Boethius and the Consolation of Astronomy, part 1

For the next few weeks, I’ll be exploring the theme of astronomy and divinity, or the idea that the study of the heavens brings a person closer to God. For centuries, this was one of the primary motivations for learning astronomy. I begin with an exploration of the Consolation of Philosophy. In the Consolation of Philosophy, contemplation of the heavens brings Boethius closer to an understanding of the divine and gives him the fortitude to face his troubles with equanimity. Most of Sacrobosco’s medieval and early modern readers would also have read Boethius and they expected that learning astronomy would give them spiritual sustenance.

Philosophy Instructing Boethius on the Role of God.
Coëtivy Master (Henri de Vulcop?), about 1460–1470. J. Paul Getty Museum.

Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was born around 480 into a powerful aristocratic Roman family. He was given an excellent education and became fluent in Greek and conversant with Greek philosophy, particularly the works of Aristotle. Knowledge of Greek was increasingly rare, even among the educated elite, in fifth-century Rome. Boethius embarked on an ambitious plan to translate all of Aristotle’s works from Greek into Latin so his countrymen could read them. While he fell short of his goal, he did translate all of Aristotle’s works on logic into Latin, and he wrote commentaries on them. He translated most of Euclid’s Elements from Greek into Latin as well. He wrote independent works on logic and at least four treatises on theology. He wrote introductory works on arithmetic, geometry and music. He may have composed a treatise on astronomy, the fourth of the liberal arts making up the quadrivium, but if he did it is no longer extant. He coined the term quadrivium, which literally means four-fold way. These subjects – astronomy, mathematics, geometry and music – were the way to wisdom: “it was impossible to achieve the summit of perfection in the disciplines of philosophy unless one approached this noble wisdom by a kind of fourfold way.”

Map of the territories (pink) ruled by Theodoric the Great at their height in 523. Wikimedia Commons.

In addition to a brilliant and prolific scholar, Boethius was an influential political figure. As a young man, he attracted the attention of Theodoric, King of the Ostrogothic Kingdom in Italy. The Ostrogothic Kingdom encompassed not just the Italian peninsula, but a substantial portion of what is today southern France and Serbia. It was a semi-autonomous kingdom, nominally part of the Roman Empire. Theodoric technically ruled as a representative of the Emperor in Constantinople, but in practice acted as an independent ruler backed by a formidable army. Roman citizens in the Ostrogothic Kingdon, like Boethius, were subject to Roman law, a principle that Theodoric scrupulously upheld. Ostrogoths were subject to their own laws and customs. The Ostrogoths, including Theodoric, were Arian Christians, a sect Roman Christians considered heretical. Theodoric maintained a delicate balance between his Roman subjects, whose loyalties were to the larger Roman Empire, and his Ostrogothic subjects. Despite the obvious fissures along ethnic, religious and cultural fault lines, Theodoric’s reign was peaceful and prosperous.

This delicate balance was fractured in around 524 when Theodoric got wind of a conspiracy of Roman sympathizers plotting against him. One of these conspirators was, allegedly, Boethius. Whether this conspiracy was real or manufactured by political rivals to bring about the downfall of the conspirators is not clear. Boethius claims he was falsely accused, but there are no independent sources that corroborate his account of events. Whatever actually happened, Boethius was tried and condemned by the Roman Senate, under pressure from Theodoric. He was sent to Pavia to await execution. In this darkest period of his life, stripped of wealth and power, isolated from family and friends, imprisoned and anticipating the painful and ignominious death of a criminal, Boethius wrote his last and most famous book, The Consolation of Philosophy. Luminously beautiful, this book was widely read throughout the Middle Ages, and as I’ve noted, still resonates today.

The book begins with Boethius weeping quietly in his prison, mourning the radical reversal in fortune that has led him to this place. Suddenly he becomes aware of a woman standing next to him. This woman is Philosophy who has come to comfort him in his distress. The two converse about fortune and fate, good and evil, divine providence and human frailty, and what makes a man truly happy. Philosophy gently but firmly brings the bitter and anguished Boethius to a state of calm serenity. Astronomical language and imagery pervade the dialogue.

Boethius begins with a “long and noisy display of grief” in which he laments the injustice of his condemnation and imprisonment and protests that he was falsely accused in. The lament ends with a poem that begins:

Creator of the starry heavens

Lord on thy everlasting throne,

Thy power turns the moving sky

And makes the stars obey fixed laws.

The moon, sun, stars and planets all move according to regular patterns established by God at the creation, never deviating from their courses.  The seasons come and go every year. The moon waxes and wanes every month.

All things obey their ancient law

And all perform their proper tasks;

All things thou holdest in strict bounds, –

To human acts alone denied

Thy fit control as Lord of all.

The perfect order of the heavens contrasts the chaos and corruption of human life on earth. If anything, the contemplation of the heavens serves to sharpen Boethius’ misery. He longs for a world where reward follows virtue as the evening star follows the sun, as summer follows spring.

I’m going to leave Boethius to his misery for now, and return to him in next week’s post, where Philosophy will teach him the correct way to view the heavens, one that brings Boethius peace and serene indifference to his earthly troubles.

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