Our Inner Philosopher

Reflections on The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius

Boethius was a scholarly and respected Roman citizen who lived from about 475 to 525 AD. At that time, the Roman Empire was in decline, no longer able to control its far-flung provinces, and vulnerable to attacks from Gothic or Hun tribes, either combining forces or pursuing their mutual rivalries. As a result, the ‘eternal city’ (Rome) twice suffered the indignity of being sacked, in the fifth century. By the time of Boethius, Rome and the whole of Italy was ruled by Theodoric the Ostrogoth, while another ‘Emperor’ wielded power from Constantinople.

Finding favour with Theodoric, Boethius was appointed sole Consul is 510 AD and in due time, was made head of the civil administration of Rome, a responsibility that involved him in important judicial proceedings. As he writes:

I brought to my duties no aim but zeal for the public good.... Holding fast to the independence of conscience, I have had to think of nothing of giving offence to the powerful in the cause of justice. How often have I risked my position and influence to protect poor wretches from the false charges innumerable with which they were forever being harassed by the greed and licence of the barbarians?

His two sons were also given positions of high honour, no doubt kindling hopes for a family-based dynasty of public servants. But after a few years of dedicated duty, Boethius forfeited the favour of Theodoric, was accused of treason, and condemned to death preceded by a term of banishment and imprisonment. It was an unexpected and devastating blow, perhaps prompted by his legal support for the disadvantaged in defiance of vested interests, and for his defence of particular persons who had fallen foul of the government. Thus, we find him imprisoned in Pavia, 500 miles to the north of Rome, awaiting and bemoaning his cruel fate. Chains restricted his movements, but as a scholar and well-known translator of Greek classical texts into Latin, he was allowed writing materials, for this is where he wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, a book which was to become one of Europe’s most read texts of the ensuing thousand years.

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This article is from the Spring 2022 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.