The Consolation of Philosoph has been many things to many men. In a much quoted phrase Gibbon described it as ‘a golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully’, though he found its philosophy ineffectual. 1The Middle Ages did not find it so, and provided the Consolationwith a long series of translators, commentators and imitators. King Alfred turned it into Old English for the education and enjoyment of his Anglo-Saxon subjects, and Chaucer and John the Chaplain into Middle English; Notker Labeo and Peter von Kastl turned it into medieval German, and Simun de Fraisne, Jean de Meung and others into Old French. There were versions in Greek and Middle Dutch, in Old Provencal, in Italian and in Spanish; later an English queen – Elizabeth I – turned her hand to Englishing the Consolation and the tradition of translation still continues, though most of us need rather longer than the twenty-four or twenty-seven hours in which she is reputed to have completed her version.

Boethius stands at the crossroads of the Classical and Medieval worlds. ‘No philosopher,’ wrote Richard Morris, ‘was so bone of the bone and flesh of the flesh of Middle-Age writers as Boethius. Take up what writer you will, and you find not only the sentiments, but the very words of the distinguished old Roman.’ 2 The extent and diffusion of Boethius’ influence have been traced elsewhere. 3

In the case of the Consolatio it was due, no doubt, to the fact that here Boethius was attempting something other than a formal philosophical treatise. In the confines of prison he was no longer concerned with the minute details and technicalities of argument, but with the consolation to be gained from a broad and general philosophical meditation. In retrospect, though I do not think this aspect of his work would have occurred to Boethius himself, it is perhaps justified to regard him as ‘the divine popularizer’. 4

This popular quality was doubly important. Firstly, along with the fact that Boethius was no mean poet, it made the Consolatio available to the poets. In Britain it inspired the author of The Kingis Quai to meditate on the wheel of Fortune and write his remarkable little poem; while almost all the passages of philosophical reflection of any length in the works of Chaucer can be traced to Boethius. And in Italy, to cite only one other example, Dante set Boethius among the twelve lights in the heaven of the Sun, calling him

That joy who strips the world’s hypocrisies

Bare to whoever heeds his cogent phrases: 5

for along with Cicero’s De Amicitia, the words of Boethius, he tells us, provided him with his greatest consolation after the death of Beatrice. The Paradis actually ends with a reminiscence of Boethius’ caelo imperitans amor. –‘the love that moves the sun and other stars’ 6 – and The Divine Comed as a whole could be regarded as a great elaboration of Boethius’ concept of the ascent of the soul to the contemplation of the mind of God and its return to its true home or patri in the scheme of the universe.

Secondly, the broad scope and gentle tone of the Consolatio produced ‘the book of most serene and kindly wisdom that the Middle Ages knew’. 7 It was the book that ‘saved the thought of the Middle Ages’, wrote W. P. Ker in his short but lucid account of Boethius. 8 ‘The beauty of it, which lifts it far above the ordinary run of reflections on mortality, is that it restores a Platonic tradition, or even something older and simpler in Greek philosophy, at a time when simplicity and clearness of thought were about to be overwhelmed in the medieval confusion… His protection was always to be had by anyone who found the divisions and distinctions of the schools too much for him. In the Consolation of Philosoph there was a place of outlook from which the less valuable matters sank back into their proper place, and the real outlines of the world were brought into view… There can be little question that Boethius, more than any other philosophic author, helped the great Schoolmen to retain a general comprehensive view of the world as a whole, in spite of the distractions of their minute inquiries.’


Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, born in or about AD 480, was a member of an ancient and aristocratic family, the gens Anicia. Since their conversion to Christianity in the fourth century – unusually early for an established and conservative family – the Anicii had risen to great power and wealth, and among his ancestors and kinsmen, besides many consuls, Boethius could number two emperors and a pope. His father himself had followed an honourable career of public service, attaining to the consulship under the barbarian king Odoacer in 487, but dying while his son was still a boy.

Boethius was brought up in the home of another patrician family, that of the famous Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, consul in 485, and later Prefect of Rome and Head of the Senate. It was Symmachus who introduced Boethius to the worlds of literature and philosophy, and of him and of his daughter, Rusticiana, whom he later married, Boethius speaks in the Consolation with reverence and admiration.

According to his kinsman, Ennodius, Boethius was something of an infant prodigy and early showed an unusual passion for study. His education, whether at Athens or not, was of the highest quality, and as a young man Boethius was master of all the liberal arts, from rhetoric to logic and astronomy. 9

Both Ennodius and Cassiodorus – another kinsman of Boethius and a cabinet-minister of Theodoric the Ostrogoth – speak of Boethius’s eloquence, his perfection of style, and his perfect command of Greek – an accomplishment of growing rarity at the end of the fifth century.

