Boethius by Henry Chadwick - review by Peter Stothard

Peter Stothard

Some Consolation



Oxford University Press 272pp £15

We almost discount the possibility of another Dark Age of the mind. Of the body; possibly. Nine tenths of human kind could be destroyed by nuclear holocaust. But of the mind; surely the computerised storehouses of our ‘information society’ would remain for the one tenth that also remained? Knowledge has to be secure. There can be no going back to a world without logical theory, the telescope, calculus or the chemical formula for penicillin. Or can there? The intellectual achievements of our civilisations are widespread throughout the world and well protected – by the multiplicity of published books, the digitalised discs of microcomputers. This would surely be enough to stop repeats of the knowledge-losses of the past – the 2000 year gap that separated Aristarchus’s discovery that the earth moved round the sun from Copernicus’s rediscovery; Hippocratic rationality about disease from that of Paracelsus; Archimedes from Galileo? But would it?

The questions surrounding any new Dark Age are perhaps too horrifying for us to develop even the most hypothetical answers. Yet it is still tempting to ask which works we would most need to save in whatever becomes the computerised equivalent of the medieval monasteries. What book/film/cassette/micro-circuit would best pilot philosophy, for example, through a thousand years of darkness? We have some past experience here. For the troubled last 500 years of the first millenium AD the work of one man, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, alone promulgated the lost logical philosophies of Aristotle and Plato. Boethius, whose life and influence is reassessed in this new book of essays commemorating the 1500th anniversary of his birth, was not a particularly original philosopher. He was a translator, a populariser, a compromiser on controversial issues, a litterateur whose skills papered over the cracks in his reasoning. Since he made little contribution to logic of his own, he is largely forgotten today. Yet in the words of Jonathan Barnes, one of the book’s contributors ‘Boethius’s labours gave logic half a millenium of life; what logician could say as much as that for his work? what logician could desire to say more?’.

Boethius is sometimes called the last of the ancient Romans. He was a member of a distinguished senatorial family at a time when the Roman parliament was little more than that of the Isle of Man today, ritualistic, self-important, caparisoned with power’s trappings and almost totally removed from power. The real ruler of Rome was the Ostrogoth emperor, Theoderic, whose family had for eighty years rarely dared leave their secure palaces in the swamps of Ravenna. One of his predecessors, the emperor Honorius, had once heard someone talking about ‘Rome’ and assumed they were referring to one of his pet chickens. Ancient music hall joke or not, it gives a reasonably accurate idea of how Romans felt about the absentee lords of their empire. Boethius would visit Ravenna to advise on the composition of diplomatic letters or the construction of water clocks to be given to foreign embassies. But these were roles that would still have reminded Romans of Greek slaves under the Republic. Theoderic’s own power came courtesy of Justin, the Eastern emperor in Constantinople. In 524 Boethius was accused of supporting a friend who had written rude letters to Justin about Theoderic. Despite being a privileged senator and a favoured court boffin, he was imprisoned, tortured by the nasty Gallic trick of twisting a string around the temples until his eyes popped out, and beaten to death.

He left behind translations and commentaries on Aristotle’s works on logic, mathematics and music, tracts of Christology (the deadly fashionable disputes about whether Christ, God and man is one person in two natures and/or one person of two natures and/or any person at all) and the most famous and last work, composed while awaiting death in prison at Pavia, The Consolation of Philosophy.

The Consolation is Boethius’ most remarkable and readable work. But the key planks across which Aristotle and Plato escaped from oblivion are those such as the commentary on De Interpretatione (plaintively introduced by the author with the words ‘the burden of this lengthy book should not discourage men from reading it – for it did not stop me from writing it’) and on Porphyry’s lsagoge to Aristotle’s Categories.

The lsagoge is a typical example of how Boethius attempts to reconcile the opposing Platonic and Aristotelian camps – to the satisfaction (and hence continued reading) of both sides. On the vexed question of the reality to be attached to ‘universals’ and ‘particulars’, Platonists back the primacy of the universal (e.g. redness) over the Aristotelians preference for the particular (red thing). Porphyry had simply refused to make up his mind, treating Plato as the guide to the metaphysical world of unchanging truth and Aristotle as the scientific observer of the real world. Boethius, however takes a firm Aristotelian line. Universals, according to him, have a reality only in the sense that a universal genus or species is a convenient classification system for particulars. But he then adds a nice Platonising touch that allows universals an artistic if not essential importance, granting that a universal can be abstracted from matter (as though by a painter) rather than built up by putting together a large number of examples (which would put it firmly at the centre of the debate on what constitutes reality). Boethius may not have been a genius but he kept the debate bubbling – even if in this case only so that 20th century philosophers can argue today that there can be no general naming theory, that the statement that a thing has a particular name because it instantiates a certain universal is necessarily circular. All a waste of time? Well, that’s philosophy business. In fact, the more one considers the nihilistic conclusions of modern logical theory, the more and more surprising it seems that we should honour those star philosophers who came to temporary conclusions so far above the workaday men like Boethius who kept the game going against all the odds.

In the Consolation of Philsophy Boethius is keeping alive literary as well as philosophical traditions. The work begins with the goddess philosophy making a dramatic appearance before Boethius in prison. She attacks him for his miserable state of mind and kicks out the Muses from his cell – ‘stagey whores’, she calls them, who have seduced her philosopher into playing with elegiac poetry, lowest of the poetic low. The classical literary conceit in which gods and poets argue about what type of poetry is ‘worthwhile’. She recalls to him his fundamental belief in reason and a purposeful universe and forces him to recognise that it is only distorted perception that has allowed his ill fortune to dominate his life. She then argues for the positive pursuit of the summum bonum which is to be found in God and ends with a resolution of the problem of freewill under an all-powerful and prescient deity.

The Consolation is a fiercely dramatic ladder between the Classical and Christian worlds. Boethius manages to write like Ovid, Lucretius, Cicero, Seneca and Augustine – digesting and interpreting them all through his own condition. Boethius was a Christian but the argument of the Consolation is entirely rational and owes nothing to revelation or faith. It inspired English translations by King Alfred, Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth I and its reflections on the apparent purposelessness of evil have still an individualist inspiration that successors have not entirely matched. We should be so lucky to find such a work for our own trials.

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