IN the thirteenth chapter of the second book of Dante’s Convito, or Invitation, to the study of divine philosophy occurs this passage : —
“ When first I lost the chief delight of my soul, my Beatrice, I was penetrated by so deep a sadness that no comfort at all availed me. But after a certain time, when I had striven to reason my spirit into health, yet found no solace either without or within, I bethought me of resorting to the methods which other forlorn ones had employed, and I read that book, not known to many, in which Boethius, an exile and in prison, had found for himself consolation.”
The poet goes on to tell us that, owing partly to his then imperfect knowledge of Latin, he received from that first reading only a dim and dreamy apprehension of the meaning of Boethius ; but later, when, after his own political misfortunes, he returned to the book, and gave it that careful study which is evinced by the frequency with which it is quoted in the Convito, he may well have been heart-struck by the identity, in all times and places, of human anguish, and the poignant applicability to his own case of many of the brave counsels of the Roman patrician. We have but to turn one more leaf of the Convito, and we light upon an affecting passage, whereby the subtle and difficult treatise in question still holds on to the heart and memory of men : —
“ By the good pleasure of the citizens of the fairest and most famous daughter of Rome, — of Florence, I say, where I was born, and where I was nourished until the meridian of life ; where, too, my heart’s desire would be to dwell in peace with her sons, and so rest my weary soul and finish the time appointed me, — now a pilgrim and a mendicant, showing my wounds against my will, . . . I have wandered wherever this Italian tongue is spoken. I have drifted as a bark without sail or pilot, at the will of the dry wind of dolorous poverty.”
We shall see, when we come to consider for ourselves the Consolation of Philosophy, that Dante frankly adopted the plan of the book — that of prose meditations, interspersed with metric hymns — both in the Vita Nuova and the Convito ; as Boethius, in his turn, had borrowed much from Seneca. Meanwhile, it seems a little strange that Dante should have spoken of the Consolation as known to few, since its influence on the thought and philosophy of the Middle Ages had been immense. Long before the time of the great Florentine, King Alfred of England had translated the Consolation into the Anglo-Saxon tongue, and Notker, a pious monk of the abbey of St. Gall, had rendered some portions of it into the barbarous German of the tenth century; Jean de Meung, at the command of Philip the Fair, translated it into the French of his period, and Dante’s own teacher, Brunetto Latino, turned it into the Italian vulgate. In England, a little later than Dante’s time first Chaucer and then Lydgate made versions of the entire book ; Margaret Roper is represented, in a picture of Sir Thomas More by Holbein, as coming with the Consolation of Philosophy in her hand to minister to her father in prison ; and, finally, Queen Elizabeth, with the faint touch of absurdity which can hardly be disassociated from her greatness, executed a translation with her own royal hand by way of comforting herself for the final conversion to Catholicism of Henry IV. of France. No writer ever had the fortune to find more distinguished commentators than Boethius, and nothing could be more interesting than to compare those memorable personages among themselves, with a view to discovering that common quality of them all to which the work of the last of the great Latin writers appealed so powerfully. But such an essay, however fascinating, would lead us too far from our present concern, which is with the man himself and the contents of his imperishable book.
Boethius was born, according to the best authorities, in 480, in the same year with St. Benedict, and with his own friend, the statesman and historian Cassiodorus. Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius was his imposing style in full; and the first of these names, which marked the gens, or great family, to which he belonged, was one so renowned that even Emperors had coveted and assumed it without right, while the poet Claudian says, in his hyperbolical fashion, that every individual of that stock will be found to have sprung from a consul. Such was indeed the illustrious rank of the father and grandfather of Boethius, his own and that of his two sons. When little more than an infant, he was left an orphan, and inherited an immense estate ; his principal guardian. Quintus Aurelius Memmius Symmachus, whose daughter he was to marry, and whose fate was tragically bound up with his own, being a direct descendant of the great pagan prefect and consular, Symmachus, who had done such brave battle only a hundred years before for the altar and statue of Victory. Now the men who bore the name of Symmachus were all nominal Christians, as the chief representatives of the Anicii had long been ; but Roman pride and a passionate attachment to the old Roman civic traditions were equally inherent in the genius and inwrought with the culture of both races.
Even in boyhood Boethius displayed a brilliant aptitude for almost every branch of learning. Whether or no, as some have thought, he went to study in the schools of Athens, he certainly made himself master, at an astonishingly early age, of the whole range both of Greek and Roman letters. Nothing came amiss to him,—philosophy, theology, astronomy, music, mathematics, or mechanics.
The Pannonian soldier of fortune, Odoacer, during whose reign the father of Boethius was consul, had been conquered, superseded, and subsequently murdered by the great Theodoric, when the boy was thirteen. Some ten years later, we find Cassiodorus, now the prime minister of Theodoric, appealing in his master’s name to Boethius as an authority on the most sympathetic of the arts.
