Early Christianity
Boethius

   Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born about 480 A.D. into the prestigious family of the Ancii; he rose quickly to the top of the Roman political establishment (which was, of course, ruled over by non-Romans). He was, in addition to a wildly successful politician, as his father was, a profoundly intelligent scholar of Greek, particularly Platonic philosophy. The Roman Empire was at this point Christian, and if it weren't for Boethius's treacherous end, he probably would have been barely remembered in history. As it happens, he got caught in a conflict between the Roman Emperor, Theoderic, and the Eastern Emperor, a conflict concerning the unification the Roman and the Eastern churches. Theoderic was a Ostrogoth and had invaded Rome in 489, assuming the title of emperor in 493. He was, by all accounts, a good leader and just man; however, he was an Arian Christian—a vile heretic in the eyes of the Roman Church. He seems to have trusted Boethius for a while; however, Boethius's attempts to negotiate with the Eastern Church soon were construed as treason by Theoderic and he slapped him in prison, tried and convicted him of treason and sacrilege, tortured him mercilessly for months, and killed him in the cruelest possible manner.

   In the months before his death, Boethius, his body torn from daily tortures, began to deeply question his Christian faith in both religious and intellectual terms. He had, from all we know, been acting in perfectly good faith regarding the controversies splitting the Roman from the Eastern churches; he had faithfully served Theoderic; the evidence at the trial was more or less cooked up by his persecutors; for these injustices, he began to question why it is that evil exists in the world. By what law did God allow good people to suffer, as he did, and evil people to prosper, as Theoderic seemed to be doing? So he sat down to write about this problem, and the short treatise he produced, The Consolation of Philosophy, became the single, most important book in the West in medieval and early Renaissance Christianity. If anyone defined a world view for the medievals, and even the people of the Renaissance, it was this poor, battered man trying in his last days of life to explain his suffering and the existence of evil.

   The fiction of the work is that Boethius is languishing in prison (as he really was) awaiting his execution. He comforts himself with poetry, lamenting the general state of chaos in the world. A figure then appears to him, Lady Philosophy, who undertakes to open his eyes and teach him the order of the universe; after knowing this, he will be able to understand why God permits evil in the world. There are two perspectives on the world: the human and the divine. The former perspective gives us the idea of "fortune," the latter the idea of "Providence." These two perspectives are perhaps the most important legacy Boethius bequeaths to history and the Western concept of history and time, and I'm having you read the section of the work which defines the difference between the two. The problem of Providence leads to a second question: if God knows the future, does that mean that the future is predestined and that human beings have essentially no moral choice in the matter? The second section you are reading attempts to explain how "Providence" (which means: "seeing forward") does not mean "predetermination" or "predestination."

Richard Hooker



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1997, Richard Hooker
Updated 1-31-98