prime minister. His two sons were appointed consuls in 522, which strengthened his political position. When a senator named Albinus was accused of treason, "for having written to the Emperor Justin against the rule of Theodoric," Boethius defended openly the accused man. Awakening Theodoric's suspicion, he fell out of favour with the ruler, who threw him into prison. The Goths had converted to Arian Christianity, which separated them Catholics. Theodoric was Arian, whereas the Byzantine emperor was orthodox in faith and started to persecute Arians.

Boethius was not only charged of treason, but also of sacrilege for practicing mathematics and astrology. With growing understanding of the end of the classical world, he had set out to provide textbooks and translations into Latin for the future use of students. During his imprisonment at Ticinum (Pavia), Boethius wrote his celebrated work, Consolation of Philosophy, a synthesis of Platonism and Christianity. In his utmost need, Boethius did not stop philosophizing, and as a result, especially his Christianity was in doubt for a long time. Many of his themes were drawn from Stoic writers, not from Christian authorities.Moreover, his logical treatises were difficult to understand.

Until approximately the time of Charlemange (c.800), Boethius's work gathered dust in university libraries. Boethius was put the death, probably, in 524. The way of his execution varies from source to source – he was perhaps killed with a sword, or an ax, or a knotted rope was placed around his forehead and tightened it until his eyes popped out, and then summarily clubbed to death. Boethius' remains were later placed in the church of S. Pietri in Ciel d'Oro in Pavia. "The limbs, whence it was driven, lie / Down in Cieldauro," wrote Dante of Boethius in Paradise, "and from martyrdom / And exile came it here." Posthumously Boethius was revered as a martyr and a saint. St. Severinus Boethius' festival day is the 23rd of October.

Consolation of Philosophy is a meditation on philosophy and the Divine Reason of God, vicissitudes of fortune, the Supreme Good, the problem of evil, and Free Will. Philosophizing becomes means of healing and a source of wisdom. Boethius speaks in prose, Lady Philosophy replies mostly in verse, trying to cheer him up. The book starts with a poem, but the last chapter is in prose, and somewhat abruptly ends the book. It has been speculated that he did not finish his work.

Boethius, who was tortured in prison, asks why is that "ill-doing reigns and flourishes, while virtue not only lacks its reward, but is even trampled underfoot by wicked doers, and pays the penalties instead of crime." Although Boethius used different kind of arguments than the German philosopher Gottfried Leibniz over eleven centuries later, their conclusions have much in common. Leibniz saw that we live in the best possible world. Lady Philosophy, who appears as a revelation to the broken Boethius, convinces eventually him of summum bonum (highest good), that there is order in the universe, and this "order itself emanates from its source, which is Providence, and disposes all things in their proper time and place." Thus Boethius himself, a powerful and influential servant of tyranny which sends political opponents to prison to be tortured, is freed from all responsibility, since everything is regulated automatically by the mechanism of eternity.

Before writing Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius attempted to elucidate what the good is in the Quomodo Substantiae, or De Hebdomadibus, as the third of his so-called Theological Tractates was known in the Middle Ages. In the thirteenth century Thomas St. Aquinas returned in his commentary to Boethius' question how things can be good just as they are without being substantially good – without being God, the source of all goodness.

Consolation of Philosophy was a great favorite throughout the Middle Ages. Alfred the Great (c. 848-99) translated the work into Old English; it was one of the books which was according to Alfred "the most necessary for all men to know." This translation was followed by a new version by Chaucer (c.1343/4-1400) and later in the 16th-century by Queen Elizabeth I. A German translation was made around the turn of the 11th century by Notker Labeo, a monk. Chaucer's translation in about 1380 was inspired by Jean de Meun's (c.1250-c.1305) Li Livres de confort, which was dedicated to Philip IV of France and completed shortly before the poets death in 1305. A Byzantine version was made in the 13th century by Planudes.

In universities Boethius' works were read a part of the curriculum. In Paris Priscian and Donatus were studied for grammar, Porphyry, Boethius, and Aristotle for dialectic. When the printing first began, Consolation of Philosophy was one of the books which was produced for both scholar and layman – before 1500 there was at least 70 reissues. The first book of Anton Koberger of Nürnberg, one of the most powerful publishers of his day, was Boethius' De consolatione philosophiae with Aquinas' commentaries.