At an early age and in a manner unknown to us, Boethius came to the notice of the great Ostrogothic king Theodoric who had defeated Odoacer and murdered him in 493. Theodoric, in the most flattering terms, commissioned him to construct a water clock and sundial for Gundobad, king of the Burgundians, and to choose a lyre player for Clovis, king of the Franks. 10He was also employed to investigate a case of alleged debasement of the coinage by the paymaster of the life-guards, and in 510 he was made consul without companion. Thus at the age of thirty he held what was traditionally the most illustrious of all the Roman offices – dignities denied to the majority of men at any age 11– although in the days of Theodoric the consulate was of little more than titular importance.

Later – the year is not known – Theodoric made him magiste. officiorum, a position which involved him in onerous and responsible duties. He became head of the whole civil service and chief of the palace officials. And then in 522 came the moment which Boethius still regarded even in prison as the hour of his greatest happiness, the day when his two boys were appointed consuls together. It was a unique honour accorded to the father and implies his joint recognition by both Theodoric and the Emperor in Constantinople.

The years immediately following his own consulship are obscure. But it is during this period that he must have pursued the studies he had begun in the house of Symmachus, for the duties of magister officiorum, involving, as they must have done, prolonged absences from Rome at the court in Verona or Ravenna, would have parted him from his library and allowed him little time for his impassioned pursuit of the philosophy which he considered his summum vitae solamen his chief solace in life. 12

It was not in the forefront of public life but in the study and treatment of all the branches of philosophy that Boethius’ true calling lay. And he pursued this aim with a single-minded dedication and methodical steadfastness which only the recollection of his childhood precocity renders less than astounding. It is here that the real Boethius is clearest to view, the scholarly character, the calm almost leisured approach to his self-appointed task. It was not the retreat of an escapist from the acute feeling of the insignificance of the once proud offices of the Roman state, but the deliberate plan of the dedicated student to give his fellow countrymen the basis they still lacked for a truly scholarly study of philosophy. ‘Boethius saw himself,’ Campenhausen writes, ‘as the schoolmaster of the West.’ 13

I wish [Boethius says] to translate the whole work of Aristotle, so far as it is accessible to me, into the Roman idiom and conscientiously offer his complete utterances in the Latin tongue. Everything Aristotle ever wrote on the difficult art of logic, on the important realm of moral experience, and on the exact comprehension of natural objects, I shall translate in the correct order. Moreover, I shall make all this comprehensible by interpretative explanations. I should also like to translate all Plato’s Dialogues, and likewise explain them, and thus present them in a Latin version. When this is accomplished, I will furthermore not shrink from proving that the Aristotelian and Platonic conceptions in every way harmonize, and do not, as is widely supposed, completely contradict each other. I will show, moreover, that they are in agreement with one another at the philosophically decisive points. This is the task to which I will dedicate myself, so far as life and leisure for work are vouchsafed to me. I know that this will be as useful as it is laborious, and that it needs the assistance of those powers which are ever alien to envy and jealousy. 14

Boethius did not fulfil his plan, but he did finish translations of Porphyry’s Introduction to the Categories of Aristotl. – to serve as a student’s introduction – and Aristotle’s works on logic. These included the De Interpretatione, the Topics, the Prio, and Posterior Analytic, and the Sophistical Fallacies, and it is clear that he also knew Aristotle’s Metaphysics, Physics, De Generatione et Corruptione, De Anim and Poetics. Furthermore he wrote commentaries on Porphyry’s Introduction, on probably all the works of Aristotle that he translated, and on Cicero’s Topics. But his philosophical work was not entirely one of transmission: he also wrote five independent works of his own on logic.

The historical importance of all this work was immense, because it was only through Boethius’s translations of his logic that the knowledge of Aristotle survived in the West. By his careful literal translation of philosophical terms Boethius created a new philosophical vocabulary for the medieval schoolmen. And in his commentaries he offered them a model for their own commentaries on Aristotle. The great medieval debate between Nominalists and Realists has its seeds in a passage in Boethius’ commentary on Porphyry. ‘The last of the Romans; the first of the scholastics’: 15the formula summarizes Boethius’s position as the channel through whose precise and organized systematization philosophy passed from the ancient world to the academic discussions of Scholasticism.

