Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
by (c) Michael Beechwood
In the damp darkness of a prison cell, a man sits weeping. Unjustly accused of a capital crime, he awaits his sentence, which he knows will be grisly and possibly fatal. His once-rich clothes are stained and tattered; his noble face is lined with sorrow and hunger; his proud heart is torn by shame and anger. He is an educated man; he turns to poetry to find some relief, to express his anguish at the cruelty of fate. But poetry is no use: he cannot escape from his inner torment. He is broken by the injustice and brutality of an authoritarian political regime, and he weepsnot from pain, but from the rage and frustration of his ruined life. But in a mystical vision, a beautiful, regal woman of great power and wisdom appears to him, and step by step she leads him towards the light. Through her power he is set free....
This image of injustice and misfortune may be all too familiar in the modern world, but the scene just described took place more than 1500 years ago; the victim of an unjust regime was the Roman writer and philosopher Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. His story, and the vision of consolation he describes from his prison cell, remain one of the most powerful and moving works of the western tradition.
Boethius has been called both "the last of the Romans" and one of the "founders of the Middle Ages." He is one of the most important "transitional" figures in western history, at the crossroads of the Classical and Medieval worlds. He stood in the twilight of the Ancient world, peered into the gathering darkness, and collected what wisdom he could to guide the hearts of future generations and kindle a light in the
For many centuries the works of Aristotle were lost to the West, except for the parts translated by Boethius. His works on logic helped give rise to medieval scholasticism; his handbook on music was used as a textbook at Oxford until the 18th century. For these services he would be honored; but for his last and most moving book he is loved, and has been beatified by the Catholic Church. His Consolation of Philosophy has been rightly placed "among the masterpieces and jewels of western literature" (by Henry Chadwick, in Margaret Gibson, ed., Boethius: His Life, Thought,
and Influence; Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981). It is a work which has offered hope to men and women in extremity for more than 1500 years. Along with the biblical Book of Job, it has been the comfort of countless people beaten down by life's adversity.
In his earlier philosophical works Boethius set about, quite methodically, to translate the works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin, and then to write commentaries on them showing their essential agreement. This was not the dry escapism of a dusty academic; Boethius felt an urgent mission to society. He saw all around him the decline of learning; he foresaw the collapse of liberal studies, the loss of contact between the Greek East and the Latin West, and tried to take some steps to preserve the wisdom of the past. He sought to provide the necessary textbooks, collecting and compiling the best thoughts of the old philosophers. He did not survive to fulfill his ambitious plan, but he did complete translations of some of Aristotle's logical works, and treatises on arithmetic, geometry, and music. For this he has been called "the schoolmaster of the west."
Boethius tried to provide a theoretical foundation in philosophy and the 'liberal' arts (the arts of a 'free' person). In his musical and mathematical writings he is securely in the tradition of Pythagoras, the
great mystical teacher of the ancient world who saw in ratio and harmony a shadowy trace of the Supreme Mind. Boethius too sought through science an approach to a higher reality; he was concerned with knowledge for its own sake, not for the wealth or power it might bring.
And yet by wealth and power he was brought down.
Boethius was a member of an old and aristocratic family, but was orphaned at an early age. He was raised by another of the richest and most powerful men in Rome, Symmachus; later he married Symmachus' daughter Rusticiana. His membership in this family gave him wealth and status, but more importantly it instilled in his soul a sense of the rich cultural heritage of Roman antiquity, which was even then a fading vision. His spiritual home was Alexandria in Egypt; it has been suggested that he studied there in his youth. In any case his intellectual loyalty was to the older Greek philosophers, not the Roman political world. Gifted with a ready mind and a fine education, Boethius pursued a career typical for a person of his class and time, combining largely ceremonial duties in public office with a sophisticated and elegant leisure pursuit of literature and philosophy.
In the days of the collapsing Roman Empire, the duties of a senator or consul were largely sham and spectacle. The western part of the empire was ruled by Gothic warlords; the senate was composed of members of the few oldest and wealthiest families, who maintained their prestige by staging lavish public entertainments and restoring famous old buildings and monuments. With his eloquence and learning, Boethius attracted the favor of the Ostrogoth emperor Theoderic; he served as consul an empty office but a noble one-in 510, and in 522 had the almost unprecedented honor of seeing his two sons serve as co-consuls. Later, in his prison cell, he would remember that day as the proudest and happiest of his life. Boethius was the model of a Roman gentlemana philosopher and scholar whose noble principles were exercised in government service, even if the government was that of a Gothic 'barbarian' like Theoderic.
