Lesson 3: Boethius and Beyond

The Last of the Romans

When Augustine died in 430, the barbarians were bearing down on his episcopal city. When Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born, the Ostrogoths were in control of the city, although the king lived in Ravenna. Theodoric favored the continuation of Roman customs -- the senate, the consuls, and so forth -- and welcomed men like Boethius of distinguished Roman birth into his administration. Before his political career, Boethius was educated in the works of classical philosophy, perhaps at Alexandria. Theodoric was an Arian -- a member of the heretical sect that denied the divinity of Christ -- while Boethius was a Catholic. Eventually Boethius, whose life had been successful in every way, fell afoul of the Ostrogothic king who accused him of conspiring against him with the emperor in Constantinople. Boethius was executed in Pavia in 524. It is thanks to the elements of his life that the literary effort of Boethius can be divided into three quite distinct parts.

First, there is the great project, inspired by his philosophical education, to turn into Latin the writings of Plato and Aristotle.

Second, there are the theological tractates which deal with the Incarnation, the Trinity, and the Catholic faith in all its sweep.

Finally, there is the work Boethius wrote in prison while awaiting execution, The Consolation of Philosophy.

Any one of these efforts alone would have earned Boethius the gratitude of subsequent generations, but the combination of them in so short a lifetime gives us a sense of the depth of his talents.

The Translation Project

When Boethius tells us that he intended to translate all of Plato and all of Aristotle into Latin and then go on to show the compatibility of the two thinkers, our reaction must be one of disbelief. This task would have taken the focused concentration of a long life, and Boethius was active in political life as well as in the affairs of the Church. But the goal involved more than simply putting these authors into Latin. Boethius proposed to accompany each work with a commentary, sometimes with two, in order to make it intelligible. Needless to say, Boethius did not complete the project. He did however make an important and impressive start on it.

He translated Porphyry's Eisagoge or introduction to the Categories of Aristotle and produced two commentaries on Porphyry. He translated and commented on the Categories and On Interpretation, and commented on some rhetorical works of Cicero as well. This is as far as he got, and it is clear that this concentration on logical works is not accidental, but incorporates a view as to how one should get into philosophy. Boethius also composed a work on Arithmetic and on Music. All of these translations and commentaries were to have a significant impact on medieval education.

The Theological Tractates

Five theological treatises by Boethius have come down to us, and it is thanks to these that he has been called the first of the Scholastics, putting faith and reason into relationship to one another. The work On the Trinity is heavily influenced by Augustine's great work. Boethius investigates the way in which things are predicated of God, and of the three divine persons taken singly; he asks if God falls into one of the categories; he locates the subject in terms of Aristotle's division of theoretical inquiry into three kinds, with the suggestion that the work falls into the discipline Aristotle called theology. Throughout, there is a Platonic cast to the discussion, despite the many references to Aristotelian doctrine. In this amalgamation, Boethius shows his affinity with the Neoplatonists who, like himself, were intent on overcoming the opposition between Plato and Aristotle. In discussing the Incarnation against certain heretical views, in the work called De duabus naturis (On the two natures) by medievals, he distinguishes nature and person and individual, and correlates Greek and Latin terminology, establishing in Latin meanings for essentiasubsistentia, and substantia that would influence later discussions.

A work that is not specifically Christian, the De hebdomadibus, asks whether everything is good just insofar as it exists and proceeds more geometrico, first setting down axioms and then addressing the question in their light. It would seem that either answer to the titular question lands one in difficulties, so distinctions are introduced which lead to a satisfactory conclusion. The methodological elegance of this short work is most impressive. Among the axioms is found diversum est esse et id quod est (existence and that which exists are diverse) which would have a long history. This was the case because the tractates of Boethius became themselves the subjects of later commentaries. Thomas Aquinas, for example, commented on both On the Trinity and the De hebdomadibus, the former incomplete, the latter complete.

