Dawn and sunset are universally recognized as special times of the day, hours of hushed gestation and supple colour. Civilizations pass through cyclic rises and falls, and their most eminent men and women, those who give impetus to or epitomize a cycle, often emerge during dawns and twilights. Such lucid thinkers and luminous seers are the pivots of the revolving ages, radiant alphas and omegas of cyclic time. If Romulus founded Rome and Tarquin made it strong, the Gracchi brothers heralded the end of the order and a new era in Republican Rome. Similarly, Cicero summed up the Republic and stood on the threshold of the Imperium. Four centuries later, after the empire had been divided into east and west, Italy was in conspicuous decline. With the accession of Theodoric the Ostrogoth, the western empire ceased to be Roman. Though he reigned well and ruled through Roman institutions and customs, classical civilization collapsed and the medieval period began. Boethius marked that profound transition, conveying through his life and writings the efflorescence of the Roman world and providing the philosophical groundwork for the Middle Ages.
Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born at Rome in 480 to the exceptionally distinguished Anicii, a family one of whose members had become the first Roman senator to embrace Christianity. He was also descended from the Manlii, who were honoured from the earliest days of Rome, and from the Severini, who had given Rome emperors. A nobleman's nobleman, he received the finest training and education available in his day, and he excelled in law, literature, philosophy and politics. No doubt he learnt much about practical politics during his father's tenure as consul in 487. Consonant with the time-honoured custom, when Boethius was orphaned whilst still young, he was adopted by an aristocrat, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who bore the name of the ancestors who had led the non-Christians in their debate with Ambrose. Boethius eventually married his benefactor's daughter, Rusticiana, thus securing the respect of those senators whose Christianity was a veil of expediency as well as those who championed the conquering faith. Perhaps Boethius travelled to Athens for part of his higher education.
Theodoric wrested Italy from the Visigoths in 493, and though he used the senate to govern, he preferred to reign in Ravenna. He was an Arian and therefore a heretic by Roman standards. Nonetheless, his even-handed rule won the support of the clergy and the wary cooperation of the senate. Whilst Theodoric strengthened his hold on Italy, Boethius rose in the senate. When the king first entered Rome in 504, he sought out the twenty-four-year-old senator for advice. Boethius designed a reliable water-clock for Theodoric's brother-in-law, king of the Burgundians. He chose a harper for Clovis the Frank. He investigated and convicted a paymaster for debasing the coinage used to pay the king's guards and prevented a monopoly of the wheat market. The senate recognized his divers skills, making him consul in 510, a very early age for that honour and responsibility. Theodoric appreciated his astute judgement and comprehensive assistance, and in time appointed him Magister Officorum, Master of the King's Offices, a position which required daily attendance upon the king.
Despite his onerous duties and busy life, Boethius found time to study and write. Almost as if he felt compelled to record the best of a dying world for an uncertain posterity, Boethius penned introductions to arithmetic, geometry and music, and planned to translate and comment upon all the works of Plato and Aristotle, with the aim of harmonizing their teachings. He never completed this massive undertaking, but he produced a significant number of translations and commentaries, including one on Cicero. He also wrote elegiac poetry, none of which survives. His three theological treatises took the Catholic position against the Arian and sparked a number of controversies which became central arenas for debate throughout the Middle Ages. He was the first to suggest that reason should be reconciled with faith, and so he has been called 'the first of the scholastics'. In addition, he spelt out the problems that became the focus of the realist-nominalist controversy. Though he attempted to apply Aristotelian categories to Christian problems of doctrine (anticipating Aquinas), he sought to harmonize Aristotle with Plato and not vice versa (anticipating Pico della Mirandola).
In 522 both of his sons were made consuls, and Boethius emerged as the most important figure in government after Theodoric. Perhaps because of his growing influence and immense prestige, and perhaps because he sought to heal the increasing breach between Eastern and Western Christianity, he was suddenly arrested in 523 and thrown into the miserable prison known as Ager Calventianus, a notorious hole utterly without minimum human comfort. Whilst nothing is known of the real reasons for Theodoric's sudden change of heart towards Boethius, historians of the time agree in asserting that perjured testimony and forged documents were used to condemn him. His connections with the Eastern church, his staunch support of the senate, his immensely attractive personality and Theodoric's latent suspicion of native Roman power may have combined in an unholy mixture to destroy him. Condemned by the senate he loved, he was tortured in a manner reserved for slaves and killed in 524. Symmachus, his father-in-law, followed him in ignominious death the next year.
