Boethius (c. 477–524 A.D.) is probably the only Christian in the West, who loved to such a degree the world as a world of Greek forms. He opens the Aristotelian scholastic path of medieval philosophy, with the Consolation of Philosophy contributing also to the platonic one, leaving as a testament his awareness that true happiness is the transformation of men in their becoming One with God.

Life and works

A 6th century Roman philosopher and statesman, Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, c. 477–524 A.D.) is known mainly for his philosophical poem The Consolation of Philosophy (Consolatio Philosophiae) composed in the end of his life in prison (523–4 A.D.). Boethius was imprisoned because his political opponents accused him falsely for conspiring with Constantinople against the Ostrogoth rulers of Rome. The pettiness of court machinations led him to death after incredible torture, for centuries depriving western Europe from the works of Aristotle and even more from the works of Plato.

Boethius managed to prepare some translations though, including Porphyry’s Introduction to the Categories of Aristotle (3rd c.), a steady textbook for the millennium that followed, Aristotle’s Categories themselves, On Interpretation, Analytics, Topics, and the Sophistical Refutations (the authorship of the last three is disputed). He composed commentaries to Aristotle’s Analytics and (in a Neoplatonic perspective) On Interpretation, Porphyry’s Introduction, and Cicero’s Topics, and he also composed works of his own on logic —on the categorical and hypothetical syllogisms, on the differences of topoi (places).

The first two parts of a work on arithmetic also survive, a work on music, fragments on geometry —and five theological treatises: 1) De Trinitate, 2) Utrum Pater et Filius et Spiritus Sanctus de divinitale substantialiter praedicentur, 3) Quomodo substantiae, 4) De fide catholica (its authenticity being uncertain), 5) Contra Eutychen et Nestorium. A work on astronomy is lost.

Philosophical ideas and influence

The Consolation of Philosophy stayed away from Christian symbolism, but not from Christian values, and it was not rejected —on the contrary, it remained as popular as the Bible in the Middle Ages, enjoying a great popularity even in later centuries. It seems that Boethius recognized in classical antiquity the possibility of a greater universality, a power able to address potentially all people regardless of cultural differences, and (as even a part of medieval commentators suggested) he wanted to leave a spiritual testament unhindered by religious prejudices.

In the absence of his own explanation, only this can be certain, that his belief in Christian revelation, which is no longer disputed by any part of the research, did not exercise upon him any ideological pressure, at least not in the end of his life. For his great admiration of the educational value of Greek literature, or for other reasons, Boethius reached the end of his life imprisoned externally, being internally free.

The expulsion of the Muses in the first part of the Consolation is rightly compared with the banishment of Homer from the Platonic city. The impression that life is ‘adventurous,’ comes as a way by which recklessness appropriates the inherent changeableness of existence, yet the true nature of time as a moving image of eternity demands a recourse to the divine providence, the awareness of a meaning that is stable and secure. Thus Boethius utilizes the Stoic belief in a sacred meaning of anything inevitable in life. In the single ‘instance’ of eternity God enjoys full knowledge of all time —nothing is to come, nothing has ever passed, nothing is unknown...

Boethius identifies himself with the type of the philosopher king, suffering a frustration that is similar with Plato’s in Sicily. The fundamental concepts of the Consolation of Philosophy can be found in the Platonic tradition, but the Creator is now approached in an intensity and fervor possible only after the Incarnation, even under characteristic, especially for the Latin-speaking Christendom, feelings of guilt before a judging God («ante oculos iudicis cuncta cernentis»: Consolatio V.6, 175–6).

There is a claim that Boethius, by alternating prose and verse —which was common in satirical works— intended to show that the value of philosophy is only relative, or even to discredit philosophy completely, yet the earnestness of the composition and his apparent love for classical learning won’t allow for such a conclusion. Besides, if love of and belief in classical education were not real, the work would not have reached the quality that made of it a constant source of inspiration, when gradually Greek philosophy became the foundation of medieval thinking and an indefeasible dimension of it.

Especially in the West, Christianity had not yet established a comprehensive worldview, as had already happened in the East with Origen and Gregory of Nyssa. It seems that Boethius wanted this completeness, and in spite of the fact that until then his creativity was oriented mainly towards Aristotle, seeking ultimate inspiration he did not neglect Plato. Boethius approaches the end of his life like a Christian who loved the world as a world of Greek forms, his testament being the awareness that the happiness of men is their transformation in the union with God («divinitatem adeptos deos fiery»: Consolatio III .10 a, 87–88).

His theological treatises never lost some importance, but —apart from exceptions, such as in certain universities of central Europe— they lost their position as methodological requirements in favor of Peter Lombard’s Sentences (Sententiae).

His commentary for Aristotle’s On Interpretation influenced the medieval theory of logic more than the work of Aristotle itself. In Boethius’ texts one can find the start of discussions like that between nominalism and realism, which later on developed independently, but also the start of discussions in which Boethius exercises a constant influence until the late Middle Ages, as happened with the one on propositional logic.

Boethius’ influence on the Byzantine spirituality is not negligible in the 13th and 14th century, when some of his works were translated —On Dialectical Topics (by Maximus Olovolos, with comments, c. 1267, and by Prochoros Kydonis, 1360–67), the Consolation of Philosophy (by Maximus Planoudes, c. 1295), and the treatise On the Holy Trinity (by Manuel Kalekas, end of 14th c.) Boethius has been called ‘first scholastic,’ for the Aristotelian side of his thinking and the rigorous argumentation that characterizes his theological treatises. His influence on medieval philosophy is fundamental, strong and continuous. He understands the concept of ‘person’ in the way of Aristotle, as an individual substance, yet having a divine origin and an absolutely unique importance according to this origin, so that it cannot be interpreted as a role or mask. The authentic existence of man is a coexistence with God, not only as a desirable end, but also as the origin. Because of this origin the soul knows everything in the beginning, and forgets everything by becoming incarnate, which shows the value of true education, understood by Boethius in agreement with Plato, primarily as a return to the awareness of the divine being and origin of man.

Author: George Valsamis
  • Marenbon, J. ed. The Cambridge Companion to Boethius. Cambridge, 2009.
  • Phillips, P.E, Kaylor, Ν.Η. Jr. eds. A Companion to Boethius in the Middle Ages. Leiden, 2012.
  • Hoenen, M.J.F.M., Gersh, S. eds. The Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach. Berlin, 2002.
  • Albrecht, M. A History of Roman Literature from Livius Andronicus to Boethius 2. Leiden, 1996.
  • Νικήτας, Δ.Ζ. Boethius' De topicis differentiis και οι βυζαντινές μεταφράσεις των Μανουήλ Ολοβώλου και Προχόρου Κυδώνη. Αθήνα, 1990.
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