Moral Philosophy

Ethics Part 3: Boethius & The Middle Ages


Boethius’ Consolations of Philosophy  is one of the 10 most important books you’ve never heard of.  The author wrote this Socratic style dialogue in 523 AD while in prison waiting to be strangled and bludgeoned to death for being politically incorrect, much like the reason for the poisoning of Socrates himself nearly a thousand years earlier. Truth tellers have never had it easy.

The author of De Consolatione was a high government official under the barbarian Viceroy of Rome, himself subject to the Roman Emperor in Constantinople. Boethius got caught up in political struggles related to the schism between eastern and western versions of Christianity and other intrigues for which no guilt was ever proven. He was a noble Roman whose family had been Christian since before it became popular. Still, he was steeped in classical tradition and was himself a philosopher/scientist who tried with considerable success to model his own career after the leaders described in Plato’s Republic.  It’s important to understand that he was one of the most educated men of his era who was well versed in mathematics, physics philosophy and theology.  He gave us the term “quadrivium” to describe the learning one would need to get a beginning grasp of all that is essential for a grownup human to know.  Boethius was a bridge between classical and later learning and he was influenced by Aristotle, Plato, Neo-Platonists including Proclus and Plotinus; as well as Christian theologians especially Augustine and The Stoics.  De Consolatione was written in Latin but the author was fluent in Greek and he translated and wrote about Aristotle and others, without which their thought might have been lost to The West.

De Consolatione has always surprised readers who might have expected a prominent Christian to draw his consolation from Christ or a Christian source. Instead, he has Philosophy, personified as an awe inspiring woman, come to his cell to help him over his depression toward acceptance of what is to come.  The pattern and content of the book is much like The Tibetan Book of the Dead, which is a manual and liturgy for helping the dying or dead to give up attachment to things of this world and move heavenward. The style is, however, very Roman, being both imagistic and realistic at the same time. It is clear from reading that Boethius drew more from Plato himself for his personal inspiration, values and style of thought than from many of the others who followed.  The approach Philosophy takes is to first shock him. She enters grandly and slut-shames the muses (yes, really) who represent the distractions of the world that are causing his misery. Then she lets him cry on her shoulder before using reason and a little bit of goading to get him on track for his theodicy toward the still point at the center of everything and a feeling of gratitude for the life and things that he has had that he must now give back. The true light from which he came, and to which he can return if he wants to, is a bit of Orphic mythology right out of Plato’s Timaeus. Philosophy convinces the prisoner that his life is good and that while it may appear in this life that bad people do well while good ones are destroyed, the reality is actually the reverse.  This is a nice melding of Christianity and Plato that does violence to neither.  The depiction of the universe and the good life is not that of The Stoics, nor is it that of The Church Fathers (with the exception of Origen). The role of Aristotle, as the once and future philosopher of nature and proto-empiricist, is as a part of the puzzle but not at the heart of the matter. This Platonic bent, even in the midst of clear understanding about the alternative, represented a strain of thought that never left and appeared in various ways. It is impossible to overestimate the importance of this book, which was a manual for living, dying and thinking throughout the middle ages. For modern ethics, it’s most important feature is that Boethius, not satisfied with the wishy-washiness he saw in Augustine’s approach to free will, strengthened moral agency in the individual by employing a Platonistic/Aristotelean notion of God as the author of Providence, which acts simply as an eternal framework for the more time-bound and seemingly senseless workings of fate on both the innocent and the guilty. The choices we make against this backdrop are foreknown by God, but are not specifically predestined.  The consequences of various actions are good insofar as they may punish the deserving or elevate the worthy. Our individual wills have an important part to play in this. In fact, we participate in the conscious framework and the unfolding tableau of all that is, much like a simple algorithm generates the mind-numbing complexity of a fractal representation such as a Mandelbrot set.  Boethius escapes the dilemma of having humans given “free will” only to make the point moot by God pulling all the strings.  For Boethius we are entirely responsible for the messes that happen as we try to achieve happiness.  At the same time, we are destined for the greatness of returning to the center if we choose to see things correctly and move in that direction with everything we have.  Philosophy herself all but says there’s no fate but what we make while also exposing utilitarianism (Epicureanism) as empty by showing the goal is not maximization of pleasure but the return to the source:

“You are engaged in a bitter but spirited struggle with fortune of every kind, to avoid falling victim to her when she is adverse or corrupted by her when she is favorable. Hold to the middle way with unshakable strength. Whatever falls short or goes beyond despises happiness but receives no reward for its toil. It is in your own hands what fortune you wish to shape for yourself. . .”

