Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus

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Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus

(b. Rome [?], ca. 480; d. near Pavia, Italy, 524/525)

logic, mathematics, music, theology, philosophy.

Very little is known of Boethius’ life before his downfall, imprisonment, and execution (522–525). He belonged to one of the more eminent families of the Roman aristocracy, the Anicii, to which two emperors and perhaps also Pope Gregory the Great belonged. Manlius Boethius, consul for 487, may have been his father, and a prefect of the praetorium for 454 may have been his grandfather. Indirect evidence suggests an approximate date for Boethius’ birth: he was younger than the writer Ennodius (b. 475), his distant relative and friend; he considered himself not old in 523; and he achieved public eminence in 510. His appointment to the honorific title of consul in 510, while he was writing a commentary on Aristotle’s Categories; his presence in Rome in 522, when he delivered a speech in the Senate before King Theodoric, who had just made Boethius’ two sons consuls; his imprisonment in or near Pavia in 522/523; and his death there two years later are well documented. All other chronological data are hypothetical, including his appointment to one of the highest offices in the Roman Gothic kingdom, the magisterium officiorum, which gave him some measure of control over state affairs.

For a long time it was taken for granted that Boethius studied in Athens because of a statement made in Theodoric’s name by Cassiodorus that in fact suggests a contrary conclusion: “You [Boethius] have penetrated from a distance the schools of Athens” (italics author’s)1. Many now accept the view that the studied under Ammonius in Alexandria; the hypothesis is based on a vague possibility that a perfect of Alexandria ca. 476 named Boetios was Boethius’s father and on the close connection of many passages in the two philosophers’ works.2 But common doctrines most often derive from common sources, and books travel more easily than men. There is no reason to believe that Boethius ever left Italy.

When still young Boethius lost his father, but acquired the powerful and inspiring protection of Q. Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, a member of an eminent Roman family that combined public authority with great culture. Symmachus may well have provided Boethius with his first knowledge of fourth century Greco-Latin learning and with the encouragement to bring it up to date. Symmachus’ daughter, Rusticiana, became Boethius’ wife and bore him two sons, Boethius and Symmachus. Theodoric flattered him for his learning, and asked his advice when the king of France wanted a harper and when the king of Burgundy wanted a water clock and a sundial. Whether Theodoric appointed him to high office because of his special abilities or in order to strengthen his hold on the Roman nobility we cannot know; but he certainly did not take into account Boethius’ solidarity with other members of the Senate and his attachment to the idea of the Roman Empire and Roman “freedom,” nor did he realize that collaboration does not necessarily mean submission and renunciation. In 522, when Boethius defended Albinus against the charge of betraying the Gothic king for the Roman emperor, Theodoric took his revenge: he ordered Boethius’ imprisonment and death.

Boethius left no perceptible mark on politics and statesmanship. His death inspired many to consider him a martyr,3 but hagiography does not lead to proper appreciation of a man’s work. On the other hand, centuries after his death Boethius was responsible for what he probably achieved in a very small measure during his lifetime: the spread of encyclopedic learning. He became the broadcaster of much Greek knowledge to many generations who used Latin and through them, to many others. Several factors converged to produce this result: basic among them are the body of works that he translated, elaborated, or adapted from the Greek and his own writings, in which he probably exercised somewhat more independent judgment.

Here again we must be cautious. Much has been made of Boethius’ grand plan to leave behind, in Latin, the achievements of the Greek past, but he did not outline any such plan. His interests were varied; he had some acquaintance with the general scheme of the lay encyclopedia of knowledge dominating the Greek schools and cultural life of his time, and with the new developments of Christian doctrine. However, for two areas of knowledge he outlined a vague scheme. The first was the basic doctrines of philosophy: “I shall translate and comment upon as many works by Aristotle and Plato as I can get hold of, and I shall try to show that their philosophies agree.”4 This echoes a plan first suggested by plotinus’ forerunner Ammonius Saccas and partly carried out by Plotinus’ faithful pupil Porphyry. It is particularly important because it can be shown more than once that Boethius is repeating his source almost literally, even where the translation is disguised; and Porphyry was often his source. It must also be noted that Boethius speaks of writings of which he can “get hold,” thus hinting that he was not working where works of Aristotle and Plato were easily obtained.

Another partial plan is suggested by the introductory section of Boethius’ Arithmetic, dedicated to his father-in-law.5 There he says that he intends to produce a handbook for each of the four mathematical disciplines—arithmetic, music, geometry, astronomy—which he calls the quadrivium probably the first time this word was used. This led, by analogy, to the term trivium for the disciplines dealing with words instead of with numbers or magnitudes. Here again one ought to be cautious and not interpret the intention as a definite plan: the four disciplines were linked in the Greek tradition from which Boethius drew his material.6 Nor should one be drawn by the flattering letter of Theodoric/Cassiodorus (ca. 507–513) into believing that what is written there described works already composed rather than Boethius’ knowledge and an ability to discuss matters contained in Greek works.

We know too little about schools and intellectual life when Boethius was young to be able to infer what he learned from whom, or how and where he learned it. We can only try to find out from his works what may have contributed to their composition. The two elements that seem to emerge from such an inquiry are the Roman intellectual life of the latter fourth century and the Greek scholastic tradition as it appeared in the fifth century.

A few books, possibly very few, written in fourth-century Rome had come into Boethius’ hands: books of logic or on the line between logic and rhetoric. He may have learned more from his father-in-law, one of whose ancestors had been a member of the learned circles of ca. 360–380. Representing that period in Boethius’ works are Marius Victorinus, African and pagan by birth, Roman and Christian by adoption; Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, the leader of the pagan revival; Albinus; and Themistius, the eminent Greek rhetorician, philosopher, and teacher of many Romans, including Agorius, in Constantinople. Cicero should be added, because he was the great Roman of that period, master and inspirer of these revivalists.

Boethius possessed, at least in part, Victorinus’ Latin adaptation of Porphyry’s Isagoge and used it for his shorter commentary, in dialogue form, on this work. Victorinus may even have encouraged him to present as his original work what he was actually adapting from the Greek: Victorinus had done this in the Isagoge and Boethius did it in several of his “original” works of logic and, perhaps, of theology. Victorinus may also have been the source for other writings by Boethius, if we accept as authentic one of the two basic versions of Cassiodorus’ Institutiones: there7 Victorinus is credited with a translation of Aristotle’s Categories and De interpretatione, commenteries on the Categories and Cicero’s Topica, and a De syllogismis hypotheticis. In any case, Victorinus provided an example of how to spread Greek culture among Latin-speaking people.

Boethius may have known one work by Agorius Praetextatus: his Latin version of Themistius’ paraphrase of Aristotle’s Analytics, but he is rather ambiguous; he may simply have known that such a version existed. Of Albinus, Boethius knew that he had written something on logic. It may be suspected that Albinus was in fact responsible for the Latin version of Themistius’ exposition of the Categories, which, from ca, 780, was ascribed to St. Augustine; 8 but Boethius was not familiar with it. The connection with Themistius appears to be indirect. Apart from Agorius’ (and Albinus’?) dependence on Themistius, this idea seems to be confirmed by the place that Themistius’ doctrines concerning the “topics,” or types of logical and rhetorical arguments, have in Boethius’ work; Themistius’ classification of topics is discussed by Boethius as a parallel to Cicero’s classification and analysis of them.

Greece and the Greek world still had active and organized centers of higher studies and well-stocked libraries. Boethius may never have gone near them, but he could try to obtain some of the books used there, most probably in Athens, by students and teachers, There is no mention in his works9 of contemporary Greek scholars or philosophers, nor of those of the two or three previous generations. The most modern man he mentions is Proclus’ teacher Syrianus (first half of the fifth century). More than once mention is made of lamblichus, a Neoplatonist of the first half of the fourth century, whose intellectual legacy passed, after three generations, to Proclus, a Constantinopolitan who headed the Athenian school in the decades immediately preceding Boethius’ birth. Recent studies have strengthened the hypothesis that the few books from which Boethius derived his knowledge of Greek philosophy and science came from Athenian circles.

When it is maintained, with a great wealth of quotations and parallel passages, that Boethius was a pupil of Ammonius,10 master in Alexanddria, nothing more is shown than that what Ammonius had learned from his masters in Athens, especially from Proclus, had also reached Boethius. The detailed analysis of the Porphyrian and Aristotelian commentaries of Boethius made by J. Shiel leaves little doubt that his conclusions are right; Boethius possessed one volume of the Greek Organon, in which the logical texts of Porphyry and Aristotle were surrounded by a rich collection of passages extracted from the main commentaries of the third and fourth centuries. All the quotations from and references to Porphyry, Iamblichus, Themistius, and Alexander of Aphrodisias are secondhand. Wherever it is possible to check, they are also found in the corresponding extant Greek commentaries. Even quotations from other works of Aristotle, not commented upon by Boethius, come from these selections of Greek commentaries.

