15.08.21, Böhm, Jürgasch, and Kirchner, eds., Boethius as a Paradigm of Late Ancient Thought

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Sten Ebbesen

The Medieval Review 15.08.21

Böhm, Thomas, Thomas Jürgasch, and Andreas Kirchner, eds. Boethius as a Paradigm of Late Ancient Thought. Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2014. pp. 269. ISBN: 978-3-11-031058-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Sten Ebbesen
University of Copenhagen

This is a volume of acts from a conference held in Freiburg (Germany) in 2012. The title of the conference and the book is opaque, and the relations of the constituent papers to the title generally more so. One lucid paper by John Marenbon flatly concludes that the title is a misnomer.

The papers--in English and German--range from meticulous philological analyses of Boethius' use of materials from Plato's Gorgias (13-29, by John Magee) and of his semantic vocabulary (31-51, by Monika Aztalos) to a sympathetic, but methodologically dubious, reading of the Consolatio (171-211, due to Andreas Kirchner) with the help of a nebulous concept of space (p. 174: "Dieser Begriff beschreibt das, worin man sich findet, wo und worin wir uns aufhalten, in dem, wo und woraufhin wir uns bewegen – dies nicht nur im physichen Bedeutungssinn. Diese allgemeine Bestimmung schließt ganz bewusst in ihrer Offenheit Äusseres wie auch Inneres, Konkretes wie auch Abstraktes in aller Breite ein.").

An essay by Thomas Jürgasch (101-145) argues that, generally speaking, the theological treatises aim at showing that it is possible to make sense of Christian doctrine ("Denkmöglichkeit"), while the Consolatio aims at showing certain theses to be necessary ("Denknotwendigkeit"), although the assumption of those different aims needs some qualifications. In the main convincing, the paper is not unproblematic. For instance, it claims (137) that the expression summa intelligentia implies the occurrence of lower forms of intelligentia. It does not. It may as well be taken to mean "the (divine) insight which is at the top of the hierarchy of cognitive powers".

Jorge Uscatesco Barrón examines Boethius' concepts of happiness and assimilation to God (147-170), concluding, correctly, I believe, that his use of elements of both Stoic, Peripatetic, Middle- and Neo-Platonic origin is not eclectic in the pejorative sense of word. The treatment (167-168) of Boethius' claim that we can become gods by participation, though illuminative in some ways, might have benefited from a reflection on the fact that in this way Boethius actually treats divinity as a property--unique when considered in itself, yet sharable by many.

Fabio Troncarelli (213-229) deals with the transmission of Boethius works to the Early Middle Ages. Unfortunately, the information contained in this paper is hard to access because of linguistic problems (on which, see below).

John Marenbon (231-244) takes a broader view of the character of Boethius' philosophical works, underlining his Porphyrian stance in the logical ones, and suggesting that the moral of the Consolatio is that Philosophy, while not quite failing in her attempt to provide a rational consolation, does not succeed completely either, because, as she herself points out, there is a higher level of insight than hers. Besides pointing to a certain originality in Boethius himself--he was no standard Neoplatonist--Marenbon stresses that we should not underestimate the originality of his medieval interpreters. Our understanding of his texts does not render medieval interpretations predictable.

The terminologically oriented papers include, besides Astzalos', one by Margherita Belli, one by Elisabeth Schneider, and one by Claudio Moreschini.

Belli's paper (53-82) starts by comparing Boethius' logical vocabulary with that of Apuleius and, unsurprisingly, concludes that Boethius was not dependent on Apuleius, and that it was Boethius' terminology that posterity adopted. Then she investigates Boethius' use of indemonstrabilis, maxima propositio and communis animi conceptio, finding "convergence" between the maxim and the common notion. Finally, she looks at the way twelfth-century authors use the Boethian terminology and adds a useful list of Boethian passages involving indemonstrabilis. As regards the "convergence" I am afraid Belli has got things wrong. To Boethius, like to other late ancient authors, ἀξιώματα (maximae propositiones) and κοιναὶ ἔννοιαι are simply synonymous. She confusingly claims (66) that in De hebdomadibus Boethius operates with "communes animi conceptiones, which correspond to Euclid's ἀξιώματα", although the received text of Euclid actually has κοιναὶ ἔννοιαι (as she seems to acknowledge on 76),--that some writers, like Proclus, call them ἀξιώματα just shows that to them "common notions" and "axioms" were synonyms.

