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Boethius, c.475-524

boethius.jpg (9507 bytes)Anicius Manlius Severinus, better known as Boethius, was born of a consular family and studied philosophy, mathematics and poetry. Soon after 500 he was appointed a court minister by the Gothic king, Theodoric, now ruling Italy from Rome. Boethius was made consul in 510, and his two sons shared the same honor in 522. But his boldness brought down upon his head the vengeance of those whom he had checked in their oppressions. He was accused of treasonable designs against Theodoric, was stripped of his dignities, and, after imprisonment and torture at Pavia, was executed in 524.

During his imprisonment he wrote his famous De Consolatione Philosophiae (a selection of which follows), in which the author holds a conversation with Philosophy, who shows him the mutability of all earthly fortune, and the insecurity of everything save virtue. The work, which in style imitates the best Augustan models, is theistic in its language, but affords no indication that that its writer was in fact a Christian. Boethius was the last great Roman writer who understood Greek and his translations of Aristotle were long the only means of studying Greek philosophy. His manuals on arithmetic, astronomy, geometry and music were generally used in medieval schools.

The following selection is intended to give you a brief "taste" of Boethius. With any luck, you will find yourself buried in the world of the Consolation soon after.

Resources
Boethius entry (Catholic Encylcopedia)
Boethius entry
(Richard Hooker)
Boethius entry
(MacTutor)
Boethius entry
(Jacques Maritain Center)
The Consolation of Boethius
(Sanderson Beck)
The Consolation of Philosophy

Life of Boethius
(John O'Donnell)

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BOOK 1

I

I who once composed with eager zest
Am driven by grief to shelter in sad songs;
All torn the Muses' cheeks who spell the words
For elegies that wet my face with tears.
No terror could discourage them at least
From coming with me on my way.
They were the glory of my happy youth
And still they comfort me in hapless age.
Old age came suddenly by suffering sped,
And grief then bade her government begin:
My hair untimely white upon my head,
And I a worn out bone-bag hung with flesh.
Death would be happy if it spared the glad
But heeded invocations from the wretch.
But now Death's ears are deaf to hopeless cries,
His hands refuse to close poor weeping eyes.
First fickle Fortune gave me wealth short-lived,
Then in a moment all but ruined me.
Since Fortune changed her trustless countenance,
Small welcome to the days prolonging life.
Foolish the friends who called me happy then
Whose fall shows how my foothold was unsure.

While I was quietly thinking these thoughts over to myself and giving vent to my sorrow with the help of my pen, I became aware of a woman standing over me. She was of awe-inspiring appearance, her eyes burning and keen beyond the usual power of men. She was so full of years that I could hardly think of her as of my own generation, and yet she possessed a vivid color and undiminished vigor. It was difficult to be sure of her height, for sometimes she was of average human size, while at other times she seemed to touch the very sky with the top of her head, and when she lifted herself even higher, she pierced it and was lost to human sight. Her clothes were made of imperishable material, of the finest thread woven with the most delicate skill. (Later she told me that she had made them with her own hands.) Their color, however, was obscured by a kind of film as of long neglect, like statues covered in dust. On the bottom hem could be read the embroidered Greek letter Pi, and on the top hem the Greek letter Theta. Between the two a ladder of steps rose from the lower to the higher letter. Her dress had been torn by the hands of marauders who had each carried off such pieces as he could get. There were some books in her right hand, and in her left hand she held a scepter.

At the sight of the Muses of Poetry at my bedside dictating words to accompany my tears, she became angry.

"Who," she demanded, her piercing eyes alight with firs, "has allowed these hysterical sluts to approach this sick man's bedside? They have no medicine to ease his pains, only sweetened poisons to make them worse. These are the very women who kill the rich and fruitful harvest of Reason with the barren thorns of Passion. The habituate men to their sickness of mind instead of curing them. If as usual it was only some ordinary man you were carrying off a victim of your blandishments, it would matter little to me -- there would be no harm done to my work. But this man has been nourished on the philosophies of Zeno and Plato. Sirens is a better name for you and your deadly enticements: be gone, and leave him for my own Muses to heal and cure.

These rebukes brought blushes of shame into the Muses' cheeks, and with downcast eyes they departed in a dismal company. Tears had partly blinded me, and I could not make out who this woman of such imperious authority was. I could only fix my eyes on the ground overcome with surprise and wait in silence for what she would do next. She came closer and sat down on the edge of my bed. I felt her eyes resting on my face, downcast and lined with grief. The sadly she began to recite the following lines about my confusion of mind.