In general, considering the nature of most of Boethius’ writings, one would do well to discount even internal references to “past” works: some of these references may come from the original Greek works11 or—as happens with many writers—may be expressions based on the author’s wishful thought that, by the time one work is finished, others will also be completed, so that the reader will be able to take the whole series of works in a definite systematic order linked by cross-references. Consequently, it is reasonable to consider as works surely written by Boethius those which are extant and cannot easily be denied as his. Doubts still remain regarding the actual “Boethian” form of several of these works: double recensions suggest that early editors took more freedom than we should like in reshaping the works of the man they intended to glorify. This might even lead us to suggest that Boethius’ name was soon added to works not his own, as was done in later times.

The existing works include a considerable body of logical writings: translations, commentaries, and independent treatises.12 We still have the translations of (1) Porphyry’s Isagoge (ca. 507), in two slightly different versions; (2) Aristotle’s Categories (before 510), in one uniform, quite polished recension and in a mixture of parts of this recension with parts of a rougher rendering (perhaps Boethius’ own, incompletely preserved); (3) Aristotle’s De interpretatione (before 513), in three slightly different forms; (4) Aristotle’s Prior Analyties (before 520), like the Categories, in one polished recension and in a mixture of parts of this with parts of a more primitive (perhaps Boethius’ original) rendering; (5) Aristotle’s Topics (before 520), in a uniform, unpolished edition and one small section from a more finished text; (6) Aristotle’s Sophistical Refutations (before 520), in one recension (another existing recension is probably the result of the mixture of the usual recension by Boethius with some elements of a twelfth-century translation or revision by James of Venice). The suggestion that a Latin collection of passages from Greek commentaries on Prior Analytics was also translated by Boethius may have to be discarded, and there is only scanty evidence that he translated the Posterior Analytics. The translations, especially if one considers only the less finished recensions as undoubtedly authentic, suggest that Boethius’ knowledge of Greek was by no means excellent.

The logical works commented upon by Boethius are (1, 2) Porphyry’s Isagoge: one commentary (ca. 505), in the form of a dialogue, is based on some sections of Victorinus’ adaptation, and another (ca. 508), in five books, is based on Boethius’ own translation; (3) Aristotle’s Categories (509–511), on the basis of Boethius’ translation, with a second commentary perhaps intended but probably never written;13 (4,5) Aristotle’s De interpretatione (513–516), a shorter commentary in two books and a longer one in six, both based on Boethius’ translation; (6) Cicero’s Topics (ca. 522). Preserved incomplete, in seven books. A commentary on Aristotle’s Topics is mentioned by Boethius, but it is not known whether it was ever written.

The “independent” logical works are (1) On Categorical Syllogism (ca. 505–506), in two books; (2) On Division (ca. 507); (3) On Hypothetical Syllogisms (ca. 518), in three books; (4) Prolegomena (ca. 523), known in the Middle Ages as Antepraedicamenta and, from 1492 on, as Introductio in Syllogismos categoricos; and (5) De differentiis topicis (ca. 523). (On Definitions, a treatise ascribed to Boethius from the twelfth to the nineteenth centuries, is the work of Marius Victorinus. Small rhetorical treatises published as independent works are extracts or adaptations from the De differentiis topicis.)14

Two works by Boethius on disciplines of the quadrivium still exist: the Arithmetic, in two books, and the Music, in five. No agreement has been reached by scholars on the status of the various recensions of a Geometry that bear Boethius’ name in many manuscripts and editions and were quoted as his for several centuries; it is quite possible that they include at least some sections originally written by him as translations of and adaptations from Euclid. None of the texts on astronomy that have been tentatively connected with Boethius can be ascribed to him unless new evidence comes to light.

Boethius’ writings on theology are confined to two short pamphlets, On she Trimly and On the Two Natures, and One Person of Christ, and the briefly argued answers to two questions, Are “Father,”“Son,” “Holy Spirit” Predicated Substantially of “God” and How Can Substances Be Good in Virtue of Their Existence, Without Being “Goods” qua Substances (Quomodo Substantiae… often known as De hebdomadibus).15

All these writings are obviously didactic or scholastic. The same character is shared, but veiled in a lietary form, by Boethius’ one personal, original, and attractive work, the Consolation of Philosophy (523–524), written in verse and prose while he was awaiting execution.

Among the books most frequently—and erroneously—ascribed to him are Dominic Gonzalez’(or Gunsissalinus’) De unitate uno(thirteenth century). Translations from Aristotle (Metaphysics, Ethics, etc.) made in the twelfth century were occasionally attributed to Boethius from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries; more persistent was the attribution, from 1510 to the early twentieth century, of the translation by James of Venice of the Posterior Analytics (ca. 1140).

Originality is rare in Boethius’ works. Even where the sources of the doctrines expounded cannot be traced back exactly to a particular author, it can easily be assumed that he was following a definite model. It is also clear, especially in advanced logic, mathematics, and theology, that his preparation, and possibly his linguistic knowledge, was not sufficient for him to pass on all the best that was available to him. But, considering the enormous influence that his works exerted on the revival of learning from the late eighth to the thirteenth centuries, it is important to delineate the doctrines he expounded. We shall not include, however, those contained in those works of Aristotle that he translated.

Two points from the commentaries on Porphyry—which go back mainly to the commentaries of the Porphyrian school itself as it continued, particularly in Athens—deserve special mention. One concerns the Aristotelian divisions of philosophy, and more especially the general plan of logic.16 Boethius’ texts contributed more than anything else to popularization of those divisions. Philosophy, as the encyclopedia of knowledge, is divided into two parts: the theoretical (speculative) sciences and the practical sciences. The first is tripartite: it contains the sciences of nature that consider things material and changeable (physical sciences in a wide sense); those that consider the Same things abstracted from movement and matter (mathematical, or “intelligible.” sciences); and those that consider things immaterial and unchangeable (“theology” or, later, metaphysics). The second part contains the sciences that deal with action, in relation either to the individual (ethics), or to the family (“economics”), or to social life (politics). Logic is the science of persuasive argument, composed of several propositions; it is the science of syllogism in its general form, or in its applications in common discussion, or in its application to demonstration. This main part of logic must be preceded by a study of individual propositions, and this, in its turn, by the study of individual terms or classes of terms.

The other point concerns what came to be known as the problem of universals.17 Porphyry had only mentioned its difficulties; Boethius treated some of them and suggested solutions. Especially important are his distinction between “things as they are” and “things as they are conceived” and his mention of the theory of indifferentia, a half-way solution that simultaneously allows for and denies the presence of, in things outside the mind, the common element that characterizes universality. This became the doctrine of one of the main schools of thought of the early twelfth century.

In the commentary to the Categories, derived largely from the two commentaries by Porphyry, one finds such statements as “A sign of continuity in a body is this: if one part of it is put in motion, the whole body is put in motion, and, if a body which is a whole is moved, at least other parts near those which are set in motion will be moved: as if I push a stick touching one extreme, the other parts of the stick will be moved as that extreme.”18 The commentaries on De interpretatione at tone contain interesting analyses of the meanings of necessity 19 and—a source of interminable meditation and discussion-the different aspects of the so-called problem of future contingents:20 Is a future event, which is not foreseeable on the basis of a known law of nature, such that a proposition describing it is bound to be true or false?

The De divisione, covering one of the main sections of logic as detailed by Porphyry at the beginning of the Isagoge and possibly based on a similar treatise of the Roman or Athenian school of the fourth or fifth century, contains a classification and partial analysis of the kinds of distinctions that must be considered when inquiring into one’s subject matter. It propounds the elements for a methodical approach to scientific inquiry. Four kinds of “division” are listed: (1) division of a genus according to fundamental, substantial, different features and according to species, which are determined by at least some of these differences’this is indispensable for achieving satisfactory definitions; (l) division of a whole into its constituent parts, so that precision in accounting for the nature and structure of the whole may be attained: (3) “division of words.” i.e., classification of the different meanings or functions of individual words, in order to avoid confusion and sophistry; and (4) “division of accidents.” i.e., classification of some feature that may belong, but not essentially, to many different things or kinds of things (the blue of the sea, the blue of a wall, etc.), which will aid in understanding the relationship between accidental features and the essential nature of things.

The Prolegomena (Introductio ad syllogismos categoricos), which may go back, directly or indirectly, to a similar introduction by Porphyry and is mentioned by Boethius in his first commentary on the Isagoge,21 restates and expands Aristotelian doctrineson noun and verb, but concentrates mainly on the relationships between propositions that are quantified in the subject and either positive or negative in the subject and/ Or the predicate. This is a later and more extensive treatment of what had appeared as the first book of De Syllogismis categoricis, the second book of which is a rather poor synthesis, with the addition of a few mechanically constructed combinations of the first part of Aristotle’s Prior Analytics. This work most probably also reflects an elementary textbook of Porphyrian origin.

