Gernot Wieland

title.none: Marenbon, Boethius (Gernot Wieland)

identifier.other: baj9928.0610.036 06.10.36

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Gernot Wieland, The University of British Columbia,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2006

identifier.citation: Marenbon, John. Boethius. Series: Great Medieval Thinkers, vol. 5. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 252. ISBN: $24.95 (pb) ISBN 13: 978-0-19-513407-9, ISBN 10: 0-19-513407-9.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 06.10.36

Marenbon, John. Boethius. Series: Great Medieval Thinkers, vol. 5. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Pp. xvi, 252. ISBN: $24.95 (pb) ISBN 13: 978-0-19-513407-9, ISBN 10: 0-19-513407-9.

Reviewed by:

Gernot Wieland
The University of British Columbia

This book, which appears in the series "Great Medieval Thinkers," recognizes at the outset that "many would object that [Boethius] was neither medieval nor a great thinker," and sets itself the task to demonstrate that Boethius firmly belongs to the Middle Ages as well as to the ranks of great thinkers. Marenbon attempts to do this with a very thorough recapitulation of Boethius's commentaries on Aristotle's Categories, Porphyry's Isagoge, and Aristotle's On Interpretation (pp. 17-42). From there he moves on to Boethius's logical works, namely On Division, On the Categorical Syllogism, On Hypothetical Syllogisms, and On Topical Differentiae (pp. 43-65), then to Boethius's theological treatises (pp. 66-95), and finally to Boethius's best known work, the Consolation of Philosophy (pp. 96-163). The book ends with a nineteen-page survey of "Boethius's Influence in the Middle Ages."

So, does Marenbon convincingly show that Boethius belongs to the Middle Ages? Boethius's dates would seem to place him there quite firmly, and even though, as Marenbon concedes, he epitomizes the last flowering of the classical period, he also prepares the way for a particularly post-classical and Christian philosophy that is nurtured on Neoplatonism and simultaneously moves away from it. Moreover, wherever Boethius's roots are, his influence on the Middle Ages is so profound and so long-lasting that denying him the adjective "medieval" would deprive the Middle Ages up to about 1200 of the only philosopher it ever studied to any great extent.

While Marenbon is convincing in his contention that Boethius is "medieval," he is less persuasive in his second endeavour to show Boethius as a "great thinker." Partly, this has to do with Marenbon's method of summarizing Boethius's major arguments in each of his works. No doubt each reader, and especially those for whom syllogisms are not daily fare, will be grateful for the step-by-step explications of Boethius's texts. Not only is Boethius's Latin text translated into English, but it is also stripped to its bare-bone argument and therefore is easier to follow than in Boethius's somewhat more prolix prose. Marenbon is also careful to indicate whose ideas Boethius is following, even when Boethius weaves together arguments from several different philosophical forebears. But does this prove that Boethius is a "great thinker"? Showing Boethius's dependence on previous philosophers would seem to undermine his greatness; more needs to be shown on Boethius's mastery in creating a new argument from old ideas, but the book is often content in establishing an idea's pedigree without arguing for its originality or showing that the weaving together of formerly disparate ideas constituted an advance that could be considered greatness on the part of Boethius. Quite possibly Marenbon did not wish to break up his careful recreation of Boethius's ideas with comments on their innovative character. In that case, the book still falls short of its stated goal because of the lack of any conclusion. Instead of a conclusion, Marenbon presents us with a chapter on Boethius's influence in the Middle Ages. While the final chapter leaves no doubt that the Middle Ages thought of Boethius as a great thinker, the question whether we should also think so is not directly answered. Hints at an answer are present throughout the book: on p. 109, for instance, Marenbon argues that "Philosophy's employment of it ['it' being 'an argument for the existence of God'] is a typical example of how traditional material is used to new purposes in the Consolation," or on p. 115, Marenbon mentions that "she [=Philosophy] borrows a number of arguments from Plato's Gorgias, but they are all put to her own particular use." If Marenbon sees Boethius's greatness in his ability to use traditional material and to put it to new uses, it would have been helpful if he had said so explicitly either on the pages cited or in a conclusion.

In those sections in which Marenbon to a large extent retells Boethius's arguments, there is little to criticize. The summary is, as far as I can tell, careful, correct, and convincing. At times, especially for the non-philosophically trained reader, it may be a bit hard-going with all the syllogisms, but any effort expended on the book will be rewarding.

The longest section of the book is, as can be expected, devoted to the Consolation of Philosophy. Marenbon meticulously outlines Boethius's arguments on, for example, the modes of cognition, prescience, providence, and the freedom of the human will, but also points out some gaps that are left in the argumentation. He mentions, for instance, that Philosophy makes a good case for the freedom of the human will, but undermines it when she admits "that everything is causally determined" (158). Marenbon then provides four possible reasons for Philosophy's incoherences, namely (1) that they are due to Boethius's ineptitude, (2) that they are a typical feature of a Consolatio, (3) that they are merely superficial, and (4) that they are intentional (159). Of these, the last one seems the most likely to Marenbon. There is, of course, a fifth reason, which Marenbon does not mention, namely that Boethius was unable to revise his manuscript and to remove the incoherences because he was executed. In order to explain the incoherences, Marenbon abandons a philosophical argument and attempts a literary one: the genre of the Consolatio with its prosimetrum, and with its playful examination of serious matters (for which the technical term is spoudogeloion) is that of the Menippean satire, and Marenbon argues that the Consolatio is indeed a Menippean satire which playfully (through its use of poetry and myth) explores the limitations of Philosophy, limitations which Philosophy herself recognizes at times. Even though this is an intriguing argument, the idea that Boethius sitting on death row and desperately coming to terms with the catastrophe that has befallen him would choose to have himself consoled by a Philosophy he knows to be faulty strains credulity, especially since the character of Boethius in the Consolatio seems completely unaware of Philosophy's shortcomings. Marenbon is correct in pointing out Philosophy's incoherences, but I am not convinced that the author Boethius would intentionally wish to undermine the consolation he had Philosophy give him. If he wished to do so intentionally, why did he not do so explicitly? Why would he pretend through parts of the book that he had indeed received the cure he was looking for? Why, if the author Boethius recognized that Philosophy was faulty, did he not choose Faith and/or Revelation to bring the consolation which Philosophy was unable to deliver? Marenbon's interpretation is intriguing, but unfortunately it leads to more questions than answers.

Most readers will be pleased to have such a concise summary of Boethius's thought. The book most definitely helps to place Boethius in the tradition of classical philosophy, and it does make its point that Boethius is more than just a transmitter of that philosophy. Some points could have been made somewhat more explicitly, and some points are open to differing interpretation, but this does not detract from the usefulness of Marenbon's book.