I would appreciate it if you could lead me to a one or two page summary of the philosophy of
Boethius. I hope this request is realistic.
I am giving a course on 'The Western Mind' and I believe that some discussion of Boethius would be
What is wonderful about Boethius (c.480-254), even more than whathe thought, is thathe thought.
Here is an excerpt from a lecture of mine on Boethius:
Boethius was an aristocrat and a scholar and a high government minister of Theodoric the
Ostrogothic King who ruled Italy between 493-524; but Theodoric was a Byzantine (as opposed to
Roman) Emperor. Latin and Greek cultures were separated long before their final divorce in 1054.
Boethius was implicated in a plot to overthrow Theodoric — although Boethius asserts his innocence
in The Consolation of Philosophy,which he wrote while awaiting execution. In all probability Boethius
was innocent as he protested. In any case, he was arrested, tried, sentenced to death and sent into
exile in Pavia to await execution. On the dread day ropes were twisted around his neck until his eyes
popped out, then he was finished off with a bludgeon. Awaiting execution Boethius wrote the
The Consolationis one of the greatest books of Western tradition and probably the single most
universally appealing book of the whole Middle Ages. The Consolationwas translated by Alfred the
Great into Anglo-Saxon around 890 and into English by Chaucer and Elizabeth I. It was translated
into all known languages at a time when translating books into the vernacular was extremely rare
indeed. The Consolationwas the favourite reading of three of the greatest literary giants of all time:
Dante, Boccaccio and Chaucer. The Consolationwas an international best-seller for over a thousand
years. No single book by a single author has ever known such renown or longevity — perhaps
Augustine's Confessions.But compared the Confessions,the Consolationhas even broader appeal.
Until a couple of hundred years ago, C.S. Lewis tells us, it would have been hard to find any educated
person in any European country who did not know and love the Consolation.To acquire a taste for
this book, Lewis also says, is almost to become naturalised to the Middle Ages.
On top of this sublime achievement, Boethius was more than anyone responsible for giving Aristotle
to the Middle Ages. And not just Aristotle, but an Aristotelian way of doing theology which is known as
Scholasticism — although Boethius died 600 years before his method of doing theology was to really
be developed (in the High Middle Ages). In addition, Boethius bequeathed to posterity the main
intellectual problem of the High Middle Ages: the problem of universals. Not only did Boethius
bequeath the main problem which was to tax the best thinkers for more than two centuries five
hundred years after his death, not only did he bequeath the method of treating the problem, he also
made the translations of the main texts of Aristotle which were to be used as a basis for what would
develop into rationalism and science. At a time when few scholars knew Greek and Latin equally well,
Boethius translated key arithmetical and astronomical works (e.g.. Euclid's Elements) which were to
have immense influence on the development of science as well as works on musical composition
which were to have crucial significance for the development of Western art. The so-called Quadrivium
of Medieval education was founded by Boethius. Cassidodorus, a contemporary, wrote in 507: "By
your translations Latin readers now have Pythagorus' music, Ptolemy's astronomy, Nicomachius'
arithmetic, Plato's theology, Aristotle's logic, and Archimedes' mechanics" (Variae i, 45, 4).
It was Aristotle who first started using letters as variables in the construction of his logic. Boethius' two
monographs on Aristotelian logic transmit this arithmetical lexicography to the Middle Ages. It is
important to note that Boethius was a traditional theological authority of the highest order and that by
default he validated what would undermine the continuity of that order. For he validated innovation in
refining and improving Aristotle's logic. This gave an authoritative basis for continuing such a practice.
Not everyone's innovations would have the tact and prudence of Boethius'. Abelard's logic is
precocious, academic and subversive.
End of excerpt. All this seems to me more crucial than whatBoethius thought. He was not an original
thinker in our sense, but like all original thinkers of his day, traditional. He was a Christian Platonist to
put it in two words. That means that he combines the sense that we are all puppets in Plato's cave
(i.e. living in illusion, including self illusion — sin) with the idea of one God, like Plato's one light of
truth, goodness and beauty. But man, in the image and likeness of God, can know logic, which in a
Dark Age, is akin to light and will carry him to the light by enlightening him from within. This light is the
light that was in the beginning with God (see intro to John's Gospel). Boethius is Christological in the
patristic sense in which Christ is 'logos' or word by which the world is made. This logos has its logic,
which is that of reason as Aristotle learned it from Plato (he does not read these two in opposition). It
is the literary quality of his Christian Platonism in the Consolation,which is so perfect.
Matthew Del Nevo