Western Literature to Dante

Bruce A. McMenomy, Ph.D. for Scholars Online
2017-18: Mondays, 1:00 p.m.- 2:30 p.m. Eastern Time


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Unit VII: Christianity and Late Antiquity to A.D. 600

Week 25: Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius, ca. 480-524/6
Benedict of Nursia, ca. 480-547

For this week, please read:

This week we are looking at two of the most colossally influential works of the early Middle Ages, both products of Italy, and both coming from the second quarter of the 500s, but in many other ways deriving from totally different worlds. Neither is very well known to the modern world at large.

Shown below: an illuminated initial from a late mediaeval manuscript of the Consolation of Philosophy.

Initial of illuminated manuscript of the Consolation of Philosophy.Boëthius, a Christian involved heavily in the public life of the sixth century, was a supporter of the old senatorial aristocracy at Rome; but the old imperial order had been conclusively deposed about fifty years earlier by the Goths; now the Ostrogothic king Theodoric Amal ruled from the new imperial center in Ravenna (north of Rome, still in Italy.) There Boëthius (pronounced after the Greek fashion in four, rather than three syllables: Bo-EE-thee-us) was imprisoned on what were probably trumped-up charges of treason. While remaining many months in prison, unable to defend himself, he conceived and wrote the De Consolatione Philosophiae, that is, “On the Consolation of Philosophy”. It is one of the great pieces of prison literature, not so much for its philosophical originality — which is nothing great — but for the synthesis he achieved of Aristotelian and Platonic ideas, the depth to which he penetrated to the heart of both of these apparently conflicting schools, and most particularly the extent to which he applied his philosophical reckoning to his own life.

Many have wondered about the genuineness of Boëthius’ Christian faith — or the genuineness of the documents attributed to him (either this one or his other overtly theological writings, such as a Tractatus on the Trinity) because he makes only distant reference to God here, and virtually no reference to explicitly Christian types of consolation — such as the hope of salvation and the eternal life. Others (among them C. S. Lewis) have argued that this was because his explicit program was to write not of the consolation of Theology, but of Philosophy. Had he lived, perhaps he would have taken on the other topic. As it was, he did not: he was executed — by the gruesome but effective method of having ropes wrapped around his head and then twisted until it was crushed — in 526. His book, however, has survived him, and has remained one of the great classics of Christian philosophical thought in the succeeding millennium — such that even Elizabeth I of England was moved to produce her own translation of it. It has always appealed to those who found themselves in a constricted circumstance — like Elizabeth — and alone with a powerful mind full of difficult thoughts.

Below: St. Benedict; stained glass. Paris, Musée national du Moyen Âge (Cluny). Photograph, Bruce McMenomy.

St. Benedict.The form of the Consolation is the so-called Menippean Satire — which is made up of alternating passages of prose and poetry. In the translation available here, all that has been leveled to an even and fairly uninspired prose. Should you find yourselves with the time, inclination, and cash, you might check out the more readable and interesting translation by V. E. Watts (under the title The Consolation of Philosophy) in the Penguin Classics series.

I would like you to read the first two books if possible: if you are inclined to read more, feel free: it gets better as you go, but you can’t really dive into the middle without what comes at the beginning. As you read it, consider how Fortune and the variety of worldly goods are presented: these will remain topics of discussion throughout the literary culture of the Middle Ages and well into the modern world. Note how personal it is, and with what an offhand realism Boethius depicts even abstract characters like the lady Philosophy and Fortuna.

On the other side of the fence is one of the great organizational documents of all time. The Regula Benedicti, — that is, Rule of St. Benedict, written by Benedict of Nursia for his community of monks at Monte Cassino, was the foundational document of the Benedictine Order, and remains its beacon to this day. In every Benedictine house the world around, a piece of the rule is read every day at mealtimes.

As a work of prose it is not so much remarkable for its content — though it contains plenty of very sound insight into people — as it is an illustration of what Christianity in some cases did to the modes of thought current in society. The language of the Rule is impersonal but suffused with kindness; magisterial but gently restrained. It is also is a patchwork of scriptural citations and references, and one must keep a sharp eye to see when we are dropping into and out of quotation of the Bible.

The Rule is in turn one of the most commonly quoted documents of the next thousand years, both intentionally and unintentionally, and its influence continues to be strong among the Benedictines, at least. Being a work that the monks heard read, in its entirety, three times every year, it entered into their minds and their thoughts to such an extent that it is virtually impossible to read a piece of monastic prose without hearing its echoes in vocabulary, tone, and phrasing. The translation I have pointed you to here is part of the Medieval Sourcebook at Fordham University, and contains only excerpts, but they are representative and interesting. Read them all if you can. If you want to check other parts, there is a link at the end of that document to another complete translation of the Rule. The only odd thing about it is that it has been feminized somewhat — not as a PC gesture, but because it is specifically adapted for the use of an order of nuns. You can also find the rule in a slightly different version here.

Below: St. Benedict’s Abbey at Montecassino, Italy today.

St. Benedict.