Boethius, Educator, Statesman, Philosopher
22 October 524
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (Boh-EE-tee-us) was born in about 475 and died in about 524. He appears on some calendars as Severinus, on 23 October. To avoid conflict with the feast of James of Jerusalem, I have moved him to the 22nd. Anicius is not his forename (like Marcus or Gaius or Publius), but his clan name. His forename (which I do not know) is frequently omitted, just as Gaius Julius Caesar is often called simply Julius Caesar. Gaius is his forename, or praenomen (chosen by his father), Julius is his nomen, the name of his clan (gens), and Caesar (his cognomen) is the name of his family within the clan. Other names are added for various reasons, or simply to reduce confusion with others having the same nomen and cognomen. Thus, in the name Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus, the "Africanus" is an agnomen ("accomplishment name"), indicating that this is the General Who Conquered Africa.


In 476 Odoacer, an Ostrogothic general, deposed the Emperor Romulus Augustus and took the throne for himself. (This date is traditionally given as the Fall of the Roman Empire.) In 493 Odoacer was replaced by Theodoric, another Ostrogoth, who was recognized as Emperor of the West by the Emperor at Byzantium (whose daughter then married Theodoric). The Goths at that time were Arians. (That is, they honored Jesus as the Incarnate Word, and honored the Word as the first creation of God, but not as co-eternal with the Father. The Watchtower Society, also called J---'s Witnesses, are the best-known Arian group today.) Theodoric did not seek to impose Arianism on his subjects, and kept the traditional forms of government, including many Romans along with Goths among his advisors. His reign was a time of peace and prosperity, his decisions were usually just, and his subjects had little to complain of.

Boethius As an Educator

Five centuries or so previously, Virgil had proclaimed that it was the appointed destiny of Rome to govern the world. In an age when the glories of Rome as a political power were long lost, Boethius believed that it was the proper task of Rome to educate the world, and he took upon himself the task of translating the wisdom of the Greeks into Latin, with suitable commentary, and making it available to the West. As his cousin wrote of him, he undertook to transmit "the geometry of Euclid, the misic of Pythagoras, the arithmetic of Nicomachus, the mechanics of Archimedes, the astronomy of Ptolemy, the theology of Plato, and the logic of Aristotle." In the Middle Ages, a scholar was expected to study the Seven Liberal Arts, beginning with the Trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic; or, language, oratory, and logic), and proceeding to the Quadrivium (arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy). Boethius first gave the Quadrivium its name, and he wrote a set of four introductory handbooks. He then undertook the task of translating the entire works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin, with notes and comments on each work, paying special attention to the issues on which the two are commonly supposed to disagree, and explaining that, properly understood, they are in agreement. It is not certain how much of this project was actually carried out, since not all his work has survived; but during the early Middle Ages, Plato and Aristotle were known in the West chiefly through the translations of Boethius. Although much of his work consists simply of paraphrasing his Greek sources, he does make some contributions of his own. He writes, for example, on hypothetical syllogisms, a topic not much considered by Aristotle or other earlier writers on logic.

Boethius As Theologian

To Boethius are attributed some theological writings, on the Trinity and on the doctrine (formulated in 451 at the Council of Chalcedon), that Christ has two Natures (human and divine) but one Person. These are historically significant for two reasons:

(A) Some of his remarks can be understood as inviting a reconciliation with the Bishop of Byzantium (see discussion below), and may therefore have contributed to his ultimate political downfall.

(B) Since some of the theological language in them is different from that of his philosophical works, some scholars have recently argued that it is a different Severinus who wrote them, and who appears on the Calendar on 23 October as a martyr who died for the orthodox faith as opposed to Arianism. For a disussion of this, see the Dictionary of Christian Biography, by Henry Wace and William Smith, originally published in four volumes, and now available in abridged form in a one-volume edition by Henry Wace and William Piercy (Hendrickson Pub., Peabody, Mass, 01961-3473, Ibsn 1-56563-057-2) retail $30 now on sale at some local Christian bookstores for $18. Buy it! (It covers only the first six centuries, and its accounts are a bit dry, but it still belongs on the shelf of every academically oriented, English-reading, non-impoverished Christian. If you are impoverished, nag your librarian to buy it.)

