Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, sometimes colorfully called “the last of the Romans,” was born in the year of the Lord’s incarnation 480 to an old aristocratic family. His father had been a consul under the Arian king Odoacer, the half-Hun half-Scirian mercenary who in 476 had deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last puppet emperor of the Western Roman Empire. The young Boethius was introduced to literature and philosophy at a young age, in the house of his family’s friend Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus. He married Symmachus’s daughter, Rusticiana, and two of their sons would continue the noble family tradition of public service by being made consuls at the same time in 522.
Boethius was among a dying breed in the fifth century West. For centuries the school system of the Empire had been educating its citizens in the classical thought of both Greece and Rome (though in the West the Greek works were known largely through Latin translations). But as the power and abilities of the Imperial government waned, the Roman school system broke down and detailed knowledge of the Greek aspect of the classical heritage waned even among the shrinking educational elites. The Western Romans, always practical, had little time and energy for the speculative Greek legacy their Eastern brethren pursued. Under pressure from barbarian invasions, the disastrous policies of weak or incompetent emperors, the decline of cities as the centers of cultural activity (and a corresponding increase in ruralization), and numerous other factors, the Western Empire became a shadow of its former self.
During this period of decline, Boethius, along with his relative Cassiodorus, was a shining light pointing toward a better tomorrow. Their near-contemporary St. Isidore of Seville would also play a critical role in the transmission of Greco-Roman culture through the decline of the Western society and into the emerging societas Christiana of the Middle Ages. For this reason, Boethius, Cassiodorus, and Isidore of Seville are sometimes called “the transmitters.” Boethius, classically educated, mastered the the seven liberal arts (grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Of all his studies, however, he considered philosophy to be his chief solace in life (summum vitae solamen). In this area he would profoundly affect the intellectual tenor of the Middle Ages. Furthermore, along with becoming perfect in his style and eloquence, Boethius had a skill that in the fifth century was being lost in the West: command of the Greek language. This would stand him in good stead during his short life.
After Odoacer was murdered by the Ostrogoth king Theodoric (493), Boethius came into the latter’s service. Despite his youth (he was only 30), he rapidly rose to the rank of consul. Later, Theodoric made him the “master of offices” (magister officiorum), responsible for the civil services and the functionaries of the royal palace. After his consulship ended, he returned to that which he loved best–the life of quiet, scholarly contemplation and writing. Painfully aware of the decline of culture going on all around him, Boethius wanted to provide his countrymen with a solid basis for the study of philosophy. To this end, he wrote learned treatises on arithmetic, geometry, logic, music, theology, and, it may be, on astronomy and mechanics. It is from Boethius, in fact, that the second half of the seven liberal arts gets its name, the quadrivium. He planned several great works, including translations of all the works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin, and an original explanatory synthesis of the two seemingly irreconcilable ancient philosophers.
Unfortunately for Western Christian attempts to “plunder the Egyptians” by working out a biblical-philosophical system upon the basis of the great works of classical antiquity, Boethius never completed these planned works. Although it is entirely to his work that the West would know anything at all about Aristotle prior to the renaissance of the thirteenth century, Boethius translated only the great philosopher’s works on logic and a commentary on Porphyry’s commentary on Aristotle’s book The Categories. These would form the basis of the work of the Scholastic theologians in the eleventh century, and they would virtually define the parameters of the often intense debates between the schools of Realism and Nominalism over the question of Universals.
Despite his formative influence in these areas, however, it is for his last great work, The Consolation of Philosophy, that he is chiefly remembered. Written during the darkest time of his life, when he sat in prison in Pavia accused of treason against Theodoric and awaiting execution, the Consolation is an example of the classical genre known as consolatio, whose purpose is to provide the “moral medication” of wisdom for illnesses of the mind and heart. The work alternates between prose and poetry, leading the reader through strong arguments and mild reliefs, and spelling out an intensely personal dialogical process of resolving troubles. The Consolation features Boethius dialoguing with Philosophy herself, who leads him up, as by a Platonic ascent, until he reaches God. This theme of ascent out of the “lower” world and up into the “higher” world, too, would impact on the Christendom of the Middle Ages. Boethius’s influence in this regard was, in fact, second only to that of St. Augustine.
It is sometimes argued that Boethius was “insufficiently converted” to Christianity–that the ancient pagan way of thinking and living exerted upon him a stronger hold than his Christian religion. It may be equally argued, however, that living as he did in an age of earthshaking transition–out of the ancient societas pagana into the redemptive societas Christiana, that Boethius used his considerable God-given gifts to the best effect he could. Certainly without him Western Christendom would have had far less light for far longer a period than it did.