“ The king of the Franks,” this letter runs, — and it is the renowned Clovis who is meant, — “ attracted by the fame of our entertainments, has sent us a most pressing request for a harper, and our only hope of fulfilling his order his in yourself, who are known to be so profoundly skilled in musical science.” Cassiodorus then proceeds to show, in lus own pompous and long-winded fashion, that he, too, understands something of the matter, and he indulges in a rather trite disquisition on the peculiarities of Dorian, Phrygian, Ionian, ,Ætolian, and Lydian measures, with lavish use of those technical musical terms which proved a man knowing in his day. “ I have allowed myself,” he winds up by saying, “ this agreeable digression, because it is always so pleasant to discuss any branch of learning with a man who is accomplished in it. To return to the subject of the harper, pray use your utmost skill in selecting him, and let him be the best of our time. His task will resemble that of Orpheus. He will have to subdue the wild hearts of the barbarians by concord of sweet sounds.”
“You, meanwhile ” (here Cassiodorus resumes the imperial manner), “ will earn our gratitude and be suitably rewarded. Rest assured that your obedience to our behests will redound to your own honor.”
The harper was duly found, but an altered tone is not unnaturally adopted toward the formidable Clovis himself in the letter in which the statesman, still writing in his royal master’s name, presents the musician to the king: —
“ Your safety is our glory, your prosperity the best thing that can happen to the kingdom of Italy.
“ We have been at great pains to secure an accomplished harper, destined for your service, who may amuse your glorious reign by the harmony of his voice and fingers. We trust that the man selected will meet your earnestly expressed requirements and prove altogether satisfactory. ”
There is no clear indication as to the date of another letter, in which Boethius is commanded, from the same august source, to procure a water-clock and a sun-dial for the king of the Burgundians. It is probable, however, that this also belongs to the same early period, before the young nobleman had quitted his peaceful and splendid library for the perils of public life, and it is interesting from the list it contains of the literary tasks which he had already accomplished.
“ What is an every-day matter to ourselves will seem a miracle to them” (the Burgundians), “ and very naturally they desire a sight of those marvels of which their ambassadors have given them so amazing an account. Now, we have been credibly informed of your own deep erudition in such matters, and that where the vulgar do but ignorantly dabble you have drunk at the very fountain of knowledge. You are thoroughly versed in Greek philosophy, and through the medium of your versions both Pythagoras the musician and Ptolemy the astronomer have been introduced to the men of Italy. You have also translated the works of Nicomachus the mathematician, Euclid the geometrician, Plato the theologian, and Aristotle the logician, and the great mechanician Archimedes you have turned into Latin for the benefit of his own Sicilians.”
Here is a vast amount of important work to have been achieved by a young man of twenty-five, and especially by a youth of leisure and fortune, even though we refer to a somewhat later date the whole of his original writing,— the theological treatises which are now known to have been his, and that bucolic poem which the fine music of some of the metrical numbers of the Consolation inclines us to regret so keenly. It is also curious to note this one great writer of the chaotic sixth century as illustrating the observation that the masters of a specially forcible, original style (George Eliot is one of the most distinguished instances) have often served a long apprenticeship at translation before attempting anything of their own.
Whether it would have been better for his own soul and for the world if Boethius had been left to labor on in that study of his. “ finished in ivory and decorated with crystal, " who shall say? He was not to be so left. The public honors foreshadowed in the first of the letters quoted above were not slow to arrive. These were the great days of Theodoric, now firmly seated in the fair palace at Ravenna. The Amal prince had proved himself equal to his great fortune ; the powers of his own mind were fully ripe, and not the faintest symptom had as yet appeared of that reaction toward barbarism which was to deface the closing scenes of his brilliant career. Italy, so long distracted, was appeased and almost prosperous, and it was an essential part of the broad and sagacious policy of the Ostrogothic ruler to make the ancient civilization tributary to the new life, conciliating and attaching to himself by all honorable means the senatorial party in Rome, and especially the more distant and indomitable spirits among the Roman aristocracy. It was thus that the father of Boethius’s heroic wife, Symmachus, a man of the noblest character, great learning, and extensive charities, was made prefect of the city. He also enjoyed, by virtue of seniority, we do not know for how long a time before his judicial murder, the dignity of Head of the Senate, a position somewhat like that of a Dean of Legation, but more nearly corresponding to the unofficial rank of the Father of the House of Commons. He had been consul under Odoacer, as had the elder Boethius ; and our Boethius was himself made consul during the year 510, his own thirty-first.
For this all-gifted and so far allfortunate man the succeeding decade was one of unexampled worldly splendor and prosperity, of happiness at home and honor abroad, that seemed without a flaw. In 522, during a visit of Theodoric to Rome, the two sons of Boethius, namesakes of himself and his illustrious father-in-law, but still mere boys, each received the honorary title of consul; and the proud father arose from his place between them in the Senate, and welcomed the Gothic king to the Eternal City in a glowing panegyric. For this he was rewarded, in September of the same year, by receiving an appointment to the distinguished post of master of the offices.
But the jealous gods of the old dispensation, the jealous men of every dispensation, could endure no more. A buzz of malicious whispering rose around the ears of Theodoric, whose own clairvoyant spirit was already invaded by a fatal shadow, who was losing his marvelous powers of discernment and self-control, in whose brain throbbed the confusion of that incipient madness which was, in truth, the beginning of the end. He was made to believe that the Roman Senate in general despised him for an outer barbarian, was weary of his rule, disloyal to his person, and, in short, already intriguing with the Emperor at Constantinople to come with an army and reclaim the kingdom of Italy.
