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Pope Benedict XVI weekly catechesis.
BY The Editors
Today I would like to speak to you about Boethius and
Cassiodorus, two Christian writers who lived during some of the most turbulent
years of Western Christianity, especially in Italy.
Odoacer, king of the Herulians, a Germanic ethnic group, led
a rebellion that put an end to the Roman Empire in the West in the year 476.
Later, however, he quickly succumbed to the Ostrogoths under Theodoric, who
assumed control of the Italian peninsula for several decades.
Boethius was born in Rome in 480 in a family of noble
lineage, the Anicius, and became active in public life at an early age,
attaining the rank of senator at the age of 25. Faithful to the family
tradition, he became involved in politics because he was convinced that he
could integrate the fundamental values of Roman society with the values of a
new society that was emerging.
During this time of encounter between two cultures, he felt
that his mission was to reconcile and bring together these two cultures —
classical Roman culture and the culture of the Ostrogoths. He was actively
involved in politics under the rule of Theodoric, who held him in high esteem
during those early years.
Despite his political involvement, Boethius did not neglect
his studies, devoting himself in a special way to deepening his understanding
of topics of a philosophical and religious nature. At the same time, he also
wrote manuals on arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy — all with the
intention of transmitting the greatness of Greek and Roman culture to future
generations in new times.
In his efforts to promote this encounter between two
cultures, he relied on Greek philosophy to foster the Christian faith, seeking
a synthesis between the legacy left by the Greeks and Romans and the Gospel
message. For this reason, Boethius has been called the last representative of
ancient Roman culture and the first great representative of the intellectual
trends of the Medieval Age.
His most notable work, without doubt, is De consolatione
philosophiae, which he wrote while he was in prison in an effort to make some
sense of his unjust imprisonment. Boethius was accused of plotting against King
Theodoric when he defended Albinus, a friend and fellow senator, during a trial.
This, however, was merely a pretext.
In reality, Theodoric, who was an Arian and also a
barbarian, suspected that Boethius was sympathetic to the Byzantine emperor,
Justinian. As a result, he was tried, condemned to death, and executed on Oct.
23 of the year 524 when he was only 44 years old.
Because of this tragedy at the end of his life, Boethius is
able to speak to modern man from his own experience, especially to the vast
numbers of people who now suffer the same fate that he did as a result of the
injustices that pervade “human justice” in so many places around the world.
In his work, he seeks consolation, light and wisdom amid his
imprisonment. He recounts that he was able to learn to distinguish in this
situation between what is seemingly good but evaporates during imprisonment,
and what is truly good, such as genuine friendship, and does not evaporate as
the result of imprisonment. God is the greatest good.
Boethius learned — and now teaches us — not to succumb to
fatalism, which stifles hope. He teaches us that fate does not govern our
lives. Rather, it is Providence that governs our lives and Providence has a
You can speak to Providence because Providence is God. So,
even while he was in jail, Boethius was able to pray and to enter into dialogue
with the one who saves. At the same time, amid these circumstance, he is able
to retain a sense of the beauty of culture and recalls the teachings of the
great ancient Greek and Roman philosophers like Plato and Aristotle (he began
translating the works of these Greek writers into Latin), as well as Cicero,
Seneca and even poets such as Tibullus and Virgil.
According to Boethius, philosophy (the quest for true
wisdom) is the true medicine of the soul (libri I). However, man can experience
true happiness only within his own being (libri II).
For this reason, Boethius manages to find meaning amid his
own personal tragedy in a passage from one of the wisdom books of the Old
Testament (Wisdom 7:30-8:1), which he quotes: “Wickedness cannot prevail against
wisdom. Wisdom stretches from one frontier to the other and governs everything
with goodness and excellence” (Lib. III, 12: PL 63, col. 780).
The so-called prosperity of the wicked, therefore, proves to
be deceptive (libri IV) and reveals the providential nature of adverse fortune.
The difficulties we experience in life not only reveal to what extent adverse
fortune is fleeting but also show how useful it is for shaping and maintaining
true relationships among men. Indeed, adverse fortune allows us to discern true
friends from false friends and makes us realize that nothing is more precious
to man than true friendship. To accept suffering with a fatalistic attitude is
extremely dangerous, Boethius warns, because “it destroys the very root of the
possibility of prayer and of theological hope that are the foundation of the
relationship between God and man” (Lib. V, 3: PL 63, col. 842).
The final chapter of De consolatione philosophiae, can be
viewed as a summary of Boethius’ entire teaching, which he directs both to
himself and to all those who find themselves in similar circumstances. This is
what he wrote while he was in prison: “Fight against vice, dedicate yourselves
to a virtuous life that is focused on a hope that impels the heart to attain
heaven through prayer nourished by humility. The pain that you have suffered
may be transformed so refuse to lie. It is an enormous advantage to always keep
before your eyes the supreme judge who sees and knows how things truly are”
(Lib. V, 6: PL 63, col. 862).
