Episode 103: Boethius

In the twilight of the Western Empire, Boethius (c. 476-523) served as consul, but ended his life imprisoned by the Ostrogothic King Theodoric, writing The Consolation of Philosophy.

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Boethius, Ostrogothic Italy, and The Consolation of Philosophy

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Hello, and welcome to Literature and History. Episode 103: Boethius. This program covers the life and works of the Late Antique polymath Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, who lived from about 476 until 524 CE. In this show, we’ll first discuss Boethius’ life and times, and then explore his most famous work, On The Consolation of Philosophy, in depth. Boethius is often understood as a fulcrum between classical antiquity and the Early Middle Ages. Prolific, fluent in Greek, schooled in pagan antiquity as well as Christianity, and adept in philosophy, mathematics, music theory, Boethius wrote on many subjects and translated some of the most complex works of Plato and Aristotle into Latin for posterity. For the breadth of his achievements, he is often called “the last of the Ancients” and “the first of the [Medieval] Scholastics.”1 As a result of his abundant output, and on the strength of his most famous book, again The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius was one of the most popular authors of the Middle Ages. Just as Ovid’s Metamorphoses served as the Medieval and Renaissance sourcebook on classical mythology, Boethius’ works brought, in particular, Plato and Aristotle forward, making these philosophers central subjects of study for several centuries of Medieval philosophers.

A hinge, then, between ancient Greece and Rome one side, and the Middle Ages on the other, Boethius helped keep classical learning alive in the centuries leading up to the early Renaissance. His translations and primary works, done in pristine, articulate Latin when Greek literacy had diminished in the Central Mediterranean, were one of medieval Christianity’s main windows into pagan intellectual history. If you were a pious monk in a European scriptorium in, say, 1200 CE, Boethius provided a sort of “best-of” compendium of classical philosophy.

Boethius also asked philosophical questions universal enough to be unperturbing to later Christian readers. Boethius’ central concerns – whether order governs the world, how evil thrives under the watch of a beneficent god, how free will and fate figure into these questions, and whether knowledge brings vexation or consolation – are the cardinal questions of ancient philosophy more generally, from the Books of Job and Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament, to the dialogues of Plato and the stoics, to, centuries later, the elaborate system building Christian intellectuals like Origen and Augustine. There are virtually no philosophical ideas in Boethius, in other words, that today, we can’t find treated much more extensively and elaborately by his predecessors. Accordingly, Boethius is more frequently understood as a steward, or middle manager, or jack-of-all-trades in intellectual history than as a daring individualist. But while Boethius’ masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy, isn’t a groundbreaking advancement in intellectual history, it is a coalescence of a thousand years of philosophical history – a single dialogue that basically asks all of the important questions that hundreds and hundreds of texts before it had also asked. If, then, you were Latin speaking monk in the year 1200, and you picked up Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, written in the year 523, you wouldn’t be reading the most advanced or sophisticated philosophy from antiquity. But you would be reading a text that is absolutely representative of the main sorts of things philosophers were doing from the millennium between 500 BCE and 500 CE, and thus, as a concise compendium of ancient intellectual history, Boethius’ most famous work was supremely valuable for the medieval period.

Boethius initial consolation philosophy

An illustration from a 1385 manuscript of The Consolation of Philosophy showing Boethius teaching his students.

Earlier, I described Boethius as a hinge between the classical and medieval worlds, a description that’s common in assessments of him. He lived at a time when old doors were closing and new ones were opening. Boethius, after all, was born right around the landmark year of 476 CE, when one of Rome’s barbarian military leaders, Odoacer, deposed a child emperor with dubious claims to the throne, in a changeover that historians have most often recognized as the end of the Roman Empire in the west. And whether or not our historiographical preferences lead us to mark 476 as the definitive end of Rome as it once was, there are still compelling reasons to view Boethius as a person who saw Rome fall, and what would soon be the Middle Ages rise. Boethius was an old money Roman, a senator, and a consul with consuls for sons. Those like him had ruled the Mediterranean for seven hundred years. But Boethius also worked for a barbarian Ostrogothic king in Italy, and he was accountable to the feuding dioceses of Rome and Constantinople, and at various points in his career, Boethius had dealings with Clovis, first king of the Merovingian Franks west of the Rhine, and Gundobad, king of the Burgundians, two of the most important early monarchical dynasties in western Europe. Boethius was fluent in Greek, the great old lingua franca of the ancient world, although Greek was quickly falling out of use in Italy, but he also wrote marvelously in Latin. He was comfortable with Christianity, and equally at home with pagan history and ideology. Right after Boethius died, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I took the throne, that emperor whose law codes and bloody persecutions presaged some of the uglier junctures of medieval Catholic extremism. Boethius himself, then, and really his whole generation, were the turning point at which classical learning began its slow and graceful freefall into several centuries of relative obscurity, Greek literacy twinkled out in the west, Italian patricians finally lost their ancient hegemony over the Mediterranean, and Catholic kings and bishops, in partnerships with one another, took their places.

Boethius’ life story is a dramatic and arresting one, and central to it is a man named Theodoric. The King of the Ostrogoths, and in many ways the most successful ruler in the Mediterranean since Constantine, Theoderic’s rule dominated most of Boethius’ life. And while our main course in this program will be Boethius’ 523 CE dialogue, The Consolation of Philosophy, in order to get there, I think we should spend some time learning a bit more about the crucial half century between 475 and 525 CE – especially on the Italian peninsula. This was Boethius’ time and place. By zeroing in on it for a few minutes, we can learn about the author’s life, but also get a sense of how power and culture were shifting in what had been the epicenter of the western empire for a thousand years. [music]

Foederati and Shadow Emperors: The Twilight of Roman Italy

Over the course of the 400s CE, the western Roman Empire, seated in Ravenna, gradually surrendered territories to barbarian occupiers, whether by withdrawing Roman field armies from these regions, or by signing treaties with barbarians, or by doing both. Provinces vanished quickly. First in 407, the imperial usurper Constantine III, though his tenure was short, pulled his troops out of Britain, ending Rome’s military presence there. Following a Roman civil war anchored in Barcelona, Roman forces largely left Spain after 411. Another civil war vacuumed Roman soldiers from the African provinces in 432 to fight elsewhere, and Vandal armies, active in Africa from 429 onward, later forced Rome to recognize their control of North Africa in a treaty set down in 442. Gaul, partially ceded to Visigoths in 418, fell piecemeal into barbarian hands after this. The western empire, ever since the Visigothic invasion of 376, had been in a tailspin due to a combination of barbarian conquests and unending military coups. Historians have marked different moments for the culmination of this fall, but whatever date we choose, the century between 376 and 476 was, territorially speaking at least, definitely the end of the western empire.

As it spiraled downward, though, the empire scattered some of the seeds of later history. Roman field armies disappeared, but Romans hired foederati, or confederated foreign troops, to fight one another. In 413, the Roman emperor in Ravenna paid a force of Visigoths to fend off the assault of a Burgundian army, backed by a pair of usurper emperors. The emperor paid the same foederati forces to fight Vandals and Alans in Spain several years later, and within a couple of decades, by the 430s, imperially commissioned Hun armies were marching across Gaul. Foederati forces, during the western empire’s last century, were everywhere, but they were imperfect, stopgap solutions to Rome’s overrun provinces. While these barbarian armies solved immediate problems, they created an increasingly diffuse military structure, leveled the playing field of military technology, empowered the rise of barbarian leaders, and ultimately sowed the seeds of the monarchical dynasties that would reign long after the western empire was gone.

Bust of Valentinian III, Louvre (cropped)

A bust of Valentinian III, c. 425-450, photo by Tony Querrec. Valentinian III was the last Roman emperor to rule for any significant length of time in the western Empire, though he was overshadowed by his general Flavius Aetius.

During Rome’s final century in the west, barbarian foederati forces, commissioned by Roman emperors, were double edged swords. And so, too, were several famous generals who were so good at their jobs that they outshone the emperors under whom they supposedly worked. During the middle part of the fifth century, the general Flavius Aetius became as powerful as the emperor Valentinian III, under whom he served. Aetius was deployed to save Gaul in the late 420s, and by 433, Aetius became Rome’s most powerful military commander. Aetius, for reasons that are not entirely clear, did not prioritize curbing the Vandal presence in Africa. Nor did Aetius dispatch forces in response to pleas for help from Britain in 446, when Picts and Scots were bearing down on Roman citizens there, nor did he send armies to try and rescue Spanish provinces from being annexed by other invaders. Instead, Aetius played hardball power politics, not fretting when he fell into disfavor with the emperor Valentinian III and his mother, but instead collaborating with the Huns, themselves led by the famous general Atilla after 445. First, Aetius paid Huns to fight the Visigoths, continuing his two-decade long mission to stabilize Gaul. Then, when the Huns went berserk and began sacking Gallic cities, Aetius paid the Visigoths to fight the Huns instead. The Huns lost, but two campaign seasons later they began sawing into Northern Italy, and might have commenced a much more climactic and militarized end to Roman civilization there, were it not for their somewhat mysterious decision not to continue on past the Po Valley in 452, and then the death of Atilla in 453, after which the Hunnic empire quite quickly collapsed.2 As for Aetius, he was executed by the Roman emperor Valentinian III in 454. This emperor, astoundingly, had remained on Ravenna’s throne for thirty years. The death of Aetius had a dire outcome for the emperor, though, as, Valentinian III was assassinated by Aetius’ loyalists in the spring of 455.

Aetius and Valentinian III are one of the many general/emperor pairings of Rome’s last century. Rome needed to coordinate military activity around the clock, and a series of powerful generals variously supported, partnered with, dominated, or usurped Rome’s final emperors. The second to last of these was Aetius. And the last of all was Ricimer. Ricimer rose amidst the bungling of a new imperial regime. Valentinian III’s assassination had been arranged by an ambitious patrician named Petronius Maximus. Petronius Maximus thereafter declared himself emperor, married Valentinian III’s widow, and married his son to the former emperor’s daughter, Eudocia. The problem was, the Vandal king of North Africa, Gaiseric, had been engaged to Eudocia back in 442, and he had been waiting for her to come of age. Gaiseric and his Vandals set sail for Rome, found the city undefended, and Rome was sacked for the second time in the fifth century. The emperor Petronius Maximus, having reigned for two months, was killed trying to escape the city, having distinguished himself by badly blundering relations with an important ally at a juncture when Rome hardly had any allies at all.

For the next sputtering, chaotic fifteen years, a cauldron of fear, personal financial interest, and political scheming in Ravenna and Rome led to the empire mainly concentrating its military efforts on North Africa, but occasionally pivoting to do stuff in Gaul. Roman neglect let Spain slide further and further under Visigothic control. The emperor Majorian, on the throne from 457-61, returned from a campaign against the Vandals in defeat, hoping to get Gaiseric’s old peace treaty ratified again, as this was what the Vandal King had demanded. Majorian, instead, was killed by the general Ricimer’s assassins. Following this assassination, in late 461, a usurper rose up in northern Gaul and began negotiations with the Vandals so as to cut down the military strongman Ricimer and the latest emperor on the Italian peninsula, Severus III. These two feuding emperors were dead by 465, and two years later, the Byzantines, who had installed yet another western emperor on the throne – this one whom they liked – offered to bail out the battered Italian peninsula by sending a fleet to fight the Vandals. This expedition failed, and the Byzantine-backed emperor was executed in the summer of 472. And that last military strongman of the western empire, Ricimer, as such figures tended to, had held onto power, and was pulling strings.

