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Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (c.480–525/6)

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-B016-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved October 24, 2017, from

Article Summary

Boethius was a principal transmitter of classical Greek logic from Aristotle, the Stoics and the Neoplatonists to the schoolmen of the medieval Latin West. His contemporaries were largely unimpressed by his learned activities, and his writings show him to have been a lonely, rather isolated figure in a world where the old Roman aristocrats were struggling to maintain high literary culture in an Italy controlled by barbarous and bibulous Goths, whose taste in music and hairgrease Boethius found painful.

Boethius himself was born into a patrician family in Rome, but was orphaned and raised instead by Q. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, a rich Christian heir to a distinguished pagan line; Boethius later married the latter’s daughter, Rusticiana. As well as Symmachus, Boethius had a small circle of educated friends, including the Roman deacon John (who probably became Pope John I, 523–6), who shared his enthusiasm for logical problems. The Gothic king of Italy at Ravenna, Theoderic, had met high culture during his education at Constantinople and made use of experienced Roman aristocrats as administrators. He employed Boethius to design a sundial for the Burgundian king and also a waterclock, specimens of advanced technology intended to impress a barbarian; he also sent a harpist to Clovis, the Frankish king, no doubt intended to soften the latter’s bellicose spirit.

By 507 Boethius had gained the title ‘patrician’ and received letters addressed to ‘your magnitude’. Symmachus was in a position to promote his public career. He was nominated consul for the year 510, a position without political power but of high standing and requiring large disbursements of private wealth; it also carried the perquisite that the consul’s name stood on all dated documents for that year. In 522 his two sons were installed as consuls, a promotion that gave their father intense pride and pleasure, and he took up seriously the political post of Master of the Offices. In this capacity, his determination to eliminate corruption earned him numerous enemies among both Goths and his fellow Roman aristocrats. His relations with the courtiers at Ravenna became disastrous.

Boethius’ fall came when he rashly defended a senator who had been delated to King Theoderic for conducting treasonable correspondence with persons high in the court of the emperor at Constantinople. There is no improbability in the notion that, along with other Roman aristocrats, Boethius would have preferred to be rid of the crude Goths and to see Theoderic replaced by a ruler congenial to the emperor. His great erudition had aroused fears that he was engaged in occult practices dangerous to the Ravenna dynasty. In 524 or early 525, Boethius was imprisoned at Pavia (Ticinum). Here, while awaiting the execution already decreed against him, he composed his masterpiece, De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy).

De consolatione philosophiae, a bitterly hostile attack on Theoderic prefacing a philosophical discussion of innocent suffering and the problem of evil, must have been smuggled out of prison, no doubt with the aid of gold coins from Rusticiana or Symmachus. In the ninth century, the work captured the imagination of Alcuin at the court of Charlemagne, became a standard textbook in schools and was set on the way to being one of the greatest books of medieval culture, especially popular among laymen.

Boethius’ earlier works have been the preserve of more specialized readers, especially concerned with the history of ancient philosophy. His stated original intention was to educate the West by translating all of Plato and Aristotle into Latin and to supply explanatory commentaries on many of their writings. That was too ambitious. He did not proceed beyond some of the logical works (Organon) of Aristotle, prefaced by a commentary on a Latin translation of Porphyry’s Isagōgē(Introduction) made in the fourth century by Marius Victorinus, an African teaching in Rome, and then by a second commentary on a translation of the same text made by himself. This commentary underlay the medieval debates on universals. He also wrote a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories and two commentaries on Aristotle’s De interpretatione. In addition, Boethius adapted Nicomachus of Gerasa’s Arithmetic for Latin readers, Nicomachus’ introduction to music as a liberal art, a commentary on Cicero’s Topics, a short treatise ‘On Division’, important treatises on categorical and hypothetical syllogisms and a further tract on different kinds of ‘topic’.

Intricate theological debates between Rome and Constantinople convinced him that a trained logician could contribute clarification, and he composed four theological tractates on the doctrines of the Trinity and the person of Christ, concentrating on logical problems. In addition, a fifth tract became a statement of orthodox belief without much reference to logical implications. The five pieces, or Opuscula sacra, became hardly less influential than De consolatione philosophiae, especially from the twelfth century onwards. We hear of critics who thought contemporary theologians knew more about Boethius than about the Bible.

Citing this article:
Chadwick, Henry. Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (c.480–525/6), 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-B016-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2017 Routledge.

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