Boethius: Philosopher of the Imagination

Acolyte (noun): A. A person assisting the celebrant in a religious service or procession. B. An assistant, follower, or disciple. [Pronounced ake-lite]

Boethian (adjective): Pertaining to the philosophical thought of Boethius. [Pronounced Bo-eth-ius]

Who the heck is Boethius, and why do I cheekily claim to be his acolyte? Hopefully this post will shed some light on these mysteries that have doubtlessly plagued you for so long.

“Boethius” isn’t a name that has recognition among most people today who aren’t medievalists, but you can’t hardly spend five minutes at an academic medieval conference without hearing his name. Even if you’ve never read Dante (author of the Divine Comedy), Geoffrey Chaucer (author of the Canterbury Tales), C.S. Lewis (author of the Chronicles of Narnia), or J.R.R. Tolkien (author of the Lord of the Rings), all of these writers held in common a deep appreciation for Boethius and even regarded him as a model for various aspects of their imaginative creations. The Old English King Alfred and Queen Elizabeth the First both translated him from Latin into the English of their periods, and in fact, in the medieval period, Boethius was used exactly how I use him in my classroom: as a framework for interpreting literature.

The life of Boethius occurred during the failing days of the Roman Empire. In the year 410, Rome had been sacked by Visigoths, and this precipitated Rome extracting their military occupation from England. When Boethius was born in the year 480, his homeland of Italy was under the rule of the Gothic warlord King Odoacer, so Roman political power had already significantly diminished. In 493, when Boethius was a young teenager and being educated to be a senator by his aristocratic stepfather, the Ostrogothic warlord King Theodoric killed Odoacer with a sword to the stomach while the two leaders were having dinner together. Boethius would live the rest of his life with Theodoric as his king, which would turn out to be bad both for Boethius’s and Theodoric’s health.

Even though Theodoric was an Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe that had migrated from the northern territories, he appreciated Roman culture and recognized the talent and influence of Boethius. In another post I discuss the basics of the liberal arts philosophy; Boethius was a primary figure in establishing what the liberal arts education would actually look like in the classroom. There were seven fundamental liberal arts. The first three arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, were referred to as the trivium, because as the comprehensive arts of language, learning all three was necessary for further education. Grammar taught correct use of language; logic taught how to order language for sound reasoning, and rhetoric taught how to make good grammatical and logical language persuasive to specific audiences. The next four arts were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. Arithmetic was more than the basic subject we think of it now – it was the philosophy of number, and music was the philosophy of number expressed through time. Geometry was the art of studying number expressed through space, and astronomy was the art of studying number expressed through both space and time. So although it certainly involved studying the movements of the heavens, astronomy was a precursor of what we would call physics today. Boethius and his friend Cassiodorus were not only trained to the limits of the knowledge in those disciplines in Rome, but wanted to expand that knowledge further, especially by translating and commenting on liberal arts works found in Greek. Boethius wrote treatises on all three arts of the trivium, including a commentary on Aristotle’s On interpretation that concerned the interpretation of language signs, Aristotle’s and other Greek writers’ works on logic, and contributed original thought to rhetoric in the field of what was called topical argumentation, which was the discovery of the best approach of discussion for a given subject matter. Boethius also wrote a treatise on arithmetic and one on music, the second called On the Fundamentals of Music. We know from letters by Cassiodorus that Boethius had written a textbook on geometry, though unfortunately that was lost. And though there is no indication that Boethius wrote on astronomy, many things he says in The Consolation of Philosophy and other books suggest that he had studied the art carefully. In the liberal arts viewpoint, the different arts were not just separate boxes of knowledge about unrelated subject matter – they believed that the arts needed to be distinguished so that they could be studied clearly, but studying first the trivium, the arts of thought and communication, and then the quadrivium, the arts of conceiving order in the world around you, were necessary stages to learn before entering into larger fields of inquiry such as theology or practical efforts such as politics. The academic life of the mind was designed to prepare you for the public life of action. Boethius followed this path, even though he didn’t really want to be a politician, but his parents, who died when he was young, were aristocratic, and his stepfather Symmachus was also a public figure who had been preparing Boethius for the public life from the moment he adopted him. Symmachus loved Boethius enough that he even had Boethius marry his own daughter, with whom Boethius would have two sons.