After the general charges came the specific ones, of whose nature we know more from the pages of Boethius himself than from any other source. The best man in the world can hardly be expected to make a perfectly unbiased statement of his own case, especially under such aggravated circumstances. It is, therefore, satisfactory to know that the indignant defense of Boethius is strengthened, upon the whole, by all that can be gathered from other original authorities : a few paragraphs, namely, out of that chronicler who is known as the Anonymus Valesii, a few words from the recently discovered Anecdoton Holderi. Cassiodorus, the prolific writer, the wise and learned but also the timid and time-serving man, avoids all mention of the affair, and his reticence tells in favor of Boethius; for he was the faithful minister and unflinching apologist of Theodoric and the whole Ostrogothic line, and if there had been anything to be said in his master’s behalf concerning the most deplorable act of his life, we may be sure that Cassiodorus would have said it with interminable iteration. The bare facts appear to have been these: Albinus, a senator, was accused before Theodoric, then presiding over the high court of justice at Verona, by Cyprian, an officer of great consequence under the king, of treasonable correspondence with Constantinople. Boethius, who, like the accused, was evidently present upon the spot, stepped forward with impulsive generosity and denied the charge. “ If Albinus be guilty,” were his words, “ I and the whole Senate are equally so.” " They are all guilty,” was the retort of the informer, “ and Boethius as much as anybody.”
The rage of the king knew no bounds, but he must have dissembled it at first, for the whole court appears to have started for the south in company. At Ticinum, however, near the modern Pavia, Albinus and Boethius were arrested in the sacristy of a church. The former may have been put to death at once, for we hear of him no more; but Boethius was thrust into a certain strong tower, where he lived immured for nearly a twelvemonth longer. He was never allowed a hearing, but sentence against him was extorted by Theodoric both from the prefect of Ticinum and the subservient Senate at Rome. Thus the last bitter drop was added to the cup of his humiliation, the last and most stinging impulse given to his precipitous plunge from so giddy a height into the lowest abyss of temporal disaster. He was betrayed by his own order, and basely handed over to the mercies of an insane barbarian by the very men whom he had staked his honor to defend.
Let us now visit him in prison, and see how he gathered himself up after so ghastly a reverse, and from what source he drew the fortitude which enabled him to go down into the dark valley, as a good man may, with head erect and unhesitating footsteps.
The Consolation of Philosophy opens with a plaintive song, of which the central thought is expressed in that solemn Greek proverb, " Let no man be called happy till his death.” “ But while I pondered these things in silence,” the captive goes on to say, “ inditing with a stylus my sorrowful complaint, all at once I seemed to see, towering above me, a woman of awful aspect. Fire was in her eyes and a superhuman clearness; and albeit she was full of years, insomuch that none could have deemed her a child of the present age, yet did the strength of her coloring testify to an inexhaustible vigor. Her stature appeared to vary. Now it conformed to the common measure of mankind, and anon it expanded until her head appeared to touch the sky. Yea, sometimes that head did penetrate the very heavens, and was lost to the eager gaze of men. Her garments were very fine and sheer, delicately wrought, and yet indestructibly strong; and I learned from her afterward that her own hands had woven them. Stains of age and neglect, such as we see in discolored statues, did somewhat mar the beauty of these robes, on whose lower hem was embroidered the Greek letter II, and on the upper edge a Θ.1 Between these two characters there were traces of a design running up like a stairway from the one to the other. I saw, too, that rude hands had rent this wonderful vesture, and even carried shreds of it away. There were books in her right hand, and in her left a sceptre. And when she perceived that the Muses were lingering beside my couch, and encouraging me to bewail my griefs in song, she was moved from her wonted calm, and an angry light shone in her eyes. ‘ Who summoned unto an ailing soul these theatrical jades ? ’ 2 slie cried. ‘They cannot cure his pain. Their poisonous balms will but aggravate it. These are they who plant their sterile thorns so as to choke the rich harvest of right reason. They call but accustom the mind of a man to suffering, hut heal it, never ! ’ ”
Electrified by these words, Boethius lifts his eyes, and endeavors to shake off his deepening lethargy. The mist clears from his brain ; he recognizes the nurse of his infancy, the mistress whom, in happier times, he had delighted to serve, Philosophy. “ Why art thou come from heaven to me?” is his first dreamy inquiry; and her indignant yet inspiring answer, “ Could I desert my disciple, and suffer him to bear alone the burden with which he has been laden for my sake ? Is calumny, then, a new thing to me, and shall Philosophy forsake the footsteps of the innocent ? ” Then she bids him state his case to her, and he complies curtly and disdainfully, not without passionate invective against the scoundrels who have betrayed him. But first there is a brief musical interlude, and Philosophy no longer derides her patient’s numbers, when he takes up this manlier strain: —
My sight returns again ;
As when a rainy gale hath blown all night,
Quenching the planets’ light,
Morn brings no sunrise, evening falls or e’er
The stars of eve draw near ; —
If the clear wind of Thrace do but arouse
Him from his cavernous house,
The scourgèd shadows flee away ; we see
Imprisoned day set free ;
And glorious Phœbus comes with sudden blaze,
To smite the enraptured gaze.”