The liberal arts, too, had value for him, as for St Augustine, as a propaedeutic to philosophy. Consequently he wrote treatises – or rather translations of treatises – on arithmetic, on geometry and possibly on astronomy and mechanics. These were important in the development of medieval education; his treatise on music, for instance, remained a textbook at Oxford until the eighteenth century. Boethius also gave us the word quadrivium, believing that ‘it was impossible to achieve the summit of perfection in the disciplines of philosophy unless one approached this noble wisdom by a kind of fourfold way.’ 16

He is also accredited with five small works or tractates of theology, the authenticity of at least four of which is beyond doubt. They are completely orthodox in doctrine and are important as representing the attempt of a philosopher primarily interested in logic to apply the methods of philosophy to the support of a body of revealed truth which exists in its own right. In his application of logical methods and the terminology of Aristotle to theological problems Boethius clearly stands out again as a forerunner of the scholastics.

All this activity forms the intellectual background of his last great work, the work for which above all else he is remembered. And yet it is surrounded by question marks. What were the circumstances of its composition? Why did the trustedright-hand servant of Theodoric fall so abruptly from power? Was Boethius a Christian, and if so why does the Consolatio lack all reference to the faith that should have been his greatest consolation in the hours of imprisonment and pending death?

Only one of these questions can be answered with certainty. Since the authorship of the Theological Tractates – with perhaps one exception – is unimpeachable, and since in any case it would have been impossible for an overt pagan to have risen so high in public life in the early sixth century, scholarship is satisfied that Boethius must have been a Christian. But while the fact of his Christianity cannot be doubted, its quality is still a matter on which there is disagreement. And while the historical facts surrounding his downfall are beyond recall, from Boethius’ own words and the testimonies of the times a hypothesis can be constructed. 17

It must be remembered that since the beginning of the fourth century the Roman Empire had been provided with an Eastern capital at Constantinople, and that since the end of that century it had been governed by the joint rule of a Western and an Eastern emperor. In 476 the barbarian Odoacer deposed the last emperor of the West and sent the Imperial Insignia to Constantinople; in barbarian eyes only a Roman could assume the purple, and Odoacer seems to have been content to preserve the imperial administration in Rome and recognize the Eastern Zeno as sole emperor, in return for the title ‘Patricius’.

Thus a loose modus vivend was established between the barbarians and the emperor. In practice Odoacer was an autonomous king; but in theory – and in Roman eyes – he was regarded as a kind of Viceroy, a servant of the Emperor at Constantinople in a single unified Empire. This system was preserved by Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, when he succeeded Odoacer in 493. To the emperor Anastasius he wrote: ‘Our royalty is an imitation of yours, a copy of the only Empire on earth.’ 18

A great military leader of a barbaric people, yet educated in the sophisticated circles of the court at Constantinople, Theodoric had all the qualities to impose a firm and peaceful rule upon Italy. Both king of the barbarians and Viceroy of the emperor, he succeeded in establishing the peaceful coexistence of Roman and Goth. The administration was carried on by the Roman civil service, but it was directed by Theodoric’s strong and vigorous guidance. To his service he was able to attract Romans of the calibre of Liberius, Cassiodorus andBoethius. Industry prospered, peace reigned, buildings and aqueducts were restored and rebuilt. And the success of Theodoric’s rule at home was mirrored by his increasing prestige abroad.

In matters of religion Theodoric was a Christian, but an Arian, a member, like all the Goths, of that heretical sect which believed that the Father and the Son were not ‘one substance’. This heresy had split the church, and yet Theodoric found no difficulty in ruling in the city of the Pope and the capital of orthodoxy. He firmly supported complete freedom of worship for all – except pagans – and remained on friendly terms with the orthodox clergy, on one occasion even being invited to arbitrate in a disputed papal election. For the moment the seeds of future suspicion and hostility were dormant.

Boethius’s decision to serve as Theodoric’s minister involved him, as we have seen, in considerable self-sacrifice. Like Symmachus –himself a scholar with a thorough command of Greek, a writer of history, and a brilliant speaker, a man who though he had served the barbarian overlords preserved a certain aloofness and reserve towards them – Boethius too would have preferred a life of study among his books. His decision to enter real politics was dictated by a sense of duty rather than a desire for fame. From his own words we learn that the Platonic ideal of the state governed by philosophers was his inspiration 19 and the lessons of philosophy his guide in the exercise of his offices. 20

Given such principles of conduct and such disinterested moral rectitude, and given the animosities, the suspicions and deceits, the intrigue and self aggrandizement encountered in political life, it was impossible that Boethius should not make enemies. At first he was successful in opposing Gothic rapaciousness and enjoyed Theodoric’s support. 21But these external circumstances were to change.