With the death of Boethius, the learning of the classical world quickly waned, along with the imitative modes of life that recalled Rome's glorious past. The contribution of a vast epoch was transmitted virtually through one man to a world being born. Because Boethius wanted to synthesize and convey the best of Greek and Roman traditions, he attempted to translate Greek texts literally. Cicero, his intellectual and moral mentor, had aspired to give the Romans Greek knowledge, but he restricted himself to paraphrase. Unlike Cicero, Boethius insisted on absolute fidelity to the original authors. Just as Cicero had reconstituted the Latin language to serve his ends, Boethius almost invented medieval Latin. Renaissance writers recognized the magnitude of this effort, and whilst Georgius Valla complained that "Boethius was the first to teach us to speak barbarian", others acknowledged a profound intellectual debt to him. At the same time, his carefully drawn distinctions laid the groundwork and set the terms of early medieval philosophical debates. Whilst clearly implying a belief in abstract ideas, he raised the question of the real existence of genera and species and, if real, whether they are separate from sensible objects. His practice of epoche – metaphysical neutrality – left the question open for those who would take up the question of the nature of universals. His influence was felt in many fields. His book De Musica was, for instance, a standard text at Oxford well into the eighteenth century.
That irony which seems to be the cloak of fate shows itself in the life of Boethius. Though deservedly famous in his own time and influential as a logician for centuries after his death, he is most remembered for a work he wrote in the midst of dishonour and suffering. He probably hoped to rescue himself from prison, but he knew the risks of public life in his time. The fact that he was treated as no better than a slave who had broken the law must have clearly signalled his probable end. His remarkable talent and resilient spirit rose out of his tragic and unjust fall to produce one of the most celebrated philosophical works in Western history, the Consolation of Philosophy (Philosophiae Consolatio). Rather than sink into bitterness or vituperate against those who brought him low, Boethius used his experience to reflect upon the meaning of life. "My friends, why did you so often think me happy? Any man who has fallen never stood securely."
Boethius began with his own plight, but he did not rely on his own wounded judgement to comprehend without help.
This luminous figure is Philosophia, a metaphorical personification of philosophical reasoning, who is also the living power of the imagination. Reminiscent of Plato's Diotima, Philosophia enters into discourse, nobly exhibiting a pattern that recalls Krishna's words in the Bhagavad Gita. At the same time, interspersed poems summarize speeches and raise further questions, somewhat like classical Buddhist sutras. Philosophia drives the consoling Muses from Boethius, for their commiseration only poisons his weakened mind. "It is time for medicine rather than complaint." She insists that Boethius must be strong, recalling the sufferings of Anaxagoras, Socrates and Zeno and not the pleasant lives of later, effete writers.
In utter despondency, Boethius pours out his unhappy tale of how he incurred the wrath of hostile individuals by defending the weak and exposing wickedness and corruption. He describes the unjust accusations against him, the forged letters and the base ingratitude of the senate, many of whose members he had personally saved from similar fates. But Philosophia remains undistracted by his tale. She acknowledges his desperation but rejects the cause. If he were strong, he could face the truth, but in his distraught condition she must use gentle treatment. "I am not so much disturbed by this prison", she tells him, "as by your attitude. I do not need your library with its glass walls and ivory decoration, but I do need my place in your mind." Philosophia begins with basic principles which Boethius cannot deny – that nothing occurs by chance, that if everything has its source in the Divine, the purpose of all things is discernible.
Yet Philosophia does not rush to administer the whole remedy. Before the healing balm can be effective, the mind has to be purged of false ideas, the by-products of soul-sickness.
