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Boethius in Prison

  • ANTHONY ESOLEN

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.


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Boethius

It was the year 524 since the birth of the Incarnate Word.  It was 1,277 years since the mythical founding of the City.  It was forty-eight years since the last emperor of Rome in the West, a boy with the bitterly ironic name Romulus Augustulus, was "advised" to quit his throne and become a harmless monk, while the true rulers, Germans, took over.

Severinus paced in his cell, waiting for the voices to go away.  Never had their accents struck his ear as quite so barbarous as they did now, guttural and crude.  Se reiks... wil...frijonds dauths...the emperor wants his friend dead, and they laughed and slapped one another on the back for a job well done.

Why had he meddled with politics, anyway?  He was more than a scholar "at heart."  He was a scholar through and through, the greatest scholar of his century.  He was an expert in the Greek philosophies going back to Plato.  He was a profound theologian who wrote upon the Trinity.  He was a mathematician and a theorist of music.  He would dearly have wished to do nothing but read and write, in his villa — especially to realize his old ambition, to show the world that the visions of Plato and Aristotle were one.

But he never enjoyed that retirement.  Severinus loved his country, or what was left of it, and he believed he could serve loyally both Rome and the heretic warlord Theodoric, his master.  At least he could try.  He was too much of a Roman not to try.  He could work to preserve the residual liberties of the Senate, to affirm the authority of the true emperor in Constantinople, to protect the orthodox Catholic Church from the new Arian overlords, and somehow find time to shore up against the storm the fragments of a world in shambles.

Theodoric was a capable administrator and, for a Goth, a humane ruler.  But he felt his inferiority.  When the enemies of Severinus, traitors and perjurers and thieves, accused the scholar of engaging in a plot with the Senate, Theodoric condemned him to death.  The Senate, a pack of ingratiating cowards, joined in.  It was all a lie.

And now, Severinus thought, his reputation was ruined, and his life was over.  Nor could he expect the solemn and quick execution proper to a Roman citizen.  The Goths had other means than the headsman's ax.

This is what they would do: they would soak a leather thong in hot vinegar to stretch it, and then they would manacle Severinus and fasten the thong around his forehead.  Over the course of two or three days the thong would shrink, crushing the skull and penetrating the brain.  That was the death awaiting him.

One last gift

But Theodoric was not wholly heartless.  He gave Severinus a precious gift: pen and ink and papyrus.  With them, from the few days he had left, Severinus, whom we know as Boethius, gave to the world his greatest work, one that we cannot dismiss as airy speculation detached from the mire and blood of human suffering.  It would be, second to the Bible, the most translated work in the Christian West for the next 1,100 years.  We can esteem it for its power of expression and clarity of thought, in alternating sections of prose and the last really great poetry of ancient Rome.  But those of us who have once been moved by The Consolation of Philosophy love it best for its courage and wisdom, and its assertion of the never-failing providence of the Father.

It would be, second to the Bible, the most translated work in the Christian West for the next 1,100 years. 

Reader, have you ever feared that your life was falling apart about you?  Imagine then Severinus alone in his cell, lamenting in these words, in verse:

Why, my friends, did you so often boast of my good fortune?  The man who has fallen never did stand upon a firm step.

At which point, he says, "It seemed that I saw a woman of reverend countenance, standing high above me, with flashing eyes and quicker vision than is common to mankind," young in feature, yet so old that she could not belong to his own age.  Her stature was as impossible to fix as were her years.  Sometimes she seemed to be of ordinary human height, and yet sometimes, when she lifted herself to her full stature, she might pierce the heavens themselves.  She is old and ever fresh, human and yet in contemplation more than human.  Her name is Lady Philosophy — Lady Love of Wisdom.

And her last gift to Severinus will be the consolation that truth affords.

In prison, but free

"O stelliferi conditor orbis," cries the prisoner, "O Creator of the star-bearing wheel" — why should we look to the heavens and see the beauty of law and orderly motion, but when we look to the earth and sinful mankind we see confusion?

We expect perhaps that Lady Love of Wisdom will soothe Severinus by letting him rest his head upon her bosom, as she strokes his hair and says, "You're right, my darling, so right."  And what good would that do?  It would be like giving a drink to the condemned man, to soak his sorrows in wine and forgetfulness.  She does no such thing.  "But as for you," she says, friendly and calm, "how far you are from your fatherland — not driven into exile, but wandering away, or if you have been driven, you yourself have done the driving!"

She begins with the crucial question.  Does he believe that the world is governed, or is it a matter of mere chance?  This question is all or nothing.  Is the ultimate principle of the world order, or is it disorder and chaos?  But how can we even call chaos a "principle," since it would be the antithesis of law, and thus could never begin anything?

"I could never imagine," says Severinus, thinking of the sun and the moon, the planets and the stars, "that such certain motions would be caused by heedless chance.  I know that God the Creator presides over his work, nor shall the day come that can thrust me from the truth of that judgment."

In the midst of his fear, disappointment, and near despair, Severinus cries out, Not nothing! From this one spark of the intellect, Lady Love of Wisdom will kindle again in his soul the vision of immutable truth: God never abandons the citizens of his country.

And her last gift to Severinus will be the consolation that truth affords.

The things that men pursue as if they were the whole good, things in the gift of wheel-spinning Fortune — yes, reader, the Wheel of Fortune makes its first appearance here — deceive us.  It's not that wealth, power, fame, honor, and pleasure are bad things in themselves.  They are partial things.  We seek the whole good, the One who unites in himself, not by conglomeration but in a single essence, all that is good in these other things.  The pursuit of happiness leads inevitably to disappointment and failure, says Lady Love of Wisdom, if it aims at only the part and not the whole.  Thus do vicious men suffer the punishment in the very vice they practice, because they lose by it not just some victory in a footrace, but the aim and end of all human action.

But virtuous men are tried by God, for their good.  God protects some who are weak by giving them only good fortune.  He gives to some virtuous men the most terrible trials, that they may emerge victorious and shine as exemplars for their fellow men.  He gives an easy life to some vicious men, that penury may not prompt them to crimes even worse; or he may, as severe punishment, withhold from them the reversals that might prompt them to repent.  We do not know and cannot know what God may intend in his special providence for any individual.

"O you who govern the world with perpetual reason," sings Lady Love of Wisdom in the most famous poem of the work, begging God to inspire them by the beauty of his creation and the moral order:

Shine forth in thy splendor! For thou art the serene, thou the tranquil repose for pious men, and to look upon thee is the goal of all: Thou art their beginning, their inspiration, their guide, their way, and their end.

A timely gift for us

Boethius was the one man most responsible for bequeathing classical learning to the West, to survive the Dark Ages to come, until the Medieval world should burst forth in its wonderful light.  Yet I think that the Consolation may be meant for us now in a special way.  The barbarians are back.  Humane learning is forgotten or despised.  The Church is buffeted, while the gargoyles of the age caper and make mouths and laugh.  I imagine that the Gothic keepers of the jail cracked their jokes too.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius kept faith to the end.  No one honors or even remembers his accusers; but the Catholics of Lombardy honored and remembered him straightaway: Saint Severinus.  His bones rest in the cathedral of Pavia, where the bones of Saint Augustine also lie.

It is better for us to wait with that man in his cell, than to enjoy all of the vast earth among men gone mad, quite mad.  God give us the courage to do so!

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Acknowledgement

Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: Boethius in Prison." Magnificat (June, 2016).

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The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

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