Boethius: Philosopher of Imagination

“Boethius” isn’t a name most people recognize. But you can hardly spend five minutes at an academic medieval conference without hearing his masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy, mentioned. Dante, Chaucer, C.S. Lewis, and J.R.R. Tolkien all held in common a deep appreciation for Boethius’s Consolation, and even regarded him as a model for various aspects of their imaginative creations. The legacy of the Consolation is itself incredible, as is the life which led to its composition.

Boethius lived during the failing days of the Roman Empire. In the year 410, Rome had been sacked by the Visigoths; this precipitated Rome’s military withdrawal from England. When Boethius was born in 480, Roman political power had diminished such that his homeland of Italy was under the rule of the Gothic warlord King Odoacer. In 493, when a young Boethius was being prepared for a political life by his aristocratic stepfather, the Ostrogothic warlord King Theodoric killed Odoacer with a sword to the stomach while the two leaders were having dinner together. Boethius would live the rest of his life with Theodoric as his king, which would turn out to be bad both for Boethius’s and Theodoric’s health.

Although Theodoric was an Ostrogoth, a Germanic tribe that had migrated from the northern territories, he appreciated Roman culture and recognized the talent and influence of Boethius. Drawing on a long tradition, Boethius was a primary figure in establishing the medieval liberal arts curriculum. There were seven fundamental liberal arts. The first three arts, grammar, logic, and rhetoric, were referred to as the trivium, because as the comprehensive arts of language, learning all three was necessary for further education. The next four arts were arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy, which prepared the mind for the study of philosophy and theology. Boethius and his friend Cassiodorus were not only trained to the limits of knowledge in those disciplines in Rome, but wanted to expand that knowledge further, especially by translating and commenting on liberal arts works found in Greek. Boethius wrote treatises on all three arts of the trivium, especially concerning Aristotle, and contributed original thought to rhetoric in the field of what was called topical argumentation, which was the discovery of the best approach of discussion for a given subject matter. Healso wrote a treatise on arithmetic and one on music. We know from letters by Cassiodorus that Boethius had also written a textbook on geometry, though unfortunately that was lost. And though there is no indication that Boethius wrote on astronomy, many things he says in the Consolation and other books suggest that he had studied the art carefully. The full force of this liberal arts educated mind would be brought to bear in the writing of the Consolation of Philosophy.

In addition to his liberal arts work and scholarship, Boethius wrote five theological tracts–two on the Trinity, one on the nature of Christ’s humanity and divinity, one on goodness, and a basic statement of Christian faith. In these, Boethius worked to understand the relationship of philosophy to theology, working out his conviction that philosophy could help people to better understand the complexities of theology. In Boethius’s view, when trained by the liberal arts, philosophical inquiry could be seen as bringing structural clarity to the contemplation of Scripture, a view inherited fromAugustine.

From the liberal arts viewpoint, the different arts were not just separate boxes of knowledge about unrelated subject matter; rather, the academic life of the mind was designed to prepare the student for the public life of action. Boethius followed this path, even though he didn’t really want to be a politician, but his parents, who died when he was young, were aristocratic, and his stepfather Symmachus was also a public figure who prepared Boethius for public life from the moment he adopted him. Symmachus loved Boethius enough that he even had Boethius marry his own daughter, with whom he would have two sons, and equipped him for service in the court of King Theodoric.

Unfortunately, Boethius’s theological beliefs were a source of political discomfort. KingTheodoric was an Arian, as most of the Gothic tribes were, rejecting the Trinitiarian theology of both East and West, believing that Jesus was not fully divine. But despite their theological differences and the tensions caused by Theodoric, as an outsider, ruling over a people which Boethius had been born into the ruling class of, Boethius still accepted Theodoric’s offer to try to build a better Italy, one where both Romans and Goths could be educated and civilized. In 511, Theodoric made Boethius the consul of Rome, and in this role Boethius made himself some enemies among other Roman senators, because he defended farmers and other laborers from high taxes and unjust political persecution. Theodoric used Boethius to investigate a case of counterfeit coins, asked him to handpick a harpist to send as a token of good will to the Byzantine Emperor, and even called on his skill as a clockmaker (both sundials and water clocks) for political purposes. Theodoric was essentially using Boethius both as an ambassador to keep up good relations with the Eastern part of the Roman Empire and as a cultural figurehead to reconcile Romans and Goths living in Italy. He made this position official in 522, naming Boethius Master of Offices, the highest honor Theodoric could give, a position which gave Boethius tremendous authority to promote his project of studying, preserving, and teaching Roman culture and expanding it with Greek learning. That same year, Theodoric further honored Boethius by making both of his sons consuls of Rome. Favored by king and country alike, Boethius had become something of a celebrity. Yet, for all the differences between our day and Boethius’s, medieval celebrity stories tended to go the same way as modern ones.

A senator named Albinus, one of Boethius’s friends, was accused of a treasonous plot to overthrow the King and bring the Eastern emperor’s rule back to Italy. Boethius, in a misplaced but loyal act of rhetorical flourish, testified that if Albinus was guilty, then even he could be accused and so could the senate–the point being of course that such a charge was preposterous. This verbal gaffe was Boethius’s undoing. As Book I of the Consolation relates, his political enemies, bitter over the obstacle he had been to their agendas, came out of the woodwork and accused Boethius of treason–ironically using as evidence his role as an ambassador, to which Theodoric had assigned him, as a sign of his treason. They threw every possible charge at him, even accusing him of practicing magic, a standard charge levied against intellectuals cloistered away in libraries reading old books. Of course, Boethius thought the charge preposterous enough that we find him joking about it in the Consolation. However, Boethius’s commitment to Trinitarian theology, his nostalgic affection for all things Roman, and the prospective danger he posed if he should set himself against the king, proved enough to kindle the spark of Theodoric’s royal jealousy into an inferno. Even though he refused to confess his guilt when subjected to the torture of having a rope tied around his face to the point that his eyes are described by Roman historians as bulging out, Boethius was stripped of his political power and thrown in prison without trial.