It looked like no one was going to beat the Vandals, and so Ricimer himself arranged a peace treaty with them. But before diplomatic friendships could spring up and relations normalize, Ricimer, and his latest puppet emperor, both died of natural causes in late 472. Crazily, Ravenna had three more emperors leading up to 476, but by 476, there wasn’t much to be emperor of, any more. Italy was fractious, war scarred, looted, and depopulated, and the little swath of Gaul that Ravenna held didn’t look like it would be there for very long. As of 476, with the Huns gone, the Byzantines recently smacked around, and the western empire mostly fizzled out, Vandal Africa and the Visigothic kingdom in Spain and southwestern France were the real power players of the central Mediterranean. And it was this year – 476 – that Boethius was born – born into a storied Roman family, which, as he would learn at an early age, didn’t count for as much as it once had.

The history of the late empire leading up to the birth of Boethius has the feel of a broken record. Barbarian invasion, military coup, ambitious political plotting, territorial losses, and then the same, over and over again, a series of battlefield bangs and diplomatic whimpers that could not turn the Central Mediterranean’s tides. Romulus Augustulus, the son of a shored-tenured magister militum, usually gets the credit for being the final western emperor, but an equal contender is the Byzantine-backed Julius Nepos, who ran the large province of Dalmatia on the other side of the Adriatic from Ravenna until his murder in 480.

To stick with familiar historiography, though, when the barbarian foederati leader Odoacer deposed young Romulus Augustulus, Odoacer – himself of uncertain background, by the way – Odoacer went through the motions of identifying himself as a client king beneath the Byzantine Emperor Zeno. The ancient administrative operations and class structure of the old empire persisted due to its own inertia, and thus old families like Boethius’, with varying degrees of success, held onto some of their power and clout. Notwithstanding various moments of cultural antipathy across the fifth century between native Italians and barbarian immigrants, the civilization anchored on the peninsula had seen a confluence of barbarian and Roman society for more than a century, and so the ascension of Odoacer, following the de facto rule of part-barbarian generals like Stilicho and Ricimer, would have been less of a culture shock than traditional historiography might lead us to believe. In fact, let’s talk about 476 for just a moment longer. We’ve been talking about Rome for a long time in our podcast, and this, according to tradition, is its final moment. The old notion that 476 CE constituted a titanic fissure in ancient Mediterranean civilization has shaped the way that Boethius has traditionally been understood. Prior to the emergence of Late Antiquity as a discipline proper, the notion was that dusk was settling over intellectual history in the 500s and 600s, and the sciences and arts would not reemerge until the daybreak of the Renaissance in and after the fifteenth century. Back in 1953, historian Frederick Artz wrote that Boethius’ philosophical work constituted “launching [a] lifeboat from the sinking ship of Greek thought.”3 It’s a vivid description, but contemporary historians of Late Antiquity are keen to point out continuities as much as cleavages in the period. Scholar John Marenborn, in 2003, wrote that “most of [Boethius’] work – both finished and projected – should be seen more as a confident and ambitious plan to surpass previous Latin philosophers than as a desperate attempt to preserve a vanishing culture for future generations.”4 So which one is it? Did Boethius’ generation of old guard Romans on the peninsula see the coming of Odoacer’s regime as the end of the world, or just another coup that left their lives and fortunes largely unaffected?

The answer to this question is quite complicated. Late Antique historians have to navigate carefully between two approaches to the year 476 CE – on one side, the Scylla of the grim old story of a golden classical world ground to gristle by barbarians and bishops, and on the other side, the Charybdis of a revisionist yarn about Romans and barbarians holding hands and harmoniously sharing resources under the auspices of a fair-minded church. Fortunately for us, the story of Boethius’ life offers a middle passage between these two extremes, providing a case study of what one old Roman clan lost, and didn’t lose, as day broke over the 500s CE. [music]

476-488: A Tenuous Peace Under Odoacer

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born, once again, in about 476, to the Ancii family. The list of Roman Anciis extends way back into the second century BCE, and Boethius’ branch of Anciis seems to have been very prominent indeed. Edward Gibbon wrote that by the year 400, “The. . .family excelled in faith and in riches. . .that name shown with a luster which was not eclipsed, in the public estimation, by the majesty of the Imperial purple.”5 Boethius’ dad had once served as a consul, but sadly, he died when Boethius was very young. Fortunately for Boethius, he was adopted by a patrician named Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, the patriarch of an equally rich and dazzling Roman family.

Boethius and Simmachos

A medieval depiction of Boethius with his adopted father (and later father-in-law) Symmachus.

Symmachus was an interesting guy. His grandfather was a man we’ve met before – back in 384, old Quintus Aurelius Symmachus had offered an impassioned plea for returning the ancient Altar of Victory to Rome’s senate house, and he was rebuffed by Ambrose, the powerful bishop of Milan. The younger Symmachus – the one who adopted Boethius a century later, supported the Nicene religious hegemony, but he also continued his grandfather’s enthusiasm for Rome’s past centuries – its history, philosophy, and literature. With one foot in the pagan past, another in the Nicene present, and a wallet stuffed with old money riches, then, Symmachus was quite a good person to adopt a young man and nurture his intellect in the tumultuous decades of the 470s and 480s.

When Boethius was young – for the first thirteen or fourteen years of Boethius’ life – Odoacer was in charge of Italy, and many financially insulated aristocrats of his and his parents’ generation might truly have shrugged in indifference at having a barbarian as the peninsula’s king. The Byzantine Emperor Zeno, who had a bumpy tenure on the throne from 474 – 491, was still nominally the man in charge, having been made a paper tiger over Italy when Odoacer took power in 476. But Odoacer, king of the Arian Ostrogoths, controlled the Gothic military garrisoned largely up in the Po Valley, and Odoacer held actual power in Italy.6 The first thirteen years of Boethius’ childhood between 476 and 489 might have been fairly good ones for Italy’s Roman aristocrats, notwithstanding the delicate new power balance. The Arian Ostrogoths didn’t pester the Nicene Romans about their religious differences, which would have certainly ruffled some Byzantine feathers. And King Odoacer even drew some of his more prominent officers from the ranks of the Roman gentry. Some of the ancient Diocletian and Augustan bureaucracy, then, persisted, and one of Boethius’ adopted father’s responsibilities during these early years was serving as praefectus urbi, or mayor, of the city of Rome, an office that evidently persisted without a hitch through that bumpy year of 476 CE.

During the formative years of Boethius’ childhood in Rome, his education began. Latin and Greek were part of this education, as were the Latin and Greek church fathers, and the cocktail of Greek philosophy that Nicene intellectualism had by that point deemed compatible with Christianity – one part Plato, one part Aristotle, and one part Neoplatonism – altogether a bland and unthreatening system focused on a supreme One and the ascension of the individual believer from the mundane world and up to a lofty realm called the Intellect, together with a somewhat spicier garnish of Aristotelian logic. Some scholarly debate has delved into whether or not Boethius studied in Athens or Alexandria, but the limited evidence that we possess suggests it’s a bit more likely that he learned what he learned in Rome, rather than as an exchange student somewhere else.7 Perhaps envisioning himself as a latter-day Cicero, Boethius’ reading was bilingual, but his ambitions were Roman and Latin – he sought the social distinctions available on the rungs of Rome’s political ladder, and the esteem of a Latin language posterity, rather than a purely scholarly life in the rarefied and diminishing realm of the Greek speaking west.

Late in the year 488, the Roman gentry of Boethius’ world received disconcerting news. A large military force was inbound, and bent on the destruction of Odoacer’s regime. The years between 476 and 488 in Italy had involved diplomacy on all sides, with Odoacer and his Goths, the old guard Romans, and the Pope and clergy all making compromises to preserve the fragile peace. What ultimately disturbed Italy’s stability in 488 was not some outbreak of disorder endemic to the peninsula, though. What happened was that the Byzantine Emperor Zeno, not content to be a paper tiger as Odoacer gained real sovereignty in the region, unleashed a real tiger in the Central Mediterranean. His name was Theoderic, and of all the Goths we’ve met in our show, he was by far the most eminent, and the most powerful. [music]

493-526: The Reign of Theoderic

Theoderic was born in about 454, in the southern part of modern-day Austria, in those upper Balkan territories that had been the home turf of the Goths for three quarters of a century. By the year of Theoderic’s birth, Goths had served in almost every military and executive office for generations. And while they had become an indelible part of the fabric of Roman society, and large numbers of them had become naturalized into Roman culture, mutual prejudices continued to nettle relations between the late empire’s demographic subgroups.

The word “barbarian,” when applied to Theoderic, feels especially silly and anachronistic. Theoderic was certainly a full-blooded Goth, born during a heady juncture of Gothic history just after the Ostrogoths had shaken off nearly a hundred-year long domination by the Huns. But Theoderic was also a prince, and as a young prince, he traveled to Constantinople as a hostage. Aristocratic hostages in the ancient world, to those new to the period, were more like guarantors of peace than kidnapped victims in cells – if I keep your kid, and you keep mine, we’re less likely to betray one other. Theoderic, then, grew up in Constantinople, the eastern metropolis of culture and learning, acquiring much of a Roman patrician’s education. And to skip pretty quickly over the early part of Theoderic’s life, Theoderic, by that pivotal year of 476, had already had dealings with the two major Byzantine Emperors of the era, fought Gothic rivals in the upper Balkans, and, after being awarded and then losing a prominent Roman military post, learned that Roman Emperors were only to be trusted up to a point. Between 477 and 487 Theoderic directed campaigns against the Byzantine Emperor Zeno, and at the end of this tumultuous decade, he had laid siege to Constantinople. Zeno, facing the realities of a water supply cut off and ports blockaded, had to think fast on his feet. Zeno had been feeling increasingly squeamish about Odoacer over in Italy. And the oldest trick in the Roman book was to pay foes to fight each other. And so, promising Theoderic both lands and military assistance, Zeno sent Theoderic and his Ostrogoths westward to fight Odoacer and his – different – Ostrogoths.

Between 489 and 493, while Boethius went through ages 14-17, Odoacer’s forces tried to fight off those of Theoderic. Besieged in Ravenna, the defending Odoacer agreed to a truce with Theoderic, but Theoderic had no intentions of sharing power in Italy. Descriptions of Odoacer’s death vary in the ancient record, but it seems that he was assassinated at a banquet with Theoderic after the peace treaty was signed. At this juncture, Theoderic, about forty years old, was in his prime and he had outlived those who had opposed him. The Gothic chieftains whom he’d fought in the Balkans in his youth were gone. Zeno was dead, and Constantinople lay on the other side of multiple oceans. Odoacer and his ministers had been killed in their own palace. The powerful old Roman families of the peninsula were already used to deferring to an Ostrogothic king, and besides, Theoderic knew all about how to negotiate with Romans.

In the year 493 CE, then, Theoderic began his reign on the Italian peninsula. This reign could have gone many ways for Roman patricians like Boethius, the most likely of which, if recent history was any indication, being that it wouldn’t last very long. But instead, Theoderic ruled for 33 years, expanding Ostrogothic territory and allied territories through a remarkable series of farsighted diplomatic maneuvers and military campaigns. Theoderic, by the early 420s, had either recovered, or normalized relations with broad expanses of former Roman territories in the western Balkans, Gaul, North Africa, and much of the Iberian Peninsula. Domestically, Theoderic’s building programs and careful treatment of Roman citizens kept the Byzantine Empire satisfied. At the height of his power, Theoderic was the boss of a swathe of territory from the Atlantic to the Adriatic and down to the North African coast. His relationship with the Byzantine Empire was sometimes tense. After all, Theoderic had been dispatched as an expedient to get rid of a similar Ostrogothic king who had become a bit too powerful for Byzantine tastes, after which Theoderic became more powerful than Odoacer had ever been.

However squeamish the Byzantines felt about Theoderic, again on the throne from 493-526, life on the Italian peninsula for old Roman families seems to have been mostly bearable during his reign. Italian cities, especially in the north, saw an immense repair and refurbishment program, and Rome and Ravenna in particular enjoyed major building projects. On top of all of that, as it lengthened, the stability of Theoderic’s long reign benefited almost everyone.

Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?) (French, active about 1450 - 1485) - Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel - Google Art Project

The Coëtivy Master’s Philosophy Consoling Boethius and Fortune Turning the Wheel (c. 1460-70). The wheel of fortune makes an extended appearance in Boethius’ Consolation, and he certainly lived to see many rises and falls.

Boethius himself thrived. Rather than throwing himself into the maelstrom of Ravenna’s politics, Boethius remained in Rome, living a life of comparative relaxation and enjoying relations with an educated elite still fluent in Greek. Around the year 495, Boethius married his adopted father Symmachus’ daughter, Rusticiana. By 510, he had become a consul, and the father of two sons, and had for some time been working with Theoderic. One of Boethius’ colleagues was the Roman scholar and statesman Cassiodorus, who kept a collection of King Theoderic’s correspondence. Cassiodorus’ surviving works are today generally understood to be self-censored – in other words, he was working underneath a powerful regime and had to make that regime look good. Nonetheless, Cassiodorus, also a curator of classical learning like Boethius, is one of our best sources on the subject of Theoderic’s long reign. From three of Theoderic’s letters, which come down to us via Cassiodorus, we learn about some of the ways that Theodoric made use of Boethius. In the first of them (I.10), Theoderic dispatched Boethius to deal with a military complaint – foot soldiers and cavalrymen were grumbling about being paid with debased currency. The king, knowing that Boethius was no stranger to mathematics, dispatched Boethius to deal with the problem. In another surviving letter, Theoderic assigned Boethius a different task. Theoderic wanted to give the King of the Burgundians a clepsydra, or water clock. And if we trust the statesman Cassiodorus’ records, King Theoderic wrote something like this to Boethius on the subject of getting the Burgundian king a water clock.

It will be a great gain to us that the Burgundians should daily look upon something sent by us which will appear to them little short of miraculous. Exert yourself therefore, oh [Boethius], to get this thing put in hand. You have thoroughly imbued yourself with Greek philosophy. You have translated Pythagoras the musician, Euclid the geometer, Plato the theologian, Aristotle the logician, and have given back the mechanician Archimedes to his own Sicilian countrymen (who now speak Latin). You know the whole science of mathematics, and the marvels wrought thereby.8

That letter – again possibly from Theoderic to Boethius, exhibits some pretty florid prose, and certainly defers to Boethius’ expertise. Theoderic was an educated person, and so he may well have understood the scope of Boethius’ learning and written ornate prose in this vein. And another letter Theoderic wrote to Boethius is of the same sort. Theoderic had learned that his colleague Clovis, King of the Franks, wanted a court musician – specifically, a harper. Theoderic, knowing that Boethius was schooled in music and music theory, assigned Boethius to the task of tracking down a musician for the other king. Theoderic wrote, “The King of the Franks has asked us to send him a harper. We felt that in you [, Boethius,] lay our best chance of complying with his request, because you, being such a lover of music yourself, will be able to introduce us to the right man.”9 It’s another gracious, complimentary letter, again bowing to Boethius’ expertise on certain subjects.

Cassiodorus’ state records, again, may be pretty carefully curated and self-censored. The real Theoderic may have delegated his correspondence, and may not have genuflected to his subordinates to the extent to which we see in Cassiodorus’ flowery epistles. Those details aside, though, what we can learn from this business correspondence is that Theoderic counted on competent Romans to take care of important diplomatic and domestic projects for him, and that he respected the technological, intellectual, and cultural achievements of Greek and Roman culture. As granular and minor as they might seem, Cassiodorus’ letters show us a prominent example of a barbarian king working with a Roman patrician. Far from being a bewildered warlord, barking ineffectual orders at the old Roman hegemony, Theoderic comes across as respectful, well-informed, and completely in control – a person more interested in repurposing everything at his disposal than a barbarian bull in a Roman China shop.

There was one part of ruling the Ostrogothic Kingdom, however, that proved quite thorny to Theoderic, and this was that he and the Ostrogoths were Arian Christians, and the Romans on the peninsula were generally Nicene Christians. Nicene Christians had been sparring with Arians for two hundred years, the Nicenes having a Trinitarian view of the Christian deity, and the Arians believing that Christ was lesser than, younger than, and subordinate to Yahweh. As to Theoderic’s actual faith, we are uncertain, but he seems to have been aware that the theological differences between Ostrogoths and Romans were exacerbating their cultural differences. As historian Henry Chadwick writes, “As a Goth [Theoderic] was an Arian king presiding over a self-consciously separate race whom he wished to keep apart from the Romans especially by enforcing a religious apartheid.”10 However tricky it was to keep peace between the Nicene Romans and Arian Ostrogoths, Theoderic seems to have been adept at it. Several records from his reign record actions that were considerate and even deferential to Nicene leadership.

While Italy was thus tactically subdivided into Ostrogothic oil and Roman water, the relationship between Italy and Constantinople was also touchy. From the beginning of the 300s onward, Italy and Constantinople had always dealt carefully with one another, and by 500 CE, ethnic and religious differences in leadership were further complicating what had already been an increasingly uneasy alliance. Exacerbating tensions even further was an ecclesiastical controversy known as the Acacian Schism. This controversy is named after Patriarch Acacius, the head of Constantinople’s churches. The Acacian Schism stretched from 484 until 519 CE – more or less the entire reign of Theoderic – and it was ostensibly rooted in a Christological debate – a debate about the exact nature of Christ. As we’ve learned in our season on Late Antiquity, every half century or so, Christian bishops and theologians would choose sides on some debate about Christology – this had been the case from the early second century onward. The Christological debates were genuine and impassioned, rather than academic exercises, and by 484, when the Acacian Schism began, three ecumenical councils had already gone into resolving them, not to mention countless surviving and lost tracts in which churchmen variously berated one another as heretics. What happened during the Acacian Schism of 484-519 – this latest Christological schism that Boethius and Theoderic lived through – was that Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople seems to have endorsed a view of Jesus’ nature that was very slightly out of step with the words of the Nicene Creed. A recent ecumenical council had described Christ as one person with two natures – divine and human. Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople, however, endorsing a view called Miaphysitism, had described Christ as a person whose fully divine and fully human components made a single nature.

To us today, the theological differences between the two groups at the opposite ends of this 35-year schism seem pretty minor – a matter of semantics. In the Acacian schism, as in other Christian theological rifts from Late Antiquity, Christological debates could be proxies for broader culture wars between different regions and ethnic groups. At the height of the Acacian schism, Pope Felix III of Rome excommunicated the Patriarch Acacius of Constantinople, who in turn removed the Pope’s name from the city’s sacred diptychs. The fissure between east and west wasn’t healed until 519, when most of those who had engendered it were dead or retired.

So, now we’ve reviewed some of the historical background of Boethius and his world. Boethius lived in a cautious, thorny place and time. Constantinople was the official entity in charge of the region. But a muscular Ostrogothic regime, tactful in its dealings with both the Latin west and Greek east, held the military and regal power there. Romans on the peninsula also had real power – power which included money, skills, connections, and the papacy, even though they were no longer fielding armies against anyone. With the Byzantines flirting with Miaphysitism, the Goths being Arians, and the Romans staunch Nicenes, there were theological wrinkles between these three groups, too. Each of the three groups had real cause for animosity with the others, and in turn, each of the three groups had reasons to try and preserve stability with the others. For most of Boethius’ life, the need for stability overpowered the intrinsically fractious nature of the three groups. Eventually, though, Boethius fell into one of the rifts between east and west. The story of how this happened will take us to the close of his biography, and, and help us understand the roots of his most famous book, The Consolation of Philosophy. [music]

528-523: Theoderic’s Years of Crisis and Boethius’ Misstep

Boethius, at about the age of 34 in the year 510, served out a term of consul, that ancient republican office that actually persisted past the death of the empire. While for much of Boethius’ career, he seems to have avoided the rough and tumble of the court in Ravenna, his 30s and 40s drew him further and further into the dangerous triptych of Ostrogothic, Byzantine, and Roman politics. Boethius writes in The Consolation of Philosophy that he entered politics because everyone urged him to, and because he believed Plato’s maxims that the philosophically educated ought to wield political power.11 Eventually, Boethius came to hold the office of the magister officiorum. The magister officiorum, or literally “master of offices,” came into existence in the early fourth century, when emperors like Diocletian and Constantine were trying to build out a bureaucracy that made ruling the empire more manageable. Initially, the office was in charge of the imperial palace guard, and also managed a great deal of the emperor’s paperwork and correspondence.

The office of the magister officiorum grew in functionality and renown over the 300s and 400s, such that when Boethius assumed the office some time in the early 520s, his responsibilities would have included much of the daily grind of managing the Ostrogothic throne’s international relations. Boethius, in his mid-40s by this point, had two adult sons, who in 522 held simultaneous consulships, and he was at the summit of his success and notoriety. With a shelf of completed original works and translations, impeccable aristocratic breeding and a strong partnership with the Italian king, Boethius was standing tall in the year 522. His political clout was evidently robust enough for him to oppose Ostrogothic power players, because in the Consolation, Boethius records standing up against prominent Ostrogothic officers who were swindling the poor of Italy and committing other crimes, and opposing the praetorian prefect on a matter of price fixing that would have been severely disadvantageous to farmers in the region of Campania.12

While Boethius was advocating for the rights of the old Roman citizenry of Italy, King Theoderic faced a multipart catastrophe between 522 and 523. Within this span of years, to the north, one of Theoderic’s sons-in-law killed Theoderic’s half Burgundian and half Ostrogoth grandson, throwing the relationship between the two kingdoms into disarray. In the west, Theoderic’s Visigothic son-in-law died, severing the dynastic connection between the Ostrogoths and their Gothic counterparts in Spain. To the east, things were growing very tense with the Byzantine Empire. Theoderic had long enjoyed a marriage of convenience with the Byzantine Emperor Anastasius I, who ruled from 491-518, his long reign nearly contemporary with Theoderic’s. Anastasius was a civil servant who came to the throne at age 61, and so unlike all of the usurper emperors of the period, and the youngsters to whom they bequeathed their thrones, Anastasius had a solid idea of how to govern, and he left the Byzantine Empire stable and flush with cash when he died.

Anastasius’ successor was the Byzantine emperor Justin I, not to be confused with his more famous nephew, Justinian I. When Justin I came to the throne in 518, Theoderic the Ostrogoth faced two immediate problems. One was that Justin I was a solid Nicene Christian, and his ascension marked the end of the old Acacian Schism. The Acacian Schism had kept the highest church offices of Constantinople and Rome at odds with one another for nearly three decades, and so when it was over, the Byzantine and Roman churches solidified with one another once more, leaving the Arian Theoderic decidedly on the outside. The second problem King Theoderic faced with the ascension of the Byzantine Emperor Justin I in 518 was the imperialistic ambitions that the Justinian dynasty would ultimately have in the west. Theoderic’s aforementioned fallouts with the Burgundians, and then the Visigoths, together with another fallout with the Vandals that would happen in 526, all showed Theoderic’s power weakening in the Central Mediterranean. The future Emperor Justinian I smelled blood in the Central Mediterranean water, and Theoderic, nearing the age of 70 around the year 522, and seeing his diplomatic partnerships with Visigoths and Burgundians cleaved so suddenly, must have felt quite wary about Constantinople’s resurgent ecclesiastical unity with the west, and the rumbles of imperialist expansion from its new regime.