The defense of Boethius before his heavenly visitant would certainly have amounted to little at any human tribunal. It is too fiery and too fragmentary. He will not stoop to justify himself, even to himself, in a formal and explicit manner; and it is safe to say that if he had employed counsel, any good lawyer would forcibly have restrained him from telling his tale in this wise : — “Thou askest, in fine, of what crime I am accused. Of endeavoring to secure the safety of the Senate! But how ? They pretend that I hindered an informer from producing certain documents which would have involved the whole body in a suspicion of treason. What sayest thou, my mistress? Shall I deny the charge for fear of bringing disgrace upon thee ? But I did desire to save the Senate, and shall never cease to do so! Shall I confess? Could I even admit that it is a crime to have desired the Senate’s safety ? That would indeed be playing the informer’s game ! Certainly they have done all they could, by their late decrees against myself, to make it one. But no amount of folly and deceit on the part of individuals can alter the essential rights of things, and there is a precept of Socrates which forbids me either to conceal the truth or to profess a lie.
“ So then I submit the question to thy judgment, and to that of all wise men. I have made from memory, for the benefit of posterity, a true statement in writing of the whole course of the affair. As for those forged letters by which they pretend to prove that I desired the reestablishment of Roman independence, I scorn to mention them. I could fully have exposed the fraud, had I been permitted the usual means of defense. I could have confounded my accusers out of their own mouth, a species of testimony which has ever been held conclusive. And indeed what liberty is there yet to hope for ? I only wish there were any! I could have answered the king in the words of Canius, when accused by Caius Cæsar, the son of Germanicus, ‘ Had I known of such a conspiracy, you never should !'”
It has been thought by some even of the warm admirers of Boethius 3 that in this passage he came near to criminating himself. I do not think so. It seems to me, like his impulsive identification of himself with Albinus on the first accusation, to reveal in every line the careless rectitude of a rash and generous but haughty nature, too contemptuous, for its own security in this world (where, after all, there is no security), of ordinary precautions. For the rest, Boethius appeals to Philosophy, not to screen him from danger, but to prepare him for the worst; and he bows with all humility when she proceeds to rebuke him for those doubts concerning the moral government of the world which the flagrant injustice of his case had excited, and which had found their first expression in these melancholy lines: —
Who, firm on Thy eternal throne,
Dost urge the swift-revolving year,
The stars compel Thy laws to own, —
The stars that hide their lesser light
When Luna, with her horns fell grown,
Reflects her brother’s glories bright ;
Paling, she too, when he draws nigh,
In his great fires extinguished quite : —
As Hesper up the evening sky
Leads the cold planets, but to fling
Their wonted leash aside, and fly
At Phœbus’ bright awakening.
Then who dost veil in vapors chill
The season of the leaf-dropping,
With its brief days, rekindling still
The fires of summer, making fleet
The lessening nights, —all do Thy will :
The year obeys Thee on Thy seat ;
The leaves that Boreas bore amain
Return once more with zephyr sweet;
Arcturus tells the unsown grain,
And Sirius barns the waving gold.
The task Thy ancient laws ordain,
All do, — the allotted station hold:
Man’s work alone dost thou despise,
Nor deign his weakness to enfold
In changeless law. Else wherefore flies
Sleek Fortune’s wheel so madly round ?
The good man bears the penalties
Of yon hold sinner, who is found
Enthroned exultant, apt to grind
His blameless victim to the ground.
Her light to hide ; and just men know
The scourgings meet for baser kind.
Mendacious Fraud reserves no blow
For men like these, nor Perjury ;
But when they will their might to show,
Then conquer they, with ease and glee,
The kings unnumbered tribes obey.
O Judge unknown, we call on Thee!
To our sad planet turn, we pray !
Are we — we men — the meanest side
Of all Thy great creation ? Nay,
Though but the drift of Fortune’s tide !
Compel her wasteful floods to pause,
And, ruling heaven, rule beside
O’er quiet lands, by steadfast laws! ”
“ From thy tearful sadness,” then said the celestial guide, “ I knew thee to be miserable and astray, but how far thou hadst wandered I did not guess until I heard this lay of thine. Nevertheless, it is thou thyself who hast abandoned thy fatherland ; thou hast not been banished thence. This is what none could ever have done to thee. Bethink thee, therefore, of the country which is thy home.” Philosophy then subjects her pupil to a long and searching examination concerning his belief in the sovereignty of God ; and when she finds that his replies ring true, in the main, upon this fundamental question, “ Thanks be to Him who gives all spiritual health,” she cries, thou hast not yet belied thy nature ! Now have I found the earnest of thy cure, — a right opinion concerning the government of this world, in that thou ascribest it not to senseless hazard, but to the ordering of a divine intelligence. Fear nothing, therefore. From this tiny spark I will kindle a fire that shall both warm thee into life and give thee light.” It becomes the turn of Philosophy to sing the succeeding song, of which the short lines in dactylic dimeter, a measure that Boethius particularly loved, fall with something of the kindling effect of a bugle call. The reveille of Philosophy ends thus:—
In her uttermost splendor,
The summits of light ?
