Tag Archives: boethius

John Magee ‘In Search of the First Medieval Aristotle’

Boethius, De musica, from Cambridge University Library MS Ii.3.12, fol. 73v (12th c.)

Last night I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural lecture of the Durham Centre for Ancient and Medieval Philosophy (DCAMP), delivered by Prof. John Magee of the University of Toronto. I have long had respect for Magee since he taught me Greek prose composition and supervised my MA research on John Cassian back in Toronto, and it was a pleasure to see him in action, showing us what philology can do as well as the intimate links between ancient and medieval philosophy.

His lecture was about the text of Boethius’ elementary commentary on Aristotle’s De Interpretatione. Being fond of Boethius, as readers of this blog will know, I was happy to encounter an aspect of this Late Antique philosopher I was unacquainted with. What Magee did was use philology and manuscript studies to narrow our gap between the death of Boethius in 524 and the first manuscript of this commentary. This was done by considering references and quotations from Boethius in sources related to Cassiodorus’ monastic centre at Vivarium in Italy and by looking at traces of editorial intervention before the appearance of the manuscripts.

In short, what we see is Aristotle being read in Latin in western Europe, alongside Boethius’ commentary, between 580 and 800, and particular uses of Boethius’ translations being made in western Frankland. This is the sort of thing I like, and it inevitably made me think of Leo the Great and the period between his death in 461 and 600 or 700 when the first manuscripts with his letters appear. The methodology is the same.

It is also important because the way this Aristotle and this Boethian commentary were being used anticipates some of the developments in the study of philosophy in the High Middle Ages, such as the Logica Vetus. Moreover, we are reminded that parts of Aristotle were current in western Europe before 1123, and, in fact, were being read before we even have manuscripts that survive.

And, for those who are less interested in the history of philosophy, perhaps, this Aristotelian world also helps us see Charlemagne and his court and that Renaissance more clearly.

It was a pleasure to engage with a talk that brought into play philosophy, philology, palaeography, manuscript studies, and history — and even a moment of art history for good measure!

I look forward to DCAMP’s upcoming events.


Review: Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, trans. V.E. Watts

The Consolation of PhilosophyThe Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read Boethius’ Consolation, I read the Loeb translation by S.J. Tester (this is the update of 1973, rather than the original by E.K. Rand from 1918). This time, it was the Penguin by V.E. Watts, and I found the read much more rewarding. I am not certain if this is because I was 21 or 22 the first time through and I’m 34 now, or if it’s because Watts has a much more fluid style. Either way, I appreciated Boethius’ philosophy and inquiry and arguments as well as connections to other thinkers a lot more now in 2017 than I did in 2004/5. And I believe that a readable translation certainly helps one grasp and enjoy a piece of literature, especially when the literature at hand is philosophy.

The Consolation is one of those ‘great books’ everyone knows about — and many have even read. It had a wide and powerful impact throughout the Middle Ages, including a translation commissioned by King Alfred and influence upon tellings of Orpheus in both Sir Orfeo and Chaucer. The philosophy of Boethius is also evident in Dante’s cosmology.

The historical circumstances of the book are that Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, having held the consulship and served in the administration of Theoderic the Great (King of Italy, 492-526) was accused of treason against the Ostrogth, imprisoned in Pavia, and executed in 525. He was not the only aristocrat to suffer in Theoderic’s final years (the great king seems to have become increasingly paranoid after the accession of Emperor Justin I in 518 — see the Anonymus Valesianus II in Ammianus Marcellinus: Roman History, Volume III, Books 27-31. Excerpta Valesiana).

While rotting prison, Boethius turned his mind to philosophy to cope with the onset of despair. Parallel with his career in the Late Antique bureaucracy, Boethius had been a great promoter, translator, and interpreter of philosophy, making use of his resources and otium (leisure) as any aristocrat would. He knew Greek and translated a lot of Aristotle into Latin. The result of his philosophical inquiry in prison is this text — a conversation with the goddess Philosophy in the literary form of Menippean Satire (a genre manipulated with scathing effect by Seneca in the Apolocyntosis), which alternates between prose and verse sections of the text. What distinguishes Boethius from many philosophers of the classical period, and which he holds to a degree in common with St Augustine, is his willingness to insert explicit allusions to Homer, Euripides, Virgil, and Lucan as philosophical exempla, besides the implicit allusions to the likes of Juvenal.

Philosophy appears to him in his prison cell in Book 1 and inquires as to why he is so downcast. What follows is a discussion of fortune, providence, fate, freewill, eternity, and more. In many ways, it could be described as ‘Aristotle baptised’, but Boethius brings in Plato and Neoplatonism much along the way, following the ideal of Late Antique philosophers that there is no contradiction between Plato and Aristotle. Here we get the famous description of the fickle Wheel of Fortune (sans Pat Sajak), but while that may be Boethius’ most famous portion of the text today, it may not be the most important.