In 484 there had been a doctrinal breach between East and West, known, because of the Pope’s condemnation of the Byzantine Patriarch Acacius, as the Acacian schism. Insofar as it strengthened his independence of the East, the hostility of the Pope and Italian clergy to Constantinople was not unwelcome to Theodoric; but to those who held the unity of the Empire dear – and this seems to have included the circle around Symmachus to which Boethius and many of the senators belonged and which continuously looked to the East – the breach was deplorable. It is not unlikely that, although as far as can be seen Boethius remained aloof from the battles of ecclesiastical controversy, his theological tractates were meant in some sort as a modest contribution towards solving the dispute. The breach in fact was officially healed in 519 although the controversy did not end at once. Boethius sided with the East and the honour done to him in 522 was perhaps originally proposed by the Emperor at the bidding of a kinswoman of Boethius resident in Constantinople.

The end of the schism and its aftermath had political as well as theological implications. Not only had the Senate been openly appealed to, but the rapprochement between East and West threatened Theodoric’s position: in Roman eyes their true lord was once again the orthodox Emperor, while Theodoric remained an invader and a heretic.

The combination of circumstances led inevitably to Boethius’ downfall; he was a man of principle, not a politician, and his sympathies were firmly on the side of the Empire and its culture rather than with the Gothicizing circle of Cyprian. In the jungle of court corruption the time was ripe for his enemy to play upon the already aroused suspicions of the king who had been further incensed by the renewed persecution of Arians in the East. 22Letters to Constantinople were intercepted in which a senator named Albinusappears to have expressed himself indiscreetly in some way, perhaps in connexion with the recent election of the pro-Eastern Pope John I: and when Boethius tried to dismiss the matter, evidence – whether false, as Boethius claims, or not, we do not know –was produced to implicate him with the added – perhaps rather desperate – charge of sorcery. Was he not the man who had striven against the Goths Conigast and Triguilla and himself written against the Arian heresy? 23 Within a short while he was arrested, condemned and sent into exile to await execution. The senate, overawed by an aging, disillusioned and suspicious Theodoric, confirmed the sentence and after being cruelly tortured Boethius was bludgeoned to death at Pavia, the place of his exile, in 524 or 525.

The truth of his case will never be known. Boethius’s allegiance to the Roman Imperial idea may have seemed consistent to him with his service of the Gothic king; but seen through barbarian eyes it could understandably be viewed as treason. Atanyrate, Theodoric’s revenge extended after Boethius’s death to include Symmachus and the Pope as well, and before he died old and embittered in 526 his whole policy of peaceful coexistence lay in ruins. Along with it the Roman aristocracy, the proud and ancient offices of state and the whole study of philosophy virtually disappeared, until the latter was rediscovered, long after the attack of Justinian and the invasion of the Lombards, by the ninth-century Carolingian renaissance.

On 15 December 1883 the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome in concert with the Bishop of Pavia approved the local cult of St Severinus Boethius. The cult is as old at least as the ninth though not popular until the thirteenth century when Dante knew of Boethius’ resting place in the church of San Pietro in Cielo d’Oro in Pavia. Peter Abelard and the Middle Ages may have been right to venerate Boethius along with Symmachus and Pope John as orthodox martyrs of Arianism, but the modern view tends to regard this as too great an oversimplification.


Between his condemnation and his execution there was a period of delay during which Boethius was imprisoned at Pavia. The conditions of this imprisonment we do not know, but he had sufficient freedom to meditate on and write the Consolation. Some have thought that he must have had access to his books in the writing; but the many casual references, recollections and quotations scattered throughout the work – not only from philosophers, but also from the great literary figures like Catullus, Claudian, Euripides, Homer, Juvenal, Lucan, Menander, Ovid, Seneca (especially his Tragedies), Sophocles, Statius and Virgil – are scarcely matters for wonder in a man whose youth was devoted to avid reading and in an age when the memory was commonly keener and more retentive than in our own.

We must, then, in the absence of firm evidence to the contrary, believe Boethius that he wrote in prison, alone, under the shadow of eventual execution, unaided except by the power of his own memory and genius.

In form the Consolation belongs to the ancient genre of the consolatio, a branch of the diatribe which in pagan Greece and Rome was especially the province of philosophy. It was cultivated by all the schools of philosophy, and by the time of Seneca the science of consolati had become, in the words of J. Martha, 24‘a kind of moral medication… It was only necessary to open the drawer corresponding to the illness in question in order to find at once the remedies most appropriate for a cure.’ This is the source of the extended medical metaphor used by Philosophy and of the diagnosis of the true nature of Boethius’s sickness in Book I. It is the source too of the examination of Fortune, of the use of historical examples, and of the popular eclectic philosophy of commonplace solaci which underlies a good deal of Book II and which includes the memorable passage of prose which demonstrates, after the manner of Cicero in the Dream of Scipio, how trivial and provincial earthly fame and glory are. 25

But the Consolatio is a skilled fusion of more than one genre. In part it approximates to the monologue, and in part it imitates the dialectic of the Platonic dialogue. The whole, in fact, is cast in the form of a particular type of dialogue, the sacred dialogue, in which the author describes how some divine spirit or power, at first unknown to him, appears and reveals to him some portion of hidden wisdom, as, for instance, in the second book of Esdras in the Apocrypha, ch. 3 ff.

