Hail Last of Romans and First of Scholastics

Today, in the tradition of Pavia, is the feast day of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius. That’s the Boethius.  Living from around 480 to his execution in 524, he was a statesman during the rule of Theodoric and a contemporary with Benedict of Nursia (480-547). He is a liminal figure like these others described by Lorenzo Valla, and again in the 20th century by Ralph McInerny, as “the last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics.”

Surprised that there’s a St. Severinus with a feast day when we usually think of the philosopher Boethius? Me too.

But Dante did put him in the heaven of the sun (Canto X) with philosophers like Aquinas:

Now, if your mind’s eye, following my praising,
was drawn from light to light, you must already
be thirsting for the eighth: within that light,

because he saw the Greatest Good, rejoices
the blessed soul who makes the world’s deceit
most plain to all who hear him carefully.

The flesh from which his soul was banished lies
below, within Cieldauro, and he came
from martyrdom and exile to this peace.

Boethius is described as seeing “the Greatest Good” because in the dialogue with Philosophy he struggles with the problem of evil and the problem of free will. After examining the ways fate leads to the “great collapse of human affairs,” Boethius proposes that the worst result is that the “sole intercourse [solus modus] between men and God will be removed, that is, hope and prayer for aversion.” Boethius continues to expound on how the “solus modus” then for union with God is through prayer and supplication: “the only way in which men seem able to converse with God and to be joined by the very manner of their supplication to that inaccessible light.” As Stephen Blackwood puts it in his fascinating liturgical reading of Boethius, “the entirety of consolation depends on whether…supplication is possible, and that prayer is real.”

And that’s not the only way that Boethius is connected to Dante. The beautiful theme Dante has running through his masterpiece, the Divine Comedy, about stars moved by love is in Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

Dante begins the Comedy by noting that divine love set everything in motion as the Prime Mover: “It was the beginning of morning, and the sun was mounting with the stars that were with it when Divine Love first set those beautiful things in motion.” He then ends the claustrophobic nightmare of the Inferno by a joyful glimpse of the stars: “I saw some of the beautiful things that Heaven bears; and thence we issued forth to see again the stars.” And all of this leads to the final moment where he looks up and sees “the Love which moves the sun and the other stars.” That mystical moment cuts short without telling us that Dane makes it back to the world because, as he’s prepared us throughout the work, language falls short: “all words would fail.”

We find the same Love as prime mover in the eighth song of Book II in Boethius:

What binds all things to order,
Governing earth and sea and sky,
Is love [amor].

Then in the sixth song of Book IV, Lady Philosophy sings of love’s power to continue the celestial movement of the morning star and evening star:

Always with the fair exchange of time
Vesper announces late the shades of night
and Lucifer brings back the kindly day.
So mutual love renews eternal motions,
So from those star-strewn regions
Discordant war is banished.

That same love that Dante hints at in the moment when he glimpses the stars after the trauma of hell or cuts short from describing for us when he enters the beatific vision at the end is common to celestial motion in Boethius. Take a look at how Lady Philosophy ends this song in Book VI, ordering all of this movement back to the first cause and origin of love:

This is the love common to all things,
And they seek to be bound by their end, the good,
Since in no other way could they endure,
If the causes that gave them being did not flow back
Under the power of returning love.

Today would be a good day to sit with Boethius and listen to Lady Philosophy on his feast day.

But where to begin if you’re new to Boethius? Here are a few ideas.

You can read more of the text here, or get the translation I’m using from Loeb Classical Library. If you want to learn more about Boethius, Mythgard has a wonderful seminar that you can follow.

You can even listen to the songs of Lady Philosophy. The verses from Boethius have been carefully reconstructed recently. Take a look at the process in the video below.


Or maybe we could even just listen to Philosophy’s prayer as a fitting collect on the feast of “the last of the Romans and the first of the Scholastics”:

O you who in perpetual order govern the universse,
Creator of heaven and earth, who bid time ever move,
And resting still, grant motion to all else;
Grant, Father, to my mind to rise to your majestic seat,
Grant me to wander by the source of good, grant light to see,
To fix the clear sight of my mind on you.
Disperse the clouding heaviness of this earthly mass
And flash forth in your brightness. For to the blessed, you
Are clear serenity, and quiet rest: to see you is their goal,
And you, alone and same,
Are their beginning, driver, leader, pathway, end.

Image Source:

La comedia di Dante Aligieri con la nova espositione di Alessandro Vellvtello.
(Vinegia : Per Francesco Marcolini ad instantia di Alessandro Vellutello, 1544). Call Number: Rare Book B85DL B44. From the library of the American Type Founders, Inc.

Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University in the City of New York.

The Columbia Copyright Advisory Office provides detailed information on copyright and fair use issues.

4 Responses

  1. Many thanks for drawing my attention to Boethius. He is someone that I would to get to know better and so thank you for your suggestions. I am struck that he tells us that it is amor and not caritas that binds all together. The lack of amor or eros in the New Testament has saddened me for some time now. The Fathers do not criticise the biblical authors but they seem to feel the lack of eros there and Dante follows Boethius as you say when he writes “l’amor che move I sole e l’altre stelle”. We have not served our fellows well by teaching them to be suspicious of amor/eros. As Merton put it, if we tell people that all pleasure is sin it won’t be long before they come to believe that all sin is pleasure. I still think that I have much to learn about the art of love as Boethius and Dante speak of it, hence my desire to become better acquainted with Boethius.
    A PS to end… The lines at the end of the Inferno when Dante sees the stars once more are among my favourite in all literature.

    • Seeing the stars once again is such a wonderful experience. I worry that people overemphasize the Inferno as the fun book when it feels more like a claustrophobic fever dream.

      I completely agree about the idea of eros. Especially when we see it as the desire for the lack then there’s something erotic about the move toward God. Sam Rocha writes about this following Jean-Luc Marion.

      Also I’m so sorry how long it took me to get back to you. I’ve been in the middle of my comprehensive exams and will just be about to see the light at the end of the tunnel this week.

      • Oh the burden of exam marking! I hope that it was relieved, at least in part, by some good work on the part of your students.
        I am with C.S Lewis on the sympathy that readers have with Milton’s figure of Satan in Paradise Lost. We know him all too well. We have internalised the system of crime and punishment so well (even though we blame it upon God and then announce that we cannot believe in him) that The Inferno is the reality that is closest to us. At present we seem to be descending into the horror of the mutual devouring that Dante describes. As for me my sympathy is for the souls in Purgatorio. It feels closest to my own experience. Perhaps I will come to know Paradise one day or, at least, the glimpses may become a little clearer.

        • Thank you for the well wishes! I got through comps and my own students did well too.

          I wish we weren’t falling into the Inferno, but I think you’re right. My favorite part is the Purgatorio. I love the relationship between Statius and Virgil.

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