Plunging into the Go to Philip Tagg's homepage dark ages with Boëthius

Notes on/extracts from
[1] Encyclopædia Britannica (CD-ROM 1999)
[2] David Ewing Duncan: The Calendar (London: Fourth Estate, 1996)

Go to the top of this documetnShort biography Encyclopædia Britannica 1994-1999)

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (b. AD 470-475?, Rome? d. 524, Pavia?), Roman scholar, Christian philosopher, and statesman, author of the celebrated De consolatione philosophiae, a largely Neoplatonic work in which the pursuit of wisdom and the love of God are described as the true sources of human happiness.

Cassiodorus (B's biographer) says B was accomplished orator who delivered a fine eulogy of Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths who made himself king of Italy. Cassiodorus also mentioned that Boethius wrote on theology, composed a pastoral poem, and was most famous as a translator of works of Greek logic and mathematics.

From ancient Roman family of the Anicii, which had been Christian for about a century and of which Emperor Olybrius had been a member. Boethius' father had been consul in 487 but died soon afterward, and Boethius was raised by Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, whose daughter Rusticiana he married. He became consul in 510 under the Ostrogothic king Theodoric.

His early works on arithmetic and music are extant, both based on Greek handbooks by Nicomachus of Gerasa, a 1st-century-AD Palestinian mathematician. There is little that survives of Boethius' geometry, and there is nothing of his astronomy.

It was Boethius' scholarly aim to translate into Latin the complete works of Aristotle with commentary and all the works of Plato "perhaps with commentary," to be followed by a "restoration of their ideas into a single harmony." Boethius' dedicated Hellenism, modeled on Cicero's, supported his long labour of translating Aristotle's Organon (six treatises on logic) and the Greek glosses on the work.

Boethius had begun before 510 to translate Porphyry's Eisagoge, a 3rd-century Greek introduction to Aristotle's logic, and elaborated it in a double commentary. He then translated the Kategoriai , wrote a commentary in 511 in the year of his consulship, and also translated and wrote two commentaries on the second of Aristotle's six treatises, the Peri hermeneias ("On Interpretation"). About 520 Boethius put his close study of Aristotle to use in four short treatises in letter form on the ecclesiastical doctrines of the Trinity and the nature of Christ; these are basically an attempt to solve disputes that had resulted from the Arian heresy, which denied the divinity of Christ. Using the terminology of the Aristotelian categories, Boethius described the unity of God in terms of substance and the three divine persons in terms of relation. He also tried to solve dilemmas arising from the traditional description of Christ as both human and divine, by deploying precise definitions of "substance," "nature," and "person." Notwithstanding these works, doubt has at times been cast on Boethius' theological writings because in his logical works and in the later Consolation, the Christian idiom is nowhere apparent.

In about 520 Boethius became magister officiorum (head of all the government and court services) under Theodoric. His two sons were consuls together in 522. Eventually Boethius fell out of favour with Theodoric. The Consolationcontains the main extant evidence of his fall but does not clearly describe the actual accusation against him. After the healing of a schism between Rome and the church of Constantinople in 520, Boethius and other senators may have been suspected of communicating with the Byzantine emperor Justin I, who was orthodox in faith whereas Theodoric was Arian. Boethius openly defended the senator Albinus, who was accused of treason "for having written to the Emperor Justin against the rule of Theodoric." The charge of treason brought against Boethius was aggravated by a further accusation of the practice of magic, or of sacrilege, which the accused was at great pains to reject. Sentence was passed and was ratified by the Senate, probably under duress. In prison, while he was awaiting execution, Boethius wrote his masterwork, De consolatione philosophiae. During that prison sentence B was badly treated, being 'tortured daily' (see Duncan, p.87).

After his detention, probably at Pavia, he was executed in 524. His remains were later placed in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro in Pavia, where, possibly through a confusion with his namesake, St. Severinus of Noricum, they received the veneration due to a martyr and a memorable salute from Dante.

B documented several ideas relating science to music, including a suggestion that the human perception of pitch is related to the physical property of frequency.

Go to the top of this documetnThe Consolation

The argument of the Consolation is basically Platonic. Philosophy, personified as a woman, converts the prisoner Boethius to the Platonic notion of Good and so nurses him back to the recollection that, despite the apparent injustice of his enforced exile, there does exist a summum bonum ("highest good"), which "strongly and sweetly" controls and orders the universe. Fortune and misfortune must be subordinate to that central Providence, and the real existence of evil is excluded. Man has free will, but it is no obstacle to divine order and foreknowledge. Virtue, whatever the appearances, never goes unrewarded. The prisoner is finally consoled by the hope of reparation and reward beyond death.

The modern reader may... be impressed by Boethius' emphasis on the possibility of other grades of Being beyond the one humanly known and of other dimensions to the human experience of time.


Go to the top of this documetnExtract from Consolation (Duncan p.88)

So sinks the mind in deep despair
And sight grows dim; when the storms of life
Blow surging up the weight of care,
It banishes its inward light
And turns in trust to the dark without.

This was the man who once was free
To climb the sky with zeal devout
To contemplate the crimson sun,
The frozen fairness of the moon --
Astronomer once used in joy
To comprehend and to commune
With planets on their wandering ways.

This man, this man sought out the source
Of storms that roar and rouse the seas;
The spirit that rotates the world,
The cause that translocates the sun
From shining East to watery West;
He sought the reason why spring hours
Are mild with flowers manifest,
And who enriched with swelling grapes
Ripe autumn at the full of year.

Now see that mind that searched and made
All Nature's hidden secrets clear
Lie prostrate prisoner of the night.
His neck bends low in shackles thrust,
And he is forced beneath the weight
To contemplate -- the lowly dust.



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