Cast out thy fears,
And thy hopes all surrender;
He’s done with tears
Who hath conquered delight.
Tarry no more
Thy soul’s fetters to rend, nor
Linger and cower
In the kingdom of night! ”
The second book of the Consolation is devoted to an examination of the worth of Fortune’s gifts. Boethius is first bidden to look steadily on all that he has lost, and to dare measure the depth of his fall. It seems a cruel prescription, and the cry which it forces from the shrinking spirit, “ In Omni adversitate fortunæ infelicissimum genus est infortunii tuisse felicem,”is literally repeated in that indelible passage of the Inferno : —
Che ricordarsi del tempo felice
Even Philosophy is almost moved to compassion here, and she deigns, incidentally, to soothe the sufferer by reminding him that those whom he loves better than himself are still in safety. " That noblest ornament of the human race, thy father-in-law, Symmachus, whose life thou wouldst gladly have purchased with thine own, a man endowed with all wisdom and every virtue, is yet unharmed, and without apprehension on his own account, though deeply distressed for thy injuries. And thy wife yet lives, that chaste and gentle creature, of whose many gifts I can say no more than this, that she is like her father. . . . Thy boys, too, the young consulars, in whom the spirit both of their father and their grandfather shines out as brightly as may be at so tender an age. . . . Dry thy tears, Boethius. Fortune has not yet smitten thy dear ones for thy sake ; neither can the tempest be too strong for thee while such anchors hold.”
The main argument is then resumed, and the vanity successively demonstrated of riches, of great position, of power, and of fame. But when Boethius pleads with his monitress that his had been no vulgar ambition, but the desire to be remembered as one who had loved and benefited his fellow-men. she replies by showing him the insignificance, in the great universe of God, of the stage on which he had acted, and the trivial duration of the longest human fame in comparison with eternity.
Eternity! The soul of the prisoner is not bound, and he can wholly lose, for a little while, himself and the memory of his woes in the noble though ineffectual endeavor to fathom the full meaning of that mysterious word. “The space of a moment and the space of ten thousand years may be compared, for each represents a certain fixed portion of time, though that of the moment be infinitesimal. But that number of a myriad years, although indefinitely multiplied, would bear no comparison whatever with endless duration. For the things which have an end are comparable with one another, but not with the things which have none.”
Having convinced her pupil of the vanity of all good fortune, Philosophy now promises to instruct him in the hidden excellence of evil; reminding him, as a preliminary, that even among finite beings adversity reveals a man’s true friends, and the worth of their affection. The mystical song which follows, in which lore is hailed as the principle of order, that which unifies and vivifies all created things, contains reminiscences both of Lucretius and of Plato. “O felix hominum genus,” — ”O happy human race, " are its closing words, “if the love which rules in heaven rule your souls also ! ”
Here ends the second book of the Consolation. The third opens with a striking colloquy: —
“ So she ceased singing; but as for me, the melody of her voice held me listening as if entranced, eager for more. Then, after a little, ‘ O sovereign consoler of all weary souls,’ I said, ‘ how hast thou reanimated me, both by the power of thy thoughts and the beauty of thy song! Henceforth, methinks, I shall stand up against the blows of Fate. I dread no more the sharp remedies of which thou spakest awhile ago, but earnestly entreat thee to say on.’ Then she : ‘ I saw that thou wast drinking in my words with mute attention, and I looked for this changed mood of mind in thee, or rather it is I who have induced it. My precepts are, verily, of those which are hitter upon the lips, but sweet within. Wherefore if even now, as thou sayest, thou cravest to hear more, what ardor would not fire thy soul if thou knewest whither I am leading thee ! ’ ‘Where, then ? ’ I cried ; and she answered, ‘Unto true felicity, which indeed has been the dream of thy life, only thou wast beset by false images thereof, and couldst not discern the reality.’ ‘Oh, show it me,’ I returned, ‘without more delay!’ ‘That will I,’ said my guide, ‘and gladly. But first I will review yet once again those elements of happiness which are already known to thee, and endeavor to enlighten thee still further concerning them, that so, thy vision being cleared, when thou liftest thine eyes anew, thou mayest discern the shape of perfect beatitude.’ ”
Thus the kernel of the inquiry is reached, and we approach that discourse of Philosophy concerning the nature of the Summum Bonum, or “ Highest Good,” which occupies the whole of Boethius’s third book. The great prizes of life in this world, rank and wealth, and love and honor, which had fallen so richly to his own share, are marshaled in his memory once more, and the mystery is patiently unfolded, that even these, though severally so frail and unsatisfactory, are nevertheless fragments of that supernal felicity, that consummate good, whose place is not here; which, being, moreover, a living integer, can be but mutilated or slain by the separation of its parts.
