Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Boethius – the most important philosopher you’ve probably never heard of

The first I remember hearing of Boethius was this In Our Time programme on The Consolation of Philosophy

In the 6th century AD, a successful and intelligent Roman politician called Boethius found himself unjustly accused of treason. Trapped in his prison cell, awaiting a brutal execution, he found solace in philosophical ideas - about the true nature of reality, about injustice and evil and the meaning of living a moral life. His thoughts did not save him from death, but his ideas lived on because he wrote them into a book. He called it The Consolation of Philosophy

Boethius, I learned, was a Christian influenced neo-Platonist scholar and man of the world who lived in the waning years of the Roman empire. Wikipedia has more

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius[1] (ca. 480–524 or 525) … was born in Rome to an ancient and important family which included emperors Petronius Maximus and Olybrius and many consuls. His father, Flavius Manlius Boethius, was consul in 487 after Odoacer deposed the last Western Roman Emperor. Boethius himself was consul in 510 in the kingdom of the Ostrogoths. In 522 he saw his two sons become consuls. Boethius was executed by King Theodoric the Great

It is unknown where Boethius received his formidable education in Greek. Historical documents are ambiguous on the subject, but Boethius may have studied in Athens, and perhaps Alexandria…

As a result of his education and experience, Boethius entered the service of Theodoric the Great, who in 506 had written him a graceful and complimentary letter about his studies…

…By 520, at the age of about forty, Boethius had risen to the position of magister officiorum, the head of all the government and court services…

… Boethius's best known work is the Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote most likely while in exile under house arrest or in prison while awaiting his execution, but his lifelong project was a deliberate attempt to preserve ancient classical knowledge, particularly philosophy. He intended to translate all the works of Aristotle and Plato from the original Greek into Latin

…it is his final work, the Consolation of Philosophy, that assured his legacy… the work was translated into Old English by King Alfred, and into later English byChaucer and Queen Elizabeth; many manuscripts survive and it was extensively edited, translated and printed throughout Europe from the 14th century onwards.[5] Many commentaries on it were compiled and it has been one of the most influential books in European culture…

From our perspective it’s not clear how Christian Boethius was by the time he died, but he’s a Catholic saint anyway, and supposedly a favorite of Benedict. He was immensely influential in many ways, but I suspect most of us have never come across his name.

I do like In Our Time, it’s so sad that the BBC doesn’t sell past programmes on iTunes. (You can subscribe easily to the podcasts, but you can’t turn the available streaming archives into mp3/aac unless you’re a serious geek.)

See also:

Update 11/5/09: When I listen to the best of IOT I take it in sips. A bit of listening, a bit of contemplation. The very best I'll do twice. Since I first wrote this I'm about three quarters done with the Consolation of Philosophy, and it is among the best. Great guests, and for once Melvyn didn't run out of time. They fit Boethius into the chain from the Stoics through Schopenhauer to Camus and Nietzsche (but not Hume and they didn't trace back to the Greek religious tradition of the futile but heroic response to inevitable tragedy).

I'm going to have to go back to past discussions of the Stoics, and I'm looking forward to the new episode on Schopenhauer.

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