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Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (c. 480–524)

(c. 480524)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, late Roman statesman and philosopher, was born into the ancient Anician family in Rome, the son of a distinguished father who was consul in 487 and twice prefect of the city. Carefully educated in the liberal arts and philosophypossibly in Athensand precocious in genius, he entered public life at an early age under Theodoric the Ostrogoth, the Arian king of Italy from 493 to 526, who made use of Romans and the traditional administrative methods in his government.

Boethius became consul in 510 and for many years was Theodoric's principal minister (magister officiorum ). In 522 his two sons became consuls; shortly thereafter Boethius was arrested on a charge of treason that cannot now be defined but that he denounced as a calumny. It has been suggested that he wished to exalt the Roman senate and to negotiate with Byzantium; it is also possible that as a Catholic he was distasteful to Theodoric. Condemned to exile and then to death, he was imprisoned for a year at Pavia and executed in 524. His father-in-law Symmachus and Pope John II were similarly put to death in 525 and 526.

Boethius's cult at Pavia, apparently resting on a confusion with Severinus of Cologne, won him popular canonization as a martyr. In recent centuries, however, his Christian allegiance has been questioned because of the absence of religious themes in his De Consolatione and the doubtful authenticity of his theological writings. The question was settled when definite proof of his authorship of these pieces was provided by H. Usener in 1877. Many readers have felt it strange that Boethius, faced with death, should have found his principal stay in Stoic and Neoplatonist philosophy, but such an attitude is not without parallels in the cultured circles of late Roman society. We may note that the readers of Boethius in the ages of faith seem to have felt no uneasiness on this count.


The literary fecundity of Boethius is astonishing, especially in view of his family life and exacting official duties. He wrote on education, science, philosophy, and theology, but he was above all a logician, a translator, and a commentator. His Elements of Arithmetic, Elements of Music, and Elements of Geometry (written 500510) all summarize existing works by Nicomachus of Gerasa and by Euclid. Of theological works attributed to him, four are now recognized as authentic: On the Trinity and On the Person and Two Natures in Christ, Against Eutyches and Nestorius, and two smaller tracts. The treatise On the Catholic Faith is of doubtful authenticity.

In philosophy Boethius set himself the task of translating and commenting upon all the works of Plato and Aristotle, with a view to a final harmonization of their teachings.


As part of his ambitious program, Boethius produced the following translations: the Introduction (Isagoge ) of Porphyry and the Categories of Aristotle (the so-called old logic); the Prior Analytics and Posterior Analytics, the Sophistic Arguments and the Topics of Aristotle (the so-called new logic). It is questionable whether the Boethian translations are still extant among the various primitive translations that were supplanted by versions by Gerald of Cremona and others.


Boethius produced two commentaries on the Introduction of Porphyry, one for beginners and the other, his chief philosophical work, for advanced students (composed 507509); one on the Categories (510); on Victorinus's translation of the Introduction (before 505); and on the Topics of Cicero. In addition, he wrote several short treatises on logic.

Finally, there is Boethius's masterpiece, On the Consolation of Philosophy, written while he was in prison at Pavia, a dialogue in prose and verse between the writer and Philosophy personified, in which the just man unjustly suffering is confirmed in his conviction that happiness and fortitude may be found in adversity. The arguments used are in part Stoic and in part Neoplatonic, but the sentiment throughout is religious, though not explicitly Christian.

Boethius lived during a period of considerable intellectual activity in Rome. Cassiodorus was his colleague, and among his elder contemporaries were the great popes Gelasius I and Hormisdas, and the canonist and chronologist Denis the Little. By his early death he escaped the disasters that befell Italy during Justinian's attempt to recapture the peninsula for the Byzantine Empire and the ravages of the Goths.

The sack and evacuation of Rome in 546 may with some assurance be taken as the dividing line in Italy between the ancient and the medieval cultures. Standing thus at the very end of a civilization, Boethius may rightly be called an eminent founder of the Middle Ages and a figure of supreme importance in the history of Western thought. Himself one of the "last of the Romans," he was also the last Western thinker to whom the works of Plato and Aristotle were familiar in Greek and to whom ancient thought in all its fullness was still comprehensible. His translations and commentaries, though neglected for centuries, stimulated and fed the minds of those who brought about the revival of dialectic in the eleventh century, and gave to medieval speculation the dialectical bent and the Aristotelian color that it never lost. Moreover, his approach to theological issues, though consciously reflecting the procedure of Augustine, was in fact more technical and dialectical in method than that of any of his predecessors. He professedly used the human power of reasoning to penetrate and explain the dogmas of Christianity and regarded the effort of reason (ratio ) to support and discuss authority (auctoritas ) as a principal means in the elucidation of revealed truth. On the technical level of a translator he had a genius second only to that of Cicero for exact reproduction of terms of art in his native language. Many of these terms became current coin in the Middle Ages, and a number of his definitionsthose of nature, substance, person, eternity, providence, and beatitudewere accepted and stereotyped by Aquinas and others.