Schneider (245-265) deals with Boethius' famous definition of a person and provides interesting information about its fate at the hands of medieval jurists.

Moreschini (83-97) writes about subsistentia, Boethius' use of which he traces back to Victorinus, while noting differences and claiming that the equation with οὐσίωσις was an invention of Boethius' not corresponding to any established use of the Greek term. Not a pleasant solution to the puzzle, but maybe right.

Moreschini's article unfortunately suffers from a defect shared by all three papers authored by Italians: bad English. We find "the object of many discussion" (83), "species of a genre" (84), "an ontological status of her own" (89), where "her" represents "substance" and several other infelicities, a few of which even make the text nearly incomprehensible, like "for who can say there is any person of whiteness or blackness or size" (84, the sense must be "any person constituted by accidents, such as whiteness, blackness or some size"), or "similar to an assertion of the comment attributed to Alexander on Metaph. Z 13" (85, presumably meaning "an assertion found in the commentary on Metaph. Z attributed to Alexander". Incidentally, it has been known for a very long time that the pseudo-Alexandrian commentary on Metaph. Z is by Michael of Ephesus.

Troncarelli's contribution contains so much un-English that one is tempted to give up reading it, in spite of the fact that the author obviously knows more than most of us about Boethian manuscripts.

You cannot expect everybody to be good at writing English, but if the editor of a collective volume wants to include a paper in spite of its bad English, it is his duty to take care that it is properly corrected.

Minor slips that the editors ought also to have spotted include status...perfectum (154), vertix (164) and "den camenae bzw. musas" on 178; in former times people would have written camenis, musis in the dative in accordance with the function of the words in the German sentence, nowadays the convention is nominative, which is used for the camenae, whereas the poor muses are clothed in an accusative. On 220 the manuscript collector Amplonius of Berka is quoted for having attributed a work in his library to Cassiodori, senatoris et cancellarii Theodorici rex Gottorum. I have not checked on the source, but I find it hard to imagine that Amplonius could have produced such non-Latin. If he did, the reader should have been warned with a sic! after rex. These are rather insignificant errors, but it does not inspire faith in a study of Latin texts when it does not quote Latin words correctly. It is a lonesome life for a word to be a hapax legomenon. but there is no reason to add to its misery by calling it an apax (220).

Barrón in his essay repeatedly uses ὁμοίωσις πρὸς θεόν as if this were a standard formulation. It is actually quite rare, the standard formula being ὁμοίωσις θεῷ (first used by Plato in a passage referred to on 165, immediately after the introduction of the non-standard formulation). Barrón's choice of πρὸς θεόν may have been inspired by Alcinoos' τῆς πρὸς τὸ θεῖον ὁμοιώσεως in his Didascalicus, which is quoted on 150, correctly, but with reference to C.F. Hermann's outdated edition from 1892 instead of J. Whittaker's from 1990.

Other slips include a claim (215) that Boethius was an ex-consul in 504-509, when, in fact, his consulship was in 510. On p. 219 the Lombards arrive in Italy in 576--I have always learned the year was 568--and they do so after "the Gothic wars declared by Justinian, many years after the sic! Boethius' death, drove away once and for all, the domination of the Barbarians over Italy." Is 535 many years after Boethius' death in ca. 525? Were the Lombards non-Barbarians? A quotation of a Greek manuscript note on 224 contains a misspelling and two cases of wrong accentuation (which, if actually found in the ms, would deserve a few sic!s), and what is worse, the Greek text does not match the translation provided just above it.

On 248 Boethius is credited with "Kommentare zu den Werken Ciceros." There is only one such commentary, namely the one on Cicero's Topics, but the author mistakenly counts De topicis differentiis as another--and quotes from Migne's outdated 1847 edition instead of Nikitas' critical one from 1990.

Vigilant editors would have spotted the errors I have pointed out and saved the authors the embarassment of having them published.

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