The combination of apocalyptic dialogue and Menippean Satire – a form of composition, Greek in origin and later latinized, in which sections of prose alternate with verse – 26was already in existence before Boethius wrote. The most famous example was Martianus Capella’s extraordinary Marriage of Philology and Mercury: the knowledge of this book may not have offered Boethius much help, but it may have been the inspiration for his choice of the literary form which he raised to greater heights than it had ever before achieved.

In the Consolation, then, there is a skilful combination of varied literary forms. And a similar, or greater exhibition of literary skill is displayed in the thirty-nine poems which intersperse and enliven the discourse. Their presence is integral and their purpose varied. They act as a relief from the concentration of the argument while the patient is still weak; but as he grows stronger and the argument more complex, their occurrence is less frequent. (It is not by accident that the Consolation begins with verse and ends with prose.) Sometimes they are used to summarize or even advance the discussion. And sometimes their function is not unlike that of the chorus in a Greek tragedy, offering a gnomic comment and lending distance and perspective to the intense and personal progress of the dialogue.

There have been varying opinions of their poetic merit. A ninth-century writer thought that Boethius was the equal of Cicero in his prose and of Virgil in his poetry, and the great Scaliger considered the poetry divine. 27 On the other hand Hermann Usener saw in the metrical interludes the voice of a child of the sixth century compared with the maturity of the proses, and to W. P. Ker ‘the verse of the Consolation is that of a prosodist – somewhat too deliberate in the choice and combination of metres, not always quite successful, it may be thought.’ 28Granted that some of the poems are clever without being distinguished, not a few rise to greater heights: I, 5 was already set to music by the ninth century; II, 7 contains the famous reference to the bones of Fabricius; Books III and IV contain a number of good poems including the fine retelling of the story of Orpheus and Eurydice; and no one can fail to be moved by the majestic and magistral poetry of the ninth poem of Book III. This was so famous in the Middle Ages for the reasons given in the note on page 67 that it had its own special commentaries written by Bruno of Corvey and Adalbold of Utrecht. In his prose style, too, Boethius is considerably superior in his simplicity and restraint to the usual elaboration and diffuseness of the prose writers of the time.

In one of his commentaries on Porphyry, Boethius wrote:

This love of wisdom (or philosophy) is the illumination of the intelligent mind by that pure wisdom (defined as the self-sufficient living mind and sole primaeval reason of all things), and is a kind of return and recall to it, so that it seems at once the pursuit of wisdom, the pursuit of divinity and the friendship of that pure mind. So that this wisdom gives to the whole class of minds the reward of its own divinity and returns it to its proper constitution and purity of nature. 29

Herein lies the philosophical basis of the Consolation. Philosophy descends to Boethius from on high (I, 3) and leads him back through various paths to God Himself. Her varying height in I, 1 is symbolic: sometimes she is of average height offering the practical philosophy of Book II; sometimes she pierces the sky leading back to God from Whom she came.

The scheme is undoubtedly Platonic. The turning of the gaze from what is false to what is true (III, 1) and the realization that God is the supreme good (III, 10) is based on the ascent of the soul in the famous allegory of the Cave in the seventh book of the Republic. The ascent or education of the soul is like the ascent of a man from a dark cave in which he has been chained since childhood, unable to see more than shadows on the wall. When he is freed he is brought step by step up into the light until he is eventually able to see the sun itself, the Idea of the Good.

But the ascent of the soul is not simply a process of education, it is also one of remembering: and the Platonic basis of the Consolation is seen again in the reference to this doctrine of anamnesi or recollection in poem 2of Book III. 30Here we find a Neoplatonic fusion of concepts not formally associatedby Plato: the ascent of the soul is connected with the doctrine of recollection, and both are seen in terms of the turning in upon itself of the soul and its illumination by its own inward light.

The notion of recollection underlies the whole of Book III. Already in chapter 6 of Book I Boethius’s condition is diagnosed as due to the loss of the memory of his true nature. His mind dreams of true happiness (III, 1), but like other men his memory is clouded (III, 2). For there is a natural attraction of the soul to the Good, but it is frequently deflected and frustrated along false byways. 31 When, however, Boethius has been brought to the point at which he is ready to turn away from what is false to what is true, the recollection and the ascent which is prayed for in the ninth poem of Book III seem almost to be accomplished by poetic uplift and anticipation in the sublime closing lines of that poem. 32 By the end of the Book prose draws level with poetry again and Philosophy has shown the true nature of God, though not without a hint in the Orpheus allegory that Boethius may yet lapse into error.