We are reminded that what all mean seek above all else is happiness (see Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics). But the only being who can be said to truly possess absolute happiness, free from fickle fortune, is God. So anyone who possesses God, must possess true happiness. God is ultimately good, as well. Ergo, evil men may appear to prosper, but ultimately they do not; their wickedness will catch up with them. The goal, then, is to seek the summum bonum, to seek God, and find an eternal sort happiness that can endure to storms of fortune.

There is a lot more that this slim volume goes into, and I won’t chase it all now. It would be too much. I commend Boethius to you; the Consolation will not take long to read. Thus, I will draw the reader’s attention to but one final piece of discussion from this piece of philosophical discourse.

Book 5 is where Boethius deals with freewill and divine foreknowledge. Philosophy’s argument produces a classic, Christian definition of eternity. Here we see Boethius actually turning away from the Greek philosophers who dominate this discourse and picking up St Augustine and other Christian theologians. Rather than being the Hellenic view of eternity as perpetual time, Boethius defines eternity as God’s existence beyond time and his simultaneous of all time. In his own words, the eternal God is:

‘that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal. Of necessity it will always be present to itself, controlling itself, and have present the infinity of fleeting time.’ (Book 5.6, p. 164)

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The Last Poets of Imperial Rome, trans. Harold Isbell

The Last Poets of Imperial RomeThe Last Poets of Imperial Rome by Harold Isbell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My star rating is based on the readability of the translation and selection here given, not on accuracy; I have not compared the texts with the Latin, so I cannot say how well Isbell translated on that count. However, the translations are very readable, verse renderings of some of the most important Latin poems of Late Antiquity, so straightaway I want to recommend this book; anything that can promote the final years of Roman rule as more than mere ‘decline’ or the beginning of a ‘Dark Age’ is welcome.

After a general introduction to the period and the poetry, Isbell gives us a series of poems from the 200s all the way, oddly, to Alcuin. Each poet/poem is given his/its own introduction as well. Some of the material is, unsurprisingly, outdated, since the study of the Later Roman Empire has not stood still since the volume was first published in 1971. However, this anthology is recent enough that Isbell doesn’t scorn the poets and poetry of the age, which is refreshing.

The works contained herein are:

Nemesianus (c. 283-4): ‘The Hunt’ (Cynegetica)
Anon., 3rd/4th c: ‘The Night Watch of Venus’ (Pervigilium Veneris)
Ausonius (310-395): ‘Bissula’, ‘Mosella’, and ‘The Crucifixion of Cupid’ (Cupido Cruciator)
Anon., 4th c.: ‘On the Freshly Blooming Roses’ (De rosis nascentibus)
Claudian (370-405): ‘The Rape of Proserpine’ (De raptu Proserpinae) and ‘Epithalamium for Honorius Augustus and Maria, Daughter of Stilicho’ (Epithalamium de nuptiis Honorii Augusti)
Prudentius (348-405): ‘Praefatio’, ‘Psychomachia’, ‘Cathemerinon’, and ‘Epilogus’ (Isbell notes that this last is not likely by Prudentius)
Rutilius Claudius Namatianus: ‘Concerning His Return’ (De reditu suo) from 416
Paulinus of Pella (376-459): ‘Thanksgiving’ (Eucharisticos)
Boethius (480-524): a selection from The Consolation of Philosophy, Book 3, about Orpheus and Eurydice
Columba (521-597): ‘In Praise of the Father’ (Altus Prosator)
Alcuin (735-804): ‘The Dispute Between Winter and Spring’ (Conflictus Veris et Hiemis)

The volume closes with a ‘Glossary and Index of Names’.

As I say, this covers most of the major Latin poets and poems of the era. It thus serves as a good introduction to the work of the period, and I would encourage the reader who enjoys any of these poets to seek out their wider works if they exist; most of them can be found in the Loeb Classical Library.

One final thought: if this were to be reissued, I would like to see the final three poets cut (as much as I like them all, and as much as I could see a case made for Boethius) and have Sidonius added as well as one hymn from St Ambrose — maybe also something from Paulinus of Nola. That would give us a better selection and restrict all of our poets to Imperial Rome as the title claims.

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What ‘Dark’ Ages?

As promised, here is a post about what follows late antiquity (and if the debate about ending ‘late’ antiquity interests you, be sure to read the comments of the post thereon).

A week or two ago, I was at a conference about the Middle Ages. My paper was about Justinianic hagiography because I think the later bits of Late Antiquity also count as the early bits of the Early Middle Ages. Anyway, one of the people commented during a tea break that she doesn’t think the Middle Ages begin until the year 800. Another delegate remarked, ‘So you’re a believer in the Dark Ages?’