In De syllogismis hypotheticis the basic formulationof the Theophrastian syllogism (“If A then B; if B then C; therefore, if A then C” is played upon through a multiplication of formulas resulting from the insertion of the negative at different places in thepremise. The importance of this is limited because A. B. C, must stand for nouns; thus, we fall directly back into the nonhypothetical syllogism. The Stoic hypothetical syllogism had its role in this work as well as in the commentary on the Topics of Cicero, but with no original contribution. The one element that may be useful for an analysis of scientific method is the distinction between accidental connection or co-incidence (“Fire being warm, the heavens are spherical”) and natural connection (“There being man, there is animal” and, more compelling. “If the Earth comes in between, there follows an eclipse of the moon”), technically termed by Boethius consequentia secundum accidens and consequentia naturae (the latter being either non per positionem terminorum or per positionem terminorum).

The commentary on Cicero’s Topics and the De differentiis topics deal with the kinds of arguments used to persuade, either in a purely theoretical context or in a practical one, i.e., in dialectical or rhetorical arguments. The second work includes most that is important, from a methodological point of view, in the first. It is a systematic exposition of the nature of individual propositions (categorical and hypothetical), questions, theses, and rhetorical “hypotheses.” and of connected propositions (such as syllogisms); and then of the headings under which arguments can be classified according to Themistius and Cicero. The importance of such a work lies mainly in its provision of the tools for a critical evaluation of arguments used in discussion and exposition of theories and facts. Thus, distinctions are made between arguments based on definitions, on descriptions, on similarities, on different interpretations of words, on assertions valid for whole classes (and therefore for subclasses), on regular causality, on contradiction, on authority, and on parallelism of situations.

The theological treatises must be considered here because of their role in training several generations from the ninth century to the thirteenth, to apply the concepts developed by philosophy as a basis for clear thinking to fields where acceptance of dogmatic statement would have appeared more apposite. In On the Trinity and, within narrower limits, in the question on the predication of the three Persons to the subject “God.” Boethius tries to explain the apparently absurd equation “one=three” by using the distinctions of Porphyry’s (and Aristotle’s) classes of predicates (genus, species, difference, accident, property) and the ten Aristotelian categories (substance, quantity, quality, relation, etc.). He was, of course, not the inventor of rational theology; On the Trinity, which reflect I of the revolutionary trends in Greek theology, is perhaps no more than a disguised translation. But his exposition of the problem and the attempt to locate the absurdity, or possibly the validity, of a statement within the intellectual framework of his time give him an eminent position in the progress toward clarity and exercise of critical power.

The short work on goodness of beings (Quomodo substantiae…) also claims more than an antiquarian interest. In this writing. Boethius set out to solve an eminently nonmathematical problem with something of a mathematical method, and thereby, through many centuries, trained students to organize their thoughts and apply their powers of deduction: “Just as is the custom in mathematics and other disciplines. I begin with a series of definitions and axioms of postulates, from which all the rest will be derived.”22 The Quomodo is also important for the neat distinction between essence (esse) and existence (quod est), which may have a distant echo in the distinction between hypothesis and verification.

The treatise Two Natures and One Person in Christ provides us with, among other things, an analysis of the meanings that natura has in different contexts, The four meanings are set forth in these formulas: “Nature is to be found in things that can somehow be grasped by our mind”; “Nature (of substances) is what can bring about or be the recipient of an effect”; “Nature (of bodily substances) is the principle of movement per se, not accidentally”; and “Nature is the specific difference giving a definite thing its form.” With the definition of persona—which became traditional in theology and is at the basis of most of our usages of “person”—Boethius also contributed to the establishment of the technical distinction between personalis and confusa in the context of the development of the medieval and modern theory of “supposition.” For this second purpose. Boethius’ definition (“Person is the individual substance of a rational nature”) lost the connotation “rational,” preserving above all the element of individuality.

The mathematical works by Boethius reproduced Greek works. Although it is not as clear as it has been thought, partly on the basis of what Boethius himself says, exactly which Greek works were reproduced,23 it is clear that the neo-Pythagorean theory of number as the very divine essence of the world is the view around which the four sciences of the quadrivium are developed. Number, qua multitude considered in itself, is the subject matter of arithmetic; qua multitude applied to something else (relations between numbers?), the subject matter of music; qua magnitude without movement, of astronomy; The Arithmetic develops here and there what was too concise in Nicomachus and abbreviates what was too diffuse. Further, it passes on to the Latin reader many of the basic terms and concepts of arithmetical theory: prime and composite numbers, proportionality, numeri figurati (linear, triangular, etc.; pyramidal and other solid numbers), and ten different kinds of Medietates (arithmetical, geometrical, harmonic, counterharmonic, etc.). His interest in proportions is perhaps connected with the story according to which, while in prison, he thought out a game based on number relations. Here it is noticeable, however, that his understanding of arithmetic, and possibly of Greek, was limited: the more advanced propositions and proofs in Nicomachus, such as the proposition that cubic numbers can be expressed as the successive sums of odd numbers and the proposition expressing the relation between triangular numbers and the polygonal numbers of polygons with n sides, are missing from the Arithmetic. He does not, however, miss such elementary things as the multiplication table up to ten.

The Music is a constinuation of the Arithmetic, which contains several elements and terms more appropriate for the treatment of speculative, purely arithmetical music. But, before he comes to this, the very essence of the second science of the quadrivium, Boethius reminds us of the Platonic view that, unlike the other “mathematical sciences,” which have only a theoretical value, music has a moral value as well. He also distinguishes the three kinds of music in which number relationships express themselves: the music of the universe (each of the heavens has its special chord), the music of human nature (which harmonizes Man’s bodily and psychic activities), and the music of some instruments. The third is the only one that, although deteriorated because of its involvement in matter, can be heard. Most of the book is devoted to a lengthy catalog of somewhat classified number relations, most of them with their technical terms and with some description of the nature of the sounds corresponding to them. But, music being considered as science, most of what the musicologist, the artistic composer, and the practicing player would consider essential to the understanding of what music is, is beyond Boethius’s grasp.

Boethius’ Geometry, which is mentioned in Cassiodorus’ Institutiones, may well have been very different from any of the texts, varied in extent and, in many cases, with different contents, that appeared under his name during the Middle Ages. There is very little more of a geometrical nature in the most ancient manuscripts ascribed to Boethius than Euclid’s definitions (from Book I) and some propositions (from Books III and IV) without the proofs. But, as part of the Geometry, there is the description of the abacus, the elementary computer based on a decimal system with the individual numbers classified under the headings numeri incompositi—the digiti (1–9) and the articuli (10, 20, …, 100, etc)— and compositi (11–19, 21–29,…, 101–109, etc.), and there are rules for multiplication and division.

One additional contribution to mathematics that reached the Middle Ages through Boethius is in his commentaries to Porphyry (a sign that his knowledge of such matters is secondhand): the formula for the number of possible combinations of two elements in a class of n elements.24

The De consolatione philosophiae, considered from the doctrinalpoint of view, is on the whole a restatement of the eclectic Neoplatonic cosmology. Three aspects may be usefully emphasized, because this book contributed in large measure to impressing them into the minds of philosophers and scientist, and of the world at large. (1)independently of any revelation, the mind can achieve certainty about the existence of God, his goodness, and his power of rulling over the universe. (2)The universe is ordered according to unbroken chains of causes and effects, where necessity, under supervision and determination by God, would be apparent to an all-knowing mind and where chance is nothing more than the coincidental intersection of distinct lines of causation. (3) The order of the universe includes a descent from the first cause to the lowest effects and a return from the lowest ends to the highest beginning. Causality, in the more restricted modern sense, and technology have perserved a stronger hold on the minds of many generations because of the enormous popularity, until the sixteenth century, of the Consolatio. But Boesthius’s insistence on the possiblity of combining freedom of the will with God’s eternally present knowledge of the order he willed engaged scholars in theological subtleties more than in a scientific approach to research or organization of knowledge.


1. Cassiodorus, Variae I.45.3

2. P. Courcelle. Les letters grecques, p. 299, n. 1.

3. E.g., Dante, Divine Comedy, Paradiso X. 124–129

4.Second Commentary on De interpretatione. Meister, ed., pp. 79–80.

5.Arithmetic, Friedlein, ed., p. 3.

6. See esp. Iamblichus’ commentary on Niconmachus’ Arithmetic, E. Pistelli, ed. (Leipzig, 1894), pp. 5–8.

7. Cassiodorus, Institutiones I.iii. 18, R. A. B. Mynors, ed. (Oxford, 1937), p. 128.

8.Categoriae, in Aristoteles Latinus I I-5 (Bruges, 1961), p. lxxviii.

9. There is no foundatation for the view held by Courcelle in Les letters grecqes (p. 278) that audivimus in Boethius’ Second Commentary, Meiser, ed., p. 361, line 9, should be read “Ammounius.”

10. Courcelle, pp. 270–277.

11. See J. Shiel, “Boethius’ Commentaries on Aristole,” Passim.

12. For the dates of the logical works I follow De Rijk, “On the Chronology,” Some of the views I express here on the question of second recensions are at variance with hypotheses I put forword in the past.

