Authors: Boethius

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Roman philosopher

Author Works


De consolatione philosophiae, 523 (The Consolation of Philosophy, late ninth century)


Born in Rome about 480 c.e., the philosopher Boethius (boh-EE-thee-uhs), also called Boetius or Boece, was the last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics. The family must have been patrician, for his father was a consul under Odoacer in 487. At his father’s death, Boethius (full name Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius) became the ward of the senator Memmius Symmachus and later married his guardian’s daughter Rusticiana. Theodoric, Ostrogoth ruler of Rome beginning in 500, made Boethius consul in 510. Later, either because of his Christian beliefs or because he was conspiring with Emperor Justin the Elder of the Eastern Roman Empire, Boethius was arrested, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed there without trial in 524. Before his death, his sons had been appointed consuls.{$I[AN]9810000662}{$I[A]Boethius}{$I[geo]ROMAN EMPIRE;Boethius}{$I[tim]0480;Boethius}


(Library of Congress)

While still in favor, Boethius had translated and commented on some of Aristotle’s writings, introducing him to the Western world in a work on which a great part of the educational practices of the Middle Ages was based. He also wrote treatises on many subjects: arithmetic, logic, and especially music. Other works, perhaps falsely attributed to him, dealt with Christian theology and immortalized him upon his death as the martyred Saint Severinus.

While imprisoned in Pavia, Boethius wrote five books in prose and verse entitled The Consolation of Philosophy, a work derived from Plato, Plotinus, and Aristotle. In the opening book, Boethius raises the age-old question: Why is it that the good are permitted to suffer in a world governed by an all-good God? Lady Philosophy, an allegorical figure probably representing Boethius himself, tells him that the absence of self-knowledge is the source of his confusion. She also comments on the practices of the Goddess Fortuna, the nature of true happiness, and the difficulties of reconciling God’s foreknowledge with humankind’s free will. The Consolation of Philosophy has influenced thinking ever since. Later medieval writers such as Geoffrey Chaucer, Jean de Meung, and William Langland incorporated its imagery and its teachings into their works. King Alfred translated the work into Anglo-Saxon (published at Oxford in 1698). Chaucer made an English translation of part of this dialogue, and later Queen Elizabeth I tried her hand at translating it. Even before the invention of printing, translations of Boethius existed in a dozen languages.

BibliographyAstell, Ann W. Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1994. The book argues for the continuous existence of a theory of heroic epic from antiquity through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance. Astell sees The Consolation of Philosophy as transmitting the classical epic to the Middle Ages.Barrett, Helen M. Boethius: Some Aspects of His Times and Work. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1940. Reprint. New York: Russell and Russell, 1965. One of the older books on Boethius, it remains a good introduction. It provides an introductory historical survey, sets Boethius firmly in this context, and interprets the scanty details of his life in a balanced and sensible way. Subsequent scholarship has supplemented but rarely contradicted the picture of Boethius given here.Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1981. Unlike other writers, who have tended to concentrate on the Christian, the poet, the philosopher, or the educational theorist, Chadwick aims to show Boethius’ career as a unified whole. He has succeeded in writing the most comprehensive book about his life and work.Gibson, Margaret, ed. Boethius: His Life, Thought, and Influence. Oxford, England: Basil Blackwell, 1981. This book contains a variety of material, including two valuable biographical essays. John Matthews studies Boethius as a Roman affirming ancient traditions and offices against the Ostrogothic king. Helen Kirkby stresses Boethius’s determination to continue the Roman habit of enriching Latin culture with Greek philosophical and educational thought.Hoenen, Maarten J. F. M., and Lodi Nauta, eds. Boethius in the Middle Ages: Latin and Vernacular Traditions of the “Consolatio philosophiae.” New York: Brill, 1997. Translations and analysis of The Consolation of Philosophy. Bibliography and indexes.McInery, Ralph. Boethius and Aquinas. Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1990. Boethius, the last Roman and first Scholastic philosopher, came down to modern thought through his primary medieval commentator, Saint Thomas Aquinas. McInery refutes claims of modern scholars that Aquinas’s understanding of Boethius is faulty, concluding that Aquinas correctly understood Boethius. For advanced undergraduates.Marenbon, John. Boethius. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. A biography of Boethius in the Great Medieval Thinkers series. Bibliography and index.Nash-Marshall, Siobhan. Participation and the Good: A Study in Boethian Metaphysics. New York: Crossroad, 2000. An analysis of good and evil in the philosophy of Boethius. Includes bibliographical references and an index.O’Daly, Gerard. The Poetry of Boethius. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991. Includes bibliographical references and indexes.Reiss, Edmund. Boethius. Boston: Twayne, 1982. Reiss argues the case against accepting too literally the autobiographical details in what he regards as a highly polished work of fictional art. He tends to reject the assumption that the quotations and other specific knowledge demonstrated in The Consolation of Philosophy constitute a feat of memory by a prisoner without access to a library.Scott, Jamie S. Christians and Tyrants: The Prison Testimonies of Boethius, Thomas More, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer. New York: P. Lang, 1995. An analysis and comparison of three Christians who were imprisoned.
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