National Catholic Register


Boethius and Cassiodorus

General Audience, Wednesday, March 12, 2008

BY The Editors

March 23-29, 2008 Issue | Posted 3/18/08 at 2:06 PM


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 face.

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 on Golgotha.

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 generations.

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.

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