13. But see P. Hadot, in Archives d’histoire doctrinale et litterarie du moyen âge.

14. A. Mai “discovered” these texts in MS Vat. lat. 8591: they are part of a collection of Boethian logical texts, made in constantinople ca. 530, of which many copies exist.

15. Views have been expressed by competent scholars both for and aginst the authenticity of a fifth theologigical text, the Defide Catholica, which seems to have intruded itself, anonymously, at some later stage into the collection of the other four. The arguments in favor seem unsatisfactory.

16. G. Schepss and S. Brandt, eds., pp. 7–10.

17.Ibid., pp. 23–32, 159–167.

18.Patrologia Latina, LXIV, cols. 204–205.

19. E.g., in the second Commentary on the De interprettione, Meiser, ed., pp. 241 ff.

20.Ibid., pp. 190–230.

21. Schepss and Brandt, p. 15.

22. H.F. Stewart and E. K. Rand, eds., p. 40.

23. Very close similarities can be noticed between Boethius and Nicomachus’ commentator Iamblichus.

24. Schepss and Brandt, pp.118–120, 319–321.


I. Original Works. The first ed. meant to contain all the works of Boethius was brought out by Iohannes and Gregorius de Gregoriis, with the scholarly collaboration of Nicolaus Iudecus (Venice, 1491–1492; repr 1498–1499); it did not include the translations of Prior Analytics, Topics, and Sophistical Refutations but did contain the pseudepigrapha On Definition, De unitate et uno, and De disciplina scholarium. A complete ed. (Basel, 1546, 1570), with the pseudepigrapha and the non-Boethian translation of Posterior Analytics includes the translations missnig from the Venice collection reproduced from a text rev. by Jacques Lefèvre d’Etaples (Paris, 1503), which was based on the Greek, under the supervision and with the collaboration of Heinrich Lorit; for the logical works (except the uncommented translations) and for the theological treatises this ed. depends on Giulio Marziano Rota’s ed. (Venice, 1537). J. P. Migne, ed., Patrologia Latina, LXIII and LXIV, contains all the works of the 1570 ed., some of them from more recently published texts, and some fragments wrongly thought to be new discoveries. Both the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum and the Corpus Christianorum include complete editions of Beothius in their plans. In Vol. 48 of the former (Vienna, 1906), G. Schpss and S. Brandt edited the two Commentaries on Porphyry, and in Vol. 67 (Vienna, 1934), W. (Guillelmus) Weinberg edited the Consolatio Philosophiae; in Vol. 94 of the latter (Turnhout. Belgium. 1957). L. Bieler edited the Consolatio.

Critical editions of the translations are being done by L. Minio-Paluello, partly with the collaboration of B. G. Dod, as part of the Aristoteles Latinus, a section of the Corpus Philosophorum Medit Aevi (Bruges-Brussel-Paris): I, pts. 1–2, Categoriae (1961); III, pts. 1–2, Analytica priora (1962); II, pt. 1, De interpretatione (1965); I, pt. 6, Porphyry’s Isagoge (1966); V, pts. 1–2, Topica (1969); and VI, pt. 1. Elenchi sophistici (in preparation).

Among the earliest eds. are Consolatio Philosophiae (Saviglianlo, ca 1471)—at least sixty-two Latin eds. of the work were printed before 1501; Analytica priora (Louvian, 1475); Second Commentary on Porphyry, Commentary on Categories, text of De interpreatione (Naples, ca. 1476); all the translations (Augsburg, 1479); De differentiis topicis and In Ciceronis Topica Commentarium (Rome, 1484); De institutione arthmetica (Augsburg, 1479); De differentiis topicis and In Ciceronis Topica commentraium (Rome, 1484); De institutione arithmetica (Augsburg, 1488); De Trinitate, Utrum Pater Quomodo substantiae (Venice, 1489); and the doubtful De fide Catholica (Leiden, 1656).

Among the recent eds. not mentioned above, the following are important: In Ciceronis topica commentarium, I. G. Baiter, ed., in Cicero’s Opera, I. C. Orelli and I. G. Baiter, eds., I (Zurich, 1833)—this ed. also contains the short section discovered and published by C.B. Hase in Johannis Laurentii Lydi, De ostentis (Paris, 1823), pp. 341–356; De institution arthmetica, De institution musica, Geometria, G. Friedlein, ed, (Leipzig, 1867); Opera theologica, R. Peiper, ed. (Leipzig, 1871); Commentaries on the De interpretione, C. Meiser, ed. (Leipzig, 1877–1880); Dedivisione, in an appendix to L. Davidson, The Logic of Definition (London, 1885); The Theological Tractates, with English translation by H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand, and The Consolation of Philosophy, with English translation by I. T. [John Thorpe?], rev. by H. F. Stewart (London-Cambridge, Mass., 1936). A fragment, believed by the ed. to come from Boethius’ Second Commentary to the Categories, was published by P. Hadot in Archives d’historie doctrinale et littéraire du moyen àge34 (1960), 10–27.

II. Secondary Literature. Extensive bibliographies on Boethius can be found in L. Bieler’s ed. of the Consolatio (see above), pp. xvi-xxvi; P. Courcelle, Les letters grecques en occident de Macrobe à Cassiodore, 2nd ed. (Paris, 1948), PP. 401–415, and La Consolation de philosophie dans la tradition littéraire (Paris, 1967), pp. 383–402 and, for the commentaries on the Consolatio, pp. 403–438; M. Cappuyns, “Boèce,” in Dictionnaire d’histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiaque, Ix (1937), cols, 349–380; B. Geyer, Die patristische und scholastische Philosophie, Vol, II of Friedrich Ueberweg’s Grundriss der Geschichte der Philosophie, 11th ed. (Berlin, 1928), pp. 133, 669–670; C. Leonardi, L. Minio-Paluello, U. Pizzani, and P. Courcelle, “Beozio,” in Dizionario biografico degli italiani Xll (inpress); and A. Momiligliano, “Cassiodorus and Italian, Culture of His Time,” in Proceedings of the British Acaedemy, 41 (1955), 227–245.

Beside the above-mentioned works by Cappuyns, Courcelle (Les letter….), and Momigliano, see the following on Boethius’ life and work in general: H. M. Barrett, Boethius, Some Aspects of His Times and Works (Cambridge, 1940); M. Grabmann, Geschchete der scholasstischen Methode, I (Freiburg, 1909), 148–177; M. Manitius, Geschichte der lateinisehen Literatur des Mittelaters, I (Munich, 1911), 22–36; A. Momigliano, “Gil Anicii e la storiografia latina del VI secolo,” in Rendiconti dell’Accademianazionale dei Lincei, classe scienze morali, 8th ser., 9 (1956), 279–297; B. G. Picotti, “II Senato Romano e il processo di Boezio,” in Archivio storico italiano, 7th ser., 15 (1931), 205–228: E. K. Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages (Cambridge. Mass., 1928), pp. 135–180; and H. Usener. Anecdoton Holderi (Bonn, 1877).

On the influence of Boethius see R. Murari, Dante e Boezio (Bologna, 1905); and H. R. Patch. The Tradition of Boethius: A study of His Importance in Mediaeval Culture (New York-Oxford, 1935).

On Boethius’ logical works (Sources, Chronology, translations, theories, Influences) see L. Bidez, “Boèce et Porphyre,” in Revue Belge de philiogie et d’historie, 2 (1923), 189 ff.; I. M. Bocheński, Formala Logik Freiburg-Munich, (1956), translated by I. Thomas (Nortre Dame, Ind., 1961); L. M. Dem Rijk, “On the Chronlogy of Bothius’s Works on Logic,” in Vivarium, 2 (1964), 1–49, 125–162, which supersedes all previos studies on the subject; K. Dürr, The Propositional Logic of Boethuis (Amsterdam, 1951); W. Kneale and M. Kneale, The Development of Logic, (Oxford, 1962), pp. 189–198; L. Minio-Paluello, “lacobus veneticus Grecus, Canonist and Translotor of Aristotle,” in Traditio, 8 (1952), 265–304, and “Les traducation et les commentaires aristotéliciens de Boèce,” in Texte und Unter-suchungen zur Geschichte der altchrislichen Literatur, Vol. 64 of Studia Patristica (1957), pp. 358–365; C. Prantl, Geschichte der Logik im Abendlande, I (Leipzig, 1855; repr, Graz, 1955), 679–721; A, N. Prior, “The Logic of Negative Terms in Boethius,” in Franciscan Studies13 (1953). 1–6; J. Shiel, “Boethius’ Commerntaries on Aristotle,” in Mediaeval and Renaissance Studies, 4 (1958), 217–244; and A. Van de Vyver, “Les étapes du développement philosophique du haut moyen àge,” in Revue belge de Philologie et d’historie, 8 (1929). 425–452.

Also see the prefaces to Minio-Paluello’s eds. of Boethius’ works listed above; however, some of the views expressed in this article are new, and will be discussed in future writings. The previous literature on the authorship of the translations is discussed in full in these prefaces.

