Aug 1, 2006

Boethius: The Philosopher Theologian

4 Min Read

One of the least known but most significant Christian thinkers of antiquity was a sixth-century layman called Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius, or simply Boethius for short. The son of an old senatorial family, he lived between 480 and 524, being consul (a largely ceremonial political position) in 510, and then Master of the Offices at the Ostrogothic court in Ravenna in 522. It was while serving in this latter capacity that Boethius was accused of treason, imprisoned, tried, and executed. It remains unclear to this day whether he was actually guilty of treason or, as seems more likely, was simply the victim of the instability of imperial politics at the time. He was later canonized by the Catholic Church as Saint Severinus.

Boethius’ contributions to Western civilization in general and theology in particular are wide-ranging and significant. Indeed, he adapted a number of Greek works into Latin, probably including Euclid’s Geometry; these works laid the ground work for the so-called quadrivium, or group of four academic disciplines (music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy). The quadrivium combined with the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic), to form the seven liberal arts (though we should remember that each of the subjects then covered much more ground than that with which we would typically associate them today). Thanks to the influence of Alcuin (ca. 740–804) and the intellectual circle surrounding Charlemagne, the seven liberal arts became the foundation of Western higher education; thus, the work of Boethius was, in the long run, instrumental in profoundly shaping the whole concept of university education.

In addition to this more general pedagogical contribution, Boethius also translated numerous logical works of the Greek philosopher, Aristotle, into Latin. Given the general lack of knowledge of the Greek language in medieval Western Europe, Boethius’ work in this area was highly influential, both in terms of providing one of the only ways of accessing Aristotle’s thought until the twelfth century, and also of the limits it placed upon such access, with the result that Aristotle was primarily known as a logician and not as a metaphysician. Thus, Boethius inadvertently helped pave the way for the great crisis that occurred in Christian thinking in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when it was suddenly discovered that Aristotle the authoritative logician arguably held to numerous metaphyical positions (such as the eternity of the world) that were not so easy to accommodate within a Christian framework. It was this problem that brought forth the great work of Thomas Aquinas.

Theologically, Boethius’ great contributions lie in his five Opuscula Sacra (Little Sacred Works) and his magnum opus, The Consolation of Philosophy. The former group of five little tracts, the Opuscula Sacra, covers issues relating to the doctrines of the Trinity, the nature of the Catholic Faith, and the Incarnation. The most significant of these are undoubtedly nos. 1–3, which deal with the Trinity. Given the fact that Boethius’ work on the Trinity was to be a standard textbook in the Middle Ages, and that writing a commentary upon it was to be a basic part of theological education, the importance of his work in this area cannot be overestimated.

His contribution on this matter can be seen as twofold. First, he operates within a basic Augustinian framework, which assumes the substantial unity of God at the outset and then works from this basis to explain the threeness in terms of relation. As such, his work stands within an established Western tradition that it then helps to reinforce. Second, he demonstrates how the logical analysis of language can be used to explore and explain Christian doctrine, a point that had wide implications for the development of theological training in the West. What Boethius does in his tractates is to offer a defense of the doctrine of the Trinity where he assumes the truth of the Nicene position, and then deploys logic in order to demonstrate how Trinitarian theology requires careful analysis of how language is used, and how Aristotelian logical categories can help with this task. Only in this way, Boethius argues, can we understand how the language of unity and multiplicity can be applied to the Godhead.

Boethius’ magnum opus, The Consolation of Philosophy, was both the most popular book after the Bible itself in Western Europe in the Middle Ages (Alfred the Great is rumored to have made a translation of it), and one of the most perplexing. Written while Boethius awaits execution, it asks that most basic of questions: Why does God allow evil to happen to good people? As he languishes in his cell, the Lady Philosophy appears and explains to him why it is that an omniscient God can yet allow innocent suffering: while God knows and see all things at all times, past, present, and future, in a single moment or act of His being, yet the possibility of evil is something that He must allow if human beings are to have any significant freedom. Evil and suffering are, if you like, the price worth paying for liberty.

That it is the Lady Philosophy who offers this explanation, and that the book contains nothing explicitly Christian has perplexed readers for generations: How could the Christian writer of the Opuscula Sacra have written a work on this question and not have given an explicitly Christian solution? While it is impossible to answer this with any certainty, it was certainly the case that later generations were able to build upon Boethius’ underlying argument in The Consolation, that philosophy was extremely useful as a means of gaining knowledge and attaining to the vision of God. Further, the basic problem that Boethius’ work poses is this: If God knows the future already, how can language about freedom be meaningful? His solution may not have been explicitly Christian, but the question was put in a dramatic manner that served to shape future discussions of the relationship between foreknowledge and freedom.

Boethius, then, is today a little known layman. Yet in his brief literary career, he translated and authored works that had an almost incalculable impact upon the way people thought, studied, and argued for a thousand years.