Boethius As Statesman

The family of Boethius (gens Anicia), was wealthy, old and illustrious, prominent since the latter days of the Republic, with two emperors and many consuls among its members. His cousin, Cassiodorus, was the Emperor's secretary. (His biography of Boethius has only lately been discovered.) At 30, Boethius was a senator. He was appointed by the Emperor to investigate a complaint about the coinage. At his recommendation the province of Campania, after a bad harvest, had its taxes remitted for a year. In 510 he was made sole consul for that year. An ecclesiastical quarrel of the time had political repercussions. For 35 years, from 485 to 519, the Bishops of Rome and Byzantium were out of communion with each other, as the result of their having backed different candidates for Bishop of Alexandria. (Acacius, Bishop of Byzantium, was never accused of the Monophysite heresy, but he had backed a candidate who had cordial relations with the Monophysites, on the grounds that only that candidate had a chance of healing the breach in Alexandria between Monophysites and orthodox Christians.)

In 519 the quarrel was patched up, and Theodoric became alarmed. Previously, his orthodox Christian subjects had no reason to prefer the Eastern Emperor to him, since they were religiously in communion with neither. But now they were in communion with the Emperor of the East, and might well give their primary political allegiance to him rather than to Thoedoric. His first response was to continue his policy of conciliation toward his Roman subjects. In 522 he appointed Boethius' two sons as joint counsuls for that year. Since they were both young, this was clearly a way of honoring their father, and Boethius later described the day of their inaugaration as the happiest day of his life. Boethius himself was made "magister officiorum," or head of all court and government offices. This put him in daily contact with Theodoric, who trusted him and valued his advice. However, it was the beginning of his downfall. The Emperor at Byzantium was becoming a threat. He made an alliance with the Vandals in Africa, who killed or drove out all the Goths in that country. The Franks, in alliance with the East, invaded Burgundy. The possibility that the Byzantines would invade Italy and overthrow the Gothic rulers became a real threat. In 523 the Bishop of Rome, sturdily loyal to Theodoric, died, and his successor was known to have pro-Byzantine leanings. The news of his election was conveyed to Byzantine in a letter by the senator Albinus which contained expressions of loyalty to the Empire that could be construed as treasonous. The letter was intercepted by the censors, and given to the attention of Boethius, who knew the senators involved, did not think that they intended treason, and let the matter drop. Enemies of Boethius informed Theodoric, and he reacted in anger, removing Boethius from office, and having him condemned to exile at Pavia, to confiscation of his goods, and finally to death. While in exile at Pavia, looking at the utter ruin of all his hopes, he wrote his great work, The Consolation of Philosophy, to which we now turn.

Boethius As Philosopher

If Boethius had been only a statesman and an educator, his name would still be remembered by historians with respect, but only by historians. What makes him immortal is the work written in the last years of his life. C.S. Lewis writes (The Discarded Image, p 75):

"De Consolatione Philosophiae was for centuries the most influential book ever written in Latin. It was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, and Greek; into French by Jean de Meung; into English by Alfred, Chaucer, Elizabeth I, and others. Untill about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it." This may be a good time to mention that the book is available for $12 from Penguin Paperbacks, ISBN 0-14-044208-1. For the benefit of language buffs, I will mention that the Anglo-Saxon translation by King Alfred the Great and the Middle English translation by Chaucer are available in print (but not cheap), and that the Leob Classical Library has the work with Latin and (modern) English on facing pages.

I propose to discuss two themes from the book: (a) Fortune (covered chiefly in Book 2), and (b) Freedom and Omniscience (covered chiefly in Book 5).