Every detainee, whatever the reason for his imprisonment,
understands how heavily such a situation weighs upon you, especially when the
situation is exacerbated — as was the case with Boethius — by the use of
torture. It is particularly absurd that someone should suffer torture and death
as Boethius did — the city of Pavia recognizes and celebrates him in the
liturgy as a martyr of the faith — for no other reason than one’s own political
and religious convictions and ideals.
Boethius, who is a symbol of the vast number of people who
have been unjustly detained throughout the ages and throughout the world, is
truly an objective doorway to contemplating the mystery of the crucified Christ
Marcus Aurelius Cassiodorus, a contemporary of Boethius, was
from Calabria and was born around the year 485 in Squillace. He died at an old
age in Vivarium around the year 580.
He, too, was a man of high social standing who devoted
himself to politics and culture like few others in the Western Roman Empire of
his time. Perhaps the only ones who are his equal in this twofold commitment
are Boethius, whom we already mentioned, and the future pope of Rome, Gregory
the Great (590-604).
Conscious of the need of not letting the entire humanistic
legacy of mankind that had been accumulated throughout the golden era of the
Roman Empire vanish into oblivion, Cassiodorus generously collaborated, often
at the highest political levels, with the emerging peoples who had crossed into
the confines of the empire and settled in Italy. He, too, was a model of the
encounter, dialogue and reconciliation between cultures.
Historic events did not allow him to realize his political
and cultural dreams, which sought to create a synthesis between Italy’s Roman
and Christian traditions and the emerging Gothic culture. Nevertheless, these
very events convinced him of the providential nature of the monastic movement
that was steadily growing in Christian lands. He decided to support this
movement by devoting all his material wealth and spiritual resources to it.
He conceived the idea of entrusting to these monks the task
of retrieving, preserving and transmitting to posterity the vast cultural
legacy of the ancient world so that it would not be lost.
With this aim in mind, he founded the Vivarium, a monastic
community where everything was organized in such a manner that the intellectual
work of the monks would be esteemed as valuable and vital. He ensured that
those monks who did not have an intellectual formation would not be obliged to
perform only manual labor, such as farming, but would also transcribe
manuscripts, thereby helping to transmit this great cultural heritage to future
They were to do this without compromising their spiritual
and monastic commitment as Christians or their charity toward the poor.
In his teachings, which are contained in various works,
above all in his treatise De anima and in Institutiones divinarum litterarum,
prayer (see PL 69, col. 1108), which is nourished by sacred Scripture and the
assiduous reading of the Book of Psalms (see PL 69, col. 1149), always plays a
central role in the nourishment that all people need.
For example, this is how this very gifted man from Calabria
introduces his Expositio in Psalterium: “Having rejected and abandoned in
Ravenna the demands of a career in politics that was marked by a disgusting
taste for worldly concerns and having found delight in the Book of Psalms, a
book that came down from heaven like true honey for the soul, I plunged myself
into examining it without respite, like a man who is dying of thirst, so that
all its saving sweetness would permeate me after having had my fill of the
countless bitter experiences of an active life” (PL 70, col. 10).
The quest for God with the aim of contemplating him, Cassiodorus
says, is the ongoing goal of monastic life (see PL 69, col. 1107). However,
with the help of God’s grace (PL 69, col. 1131, 1142), he goes on to say, it is
possible to attain greater benefit from God’s revealed word through the use of
scientific breakthroughs and those “profane” tools of culture that the Greeks
and Romans already possessed (see PL 69, col. 1140).
Cassiodorus personally dedicated himself to philosophical,
theological and exegetical studies without being particularly creative, but he
was always attentive to those intuitions that he recognized as valid in others.
Above all, he read Jerome and Augustine with great respect.
He said of Augustine: “There are so many riches in Augustine that it seems
impossible to me to find anything that he has not yet dealt with in depth” (see
PL 70, col. 10).
Likewise, quoting Jerome, he exhorted the monks at Vivarium
with the following words: “Not only will those who fight the battle to the end
by shedding their blood or those who live a life of virginity obtain the
laurels of victory, but also those who are victorious over vice and persevere
in the true faith. However, in order that you may more easily and at all times
resist — with the help of God — the
lures and enticements of the world, always persevere in this task as pilgrims
continually on a journey, seeking above all the life-giving assistance that the
first psalm recommends, which is meditating day and night on the law of the
Lord. The enemy will not find any breach in order to assail you if all your
attention is focused on Christ” (De Institutione Divinarum Scripturarum, 32: PL
69, col. 1147).
This is a piece of advice that is valid for us, too. We live
in a time where there is an encounter between cultures and where there is a
danger of the violence that destroys cultures.
We need to have a commitment to transmitting these great
values and teaching new generations the path to reconciliation and peace.
We find this path by turning to God who has a human face,
the God who revealed himself to us in Christ.