In addition to his liberal arts textbooks and scholarship, Boethius had written five theological tracts, two on the Trinity, one on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, one on the relationship of God’s goodness to the goodness of the world, and a final that was a basic statement of Christian faith. We can see here Boethius working to understand the relationship of philosophy and theology, and his conviction that philosophy could help people to better understand complicated aspects of theological doctrine. In Boethius’s view, when trained by the liberal arts, philosophical inquiry could be seen as bringing structural clarity to the revelations of Scripture, a view he had learned from reading the Church Father Augustine. But his theological beliefs was a source of political discomfort, because his king, Theodoric, was an Arian, as most of the Gothic tribes were, which means they rejected the Trinitiarian theology of Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, believing that Jesus was not fully divine. But despite their theological differences and the tension in Theodoric, as an outsider, ruling over a people which Boethius had been born into the ruling class of, Boethius still accepted Theodoric’s offer to try and build a better Italy, one where both Romans and Goths could be educated and civilized. In 511, Theodoric made Boethius the consul of Rome, and in this role Boethius made himself some enemies among other Roman senators, because he defended farmers and other laborers from high taxes and unjust political persecution. Theodoric used Boethius to investigate a case of counterfeited coins, asked him to handpick a harpist to send as a token of good will to the Emperor in the East, and even called on his skill as a clock maker (both sundials and water clocks) for political purposes. Theodoric was essentially using Boethius both as an ambassador to keep up good relations with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and as a cultural figurehead to reconcile Romans and Goths living in Italy. He made this position official in 522, when he named Boethius the Master of Offices, the highest honor Theodoric could have given him, a position which gave Boethius tremendous authority to promote his project of studying, preserving, and teaching Roman culture and expanding it with Greek learning. That same year, Theodoric further honored Boethius by making both of his sons consul of Rome. Favored by king and country alike, Boethius had become something of a celebrity – but as we know all too well today, that isn’t necessarily such a good thing.

A senator named Albinus, one of Boethius’s friends, was accused of a treasonous plot to overthrow the King and bring the Eastern emperor’s rule back to Italy. Boethius, in a misplaced but loyal act of rhetorical flourish, testified that if Albinus was guilty, then even he could be accused and so could the senate – the point being of course that such a charge was preposterous. This verbal gaffe was Boethius’s undoing. Immediately his political enemies, bitter over the obstacle he had been as consul to their agendas, came out of the woodwork and accused Boethius of treason – ironically using as evidence his role as an ambassador, which Theodoric had assigned him to, as a sign of his treason. They threw every charge at him they possibly could – they even resorted to accusing him of practicing magic, a standard charge levied against intellectuals cloistered away in libraries reading old books. Of course, Boethius thought the charge preposterous enough that we find him joking about it in The Consolation of Philosophy. In spite of his own feelings about it, though, Boethius’s commitment to Trinitarian theology, his nostalgic affection for all things Roman, and the prospective danger he posed if he should set himself against the king, as popular as he was, proved enough incentive to kindle the spark of Theodoric’s royal jealousy into an inferno. Even though he refused to confess his guilt when subjected to the torture of having a rope tied around his face to the point that his eyes are described by Roman historians as bulging out, Boethius was stripped of his political power and thrown in prison without so much as a trial.

With a single gust of political wind, Boethius went from star of the show to a cast aside political pawn. As he sat in his jail cell, reflecting on his commitment to the welfare of the very kingdom that had so unjustly treated him, upon his commitment to a supposedly loving God who had allowed him to be the victim of such obvious injustice, and especially his dedication to the liberal arts education that had fueled both of those commitments and led to this unhappy imprisonment, Boethius was thrown into a true dark night of the soul. His freedom, his political influence, his access to his family, his plans for contributing to the Roman intellectual tradition – all of it was taken away in what seemed like a stroke of bad luck. How could life be so capricious? He certainly would have been justified to simply mourn his fate in his cell, or to perhaps pen an angry invective against his wrongdoers. Instead, Boethius drew upon the worldview he had been building his whole life, and funneled the sum of his liberal arts education, his theological insights, and his political experience to write The Consolation of Philosophy, unquestionably the masterpiece of the sixth century and one of the finest pieces of literature in the period of late antiquity. To produce such a work in the face of such adversity strikes me as a life well lived.