The book opens with Boethius in exile, lamenting the loss of his freedom, his reputation, and his library. A woman appears to him, and he recognizes her as the Lady Philosophy. He demands to know why good and bad things happen to humans, seemingly at random and not according to merit. The lady's reply introduces the concept of Fortune.

Long before, Aristotle had noted that the motions of the heavenly bodies appear to follow exact laws, so that one can predict an eclipse years in advance. On the other hand, events here on earth are different. One cannot predict the weather. The most one can say is that it is usually hotter in July than in January (in the North Temperate Zone). In the lower regions, say below the orbit of the moon, it appears that a causal chain has a little slack in it, a little leeway, some noise introduced into the equations. This random factor we call Fortune.

In later astronomical writings, we find that to each planet of the Ptolemaic system there is assigned an angel who carries the planet around in its orbit. The earth is assumed not to move, but it too has an angel who provides a turning motion. It is Fortune with her Wheel. She stirs the natural condition, and in particular the human condition, as a cook stirs a stew. Left to itself, a stew would separate, with some ingredients collecting on the bottom and others rising to the top. But a good cook stirs them together, so that nothing remains permanently on the bottom where it would scorch or on the top where it would stay raw. The Wheel of Fortune is commonly portrayed as something like a ferris wheel, lifting persons on one side and lowering them on the other. A common theme for poems and plays is the life of a man who starts out with nothing and is raised by Fortune to wealth and power. He is proud and seemingly happy. But the Wheel of Fortune continues to turn, and the man who had been raised high finds things going against him, until he loses everything and is back where he started. Does this mean that everyone will predictably have a brief time at the top? Was Andy Warhol right in saying that everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes? Not exactly. The moral is that you don't know what will happen next. By and large, you can make a fairly confident guess that the man who is poor today will be poor next year, and that the rich man will still be rich. But there is always the possibility of sudden largesse or sudden disaster. In bad times, we must not despair, and in good times we must not gloat or be smug. In particular, we must beware of supposing that if our neighbor has broken his leg, he must have done something bad to deserve it, or that if an earthquake or a volcano destroys a city and kills all the inhabitants, that this was a very wicked city. The Holy Scriptures warn us against interpreting the misfortunes of others as judgements on their sins (see Luke 13:1-5, John 9:1-3, and the entire Book of Job, especially Job 42:7).

In modern times, the concept of Fortune has become the concept of quantum indeterminacy. The majority opnion among contemporary physicists is that there is a fundamental uncertainty in the behavior of microscopic particles, and thus (though less conspicuously) in the behavior of all matter. This notion some persons find profoundly disturbing. Einstein famously said, "Der HErr GOtt wuerfelt nicht!" (that is, "The Lord God does not roll dice!"). Shroedinger said, "I don't like it and I regret having had anything to do with it." Similarly, many Christians have objected that, if some things happen by chance, then God is not omnipotent, is not the Sovereign Lord of the Universe.

On the other hand, we have those find their Christian faith confirmed by quantum indeterminacy. They accuse their opponents of making the same sort of mistake as Pantheists. A pantheist typically says, "If God is indeed supremely great, then there can be nothing else beside Him. He does not share existence with anything else." To this the theist replies that God is indeed supremely existent, that He does not merely exist--He is able to confer existence upon other things, and this is greater than merely having existence oneself. Similarly,God is not only the First Cause. He is able to confer the status of cause upon other things. This is indeed part of His ability to create. We see this in persons. What man, deeply in love with a woman, and rejoicing in the knowlege that she returns his love, would not be deeply disappointed to have his wealthy father say to him: "I'm so glad you like her. I paid Bill Gates twenty million dollars to build her and program her especially for you. She is guaranteed always to go along with anything you suggest." ?

Similarly, what point would there be in God's creating a set of wind-up toys that were programmed to sing His praises day and night? How would they differ from a CD record that did the same thing?

