Faith & Reason in the Barbarian Winter

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (480-524), best known for his Consolation of Philosophy, is one of the most fascinating and puzzling figures from Late Antiquity. He was born in that time of transition in Western Europe that brought an end to the Roman Empire and saw the rise of the barbarian successor states, which have ruled the western world to this day. He died as one of that period’s most celebrated victims. Put to death on October 23, 524 by Theodoric, the Arian king of the Ostrogoths, Boethius is considered a martyr in the liturgy of the church of Pavia. And yet there has been a strong tradition in modern scholarship that has viewed him as a thinly Christianized member of the Roman elite who reverted to paganism at the end of his life. What does such a seemingly ambiguous voice have to say to us? Quite a bit, as it turns out. Let us begin with a brief look at Boethius and the troubled times in which he lived.

Boethius and the Ostrogoths
Boethius was born into the family of the Anicii, a prominent senatorial family in Rome. His father, who had held several of the highest posts in Roman administration (prefect of Rome, praetorian prefect, and consul), died when Boethius was young. About four years before Boethius was born, Odoacer, a barbarian military commander serving in the Roman army, rebelled against Romulus Augustulus, the last of the Roman emperors in the west, and took control of Italy. When Boethius was nine, the eastern emperor, Zeno, sent Theodoric, king of the Ostrogoths, to Italy to get rid of Odoacer. Four years later, Theodoric completed his task and established the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy. Realizing that his success would depend on managing good relations with the Roman senate, Theodoric made every effort to make this relationship a cordial one.

Coming from one of the most important senatorial families in Rome, Boethius emerged as a key figure in this political drama. In 522 he became Theodoric’s Master of Offices, a position analogous to that of a modern-day prime minister. Renowned for his learning, Boethius was a jewel in Theodoric’s court. It is likely that before becoming Master of Offices, he had already served as a tutor to Amalasuntha, Theodoric’s highly educated daughter. Amalasuntha became a person of tremendous interest and importance for members of the Roman elite, like Boethius. If she could be thoroughly “Romanized” (educated in Roman learning and culture), then perhaps Roman life and culture could survive the barbarian winter; for if she gave birth to a son, this son would rule Italy just as Theodoric had—as an Ostrogothic king with Roman backing and strong Roman sympathies.

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Despite all of this, Boethius filled the position of Master of Offices at a delicate and dangerous time. Theodoric, now 68 years old, was faced with several pressing problems. The Eastern Emperor, Justin I (518-527), was beginning to pursue a policy that was openly hostile to Arians. As a result, Theodoric, himself an Arian, grew increasingly wary of the Romans serving him at court, for Roman senators maintained open lines of communication with the eastern emperor. Such developments did not bode well for Boethius, for among his many scholarly writings were several treatises on the Trinity and Christology, all of which argued forcefully for Catholic orthodoxy.

Given the increasingly tense relations with the Eastern Emperor, an anti-Roman faction of Ostrogothic nobles seems to have gained the ear of the aging king. It was at this point that Boethius became embroiled in a scandal involving a fellow senator, Albinus, who was charged with conspiring with the eastern emperor against Theodoric. When Boethius came to Albinus’s defense, Theodoric charged Boethius with treason as well. Theodoric apparently bullied the Roman senate into endorsing these charges. Boethius was arrested and eventually executed for treason. During his imprisonment he wrote his Consolation of Philosophy.

Boethius the Scholar and the Survival of Christian Culture
It was Boethius’ death at the hands of Theodoric that led many in the Church to consider him a martyr. It was his Consolation of Philosophy that has led many to think that he abandoned his faith. Boethius framed the Consolation as an extended dialogue between himself, the disillusioned victim of injustice, and Lady Philosophy, who comes to his cell to apply the medicine of reason and philosophy to his clouded mind and troubled heart. Her voice represents the harvest of Hellenistic philosophy as it was known in Late Antiquity—essentially Neoplatonic with several spoonfuls of Stoicism. While Lady Philosophy’s wisdom affirms God’s providential rule over the cosmos, there is no explicit reference to Christianity to be found anywhere in the text. It is this strange silence that has led some to suggest that the tragedies that beset Boethius at the end of his life led him to abandon his faith.