Shortly after Boethius completed The Consolation of Philosophy, sometime in 524 or 525, he was executed by King Theodoric. Because his political fears were motivated by paranoia about a Trinitarian plot to reunite the Western and Eastern Churches, Theodoric’s killing of Boethius is often interpreted as, to some extent, an example of religious persecution. Naturally, after Boethius was killed, Theodoric’s paranoia only exploded – because after all, he had just had killed Rome’s favorite son right before Rome’s eyes, a bloody execution at thirty strokes of the sword. So he went on a rampage, taking down Boethius’s stepfather Symmachus, as well as Pope John the First, probably the person for whom Boethius had written his theological writings for. This shocked writers of the day in the East like Procopius, who had enormous respect for Boethius, and harmed relationships between Theodoric and the Eastern Byzantian empire. A year or two after Boethius died, Theodoric himself died during a massive bout of diarrhea. Perhaps he was being given the same divine affliction that killed Arius, the founder of his Arian beliefs, or more likely Theodoric’s political enemies had finally caught up with him, poisoning him to avenge people like Boethius who had died in the wake of his unhinged paranoia.

The Consolation of Philosophy thus became a favorite text for people subjected to religious or political persecution, and it also became popular with monarchs who wished to distinguish themselves as good – sort of like hey, we read Boethius, so we’re good kings – not like that Theodoric fellow! It’s a challenging text to read, all the more impressive when we consider the physically uncomfortable and mentally distressing circumstances under which Boethius wrote the Consolation, because he didn’t know at the time whether he would be imprisoned for life, exiled, or executed. Writing in the carefully trained Latin of a Roman liberal arts philosopher, Boethius designed the text as a prosimetrum, which is a piece of writing that alternates between prose and poetry. If you read The Hobbit, for example, that book is also a prosimetrum because when its characters recite poetry, the story shifts from regular prose into poetry. Boethius’s Consolation is unusual because of how strict its prosimetric style is: there are 39 passages of prose and 39 passages of poetry, one after the other. This structure is important to pay attention to because it is significant for Boethius’s understanding of literature, which is one of the things we are trying to understand this. Notice that most of the poems are dialogue, which means they are a response of a character to a situation or to another character. The first book begins with poetry; books two through four all begin in prose and end in poetry, while the fifth and final book begins and ends in prose. It’s also important to think about whose voice we are supposed to imagine when each prose or poetry section is under way, and with the poetry in particular. The Consolation is mostly a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of the subject he had studied and valued for most of his life. We begin with imagining Boethius writing a poem, and then Lady Philosophy stops him from writing and has her speak with him – although this conversation will of course actually happen in the real Boethius’s writing. She recites 35 of the other 39 poems; of the remaining three, one will be a description of the narrator telling the reader about his mental state when he first interacts with Lady Philosophy, and the other two will be Boethius’s attempts to express his distress to her as they discuss difficult concepts like political injustice and the relationship between God’s knowledge and free will.

Even though this is a philosophical text, it’s one that is highly imaginative – Lady Philosophy is a personification, which is a product of imagination, since of course philosophy is not a strikingly beautiful woman who can sing, play music, and talk about how beautiful nature is. She has a depth of personality even while she represents her intellectual namesake, and she will even create a personification of Lady Fortune. She invites Boethius to use his imagination in relationship to historical figures, philosophical concepts, and his own circumstances, and in particular seems to disapprove of the use of imagination we see in his initial poem. This means that the poetry she recites is, in a sense, poetry approved by the philosophical imagination, or another way to put it: her poetry is an example of the type of imagination which Boethius the author thinks is appropriate to being philosophical, which is why Lady Philosophy recites them to the distressed prisoner. Boethius is a master of the philosophical poetic mode, and is a cornerstone figure to contemplate how literature and philosophy can speak to each other, and so speak all the more powerfully to us. That’s why I think he deserves at least one acolyte, performing the ceremony of philosophical imagination necessary to open a window into his life and thought.

This is a partial transcript, with some alterations, of a lecture I gave on Boethius’s life and his final work, The Consolation of Philosophy. The recorded version of the lecture is here:

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