BOETHIUS WAS A CHRISTIAN SCHOLAR and philosopher who lived at the time when the classical world of late antiquity was receding and what scholars call the early Middle Ages was about to dawn. His full name, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, indicates that he belonged not just to the aristocracy of Rome, but also to the Anicii, one of its grandest families.
He was an educated Roman, who not only spoke his native language, Latin, but who was also fluent in Greek. He was familiar with the great tradition of Greek philosophy, especially that of Plato and Aristotle. In addition, as a Christian philosopher he was familiar with both the Greek Christian literature and the writings of the Latin Fathers of the Church. Boethius had access to a large theological library of Latin theological literature in Rome. From his various theological writings, it is evident that he was steeped in the work of some of the most brilliant minds of Latin Christianity, especially Augustine.
His erudition is evident in his works, which may be divided into four categories. Firstly, he wrote textbooks on mathematical subjects, which he called the “quadrivium”. Secondly, there are his translations, commentaries, and textbooks on logic and rhetoric. Although he set out to translate the complete works of Aristotle and Plato into Latin, he managed only to translate all of Aristotle’s logical works at the end of his life. Boethius’ five short theological works (called the Opuscula Sacra) form the third category. They include an exposition of Christian doctrine, a discussion of major theological topics in light of contemporary debates, and a treatise on the problem of predication. Finally, we have his most famous work, Consolation of Philosophy, written while he was in prison awaiting his execution in 524 or 525.
He is credited for providing what is considered as the classical definition of eternity. Drawing from his beloved Augustine, Boethius developed a concept of the eternity of God from the perspective of divine foreknowledge in book five of Consolation. He sought to work out the relationship between God’s foreknowledge in relation to temporal events. The question that exercised his mind was: “Does foreknowledge of the future cause the necessity of events, or necessity cause foreknowledge?”
He concluded that foreknowledge indeed creates necessity. But this raises an important problem for the Christian philosopher, namely the role of human freedom. If foreknowledge necessitates an event, in what way can human agents be said to be truly free? Refusing to accept that divine foreknowledge is contingent, Boethius argued that knowledge of an object (or event) is not dependent on its ability to be known but on the ability of the knower. Thus, he asserted that the problem of divine foreknowledge could only be solved if the human mind is able to comprehend how such knowledge actually occurs.
It was in the context of the problem of divine foreknowledge, then, that Boethius offered his famous definition of eternity: “Eternity, then, is the complete, simultaneous and perfect possession of everlasting life; this will be clear from a comparison with creatures that exist in time. Whatever lives in time exists in the present and progresses from the past to the future, and there is nothing set in time which can embrace simultaneously the whole extent of life: it is in the position of not yet possessing tomorrow when it has already lost yesterday … So that which embraces and possesses simultaneously the whole fullness of everlasting life, which lacks nothing of the future and has lost nothing of the past, that is what may properly be said to be eternal.”
Boethius then went on to claim that God’s eternity is like an “eternal present”: it does not lose itself to the past, nor does it anticipate the future, but comprehends past, present and future in a single moment. Because God’s eternity is timeless, all time – past, present and future – are present to him at once.
Although this a-temporal concept of God’s eternity is highly problematic, not least from a theological standpoint, it has influenced great theologians like Aquinas, Luther and Calvin, and it has become what may be described as the classical view.
IN CONSOLATION, Boethius, in an imaginary dialogue with Lady Wisdom (Philosophy personified), reflected on the nature of true happiness. Everyone, he argued, is in search of happiness: “All mortal creatures in those anxious aims which find employment in so many varied pursuits though they take many paths, yet strive to reach one goal – the goal of happiness.” Some seek it in wealth, while others in rank or in power. Still others seek happiness in the “pleasures of the body”. But all these things “neither lead as byways to happiness, nor themselves make men completely happy”.
True happiness, Boethius insisted (in the voice of Lady Wisdom), is not found in these imperfect and temporal goods.
True happiness is found only in the perfect good, for the “essence of absolute good and of happiness is one and the same”. And since “God’s essence is seated in absolute good, and nowhere else”, wrote Boethius, “God and true happiness are one and the same”. Like Augustine before him and Aquinas after, he taught that true happiness is to be found in loving and serving God.
Boethius was executed by the Gothic king Theodoric before his 50th year. Because of his untimely death he was unable to finish the literary and philosophical works he set out to do. The circumstances surrounding his arrest and execution are unclear, and numerous theories have been spun, from high-level political intrigue (which would have made him either a pawn or a martyr) to lower-level rivalries and jealousies. Be that as it may, in Boethius we have yet another example of a Christian scholar who devoted his intellectual energies in philosophical translation and commentary in the service of the Church.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.