I don’t know why I missed this ancient Roman in my studies of history. But Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius is a fascinating character from the past who teaches us today. He’s also simply known as “Boethius”– a Roman senator, consul, and philosopher who lived from 480-524 AD. He was born after the fall of the western Roman Empire (476) but continued (as most people did at that time) to call himself a Roman. He came from an important senatorial family that was also Christian. Boethius worked his way up the ladder of politics, working as a consul for the new Ostrogothic king, Theodoric. (A consul was sort of a cross between an ambassador, special council to the king, and a senator–pretty big deal.)
All seemed to be just fine until King Theodoric imprisoned him on charges of treason. Boethius had some time on his hands as he awaited his fate–whatever that would be. So he said down with pen and papyrus to write down his thoughts about what had happened. Why did God allow this? What good would come of this? Boethius knew he was a Christian; a faithful husband and father. His sons were moving up the ranks in government with him. He had a great life. Now this! Why God? Questions many of us have been asking for a long time now. So, as Boethius was struggling with his questions, he gradually wrote what would become THE most important piece of literature for the next 1000 years: “The Consolation of Philosophy.” In this work, Boethius imagines a conversation between himself and Philosophy, personified as a beautiful woman.
Boethius was not a pagan, and he did not find his consolation in pagan philosophy. (He wrote other works defending the Trinity and orthodox Christian beliefs.) But in this work he uses the Aristotelian method of logic to arrive at conclusions he believed were biblical. He makes the case that in the Providence of God, the Lord directs history like the turning of a wheel. As history turns, the poor and humble are lifted up, and the proud and powerful are overturned and crushed. Today it is my turn to enjoy life under the sun, but tomorrow the wheel turns and my good fortune may not be so great. God is involved in our lives, and is deeply concerned and caring. But there is a path we must all take in this fallen disappointing world, for good AND for ill, and if we are faithful Christians in spite of our suffering, we shall reap a reward.
Boethius reaped that reward in the year 524 when he was executed by the king’s soldiers. Today he is venerated as a saint in both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. His greatest work, accomplished while in prison awaiting trial, was translated into Anglo-Saxon by King Alfred himself, translated into Middle English by Geoffrey Chaucer, and then into more modern English by Queen Elizabeth I. Fascinating how a book written under suffering could provide comfort to thousands…for the next 1500 years.