It was in this complex political climate that Boethius made a misstep with Theoderic, the misstep that led to Boethius’ imprisonment and death. The details of what happened are somewhat murky, due to the partisan nature of the chroniclers, including Boethius himself, but it seems that in Italy, several years into the new Byzantine regime, there were Roman nativists who saw the Justinian dynasty as an opportunity to advance their interests. These Roman nativists saw Theoderic’s great barbarian coalition start to unravel, and in the year 523, Italian Roman nationalists were corresponding with Byzantine counterparts to envision what Italy might look like without an Ostrogothic ruling regime. Boethius, at this juncture still serving as the magister officiorum, was dragged into these dangerous political currents when a court official named Cyprianus leveled accusations of treason at one of Boethius’ colleagues. The colleague, a former consul named Albinus, had allegedly been engaged in a conspiratorial correspondence with the Byzantine Emperor, which, to the newly insecure Theoderic, would have sounded like a severe transgression indeed. For his part, Boethius, again in 523, flew to the defense of the accused Albinus. Seeking, in his own words, the safety of the Roman senate, Boethius, in a later chronicle, is alleged to have said, “The charge of Cyprianus is false, but if Albinus did that, so also have I and the whole senate with one accord done it; it is false, my Lord King.”13

The defense backfired. Witnesses were produced. Actual letters – spurious ones, according to Boethius himself, were brought to the King Theoderic.14 And when we read Boethius’ own account of the episode, we receive quite a negative impression of Ostrogothic rule on the Italian peninsula. Boethius writes that over the course of his career as a public servant,
I found myself inevitably opposing the plans of selfish and unprincipled men. . .Who was the voice of the victims whenever the rapacious barbarians brought their trumped-up charges against them? And every time I did this, I knew what the dangers were, and I did the right thing anyway, despite the threats of the wicked or their offers of bribes. I was never tempted. And when the great provincial families were ruined by avaricious individuals and corrupt officials who together were robbing them blind, I felt their distress as much as any of the victims and raised my voice to protest their sufferings. (I.4)15
It is certainly a resonant self-defense, and it suggests that when Boethius implicated himself with his colleague Albinus, he may have simply been at the point where he had exhausted his capacity for cooperating with greedy Ostrogothic overlords. In turn, Theoderic’s newly fragile political position, as of 523, made him perhaps less tolerant than usual of Roman patricians trumpeting solidarity with one another. Boethius was put on house arrest, and while incarcerated, between 523 and his execution in 524, he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy.

Now, before we open to Book 1 of The Consolation of Philosophy, let me give you some background about the structure of this famous text. It is a pretty short work – around a hundred pages in most modern translations – which was surely a part of its enduring appeal. The Consolation is subdivided into five parts. If you had it on your desk, and flipped through it, you would see sections of poetry, and sections of prose, and they usually correspond with one another, a poetic section introducing, or meditating on a prose section. The prose sections are long and often detailed dialogues between Boethius and Philosophy, Philosophy personified as a goddess there to console the speaker Boethius, hence the work’s title, The Consolation of Philosophy. The poetic sections that frame these prose sections often show either Boethius or Philosophy, in verse, recapitulating, underscoring, or introducing something in discussion. The effect produced is both literary and philosophical, as the poetic sections create sustained meditations on subjects, and the prose sections allow for more technical and detailed philosophical discussions. Unless otherwise noted, I’ll be quoting from the Richard Green translation, published in a Norton Critical Edition in 2010. So, let’s take a good long look at one of the most beloved books of Late Antiquity, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, written in about 523 CE during the troubled late afternoon of Ostrogothic Italy. [music]

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 1

Here’s the opening paragraph of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. This is again from the Norton Richard Green translation. Boethius begins his book by writing,
I who once wrote songs with keen delight am now by sorrow driven to take up melancholy measures. Wounded Muses tell me what I must write, and elegiac verses bathe my face with real tears. Not even terror could drive from me these faithful companions of my long journey. Poetry, which was once the glory of my happy and flourishing youth, is still my comfort in this misery of my old age.16
Boethius writes that he looks worn and haggard, and that Fortune, who favored him with specious gifts, has left him to suffer among his doleful muses.

In the midst of his contemplations, though, Boethius saw a woman. She had flashing, bright eyes, and was enormous in height and ancient in appearance. Embroidered on the upper part of her robe was the Greek later Θ, standing for “Theory.” On the lower part of her robe was embroidered Π, standing for “Practice,” the symbolism of these letters revealing Platonic and Boethian philosophy’s preference for theory over practice. The giant woman, who is the personification of philosophy as a discipline, told Boethius to get rid of the muses currently consoling him, telling Boethius, “Who let these whores from the theater come to the bedside of this sick man?. . .They kill the fruitful harvest of reason with the sterile thorns of the passions” (I.1).


Mattia Preti’s Boethius and Philosophy (1680).

The giant woman with the bright eyes commented on just how dulled and downtrodden Boethius looked. He had once, she said, delved deeply into the roots and causes of things and investigated the mysteries of nature. She promised to help him, and she dried his eyes with her robe. And suddenly, he could see again, and he recognized her as “Philosophy, my nurse, in whose house I had lived from my youth” (I.3). Philosophy comforted Boethius, telling him that she had come to the solace of many philosophers in their hour of need, including Socrates and Seneca, who had suffered similar incarcerations by unsympathetic regimes. In a line that could have come from stoicism or a New Testament epistle, Philosophy told Boethius that “The serene man who has ordered his life stands above menacing fate and unflinchingly faces good and bad fortune. This virtuous man can hold up his head unconquered” (I.4). Noticing, then, that her assurances had not really cheered up the devastated Boethius, Philosophy asked him why he still appeared so sad.

Boethius explained himself, offering his version of the long backstory we covered earlier. His central question was how he, who had only tried to do good in Italy and bolster the fortunes of the downtrodden, could be destined to meet such a dreadful end, or connectedly, and in more familiar terms, “If there is a God, why is there evil?” (I.4). Boethius’ political opponents, he complained, had mistaken his completely munificent and wise conduct as ambition. Boethius, not admitting to a single mistake or miscalculation, described himself as “stripped of my possessions and honors, my reputation ruined, punished because I tried to do good” (I.4). And the gist of the fairly long autobiographical disclosure that Boethius offered Philosophy here in Book 1 was that while the innocent were ground underfoot, and the wicked celebrated their triumphs with impunity.

Then, Boethius voiced a petition to the creator. Praising God’s sovereignty and majesty over the smallest details of the world, Boethius remarked, “Human acts alone, O Ruler of All, You refuse to restrain within just bounds. Why should uncertain Fortune control our lives?” (I.5). Now, this is an important distinction. The rota fortunae, or wheel of fortune, was an old idea in Latin literary culture. The Roman tragedian Pacuvius, a contemporary of Plautus, some time in the 100s BCE had written of Fortune as a female figure astride a capriciously tumbling stone. By the 100s CE, the metaphor of the wheel of fortune is deployed in the pages of the Roman historian Tacitus and astronomer Vettius Valens as an image for the vagaries of fate. The wheel of fortune later became, through Boethius, one of the most popular metaphors of the Middle Ages, this old piece of pagan shorthand invaluable for complaining about the cruel arbitrariness of fate in a universe allegedly regulated by a kindly deity.

To return to the story, Philosophy offered Boethius a long reply, telling him that she and others certainly understood that the charges brought against him had been false. She encouraged Boethius to take heart, and to remember that philosophy had always been his mental safe harbor. And then, Boethius and Philosophy began his consolation in earnest. Beginning with a series of questions, Philosophy deduced that Boethius had lost sight of something, and she said that once she rekindled a certain awareness that he had once had, he would be lifted out of his despair. Now earlier, I mentioned that the Consolation alternates between prose and poetry. Let’s hear one of the poetic sections – this is the David Slavitt translation, published in 2008 by Harvard University Press, and this translation renders the poetic sections of the Consolation into verse. The goddess Philosophy tells Boethius at the close of Book 1:
The darkness of clouds
hides the stars.
The clear-glass sea
whipped by the wind
becomes opaque,
a wall of waves
with the mud stirred up
that blackens it further.
A crystal brook
encountering rocks
from the heights above
can be stopped in its bed.
Your mind is likewise
clouded and blocked.
But the right road
awaits you still.
Cast out your doubts
your fears and desires,
let go of grief
and of hope as well,
for where these rule
the mind is their subject.17

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 2

Fortune’s gifts, Philosophy told Boethius, were arbitrary and insubstantial. What was constant about the goddess Fortune was her utter unreliability, and thus she had not betrayed Boethius at all, but instead stayed strictly in character. Philosophy said Boethius ought to be happy, because now he had seen Fortune’s fickleness through direct experience, and in doing so, had become wiser. In a long explanation of what Fortune is and what Fortune does, lady Philosophy quoted Fortune as saying “Here is the source of my power, the game I always play: I spin my wheel and find pleasure in raising the low to a high place and lowering those who were on top” (II.3). Summarizing, then, Philosophy tells Boethius in the Slavitt verse translation, “The beauty of earth changes. / Enjoy it but never think to trust it. / As with the fleeting pleasures / of men, a stern law decrees that nothing in life lasts” (2.3).18

Boethius said he understood her point, but that his memories of joy nonetheless caused him pain. The goddess Philosophy told Boethius to take heart, as his father-in-law Symmachus was still doing fine, as were Boethius’ two sons. Even more so, though, Boethius had sovereignty over himself, and nothing could take that away. Philosophy, observing that she’d perhaps struck a chord with her listener, then went on to decry the many vain things that human beings pursued during their time on earth. Money, she said, was a gross thing to have and hoard, as possessing it made one disliked, and deprived others of resources. Jewels were lifeless and dull compared to the living nature of humans. Clothing and servants were specious in their attractiveness. Philosophy summarized that “Those who have much, need much; and, on the contrary, those who limit their possessions to their natural needs, rather than to their excessive ambitions, need very little” (2.5). In a passage that could have come from Rousseau or Thoreau, or Cato the Elder or Seneca, Philosophy envisioned a state of nature in earlier times when humans lived simpler lives, munching acorns and sleeping in the grass, strangers to war and the ambitions that accompany material possessions.

Changing subjects slightly, Philosophy moved on to the topic of the formal distinctions of honor and prestige – ranks and titles that people held. These, too, she said, were meaningless, as impressive sounding offices were made so by the qualities of those who held them, rather than the conferral of an office somehow bringing merits to the holder. The Roman emperor Nero, Philosophy said, offering evidence of her point, had held all of the highest titles, but he was a scumbag.


A medieval illustration, c. 1380, of Boethius.

Moving on, Philosophy told Boethius that Boethius really only occupied a tiny place in the vast universe. Rome itself had never gone much east of Parthia, and so Boethius could hardly expect his own notoriety to spread very widely, and besides, “since the customs and institutions of the different nations differ so much, what is praised by some may be condemned by others” (2.7). Further, Philosophy said, even if he preserved his ideas in writing, manuscripts decayed over the centuries, and besides, the praises of contemporaries as well as posterity were insignificant. Making a mash-up of Platonism, stoicism and Christianity, Philosophy asked Boethius, “if the soul, in full awareness of its virtue, is freed from this earthly prison and goes to heaven, does it not disregard all earthly concerns and, in the enjoyment of heaven, find its satisfaction in being separated by earthly things?” (31).

Coming to the conclusion of her long speech, which takes up the bulk of Book 2, Philosophy then went on to offer backhanded praise to the capricious goddess called Fortune, and Fortune’s infamous wheel. Philosophy proclaimed that when Fortune revoked her favors, she did people a kindness by offering them a palpable example of just how arbitrary material possessions and earthly distinctions were. Misfortunes not only did all of this – they also allowed the downtrodden to see who their real friends were – those who stuck with them through adversity, thereby giving in true friendship what was lost in gold and general notoriety. [music]

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 3

Boethius, at the end of the goddess Philosophy’s long speech, admitted that he was feeling a bit better. Philosophy, in turn, pressed onward, promising to teach him the goal of true happiness. Repeating earlier ideas, she said that wealth, esteem, power, fame, and the frantic trading of these things for one another were false paths toward happiness, which, hard as it was to find, was certainly what every person sought. People became lost in the search for worldly pleasures, Philosophy said. But there was still hope. Just as captive lions recalled their primal nature, and caged birds sang and yearned for the forest – just as a tree bent down by a strong storm could spring back heavenward once again, humans could remember what brought them lasting happiness if they followed their true nature. And with this opening assurance, Philosophy began asking Boethius questions.

