Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius - Biography
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius – Roman Christian Philosopher (475/80-524/526). The exact date of birth for the scholar, philosopher and statesman Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius is not known, but scholarship has agreed he was born in or around Rome between the years 475 and 480. As well, his exact date of death, by execution, is also unclear, but is considered to have occurred sometime between the years 524 and 526 in Pavia where he had been imprisoned for heresy. The first biography of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius comes from a fellow statesman, Cassiodorus, who admiringly spoke of Boethius’ oratorical skill, his particular writings on theology, and most noteworthy, his translations of Greek philosophy and logic, which made him one of the most important figures in bridging the world of ancient philosophy and the middle ages. In addition to the aforementioned, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius becomes most well known for his final text, De consolatione philosophiae (The Consolation of Philosophy), which was written during his imprisonment.
While birth and death dates cannot be certain, between Cassiodorus’ biography, various other ancient sources, and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ own work, a reliable narrative of his life has been configured. He was born into the noble patrician Roman family, the Anicii, whose lineage is said to include two Popes and ancestral relations to Roman governance including the emperors Petronius Maximus and Olybrius, and members of the Roman consuls. He was as well born into a pivotal moment of history, entering into a Roman family that had been Christian for about a century and a world in which the classical Roman Empire was being disposed with the ousting of the last Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus, in 476 by Odoacer, presumably a Germanic barbarian. Between thus and his commitment to ancient philosophy and its translation is why in part he comes to be such a central figure between the two worlds.
Under the new reign of Odoacer, soon referred to as the King of Italy, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ father served as consul in 487. Prior to that there are records of his father having been proctor for a school in Alexandria in 470, but there are no other accounts. And there are not any accounts that his son went to school in Alexandria or Athens, the last of the great Platonic schools. While Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius may have never studied at those Academies, he certainly followed a similar curriculum and it is clear that he received a rather generous and privileged education in Greek, and Latin, and a formidable foundation in the classics. Even though his father died while he was young, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was brought up in the house of a fellow Roman, Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, whose daughter he would later marry. His privileged life enabled him to continue his studies and lead a learned life within the Roman aristocracy. His passion for philosophy led to a life-long commitment of translation and commentary in which he sought to make the classics more widely accessible and comprehensible.
Although it was overly ambitious and never completed, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius did set out to translate and comment on all of the works by Aristotle and Plato. His commentaries seem to take on a world of their own as he became more and more engrossed in logic and providing such logical arguments to all that he translated. His logical arguments followed from Porphyry, who was responsible for incorporating, and harmonizing, Aristotelian logic into the Platonic discourse. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ commentary on the Categories is quite similar to Porphyry’s own commentary of the text, yet Boethius expounds here on Porphyry’s introductory commentary, Isagoge, on the concept of universals—a concept often left ‘unpacked’ by previous commentators, including Porphyry. Taking up the question of universals, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius argues that universals exist only mentally, in thought, and not in reality. Therefore, these thoughts do not have an equivalent object materially nor abstractly (as in mathematics) and are thus not worth enquiry. Yet, “universals” may arise as the product of abstract thought (again, mathematics is a case in point), but such universals are not “empty” thoughts of the mind’s creation but rather address reality.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’s next important commentary, On Interpretation, purportedly derives from Porphyry’s lost commentary. Boethius provides an in-depth analysis of Porphyry’s interpretive nature revolving around his, via Aristotle, semantics and a discussion in logic that proposes the falsity of a statement that is based on contingency, if and when such contingency is not bespoke.
Much of his logic was also greatly influenced by Cicero in which he wrote In Ciceronis Topica, as well as De topicis differentiis. In the former, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius discusses logic in three forms: logic as defining, logic as dividing, and logic as deduction. As well, there are three logical forms of argument: that which is necessitated, that which is plausible, and that which is literal. He also further discusses the particulars of “Topics” which he will develop more in the latter text. In the latter text, among his explanations of rhetorical and dialectical topics, in which both the logic of Cicero and Aristotle are revived, he posits an innovative discussion and addition to the discourse in the notion of differentiae. Essentially he states that in addition to the, henceforth, primary type of Topic, a maximal proposition, there is another type that is the “differentiae” of such maximal propositions. Given the substantive role of maximal propositions, the differentiae can elaborate from employing thus to further develop arguments. The differentiae are “the Topics of arguments ... Topics which are the Differentiae of [maximal] propositions are more universal than those propositions, just as rationality is more universal than man.”
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’ intellectual prowess curried the favor of Theodoric the Great, the King of the Ostrogoths who had taken Italy in 493. Under Theodoric, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, like his father, also served as a statesman and became consul in 510 after serving as senator. Following family tradition, his two sons, Symmachus and Boethius, served as well as co-consuls in 522. During this time Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was working towards recovering the schism between the churches in Rome and Constantinople. This political religious landscape is surely in part an influence on the writings that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius took up in theology and is purportedly what led to his falling out of favor with Theodoric, in which he was declared a heretic and sentenced to death.
