You have probably never heard of him, but Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c. 477—524) influenced thousands of people in many different ways over the course of his life as a politician, philosopher, and academic. His legacy lives on through the success of his writings, which helped shape the direction of medieval philosophy.
Boethius was born sometime between AD 470 and 480 in medieval Italy. He was born into a politically influential Christian family, part of the broader Anicii family. His father died when Boethius was an adolescent, leaving his son in the care of Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, another Roman statesman. Boethius married Symmachus’ daughter Rusticiana, leading to a lifelong friendship between the two men. This upbringing destined Boethius for political influence, which he achieved under King Theodoric the Great, ruler of the Ostrogoths in Italy, becoming consul in AD 510 and rising to one of the highest positions within the king’s palace by 520.
Tragically, Boethius was accused of treason shortly after his promotion and imprisoned. The exact charges levelled against Boethius are unknown, but they likely had to do with the ongoing conflict between the Orthodox Byzantine emperor Justin I and King Theodoric, who held to Arianism. Boethius had publicly supported his fellow senator Albinus when the latter was accused of treason, and that support may have soured his relationship with King Theodoric. Boethius’ father-in-law, Symmachus, made a futile attempt to protect Boethius and was himself imprisoned for treason. Both men were executed in 524.
Boethius was a Greek philosopher at heart, and his contributions to Western philosophy were substantial and far-reaching. He was apparently well-trained in logic and classical Greek, endeavoring to translate numerous works of Greek philosophy into Latin. Over his relatively short life, Boethius produced translations of and commentaries on Aristotle and Porphyry. He wrote treatises on logic and attempted to apply Greek philosophy to Christian doctrine, using principles of Platonic and Aristotelian logic to provide explanations of the Trinity and the deity of Christ. Through his translations and commentaries, he helped to bring Greek philosophy into the medieval world.
Boethius wrote one of his most famous works, The Consolation of Philosophy, while in prison. The Consolation imagines philosophy as a woman who comes to comfort Boethius as he awaits execution. Using a Platonic framework, ultimate good is defended against injustice. According to The Consolation, good will prevail, despite man’s evil choices. God’s providence is reinforced using the language and logic of Greek philosophy.
What was Boethius’ impact on Christianity? Most of his extant works on philosophy, including The Consolation, do not contain explicitly Christian material. This has led some scholars to argue that Boethius gave up his faith in prison or that he only feigned Christian belief earlier in life. However, a biography by Boethius’ friend Cassiodorus, discovered in the 19th century, reaffirmed Boethius’ Christian faith. Boethius was an example of someone who believed in the integration of “secular” philosophy and Christian doctrine, allowing both fields to inform and complement each other.
The Consolation was an incredibly popular medieval work and served to expand the influence of Platonic thought on medieval theology. According to The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, “Despite the absence of specifically Christian teaching the moral of the Consolation was clear to the medieval commentator: through philosophy the soul attains to knowledge of the vision of God” (Cross, F. and Livingstone, E., eds., Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 220). A century-old biography summarizes the impact of this enigmatic theologian well: “Boethius was the last of the Roman philosophers, and the first of the scholastic theologians” (Stewart, H., and Rand, E., Boethius: The Theological Tractates and the Consolation of Philosophy, Harvard University Press, 1918, p. x).