Had Boethius, she asked, in spite of his great wealth, ever been free from worry? No, he said, he had not. She led him to admit that he’d always wanted more things, or had things he hadn’t wanted, and hearing this, the goddess Philosophy said that wealth was no proper path toward happiness. Besides, wealthy people still had the same fundamental physiological needs – the needs were merely palliated by money. She asked him what he thought of prominent officeholders, and Boethius concurred that important posts and positions were staffed with all manner of people, good and bad, and that virtue existed independently of worldly notoriety. Returning to an idea she’d covered earlier, Philosophy added that Roman positions of distinction were meaningless abroad, too. Even domestically, she said, Rome’s old governmental offices had evolved, such that offices like praetor no longer had any significant role to play.

A manuscript page from Ghent, done in 1485, showing Boethius with lady Philosophy.

As for power, said Philosophy, going back into a monologue, it had let people down as powerful as the Emperor Nero and his ultra-rich tutor Seneca. And as for fame, it, too, was transient and limited – limited by space as well as time. Bodily pleasures were also false comforts on one’s path through life, and even a spouse and children brought much anxiety and strife. Summarizing her long admonition of humankind’s searches for wealth, professional distinction, fame, and bodily pleasure, Philosophy said, “these limited goods, which cannot achieve what they promise, and are not perfect in embracing all that is good, are not man’s path to happiness, nor can they make him happy in themselves” (3.8).

Having thoroughly worked to disprove the spuriousness of these false paths to happiness, Philosophy then engaged Boethius in a Socratic dialogue about the nature of self-sufficient satisfaction. The gist of the discussion was that a person who required nothing had no need of power, and was thus powerful. In quite a bold leap in logic, Philosophy and Boethius together deduced that the self-sufficient, and therefore powerful person was also held in esteem and fame, and – also – was happy. Philosophy concluded that “it must be granted that, although the names of [self-] sufficiency, power, fame, reverence, and joy are different, in substance all are one and the same thing” (3.9). The thinking here, while conceptually vague and lumpy in execution, is that happiness and all of its corollaries are rooted in self-sufficiency, whereas the pursuit of wealth, power, fame, and pleasure is a frantic house of cards.

The question remained, though: what was the ultimate source of the self-sufficient person’s confident equipoise? Philosophy told Boethius that indeed, as he suspected, the source was God. A poem follows this revelation in Book 3, in which philosophy sings the praises of a deity like the stoic logos – one that had been safe territory for Christian Platonists for four hundred years before Boethius came along.19 It was absolutely clear, Philosophy and Boethius agreed, that because transient happiness was available on earth, there must be a permanent and enduring happiness, too. This happiness came from the goodness of God. Boethius’ God is described as the origin point of all perfection and goodness, and the wellspring of all human happiness. And Philosophy concluded that “I have. . .proved that the things which most people want are not the true and perfect good since they differ from one another. . .But I have also shown that they become the true good when they are gathered together. . .so that sufficiency becomes the same as power, honor, fame, and pleasure” (3.11).

Then, pressing onward, Philosophy contended that all living things – animals, plants, even those that persevered through tough conditions were given, by divine providence, their desire to live and preserve themselves. This desire was part of the oneness of God, and Philosophy, offering Boethius a syllogism piled on top of countless others, told him that “whatever seeks to exist and endure also desires to be the one; for without unity existence itself cannot be sustained” (3.11). Here, by the way, Boethius is stealing a concept from the Neoplatonist philosophy Plotinus, whose ideas had already proved appealing to previous generations of intellectually adventurous Christians. This concept is the One, a monist notion that an unchanging and transcendent being or substance enfolds the universe and all of us – Plotinus, back in the 200s, had written that within this fabled One is “The Good, which lies beyond, [and] the Fountain at once and Principle of beauty.”20 That’s Plotinus on the subject of this fabled One. Boethius, in the Consolation, marveled that “this world could never have achieved its unity of form from such different and contrary parts unless there were One who could bring together such diverse things” (3.12). Philosophy seized at the opportunity to press Boethius into further conclusions. Boethius had already admitted that a single, undeniable God, or One, was the hub of the universe and origin of providence within it. She asked him if it were possible for anything in the universe to deny God’s slowly unrolling plans, and Boethius said of course this wasn’t possible. Philosophy went on to say that evil did not exist at all, because God, or the One, was the fountainhead of all reality, and was only capable of emanating goodness and beauty.

And then, in The Consolation of Philosophy, something unexpected happens. Boethius suddenly shows some teeth. Up to this point, and we’re about halfway through, the conversation has moved blandly along, with Boethius himself serving as the docile Socratic foil and Philosophy going on and on with her highfalutin but vague talk about the good, and God, and the One. Abruptly, though, toward the end of Book 3, Boethius says this, in the Harvard Slavitt translation:
Is that a serious statement, or are you playing logical games with me?. . .It’s a labyrinth, and you manage to go where you are going to come out, or you go out where you came in. . .A while ago, you said that happiness was the highest good, and you placed that in God, and argued that God was the highest good and complete happiness, and where we came out was that no one could be happy unless he was also a god. Then we talked about the substance of God and of happiness and we worked it out that unity was the same thing as the good, which was what the entire natural world aspired to. And you argued that God ruled the universe with the tiller of goodness, and that all things voluntarily obeyed him. And then we get to the place where evil doesn’t exist? This involves no external proofs and demonstrations but is internally consistent with arguments each one of which validates the others. (3.12)21
Philosophy, undaunted by this devastating criticism, said vaguely that Plato had been confident that language was good enough for philosophical discourse. Then, in a poem, Philosophy offered Boethius a trio of myths about the hubris of those who challenged the gods. And this, a turning point of sorts, takes us to Book 4. [music]

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 4

Boethius, no longer quite so willing to play meek Socratic foil to Philosophy, once again confronted her with the crux of all of his questions. The virtuous had nothing to show for their ethical conduct, and meanwhile the unethical were flourishing. He could not get over the palpable truths of the world around him. And in response, Philosophy rolled out another fusillade of syllogistic arguments.

The good, Philosophy said, always had power, because they had self-sufficiency, as per their earlier discussion. And if the good were powerful, then, necessarily (at least according to Lady Philosophy), the evil were weak. While both the good and the evil tried to attain happiness, the good had the only viable path toward happiness. Because happiness and goodness, she said, were the same thing. Therefore, evil pursued happiness, not knowing that happiness was the same as goodness, and evil’s pursuit of happiness was a confused, unnatural, and ultimately powerless exercise. Taking her deductions several steps further, Philosophy told Boethius that evil men not only pursued happiness in a misguided fashion. Philosophy told Boethius that in doing so, evil men contradicted the very nature of their existence, and were therefore not men at all, and thus evil men could not, and did not exist, since they had failed to be men at all.

Now, Philosophy, to many of us reading at this point in Book 4, was already out on quite a long limb, and Boethius, notwithstanding his previous outburst, had resumed his complacent approval of Philosophy’s argumentative meanderings. Philosophy, having made the gutsy claim that evil men did not exist, then advanced the following idea. She told Boethius, “all good men are happy by the very fact that they are good. . .Therefore, the reward of good men, which time cannot lessen, nor power diminish, nor the wickedness of any man tarnish, is to become gods” (4.3). The claim is somewhat out of the blue. Plato had alleged in the tenth book of the Republic that breaking the wheel of reincarnation meant that humans could join the gods, and Plotinus that goodness meant joining with the One. But rather than explaining how the humdrum actions of a virtuous life actually elevated one to godhood, Philosophy quickly returned to the subject of wicked men, arguing that their depravity made them more akin to animals than humans. The greatest good that they attained was often in suffering punishment, because abstractly speaking, evil suffering punishment was a good thing, and therefore the suffering evil got to experience an emanation of the universe’s ultimate justice and goodness. Philosophy went further, saying that the unpunished evil were, by extension, more miserable than the punished evil, and that the wicked did more evil to themselves than their victims when committing an evil act.

This was a lot for Boethius to listen to. He told Philosophy, once again pushing back a bit, that he found her reasoning to be somewhat simplistic. Every person’s fortune doled out both good and evil, and no one wanted to be deprived of the basic comforts of life. People were wiser, and happier when societies were set up such that the wellbeing of the governors and the governed were tied together, and when a justice system was set up that doled out justice. He said that considering the moral mess of the world, “I would be less surprised if I could believe that all things happened as the result of accidental chance” (4.5). But even after all Philosophy had said, Boethius was still puzzled. Since the earthly fortunes of both good and evil seemed to have no rhyme or reason to them, why shouldn’t he conclude that a general randomness governed the events of the universe, rather than a benevolent deity?

This gave Philosophy a pause. She told Boethius “in a world ruled by a good Governor all things do happen justly” (4.5), and then decided to continue with this angle of approach. The universe, she said, and everything in it – nature, the generation and flux of the insentient and sentient – all of it was propelled by Providence, and Providence came from God. Providence brought things into existence and set them into motion, but then, a secondary power came into play. This secondary power’s name was Fate. According to Philosophy, “Providence is the unfolding of temporal events as this is present to the vision of the divine mind; but this same unfolding of events as it is worked out in time is called Fate” (4.6). Philosophy’s argument here – and listen closely because this is a little bit complicated – Philosophy’s argument was that while Providence was the outward emanation of God’s agenda, radiating across all time, Fate was a sort of secondary layer of dispersions and collisions within specific timeframes. And while all of that sounds impressive and borrows from Augustinian theology that we’ve read together in our show, Philosophy only deploys it to make a rather predictable argumentative maneuver: “even though things may seem confused and discordant to you, because you cannot discern the order that governs them, nevertheless everything is governed by its own proper order directing all things toward the good. . .is human judgment so infallible that those who are thought to be good and evil are necessarily what they seem to be?. . .it is not fitting for men to understand intellectually or to explain verbally all the dispositions of the divine work” (4.6). And following quite a drawn out soliloquy in which Philosophy continued to contest that God works in mysterious ways, etc. etc., she told Boethius that any fortunes that confronted the good, or the evil, whether those fortunes were positive or negative in nature, were still a part of the issuance of God’s vast providence, regardless of how such fortunes were understood by those who apprehended them with the limited perspectives of mortals. [music]

The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 5

The final book of Boethius’ consolation begins with a question. Boethius wanted to know – what about random chance? Didn’t that happen from time to time? And Philosophy replied. Nope, she said. Citing Aristotelian ideas, Philosophy said that all happenings came from long chains of causality, wherein sometimes unforeseen collisions of intention intersected with one another, though such collisions all sprang from non-random causal origins.

Boethius imprisoned in a 1385 manuscript of On the Consolation of Philosophy.

Now, you’ve probably intuited while listening to this summary of Boethius’ famous book that it’s a sort of greatest hits collection of ancient Mediterranean philosophical subjects – the problem of evil, the tribulations of the virtuous man, the callus arbitrariness of fortune, and so on. Boethius, having explored all of these topics, now moves on to the subject of the freedom of the will. Philosophy, after all, has just drawn a picture of a thoroughly deterministic universe in which we float in causal updrafts which ultimately come from the volcanic pulses of divine Providence. Do we, Boethius wants to know, even get to determine what we do, or is everything predestined?

The goddess Philosophy, hearing the question, immediately and without qualification replied that yes, we have free will, and free will is part of the conscious experience of all rational beings. Only, Philosophy adds, good people have more free will, because they are raveled up in contemplations of the divine mind, and evil people have less free will, because they are shackled more to the material world and their corporeal natures.