The Consolation of Philosophy was written in prison, and, as E. K. Rand has observed, prison-literature often takes the form of a theodicy, an attempt to

      assert eternal Providence

And Justify the ways of God to men.

We might compare, for instance, Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue of Cumfort against Tribulation, also written in prison and under the threat of execution. So Boethius’s bitter experiences led him into a reconsideration of the nature of happiness. The method he uses is that of Platonic dialectic, the diction and conventions of which he carefully imitates, 33though the substance of the argument is drawn from a different source, perhaps from St Augustine. 34To the modern reader this use of dialectic will probably seem the least successful part of the Consolation. This is because it tends to treat words as if they had an unchanging value like the symbols of algebra or logic. For this reason the argument at the end of Book III that ‘evil is nothing’ on the grounds that ‘God who can do all things cannot do evil’ and that ‘what God cannot do is nothing’, and the further conclusion that evil men are powerless, will fail to convince. It contains, however, the seeds of further discussion in Book IV.

This Book is what Campenhausen calls ‘a detailed theodicy developed in the Platonic spirit’. 35The first part concerning the strength of the good and weakness of the bad and their rewards and punishment, including the idea that criminals should be treated as sick men, is based on Plato’s Gorgias. The second part, in answer to Boethius’s hesitations concerning the nature of God’s control of the universe, involves Philosophy in a fresh beginning.

Thus chapter 6 marks the end of Socratic dialogue and rhetorical embellishment, the end of Boethius’s dependence on Plato and the advance to a higher plane of argument, viz. the exposition of the two aspects of history as Providence – the simple unchanging plan in the mind of God – and Fate – the ever changing distribution in and through time of all the events God has planned in his simplicity. Boethius appears to have combined two ideas; the idea of a mutable Fate governing and revolving all things, which he read of in the treatise On Providence and Fat by the fifth-century Neoplatonist Proclus, and the idea, already touched on at the end of Book III chapter 12, of God as the ‘still point of the turning world’, an idea he found in the philosophy of Plotinus. The union of the two ideas is perfect. The more the soul frees itself from corporeal things, and thus, according to both Proclus and Plotinus, from Fate, 36 the closer it approaches the stability and simplicity of the place of rest at the centre, which according to Plotinus is God, the hinge of things, or Providence, the source of freedom and consolation for Boethius. This is a brilliant example of what H. R. Patch calls Boethius’s ‘inspired eclecticism’, the skill with which he blends received material from various sources to form a new and harmonious whole. 37

The poem which follows celebrates in verse the truth which has just been proclaimed, God’s benevolent government of the universe, for the question of the presence of evil in the world has its solution in the vision of divine peace. This theme occurs in a number of poems which deal with the problem of how the universe is constituted and offer a generally Platonic answer. First in Book I poem 5 Boethius praises God’s government of the universe, but asks why it is withheld from human affairs and why men are subject to the whims of Fortune. He concludes with a prayer which seems to echo the ‘Thy will be done in earth as in heaven’ of the Lord’s Prayer. Then in the last poem of Book II, Philosophy sings of the power of love in the natural world preserving peace and keeping chaos at bay. She answers Boethius by specifically saying that God’s government does include human affairs: love makes peace between nations, blesses marriage and cements friendship. But she also implies that man can rebel against this love and alienate himself from the scheme of things. It was in this way that Boethius lost his way by means of a perverse love, but there is a hint of a promise that by love he will be brought back again to his true home.

Book III poem 9 continues the theme of God’s government and control of the universe, which now finds its fullest treatment here in Book IV poem 6. The poem begins, like the first two of the group, with the description of the eternal peace of the heavens brought about by love. Echoing Book III poem 9 and the Timaeus, Philosophy moves on to the concord of the elements, of the seasons, and of birth and death, which includes mankind, and associates human affairs with the cosmic power of love. This leads her on to the author of this love, who stabilizes the universe by means of the triple movement of the Neoplatonists, away from God, turning, and coming back to Him.

In his emphasis on peace and on love, Boethius’s commentators have seen a turning away from purely philosophical expression to something more akin to the writing of Christian authors like Pseudo-Dionysius and St Augustine. ‘These poems have a temper and colouring that harmonises with the Christianity of their author.’ 38Whether this is so, or whether this is only the philosophical expression of an idea which goes back to the Love of Empedocles, 39 these metres were certainly influential in later times; here are seeds of the thought of Dante (e.g. Beatrice’s speech at the end of Paradis I) and the source of Chaucer’s noble philosophy of love in Troilus and Criseyd. (e.g. III, 1744 ff.).

