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Anicius Manlius Boethius

Anicius Manlius Boethius

Anicius Manlius (c. 480 – c. 524) was the most important Latin philosopher in late Antiquity. The Neoplatonist and Christian is traditionally called “the last Roman and the first scholastic.” This is because his works conserved essential ideas of the ancient Neoplatonic philosophy in a Roman ency­clopedic manner and became fundamental for the Christian scholastic education in the Middle Ages in Western Europe. His works on Aristotelian logic and mathematics, partly translations of Greek tractates on philosophy and theology, were stan­dard school books in the Middle Ages.

Boethius was born circa 480 CE and received an excellent education in Latin and Greek literature and philosophy. He became extremely successful in his public career very early on. He was consul in Rome in 510 CE, and his two sons were consuls in 522 CE. According to his own statement, this was the high point of his life. However, his successful and happy life was cut short by a radical change: Boethius became involved in political intrigues, was fired by King Theodoric, imprisoned at Pavia, and finally executed around 524 CE. This catastro­phe is the background of Boethius’s most famous book, the Consolation of Philosophy, in which the Lady Philosophy consoles him with Neoplatonic arguments by showing him the true nature of hap­piness, with God as its highest source.

The final part of the Consolation, the famous Books IV and V, focuses on the problem of the reconciliation of human free will and God’s provi­dence. It aims at avoiding determinism. The dis­cussion of this topic includes a theory of time, because God and humans have different ways of knowing distinguished by time and eternity. God knows all at once. His thinking is beyond time, because his eternity (aeternitas) is the source of time but not time itself. Eternity is defined as the total and perfect possession of endless life at once. Therefore in God’s providence all the uncountable past and future happenings are present. Eternity is regarded as a “pure present” or a divine “now.”

Contrasting eternity, Boethius mentioned the Aristotelian doctrine of the infinity of the created world (everlastingness—sempiternitas, perpetuitas) that has neither a beginning nor an end of time. In doing so Boethius touched on a cardinal philo­sophical and theological problem of his times. Christians believed in the creation of the world and of time by God as recorded in the Book of Genesis and as stated by Boethius in “About the Catholic Faith.” Others thought that, according to Plato, the created world is coeternal to its creator. In the Consolation, Boethius explicitly rejected the latter interpretation and followed Plato’s (and Aristotle’s) view that the world is not eternal but perpetual.

Whereas the everlasting world imitates God’s timeless eternity by being unlimited in duration, human beings are even more deficient. Humans think and act within the limits of time (tempus) that has a beginning and an end, a past and a future. Human knowledge, therefore, covers only particular aspects of the whole seen and unseen Creation but not the whole, neither one part of it after the other nor at once. Because of this restricted perspective, humans cannot adequately understand God’s providence and their own fate evolving from providence.

The distinction between eternity, everlasting­ness, and time goes back to complex philosophi­cal speculations of Neoplatonic and Christian thinkers—namely Plotinus and Saint Augustine of Hippo, mainly reflecting Plato’s Timaios—and was fundamental for the scholastic theories of time in the Middle Ages and later on.

Anja Heilmann

See also Aristotle; Augustine of Hippo, Saint; Bible and Time; Christianity; Eternity; God and Time; Plato; Rome, Ancient; Time, Sacred

Further Readings

Sorabji, R. (1983). Time, creation and the continuum: Theories in antiquity and the early Middle Ages. London: Duckworth.

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