For the theological treatises see, besides Usener’s Anecdoton Holderi, V. Schurr, Die Trinitätslehre des Boethius im Lichte der skytischen Kontroversen (Paderborn, 1935). The latest discussion of the authenticity of De fide Catholica with references to the previous works on the subject, is W. Bark, “Boethius’s Fourth Tractate: The So-Called ‘De Fide Catholica,’” in Harvaed Theological Review, 59 (1946), 55–69. For the influence of the treatises in the Middle Ages, see M. Grabmann, Die theologische Erkenntnis-und Einleitungslerhre des heiligen Thomas auf Grund seiner Schrift In Boethium De Trinitate (Fribourg, 1948); and N. M. Haring’s editions of A Commentary on oethius’ De hebdomadibus by Clarenbaldus of Arras and the Commentaries of Gilbert, Bishop of Poitiers on the Two Boethian Opuscula Sacra on the Holy Trinity, in Nine Mediaevel Texts, Vol. I of Studies and Texts, published by the Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies (Toronto, 1955), pp. 1–96.

on the mathematical works, including the De musica, see M. Cantor, Vorlesungen über Geschichte der Mathematik, 3rd ed., I (Leipzig, 1907), 573–585, which contains references to previous works, especially Friedlein’s; J. L. Heiberg, in Philologus, 43 507–519; F. T. Koppen, “Notiz über die Zahlwörter im Abacus des Boethius,” in Bulletin de I’Académie des seiences de St. Pétersbourg. 35 (1892), 31–48; O. Paul, Boethius, füinf Bücher über die Musik aus dem lateinischen…übertragen und…sachlich erklärt (Leipzig, 1872); G. Pietzsch, Die Klassifikation der Musik von Boetius bis Ugolino vno Orvieto (Halle, 1929); U. Pizzani, “Studi sulle fonti del De Institutione musica di Boezio,” in Sacris erudiri, 16 (1965), 5–164; H. Postiron, Boèce théoricien de la musique grecque (Paris, 1961); P. Tannery, “Notes sur la pseudo-géométrie de Boèce,” in Bibliotheca mathematica, 3 (1900), 39–50; and R. Wagner, “Boethius,” in Die Musik in Geschichte und Gegenqwart, II (Kassel-Basel, 1952), cols, 49 –57.

All the relevant bibliography for the De consolatione, its sources, doctrines, diffusion, and influence is in the edition by Bieler and in Courcelle’s La consolation.

A good source for recent bibliography is Menso Folkerts’ critical edition of the two-book version of Boethus’ Geometry, Boethius Geometrie II; Ein mathematisches Lehrbuch des Mittelalters (Göttingen, 1967), doctoral dissertation.

Lorenzo Minio-Paluello


views updated May 17 2018


Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius, philosopher and statesman; b. Rome, c. 480; d. near Pavia, c. 524. Educated in Athens and Alexandria, Boethius has been called a founder of the Middle Ages because of his lasting influence on the formation of medieval thought. His father was a consul in 487 under the Arian king of the Ostrogoths, Theodoric the Great (475526), and in 510 he himself held the consulship. Accused of treason, Boethius was later imprisoned and put to death. During his long imprisonment, he wrote the Consolation of Philosophy, a work read by every educated man for more than 1,000 years. In it he describes the pursuit of wisdom and the love of God as the true source of human happiness.

Works. While one of his students, cassiodorus (c. 485 c. 580), employed the translator Epiphanius to make the Greek Fathers available to Latin readers, Boethius planned to translate into Latin the entire body of writings by Aristotle and Plato and to show their basic agreement in philosophy. It seems that only a small part of this farsighted project was carried out, however. Still extant is his translation (510) of Aristotle's De Interpretatione, which he explains in two commentaries, one for beginners (511) and one for more advanced students of logic (513). Also still in existence is his translation of Aristotle's Categories with a commentary written in 510. Before 505 he had already composed a commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge, translated by marius victorinus. Later (509) he decided to make his own translation of the Isagoge and comment on it (509510). He mentions a translation of Aristotle's Topics and Prior Analytics (Patrologia Latina. 64: 1173C; 1216D; 1184D), perhaps still extant in MS Oxford, Trin. Coll. 47 (Topics ) and MSS Chartres 497498 (excerpts from the Analytics ). The translations of Aristotle's two Analytics, his Topics and Elenchi, published under Boethius's name (Patrologia Latina. 64:639762; 9091040), date back to James of Venice (c. 1128).

Between 513 and 515, he wrote a commentary on Cicero's Topics, part of which is lost (Patrologia Latina. 64:10391174). In addition, Boethius wrote An Introduction to Categorical Syllogisms (Patrologia Latina. 64:76194), two books each On the Categorical Syllogism (Patrologia Latina. 64:793832) and, in 514, On the Hypothetical Syllogism (Patrologia Latina. 64:831876).

While the book entitled De divisione (Patrologia La-tina. 64: 87592) is authentic, the De definitione, attributed

"Boethius and Philosophy Personified." (Bettman/CORBIS)

to him (Patrologia Latina. 64:891910) is the work of Marius Victorinus. Also spurious are the attributions to Boethius of the De unitate et Uno (Patrologia Latina. 63:107578), written by dominic gundisalvi, and of the De disciplina scholarium (Patrologia Latina. 64: 122338), whose unknown author lived in the 13th century. It is believed that about 520 Boethius composed the Theological Tractates, known as Opuscula sacra, which were to establish him as a theological authority almost equal to St. Augustine in questions concerning the Blessed Trinity and the Incarnation.

Teaching. Boethius's literary activities began in the field of logic, which is a necessary tool for all the sciences, especially philosophy. The famous definition of philosophy as "love of wisdom," found in his first commentary on Porphyry's Isagoge, is interpreted by him as the quest for God, the root of all being and knowledge (Patrologia Latina. 64:10D11A).

Division of Philosophy. Boethius divides philosophy into two kinds: practical and speculative (or theoretical). Practical philosophy is subdivided into three parts: ethics, which teaches man as an individual how to direct his moral actions; politics, which teaches how the state is to be governed in accordance with the four cardinal virtues; and economics, which concerns the proper conduct of family life (Patrologia Latina. 64:11D12A). Speculative philosophy is likewise subdivided into three parts: natural philosophy, also called physiology, which studies the nature of physical bodies as they exist in reality; mathematics, which deals with the forms of physical bodies by way of abstraction from matter and motion; and theology, which studies forms existing without matter and motion, such as God and souls (Patrologia Latina. 64: 11BC). Natural philosophy deals with objects as presented by the senses. Mathematics studies the many forms abstracted by the intellect from such objects, to distinguish between the various forms that cause a physical body to be quantitative (large, small) or qualitative (red, warm, soft, etc.). Theology rises above these material objects and contemplates God as the immaterial Form that is the source of all other being,"for everything owes its being (esse ) to Form" (De Trin. 2).

Liberal Arts. To the people living during the Middle Ages, Boethius transmitted the Roman concept of education comprised of the seven liberal arts known as the trivium (logic, grammar, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music), the "quadruple road to wisdom". He himself wrote On Arithmetic (Patrologia Latina. 63:10791168) and On Music (Patrologia Latina. 63:11671300), though not the two works titled On Geometry that have been attributed to him (Patrologia Latina. 63:130752 and 135264).

Universals. The Middle Ages inherited from Boethius a keen interest in the problem of universals. In his endeavor to reconcile aristotelianism and platonism, he dealt at length with general ideas, or universals, as discussed in logic by porphyry. His blending of the two different conceptions accounts for the confusion reflected in the divergent interpretations that divided medieval scholars from the days of abelard. Boethius himself leaned toward Plato; the question whether universals are real or simply conceptions of the mind he answered in the sense that universals (genus, species) are not only conceived separately from bodies, but also exist outside of them.

This view is based on the nature of being as under-stood by Boethius. Each thing owes its being to a number of forms that determine it to be the kind of thing it is. God is the Supreme Form, a pure form without matter. Lacking all composition, He is absolutely one. Creatures, on the other hand, are composed of parts or of a plurality of forms. An individual thing is a substance because it underlies accidents. If such a substance is of a rational nature, it is called a person. A substance becomes a substance by means of a subsistence, a term applicable to all created substantial forms. Numerical difference is the result of a variety of accidents.

Theology. It used to be disputed widely whether or not Boethius was a Christian. The fact that he has been venerated as a Christian martyr at Pavia was officially recognized by Rome in 1883. Doubts were raised in view of the apparent absence of specifically Christian teaching in his most popular and final work, Consolatio philosophiae. It is, however, generally admitted that toward the end of his life Boethius turned his attention to theology and produced then the Opuscula sacra. He tells us that before writing his first tract, De Trinitate, he had studied the writings of Augustine and that he deliberately adopted "new and unaccustomed words" in the exposition of the mystery. Characteristic of his thoroughness is the analysis of the Aristotelian categories and the statement: "But when these categories are applied to God they change their meaning entirely" (De Trinitate. 4). The explanation culminates in the summary conclusion: "So then, the category of substance preserves the Unity, that of relation brings about the Trinity" (De Trinitate. 6). Boethius addressed this work to his father-in-law and former consul Quintus Aurelius symmachus.