Boethius' great plan was to translate into Latin and write commentaries upon all the writings of Aristotle and Plato, to be followed a "restoration of their ideas into a single harmony." Plato's works Boethius failed to touch, but otherwise his translations and commentaries, particularly Aristotle's Kategoriai (Categories) and Peri hermeneias (On Interpretation) became cornerstones of medieval Scholasticism. His large output, drawing much on Greek sources, also include works on arithmetic, geometry, logic, philosophy, music, and astronomy.Boethius' theological works, the highly valued Tractates, were close to Greek models. In the course of the discussion on the doctrine of the Trinity he defined a person as "an individual substance of a rational nature." With his writings Boethius served as an intermediary between the culture of Antiquity and the Christian world of the Middle Ages. The academy of Plato was closed by the emperor Justinian in 529. It can be said that it marked the end of the Antiquity.

For further reading: Anecdoton Holderi. Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte Roms in ostgotischen Zeit, ed. by H. Usener (1877); The Tradition of Boethius by H.R. Patch (1935); Boethius: Some Aspects of His Times and Work by Helen Marjorie Barrett (1940); The Propositional Logic of Boethius by K. Dürr (1951); Boethius' Commentary on Categories by E.S. Zalewski (1969); Late Latin Writers and Their Greek Sources by Pierre Courcelle (1969); Die Gedichte in der "Consolatio Philosophiae" des Boethius by H. Scheible (1972); Severino Boezio by L. Obertello (1974); Boethius's Conception of Theology and His Method in the Tractates by A. Rand Sutherland (1974); Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy by Henry Chadwich (1981); Boethius and the Liberal Arts: A Collection of Essays by Michael Masi (1981); Boethius: His Life, Thought and Influence, ed. by Margaret Gibson (1981); The Medieval Boethius: Studies in the Vernacular Translations of De Consolatione Philosophiae, ed. by A.J. Minnis (1987); Elizabeth, Queen of England: Queen Elizabeth's Englishings of Boethius, ed. by C. Pemberton (1989); The Poetry of Boethius by Gerard J. P. O'Daly (1991); Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth by Ann W. Astell (1994); Boethius in the Middle Ages, ed. by Marten J. F. M. Hoenen & Lodi Nauta (1997); Participation and the Good: A Study in Boethian Metaphysics by Siobhan Nash-Marshall (2000); Emotions and Choice from Boethius to Descartes, ed. by Henrik Lagerlund & Mikko Yrjönsuuri (2002); Boethius by John Marenbon (2003); New Directions in Boethian Studies, edited by Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr. and Philip Edward Phillips (2007); The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, edited by John Marenbon (2009); A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages, edited by Noel Harold Kaylor, Jr., Philip Edward Phillips (2012)  

Works:

  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1473 (printed in Nürnberg)
  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1492 (printed in Venice)
  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1546 (printed in Basel)
  • In Ciceronis topica commentarium, 1833 (edited by J.G. Baiter)
  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1843 (edited by T. Obbarius)
  • De arithemetica, De musica, 1867 (edited by G. Friedlein)
  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1871 (edited by R. Peiper)
  • Opera theologica, 1871 (edited by R. Peiper)
  • [Commentaris on De interpretatione], 1877-80 (edited by C. Meiser)
  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1947 (edited by Karl Büchner)
  • The Consolation of Philosophy, 1902 (translated by W.V. Cooper)
  • De divisione, 1913 (edited by Paulus Maria de Loe)
  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1957 (prose and verse, edited by L. Bieler) - The Consolation of Philosophy (translated by Richard Green, 1963; V.E. Watts, 1969)
  • translator: Categoriae, De interpretatione, Analytica priora, Topica, Elenchi sophistici, by Aristotle, 1961- (edited by Lorenzo Minio-Paluello, in Aristoteles Latinus)
  • De Consolatione Philosophiae, 1963 (edited by W. Anderson)
  • De syllogismus hypotheticus, 1969 (edited by Luca Obertello)
  • The Theological Tractates and The Consolation of Philosophy, 1973 (edited by H.F. Stewart, E.K. Rand and S.J. Tester)
  • La Consolazione della filosofia, 1977 (edited by O. Dall'Era)
  • Philosophiæ consolationis libri quinque, 1977 (edited by Karl Büchner)
  • De topics differentiis, 1978 (translated by Eleonore Stump)
  • The Poems from on the Consolation of Philosophy, 1994 (editd by Peter Glassgold)
  • Filosofian lohdutus, 2001 (translated into Finnish by Juhani Sarsila)
  • The Consolation of Philosophy: Authoritative Text, Contexts, Criticism, 2010 (edited by Douglas C. Langston)
  • The Old English Boethius: With Verse Prologues and Epilogues Associated with King Alfred, 2012 (edited and translated by Susan Irvine and Malcolm Godden)

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