Boethius

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

from Gregor Reisch's Margarita Philosophica (1503)


Boethius (born: circa 475–7 C.E., died: 526? C.E.) has long been recognized as one of the most important intermediaries between ancient philosophy and the Latin Middle Ages and, through his Consolation of Philosophy, as a talented literary writer, with a gift for making philosophical ideas dramatic and accessible to a wider public. For his influence on all writers after him, Dante called Boethius "The last Roman and the first Scholastic." He had previously translated Aristotle’s logical works into Latin, written commentaries on them as well as logical textbooks, and used his logical training to contribute to the theological discussions of the time. All these writings were enormously influential in the Middle Ages.

The image here is taken from Gregor Reisch's late 15th century encyclopedia of medieval knowledge, Margarita Philosophica, or The Philosophic Pearl. In this image, we see a representation of "Grammar" from the Seven Liberal Arts. The allegory of Grammar appears as the foundation of all learning. She is depicted as Nicostrata (legendary inventor of the alphabet) holding a hornbook and key and introducing a child into a tower of learning with six levels. On the two bottom levels of the tower we see the grammarians Donatus and Priscian. The upper levels are taken up with various portraits of historical figures representing the subjects of the trivium, the quadrivium and natural and moral philosophy. You can see Boethius representing arithmetic on the same level as Aristotle logic, and Cicero rhetoric. On the uppermost the level of the tower, we see Peter Lombard representing theology.


from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/boethius/

Boethius' Life

Just like many of his ancestors, Boethius held important public offices in Rome. At the time of his birth, however, the Western Roman Empire no longer existed. In 476, the last Western Roman Emperor was deposed by a Germanic chieftain Odoacer who in turn was killed by Ostrogothic king, Theodoric the Great. When Boethius was appointed consul in 510, the Italian peninsula was ruled by the Ostrogoths. Boethius’s political career seemed bright before he lost Theodoric’s favour in 523. At the Royal Council meeting in Verona in the same year, he spoke in defence of former consul Caecina Decius Faustus Albinus who was accused of treason and conspiring with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I. He was arrested and imprisoned in Pavia for one or two years before he was executed for treason. He was buried in San Pietro in Ciel d’Oro, an Augustinian church in Pavia. His The Consolation of Philosophy was written while he was in prison.


from "Boethius", http://www.philosophers.co.uk/boethius.html

The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius with Philosophy at the Wheel of Fortune, from De Consolatione Philosophiae, translated by Jean de Meun (15th century) .Bibliotheque Municipale, Rouen, France

Unlike his theological and philosophical works, The Consolation of Philosophy is written in literary form. It consists of a dialogue between Boethius, sitting in his prison-cell awaiting execution, and a lady who personifies Philosophy, and its often highly rhetorical prose is interspersed with verse passages. You can see your reader for more detailed discussion of the history and use of combinations of prose and verse, which was alternately called prosimetrum or Menippean satire.

Throughout the dialogue, the narrator represents himself as utterly confused and dejected by his sudden change of fortune, and it becomes Philosophy's role to guide him to a proper understanding of the true nature of fortune. This revolving wheel or "Wheel of Fortune" metaphor became a popular motif throughout medieval theological, philosophical, and literary writing.


from The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/boethius/

Questions to think about while reading The Consolation of Philosophy

  • How might we read this text: As philosophy? As history? As literature? What would these different approaches offer?

  • Why does Lady Philosophy call Boethius "sick" or "unwell"? Is this a real or metaphoric illness?

  • What are the causes of Boethius' illness? What are the remedies?

  • What is the relationship between perception and knowledge, as described by Boethius and Lady Philosophy?

  • What are some of the tensions represented in the work? These could be of many different kinds: formal, logical, psychological, or literary. How are they resolved or not resolved?

  • Bring further questions you may have to class.