After Boethius, it is generally believed that The West basically went to sleep for a couple of hundred years until the Carolingian Renaissance.  The idea that there was a dark age after the void of a couple of hundred years with Rome’s breakup is not supported by fact.  During this time, the Byzantine remains of The Roman Empire, now centered in Constantinople, created and expanded culture and commerce in an unprecedented and long peaceful way. Meanwhile, Islam, after initial rapid expansion, entered a golden era of culture absorbing much of what had been best in Greco-Roman thought and making new contributions.  There was a synchrony of ideas from multiple directions in the 10th through 14th centuries as alchemy, medicine, mathematics and metaphysics reached new heights from Persia to Andalusia and cosmopolitan Paris to the increasingly Christianized lands of Viking & Norman Conquest which, in addition to Britain, comprised Russia and Sicily and stretched the length of the Volga to communicate with Central Asia. Universities were founded and flourished in many places. Thinking ranged from practical science to speculative realms. Intellectual ferment existed from Central Asia to Europe and Northern Africa.  Gradually, learning was being more widely shared, as those who saw it is the special province of a narrow and doctrinally pure religious elite were edged out by merchants and others who were gaining access to and generating ideas that circulated more freely than ever.  Still, there were common ideas about ethics that were practiced across wide geographies which had growing contact through commerce and war. The importance of latter, it would seem, has been over-emphasized.

Avicenna (ibn Sina), b.980 d.1037, hailed from Bukhara in what is now Uzbekistan but was once Sogdiana, long known for trade and openness, and part of the Persian Empire.  Alexander conquered and settled here in Samarkand and later so did Tamerlane.  This point of origin is significant because this area had already engendered Zoroastrianism, had seen the confluence of other movements such as Buddhism on its path to Tibet and China, Nestorian Christianity on its march to China and soon would spawn (or possibly re-label its ancient religion as) Sufism.  It also boasted some of the oldest civilized places known.  It should come as no surprise that one of the greatest polymaths ever came from this culturally rich area that is arguably the navel of world spirituality AND commercial enterprise from whence one might argue the Silk Road expanded outward.  Avicenna was a physician, the most famous and influential of the philosopher-scientists of the medieval Islamic world. He was particularly noted for his contributions in the fields of Aristotelian philosophy and medicine. He composed the Kitāb al-shifāʾ (Book of the Cure), a vast philosophical and scientific encyclopaedia, and Al-Qānūn fī al-ṭibb (The Canon of Medicine), which is among the most famous books in the history of medicine. His philosophy included a cosmology comprised of God as creator who emanated 10 intelligences, the first of which is The Active Intelligence, which communicates with humans through The Divine Light (q.v. light of Zoroastrians and Stoics and The Force of “Star Wars”).  His science was comprehensive, far too much for me to describe here, but it was arranged in such a way as to make it easy to fit into a Western Scholastic framework, which happened directly and through mediation by such other luminaries as Averroes.  Alchemy was part of science for Avicenna and this too was cut and paste into European thought in the ensuing years.  As a doctor, Avicenna was an expert clinician whose approach was Aristotelian and evidence based but whose work was beyond precedent by leaps and bounds. Not noted as an ethicist, he was by reputation somewhat of an egoist and playboy (more Dr. Strange than Imam). By encompassing and preserving so much learning and passing it on, his contribution was vital in all mental disciplines.  He also exemplified knowledge and the development of ideas independent of religious orthodoxy.  (See entry in Encyclopedia Britannica online.)

