12.11.01, Gruber, Boethius

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Joseph Pucci

The Medieval Review 12.11.01

Gruber, Joachim. Boethius: Eine Einführung. Standorte in Antike und Christentum. Stuttgart: Anton Hiersemann KG, Verlag, 2011. Pp. xiv, 143. ISBN: 978-3-7772-1028-5.

Reviewed by:
Joseph Pucci
Brown University

This small book, just over one hundred pages, is, as its title suggests, an introduction to the life and work of Boethius and makes no pretense to being other than this. But who better to offer such a précis than Gruber? A brief first chapter of three parts and totaling but eleven pages deals, in turn, with a barebones summary of affairs in Italy in the fifth and sixth centuries: beginning with the death of Theodosius and concluding with the establishment of Theodoric's kingdom; thence to a focus on Boethius' origins and early years; and finally to a consideration of the ways in which politics functioned under the Ostrogothic king, a move that makes sense, given what we know of Boethius' mature years spent in the political arena.

Chapter two, comprising the bulk of the book, contains five parts (most subdivided many times over) totaling 93 pages. The brief first part treats the chronology of Boethius' output as competently as that topic can be summarized, since what Gruber says of the chronology of the logical works is surely true more generally, viz., the dating of Boethius' output is not established with absolute certainty. Be that as it may, the works devoted to the liberal arts come first, followed by the logical works, which are placed relative to each other and dated to points in the first decade of the sixth century. There follow the theological treatises and, finally, the Philosophiae consolatio. This chronology forms the frame for the succeeding parts of Chapter two.

Thus the second part of Chapter two returns to Boethius' earliest works, devoted to the liberal arts, specifically, those associated with the Quadrivium. Considerations of the contents, sources, reception, and appreciation of De institutione musica and De institutione arithmetica there follow, and include considerations of the lost and/or spurious works dealing with geometry, physics, and astronomy. The third part of chapter two, lengthier by half than the part that it precedes, treats the logical works and, organized under the same rubrics as the previous part, offers in a short space a full gamut of contextualizing details concerning these important writings. The fourth part of Chapter two turns to the theological writings, treating them in like terms in just under a dozen pages, while the final part of Chapter two, comprising nearly one-third of the book's total, treats the Philosophiae consolatio. A brief comment on the conditions under which the work was composed leads to a lengthier book-by-book summary.

Boethius' consolatory project is framed in cogent ways against a political backdrop, rightly so, but its philosophical premises weigh heaviest, not least "existential" questions about the highest good and human happiness. Not the least of the attractions of the work are its prosimetrical form and the spaces opened up through dialogue that allow for complex meditations on the large issues with which Boethius grapples throughout. It is difficult to summarize such complexity, but Gruber's synopses of prose and poetry in a book-by-book march through Boethius' words are models of concision. He does not offer a grand synthesis of thinking about the Consolation, nor is such his aim. But one aspect of his discussions that is well taken is the attention paid to the ways in which Boethius was influenced by, and influential himself on, other poets, a focus that helps the reader more cogently to situate the metra of the Consolation.

In support of his summaries of the Consolation's books, Gruber offers a (very) brief discussion of the literary tradition(s) informing them and a more committed discussion of the prosimetrical and Menippean traditions. This leads logically to an analysis of "consolation literature," and separate sections that treat with more detail diatribe and protreptic, and the senses in which the Consolation works toward, or offers, spiritual healing. Finally, a section devoted to the formally philosophical and theological aspects of the Consolation and a consideration of the Consolation's influences down through time round out this small book. I would add that the quotation from one of Albrecht Haushofer's Moabit sonnets that concludes the book is especially evocative, given Haushofer's profile in Nazi Germany and the tragic way in which that profile led in due course to his imprisonment and execution. In this way Gruber is able to suggest, without saying it, some of the current appeal of Boethius fifteen centuries after his own execution.

After a concluding gambit that briefly considers Boethius' place in the thought of the medieval West, there follows a bibliography of printed and digital works that will prove useful to novice and experienced readers alike, and whose contents adheres to the organizational structure of the book. A brief section of endnotes leads finally to indices focusing on persons and concepts and to Greek and Latin wordlists. I wondered if these were appropriate to the target audience, who seemingly will not read either language, though surely there is no harm in including them. The book is elegantly written and carefully produced. I found only one glitch, on p. 109, where Erismann's article seems to be printed in a larger font. Of course those who do not read German cannot take advantage of this small book but it more than makes good on its modest claims and does so efficiently and more than competently.

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Joseph Pucci

Brown University