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Boethius n : a Roman who was an early Christian philosopher and statesman who was executed for treason; Boethius had a decisive influence on Medieval logic (circa 480-524) [syn: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius]

Extensive Definition

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480524 or 525) was a Christian philosopher of the 6th century. He 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, who suspected him of conspiring with the Byzantine Empire.

Early life

The exact birthdate of Boethius is unknown. It is generally located at around AD 480, the same year of birth as St. Benedict. Boethius was born to a patrician family which had been Christian for about a century. His father's line included two popes, and both parents counted Roman emperors among their ancestors.
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 Historical documents are ambiguous on the subject, but Boethius may have studied in Athens, and perhaps Alexandria. Since the elder Boethius is recorded as proctor of a school in Alexandria circa AD 470, the younger Boethius may have received some grounding in the classics from his father or a close relative. In any case, his accomplishment in Greek, though traditional for his class, was remarkable given the reduced knowledge which accompanied the end of the empire.
As a result of his increasingly rare education and experience, Boethius entered the service of Theodoric the Great, who commissioned the young Boethius to perform many roles.

Late life

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. Afterwards, his two sons were both appointed consuls, reflecting their father's prestige.
In 523, however, Theodoric ordered Boethius arrested on charges of treason, possibly for a suspected plot with the Byzantine Emperor Justin I, whose religious orthodoxy (in contrast to Theodoric's Arian opinions) increased their political rivalry. Boethius himself attributes his arrest to the slander of his rivals. Whatever the cause, Boethius found himself stripped of his title and wealth and imprisoned in Pavia, awaiting an execution that took place in 524 the following year.


Boethius's most popular work is the Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote 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. His completed translations of Aristotle's works on logic were the only significant portions of Aristotle available in Europe until the 12th century. However, some of his translations (such as his treatment of the topoi in The Topics) were mixed with his own commentary, which reflected both Aristotelian and Platonic concepts.
Boethius also wrote a commentary on the Isagoge by Porphyry, which highlighted the existence of the problem of universals: whether these concepts are subsistent entities which would exist whether anyone thought of them, or whether they only exist as ideas. This topic concerning the ontological nature of universal ideas was one of the most vocal controversies in medieval philosophy.
Besides these advanced philosophical works, Boethius is also reported to have translated important Greek texts for the topics of the quadrivium. His loose translation of Nicomachus's treatise on arithmetic (De institutione arithmetica libri duo) and his textbook on music (De institutione musica libri quinque, unfinished) contributed to medieval education. His translations of Euclid on geometry and Ptolemy on astronomy, if they were completed, no longer survive.
Boethius introduced the threefold classification of music: 1. Musica mundana - music of the spheres/world 2. Musica humana - harmony of human body and spiritual harmony 3. Musica instrumentalis - instrumental music (incl. human voice)
Boethius also wrote theological treatises, which generally involve support for the orthodox position against Arian ideas and other contemporary religious debates. His authorship was periodically disputed because of the secular nature of his other work, until the 19th century discovery of a biography by his contemporary Cassiodorus which mentioned his writing on the subject.
Boethius has been called by Lorenzo Valla the last of the Romans and the first of the scholastic philosophers. Despite the use of his mathematical texts in the early universities, it is his final work, the Consolation of Philosophy, that assured his legacy in the Middle Ages and beyond. This work is cast as a dialogue between Boethius himself, at first bitter and despairing over his imprisonment, and the spirit of philosophy, depicted as a woman of wisdom and compassion. Alternately composed in prose and verse, the Consolation teaches acceptance of hardship in a spirit of philosophical detachment from misfortune. Parts of the work are reminiscent of the Socratic method of Plato's dialogues, as the spirit of philosophy questions Boethius and challenges his emotional reactions to adversity. The work was translated into Old English by King Alfred, and into later English by Chaucer and Queen Elizabeth; many manuscripts survive and it was extensively edited, translated and printed throughout Europe from the late 15th century onwards. Many commentaries on it were compiled and it has been one of the most influential books in European culture. No complete bibliography has ever been assembled but it would run into thousands of items.
"The Boethian Wheel" (or "The Wheel of Fortune") was a concept, stretching back at least to Cicero, that Boethius uses frequently in the Consolation; it remained very popular throughout the Middle Ages, and is still often seen today. As the wheel turns those that have power and wealth will turn to dust; men may rise from poverty and hunger to greatness, while those who are great may fall with the turn of the wheel. It was represented in the Middle Ages in many relics of art depicting the rise and fall of man.


