Medieval philosopher Boethius wrote one of the greatest philosophical books while awaiting his execution in prison. This essay will consist of three segments. The first segment will be exploratory of Boethius’s life and historical setting. The second segment will summarize his book The Consolation of Philosophy. The third segment will be an analytical approach to one of Boethius’s philosophical theories in his book, the concept of God’s foreknowledge. The intent is to give the reader a concise understanding and brief overview of Boethius’s life and philosophy.
History and Context
Boethius was born into an aristocratic family in Rome, the Anicii, which is indicated by his full name Anicias Manlius Severinus Boethius. The year of his birth was between 475 – 477 AD and the time period is in conjunction with the deposition of Roman Emperor Ramulus Augustulus in 476 AD. After the death of his father, he was adopted by a more prestigious family, the Symmachus. Boethius married the daughter of Symmachus in 495 AD and remained friends with Symmchus until the time of his death. Boethius considered himself a Roman and his native language was Latin. He was fluent in the Greek language as well and had access to the writings of Plato, Aristotle, and their commentators. He died in the 6th century and some consider him a classist philosopher; however, Boethius receives the attention and credit of medievalists because of his wide influence on medieval Latin culture.
East Roman Emperor Zeno sent Theodoric, the King of the Ostrogoths to replace Odoacer King of the Barbarians in the West in 489. Four years later Theodoric killed Odoacer and seized control of Eastern Rome. The Ostrogoths were Arian Christians and did not interfere with the Catholic Christian religious beliefs. Theodoric positioned many Roman Citizens as senior officials; included in one of these offices was Boethius. This was a political and military strategy used to gain the trust of the Roman citizens in case Zeno should attempt to replace him similar to Odoacer. (Marenbon).
By the year 510 AD, Boethius served as consul in the city of Rome. He spent most of his time writing and translating the works of Aristotle and other philosophical and theological treatises. In 1522 Boethius rose to become Master of Offices at Ravenna. This was a prominent position as he acted as the direct mediator between Theodoric and his court officials. Unfortunately, for Boethius, this was the pinnacle of heights from which began his downfall. While in the position of Master of Offices, an accusation was made by Cyprian against Senator, Albinus of “treasonable correspondence with those in Constantinople close to the Emporer Justin” (Marenbon). Boethius, as Master of Office; instead of judging or condemning Albinus, he defended the Senator and as consequence was accused of treason by Cyprian along with several other charges. Boethius pleaded his innocence, but the fabrication from Cyprian was well-knit, as he would be condemned by Theodoric if Cyprian was found guilty of false accusation. Boethius was sentenced by Theodoric to exile and execution somewhere between the years of 524 – 526. Boethius’s end was tragic in a sense but in another, the length of his incarceration was a gift to anyone who reads what is considered a philosophical masterpiece “The Consolation of Philosophy.”
The Consolation of Philosophy
The Consolation of Philosophy may be considered as the culmination of Boethius’s philosophical thought. An expression of original thought with gleanings of Plato, Aristotle, and St. Augustine. It is considered a prosimetric short work of literature written in the form of a dialog with an imaginary allegorical figure called Lady Philosophy. The book begins with Boethius musing over his sorrows with poetry. Suddenly Lady Philosophy appears to comfort him and making him realize the error of his ways as he has grown overly attached to the material objects of life. Although all material luxuries have been removed from him, he still has his mind and soul to comfort him. Good fortune visits every one to an extent but can just as easily be removed and Boethius is not the worst victim of the calamities of misfortune. All the external substances never belong to anyone but are merely borrowed in life. Late American Diplomat James Cromwell wrote that there are three moral principles that leed to Boethius’s despair which Lady Philosophy sought to correct or enlighten “1. He has forgotten his true nature 2. He knows not the end toward which the universe tends 3. He knows not the means by which the world is governed.” As Boethius begins to realize the inadequacy of happiness in material things; his reflections begin to ponder toward God and the conclusion that true happiness can be found only in God since only God attains perfect happiness. Lady Philosophy further comforts him as they dialog about subjects such as evil, God’s knowledge, fate, providence, and free will. Similar to St. Augustine, evil has no real substance. Augustine believed evil was like a mere shadow only revealed when the true substance of light from the sun is absent. Therefore evil is the absence of good action and evil does not exist substantially. God orders all things through providence and everything that happens on earth is considered fate. All fortune good or bad should be considered good because even bad fortune can instruct the recipient toward virtue. Free will exists, and although God knows everything from the past, present, and future, Boethius concludes that God does not interfere with the free will of humans.
The key principle in understanding Boethius’s concept of God’s foreknowledge is based on his definition of eternity. Boethius defines eternity as “the simultaneous and complete possession of infinite life.” If life is infinite, then it has no beginning. If life is infinite, then it has no end. Any life as it is commonly known today; that has no beginning and no end, is, therefore, infinite and does not exist in the limits of time. Time is limited because it is a subjective concept used as an instrument to measure the existence of life. In order for existence to be measured by time, a beginning and an end are necessary. It does not make sense to claim time exists without an end. It is true that a being can have a beginning without an end, such as the angels of God which he created. There is a point of reference known only to God who created them, but no reference to their destruction, therefore no point of reference for an end measurement. This type of existence with a beginning and no end can be eternal but does not follow the definition of Boethius’s “infinite” concept. An infinite being would be God who does not have a beginning and an end. Since God has no beginning and no end, He has no point from which to measure any existence of life which would necessitate the concept of time as a conceptual measuring instrument; therefore God exists outside of time. The past, present, and future are all-time references and do not apply to Boethius’s “simultaneous infinite life” concept. This means God’s knowledge is something that he knows in the future, present, and past. Boethius believes God knows all things simultaneously. Every thought and plan already existed in eternity. The concept of “idea” is non-existent in the foreknowledge of God because there is no point of reference in “time” when God thought of an idea because that would imply learning. Infinite knowledge cannot learn anything because simultaneous infinite knowledge eternally has and will always know all.
The misfortune of Boethius is not an uncommon occurrence in this world. It is not difficult to find many people in history who were unjustly imprisoned or sentenced to death. Significant to Boethius is what he decided to do with his time while in prison. Born into an aristocratic family and achieving success in his career in politics; he had need of nothing until suddenly fate removed everything including his life. Understandably, the condition he was in would push the average person to a mental state of hopelessness. Yet Boethius proved to have an unaverage mind. Absent from all his material luxuries and pleasures; he found comfort in the one thing no power could force away, his will to think. By thinking he philosophized his way to comfort and hope as he awaited his execution. He wrote one of the world’s greatest philosophical masterpieces which highly influences the world to this day. Some consider him a classical philosopher, some medieval. But when a philosopher writes a book such as The Consolation of Philosophy and impacts the world from its beginning to this present day; then there is no end in sight. His influence has broken the barriers of time along with the greatest philosophers of antiquity. Since there is no end in sight to his influence, Boethius is not a classical or medieval philosopher, he is an eternal philosopher.
Marenbon, John. Boethius. New York. Oxford University Press, 2003. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/apus/reader.action?docID=3052086&ppg=20. Web. Nov 24, 2019
Boethius, and James, H. R. The Consolation of Philosophy of Boethius. London: E. Stock, 1897. https://search-proquest-com.ezproxy1.apus.edu/psycbooks/docview/863531963/A8F8328813C14A7FPQ/1?accountid=8289. Web. Nov 24, 2019.
Boethius, Anicias. Cooper, W.V. The Consolation of Philosophy. http://www.exclassics.com.
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