Boethius wasn’t entirely at peace with this explanation. If God had thorough control over, and foreknowledge of all events to come, then how could individual agency exist? Even if God had merely foreknowledge and not control, the events were already as good as predestined, since the mind of God couldn’t be wrong. Boethius concludes, at the end of the longest speech he that makes in the book, that “Therefore, there can be no freedom in human decisions and actions, since the divine mind, foreseeing everything without possibility of error, determines and forces the outcome of everything that is to happen” (5.3). And without free will, Boethius said, rewards and punishments to the good and the wicked are quite meaningless, because no one had any agency over their actions. Prayers and supplications, also, were meaningless, as the whole cosmos was just a foreordained grinding forth of divine will.

Now, this speech constituted a broadside against much of what Philosophy had told Boethius up to this point. Naturally, Philosophy had a reply to it, and her reply, the longest speech in the book, takes up ten pages and brings The Consolation of Philosophy to its conclusion. Boethius, as we just heard, raised the concern that if God knows everything that’s going to happen, God can’t be wrong, and so we’re all just plankton floating helplessly in the ocean of providence. In response to this theological conundrum, Philosophy built a multipart argument.

Philosophy said first that nature was filled with different ways of knowing – both sensory knowledge, such as that which animals had, as well as sensory and rational knowledge, like humanity’s. Humanity, Philosophy said, had the power of reason and abstract thinking within its own space and time, but it was not possible for humanity to understand eternality, any more than a shellfish might contemplate past and future. Just so, God’s knowledge was hard for humanity to understand. Philosophy said that God’s “knowledge transcends all movement of time and abides in the simplicity of its immediate present. It encompasses the infinite sweep of past and future, and regards all things in its simple comprehension as if they were now taking place” (5.6). This was part of the reason that divine foreknowledge did not preclude free will – it wasn’t really foreknowledge, as God merely saw the flux of all time all at once. This is a fancy argumentative move, which Boethius got from Augustine, which Augustine got from Plotinus, who surely stole it from someone else. Anyway, Philosophy said that in the universe there were simple necessities, and conditional necessities, and “all the things God sees as present will undoubtedly come to pass; but some will happen by the necessity of their natures, [and] others by the power of those who make them happen” (5.6). And that’s Philosophy’s solution – well, let’s be honest, Boethius’ solution – to the problem of free will in a universe otherwise orchestrated by providence. And The Consolation of Philosophy concludes here. Lady Philosophy didn’t offer any extended goodbye, and Boethius didn’t thank her for decisively offering him comfort. Instead, at the end of her long rebuttal, Philosophy, having reasserted the existence of free will in a providential universe, promised Boethius, in the Slavitt translation, that:
Our prayers, if they are of the right kind and are pleasing to God, are not without effect. And the conclusion, then, is clear, that you must avoid wickedness and pursue the good. Lift up your mind in virtue and hope and, in humility, offer your prayers to the Lord. Do not be deceived. It is required of you that you do good and that you remember that you live in the constant sight of a judge who sees all things. (5.6)22
And that’s the end. [music]

Boethius’ Reputation in Recent Times

So that was a full summary of Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy, written in 523 CE and for the next thousand years or so one of the most popular books in the Latin speaking world. I first read this book in an undergraduate intellectual history class. The next time I read it, I had finished a doctoral degree that focused on nineteenth century literary realism, and – just for fun –was reading a bunch of Chaucer – Chaucer translated the book we’ve just read, and the David Slavitt translation had just come out, so I decided to reread it. And the third time I read it was for producing this episode. I keep all of my old reading notes, and so it’s interesting to contrast the three reactions I had to it – first as an undergraduate pretty new to philosophy, the second as a PhD whose recent work had been on texts done long after Boethius lived, and then the third as a podcaster whose most recent work has been on Classics and ancient Eurasian philosophy which all came along before Boethius lived. We don’t need to talk about my reactions to the book and how they changed over time – I merely mention all that to emphasize that what readers tend to think of this book depends heavily on what they’ve read prior to encountering it.

I think that to any generation, there are some things about Boethius’ Consolation that are very appealing and very moving. The book explores some of the main questions in philosophical history, and it does so with gravity, and in a cogent, organized fashion. Though it explores some very complicated questions, The Consolation of Philosophy is not a difficult work to read. One wise goddess comforts one despairing man, and sequential sections of prose and poetry allow for some surprisingly deep investigations of great existential mysteries like the problem of evil, the freedom of the will, and the implications of a deterministic universe. Boethius’ own character in the book, like Job before him, has grit, and acumen, and he feels like a real person. Sometimes he does allow lady Philosophy to jostle him along through bad syllogisms like a vacuous Socratic foil, but at other times, Boethius stops her, telling her that she hasn’t really brought him any comfort. Boethius is also, quite evidently, a learned person in his book, citing Aristotle here, thumping stoicism there, and making deft use of some of the more advanced aspects of Augustinian theology elsewhere. And the historical circumstances behind the book – that of a condemned criminal who really was trying to use philosophy at the darkest hour of his life to keep himself going through unthinkable anguish and anger – this history compels us to treat the book with special respect. Boethius’ famous work was not an academic exercise, undertaken for scholarly esteem and vocational advantage. The Consolation is philosophy in the trenches, written by a condemned man who was looking for a reason not to lose himself to heartbreak. Each of the three times I’ve read the book, and they have been ten years apart, these central facts about it have made it feel powerful and sincere.

The unusual circumstances of the Consolation’s authorship, then, have always given it an uncommon distinction. But as for the greater reputation of Boethius, ratings have long been mixed. His position on the historical timeline – born precisely in, or within a year or two of the year the western empire ended – and his complex relationships with both Catholicism and with Classics, has left him as one of philosophy’s mongrels – a hybrid who fits in neither with the glittery splendor of Virgil and Ovid, nor with the staunch scholasticism of Aquinas. He has long been considered more of a serviceable journeyman than a groundbreaking genius – decent enough for Medieval readers who didn’t know any better, but for those who have plumbed the depths of Greco-Roman philosophy and Christian patristics firsthand, bland and derivative. Scholar John Marenborn, in a book that seeks to call attention to Boethius’ originality, summarizes Boethius’ historical reputation concisely. Marenborn wrote, in a 2003 study,
Boethius, say most historians of philosophy, is far too unoriginal to be a great thinker. They would agree that for medieval readers, who took the ideas and arguments he proposes to be largely his own, he seemed great. But, they would argue, modern scholarship has shown that he is, to a large extent, merely a transmitter of others’ ideas – a writer of vast importance in the story of the transmission of culture but of little account for his own intellectual achievement.23
There is obvious truth to this general assessment. There is nothing in The Consolation of Philosophy that isn’t available in Boethius’ source materials – namely the Bible, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Epictetus, Plotinus, Porphyry and Augustine.24 And while footnotes and critical studies can lead us to determine which ideas Boethius adopted from which earlier authors, it’s important to understand that Boethius lived in a literary culture, and transmitted his works into later literary cultures, that placed far less emphasis on the importance of originality than ours does. As medievalist Alastair Minnis writes, across much of the Middle Ages, “To be old was to be good; the best writers were the more ancient. The converse often seems to have been true: if a work was good, its medieval readers were disposed to think that it was old.”25 Boethius, then, lived at a time, and was revered during a later time, when following an ancient Greek, or Biblical, or patristic authority was often a better route toward argumentative persuasion than attempting an original new path.

Those two general points about Boethius – that (A) the story behind the Consolation is a moving one, and yet (B) nonetheless that it is overall a fairly conventional book, with shopworn sentiments available in earlier authors – are points that I think it’s best to acknowledge right up front here as we consider Boethius’ long-term reputation. What I want to do in the time that we have left in this program is to discuss two more, broader aspects of The Consolation of Philosophy. The first is this book’s theological roots, and the second, relatedly, is the fairly elaborate use of logic and syllogism Boethius uses throughout the text in order make his points. Let’s begin by talking about Boethius’ theology in his most famous book. Aside from the book’s dramatic origin story, and its fairly derivative nature, its readers have perhaps most often been drawn to consider the nature of Boethius’ personal religious beliefs. It’s now time for us to consider those beliefs, based not only on the Consolation, but also on the other works that he left behind. [music]

The Religious Ideology Behind the Consolation

Although The Consolation of Philosophy is certainly Boethius’ most famous book, the Consolation is actually just one of seven original surviving treatises Boethius wrote, in addition to a dozen translations and commentaries, a pair of texts on mathematics and music, respectively, and five short Catholic theological tracts. Let’s begin by considering the Consolation’s relationship to Christianity, again, customarily, a major source of interest to the book’s readers.

The Consolation of Philosophy, while it follows the architecture of the Books of Job and 2 Esdras, while it follows several points of Augustinian theology very closely, and while it endorses a general vision of moral conduct and accountability to God that’s quite consonant with Christianity, never does actually mention Jesus, or draw a single example from the Bible in order to advance its arguments. For this reason, a conventional reading of the Consolation was for a long time that the book showed Boethius giving up on Christianity, and using pagan philosophy pure and simple to comfort himself as a condemned man. Let’s consider two midcentury interpretations that make this argument. Historian Arnaldo Momigliano, in a general assessment of the Consolation written in 1960, concluded that:
Many people have turned to Christianity for consolation. Boethius turned to paganism. His Christianity collapsed – it collapsed so thoroughly that perhaps he did not even notice its disappearance. The God of the Greek philosopher gave peace to his mind. The arrogance with which he had dealt with Christian theology was replaced by a new humility. This may show that his earlier attempt to harmonize philosophy and Christianity was on unstable basis.26
This is a famous quote about Boethius, by the way, that comes up often in contemporary scholarship. In the same direction, though a bit less emphatic, Bertrand Russell wrote in 1945 that the Consolation “is purely Platonic. . .it does show that pagan philosophy had a much stronger hold on him than Christian theology.”27 It’s easy to see how these earlier readers surmised that Boethius was more pagan than Christian in the final year of his life. The Consolation does not conclude with an amen or a guarantee of heavenly salvation alongside Christ, but instead quite a complicated dictum about the workings of free will in a universe largely orchestrated by divine providence. There’s no virgin Mary, or twelve tribes of Israel, nor Christly proverbs, and the poetic meditations in the book reference figures from pagan literature and theology. These are significant omissions. We might expect, after all, that in the bleak eleventh hour of a devoted Christian’s life, he might draw sustenance directly from the Bible and its consolations, rather than the more abstract and pluralistic framework of ideas we encounter in Boethius’ book. So, put plainly, what were the religious beliefs of Boethius in the awful months he spent writing the Consolation?

First of all, to state the relatively obvious, the Consolation is overall mostly pretty Christian sounding. While Boethius takes a convoluted and syllogistic path to get there, by the book’s end, we have been assured that a beneficent deity controls the universe, that the virtuous are rewarded and the wicked punished, that earthly riches and worldly distinctions are insubstantial, and numerous other Christian truisms on which the text’s Medieval audience would have looked favorably. There are important exceptions, though. Boethius writes that the virtuous literally become gods in Book 4. Heaps of interstitial poetry mention a wide gamut of figures from Greek mythology. And while Boethius, as well see in a moment, was definitely Christian, the Consolation never really sounds like Boethius’ Christian predecessors Jerome or Augustine. To quote Bertrand Russell again, in the Consolation, “There is no trace of the superstition or morbidness of the age, no obsession with sin, no excessive straining after the unattainable.”28 Some of the Pauline and Pastoral epistles have a dour attitude toward the world and everything in it, and in later centuries, following the monastic movement, Augustine’s generation zeroed in on sex and sin with a singular obsession and fury. Boethius’ Consolation does not do this. It is not a sermon on the foulness of humanity and the world, written to assert that only Jesus can lift us from the swamp of mortality. Its message is more philosophically general, and its ideology is more malleable.

Fl Boetio (Flavio Boezio) - Studiolo di Federico da Montefeltro

Justus van Gent and Pedro Berruguete’s Boethius, c. 1472-6.

