B is for Brevity (sort of) … and Boethius


This is a near-contemporary ivory diptych of Boethius

Brevity, the soul of wit, doesn’t require much explanation, though I’m probably nearly as bad as Polonius for actually putting the aphorism into practice. Maybe I should go back to my earlier rule that my Inn posts had to be under 500 words? That could be part two of the April challenge … Thought I’m afraid I’ve already failed with this post.

As for Boethius, those who know me know who he is, but otherwise —

Well. Let me tell you. Boethius (died around 525/6) was one of those people through whose lives history funnels. He also wrote one of my favourite books, The Consolation of Philosophy. (I wrote half my dissertation on it. The other half was on Dante, who will be Friday’s topic.)

When I say that I think history funnelled through Boethius’ life, I mean a couple of different things. On the one hand, his life was something like a microcosm for the events of his period. Boethius was an upper-class Roman after the fall of the Roman Empire. Technically it still existed, but it was ruled by the Goths (Theodoric the Ostrogoth, in particular), and the old norms and rules were in great flux. They’re always in great flux, of course, but it was particularly apparent in this time.

The historian Gibbon called Boethius “the last of the Romans and first of the Scholastics” — he straddles the Classical world and the Middle Ages. By temperament, training, desire, Boethius was a Roman — not of his own day, but of the Rome of centuries before; by influence, by the kind of writing he did, by his actual period, he shaped the intellectual culture that came after him.

Boethius 4

The Master of Offices (something like the prime minister) for Theodoric, Boethius looked around him and saw that learning was being lost at an alarming rate, and that people were no longer able to read the Greek philosophers. Plato and Aristotle would be lost, he feared. Like many a syncretic thinker before and after him, he decided to embark on an ambitious project to reconcile the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle; unlike most of them, he also decided to translate their complete works first. That was his life’s work, in many ways, an act of reclamation of the past, of defiance of the present state of uncertainty, of hope for the future. He didn’t finish it, because he fell afoul of political schemes (at this remove it is difficult to know exactly what happened there, since our evidence is largely from Boethius’ own book, and he did not describe his charges in detail; some people claimed him a Catholic martyr to the Arian [heretic] Goths), was imprisoned, and eventually put to death.

Boethius was more of a Platonist, so he decided to start his translation project with Aristotle, as the foundation, and move to Plato, as the culmination, later on. He began where Classical education began, and where medieval education would also begin, with what is called the Organon — the toolbox of reason, Aristotle’s logical works. These were the foundational concepts of the the medieval curriculum, available because of these translations. Until the later twelfth century and the great translation projects in Spain and southern Italy between the Arabic, Hebrew, and Latin-speaking scholars, this was what the Latin West had of Aristotle.

Until the fifteenth century and Marsilio Ficino’s translation of the complete works of Plato, of Platonism people had two partial translations of Plato’s Timaeus and the Platonist philosophy of The Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius 2

This is where we get to the other way in which Boethius was a funnel for history. By his translations he would have stood high as a conduit of higher learning to posterity, like Martianus Capella whose Marriage of Philology and Mercury (a deeply strange and difficult book; C.S. Lewis wrote of Martianus Capella that “this universe, which has produceed the bee-orchid and the giraffe, has produced nothing stranger than Martianus Capella” [Allegory of Love, p. 76 (Oxford: OUP 1958)], but which also managed to be the basis of education for several centuries and one of the root-texts for the practice of allegory, which just goes to show the odd turns of history). He wrote five theological tractates that had a minor but nevertheless noticeable role in the history of Christian theology. But it was the Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote while imprisoned and awaiting execution, that was his masterpiece.

Boethius 1

Written in a mixture of prose and verse, the Consolation tells the story of Boethius’ downfall — and what happened after. It begins with a whiny poem he is composing in his jail cell, when all of a sudden a mysterious woman appears, casts out “those harlots, the Muses,” and proceeds to lead Boethius through a debate on the merits of philosophy in life, with occasional digressions into poetry ranging from the pedestrian to the superb.

He is in prison, awaiting execution. He has spent his life devoted to philosophy: and what is that result? Death. And so he debates fate and free will (this book is the locus classicus, that is the ‘classic statement’ (literally ‘place’) for one of the main defenses of free will); develops what had been a very basic conception into the familiar image of Fortune’s wheel; and also gives a summary of most of the main themes and general arguments of ancient philosophy. He discusses the false goods — power, pleasure, rank, honour, wealth — and works his way towards figuring out what the true Good is. He discusses happiness. He asks what good prayer is. He grapples with the nature of God.

He's the one on the bottom, looking right

Boethius and Arithmetic on Chartres Cathedral. The image is courtesy of Creative Commons and the Jean and Alexander Heard Library at Vanderbilt

The Consolation is not in vogue at the moment, but this is an aberration in our society. Between 525/6, when he wrote it, and Renaissance, everyone who could read read it. King Alfred translated it into Old English; Chaucer translated it into Middle English; Queen Elizabeth I into Modern English. It was translated into every language in Europe at least once, often multiple times. Dante read it after the death of Beatrice, wanting consolation; apparently to his surprise, he found philosophy. It was one of the root-texts of allegory (along with Martianus Capella). It has some beautiful poetry in it. It has puzzled generations for being in accord with Christian theology, but never mentioning Christ.

Boethius is buried in the crypt of the church of San Pietro Ciel d’Oro — Saint Peter of the Golden Sky. The golden ceiling is not on his behalf, but because St Augustine of Hippo, in another of those curious turns of history, is buried in the altar above. I went there once, on a kind of pilgrimage, to pay my respects. I got locked in the church and set off all the alarms, and when the Augustinian monk from next door came to let me out and scold me for hanging about Augustine’s tomb, I said, “No, I came for Boethius” — and he looked at me and shook his head.

I went out and sat in the sun, near the plaque on the church wall, which quotes Dante’sĀ Paradiso, and thought about layers of history and time. Nearly eight hundred years lie between Boethius and Dante, and nearly seven hundred between Dante and me. Yet there the three met, the dust that remains of the Roman, the words of the Italian, and me.

Per vedere ogni ben dentro vi gode

l’anima santa che ‘l modo fallace

fa manifesto a chi di lei ben ode:

lo corpo ond’ella fu cacciata giace

giuso in Cieldauro; ed essa da martiro

e da essilio venne a questa pace.

“Therewithin, through seeing every good, the sainted soul rejoices who makes the fallacious world manifest to any who listen well to him.Ā  The body from which it was driven lies down below in Cieldauro, and he came from martyrdom and exile to this peace.” (Dante, Paradiso X.124-129, tr. Singleton)

It was a lovely spot. And I think he wouldn’t mind being there with Augustine. He certainly would be pleased to be remembered.





9 thoughts on “B is for Brevity (sort of) … and Boethius

  1. That was a great article. I am absolutely fascinated by history, particularly the era (give or take) that you are discussing. Thank you for sharing. You certainly know your subject. Looking forward to your other posts.


  2. Love history and especially Roman. Love that your article was so full of Brevity. LOL, Kidding. Boethius is probably hanging out in Dubai these days trying to get a grip on what happened in Rome. Great post, Victoria. I apologize for my weird sense of humour.


  3. Pingback: F is for Favourite Books | The Rose and Phoenix Inn

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