Identity and the Life of the Mind: The Eternal Value of Boethius

This post is a preview of a forthcoming online Davenant Hall class, “Boethius: Gateway to Medieval Thought”, running in the Spring Term 2022 (April to June), and convened by Dr. Anthony Cirilla.

If you wish to register for the module you can do so here.

Our default relationship to knowledge is one of alienation. If we do not know something, then that information is alien to us, and even information which we have absorbed often sits within cerebral boxes as content we have acquired but not necessarily internalized. Walter Ong pointed out this as a problem for writing in specific: “Yet it would appear that the technological inventions of writings, print, and electronic verbalization, in their historical effects, are connected with and have helped bring about a certain kind of alienation within the human lifeworld.”[1]

With the invention of writing and the growing complexity of technologies of communication, knowledge risks more and more being conceived of as something out there, with no bearing on our actual humanity. But the pursuit of knowledge in the liberal arts tradition is understood to be something more: “In the exercise of the liberal arts, however, action begins in the agent and ends in the agent, who is perfected by the action”[2]. Knowledge should not simply be a pile of absorbed and organized information, but should be a site by which identity is fashioned and personality is forged. Lady Wisdom teaches this in the Book of Proverbs, that to learn her precepts is not simply to have knowledge but to be transformed by possession of it: “Now therefore hearken unto me, O ye children: for blessed are they that keep my ways. Hear instruction, and be wise, and refuse it not. Blessed is the man that heareth me, watching daily at my gates, waiting at the posts of my doors. For whoso findeth me findeth life, and shall obtain favour of the Lord” (Proverbs 8:32-35). The Christian attitude towards knowledge is not that of a mental antiquarian, collecting information like coins or stamps, but to see the proper pursuit of knowledge as that which adds to one’s life in the favor of the Lord, transforming the alienating otherness of knowledge into the self-fashioning realization of wisdom.

This attitude towards knowledge constitutes the core reason why I believe it is important for Christians to read Boethius. More than any other writer I have encountered outside of Scripture, Boethius has taught me to see philosophical contemplation from the vantage point of identity formation. Philosophy provides tools by which we can sharpen our thinking abilities and refine our capacity to articulate the truths of the Gospel, but the skill-oriented language used to justify the study of philosophy and theology only grasps at why such study is valuable rather than what at its core is worthy of contemplation. In the opening of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius’s grief-torn heart has caused him to lose identification with the knowledge he had once studied, as his personified mentor Lady Philosophy realizes: “He has forgotten who he really is, but he will recover, for he used to know me, and all I have to do is clear the mist that beclouds his vision.” Boethius is famous for raising the problem of evil: why would God let a just man like him suffer? But he is equally plagued by the problem of evil for education specifically: “Look at this dreadful cell! Does it resemble that cozy library where you used to visit in my house, where we would sit and discuss all kinds of interesting matters, both human and divine?…. And is this the reward you had for me…?” The new student of the life of the mind faces the alienations of novelty, but Boethius, a well-versed and learned man, faces a different alienation: he’s cut his teeth on the promises of a stable identity to be found in the vita contemplativa, and the taste has soured in his mouth.

In that sense, The Consolation of Philosophy is an epic of education, where Boethius must relearn, under the tutelage of his phantasmic mentor Lady Philosophy, to see how knowledge relates not only to one’s understanding of the world but of the conceptualization of self as situated within that world. Lady Philosophy realizes that this self-fashioning perspective on wisdom has been lost when she asks him, “What is a man?” and Boethius replies, “Are you asking me if I believe that man is a mortal, rational animal? Both of these things are certainly true.” He reported the classic Aristotelian definition of humanity, which he expected would please his interlocutor: whose ideas would Philosophy favor more than Aristotle’s? And yet she is not pleased by the response: “I see. And I understand the cause of your sickness. You have forgotten what you are.” Lady Philosophy will seek to restore to Boethius’s mind identification with an understanding of self situated within the ramifications of theistic philosophy for proper apprehension of human nature: “But the author of all health has not yet abandoned you and you have not totally lost your true nature. The best cure there is for such a disease as the one afflicting you is a correct understanding of the governance of the world, which is not merely a string of random events but the result of divine reason.” This aim alone makes The Consolation of Philosophy a worthy text: the success with which it makes contemplation of God not simply a question of argumentation but a first-person assessment of what it means to look at the self’s place in the world through a deeply theistic vision of human life.

In my upcoming Spring Term 2022 course for Davenant Hall, “Boethius: Gateway to Medieval Thought”, we will read Boethius’s theological tracts and selections of his liberal arts writings to grasp how he understood the life of the mind prior to writing his masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy. We will also, as we read the Consolation carefully, look at both influences on his thought (especially Seneca and Augustine) and those he influenced (particularly Anselm and Aquinas), as well as two examples of his literary legacy taken from his vast impact on Middle English literature. In sum, we will seek to show how Boethius gave the Christian Middle Ages and beyond a text that serves as a powerful resource for contemplating how knowledge relates to identity formation and maintenance in the Christian life.

This “Church History” course will be taught by Dr. Anthony Cirilla. This course will run from April 10th through June 17th. The syllabus is available here. Register here.

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.

  1. Walter Ong, Interfaces of the Word, 17.

  2. Miriam Joseph, The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric, 4.


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