II

"So sinks the mind in deep despair
And sight grows dim; when storms of life
Blow surging up the weight of care,
It banishes its inward light
And turns in trust to the dark without.
This was the man who once was free
To climb the sky with zeal devout
To contemplate the crimson sun,
The frozen fairness of the moon --
Astronomer once used in joy
To comprehend and to commune
With planets on their wandering ways.
This man, this man sought out the source
Of storms that roar and rouse the seas;
The spirit that rotates the world,
The cause that translocates the sun
From shining East to watery West;
He sought the reason why spring hours
Are mild with flowers manifest,
And who enriched with swelling grapes
Ripe autumn at the full of year.
Now see that mind that searched and made
All nature's hidden secrets clear
Lie prostrate prisoner of night.
His neck bends low in shackles thrust,
And he is forced beneath the weight
To contemplate -- the lowly dust.

"But it is time for healing, not lamenting," she went on. Then, fixing her eyes intently upon me, she said, "You are the man, are you not, who was brought up on the milk of my learning and fed on my own food until you reached maturity? I gave you arms to protect you and keep your strength unimpaired, but you threw them away. Surely you recognize me? And yet you do not speak. Is it shame or is it astonishment that keeps you silent? I should prefer it to be shame, but I see that it is not."

When she saw that it was not that I would not speak, but that, dumbstruck, I could not, she gently laid her hand on my breast and said, "It is nothing serious, only a touch of amnesia that he is suffering, the common disease of deluded minds. He has forgotten for a while who he is, but he will soon remember once he has recognized me. To make it easier for him I will wipe a little of the blinding cloud of worldly concern from his eyes."

As she spoke she gathered her dress into a fold and wiped from my eyes the tears that filled them.

III

The night was put to flight, the darkness fled,
And to my eyes their former strength returned:
Like when the wild west wind accumulates
Black clouds and stormy drakes fills the sky:
The sun lies hid before the hour the stars
Should shine, and night envelopes all the earth:
Buts should the North wind forth from his Thracian cave
Lash at the darkness and loose the prisoner day,
Out shines the sun with sudden light suffused
And dazzles with its rays the blinking eye.

In the same way the clouds of my grief dissolved and I drank in the light. With my thoughts recollected I turned to examine the face of my physician. I turned my eyes and fixed my gaze upon her, and I saw that it was my nurse in whose house I had been cared for since my youth -- Philosophy. I asked her why she had come down from the heights of heaven to my lonely place of banishment.

"Is it to suffer false accusation along with me?" I asked.

"Why, my child," she replied, "should I desert you. Why should I not share your labor and the burden you have been saddled with because of the hatred of my name? Should I be frightened by being accused? Or cower in fear as if it were something unprecedented? This is hardly the first time wisdom has been threatened with danger by the forces of evil. In olden times, too, before the time of my servant Plato, I fought many a great battle against the reckless forces of folly. And then, in Plato's own lifetime, his master Socrates was unjustly put to death -- a victorious death won with me at his side. After that the mobs of Epicureans and Stoics and the others each did all they could to seize for themselves the inheritance of wisdom that he left. As part of their plunder they tried to carry me off, but I fought and struggled, and in my fight the robe was torn which I had woven with my own hands. They tore off little pieces from it and went away in the fond belief that they had obtained the whole of philosophy. The sight of traces of my clothing on them gained them the reputation among the ignorant of being my familiars, and as a result many of them became corrupted by the ignorance of the uninitiated mob.

"But even if you do not know the stories of the foreign philosophers, how Anaxagoras was banished from Athens, how Socrates was put to death by poisoning, and how Zeno was tortured, you do not know of Romans like Canius, Seneca and Soranus, whose memory is still fresh and celebrated. The sole cause of their tragic sufferings was their obvious and complete contempt of the pursuits of immoral men which my teaching had instilled in them. It is hardly surprising if we are driven by the blasts of storms when our chief aim on this sea of life is to displease wicked men. And though their numbers are great, we can afford to despise them because they have no one to lead them and are carries along only by ignorance which distracts them at random first one way then another. When their forces attack us in superior numbers, our general conducts a tactical withdrawal of his forces to a strong point, and they are left to encumber themselves with useless plunder. Safe from their furious activity on our ramparts above, we can smile at their efforts to collect all the most useless booty: our citadel cannot fall to the assaults of folly."