Boethius's influence upon the thinkers of the early scholastic period (10001150) can scarcely be exaggerated. It was the Boethian age as surely as the next age was Aristotelian. It was his commentary on Porphyry, in which he gave the answers of Plato and Aristotle to the "problem of universals" that initiated the great controversy on universals in the eleventh century. The early Scholastics' concentration of interest upon logic gave to the whole fabric of medieval thought from Roscelin to William of Ockham, and to the form and content of academic teaching, that preoccupation with method rather than with matter which characterized Scholastic thought, giving it accuracy and subtlety but also tending to divorce it from life and to substitute logic for discovery.

The "Consolation"

In another realm, the Consolation of Philosophy was one of the two or three books of universal appeal throughout the Middle Ages. Philosophically it is notable for containing a long discussion of the eternity of God, defined as the full and perfect possession of endless life always present in its entirety, and the "aeviternity" of the created universe, without beginning or end but existing in the ever-changing succession of time. On the basis of this definition, Boethius tried to solve the problem raised by God's prevision of free human acts. God in eternity has a simultaneous vision of all temporal reality, and he sees free acts as free. Here Boethius also made the valuable and influential distinction between that which is (id quod est )for instance, the totality of parts of an individual compound substanceand that by which a substance is what it is, its being (quo est, esse ). He identified the latter with the "form" of the whole, an important metaphysical declaration rendered classical by Thomas Aquinas. Boethius, who was engaged in distinguishing God from all other things, went on to remark that in creatures the form (esse ) is mentally separable from the substance (id quod est ), whereas in God his being is identical with "that which is." This is not, as has sometimes been stated, a first enunciation of the celebrated Thomist distinction between essence and existenceit is, rather, the distinction between a substance and its metaphysical causebut it was a step on the journey, inviting further progress. The mingled melancholy, resignation to divine providence, and sense of the supreme value of the good in life in the Consolation appealed powerfully to the experience of those confronting the risks and disasters of medieval life, and it was to them, rather than to monks or theologians, that the work of Boethius brought comfort. It was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred the Great (c. 890), into German by Notker (c. 1000), and into French by Jean de Meung (c. 1300). It was favorite reading of Dante Alighieri, Giovanni Boccaccio, and Geoffrey Chaucer, and inspired numerous imitators.

See also Aristotelianism; Aristotle; Augustine, St.; Cicero, Marcus Tullius; Dante Alighieri; Logic, History of; Medieval Philosophy; Neoplatonism; Plato; Porphyry; Roscelin; Stoicism; Thomas Aquinas, St.; William of Ockham.


Critical editions of all of Boethius's translations and of his own treatise De divisione have now been published as well as new editions of his Theological Treatises, Consolation of Philosophy, De differentiis topicis, De hypotheticis syllogismis, and De institutione arithmetica.

works by boethius

Boethius's "De Topicis Differentiis." Translated by Eleonore Stump. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1978.

Boethius's "In Ciceronis Topica." Translated by Eleonore Stump. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1988.

The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated with an introduction and explanatory notes by P. G. Walsh. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

De divisione. Edited and translated by John Magee. Leiden: Brill, 1998

De hypotheticis syllogismis. Edited by Luca Obertello. Brescia: Paideia, 1969.

De topicis differentiis. In De topicis differentiis kai hoi buzantines metafraseis tou Manouel Holobolou kai Prochorou Kudone, edited by Dimitrios Nikitas. Athens: Academy of Athens, 1969.

Opuscula Sacra and De consolatione Philosophiae. Edited by Claudio Moreschini. Munich: K. G. Saur, 2000.

Porphyry's Isagoge and Aristotle's Categories, de Interpretatione, Prior Analytics, Topics, Sophistical Refutations. Arisoteles Latinus. Vols. IIII, V, VI. Brussels: Desclée De Brouwer; Paris: Leiden, 19611975.

The Theological Tractates. Translated by H. F. Stewart, E. K. Rand, and S. J. Tester. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

works about boethius

Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Courcelle, Pierre. La Consolation de Philosophie dans la tradition littéraire. Paris: Études Augustiniennes, 1967.

Magee, John. Boethius on Signification and Mind. London: Brill, 1989.

Marenbon, John. Boethius. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Martin, Christopher J. "The Logic of Negation in Boethius." Phronesis 36 (1991): 277304.

Martin, Christopher J. "Non-Reductive Arguments from Impossible Hypotheses in Boethius and Philoponus." Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy 17 (1999): 279302.

Sorabji, Richard, ed. Aristotle Transformed: The Ancient Commentators and Their Influence. London; Duckworth, 1990.

Sorabji, Richard. Time, Creation, and the Continuum. London: Duckworth, 1983.

David Knowles (1967)

Bibliography updated by Christopher J. Martin (2005)

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