I know this is non-controversial in many circles, and has been for many years, but it is worth saying: The Dark Ages Never Happened.*

There are people who still use the term, such as an evangelical woman who once asked me if there were any Christians in the ‘Dark Ages’. Thunderstruck, I didn’t really have much of an answer; I also wasn’t sure what she meant by ‘Dark Ages’. Did she include the entire Middle Ages? I know that not everyone who uses the term includes the whole 1000-year period typically designated ‘mediaeval’, such as a friend who once remarked in a blog that Muslims dragged western Europe ‘kicking and screaming out of the Dark Ages.’ Usually, when the term crops up, it means something from the Fall of Rome until sometime in the Carolingian era or the 1000s or 1100s.

No one’s really sure what the Dark Ages are, I guess; that’s a worse range of dates than we had for Late Antiquity.

The Dark Ages are imagined to be a period of internecine warfare across ‘Europe’, an age when ‘barbarians’ took over the Roman Empire and everything went to pieces. Christianity was turned into superstition (if Constantine hadn’t already done it; it all depends whom you ask). Trade disappeared. People lived brutal, hard, short lives, plagued by fear of the supernatural and of Vikings. Learning was lost, shunned even. It was a dark time in western Europe, and was saved possibly by the Carolingian ‘Renaissance’ or by Islamic learning or by the Irish. Depends whom you ask.

This, quite frankly, is not exactly the case. The change from Empire to barbarian kingdoms is a gradual one, and the movement from a Mediterranean-wide economy of exchange to local economies in the West is very slow, indeed. True, the aristocracy became landed warriors, one of the hallmarks of mediaeval civilization, but they still ruled by Roman Law, still levied Roman taxes, still wrote in Latin, for a very long time.

Indeed, all sorts of Roman learning and aspects of Roman culture were preserved throughout western Europe, even in places where Roman administrative culture completely evaporated, such as Britain. How ‘dark’ can an age be if it gives us Gregory the Great, Isidore of Seville, Adamnan of Iona, the Venerable Bede, Alfred the Great, Alcuin? How ‘dark’ can a world really be that gives us the epic poem Beowulf or the Icelandic Sagas? Or Romanesque architecture and the Lindisfarne Gospels?

Any survey of Early Mediaeval literature should disabuse the notion that, say, 400-1000 was a ‘Dark Age’ for western Europe. Sure, there was a lot of local warfare. This didn’t really let up until 1945, so that can’t really count against the period. Sure, there was some political instability. Sure, a lot of manuscripts were lost. And, yes, Vikings would occasionally come to raid your village. Or found Dublin. Or conquer and settle Normandy. Or become members of the Emperor’s guard in Constantinople.

Even the example of the Vikings, so archetypically ‘Dark Ages’ shows us that the image of the Early Middle Ages as ‘dark’ is off the mark.

This was a transitional period, probably more unstable than some, but not so bad. Many imperial institutions persisted. The Church kept doing her thing. Gregory of Tours and the Venerable Bede gave us voluminous Latin output that includes Bible commentary, saints’ lives, and the history of their peoples. Worth reading. The Insular culture gave us the Book of Kells, the Lindisfarne Gospels, and other exquisite examples of book production. The continent gave us very important texts of secular and canon law as well as the beauty of early Romanesque art.

Perhaps what is darkest about this period is our ignorance of it. Most ignorant are those who still call it ‘Dark.’ Yet in many other ways, historians have far less material from this period to work with. So it is harder to illuminate this age than those that precede and follow it. Nonetheless, it is worth illuminating yourself if you can. You’ll find that the Early Middle Ages are an interesting bit of history.

So, check out these; I list only four so as not to weigh you down. Feel free to recommend others in the comments!

The Inheritance of Rome: A History of Europe from 400 to 1000 by Chris Wickham; pub. Penguin. The introductory chapter deals with a lot of the reasons the Early Middle Ages are snubbed, and not just the ‘Dark Ages’ issue. I’m about 1/3 through, and it’s very illuminating.

Romanesque by Norbert Wolf. This is one of those wonderful introductory volumes of art history produced by Taschen, full of colour illustrations demonstrating the subject at hand. Romanesque is the style of art and architecture most common in the Early Middle Ages. It is beautiful.

The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology ed. and trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland, including the entirety of Beowulf. This Oxford World’s Classics volume gives the reader an initiation in the varied literature from the world of the Anglo-Saxon people until 1066, including poetry, sermons, chronicles, spells, riddles, letters, and land grants.

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. This piece of Latin philosophy, written primarily in verse, is a tour-de-force of late antique/early mediaeval philosophical writing that will make the reader rethink the allegedness ‘darkness’ of the 500s.

*Neither did the Renaissance.