VI

"If when summer solstice brings
   The Crab with parching heat,
In furrows that refuse the seed
   The farmer sows his wheat,
No crops will spring to glad his hopes
   And acorns he shall eat.
You would not search the woodside gay
   To pick a springtime flower
When all the shuddering country groans
   Before the North Wind's power.
Nor would you seek with greedy hand
   To pluck your vines in May;
The wine god gives his gift of grapes
   When Autumn's on the way.
For God has fixed the seasons' tasks
   And each receives its own:
No power is free to disarray
   The Order God has shown.
Should then some being precipitate
   Aspire to quit its place,
The Lord would not allow success
   In mutiny to grace.

"Will you first then let me discover your state of mind and test it with a few simple questions? That way I can discover the best method of curing you."

"Ask what you like," I replied, "and I will answer."

"Do you believe that this life consists of haphazard and chance events, or do you think it is governed by some rational principle?"

"I could never believe that events of such regularity are due to the haphazards of chance. In fact I know that God the Creator watches over His creation. The day will never come that sees me abandon the truth of this belief."

"It is true," she said, "and indeed it is the very thing you were singing of just now when you were deploring the fact that only mankind is outside God's care. It was your firm conviction that all other things were governed by reason. So how you can be sick when you hold so healthy a belief is quite beyond my understanding. However, let us carry our examination deeper. I feel there is something missing somewhere. Tell me, then, since you have no doubts that the world is governed by God, what are the means by which you think He guides it?"

"I can't answer the question, " I replied, "because I don't understand what it means."

"I was right, then," she said, "in thinking that something was missing. Your defenses have been breached and your mind has been infiltrated by the fever of emotional distraction. So tell me, do you remember what is the end and purpose of things and the goal to which the whole of Nature is directed?"

"I did hear it once," I said, "but my memory has been blunted by grief."

"Well, do you know the source from which all things come?"

"Yes," I replied, and said that it was God.

"How can it be then, that you know the beginning of things but don't know their end? The peculiarity of these disturbances is that they have just enough power to move a man from his usual position, but can't quite throw him over and totally uproot him. I want you to answer this too: do you remember that you are a man?"

"Why shouldn't I?" I said.

"Can you, then, tell me what man is?"

"Are you asking me if I know whether man is a rational and mortal animal? I do know it and acknowledge that that is what I am."

"Are you sure you are not something more?"

"Quite sure."

"Now I know the other cause, or rather the major cause of your illness: you have forgotten your true nature. Ad so I have found out in full the reason for your sickness and the way to approach the task of restoring you to health. It is because you are confused by loss of memory that you wept and claimed you had been banished and robbed of all your possessions. And it is because you don't know the end and purpose of things that you think the wicked and the criminal have power and happiness. And because you have forgotten the means by which the world is governed you believe these ups and downs of fortune happen haphazardly. These are grave causes and they lead not only to illness but even death. Thanks, however, to the Author of all health, nature has not quite abandoned you. In your true belief about the world's government -- that it is subject to divine reason and not the haphazards of chance -- there lies our greatest hope of rekindling your health. You need to have no fears then, now that this tiny spark has blazed with the fire of life. Still, as it is not yet time for stronger medicine, and as it is the accepted opinion that the nature of the mind is such that for every true belief it rejects, it assumes a false one from which the fog of distraction rises to blot out its true insight, I will try to lessen this particular fog little by little by applying gentle remedies of only medium strength. In this way the darkness of the ever treacherous passions may be dispelled, and you will be able to see the resplendent light of truth."

VII

"In dark clouds
Hidden
The stars can shed
No light.
If boisterous winds
Stir the sea
Causing a storm,
Waves once crystal
Like days serene
Soon turn opaque
And think with mud
Prevent the eye
Piercing the water.
Streams that wander
From tall hills
Down Descending
Often dash
Against a rock
Torn from the hillside.
If you desire
To look on truth
And follow the path
With unswerving course,
Rid yourself
Of joy and fear,
Put hope to flight,
And banish grief.
The mind is clouded
And bound in chains
Where these hold sway."

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copyright 2000 Steven Kreis
Last Revised -- August 03, 2009
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