The final poem of Book IV is a hymn of encouragement; the heroes Agamemnon, Odysseus and Hercules are celebrated as examples of achievement and as incentives on the final stage in the ascent to divinity. The discussion of Fate and Providence leads automatically into the Fifth Book. In the first chapter in answer to Boethius’s inquiry the rule of the chain of causes is asserted and the existence of chance denied. The doctrine of Fate and Providence and of auxiliary causes stems from Plato, but here it is the Aristotelian development of the analysis of contingency into absolute and incidental cause and an Aristotelian example which Philosophy uses. 40In the second chapter freedom is asserted in terms of the Platonic tradition – the more one shares in the divine, the more one achieves freedom. But the assertion that the choice of the individual soul is already known to Providence raises a further difficulty for Boethius – the apparent incompatibility between divine foreknowledge and freedom of the will. It is impossible to believe that God’s Providence is fallible or dependent on temporal events; and yet foreknowledge, if it is to be truly knowledge, seems to impose a necessity upon events and actions which makes something monstrous of reward and punishment by God. There was little comfort for Boethius in the Augustinian solution which made human freewill dependent on the will of God, and he could find no satisfaction in any consolatory belief in predestination. And so he presses the argument forward until he can justify a belief in a human freedom sufficient to make room for moral responsibility.

His solution is provided by the combination of two considerations. First, the argument that the quality of knowledge depends on the capacity of the knower to know, not on the capacity of the object to be known; and second, the comparison of God’s capacity to know with man’s. This leads to Boethius’s classic definition of eternity at the beginning of the last chapter of all. Its ultimate source, once again, though transmuted through the words of Proclus, 41 is in the Timaeu. (37D E) and Plato’s idea of time as a moving image of eternity. But Boethius’s development is expressed with such lucidity and compactness that – like a number of his other definitions – it was accepted as authoritative by St Thomas Aquinas and the medieval schoolmen. Eternity is explained not in terms of quantity of life, but in terms of quality of life: in virtue of His complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life, God, in Whom there is no past or future, but only timeless present, is eternal, while the world which only attains an endless series of moments, each lost as soon as it is attained, is merely perpetual. Boethius is pressing at the limits of what language can do.

This definition, the theory of knowledge, and the Aristotelian theory of the two kinds of necessity, form the core of Boethius’s explanation of the compatibility of God’s infallible knowledge and man’s freedom of will. God is like a spectator at a chariot race; he watches the actions the charioteers perform, but this does not cause them. Similarly, God’s vision of events which is eternal in the sense that God is eternal, means that He is a kind of spectator of all things simultaneously, past and future in one timeless present, without causing them. God is thus able to have knowledge of that which seen from the point of view of men in time is of uncertain occurrence.

This solution, of course, is meant as an answer to a particular kind of objection, and Boethius cannot be held to blame for not answering the kind of difficulty which might be raised today. Few have grappled more honestly with the problems of good and evil, fate and freewill; and if Boethius’s answers are not entirely satisfactory, Philosophy’s own words may remind us that ‘it is not allowed to man to comprehend in thought all the ways of the divine work.’ 42 This is the traditional attitude of Christianity since St Paul to those mysterious paradoxes of its doctrine which seem beyond human explanation, and in his firm insistence on the two opposing principles of human freedom and divine omniscience Boethius maintains a position perfectly in accord with Christian belief. By a stroke of calculated art we are left at the end with Philosophy’s final exhortation, on a high plane, our gaze directed upwards, oblivious of the prison house.


And so we return to a question already proposed: what is the quality of Boethius’s Christianity? It would not be difficult to show that in spite of his dependence on doctrines borrowed from Stoicism, from Plato and Aristotle and from Neoplatonism, there is little in the Consolation that is openly contrary to the tenets of Christianity. That which there is – the doctrine of anamnesi which presupposes the prior existence of the soul before birth, and the doctrine of the perpetuity of the world and the implicit denial of creation ex nihil in the Timaeu poem 43 – is not of fundamental significance in the Consolation. Indeed there are important differences between Boethius and the Neoplatonism to which so much of his thought conforms. The Deity of Plotinus was absolutely transcendent and ineffable: from it through a hierarchy of powers such as Mind, World-Soul, Nature, etc., emanated the multiplicity of finite things. Plotinus’s Neoplatonic successors actually increased the intermediary beings between God and corporeal objects in order to emphasize the transcendence of the supreme Godhead, until they had constructed an ‘amazing metaphysical museum, with all the entities and super-entities neatly labelled and arranged on their proper shelves’. 44

All this, however, is quite alien to Boethius. He talks not of a supreme essence but of God: and he does not fill the gap between God and His world by any elaborate series of‘graded abstractions’. 45Boethius’s God is a personal God, a God to whom one can and should pray, as he reminds us in the closing words of the Consolation.