These, then, are the basic facts about the Christian religiosity of the Consolation – that it’s essentially Christian, with some exceptions, and yet that its Christianity is of a general and philosophical variety, and divorced from the polemics of the century that preceded it. The text’s doctrinal flexibility has long been part of its appeal, and may have been strategic on Boethius’ part, rather than the result of losing his faith in the closing months of his life. And while I certainly can’t tell you what he believed as he set down the Consolation, I can tell you about what he produced leading up to writing it, due to the fact that a number of his other works have survived.

It’s somewhat odd that for the past thousand and a half years, Boethius’ reputation has mainly rested on the Consolation, a dramatic work that asks such universal questions about the human condition. It is somewhat odd, because in almost every other Boethian work that’s survived, he seems to have been drawn into extremely dense back corners of ancient philosophical work on logic and taxonomy, displaying the mind of an engineer or technician more than that of a poet. Before the Consolation, Boethius had a career as a translator and scholar that spanned twenty years and numerous topics. He came up with the term quadrivium, or “four-fold path,” to describe the interlinked studies of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. His book On Arithmetic is a curious work on Neo-Pythagorean numerology, rather than a textbook that offers instruction on addition, subtraction, and so on. Boethius’ book on music theory is more about the old Platonic and Pythagorean pseudoscience of harmonic intervals than instruction on how to perform pieces on an instrument. He translated the works of the Neoplatonist Porphyry and the philosophy of Aristotle into Latin, and would have done a great deal more if his life hadn’t been cut short. He wrote commentaries on Cicero, Aristotle, and Neoplatonic philosophy.

His more original work included a study called On Division – a text about how philosophy taxonomizes things into different subcategories – red things and blue things, and then, different shades of blue things, and so on. He wrote three books on different categories of syllogism, two of them following Aristotle down the road of pure logical philosophy – especially Aristotle’s Prior Analytics, and the third – this is Boethius’ On Hypothetical Syllogisms, which worked to categorize different kinds of hypothetical syllogisms – ones that folded conditional clauses into logical statements. For instance, a non-hypothetical syllogism, and the most famous example of a syllogism is: (A) Socrates is a man, (B) All men are mortal, therefore (C) Socrates is mortal. Boethius really liked classical logic, and he took things in more advanced directions, exploring hypothetical syllogisms, which sound like this: “‘If, if it is A, then it is B, it is C’ and ‘If it is A, then if it is B, it is C’ [or even] ‘If, if it is A, it is B, then if it is C, it is D.’”29 This is slippery stuff, but if you enjoy mathematics or the sorts of nested conditional functions commonplace in computer programming today, the ancient world’s work on formal logic is very approachable. And incredibly, following his text on philosophical divisions and three books on syllogisms, Boethius wrote a book called On Different Topics, which, rather than being a grab bag of writings on various subjects, was actually about the correct classification of topics and arguments, and which sorts of conclusions, theoretically speaking, could be drawn from which sorts of premises. He thus wrote four full length works on formal logic, wanting to create a cohesive Latin introduction to a subject that, in his day, was largely only available in older Greek language texts.

His works on classical logic, to the specialists who actually read them, are not considered groundbreaking for their time, notwithstanding their vigor and erudition.30 But I nonetheless wanted to summarize these works to make a general point about the Consolation. Boethius passionately loved philosophical logic. Pages and pages of this famous book show lady Philosophy leading Boethius through Lego blocks of syllogisms, like this one: (Premise A) A self-sufficient man has no wants. (Premise B) Having no wants means one is powerful. (Conclusion) Therefore, the self-sufficient man is powerful. Or this one: (Premise A) The rich man lives in constant desire for acquisition and fear of loss. (Premise B) The desire for acquisition and the fear of loss cause unhappiness. (Conclusion) Therefore, the rich man is unhappy. Those are real examples of syllogisms in The Consolation of Philosophy. Thus, at the heart of Boethius’ book an elaborate and carefully welded grid of logical statements, and Logic, as a branch of philosophy, was something to which Boethius was drawn throughout his career.

So, in summation, we’ve just learned that Boethius was a serious logician, and one whose most beloved works were perhaps on logic and taxonomy more than any other branches of ancient philosophy. This is important, and worth remembering, as The Consolation of Philosophy is such a different work from the rest of what Boethius wrote. But we haven’t yet talked about Boethius’ formal theological writings. Let’s do that now, before we call it a day. [music]

Boethius’ Christian Tracts

Within the small archive of Boethian works that have made it down to us, there are five Christian treatises called the Opuscula Sacra, or “short theological works.” These have frequently been ignored, but they show Boethius doing the sorts of things that Christian church fathers did – condemning heresies, defending established and more novel orthodoxies, and delving into Christology. Let’s quickly discuss them, roughly in order of their composition.31 The first of Boethius’ Christian treatises is called On the Catholic Faith. This book underscores the veracity of the Bible, and upfront, it introduces aspects of Christianity as divinely revealed and doctrinally mandatory. The tract, following the general culling process of Catholic orthodoxy’s development, derogates Arianism, Manichaeism, and the more recent Pelagianism as all heretical.32 It celebrates the spread of Christianity through the world and the ascendancy of Christianity’s doctrine of bodily resurrection. Boethius’ second Christian treatise is called Against Eutyches and Nestorius. This was a Christological treatise, and quite a detailed one. The theologian Nestorius had declared, in the first half of the 400s, that Christ’s human and divine natures were housed in two hypostases, or underlying substances. In the same timeframe, the theologian Eutyches, in reaction to Nestorian dualism, proposed a Christology called monophysitism, emphasizing that Christ only had a singular, divine nature. The ecumenical council of Chalcedon took place in 451, largely in order to reassert that Christ had one hypostasis and two natures, contrary to the recent teachings of Eutyches and Nestorius. And while the ecumenical council issued decrees and declared Nestorianism and Eutychianism as heretical, the two Christological models persisted into Boethius’ lifetime.

To nonspecialists, among them myself, the Christological hairsplitting of Late Antique theology is a really dry subject. But to Boethius, who adored subtle categorical distinctions and logic more generally, it was a highly engaging topic, and one made more so by the greater cultural climate of Ostrogothic Italy. Italy’s Catholic theologians, for most of Boethius’ life, were engaged in a Christological culture war with their counterparts in the east. That Acacian schism we discussed earlier was one such culture war, with certain eastern churchmen not paying sufficient heed to doctrinal truisms that their western colleagues heartily endorsed.33 So, to zoom out and return more generally to the subject of Boethius’ theological tracts, Boethius’ book Against Eutyches and Nestorius was an effort to prove and endorse current Nicene orthodoxy, but it was also an effort to reconcile the centrifugal energies of the western and eastern churches as they existed in the early sixth century.

Two of Boethius’ other three Catholic tracts are on the Trinity, a subject obviously related to Christology. These texts show Boethius using Augustine’s writings on the Trinity, as well as Aristotelian philosophy, in order to prove the truthfulness of current Catholic orthodoxy. They reveal a relentless attention to terminology and categories, together with careful work in predication – in other words the philosophical study of how properties are applied to subjects. And the fifth and final work of Boethius’ theological tracts, while less explicitly Christian, nonetheless proceeds with further work in formal logic in order to ultimately prove the goodness of the created universe as an efflorescence of the goodness of its deity.

A Christian in a Toga

Boèce et Philosophie

Boethius and lady Philosophy in a 1372 manuscript.

So all of that was a summary of the numerous other texts Boethius wrote before he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy. And if we return to our initial question of whether the person who wrote The Consolation of Philosophy was Christian or a pagan, the answer is yes. What I mean is that like other hybrids before him whom we have met in this sequence on Late Antiquity – writers like Ausonius, and Nonnus, Boethius, just like his father-in-law Symmachus, was fluent and operational in paganism and Christianity, he found both of them fertile grounds for work and speculation, and he found in both answers to his questions about how to be a good person and get through life. A recent monograph by scholar Claudio Moreschini captures Boethius’ bustling duality nicely – the book is called A Christian in Toga: Boethius: Interpreter of Antiquity and Christian Theologian. The description is apt. Boethius, like other Late Antique crossbreeds, was an aggregator. As with centuries of Christians who came before him, and Christians who lived after him, he delved deeply into a certain archive of Greek philosophy – that lineage from Plato, to Aristotle, to Plotinus, to Porphyry, he brought it into Christianity, and he helped interest others in this archive for a thousand years. Among the many remarkable things about The Consolation of Philosophy, perhaps the most astounding of all is that it was written, rather suddenly at that, by a person who up to that point had been primary a logician, working out mathematical puzzles and operating predominantly in the world of theory. The fact that such a specialist, and devotee of the dustier subdivisions of philosophical history, could write a widely appealing and popular book, makes the story behind The Consolation of Philosophy all the more extraordinary.

Boethius loved schematization, and categories. And I want to leave you with one last thought – one that I think would have occurred to Boethius and his generation if they considered how we moderns approach the study of Late Antique culture. We have taken – at least in the Anglophone world that I know – a fragmented approach to understanding ancient history. For a long time, Christianity was cordoned off from historicist analysis, and so religious studies evolved out of concert with Classics, Assyriology, and Egyptology. As far as Greco-Roman studies, there has often been a disproportionate focus on literature and philosophy rather theology. The three are all connected with one another, but what I mean is that everyone knows who Zeus is, but if you ask someone about the Eleusinian Mysteries, or Thesmophoria – actual, extremely important sacred rites of Ancient Greece – you’re much less likely to get a knowledgeable answer. Analogously, as for Christianity, everyone knows who Jesus is, but if you ask someone which elements of Greek philosophy most clearly manifest themselves in the New Testament, you’re probably going to get a blank stare, and if you dare to say that much the New Testament is, irrefutably, Ancient Greek philosophy, you might really offend someone. In summation, we have focused on the literary and philosophical components of Greco-Roman culture, often ignoring its real religiosity. With Christianity, we have done the opposite, treating it as an ideology that dropped from space and inspired conversions with its sudden sovereign truths, as though it never had any prehistory.

When we read Boethius, and when we try to decide whether he was Christian or a pagan when he wrote the Consolation, we are asking a nonsensical question. Boethius’ faith was a very ancient, generic, supple Mediterranean ideology focused on ennobling and dignifying a believer in a flawed world. In this ideology, a person is born with an immortal soul into a deceptive world full of falsehoods and temptations. Somewhere beyond the deceptive world are things of true permanence – highest of all, an immortal deity who has set in motion the cosmos. In this ideology, discerning the truth means understanding an unseen framework of eternal absolutes. The discerner of truth must scupper falsehoods and temptations and keep her keel pointed toward permanent things, and for doing so, she receives heavenly rewards. This ideology is Platonism. This ideology is Christianity. In chronological order, this ideology is also Pythagoreanism, Orphism, Stoicism, Mithraism, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism, Montanism, and Manichaeism. It was Boethius’ ideology. It was the ideology of the Middle Ages – this incredibly ancient story about an individual holding fast against the allurements of a factitious world for the promise of something eternal, good, and true. Today, we act as though Plato were a philosopher, and Christianity were a mystic ideology that appeared all at once. But when we contrast them to ancient ideologies that actually were quite different from either, they pretty quickly appear as connected nodes on a single evolutionary line. We might call this evolutionary line, “exalting ideologies,” for want of a better term – ideologies in which believers are exalted due to their apprehension of shrouded truths and correspondent ethical codes. This evolutionary line encompasses nearly every single ideology we’ve met in Literature and History. The exceptions are large swaths of the Old Testament and Epicureanism, which both deny an immaterial afterlife, and with the Old Testament promoting a more collectivistic view of adherence to divine writ, and Epicureanism emphasizing moderatism and the companionship of close friends. Beyond such exceptions, though, everything we have covered is part of that broad phylum of ancient belief systems – systems promising to lift the believer up, up, and away, if only she believes, and acts, according to a certain set of rules. [music]

On Socratic Dialogues

Well, folks, that was an introduction to Boethius, the swan song of classical philosophy, who actually came along at a point at which Plato and Aristotle had already been deputized by Christian writers for several centuries. I hope I’ve done a passable job of presenting Boethius and his world. If I may editorialize for a moment, having read Boethius a number of times now and knowing the philosophical lineage that led up to him, I need, for the sake of personal mental wellbeing, to admit that I don’t like reading Socratic dialogues very much. What I’m about to say will likely have all of the sophistication of an undergraduate pouting over pages of Phaedrus or Phaedo, but heck, it’s my podcast, and I’ll cry if I want to, and I hereby conclude the strictly scholarly portion of Episode 103, and henceforth begin a brief harangue.

