Philosophy Index

Boethius

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480–524) was an early medieval philosopher. Born in Rome just a few years after the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Boethius represents one of the first scholastic philosophers, and has a strong connection to antiquity.

Born into a revered family, Boethius was orphaned early in his life. He is believed to have been adopted by another high Roman family, that of Symmachus, whose daughter he would later marry. Boethius’ birth family was recognized as a noble family of public servants, while his adoptive family was known for an earlier Symmachus who was a champion for the rights of the earlier pagan Roman religion.

Study of Plato and Aristotle

Boethius spoke Greek as well as Latin, and was primarily a scholar of Plato and Aristotle. It was his primary goal to translate the entire works of both of these authors from ancient Greek into Latin. Although this work was unfinished at the time of his death, Boethius’ translations of Aritstotle were the only ones available for centuries to come, directly crediting him with much of medieval knowledge about ancient Greek philosophy.

Boethius is often recognized as one of the founders of scholasticism, which was the Christian philosophy of the middle ages, founded largely on Aristotle.

Boethius and Theodoric the Great

For most of Boethius’ life, he lived under the rule of Theodoric the Great. Theodoric was the king of the Ostrogoths. In 488, Theodoric invaded Italy and eventually defeated Odovacer, the king who claimed rule over Italy after the Roman Empire fell. Theodoric and Odovacer signed a treaty granting them both rule over Italy, but at a banquet to celebrate the event Theodoric killed Odovacer.

Boethius was an acomplished scholar and became an acquaintance of Theodoric. Eventually, he became a member of Theodoric’s court and moved to Ravenna, where Theodoric held his capital. Boethius rose to one of the highest positions of the court, the magister officiorum, placing him in charge of many court and government services.

Previously a scholar, Boethius tells us in his Consolation of Philosophy that he took the office directly because of his philosophical position. Heavily influenced by Plato, Boethius recalls that, in his Republic, Plato writes that states ought to be ruled by philosopher-kings:

“Until philosophers are kings, or the kings and princes of this world have the spirit and power of philosophy, and political greatness and wisdom meet in one, and those commoner natures who pursue either to the exclusion of the other are compelled to stand aside, cities will never have rest from their evils, — nor the human race, as I believe, — and then only will this our State have a possibility of life and behold the light of day.”

(Republic V, 473c).

Although he would have preferred to maintain his study and work only on his translations, he decided to take up the office in order to bring some good to the politics of his time.

Boethius’ Fall and Death

In 523, an accusation was made against a member of the senate of treason and conspiricy with the emperor Justin I of the eastern Empire, and Boethius came to his defense. This led to accusations of treason against Boethius, as well as claims that he had been corrupted by his philosophy. Theodoric may have even suspected Boethius of being sympathetic to, or even conspiring with, Justin.

Boethius was arrested and sentenced to die. While awaiting his execution, he wrote his most famous original work, The Consolation of Philosophy. This work consists of a narrative in which Boethius is visited by the personnification of philosophy, who comforts Boethius. The text covers both the events of his downfall and arrest and develops Boethius’ own philosophy.

In 524, Boethius was executed.

Selected Works

  • The Consolation of Philosophy (524)

Sources

  • Barrett, Helen M. Boethius: Some Aspects of his Times and Work. New York: Russell & Russell, 1966. (Amazon)
  • Boethius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Trans. David R. Slavitt. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008. (Amazon)
  • Marenbon, John, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Boethius. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009. (Amazon)

Vitals

Name: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
Born: 480
Died: Approximately 524