It is tempting, therefore, to argue that the reason why there is no mention of Christ and Christianity and no explicit reference to the Bible in the Consolation is that Boethius was writing a philosophica consolation, and not a theological one. ‘Did you not read my title?’ C. S. Lewis suggests Boethius would say: 46‘I wrote philosophically, not religiously, because I had chosen the consolations of philosophy not those of religion as my subject. You might as well ask why a book on arithmetic does not use geometrical methods.’

It is true that an author would be expected to distinguish between disciplines and avoid introducing alien methods: thus when Boethius commends Philosophy for the way in which she has presented her arguments – in her own words they are ‘arguments not sought from without but within the bounds of the matter we have been discussing’ 47– he appears to be commending her for sticking to the methods of philosophy and not importing anything from revelation. Here as in the rest of Boethius’s work, we seem to meet a clear distinction between faith and reason. 48

It seems strange, nevertheless, that writing in the presence of death Boethius still prefers reason to faith, and makes no mention of what must be the only fully meaningful consolation for a Christian, the Incarnation of Christ and the doctrine of grace. 49For St Augustine, since man could accomplish nothing of himself, his absolute dependence on the grace of God was at the same time his freedom and happiness. But the Boethian doctrine of salvation, the ascent of the unaided individual by means of philosophical introspection and meditation to the knowledge of God, for all the closeness between Neoplatonic philosophy and post-Augustinian Christianity, is essentially pagan in inspiration. This is the reason why in his Dialogue of Cumfor Sir Thomas More rejects the philosophers of old: 50and it is interesting to note that even in the Middle Ages which accepted Boethius as a saint, commentators and scholars like Bruno of Corvey and John of Salisbury noticed the absence of Christian doctrine from the Consolation. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that Boethius professed a sort of christianisme neutralise. 51. ‘Boethius needs neither word nor Spirit nor mercy, neither church nor fellow-Christians in order to be what he is. It is therefore no accident but entirely appropriate that his last confession does not speak about Christ.’ 52 He belonged to an age in which the ancient classical culture had become assimilated to Christianity, but not absorbed by it. The schools, for instance, were still pagan. And Boethius had not undergone the inner conversion of a Sidonius or an Ennodius: the ancient learning still preserved its hold upon him unimpaired. 53

It may be, however, that the question of Boethius’ Christianity has not been correctly formulated. It may be that if more were known of the intellectual climate of Roman society at the time the problem would appear in a different light.

The explanation may well lie, David Knowles suggests, 54

in the changed attitude towards philosophy since the later middle ages. Between the days of Augustine and those of Siger of Brabant it was the universal conviction among those who thought seriously that there was a single true rational account of man and the universe and of an omnipotent and provident God, as valid in its degree as the revealed truths of Christianity. The great men of old, pagan though they might have been, had attained and expressed this truth in their philosophy could one but reproduce their teaching faithfully, and with their aid a true and sufficient answer could be given to the problems of human life and destiny. It was with these answers that the philosophical mind could meet the world and all the disasters of life. Behind the rational arguments, no doubt, in the unseen realm of the soul, an individual could meet the personal love and grace of Christ. 55


In making this translation I have used Weinberger’s text of the Consolatio in the Corpus Scriptorum Ecclesiasticorum Latinorum, LXVII, Vienna/Leipzig, 1934, and also the edition of L. Bieler in the Corpus Christianorum, Series Latina XCIV, Turnhout, 1957. I have occasionally consulted the Loeb Classical Library edition of the Theological Tractates and Consolation by H. F. Stewart and E. K. Rand (Harvard University Press, 1918) and the translation of W. V. Cooper, London, 1902.

Apart from the problems that face all translators, the Consolation presents a number of other difficulties; the variety of the metres (which I have not attempted to reflect in any systematic way); the occasional use of problematic technical terms; the intermittent personification of figures such as Fortune and Nature. Even our ‘prince of poets’, Chaucer, turned it only into prose which was sometimes awkward. I cannot hope to have had better success.

The chief debts of the Introduction will be clear from my footnotes. For many helpful suggestions I should like to thank the present Joint Editor of the Penguin Classics, Mrs Betty Radice, and my gratitude is also due to my wife, and to my parents-in-law, Mr and Mrs W. Curtis, for their hospitality during the times when most of this translation was completed.

Lasborough, Gloucestershire

15 August 196

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