Welcome to the ‘Civilisation’ blog series. This is my attempt to categorise some of history’s most famous (and infamous) names. Sometimes it’s serious and sometimes it’s silly. I hope you like it.
I like Boethius. He was one of the early medieval world’s greatest minds in my opinion. He wasn’t just a philosopher, he was a statesman, a writer and an educator. Boethius (Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius) was well versed in both Latin and Greek (a rare feat for the time) and he used this knowledge to bring many of the ancient classics to Western Europe. Without Boethius it’s likely that Plato and Aristotle would have arrived much later into the medieval mindset, if at all.
Born in 480, Boethius had an interesting life. Born into a wealthy, privileged position he was orphaned as a child and for a time might have been consigned to obscurity had he not been adopted by an equally noble family. As an adult he rose to the dizzyingly high rank of consul under the Western Emperor Theodoric.
Building upon the work of Plato, Boethius defined categories of learning that still influence university delineation today. The ‘quadrivium’ as he called it comprised Arithmetic, Geometry, Music and Astronomy. Boethius contended (as had Plato) that one could not be truly educated until one had achieved proficiency in all four of these subject areas. He believed that students should move on to study the Quadrivium only after achieving proficiency in three more fundamental topics – Rhetoric, Grammar and Logic. Although the name never seems to have occurred to Boethius himself these three more basic topics later came to be known as the ‘Trivium’. Together the Trivium and Quadrivium comprise the seven ‘liberal arts’ which became the prerequisite for all further study in the early medieval university system.
Even in the fifth and 6th centuries, Boethius was concerned about the implications of the growing division between Eastern and Western orthodoxy with in the church. With apparently remarkable foresight he seemed to predict the great schism between the two orthodoxies five hundred years before it actually came to be. It may be that his attempt to heal the divide to come was the thing that brought about his death.
In 523 this high official of the Western empire attempted to negotiate with the officiates of the Eastern Empire. The Western Emperor, Theodoric believed that his consul was conspiring with his Eastern counterpart, Justin to overthrow him. Boethius was arrested and spent the next year in prison with little hope of a happy ending.
Had he done nothing more in his life Boethius would have earned his place in this series well before his imprisonment. But in the style of a true genius, the great Boethius left the best until last.
During his year of imprisonment Boethius put his mind to his most pressing problem – how he had come to such a story state of affairs. The answer he came up with remains a masterpiece of consolatory philosophy to this day. Apt that it’s called ‘The consolation of philosophy’ then. The impact this book had on the medieval world where life was brutal, precarious and often short cannot be over-estimated.
In The consolation, Philosophy visits Boethius in the form of a young woman who guides him to both awareness and acceptance of his lot. She is his guide throughout, arguably a literary device that really takes the places of a range of previous thinkers from the Stoics and Platonists to St. Augustine.
Philosophy explains that Boethius’ suffering is a disease and she has the cure. All he needs to be healed is embrace goodness and virtue, to move closer to the divine and so achieve contentment. Philosophy, Like Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus, advises that happiness and virtue are internally generated regardless of external events. We can be virtuous regardless of circumstance.
In The consolations Boethius also introduces the concept of The Wheel of fortune, a tangible model of the changing circumstances of life. In this model it is seen as inevitable that those who are set high will be humbled just as those who are humbled will be exalted in time. It’s not difficult to see how this understanding would come to strike a consoling chord in the lives of oppressed peasants over the centuries to come.
Fortune goes on to explain that great wealth and status actually move people away from virtue and that those who greedily hang on to power and riches are simply moving further away from the Divine nature of God. Be glad when you are humbled because your Heavenly reward will be all the more secure as a result.
Hopefully Boethius himself gained some consolation from this great interface of philosophy and theosophy in his own final days. He was executed by Theodorus for the crime of treason in 524.
You can find links to each post in the ‘Civilisation’ series here