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Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius

[boh-ee-thee-uhs]

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480–524 or 525) was a Christian philosopher of the 6th century. He was born in Rome to an ancient and important family which included emperors Petronius Maximus and Olybrius and many consuls. His father, Flavius Manlius Boethius, was consul in 487 after Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman Emperor. Boethius himself was consul in 510 in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. In 522 he saw his two sons become consuls. Boethius was executed by King Theodoric the Great, who suspected him of conspiring with the Byzantine Empire.

Early life

The exact birthdate of Boethius is unknown. It is generally located at around AD 480, the same year of birth as St. Benedict. Boethius was born to a patrician family which had been Christian for about a century. His father's line included two popes, and both parents counted Roman emperors among their ancestors.

It is unknown where Boethius received his formidable education in Greek. Historical documents are ambiguous on the subject, but Boethius may have studied in Athens, and perhaps Alexandria. Since the elder Boethius is recorded as proctor of a school in Alexandria circa AD 470, the younger Boethius may have received some grounding in the classics from his father or a close relative.

As a result of his education and experience, Boethius entered the service of Theodoric the Great, who commissioned the young Boethius to perform many roles.

Late life

By 520, at the age of about forty, Boethius had risen to the position of magister officiorum, the head of all the government and court services. Afterwards, his two sons were both appointed consuls, reflecting their father's prestige.

In 523, however, Theodoric ordered Boethius arrested on charges of treason, possibly for a suspected plot with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I, whose religious orthodoxy (in contrast to Theodoric's Arian opinions) increased their political rivalry. Boethius himself attributes his arrest to the slander of his rivals. Whatever the cause, Boethius found himself stripped of his title and wealth and imprisoned in Pavia, awaiting an execution that took place in 524 the following year. The method of his execution varies by source - he was perhaps killed with an axe, a sword or clubbed to death. His bodily remains were placed in the church of San Pietro in Ciel d'Oro in Pavia. In the book Paradise of The Divine Comedy, Dante had the spirit of Boethius be pointed out by St. Thomas Aquinas:

The soul who pointed out the world's dark ways,
To all who listen, its deceits unfolding.
Beneath in Cieldauro lies the frame
Whence it was driven; from woe and exile to
This fair abode of peace and bliss it came.

Works

Boethius's most popular work is the Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote in prison while awaiting his execution, but his lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. He intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin. His completed translations of Aristotle's works on logic were the only significant portions of Aristotle available in Europe until the 12th century. However, some of his translations (such as his treatment of the topoi in The Topics) were mixed with his own commentary, which reflected both Aristotelian and Platonic concepts.

Boethius also wrote a commentary on the Isagoge by Porphyry, which highlighted the existence of the problem of universals: whether these concepts are subsistent entities which would exist whether anyone thought of them, or whether they only exist as ideas. This topic concerning the ontological nature of universal ideas was one of the most vocal controversies in medieval philosophy.

Besides these advanced philosophical works, Boethius is also reported to have translated important Greek texts for the topics of the quadrivium. His loose translation of Nicomachus's treatise on arithmetic (De institutione arithmetica libri duo) and his textbook on music (De institutione musica libri quinque, unfinished) contributed to medieval education. His translations of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on astronomy, if they were completed, no longer survive.

Boethius introduced the threefold classification of music:
1. Musica mundana - music of the spheres/world
2. Musica humana - harmony of human body and spiritual harmony
3. Musica instrumentalis - instrumental music (incl. human voice)

Boethius also wrote theological treatises, which generally involve support for the orthodox position against Arian ideas and other contemporary religious debates. His authorship was periodically disputed because of the secular nature of his other work, until the 19th century discovery of a biography by his contemporary Cassiodorus which mentioned his writing on the subject.

Boethius has been called by Lorenzo Valla the last of the Romans and the first of the scholastic philosophers. Despite the use of his mathematical texts in the early universities, it is his final work, the Consolation of Philosophy, that assured his legacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. This work is cast as a dialogue between Boethius himself, at first bitter and despairing over his imprisonment, and the spirit of philosophy, depicted as a woman of wisdom and compassion. Alternately composed in prose and verse, the Consolation teaches acceptance of hardship in a spirit of philosophical detachment from misfortune. Parts of the work are reminiscent of the Socratic method of Plato's dialogues, as the spirit of philosophy questions Boethius and challenges his emotional reactions to adversity. The work was translated into Old English by King Alfred, and into later English by Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth; many manuscripts survive and it was extensively edited, translated and printed throughout Europe from the 14th century onwards. Many commentaries on it were compiled and it has been one of the most influential books in European culture. No complete bibliography has ever been assembled but it would run into thousands of items.

"The Boethian Wheel" (or "The Wheel of Fortune") was a concept, stretching back at least to Cicero, that Boethius uses frequently in the Consolation; it remained very popular throughout the Middle Ages, and is still often seen today. As the wheel turns those that have power and wealth will turn to dust; men may rise from poverty and hunger to greatness, while those who are great may fall with the turn of the wheel. It was represented in the Middle Ages in many relics of art depicting the rise and fall of man.

Veneration

He is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. His feast day is October 23. Pope Benedict XVI has insisted on his relevance to modern day Christians.

Notes

References

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