Averroes (ibn Rushd), b 1126 d 1198, was from Cordoba, Spain.  Another notable synthesist of ancient Greek and Islamic thought, Averroes was, among many other accomplishments, known for his detailed commentaries on Plato and Aristotle. He wrote a series of treatises in defense of philosophical study independent of theological thought. His commentaries and incisive arguments soon became required reading at the best European universities, most especially in Paris, where he inspired Thomas Aquinas and others to think outside the box.  Though himself an ardent practitioner of Shari’ah as a judge, he was radically progressive in his advocacy for the rights of women, apparently based on his reading of The Republic of Plato.  He held that the aim of philosophy in its quest for truth is to establish the inner meaning of religious beliefs. This inner meaning must not be divulged to the masses, who must accept the plain, external meaning of Scripture contained in stories, similes, and metaphors. Averroes applied Aristotle’s three arguments (demonstrative, dialectical, and persuasive—i.e., rhetorical and poetical) to the philosophers, the theologians, and the masses. However, unlike the Greeks, Averroes held that the masses were equal in their desire for happiness which true religion alone could provide for all classes. (See entry in Encyclopedia Britannica online.)

Thomas Aquinas, b 1224 d 1274, was from Sicily. He is considered the foremost among medieval Scholastics, meaning he used an Aristotelian method to pose and answer big questions about the meaning of life and everything so as to defend catholic dogma in an increasingly pluralistic society. It is more than just an historical curiosity that while as student at what was then Europe’s most exciting university in Paris, Aquinas digested and was strongly influenced by the work of Averroes for sure and most probably Avicenna and other Islamists, along with prominent Jewish thinkers as well.  For Aquinas, as for many who followed him, Aristotle was quite simply “The Philosopher.” Why the Scholastics chose the formerly obscure Aristotle once they knew him over the Platonism that had always been in the air is fascinating in its own right.

Aquinas’ mother was a Norman and his father a Lombard and he grew up in Sicily, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. There was no nation of Italy then and Southern Italy was being fought over by forces of the Pope and those of The Emperor, Frederick II. Thomas adroitly managed to swim through the politics of the warring church/state bodies while developing convictions and a new theology as part of a mendicant order not overtly aligned to any party. He chose, therefore, to be a Dominican and also an Aristotelian because being a “free thinker” was then most consonant with being loyal to the true catholic church as Thomas understood it. While never a protestant, he was an intellectual innovator.  The logical choice of Aristotle as the clay with which to develop his own thought was therefore an obvious one based on the strength of its logic and need for better tools than were provided by any known alternatives. Additionally, the Scholastics gained from Averroes an appreciation that philosophy could follow two paths, one of faith or one of reason. This was not what Averroes had in mind, but his eloquent arguments for philosophical approaches to theology among the learned provided grist for the mill of future thought that would increasingly become independent of religious dogma.  Aquinas himself took this trend further, and like Averroes, while he did not object to correcting falsehood by force and even argued in favor of the Inquisition, he ended up pressing in the direction of philosophy that could explore what we can know and do in ways that were not constrained by defense of official truths.  This meant Aquinas fell out of favor with the predominant Augustinians, who did not want to see university professors teaching that reason could function independently of faith.  As the entry says:

“According to Aquinas, reason is able to operate within faith and yet according to its own laws. The mystery of God is expressed and incarnate in human language; it is thus able to become the object of an active, conscious, and organized elaboration in which the rules and structures of rational activity are integrated in the light of faith. In the Aristotelian sense of the word, then (although not in the modern sense), theology is a “science”; it is knowledge that is rationally derived from propositions that are accepted as certain because they are revealed by God. The theologian accepts authority and faith as his starting point and then proceeds to conclusions using reason; the philosopher, on the other hand, relies solely on the natural light of reason. Thomas was the first to view theology expressly in this way or at least to present it systematically, and in doing so he raised a storm of opposition in various quarters. Even today this opposition endures, especially among religious enthusiasts for whom reason remains an intruder in the realm of mystical communion, contemplation, and the sudden ecstasy of evangelical fervour.”