“ ‘ Since then, at last,’ ” resumes the guide, “ ‘ thou discernest the difference between true beatitude and its lying counterfeits, it remains for me to show thee the true.’ ‘ For this,’I answered, ‘I have waited long.’ ‘ But if, as our dear Plato says in his Timæus, we ought, in the very least things, to invoke the divine assistance, how thinkest thou we may best be rendered worthy to discover the dwelling-place of the Supreme Good?’ ‘By appealing to the Father of all being,’ I replied, whereupon she sang me this hymn : —
Heaven and earth Maker, Thou who first
Time into being, and by Thy behest
Movest all things, Thyself alone at rest!
No outward power impelled Thee thus to mould
In shape the fluid atoms manifold, —
Only the immortal image, born within,
Of perfect beauty ; wherefore Thou hast
Thine own fair model, and the things of
sense The image bear of Thy magnificence ;
Parts perfect in themselves by Thy control
Are newly blent into a perfect whole ;
The yokèd elements obey Thy hand ;
Frost works with fire, water with barren sand
So the dense continents are fast maintained,
And heaven’s ethereal fire to earth restrained.
Thou dost the life of threefold nature tame
To serve the parts of one harmonious frame, —
That soul of things constrained eternally
To trace Thy image on the starry sky,
The greater and the lesser deeps to round
And on itself return. Thou too hast found
For us, Thy lesser creatures of a day
Wherewith Thou sowest earth, forms of a clay So kindly fragile, naught can stay our flight Backward unto the Source of all our light. Grant, Father, yet the undethronèd mind A way unto the fount of truth to find,
And, sought so long, the vision of Thy face ;
Lighten our flesh, terrestrial vapors chase,
And shine in all Thy splendor! For Thou art
The final Rest of every faithful heart,
The First, the Last, — of the expatriate soul,
Lord, Leader, Pathway, and eternal Goal! ‘ ”
The argument which follows is long and subtle; and if the pupil of Philosophy, sitting in her very presence, finds himself sometimes bewildered in the mazes of it, how much more the jaded reader of to-day! The conclusion has already been foreshadowed. It is God who is the Supreme Good, — the satisfaction of all desire, the final rest, the end of being. For a moment the soul of the prisoner is uplifted as by a new and glorious discovery; but then the heavy weight of all the “ unintelligible world ” once more descends upon him, and he makes an almost agonized appeal to Philosophy, in the beginning of the fourth book, for help toward the solution of those terrible problems of old and of every time, —the prevalence of evil in the world, and the conflict between God’s foreknowledge and man’s free will.
Concerning the uses of evil, Philosophy begins by reminding her pupil that evil is but a name. The most sinister events are in reality blessings just so long as they tend to make the individual better. Thus it depends upon man’s free will to transmute into good that which appears to be evil. In the following metre, which is one of the most beautiful and spirited of the whole collection, Philosophy sings the sacrifice of Iphigenia, whereby the Greeks found the way to their homes ; the vengeance of Ulysses upon Polyphemus, which delivered the land from so great a monster ; and, last, the hard and weary labors of Hercules, whose end was deification and celestial
Beneath the burden of the sky,
And so — like toil, like guerdon ! — came
Unto his home on high.
Nor loose the armor of thy wars!
Who spurns the earth shall find a place
Among the eternal stars.”
“ What then is chance ? ” inquires Boethius of his teacher, in the opening chapter of the fifth and last book of the Consolation ; and the answer is authoritative : “ There is no such thing. The river is not lost in its angry, whirling rapids, but emerges and pursues its course. An accident may be defined as an unforeseen event arising from external causes, coinciding with those which determine a man’s purpose; but this very coincidence of causes is a part of that eternal order which assigns to all things their time and place, and has its source in the providence of God.”
This explanation, though followed by a short elegiac poem, in which the illustration of the river is expanded and elaborated, fails quite to content the inquirer, who owns himself unable to see what place is left for the volition of man in the fatal interlacement of causes just described. Philosophy’s mystical reply to this objection is little more than a development of that Platonic and Pythagorean doctrine so beautifully expounded in the Elysian fields by the soul of Anchises to his son : 4 —
Supplicia expendunt: aliæ panduntur inanes
Suspense ad ventos: ahis sub gurgite vasto
Infeetum eluitur scelus, aut exturitur igni ;
Quisque suos patimur Manes; exinde per amplum
Mittimur Elysium, et pauci læta arva tenemus;
Donec longa dies, perfecto ternporis orbe,
Concretam exemit labem, purumque relinquit
Ætherium sensum atque aurai simplicis ignem.”
This “ ethereal sense ” is indeed naught other than that spark of free will which every man possesses. It is not of equal strength in all. It is subject to degradation and enfeeblement through contact with the human body and surrender to sensual vice. It is subject to age-long purgation, also, to cleanse it from the stains thus contracted, but never to extinction. “ Only tell me yet once again,” the patient repeats with insistence, as one who feels that his time is growing short, “ how this indomitable volition of man can consist with the omnipotence of God ; and what, if all be in truth foreordained and foreknown, can be the efficacy of prayer; and without prayer, what living link is there between God and the soul ? ”
It is then that Philosophy gathers herself up for her supreme effort ; and, strange as it may seem, the subtile yet strenuous argument which follows does actually appear to shed a momentary gleam of light into the measureless abyss of the “final inexplicability,” All through the Consolation the horror of Boethius’s actual position lends a reality to his wrestlings, a force to his words, quite other than that which attaches to the mental exercises of those who speculate upon these abstruse questions in the calm of entire personal security. And now, with the last imperious necessity pressing hard upon him, the man so absorbs us in himself that we are uplifted along with him, and seem to share, for one passing moment, the sublime freedom of spirit whereby he is enabled to reason so lucidly on the difference between an eternity which is conditioned by the category of time, like that which Aristotle imputes to the material universe, and an eternity like that of the Deity, which owns no such condition.