The Consolation of Philosophy

The work that Boethius composed in his death cell in Pavia awaiting execution is prompted by the injustice of the accusation. Why do such terrible things happen? Why do the just suffer and the wicked prosper? It is difficult not to phrase the question in biblical terms, but the five books of the Consolation -- alternating prose and verse sections -- make no overt appeal to the religious faith of the author. Rather, the question is treated using only the resources of reason, of philosophy.

So rich and various a work cannot be adequately summarized. A grieving Boethius is consoled by a shocked Dame Philosophy at the outset, and then the restoration of the knowledge Boethius' misfortune has obscured begins. In what does human happiness consist? There is the familiar consideration and dismissal of fame, and wealth and power and pleasure as causes of human well-being. The wisdom that is happiness is described in purely philosophical terms. The introduction of providence into the discussion is not a counter-example, since providence was a component of Neoplatonic philosophical discussions. The troublesome problem of the compatibility of the necessity of God's knowledge and human freedom is a central issue in the later books.

The question of the distinction between philosophy and theology thus receives an impressive answer in Boethius. Some of his works are theological, that is, bring to bear on mysteries of the faith philosophical truths; the Consolation is philosophical, severely eschewing any appeal to the faith. So marked is this distinction that for a long time it was doubted that the author of the tractates and of the Consolation could be the same. Since there was no doubt about Boethius's authorship of the latter, the tractates were thought to be wrongly attributed to Boethius. But contemporary mention of both as by Boethius removed all doubt and we are left with the mystery of why a Christian believer in Boethius' plight would have written such a work, which suggests, as Doctor Johnson observed to Boswell, that he was magis philosophus quam Christianus.

Monastic Education

Boethius's translation project succeeded in getting into Latin some logical works and he himself composed works on arithemetic and music. When we turn to the work of Cassiodorus Senator, Boethius's contemporary who, a layman like Boethius, nonetheless founded a monastery at Vivarium, we find in the Institutiones a comparison of sacred and secular learning that would define medieval education in monasteries and, later, in cathedral schools.

Cassiodorus was of course speaking of the education of monks. Scripture is sacred learning and the monks would be familiar with it from the liturgy and from the daily recitation of the Psalms. Study of Scripture outside the church was meant to enhance the services within the church. And what is secular learning?

Cassiodorus gathers all secular learning into the seven liberal arts. These arts fall into two groupings: the trivium, or threefold way, and the quadrivium, or fourfold way. The first group included grammar, rhetoric and logic; the second group included arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. In Augustine, the arts have not been reduced to seven, but with Cassiodorus this number becomes standard.

Each liberal art was associated with a book, an author (auctor) who was the authority (auctoritas) in that discipline. The logical works Boethius had translated became text books in the trivium and On Music made him an authority in the quadrivium. The assumption of Cassiodorus is that there is a complementarity, not a conflict, between sacred and secular learning, and that the latter is propaideutic to the former. That is, the arts enable one to interpret scripture and perform other monastic and clerical tasks better.

Over the course of the next centuries, this conception of education prevailed and, when Charlemagne turned his attention to the education of the diocesan clergy, the liberal arts curriculum was installed at the cathedral school each bishop was to have for the training of his priests. By the twelfth century, the division into liberal arts is beginning to show strain. Some schools emphasized logic almost to the exclusion of the other arts, and some schools expanded the study of grammar into the study of the ancient classics and other literature. But a crisis was to come at the end of the 12th century which spelled the end of the notion that the seven liberal arts were an adequate summation of secular learning.

Writing Assignment

Outline the procedure and content of Boethius's De hebdomadibus (whether everything is good just insofar as it is). More perhaps than any other work this is the basis for calling Boethius the first of the Scholastics. You should be able to do this in fewer than five pages. The text can be found, with translation, in the Loeb Classica Library edition of Boethius, edited by H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand and S. J. Tester, London: Heinemann, 1978. A translation can be found in the medieval reader edited by Hyman and Walsh.


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