With a single gust of political wind, Boethius went from star of the show to a cast-off political pawn. As he sat in his jail cell, reflecting on his commitment to the welfare of the very kingdom that had so unjustly treated him, upon his commitment to a supposedly loving God who had allowed him to be the victim of such obvious injustice, and especially upon his dedication to the liberal arts education that had fueled both of those commitments and led to this unhappy imprisonment, Boethius was thrown into a true dark night of the soul. His freedom, his political influence, his access to his family, his plans for contributing to the Roman intellectual tradition–all taken away in a stroke of bad luck. How could life be so capricious? Boethius certainly would have been justified to simply mourn his fate in his cell, or to perhaps pen an angry invective against his wrongdoers. Instead, he drew upon the worldview he had been building his whole life, and funneled the sum of his liberal arts education, his theological insights, and his political experience into writing The Consolation of Philosophy–unquestionably the masterpiece of the sixth century and one of the finest pieces of literature in the period of late antiquity. To produce such a work in the face of such adversity strikes me as a life well lived.

Shortly after Boethius completed The Consolation of Philosophy, sometime in 524, he was executed by King Theodoric. Because his political fears were motivated by paranoia about a trinitarian plot to reunite the Western and Eastern Churches, Theodoric’s killing of Boethius is often interpreted as, to some extent, an example of religious persecution. Naturally, after Boethius was killed, Theodoric’s paranoia only increased–after all, he had just killed Rome’s favorite son right before the city’s eyes, a bloody execution at thirty strokes of the sword. So he went on a rampage, taking down Boethius’s stepfather Symmachus, as well as Pope John the First, under whom Boethius had likely penned his theological writings. This shocked Eastern writers of the day like Procopius, who had enormous respect for Boethius, and harmed relationships between Theodoric and the Eastern Byzantine empire. A year or two after Boethius’s execution, Theodoric himself expired during a massive bout of diarrhea.

The Consolation of Philosophy became a favorite text for people subject to religious or political persecution, as well as monarchs who wished to distinguish themselves as good rulers (i.e. not at all like Theodric–Elizabeth I, for example, wrote her own translation of the work). It’s a challenging text, all the more impressive when we consider the circumstances under which Boethius wrote. He didn’t know for sure at the time whether he would be imprisoned for life, exiled, or executed (though he had received a death sentence).

Writing in the carefully trained Latin of a Roman liberal arts philosopher, Boethius designed the text as a prosimetrum–a piece of writing that alternates between prose and poetry. Boethius’s Consolation is unusual because of how strict its prosimetric style is: 39 passages of prose and 39 passages of poetry, one after the other. We must note the structure well–it is not mere affectation, but key to the Consolation’s view of how philosophy relates to the imagination.Most of the poems are dialogue, which means they are a response of a character to a situation or to another character. The first book begins with poetry; books two through four all begin in prose and end in poetry, while the fifth and final book begins and ends in prose. It’s also important to think about whose voice we are supposed to imagine when each prose or poetry section is under way, and with the poetry in particular. The Consolation is mostly a conversation between the imprisoned Boethius and Lady Philosophy, a personification of the subject he had studied and valued for most of his life. We begin with imagining Boethius writing a poem, but Lady Philosophy interrupts and has her speak with him–although this conversation will of course actually happen in the real Boethius’s writing. She recites 35 of the other 39 poems; of the remaining three, one will be a description of the narrator telling the reader about his mental state when he first interacts with Lady Philosophy, and the other two will be Boethius’s attempts to express his distress to her as they discuss difficult concepts like political injustice and the relationship between God’s knowledge and free will.

What, then is the significance of the work’s structure? Even though this is a philosophical text, it’s one that is highly imaginative. Philosophy is personified as a strikingly beautiful woman who can sing, play music, and discourse on nature. She has a depth of personality even while she represents her intellectual namesake, and she will even create a personification of Lady Fortune. She invites Boethius to use his imagination in relation to historical figures, philosophical concepts, and his own circumstances, and in particular seems to disapprove of the use of imagination we see in his initial poem. This means that the poetry she recites is, in a sense, poetry approved by the philosophical imagination. Her poetry evidences the type of imagination which Boethius thinks is appropriate to being philosophical, which is why Lady Philosophy recites them to the distressed prisoner.

Centuries on, Boethius remains a master of the philosophical poetic mode, and his Consolation is a cornerstone text in the discussion of how philosophy and imagination interact. Reading Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy performs the ceremony of philosophical imagination necessary to open a window into our desire for God–and how to keep that window open when Fortune’s wheel spins and all the labors of our hands seem to come to nothing.

Dr. Anthony Cirilla teaches writing and literature courses at College of the Ozarks. He is also associate editor of Carmina Philosophiae, the journal of the International Boethius Society. Originally from Western New York (the Buffalo/Niagara region), he is happy to be back in Missouri. His wife, Camarie, writes poetry and fairy tales. They attend St. Joseph Anglican Church in Branson.


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