“All the seeming contradiction between foreknowledge and free will,” urges the philosophic spirit, “ may thus arise from a qualitative difference in the two eternities. A proximately conceivable eternity, which consists of an infinite succession of moments, known only as they pass, does indeed present a faint image of the other immutable eternity, but it is not the same thing ; for to the higher both past and future are always equally present. Let us then say, with Plato, the world is ‘perpetual, but God is eternal. God’s knowledge of events does not constitute their necessity, any more than your knowledge that the sun will rise necessitates that event. You recognize a difference in inevitability between the rising of the sun and the motions of a man. So God foreknows (or knows ; in Him is no before) that some things must needs be, and others are exempt from such necessity.
“ Wherefore, if these things are so, the liberty of choice remains intact for mortal men ; neither can those laws be unrighteous which regulate reward and punishment, since the will is not constrained. An all-knowing and everlasting God beholds us from on high, and the ever-present eternity of his divine vision coincides with the potentiality of our own future actions, dispensing rewards to the good and chastisement to the evil. Not vainly, then, do men hope in God, and lift up their souls in prayer to Him ; for if we pray aright, our prayers must needs be answered. Shun vice, therefore ; venerate virtue ; let a reasonable hope animate the soul, and worship ascend from earth to heaven. Away with self-deception, and recognize the fact that the necessity laid upon you is one of righteousness, since you live under the eye of an all-seeing Judge.”
This is the last word of the Consolation of Philosophy. We may even conceive of it as set down in haste, after the key of the executioner had grated in the lock, and his foot fall was already sounding upon the turret stair; or yet in the interval between the delivery of the final summons and the issue of the intrepid prisoner to a death of ignominy, and only too probably also of lingering torture. Yet it cannot be denied that a certain obscure pang of disappointment mingles with our admiration of Boethius’s valiant calm. " Is this all?" the Christian soul will involuntarily exclaim. “ Shall there be no word concerning that future life, the persuasion of whose reality must have been by so much the stronger in Boethius’s day than now, as the memory was fresher, in the world, of One who had brought immortality ‘to light’ with ‘good tidings of great joy ’ ? ”
The omission does indeed appear a strange one, and we can but conjecture how it was explained by those Christian casuists of the dark ages who found in Boethius a perfect armory of arguments ; and even raised him to the rank, neither needed nor deserved, of an orthodox martyr, on the strength of the Arianism of Theodoric. In later times two solutions of the problem have been offered. The pious and learned Bertius, in his very interesting preface to the Delphin edition of the Consolation, contends that the treatise as we have it is obviously incomplete ; that Boethius had not time to finish it; and that there was, undoubtedly, to have been a sixth book, in which the conclusions of natural religion would have been supplemented and confirmed by the sanction of a divine revelation. Certain recent French critics, on the other hand,5 have stoutly maintained that Boethius was no Christian at all ; and that the lost theological writings which tradition had always ascribed to him were really those of an African bishop of the same name, who was banished to Sardinia in 504. The latter half of this theory was, however, invalidated by the discovery, in 1877, of a fragment of ancient manuscript, transcribed in the tenth century by the busy monks of Reichenau, an island in the Bodensee,6 which proves beyond a doubt that the selfsame Boethius of the Consolation was also the author of the pious treatises in question.
For myself, I see no need of resorting to either of these hypotheses. The Consolation, though marked by that simplicity of style and sincerity of tone which would naturally have resulted from the writer’s desperate circumstances, is after all the work of a subtle thinker rather than that of an impassioned believer. So, too, we may conclude, were the ostensibly religious writings of Boethius the amateur productions, probably, of his precocious youth. Traces are to be found even in the Consolation of the official Christianity of the author, although he undoubtedly held the Christian dogmas loosely. It seems most plausible to suppose that Boethius was thinking of the holy martyrs in that passage in the second book where he makes Philosophy say, " We know that many men have sought the rapture of beatitude not through death merely, but through death in exquisite torture.”He appears also to emphasize the Pythagorean doctrine of purgatory as foreshadowing that of the Church.
But the âmes d’élite of this world are of two kinds, and bear themselves diversely under the onset of extreme disaster. There are those who instinctively Stretch out their hands into the darkness, feeling for and finding, or so they deem, other hands to sustain them. There are those, again, whose impulse it is to turn inward, gather up their own forces, brace themselves against the assaults of Fate, “ and, having done all, to stand.” A great doctor of the Church, quite sound, for the rest, on baptismal regeneration,7 once used the expression “ souls naturally Christian.” With equal confidence it may be affirmed that there are souls — and devout souls, too — which even under a Christian dispensation are born pagan, like Julian’s and that of Boethius himself.