He is recognized as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church. His feast day is October 23. Pope Benedict XVI stated on March 12, 2008, "Despite his dedication to public life, Boethius did not neglect his studies, dedicating himself in particular to a profound examination of philosophical-religious themes. In this field...he used the categories of Greek philosophy to present the Christian faith, investigating the possibility of a synthesis between the Hellenistic-Roman legacy and the evangelical message. Precisely for this reason, Boethius has been called the last great representative of ancient Roman culture and the first of the mediaeval intellectuals." The Pope continued, "His best-known work is the 'De consolatione philosophiae', which he wrote to give a meaning to his unjust imprisonment. In fact, having defended his friend the senator Albinus, who was on trial, Boethius was accused of plotting against King Theodoric. Tried and condemned to death, he was executed on 23 October 524." "Precisely because of his dramatic end," said the Pope, Boethius can, "from within his own experience, also speak to modern man, and above all to the vast numbers of people who suffer his same fate as a result of the injustice that exists in such a large part of 'human justice'". "For Boethius philosophy is the true medicine of the soul, he says that man can experience true happiness only in his own interior. And in any case God remains the supreme good towards which all human beings tend, even without knowing it".



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  • Marenbon, John (2003). Boethius. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-513407-9
  • Colish, Marcia L. (1997). Medieval Foundations of the Western Intellectual Tradition. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press. ISBN 0-300-07852-8
  • Chadwick, Henry (2003). Boethius. The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy. Oxford: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-826549-2 (paperback reprint of edn. 1981)
  • Boetii De institutione arithmetica libri duo, ed. Godofredus Friedlein (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1867), pp.1-173
  • Boetii De institutione musica libri quinque, ed. Godofredus Friedlein (Leipzig: B. G. Teubner, 1867), pp.177-371
  • Attwater, Donald and Catherine Rachel John. The Penguin Dictionary of Saints. 3rd edition. New York: Penguin Books, 1993. ISBN 0-140-51312-4.
boethius in Old English (ca. 450-1100): Boētius
boethius in Bulgarian: Боеций
boethius in Catalan: Boeci
boethius in Czech: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius
boethius in Danish: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius
boethius in German: Boëthius
boethius in Estonian: Boëthius
boethius in Spanish: Boecio
boethius in Basque: Severino Boezio
boethius in French: Boèce
boethius in Galician: Anicio Boecio
boethius in Icelandic: Boethíus
boethius in Italian: Anicio Manlio Torquato Severino Boezio
boethius in Hebrew: בואתיוס
boethius in Latin: Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boethius
boethius in Lithuanian: Boetijus
boethius in Hungarian: Boethius
boethius in Dutch: Boëthius
boethius in Japanese: ボエティウス
boethius in Norwegian: Boëthius
boethius in Polish: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
boethius in Portuguese: Anicius Manlius Torquatus Severinus Boetius
boethius in Romanian: Boethius
boethius in Russian: Аниций Манлий Торкват Северин Боэций
boethius in Slovak: Boethius
boethius in Slovenian: Boetij
boethius in Serbian: Боеције
boethius in Finnish: Boëthius
boethius in Swedish: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius
boethius in Turkish: Boethius
boethius in Ukrainian: Боецій
boethius in Chinese: 波伊提烏
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