I have a limited amount of patience for Socratic dialogues, like the Consolation, in which grave truisms are deduced by means of blundering syllogisms. To me – and maybe you’ve felt the same thing – reading a Socratic dialogue is like listening to an algorithm or a computer program trying to imitate an actual human discussion. [Computer voices: Socrates is a man. | Yes great one. | Socrates live in Athens. | Yes great one. | All men live Athens. | Yes great one. | Socrates is ugly. | Yes great one. | Socrates have wife. | Yes great one. | All ugly having wife. | Yes great one.] You read one, and you see completely impermissible premises and leaps in logic intermingled with somewhat steadier deductions, and you think, “Well, the Socratic dialogue AI is really trying, here, but real humans are a lot smarter and more discerning than that.” Only, it goes on, the conversants capering wildly through rinkydink pyramids of syllogisms, the end effect producing an alien, cubist world where human experience has been distorted beyond recognition in order to serve an ideology that is somehow simultaneously earnest, austere, and dull. In Boethius’ Consolation, from the very first time that lady Philosophy and Boethius eagerly concur that power and self-sufficiency are the same thing, they lose many of us. A hardscrabble subsistence farmer does have power over his own life and acres, but an emperor has power over the farmer, and so the equivalency, without a clearer definition of its terms, is silly.

The dialogical portions of Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, then, like so much of Plato, require an extreme suspension of disbelief. Interlocutors rivet their arguments to important sounding but nebulous words like “good” “virtue,” “evil” “providence” “the One” and so on. We basically know what they mean, but when we are told that the self-sufficient man is powerful because self-sufficiency is power, we wonder what is meant by self-sufficiency, and what is meant by power, because the veracity of the conclusion is meaningless without clearer definitions of the premises that go into it. Lacking even clear premises to start with, then, the speakers of Socratic dialogues tie manifestly ridiculous ideas to balloons of ambiguous concepts, floating far and away from the world of lived human experience. At its worst moments, The Consolation of Philosophy offers little more than a toothless Christian stoicism, with all of the klutzy logic of Plato, some of the tiresome braggadocio of Seneca, and little of the humbleness or egalitarianism of the Gospels. Like Gnosticism and some of the general epistles of the New Testament, lady Philosophy builds a sharp dichotomy between either transient falsehoods or eternal absolutes – wealth is meaningless, because you can lose it; power is worthless, because it can go away – and no consideration whatsoever is given to the real utility of material and social resources in the life of the common human being living in a world with people whom she loves and wants to take care of.

In spite of all that, this third go through of the Consolation was definitely the best for me, and it was actually because this was the first time I read some of Boethius’ earlier work as a logician alongside it. The explicit consolation that Lady Philosophy offers Boethius is a dreary porridge of platitudes about focusing on higher matters and ignoring the falseness of mortal life – same stuff as always, different century. But to show some proper respect toward the last, tremendously successful work of an industrious, erudite, and tragically condemned man, I think that writing the Consolation was Boethius’ consolation. The detail work. The careful assemblies of syllogisms that he adored so much throughout his career. The internal technique and craftsmanship of formal logic, and the novel operation of writing a more literary piece than he was used to – even one with poetic excursions. The sudden and seemingly genuine interjections that the Boethian speaker makes, as when he tells Philosophy, and I saved the best for last here:
What you have said. . .is all rhetoric. It is a plausible series of high-sounding phrases. A man can listen to them and even be beguiled, but his sense of having been injured lies much deeper than that. He listens to the arguments and follows along, but the moment they stop, he is again reminded of the grief that gnaws at his heart.34
That was the Slavitt translation, and my favorite paragraph in the book. In it, and in a couple of other instances, Boethius shows that he does see behind the old stoic and salvific abracadabra. The Consolation of Philosophy is at its most moving not when it shows philosophy as a set of ethical maxims, and not as a serene giantess, but instead when it shows philosophy as a messy, urgent, intense, undying stream of questions – questions that that flood over the dikes and levees intended to contain them. Boethius’ last book shows philosophy doing all of these things – offering euphonious answers, offering an entire logical framework to justify the ways of God to man, but also peppering these things with troubling interruptions and then breaking the book off in its entirety with almost no conclusion. And so while I, personally, will probably never love The Consolation of Philosophy, I still think it’s one of the most courageous mic drops of literary history. It shows Boethius, at the end of his rope, finding that philosophy was still the wellspring that it had been before, and that as always, even its questions were answers. [music]

Moving on to the Talmud

Alright, folks, well, this string of episodes that stretched from Saint Jerome to Boethius here completes our journey through the heart of Late Antique theology, with all of its hybrid complexity. Almost. We have one more program on the subject, and that will be Episode 104: Introduction to the Talmud.

The Talmud, as it exists today, is a 2.5-million word compendium of laws, narratives, and commentary, subdivided into six orders and 63 tractates, and produced between the first and sixth centuries CE. Second only to the Tanakh, or Hebrew Bible, in modern rabbinical Judaism, the Talmud is something that any survey of Late Antique cultural history ought to cover. Christian theologians like Augustine and Jerome were trying to build great systems to supplant what had come before them. And as they tried to create these systems, the authors of the Talmud were working on something else – a theology built on dialectic, rather than individual assertion; a vast text that is an ongoing discussion, rather than one thinker’s deductions and pronouncements. The Talmud is like a gargantuan medieval manuscript whose modern printings include generations of learned marginalia and footnotes, a seething, unfinished, communitarian project in which there are multiple correct answers to many questions; a self-contained theological university that records the thoughts and disputations of thousands of agile minds. Like the Iliad of the first millennium BCE, the Talmud comes out of the first millennium CE as something so much more philosophically and theologically advanced than anything contemporary to it that it seems to have fallen to earth from another galaxy.

Thus, if you are tired of the old Mediterranean porridge that we have seen in so many iterations – disregard worldly striving and suffering and set your course on mental serenity and posthumous deliverance – the Talmud is going to show you something different – something that’s somehow simultaneously humbler, and more forceful, than Augustine and his very ancient herd. The Talmud is, unlike Boethius and Plato’s artificial dialogues, a real dialogue, in which laws and stories from ancient Jewish history are set out, and then analyzed and deconstructed by later contributors, such that few assertions go unquestioned, and few questions fail to merit later assertions, answers and questions themselves. So next time, join me for Episode 104, An Introduction to the Talmud. You won’t want to miss it.

For you Patreon supporters, I’ve done something I’ve never done before. I’ve made a little video about what I’ve been up to, that includes a tour of my quote unquote home studio and a couple of other cute things around the house and river. I’ve unfortunately been so booked with work and family duties this past year and a half that episode production has been terribly slow for those of you listening to and supporting this program as it comes out, so I just wanted to talk a bit about that. That video is up on this show’s Patreon page if you’re listening.

For all of you, to wrap up this show with a laugh, I’ve recorded something that I hope is appropriate. Rather than a song, I have recorded a fake Socratic dialogue modeled on the Phaedo – that dialogue chronicling the death of Socrates. I always wondered what would happen in one of Plato’s dialogues if the Socratic foil, rather than being an inert, sludgy mass, actually had some intelligence and a backbone, and called Socrates out for his untidy logic. Boethius actually inspired what you’re about to hear, as, at a couple of breathtaking moments in the Consolation, Boethius tells Lady Philosophy to cool it with the shiny schoolkid rhetoric and give him some real damned answers. So this one is just called “Fake Socratic Dialogue,” and I recorded it with my friend, the actor Charlie Wilson playing Socrates. I met Charlie in Athens back in January of this year on an Ancient Greece Declassified tour, and he was kind enough to help me out with this little project, so thanks again Charlie Wilson. So here’s the “Fake Socratic Dialogue,” with me as myself, and Charlie as Socrates – I hope you like it, and I, together with many, many Late Antique rabbis, will see you next time for our episode on the Talmud.

[“Fake Socratic Dialogue” Skit]


1.^ See Artz, Frederick. The Mind of the Middle Ages. University of Chicago Press, 1980, p. 188.

2.^ Whether from the intervention of Pope Leo I, or a plague in the Hunnic ranks, or some other cause, we’re not sure.

3.^ Artz (1980), p. 188.

4.^ Marenbon, John. Boethius. Oxford University Press, 2003, p. 7.

5.^ Gibbon, Edward. The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (31.12).

6.^ See Collins, Roger. Early Medieval Europe. Red Globe Press, 2010, p. 106.

7.^ Marenborn (2003), p. 13 discusses this debate, noting a passage in Cassiodorus (Variae (I.45.3)).

8.^ Cassiodorus. Variae (I.45). Printed in Cassiodorus. The Letters of Cassiodorus. Translated and with an Introduction by Thomas Hodgkin. Henry Frowde, 1886, p. 169.

9.^ Cassiodorus. Variae (II.40) Printed in Hodgkin (1886), p. 193.

10.^ Chadwick, Henry. Boethius: His Life, Thought, and Influence. Oxford, Basil Blackwell, 1981. Printed in Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Norton, 2001, p. 146.

11.^ Boethius. Consolation (I.4)

12.^ Ibid.

13.^ The Anonymous Valesianus (2.88). Printed in The Delphi Complete Works of Ammianus Marcellinus. Delphi Classics, 2016. Kindle Edition, Location 27249.

14.^ Consolation (I.4)

15.^ Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by David Slavitt and with an Introduction by Seth Lerer. Harvard University Press, 2008, pp 11-12.

16.^ Boethius (2008) p. 3. Further quotations from this edition will be noted with section numbers in this episode transcription.

17.^ Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy (I.7). Translated by David Slavitt and with an Introduction by Seth Lerer. Harvard University Press, 2008, pp. 25-6.

18.^ Slavitt (2008), p. 37.

19.^ Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho and before it, the canonical Gospel of John, mark the outset of this long partnership.

20.^ Plotinus. Enneads (1.6.9). Printed in The Delphi Complete Works of Plotinus. Delphi Classics, 2015. Kindle Edition, Location 1161.

21.^ Slavitt (2008), pp. 102-3.

22.^ Slavitt (2008), p. 175.

23.^ Marenborn (2003), p. 4.

24.^ The 2010 Norton Critical Edition’s inclusion of excerpts from Plato’s Gorgias and Timaeus, Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics and Augustine’s On Free Choice of the Will present a surprisingly thorough window into the Consolation’s background.

25.^ Minnis, Alastair. Medieval Theory of Authorship. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010, p. 9.

26.^ Momigliano, Arnaldo. Secundo Contributo Alla Storia Degli Studi Classici. Printed in Moreschini, Claudio. A Christian in Toga: Boethius: Interpreter of Antiquity and Christian Theologian. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014, pp. 138-9.

27.^ Russell, Bertrand. A History of Western Philosophy. Simon and Schuster, 1945, p. 370.

28.^ Russell (1945), p. 371.

29.^ These quotes from De hypotheticis syllogismis are printed in Marenborn (2003), p. 51.

30.^ See Marenborn (2003), p. 50.

31.^ According to Marenborn (2003), p. 66.

32.^ Ironically, as Pelagianism was likely quite consonant with the crescendo of Boethius’ most famous book.

33.^ The controversy around Zeno’s Henotikon, revived when Anastasius I accepted the text, perpetuated the Christological culture wars Boethius’ generation lived through.

34.^ Slavitt (2008) p. 34.