The latter was probably as good a Christian as a man so intensely Roman in sentiment, so tenacious of the old senatorial traditions, could be. Unquestionably there was a deep antagonism between that sentiment and those traditions and the spirit of Christianity. The “ high Roman fashion ” was, however, — and fortunately, we may believe, — the exclusive birthright of the patrician order ; and this is why Christianity encountered no obstacle, but rather spread with joyous rapidity, among the more intelligent of the hitherto overshadowed classes, while the consulars and their like resisted it to the last, and were never as a body even nominally converted until their type had deeply degenerated, and was, in fact, upon the point of passing forever away.
Boethius, then, from our point of view, was a Roman citizen first, afterwards a devout deist, and an orthodox Christian last of all. But he lived purely, thought reverently, and died greatly ; and it argues but a feeble conception of the resources of divine grace to doubt that the power by which a man does these things is the same in source and substance, whether it distills from heaven like summer dew. or gushes upward, crystal cold, out of the seemingly barren rock.
The exact date of the execution of Boethius is unknown, but it, probably took place in the early summer of 524. Within a year from that time, his father-in-law, the blameless and venerable Symmachus, the thought of whose exemption from his own distress had cheered the heart of Boethius in prison, was also, on the rumor of his great grief for the death of his son, abruptly summoned by the king to Ravenna, imprisoned without examination, and speedily put to death.
But the angry clouds which had obscured the right reason of Theodoric were about to clear away. “And this,” says Procopius, at the beginning of his History of the Gothic War, “ was the manner of his death. A few days later, there was set before him at table the head of a huge fish, and it seemed to him to be the head of Symmachus, lately decapitated. For the teeth appeared to gnaw the under lip and the eyes to roll in fury, giving it a frightful aspect. Stricken with terror, he was seized by a strong chill, and took to his bed, commanding his attendants to heap upon him all the coverings possible. So after a while he slept, and when he woke he related all that had occurred to his physician, Elpidius, weeping bitterly for the sin he had committed against Symmachus and Boethius. And still lamenting, and oppressed with anguish for his guilt, he not long after expired. This ” (the twofold execution) “ was the first and last act of injustice which he committed against any of his subjects, and it came of his not having, according to his custom, examined into the proofs before he passed sentence upon these men.”
From the same source we learn that a part, at least, of the property of Boethius was restored to his sons by Amalasuntha; and the History of the Gothic War also affords us a last striking glimpse of the widowed Rusticiana, who bore the name of her ancestress, the wife of Symmachus, the great pagan consul.
During the terrible famine which accompanied the siege of Rome by Totila in 547, Rusticiana, not yet an old woman, had so lavished her resources in alms to the suffering poor that she was herself reduced to beg bread of her Gothic captors, when they entered the city. “ Nor was this,” says Procopius, " thought a shame. But the Goths demanded that Rasticiana should be slain, fiercely accusing her of having given large sums to the Roman leaders for the privilege of defacing the statues of Theodoric, and so taking vengeance for the slaughter of her husband Boethius and her father Symmachus. Totila, however, refused to hearken to them; . . . nor would he surrender her nor any other Roman woman, whether wife, maid, or widow, to the lust of the Goths, whereby he won the reputation of great clemency.”
With which trait of barbarian generosity our harrowing tale of the sixth century may fitly close.
H. W. P. and L. D.
- Standing for Practical and Theoretical Wisdom.↩
- Philosophy permits herself the use of a much more injurious epithet.↩
- Mr. Hodgkin, among the rest, fetches an ominous sigh over the flimsy nature of the philosopher’s defense. There is, however, much ingenuity, and I am inclined to think much plausibility, in the suggestion which the historian offers, that Boethius may have been a stickler for the point that Roman senators, falling under any sort of accusation, should have the right to be tried at New Rome, by a council of the Roman Empire, and not at the itinerant bar of Theodoric; and that this is what he means by the desire for the safety of the Senate, which he so defiantly avows. Such a desire was not necessarily treasonable to the king, but a correspondence upon the subject with the authorities at Constantinople, if tampered with by unscrupulous and hostile hands, might easily have been made to appear so.↩
- P. Verg. Mar. Æn. vi. 739-747.↩
- M. Louis de Mirandol, who translated the Consolation, rendering the metres into rather diffuse French verse, and M. Charles Jourdain, author of an essay entitled De l’Origine des Traditions sur le Christianisme de Boece.↩
- The following is a translation of this most important passage in what is known from the name of its discoverer as the Anecdoton Holden : — “Boethius was distinguished by the highest dignities. He rendered thanks to King Theodoric, in the Senate, for the consulate of his sons, in a splendid oration. He wrote a book concerning the Holy Trinity and divers essays upon doctrine, and a book against Nestorius. He also composed a bucolic poem. But in the way of translating works on the art of logic, that is to say, dialectic, and in mathematical studies he achieved so much that he equaled, if he did not surpass, the ancient authors themselves.”↩