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Compiled by Anthony Harrison-Barbet


BOETHIUS

(c. 480 — 524)

 

CHRISTIAN NEOPLATONISM

Anicius Boethius was born in Rome and studied in Athens. He became chief of the Roman Senate and was later appointed a general magistrate and consul under Theodoric, King of the Goths. Accused of treason for his support of the Romans he was executed after captivity, during which time he wrote his famous On the Consolation of Philosophy. He also translated into Latin a number of works from Aristotle's Organon, including the Categories and the Prior and Posterior Analytics, as well as the Isagoge (an introduction to the Categories) by the Neoplatonic philosopher Porphyry — a pupil of Plotinus.

 

RELIGIOUS PHILOSOPHY/ METAPHYSICS

[1] Boethius employed philosophical reasoning to the full to support ecclesiastical authority and to articulate what he supposed to be revealed truth. Thus he accepted the primacy of faith [a]. He distinguished between matter and form as the components of substance. Form is the causal principle by which (quo est) a substance is what it is — its being (esse), while its matter is that which is (id quod est) — the totality of parts, which provides the basis for substantial change [On the Consolation of Philosophy and 'In what manner substances'] [b]. God, however, is pure Form (without matter), in the sense that in Him alone esse is identical with that which is (exists) [c]. He is also a 'substance', but as applied to individual created beings, whose esse 'flows from Him,' this term belongs to a different category [see Consol. III, and On the Trinity]. Furthermore, while we may say that a man is great and good, when we predicate these qualities of God we must mean not that He is great (or good) but that He is Greatness and Goodness. (In his De hebdomadibus he raises the question whether created beings are good in themselves by virtue of their own being or substance or whether they derive their goodness through 'participation' in something else [d]). It is from a recognition of the imperfection of beings and of change in the world that we can argue to the necessary existence of God as Being itself, the Perfect Being and first cause [e]. But Boethius has a negative conception of evil as privation, or absence of good; it is thus not real [f]. He argues that God created the world from nothing: it overflows (defluit) from the Divine Goodness but God's substance and will remain distinct from this creation and undiluted by it [g]. As for the problem of human free-will [Consol. V] and God's providence, Boethius says that God does not really foresee anything because He is in eternity [Def. 118], and what God knows is eternally present, so human acts cannot be said to be necessitated by Him [h]. Boethius also deals with the nature of universals [Commentary on Porphyry's 'Isagoge', I]. He suggests tentatively that genera and species might both exist mentally as (universal) thoughts, as a consequence of the mind's working on sense-experience of what 'subsists' extra-mentally as common qualities in real individual things [i].

 

ETHICS

[2] Boethius did not set out any formal ethical system. He accepted that God exists as the summum bonum [a]. And in his own life he exhibited a Stoic resignation to God's will, arguing that man can be happy despite life's adversities, and that virtue would eventually be rewarded [b].

 

CRITICAL SUMMARY

Although exhibiting some Neoplatonic features in his thought, Boethius is significant as a transmitter of Aristotle's logic and methods. His use of analytic or dialectic techniques to elucidate and support the faith was adopted by the Scholastics; and his provisional treatment of universals initiated an intense debate in the twelfth century. Likewise his view of the individual as composed of both matter and determining form was influential in the thirteenth. The issue of free-will and God's foreknowledge was also to prove controversial throughout the Middle Ages (in connection with the dispute concerning the relationship of God's will to his intellect). Boethius's account of God's eternal knowledge of temporal events is also problematical.

 

READING

Boethius: De consolatione philosophiae (On the Consolation of Philosophy), in the Loeb Classical Library; Commentary on Porphyry's 'Isagoge'. Selections are available in R. McKeon (ed.), op. cit., vol. I, ch. 2; and there is also a Penguin edition of The Consolation of Philosophy.

Studies

H. Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolation of Music, Logic, Theology and Philosophy.

J. Magee, 'Boethius', in J. J. E. Garcia (ed.), A Companion to Philosophy in the Middle Ages.

H. R. Patch, The Tradition of Boethius, A Study of its Importance in Medieval Culture.

 

CONNECTIONS

Boethius

 

[1a] Reason and faith/ revelation    Augustine [1i]

 

[1b] Substance: form (quo est) and matter (id quod es);hylomorphism; basis for substantial change

   Aristotle

Wm of Auvergne

Alexander of Hales

Aquinas

[13a c 14a]

[2c]

[1a b]

[1d]

 

[1c] God: pure form; quo est =id quod est

   Aristotle

Alexander of Hales

Aquinas

[12e]

[1a]

[3a]

 

[1d] God as Substance; different categories of being; predication; goodness of created beings through 'participation'?

   Aristotle

   Alexander of Hales

Aquinas

[4b]

[3a]

[1d 3b]

 

[1e] God: proofs of existence

   Aristotle

   Augustine

Anselm

[12e]

[3b]

[1b c]

 

[1f] Evil and privation

   Augustine

Alexander of Hales

[5b]

[1d]

 

[1g] Creation out of nothing; 'overflows' but God remains distinct

   Augustine

Alexander of Hales

[4b]

[1e g]

 

[1h] Freedom and Divine providence

   Augustine

Alexander of Hales

[5a]

[1c]

 

[1i] Universals and ontological status [provisional view]

   Aristotle

Abelard

Aquinas

Nicholas of Cusa

[13d 14c 16d e]

[2a]

[6e]

[2g]

 

[2a] God as the highest good    Augustine [8a]

 

[2b] Happiness and virtue; forbearance    Seneca [2b]