On Boethius

In 522, another great Roman aristocrat was showered with honors. Theoderic in Ravenna selected one of his sons to be the consul of Rome representing the West while Justin in Constantinople selected his other son to be the consul representing the East; he himself was tapped for the high position of Master of Offices. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, a scion of one of the two great Roman senatorial families, the Anicii, was a philosopher as well as a public servant. As far as we know, he was the single greater intellect in the West than Cassiodorus—certainly the only one from whom we have writings. He wrote treatises on music, theology, arithmetic, and geometry. As fluent in Greek as he was in Latin (an achievement becoming more and more rare in this time), he translated the only texts of Aristotle from Greek into Latin that the Medieval West would know until the Crusades brought the Arabic editions of Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina to light. In the introduction to his Commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione, Boethius lays out a plan for how his philosophical work would unfold:

I wish to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom and conscientiously offer his complete utterances in the Latin tongue. Everything Aristotle wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretive explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato’s Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict one another. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me[1].

Unfortunately for him and for the unfolding of the Western philosophical tradition, the leisurely fulfillment of this ambitious plan of work was not to be for philosophy was not his only ambition. For somewhere in the year 522 or 523 also came the death of Eutharic, the strong and appointed heir of Theoderic, the presumptive next king in the West.

The Master of Offices was—just below the Praetorian Prefect—one of the two highest civil posts in the Empire. The Master of Offices received his title because his position oversaw four offices which handled all of the imperial correspondence and all foreign envoys who came to address the Emperor. All information about doings in the Empire and relations with its neighbors flowed through this office. If a wealthy, intelligent, well-connected man of ancient birth steeped in Plato’s Republic and its vision of philosopher-kings wanted to subvert the Empire, this was the perfect place from which to do it.

We do not have clear visibility into what happened next. Our usual source for government dealings of the time is entirely silent upon the events; there is one Eastern-leaning history by an anonymous hand that gives one take on events, and then we have Boethius’s side of the story. In short, he was arrested on a charge of treason in 524 or 525. He was accused of conspiring with other members of the senatorial class and of holding treasonous correspondence with the Emperor in the East. Imprisoned within a church in Pavia—a city in northern Italy—Boethius embedded his side of the story in a book that would become the most important work of philosophy for the Early Medieval West behind the Bible, the Consolation of Philosophy. In a dialogue between himself and Lady Philosophy, a personified woman hearkening back to the figure of Wisdom in the biblical books of Proverbs and Ecclessiasticus, he pours out “a long and noisy display of grief” (his words!) where he explains that he was set up by means of forged letters by a cast of ne’er-do-wells unhappy at his attempts to reign in corruption[2]. However, even his self-defense does seem a bit weak at important points: “I am accused of having desired the safety of the Senate. . . . But the fact is that I did desire the safety of the Senate and will never cease to. . . . Should I count it a crime to have desired the safety of the Senate[3]?”

The Consolation itself—entirely apart from the guilt or innocence of its author—is a splendid work. A Neo-Platonic meditation composed alternately in prose and verse, Boethius explores his situation, his rise to tremendous heights and his tragic fall to the depths, and offers later ages two related themes that wrestle with questions around the unfolding of history, the justice of God, and the lament—old in the days of Job—that bad things do indeed happen to good people. The first theme is a differentiation between Providence and Fate/Fortune (he uses the two terms interchangeably). God, who stands outside of the flow of time, knows, sees, and directs the big picture—Providence—in order that all will end well. This is the plan in the mind of the all-knowing and all-loving God. The big picture is therefore fixed; we know its happy end. The route by which this plan is accomplished, however, is far more sketchy. This is Fate. Thus, “the simple and unchanging plan of events is Providence, and Fate is the ever-changing web, the disposition in and through time of all the events which God has planned in His simplicity[4].” You could say that Providence is the plan while Fate is its execution.

What Boethius gets out of this formulation is the ability to say that God is good and just and can affirm alongside St. Paul that “all things work together for good for those who love God” (Romans 8:28). In the end, he will affirm alongside the future words of Julian of Norwich that all things will be well. But, thanks to Fate, that doesn’t mean that everything is guaranteed to turn out okay for you! In the various vagaries and improvisations of Fate towards the irresistible end of Providence, even the wisest, the wealthiest, the most powerful person is but Fate’s pawn. And that brings us to the second major theme of Boethius of which all of America has heard—but maybe not in the sense he intends: the Wheel of Fortune.

The famous television game show is named after an ancient concept that reached its finest formulation with Boethius. He was not the first person to come up with the concept and other thinkers had written similarly about Fortune before, of course. The 2nd century BCE tragedian Pacuvius had said:

Philosophers claim that Fortune is insane, blind, and savage,
That she stands on a rolling and treacherous stone—
Whichever way chance tips that stone, fortune falls nearby.
They say that she is insane because she is merciless, unsteady and faithless.
They repeat that she is blind because she does not see where she goes;
she is savage because she makes no distinction between a worthy or worthless man.

Boethius makes a more subtle but not fundamentally dissimilar argument. As he sits in his dungeon bemoaning his fall from glory, Lady Philosophy essentially shakes him and asks him what he thought was going to happen:

You are wrong if you think Fortune has changed towards you. Change is her normal behaviour, her true nature. In the very act of changing she has preserved her own particular kind of constancy towards you. She was exactly the same when she was flattering you and luring you on with enticements of a false kind of happiness. You have discovered the changing faces of the random goddess[5].

As Lady Philosophy concludes her discourse she breaks into a ditty that will be graphically illustrated in dozens of medieval manuscripts and even find its way into the trump cards of the tarot deck:

If you are trying to stop her wheel from turning you are of all men the most obtuse. For if it once begins to stop, it will no longer be the wheel of chance:

With domineering hand she moves the turning wheel

Like currents in a treacherous bay swept to and fro

Her ruthless will has just deposed once fearful kings

While trustless still, from low she lifts a conquered head;

No cries of misery she hears, no tears she heeds,

But steely hearted laughs at groans her deeds have wrung.

Such is the game she plays, and so she tests her strength;

Of mighty power she makes parade when one short hour

Sees happiness from utter desolation grow[6].

The standard depiction of the wheel throughout the middle ages depicts a spoked wheel set upright: a king robed in splendor is perched at the top while the same figure appears at the bottom, clad in rags and crushed with pain—sometimes with the crown toppling from his brow. On one side he is clothed in finery as he makes his ascent; on the opposite side he is in beginning his fall into despair. The point is that Fortune is inherently fickle. No matter how high or how low people rise or fall, the condition is temporary for change is inevitable.

The story of Boethius does not end well. Both he and his guardian/father-in-law Symmachus were executed at the order of Theoderic. The brilliance of his Consolation ensures that his side of the story is never forgotten, though; it’s easy to buy the caricature of the noble Roman philosopher unjustly accused and killed by a thuggish barbarian ruler. We’ll probably never really know the true story and Cassiodorus never tells us. But, then, he’s not entirely a neutral observer either…

[1] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, xv-xvi.

[2] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1, 16.

[3] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 1.4, 11-12.

[4] Boethius, Cosolation of Philosophy 4.6, p. 105.

[5] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 23.

[6] Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy 2.1, p. 24

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