Once we situate the Consolation within the larger trajectory of Boethius’ scholarly work, however, this strange silence becomes less puzzling. Indeed, the Consolation can be seen as the crowning achievement of a life’s work aimed at preparing Christianity for the barbarian winter. How so? At a time when facility with Greek and familiarity with Greek philosophy and literature was on the wane in the Latin west, Boethius immersed himself in Greek learning and philosophy. As a youth he studied in Athens and Alexandria, and upon his return to Rome, he was keenly aware of the danger that Greek learning could be lost to the west. Therefore he embarked on a Herculean task to preserve the heritage of Greek philosophy through translations and commentaries. The crowning achievement of this project, Boethius hoped, would be Latin translations of all the works of Plato and Aristotle. This work absorbed much of his scholarly attention from 505 until 523, when he was arrested. While he never came close to fulfilling his grand project, he did succeed in translating several of Aristotle’s logical treatises (On Interpretation, Categories, Topics, and Prior Analytics) and several of Porphyry’s commentaries on Aristotle. All the while, he wrote a number of theological treatises—on the Trinity and on the nature of Christ, among other things. Characteristic of these theological works is the endeavor to demonstrate the rationality of these doctrines without appeal to revelation.

The historical significance of Boethius’ life work is difficult to overestimate. In Boethius, we find a final burst of cultural energy before classical culture went into a period of hibernation. In certain respects, he was like a squirrel gathering nuts for the winter. But we would be wide of the mark if we were to view him as nothing more than a proud Roman attempting to preserve his cultural heritage. Boethius was motivated by an intuition far more profound, even prophetic. He understood that the marriage between Hellenistic wisdom and biblical faith was not simply one of convenience—one among a number of culturally relative forms that Christianity might assume. Rather, Greek philosophy provided a rational substructure in which the Gospel subsisted and without which Christianity, born of the Logos, would not survive.

It was precisely this rational substructure that was most in danger during Boethius’ lifetime. There were, after all, several anti-logoi either already present or looming on the horizon. First there was the familiar anti-logos of political expediency. Since the time of Constantine, orthodox teaching on the Trinity and Christology often found itself prey to political expediency, as emperors sought “compromise formulas” that might better serve the Roman state. At the beginning of the sixth century, there was nothing to indicate that the threat of political expediency would lessen with the coming of the barbarians, who were, after all, mostly Arian. Second, with the emergence of the barbarian kingdoms ruling a still thinly Christianized Europe, there was the ever-present danger that Christian supernaturalism, divorced from the rational substructure of Hellenistic philosophy, would lose touch with the natural order and devolve into pagan magic. Finally, there was the danger that ascetic and mystical elements within Christianity might lose themselves in irrationalism and dualism. Medieval Christianity survived all of these threats, thanks in no small part to Boethius, whose commitment to Greek learning helped preserve the dialectic between biblical faith and Hellenistic wisdom that stands at the core of Christianity. The work of Boethius was among the seeds from which sprouted the work of the greatest scholastics, like Albertus Magnus, Aquinas and Bonaventure.

There is, of course, the equal and opposite danger—that Christianity could lose itself in rationalism, but that was hardly the danger in Boethius’ age. For us, who live on the other side of the modern age, with the unpleasant aftertaste of Enlightenment “rational religion” still lingering, Boethius could make us a bit uncomfortable, and understandably so.  But the winds have changed. The “Age of Reason” has passed; Hellenistic wisdom is all but lost. With new forms of political expediency and irrationalism looming on the horizon, it may be time, once again, to attend to the rational substructure of Christianity before winter catches us by surprise.


  • David Foote

    David Foote is Associate Professor of History at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His teaching and research focuses on medieval church and society, especially the role of the church in the development of the Italian city-states.

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