To John the Deacon he addressed a shorter tract on the Trinity and a treatise against Eutyches and Nestorius, often called the Liber de persona et duabus naturis, in which he clarifies the various meanings of the term nature and defines person as "an individual substance of a rational nature" (C. Eutych. 3).

More philosophical than these tracts is his brief exposition generally known as De hebdomadibus. In it, the conclusion is reached that the being of all existing things is good because God, who gave them being, is good. Boethius answers the objection that by parity of reason all things ought to be just because God, who willed them to be, is just, by saying that to be good involves being, while to be just involves an act. In God, being and action are identical, but they are not identical in creatures.

There is no general consensus concerning the authenticity of the tract entitled De fide catholica; most historians, however, hold that Boethius wrote it. The tract summarizes such doctrines as that of the Trinity and rejects the tenets of Arius, the Sabellians, and the Manichaeans. Speaking of the Church, the author declares, "This Catholic Church spread throughout the world is known by three particular marks: whatever is believed and taught in it has the authority of the Scriptures, or of universal tradition, or of local and more restricted Regulation" (De fide, Patrologia Latina. 64:1338A). He teaches that all corruptible things shall pass away, that men shall rise for future judgment, that each shall receive reward according to his deserts, and that the reward of bliss will be the contemplation of the Creator. The author finally speaks of the heavenly city "where the Virgin's Son is King and where will be neverending joy, delight, food, achievement, and unending praise of the Creator" (ibid. 1338B).

Influence. The doctrinal influence of Boethius reached its peak in the 12th century in the commentaries written by scholars of the school of Chartres. But only one of them, gilbert de la porrÉe, wrote commentaries on all four opuscula sacra (1, 2, 3, 5) generally accepted as authentic. thierry of chartres and his disciple, clarenbaud of arras, are known to have commented on the first and third Tractates. Clarenbaud openly accuses both Abelard and Gilbert of erroneous doctrines based on their misunderstanding of Boethius. The earliest commentary on the first Tractate was written by the Carolingian philosopher remigius of auxerre. Many marginal and interlinear glosses are still found in the libraries of Europe. In the 13th century St. thomas aquinas commented on the first Tractate.

The Tractates were first translated into English in 1926 by H. F. Stewart. However, translations of the Consolation have a much longer history: King Alfred the Great (849899) translated it into Anglo-Saxon; Notker Labeo (c. 9501022) made the first German translation; the Greek monk Maximos Planudes (12601310) translated it into Greek; and the French rendition by Jean (Clopinel) de Meung (c. 1240c. 1305) is well known. While in prison, Albert of Florence (floruit 132332) wrote an outstanding Italian translation, Geoffrey Chaucer (c. 13401400) translated it between 1372 and 1386, and even Elizabeth, Queen of England (15331603), translated what the English historian Edward Gibbon (173794) called "a golden volume, not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or of Tully." The English translation in vogue at present dates back to the 17th century. Only the initials (I.T.) of the translator's name are known.

See Also: scholasticism, 1.

Bibliography: A list of editions is found in e. dekkers and a. gaar, Sacris eruditi 3 (1951) 153156. e. dekkers, ed. Clavis Patrium latinorum (Steenbrugge 1961) 196198. f. l. cross, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (London 1957), 181182. Studies and Bibliographies. É. h. gilson, History of Christian Pilosophy in the Middle Ages (New York 1955). a. a. maurer, Medieval Philosophy, v.2 of A History of Philosophy, ed. É. h. gilson, 4 v. (New York 1962). Copleston 2:101104. d. knowles, The Evolution of Medieval Thought (Baltimore 1962). h. r. patch, The Tradition of Boethius (New York 1935). h. m. barrett, Boethius: Some Aspects of His Time and Works (Cambridge, Eng. 1940). p. godet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholoque. 2.1:918922. m. cappuyns, Dictionnaire d'histoire et de géographie ecclésiastiques 9:348380. p. courcelle, Les Lettres grecques à Cassiodore (rev. ed. Paris 1948); "Étude critique sur les commentaires de la Consolation de Boèce," Archives d'histoire doctrinale et littéraire du moyenâge 14 (1939) 5140. j. p. minge, ed. Patrologia Latina. (Paris 187890).

[n. m. haring]


views updated May 23 2018


Born 480

Died 524

Roman philosopher

I n his Consolation of Philosophy, written in a prison cell as he awaited execution, Boethius developed a view of the world that came to symbolize the medieval age in Europe. True virtue, he explained, lay not in changing one's fate, but in accepting the fate one was assigned by Fortune. His personification of "Fortune" and "Philosophy" as women also set the tone for countless medieval allegories, symbolic stories in which characters represented ideas. Though he was born after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Boethius was a Roman to the core, and as with Augustine (see entry), his writings represent a vital link between the ancient and medieval worlds.

A distinguished Roman family

Four years before Boethius (boh-EE-thee-us) was born, the Western Roman Empire came to an end when the Germanic chieftain Odoacer (oh-doh-AY-sur; c. 433–493) removed the last Roman emperor from power and declared himself "king of Italy." At the time, people did not perceive the fall of the Roman Empire as an earth-shattering event, one which many historians regard as the beginning of the Middle Ages. For one thing, there still was a Roman Empire— only it was the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Greece and referred to by modern scholars as the Byzantine Empire.

Though in fact he ruled Italy as a separate kingdom, Odoacer had declared himself a servant of the Eastern Roman emperor, and many Romans believed that business would continue as usual. Certainly that was the impression among Boethius's family, a distinguished line that could trace their roots back more than six centuries. Several of his relatives, along with other leading Roman citizens, served Odoacer in important positions.

Education for leadership

Before he reached his teens, Boethius, whose full name was Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, lost his father. Therefore another prominent Roman named Symmachus (SIM-uh-kus) became his guardian, and looked after his education. Boethius's generation was one of the last to enjoy the full range of learning from Greece, which had been expanded by the writings of great Roman figures.

In the course of his education, he was exposed to the writings of Plato (PLAY-toh; 427–347 b.c.), whose Republic offered a model for participation in government by philosophers, or men who devoted their time to contemplating the deepest questions of existence. Plato was one of the greatest of the ancient Greek philosophers, and his ideas were to have an effect on Boethius throughout his life.

Not only was he fluent in Greek, but Boethius also wrote in a classical form of Latin. The latter language would continue to survive during the Middle Ages, but in a different form; the Latin that Boethius knew was more closely linked to that of the Roman Empire's golden age centuries before than it was to the Latin used by Europeans just a few decades after his time. Boethius, however, had no idea that the world of classical Rome was fading so rapidly: in his mind, his education was training for leadership, after which he would take a prominent role, as members of his family had done for centuries.

A flourishing career

A good marriage—that is, marriage to someone of equal or higher social rank—was essential to the career of a noble Roman. Thus Boethius was married to Symmachus's daughter Rusticana, with whom he had two sons. Years later, in his prison cell, he would look back on the joy he had shared with his family, and this only added to his sorrow. Hence his statement that "in all adversity of fortune, it is the most unhappy kind of misfortune to have been happy."

Boethius rose through the ranks, reaching the position of consul in 510. Centuries earlier, under the Roman Republic (507–31 b.c.), the city's two consuls had ruled not only Rome, but all of its territorial possessions as well. Times had changed, however, and Rome was no longer even the capital of Italy. The government had moved to the city of Ravenna, where a new king was in charge: Theodoric (c. 454–526), an Ostrogoth or eastern Goth chieftain who had slain Odoacer.

Theodoric was to have a tragic effect on Boethius's career, but that still lay in the future as Boethius busied himself with his political duties and his studies. The former included service in the senate, the body that had governed Rome for a thousand years. As for his studies, these included the topics of the quadrivium, a group of four subjects studied by Romans for ages: arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Boethius wrote considerably on these and other subjects.

Trouble with the authorities

He would not have long to enjoy the privileges of his birth, because events soon took place that would ultimately bring about the end of his life. Troubled by corruption, long a factor in the Roman government, Boethius made enemies in high places when he tried to protect honest men from attacks by greedy and power-hungry leaders.

Ashikaga Takauji

In viewing the Middle Ages, it would be hard to find two individuals more different than Boethius and Ashikaga Takauji (tah-kah-OO-jee; 1305–1358), who founded a dynasty of Japanese shoguns, or military leaders. The comparison is worthwhile because both men were members of their countries' noble classes; but whereas Boethius was accused of treason in his lifetime and was believed innocent by later generations, Ashikaga is remembered as, among other things, a traitor. Furthermore, Boethius's life was defined by his ability to suffer injustice in silence, whereas Ashikaga took action against what he considered an unjust situation.

