Introducing the Philosophers: Boethius

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius lived in the last quarter of the fifth century C.E., and the first quarter of the sixth. He was growing to manhood, when Theodoric, the famous Ostrogoth, crossed the Alps and made himself master of Italy. Boethius belonged to an ancient family, which boasted a connection with the legendary glories of the Republic, and was still among the foremost in wealth and dignity in the days of Rome’s abasement. His parents dying early, he was brought up by Symmachus, whom the age agreed to regard as of almost saintly character, and afterwards became his son-in-law. His varied gifts, aided by an excellent education, won for him the reputation of the most accomplished man of his time. He was an orator, poet, musician, and philosopher. It is his peculiar distinction to have handed on to the Middle Ages the tradition of Greek philosophy by his Latin translations of the works of Aristotle. Called early to a public career, the highest honors of the State came to him unsought. He was sole Consul in 510 C.E. and was ultimately raised by Theodoric to the dignity of Magister Officiorum, or head of the whole civil administration. He was no less happy in his domestic life, in the virtues of his wife, Rusticiana, and the fair promise of his two sons, Symmachus and Boethius; happy also in the society of a refined circle of friends. Noble, wealthy, accomplished, universally esteemed for his virtues, high in the favor of the Gothic King, he appeared to all men a signal example of the union of merit and good fortune.

His felicity seemed to culminate in the year 522 C.E. when, by special and extraordinary favor, his two sons, young as they were for so exalted an honor, were created joint Consuls and rode to the senate-house attended by a throng of senators, and the acclamations of the multitude.

Boethius himself, amid the general applause, delivered the public speech in the King’s honor usual on such occasions. Within a year, he was a solitary prisoner at Pavia, stripped of honors, wealth, and friends, with death hanging over him, and a terror worse than death, in the fear lest those dearest to him should be involved in the worst results of his downfall. It is in this situation that the opening of the ‘Consolation of Philosophy’ brings Boethius before us. He represents himself as seated in his prison distraught with grief, indignant at the injustice of his misfortunes, and seeking relief for his melancholy in writing verses descriptive of his condition. Suddenly there appears to him the Divine figure of Philosophy, in the guise of a woman of superhuman dignity and beauty, who by a succession of discourses convinces him of the vanity of regret for the lost gifts of fortune, raises his mind once more to the contemplation of the true good, and makes clear to him the mystery of the world’s moral government. (10)

Optional Reading: Book One from the Consolation of Philosophy