Because Aristotle’s approach to nature was in the wind, physics and natural law were both debated openly and these views which challenged the supremacy of the church in Rome as the final arbiter of acceptable reality as well as behavior The Emperor was all for it.  Traditional theologians were scandalized by a view of nature that they thought was contrary to the supremacy of God’s grace and would result in anarchy and chaos. Their concern was that this was tantamount to proclaiming the death of God and letting everything run off the rails (we’ll see the same thing much later with Nietzsche).   Thomas’ solution to this dilemma is virtually identical to what Boethius’ Philosophy said in De Consolatione many years earlier. Again to quote from the entry:

“Thomas held that human liberty could be defended as a rational thesis while admitting that determinations are found in nature. In his theology of Providence, he taught a continuous creation, in which the dependence of the created on the creative wisdom guarantees the reality of the order of nature. God moves sovereignly all that he creates; but the supreme government that he exercises over the universe is conformed to the laws of a creative Providence that wills each being to act according to its proper nature. This autonomy finds its highest realization in the rational creature: man is literally self-moving in his intellectual, volitional, and physical existence. Man’s freedom, far from being destroyed by his relationship to God, finds its foundation in this very relationship. “To take something away from the perfection of the creature is to abstract from the perfection of the creative power itself.” This metaphysical axiom, which is also a mystical principle, is the key to St. Thomas’s spirituality.”

The Augustinians sided with Plato’s theory of knowledge based on exemplary ideas or forms. The Aristotelian Scholastics denied this paradigm, continuing a divergence of views between “rationalists” and empiricists that began over two millennia ago and continues to this day. It is however significant that in both sides of this debate, there was fundamental agreement that individuals were both free and incented to behave in a manner that is consistent with what they still held to be the love, light, grace, baraka or whatever you want to call it, at the root of all that is life-ward and not death-ward in the universe.  Thomas lived at a time when the re-introduction of Greek thought created an intellectual fervor that seemed about to crush the extant notion of the relationship between man and that divine spark that most made him human. Thomas’ legacy is that he strove mightily and brilliantly to integrate what was best in both viewpoints which is why he was canonized despite making conservative types uncomfortable.  Thomas also, despite himself, provided ammunition for those who not only wanted to correct the excesses of the power of the Roman Church as an actor on the world stage, but to obviate it as the arbiter of what we can know or do. (See entry in Encyclopedia Britannica online)

From an ethical standpoint today, the significance of medieval thought from Boethius to Aquinas, who stood at the door of The Enlightenment, can’t be overstated.  These thinkers strove tirelessly and mightily against demons of both authority and chaos. They wanted individuals to feel at home in their world and prepared for their eventual reunion with the Godhead from which they emanated. Their work is a testament both to their qualities of mind but also to their spirit. Without the unity they furnished between mind and spirit they considered ethical decision making a nonsense proposition.  Additionally, the timeless ideas of Plato and Aristotle passed through a variety of intermediaries and found fertile ground in Central Asia, from whence much of their basis had arisen long before. The land where deep thinking, spirituality and commerce as value exchange all existed together for millennia was once again a chrysalis of new forms for what we know about the things that define us as humans.  Individual responsibility, free will, value exchange as a positive and peaceful necessity, and the fundamental need for truth among people are fundamental to humans because we are made that way. They are not late Western inventions.  What does seem to be a Western invention is that we can separate mind and spirit and end up with anything but catastrophe. Jung said, and Jordan Peterson is fond of pointing out, that one of the functions of religion is to protect people against a direct experience of God.  This doesn’t mean Jung was for religiosity at the expense of individual conscience. He was talking about the necessity for a framework by which we can handle reality and not go nuts. Take away the framework and we are in trouble.  Modern psychology, at least from Peterson’s perspective, says this is so, which would tend to put him on the side of the Augustinians in recognizing the danger. However Aquinas and successors like Meister Eckhart did not find the unity of reason and faith to be impossible, nor should we.


By vitruvius1

Formerly an integrated marketing and customer experience consultant. Writer on moral philosophy and current affairs.

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