This contrast is particularly interesting in light of what many people believe about Western civilization, of which Boethius was a part, in contrast to the Eastern civilizations of Japan, China, India, and other countries. According to this line of thought, the Eastern tradition is characterized by silent submission to one's fate, whereas the West is more associated with the idea of taking action to correct perceived wrongs. In the case of Boethius and Ashikaga, exactly the opposite was true.

Though Japan was formally under the control of an emperor, the real power lay in prominent families such as the Kamakura, who established the first of two shogunates that were to control the country off and on between 1192 and 1573. Ashikaga founded the second of these shogunates, but not before he helped bring down the Kamakura in a somewhat underhanded way.

Typically, Japanese emperors were children who were easily manipulated by the shoguns and powerful families, but in 1318, a full-grown adult named Go-Daigo (goh DY-goh; 1288–1339) assumed the throne. When Go-Daigo revolted against the shoguns, they exiled him in 1331, but he escaped two years later. The leaders trusted Ashikaga to capture him, but in the process of doing so, Ashikaga made a deal with Go-Daigo.

Claiming to be a secret supporter of the emperor, Ashikaga joined forces with him to overthrow the Hojo family, who had assumed control of the Kamakura shogunate. Once Go-Daigo was restored to power, however, he proved an inept ruler, and offended Ashikaga by appointing his son, rather than Ashikaga himself, as shogun. In 1336, Ashikaga ousted GoDaigo, and replaced him with an emperor who appointed him to the all-important shogun position.

Thus was born the Ashikaga shogunate (1338–1573), sometimes referred to as the Muromachi period because its cultural life centered on the Muromachi district of Tokyo. And indeed it was a time of cultural flourishing, for which Ashikaga deserves much of the credit. His place in Japanese history is somewhat uncertain, however, due in part to the fact that many scholars believe he was overshadowed by his powerful grandson Yoshimitsu (ruled 1368–95).

A greater source of controversy regarding Ashikaga, however, relates to what many consider his treacherous actions. In that vein, he is often compared unfavorably to Kusunoki Masashige (mah-sah-SHEE-gay; 1294–1336), a warlord who remained faithful to Go-Daigo and committed suicide after he was defeated by Ashikaga. Regardless of his moral stature, however, Ashikaga was undoubtedly a brilliant strategist and leader who ushered in a culturally significant era of Japanese history.

His real misfortune began, however, in 522, when he came to the defense of a senator accused of treason. It appears that Boethius may have thought the senator guilty, but he wanted to protect the reputation of the senate, and this exposed him to charges of suppressing evidence. He was then accused of aiding Justin I, the Byzantine emperor, against Theodoric. Therefore Theodoric ordered that he be imprisoned in the town of Pavia (PAHV-ee-uh).

The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius would spend the remaining two years of his life in jail, where he wrote his most enduring work, The Consolation of Philosophy. He had written a number of books before, but without the Consolation his name might well have been forgotten. As it was, he set the tone for a thousand years of European history.

Though he was a devout Christian, the Consolation is a work of philosophy and makes little direct reference to Christian principles. Its message that suffering should be endured might seem to bear a close relation to the teachings of Christ, but Christ taught that believers in God should endure suffering with the hope of a reward in Heaven. The Consolation, by contrast, seems to say that suffering is its own reward, and in this it is more closely tied to the ancient Roman tradition of Stoicism (STOH-uh-sizm), which held that true nobility is found in withstanding hardship.

Nonetheless, the message that "Lady Philosophy" delivers to Boethius—the book is built around the idea that the spirit of philosophy came to visit him in his cell, clothed in the body of an otherworldly woman—has an underlying Christian theme. By the end of the work, Philosophy shows him that God's justice can be seen even in the most random and arbitrary-seeming misfortune. Furthermore, she shows him that although man has free will to choose good or evil (a central belief of Christianity), true freedom lies in choosing virtue.

Echoes of Boethius

Boethius died in prison in 524, either by execution or as the result of torture. He quickly came to be regarded as a martyr, or someone who dies for their faith, though in fact he died for his convictions about morality and politics. Nonetheless, he was declared a saint, and he had an enduring effect on medieval thought.

Much of that effect may be judged as unfortunate from the viewpoint of a modern person: by teaching people to accept their fate, one might reason, Boethius was condemning them to unnecessary suffering. But to take that approach is to view Boethius from the perspective of the present, rather than from that of the sixth century.

Among Boethius's many admirers were the ninth-century Anglo-Saxon king Alfred the Great (see box in Basil II entry) and the sixteenth-century English queen Elizabeth I, both of whom produced translations of The Consolation of Philosophy. Esteemed by figures such as Dante (see entry) and the English writer Geoffrey Chaucer (see English Scholars, Thinkers, and Writers entry), he continued to exert an influence almost a millennium after his death.

For More Information


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

Encyclopedia of World Biography, second edition. Detroit: Gale, 1998.

Historic World Leaders. Detroit: Gale, 1994.

Web Sites

Boethius. [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Boethius." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Boethius." [Online] Available BOETHIUS.HTM (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Japan in the Ashikaga, Sengoku, and Tokugawa Eras." [Online] Available (last accessed July 26, 2000).


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BOETHIUS (c. 475c. 525), more fully, Anicius Manlius (Torquatus) Severinus Boethius, late Roman philosopher, theologian, and statesman. Because of the paucity of sources concerning Boethius's life, no more than the most shadowy biographical sketch is possible. A member of one of the great Roman families, Boethius was almost certainly born at Rome. The Rome in which he lived had lost much of its importanceimperial control had given way to the reign of the barbarian king Odoacer about the time of his birthbut the prestige of the Anician family remained intact, as shown by the consulship of Boethius's father in 487. Upon completing his schooling, which he presumably received at Rome, Boethius continued his education by studying philosophy, probably at Alexandria, but possibly in his native city. Of his public life, it is known only that he served as consul in 510 and that, about 523, he became master of offices, one of the highest civil officials in the court of the Ostrogothic king of Italy, Theodoric. While master of offices, Boethius was implicated in a treasonable conspiracy with the Eastern emperor, which apparently centered upon a plot to overthrow Theodoric. Although Boethius resolutely maintained his innocence, he was imprisoned. During his imprisonment he wrote On the Consolation of Philosophy, his most famous work, which he completed only shortly before his execution.

Much more important than his public career, which was not unusual for a person of his standing, was his literary career. In one of his early works, he described his projected program of philosophical writings: in a world in which the Latin West was rapidly losing its knowledge of Greek, Boethius wished to translate into Latin all the works of Plato and Aristotle and to show, through a series of commentaries on these works, that there was no essential conflict between the Platonic and Aristotelian traditions. He did not realize this plan in its entirety, but he did translate a number of the logical works of Aristotle (the so-called Organon ) and wrote (or possibly only translated from the Greek) several commentaries on these writings. In doing so, he rendered a very important service to the early medieval West by providing the only Latin translations of Aristotle available until the gradual introduction of the "new learning" in the late Middle Ages.

Despite his failure to translate any of the works of Plato, Boethius did provide the medieval world with one of its most important source books of Neoplatonic thought, On the Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most widely read books of the Middle Ages. Cast in the form of a cosmological revelation by Lady Philosophy to the imprisoned and perplexed Boethius, the Consolation presents a highly sophisticated and systematic Neoplatonic worldview. The curious fact that Boethius, who was certainly a Christian, looked to Neoplatonism rather than to Christianity to console him is inex-plicable.

Boethius's chief creative contribution to the intellectual tradition of the West comes in his five brief Christian theological works. Although these works are highly Augustinian in their content, Boethius established his independence from Augustine in matters of terminology and method. In On the Trinity, he employed the term theology for the first time as a technical Christian term denoting the philosophical inquiry into the nature of God. Methodologically, his contribution lies in the use of formal Aristotelian demonstrative logic for the first time in the service of Christian theology. In doing so, he anticipated the fundamental character of the Thomistic method of "scientific" theology by some five and one-half centuries.


Most of Boethius's works have not been translated into English, but The Theological Tractates and The Consolation of Philosophy, translated by H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand, are widely available in a Loeb Classical Library edition (Cambridge, Mass., 1926). The best work in English on Boethius's writings in general is Pierre Courcelle's Late Latin Writers and Their Greek Sources, translated by Harry E. Wedeck (Cambridge, Mass., 1969). For specific discussion of the Christian theological works, see my study titled "Boethius Conception of Theology and His Method in the Tractates" (Ph.D. diss., University of Chicago, 1974).

A. Rand Sutherland (1987)

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

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Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

The Roman logician and theologian Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 480-c. 524) is best known for his influential work "The Consolation of Philosophy." He also wrote theological treatises and transmitted to the Middle Ages portions of Aristotle's writings.

Born in Rome of an ancient family, Boethius probably received schooling in Athens or possibly in Alexandria. In any case he acquired a thorough knowledge of the Greek language and the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. He undertook to translate the works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin with the aim of reconciling the two philosophies. This task was never completed, but Boethius did translate Aristotle's logical works and wrote commentaries on two of them.