His theological tractates, Opuscula Sacra, are considered to be a forerunner to those of St. Thomas Aquinas and an evolution or fruition of the Augustinian perspective. They address issues of divinity and faith and their substantive quality through his logic of argumentation and the rhetorical reason of his philosophy. He begins with distinguishing between fides and ratio, and questions the substantiality of the divine, of God. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius resolves thus, as far as logic ‘allows’ him, as a predication that is relative and not substantive, allowing for the Trinity, and God to be both the “father” and the “son”. In the third tract, he rhetorically posits the (impossible) non-existence of God to resolve the inconceivability that God is not good, and the impossibility that all things are not good, through the discernment and relation of that which exists and that which is substantial—thus God is the substance of goodness itself.
The most well-known and most revered text from Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius is his text, Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote during his imprisonment. The work is essentially Platonic, and as many scholars have noted, the lack of any Christian doctrine in the text seems to speak to the reigning influence over him of pagan philosophy rather than Christian theology. In it he even states that he adhered to the Pythagorean, rather than the Christian, charge to “follow God”. Some have ventured to surmise as Momigliano did that while “many people have turned to Christianity for consolation Boethius turned to paganism. His Christianity collapsed—it collapsed so thoroughly that perhaps he did not even notice its disappearance.” Momigliano is clearly putting forth a more psychological interpretation and we can not know for certain where Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius stood in relation to his faith at the time, but it is certainly more than noteworthy that the “Christian” sought consolation in philosophy in his last hours and final passages.
The Consolation of Philosophy that was coined by Gibbon as the “golden volume,” is written as a dialogue between Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius and Philosophy, a quasi-character he regards as female. He writes in the first person as prose and ‘answers’ himself through Philosophy written in verse. The work begins with a profound statement in which Boethius claims that the only true philosophers are Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, while the rest simply take from. It is encumbered with issues of metaphysics and ethics with an apparent over-arching desire to accept, and praise, the existence of a higher power in which all else is secondary to it and its divine providence in spite of the inequalities of the world. He will, as he did in the theological tractates, employ hypothetical logic throughout to tease out the possibility or impossibility of providence.
The starting premise, of course, is for Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius to find consolation with what has transpired, in which Philosophy reminds that true goodness is in virtue and that absolute goodness is not simply found in god but is god. It is written from a very Platonic perspective: “The sum, origin, and cause of all that is sought after is rightly thought to be goodness … The substance of God consisteth in nothing else but in goodness … Virtuous men are always powerful, and bad men always weak; for both desire the good, but only the virtuous get it … The wicked are more unfortunate if they escape punishment than if they suffer it … In wise men there is no place for hatred.” Given his own encumbrance at the time of writing, the ‘enlightened’ tone seems reminiscent of Plato’s Socrates, or perhaps in part ironically.
He accepts a privative notion of evil, which eventually is such that evil, itself, does not then exist. His morality is very much inspired by Stoicism and he seems to be directly influenced by Seneca. He will write of friendship as that which is “most sacred” that happiness is the good and that such happiness can be obtained through divinity. He ventures into a kind of pantheism when he further speaks of the notion that for those who obtain divinity “become gods” and that in light of the fact—of nature—that there is just one god many can become ‘gods’ by “participation.” This line of discussion seems to seek in it a ‘salvation’ from despair in virtuosity. Thus while one cannot be-come a God, one can participate in the divinity of its happiness regardless of one’s state of affairs.
This powerful love
Is common unto all.
Which for desire of good do move
Back to the springs from whence they first did fall.
No worldly thing
Can a coninuance have
Unless love back again it bring
Unto the cause which first the essence gave.
Yet again, while it is not clear what Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius’s final bearing was in regards to his faith or whether or not this great work was a vestige of the possibility to find ‘salvation’ in and through philosophy, we can perhaps conclude that his faith was not forgotten within the realm of Philosophy’s possibility as well as its limits. More contemporary scholarship accepts the latter yet with less dramatic positions than those of earlier scholarship. The style of the writing has been discussed in terms of the Menippean satire, which was associated with the jeering of rights to knowledge. Thus, in addition to the author’s logical gymnastics, perhaps there was an embedded layer of rhetorical doubt. Therefore it is not that he is undermining Philosophy or his life long devotion to it, but rather staging its own limitations. Just as the final logic in the theological tractates cannot be necessarily concluded, nor can philosophy conclude all that one might desire of it.
Executed for presumed acts of heresy, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius died a Christian martyr of Arian persecution (allocated as such a few centuries later). Next to Aristotle and St. Augustine, he was the most important figure in medieval philosophy and theology. Through his translations of the classics, his commentaries on logic and his own logic textbooks, Boethius educated centuries of scholarship. Known collectively as Logica vetus, his work was widely disseminated and employed through the twelfth century specifically influencing the twelfth century philosophers Abelard and Gilbert of Poitiers, and later Thomas Aquinas. The latter was also aware of his theological treatises as was Anselm of Cantebury and Gilbert of Poitiers wrote specifically upon these works. Boethius also wrote influentially on music and translated Nicomachus’ arithmetic treatise. Yet, of course, the influence of his final work, Consolation of Philosophy, far exceeded everything else. It was translated into almost every idiom of the medieval languages, into Greek and into Hebrew. It influenced too many to account for, but in its immediacy in particular, Chaucer (who translated it into Middle English), Aquinas, and Dante. Overall, the work and its literary style helped to make philosophy more accessible and more widely read.