But Boethius had the misfortune to be born in a turbulent age which had little respect for principle or learning. The decades around 500 were periods of confusion and change in many ways. The eastern and western Catholic churches were separating, like the eastern and western parts of the old Roman Empire. The Church, in the process of defining its theological principles, was defending itself against a number of complicated heresies and varieties of belief. The old noble families were torn between their loyalty to the more civilized eastern empire in Constantinople and the new germanic rulers of their Roman homeland. The 'Romanness' of the Roman Empire was eroding; the precarious balance that held the tatters of the ancient world together was rapidly being lost.
Boethius served Theoderic faithfully, though perhaps with the certain aloofness and disdain that characterized the attitude of the old Roman families towards their new kings. He was drawn into theological controversies, and wrote some treatises which earned him some fame and an important position as "Master of the Offices" (a sort of Secretary of State) in the city of Ravenna, which was then the western Emperor's capital. Remarkably and tragically, he took his office very seriously, and saw a chance to do good, to defend the honor of the Senate and the old Romans, andas he saw itto bring virtue to his corrupt age. In this position of powera man of principle, perhaps somewhat naive, in a storm of political intriguehe made many enemies.
He was finally accused of treason: suppressing some damning evidence against the senator Albinus, who had indiscreetly favored the eastern Emperor over the Goth Theoderic. Scholars still do not know whether these charges were true or not. And so Boethius found himself in prison, in exile, in the city of Pavia. Late in the year 524 or 25 (we do not know the exact date) he was tried and condemned by the Senateon one of the few occasions on which they had a real duty to perform. He was then tortured by having a cord twisted around his temples until his eyes popped out, and then beaten to death with a cudgel. Even in those harsh times, it was a brutal punishment for one of his rank. His father-in-law Symmachus was executed not long after; Theoderic himself died in 526, bitter and unpopular, and in part it was his ruthless execution of these Roman nobles that caused his downfall.
But in his confinement in Pavia Boethius wrote a booka small book, but one burning with intensity; a literary exercise, but one filled with the urgency of a mystical revelation. The Consolation of Philosophy takes shape as a dialogue that depicts Boethius in despair, comforted by a vision of Lady Philosophy. She explains to him the meaning and pattern of life behind the apparently random cruelty of fate; she leads him from the depths of his sorrow back, by various paths, to a contemplation of the Divine. The form of Boethius' book, alternating verse and prose sections, is called a Menippean Satire, and the whole work is based on a number of Greek and Latin models.
It is a work of obvious sincerity and power, but it is puzzling in one important respect: "it is a profoundly religious view of the nature and destiny of man, but it is notoriously not a Christian book" (Chadwick, in Gibson, ed., p. 10). Boethius is known to have been a Christian, and wrote several small treatises on theology. Yet in his desperation he finds his consolation not in his hope of an afterlife, nor in God's punishment of sinners, but in Philosophy. Why, in prison and disgrace, in the last moments of his life, did he not turn to Christ and the saints for consolation, but rather to the wisdom of the old Platonic world?
Centuries of speculation have not unraveled this riddlewas Boethius a secret pagan, who revealed his true beliefs only at the end of his life? This strains credulity and is contradicted by the historical record. Was he writing a sort of playful imitation of pagan wisdom, while veiling his Christian beliefs? This seems an odd exercise for a man about to be executedwhat would be the point of it? There is very little in the book that a devout Christian could object to, yet the question remains: why did Boethius turn to Philosophy rather than to Christ?
We will try to explore this apparent mystery in the next sections, to see what sort of comfort Boethius might have found in the old Platonic view of the world. But perhaps Boethius found, in his last months, that there was a fundamental truth which transcended the divisions of one creed or another, a deeper wisdom which could be found in both Plato and the Bible. Perhaps he realized, there in his prison cell, that there really was a spiritual link between his church and his library, between the old classical world he saw fading and the new medieval Christian world he did not live to see.
(to be continued)
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