Fortune, for instance, is not to be blamed, for its nature is to change. No individual can expect to live by some special law in a world which all human beings share. Further, Philosophia notes, fortune has not been unkind: if Boethius does not consider his experience serially and selectively, but rather takes it as a single whole, he will see that it has contained more of good than of evil. When Boethius complains that the worst sorrow is recollection of lost joys, Philosophia reminds him that happiness cannot be based on mere good fortune.
Having established the fundamental truth that self-possession alone is permanent, Philosophia can turn to the stronger medicine. First of all, she examines the material things men strive for – money, goods, fine clothes – and finds them harmful because they pretend to add to man something which cannot be his own. Secondly, she shows that honour and power are not good in themselves because they are transitory and sometimes possessed by wicked men. Finally, even the fame of honourable service is of slight value, for fame, however deserved, is only the aura of popular opinion. The strongest medicine is left for last: misfortune is more beneficial than good fortune, for the latter deceives whilst the former teaches men truth. When all the deceits of fortune are stripped away, the ordered governance of the universe is seen to be that dynamic harmony called love, and human beings will be content only when it also governs them.
Defining true happiness as the supreme good, Philosophia shifts from negative to positive discourse in order to show that the goods men seek are not inherently bad, but rather are partial and therefore deceptive. Nature inclines all living beings towards the Good, but error distracts them with partial goods, and relative happiness is no real happiness at all. Even the intellectual virtues, sufficientia, potentia, claritudo, reverentia and laetitia (sufficiency, ability, clarity, reverence and joy), are only aspects of the summum bonum, the highest Good, because they lead to it. Thus, men should strive for the Good itself and not for its reflections. Ultimate happiness is found in the Good, which is the Divine itself, since nothing else qualifies as worthy of the supreme appellation.
Being One, Deity is the goal towards which all things tend, and being the Good, Deity pervades the universe as goodness. Metaphysically, then, all things work towards the Good despite appearances.
As a spiritual affirmation and an ethical exhortation in the face of injustice and suffering, the Consolation would stand as a remarkable work. For Boethius, however, Philosophia's task is only half completed. The patient is purified of sickness and error, and he is now ready for full understanding. The first half of the discourse reorients the sick soul; the second half sends it coursing towards the goal. Boethius, acknowledging that true happiness is the Good and the Good is Deity, wonders how there can be evil in a world governed by Good. Philosophia denies that the wicked rule the world, for they futilely strive to achieve the Good (happiness) unnaturally, and they punish themselves by their own evil. Since all things are governed by the Good which is their ultimate nature, one might say that the wicked are evil, but one cannot say categorically that they are. Evil is a negation of being, and the wicked negate their own existence. In this sense, evil is a weakness, not a power, and this is why evil individuals invariably punish themselves just by being evil.
One cannot fully grasp why good men can suffer whilst evil men seem to rule without first understanding the possibility of divine foreknowledge and human free will. Though these concepts seem to be incompatible, they are not. Providence is divine reason prior to time, whilst Fate is order unfolded in time. Sub specie aeternitatis, everything is ordained; sub specie temporalis, humans can, and must, make choices. Evil is therefore a problem of understanding, not a disharmony in the world. When looking at the world, this means that even the seeming evil and injustice one encounters is part of the unwavering tendency towards the Good. When looking towards the cause, this means that one must contemplate the mystery of divine knowledge. Without meditation, there is no answer to ultimate questions. There is at the root of the highest human reason a self-validating recognition of divine reason, and for Boethius, this is called faith.
Boethius would have been amused by the ways in which his ideas were expropriated in the Middle Ages. His sublime concept of faith was reduced to the crude notion that reason must be based on a faith that is blind belief in church dogma. On the other hand, his Consolation was read avidly by generations upon generations, who found in it the strength and promise of victory over adversity. He was a Christian who hoped to bring together the warring factions of the church, but he did not believe that his religious convictions compelled him to abandon the power to think. For Boethius, the Christian life consists in attempting to understand the Good and to work for it by gradually becoming more and more like it. In words at once Christian, Platonic and Upanishadic, he invoked the Divine in a prayer that stands as a monument to his brave spirit and pure soul.