The same consideration applies, some Christians have argued, to inanimate matter. I introduce this point with the objection of some atheists to the notion of God as the Creator and Designer of the Universe. They say: "You point to a watch and tell me that a watchmaker designed it. Fine. Then you point to the Universe, or to some marvelously intricate organ in an animal or plant and tell me that God designed it. But that makes no sense, particularly if, as you say, God is omnipotent. Designing something Means figuring out the means to achieve a desired end. And the whole concept of means and ends presupposes some external constraint. If God, being omnipotent, can simply will that the bee shall have an eye that works, then the thing is done. It is only the architect who works within the constraints of having to build a house out of materials with a given density and given structural strength (tensile, compressive, and shear), who has problems to overcome, and hence is a designer."

To this some Christians, at any rate, reply that God is indeed a designer, that He has made the physical world so that it has "a mind of its own," so to speak, and so that its behavior is not simply confined to doing what He wills it to do. And yet He is Sovereign, and it does do what He wills, in that he created it to behave spontaneously, and it is His will that it should act in ways that are not simply dictated by His will. I refer the interested reader to the writings of John C. Polkinghorne, Fellow of the Royal Society, quantum physicist, priest (Anglican), head of Queen's College, Cambridge. Among his books dealing explicitly with Christian themes are the following, mostly available in paperback:

Beyond Science
Faith of a Physicist (also published as Science and Christian Belief)
One World *
Science and Creation * @
Science and Providence * @
Quarks, Chaos, and Christianity
Reason and Reality
Searching for Truth
Serious Talk
The Way the World Is

* part of a trilogy

@ listed in British Books in Print, but not Usa.
I also mention two books by William Grosvenor Pollard, quantum physicist and Anglican priest:
Chance and Providence
Physicist and Christian.

Neither is in the current Books in Print, but the British version lists Transcencence and Providence, which may be a re-issue of the first book, or perhaps of both books bound together.

I turn now to the second theme, that of Omniscience and Freedom.

Philosophy has told Boethius that God is all-knowing, that He transcends time, and sees all things and all events, past, present, and future, in one timeless act of awareness. Boethius objects that if God knows today what Jones will do tomorrow, then Jones has no choice in the matter. Providence replies that the nature of knowledge depends not on the thing known but on the knowing faculty. When Jesus knows that Peter will deny Him, He does not observe Peter's present condition and apply causal principles to extrapolate to Peter's future act. He sees Peter's act directly. I will add (since a reader has raised the point), that the situation is not changed if Jesus makes this prediction the evening before, and so John knows in the evening that Peter will deny in the morning. If the prediction were an extrapolation from Peter's present condition, then someone might argue that the present condition is the cause of Peter's denial, and that therefore he has no choice. But to argue thus from a prediction based on a direct vision of Peter's act presupposes that John's knowledge that Peter will deny is somehow the cause of Peter's denial, which is most unlikely, or that Peter's knowledge that Peter will deny is the cause of Peter's denial, which is not exactly obvious. (If I were arguing against Boethius here, I would say that someone who believes that he will fall off a ledge is likely to fall off as a result. But Peter apparently did not believe, or remember, the prediction.)

Reading this summary is no substitute for reading Boethius. His work is seminal. It forms the basis for a lengthy passage in Chaucer's Troilus And Criseyde. It underlies all discussions of freedom since his day. Read it. If you are short of cash or of book-shelf space, remember that that is why God made libraries and the Inter-Library Loan system.

PRAYER (traditional language):

O God, who by thy Holy Spirit dost give to some the word of Wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise thy Name for the gifts of grace manifested in thy servant Boethius, and we pray that thy Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the same Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.

PRAYER (contemporary language):

O God, who by your Holy Spirit give to some the word of Wisdom, to others the word of knowledge, and to others the word of faith: We praise your Name for the gifts of grace manifested in your servant Boethius, and we pray that your Church may never be destitute of such gifts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.