Boethius's most important purely philosophical work is his second and longer commentary on Porphyry's Eisagoge (Introduction) to Aristotle's Categories. Therein he discusses the status of universals in a text that was to become a classic in the late Middle Ages. Concerning universals, Porphyry had raised three questions. First, are species (for example, man), genera (for example, animal), and other universals realities or mental conceptions? Second, if they are realities, are they corporeal or incorporeal? Third, if universals are incorporeal, do they exist apart from sensibles or in union with them?

In his discussion Boethius presents Aristotle's solution on universals, as explained by Alexander of Aphrodisias (ca. A. D. 200). Briefly this solution states that species and genera are realities as well as mental conceptions. As realities, they are incorporeal and exist in union with sensible things. Accordingly, individual men exist with substantial likenesses to one another, but what they have in common does not exist in reality apart from them. On the basis of substantial likenesses, the mind conceives of the species of man. The abstract conception is a true one, and it applies to individual men, though no species exists apart from individuals.

Plato's thesis that universals are realities that are incorporeal and exist apart from sensible things is mentioned by Boethius as an alternative but not necessarily as a preferable one. Boethius's neutrality is all the more striking when we realize that he was very much a Platonist in The Consolation of Philosophy.

In 510 Theodoric, the Ostrogothic king of Italy, had raised Boethius to the rank of consul. But by 523 Theodoric suspected that he was conspiring with Roman aristocrats and the Emperor in Constantiniple to overthrow him. Exactly what caused Boethius to fall out of favor with Theodoric has been the matter of some conjecture. It is known that there were Roman aristocrats interested in reuniting the Eastern and Western empires at the expense of Ostrogothic rule and that Boethius had made a contribution toward bridging the schism of East and West by writing four tracts between 512 and 522 on divisive theological issues. (In one of them, De Trinitate, Boethius made use of the Aristotelian categories of substance and relation to define the doctrine of the Trinity.) Whatever the precise details may be, Theodoric had Boethius put to death for treason in 524 or 525.

The Consolation of Philosophy was composed by Boethius during the last year of his life while he was imprisoned in Pavia. This work is a dialogue in prose and verse between the author and Philosophia, the personification of philosophy. In it Boethius maintains that happiness can be found in the most adverse of conditions. The underpinning for such an optimistic outlook is the contrast of providence and fate. A world created by a providential God contains no possibility of evil as a reality. In achieving a cosmic order, God uses the instrument of fate, which necessitates each individual occurrence. However unfortunate a fated event may seem to a person from his limited and peripheral point of view, he still has the freedom to turn his mind to a providential God at the center of things. A man will thereby rise above the apparent misery of his circumstances and find consolation.

Further Reading

Three specialized works on Boethius are Hugh Fraser Stewart, Boethius: An Essay (1891); Howard Rollin Patch, The Tradition of Boethius: A Study of His Importance in Medieval Culture (1935); and Helen M. Barrett, Boethius: Some Aspects of His Times and Work (1940). For Boethius as a precursor of scholasticism see Edward Kennard Rand, Founders of the Middle Ages (1928; 2d ed. 1929). For the philosophical era in which Boethius lived, a monumental work is A. H. Armstrong, ed., The Cambridge History of Later Greek and Early Medieval Philosophy (1967).

Additional Sources

McInerny, Ralph M., Boethius and Aquinas, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990.

Reiss, Edmund, Boethius, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1982.

Stewart, H. F. (Hugh Fraser), Boethius: an essay, New York: B. Franklin, 1974. □

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

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Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius


Roman Philosopher and Scholar

Though he is remembered primarily as a philosopher, Boethius had a powerful impact on the history of mathematics. This was in large part because progress in mathematical learning among Western Europeans had come to a halt several centuries before his time, and would not resume for another half-millennium or more. Thus Boethius's writings remained among the principal guides to mathematics during the early medieval period.

Four years before his birth, the Western Roman Empire came to an end when the Germanic chieftain Odoacer (433?-493) removed the last Roman emperor from power and declared himself "king of Italy." At the time, the Romans did not perceive the fall of the Western Empire as an earth-shattering event, and many believed that business would continue as usual. Certainly that was the impression among Boethius's family, a distinguished line that could trace their roots back more than six centuries.

Before he reached his teens, Boethius lost his father, and therefore another prominent Roman named Symmachus became his guardian. Boethius later married Symmachus's daughter Rusticana, with whom he had two sons. In the course of his education, Boethius fell under the influence of Plato (427?-347 b.c.), whose Republic offered a model for participation in government by philosophers, and this—combined with family traditions—influenced his choice of a career in public life. He soon rose through the ranks, reaching the position of consul in 510.

By that time, Italy had come under the control of the Ostrogoth chieftain Theodoric (454?-526), who was to have a tragic effect on Boethius's career. As a Roman official, Boethius busied himself with his political duties—including service in the senate—and his studies and writings. The latter included an examination of the quadrivium, a group of four subjects (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy) studied by Romans for ages.

In writing on the quadrivium, Boethius discussed the relationship between music and science, specifically that between a note's pitch and the frequency of the sound. This reflected the influence of Pythagorean ideas, and indeed Boethius's Arithmetic constituted medieval scholars' principal source regarding Pythagorean number theory. Boethius also translated Categories and De interpretatione by Aristotle (384-322 b.c.), as well as Porphyry's (234?-305?) Isagoge, and planned to translate and write commentaries on all the works of Plato and Aristotle. Events, however, prevented him from the fulfillment of this extremely ambitious goal.

His misfortunes began in 522, when he came to the defense of a senator accused of treason. It seems the senator, Albinus, had written to Justin I, ruler of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, asking for the aid of the mainstream Christian emperor against Theodoric, who adhered to the Arian heresy. Boethius apparently thought Albinus guilty, but wanted to protect the reputation of the senate, and this exposed him to charges of suppressing evidence. He was then accused of treason himself, and imprisoned in the town of Pavia.

Boethius would spend the remaining two years of his life in jail, where he wrote his most enduring work, The Consolation of Philosophy, which set the tone for a thousand years of European history. Though he was a devout Christian, the Consolation makes little direct reference to Christian principles. Indeed, the text seems more closely tied to pagan Stoicism than to Christianity, with its principles of free will and redemption. Built on the conceit of a message delivered to Boethius in his cell by the allegorical figure of "Lady Philosophy," the Consolation teaches that divine justice can be seen even in the most random and seemingly arbitrary misfortune.

Boethius died in prison in 524, either by execution or as the result of torture. He quickly came to be regarded as a martyr, was later canonized, and gained a further measure of immortality through his influence on medieval thought.


Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus

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Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus

Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus, Roman philosopher, theologian, man of letters, and statesman; b. Rome, c.480; d. (executed) c. 524. He was of a distinguished Roman family and received a thorough academic education. In 510 he became consul, and about 520 was made magister officium to King Theodoric. When the senator Albinus was charged with treason, Boethius defended him and was himself charged with treason, imprisoned with Albinus in Pa-via, and executed. It was during his imprisonment that Boethius wrote his most celebrated work, De consolatione philosophiae. However, his importance to music history rests upon his treatise De institutione musica (first publ, in his collected works, Venice, 1491-92; 2nd ed., 1498-99; edited by Glarean, Basel, 1546; 2nd ed., 1570; Eng. tr., with notes, by C. Bower and C. Palisca, as Fundamentals of Music, New Haven and London, 1989). This treatise is noteworthy for its view that music is all- pervasive in the universe (musica mundana), that it is one of the major vivifying links between man’s soul and his physical being (musica humana), and that it can be divined in some instruments (musica instrumentalis). By delineating what he called a Perfect System of Greek theory, Boethius produced one of the most influential works of its kind, one that had a profound impact on the late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance.


G. Pietzsch, Studien zur Geschichte der Musiktheorie im Mittelalter: Die Klassifikation der Musik von B. bis Ugolino von Orvieto (Halle, 1929); H. Potiron, La notation grecque et B. (Rome, 1951); idem, B.: Theoretician de la musique grecque (Paris, 1954).

—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

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Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius


Roman mathematician and philosopher who translated many Greek texts into Latin in large encyclopedic collections. These collections were almost all that survived of ancient Greek learning in Europe until Arabic sources were eventually translated into Latin centuries later. Boethius helped define the divisions in education (the trivium and quadrivium) that were to last throughout the medieval period. A Roman aristocrat who probably studied in Alexandria or Athens, he was condemned to death after becoming embroiled in court politics.


views updated May 29 2018

Boethius (c.480–c.524). Roman philosopher and statesman. His most famous work, On the Consolation of Philosophy, is not specifically Christian, but was popular among Christians for its description of the soul attaining knowledge of the vision of God through philosophy.


views updated May 14 2018

Boethius (c.480–524), Roman statesman and philosopher, best known for The Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote while in prison on a charge of treason. He argued that the soul can attain happiness in affliction by realizing the value of goodness and meditating on the reality of God.