26 January 2010

Lewis on Boethius & Old Books


I have recently posted on Boethius’s De Consolatione Philosophiæ, and in a post on the ‘new barbarism’ [1] last month, I quoted a wonderful passage from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters which, though I cropped it a bit, begins in context with a reference to Boethius. When my dear father pointed out in the combox that it reminded him of Fr Andrew Louth’s brilliant, Discerning the Mystery, I promised to relate an ironic anecdote concerning this passage. I shall now deliver.

In the long Screwtape passage I quoted, Lewis has just been talking about the traditional Christian reconciliation of God’s omniscience with human free will. On this subject, Screwtape comments, ‘It may be replied that some meddlesome human writers, notably Boethius, have let this secret out. But in the intellectual climate which we have at last succeeded in producing throughout Western Europe, you needn’t bother about that.’ And it is here that he embarks upon the explanation, ‘Only the learned read old books and . . . they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.’ [2]

Well, I chanced to remark, apropos of nothing, I believe, that this reference to Boethius was one of my favourite parts of the book. A friendly fellow, having I think momentarily forgotten the thrust of the passage, responded by telling me I would need to explain to him, and probably many others as well, who exactly Boethius was. I ventured a short biographical summary—6th-c. Roman senator and Christian philosopher , thrown in prison and executed by Theodoric, wrote Consolation of Philosophy—and then attempted tactfully to remind him of just what Lewis was trying to say about him in the book. This was the tricky part. Obviously, Lewis is suggesting that the demons are either responsible for or at least pleased with a situation in which no one except intellectually ‘immunised’ scholars have heard of or ventured to read Boethius. I wanted to make this clear to the fellow, and gently suggest that he go about rectifying the situation in his own case, when it dawned on him. He said something to the effect of, ‘Oh, so basically I’ve just proved his point, eh?’ I felt a little bad, but what can one do?

As is well known, Lewis is a very popular writer among all sorts of people, but many of them have somehow managed either not to notice, or simply not to follow, his opinions about the reading of old books. Just so we are clear, let us recall that he wrote in his preface to an English translation of a truly ‘old book’—St Athanasius’s 4th-c. treatise ‘On the Incarnation’:

Naturally, since I myself am a writer, I do not wish the ordinary reader [i.e., the non-scholar] to read no modern books. But if he must read only the new or only the old, I would advise him to read the old. . . . It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones. [3]

So, keeping this in mind, and recalling that Boethius is one old writer that he has singled out as meriting attention from the ‘ordinary reader’, let’s see what he has to say at greater length elsewhere about the Roman philosopher:

Boethius (480-524) is, after Plotinus, the greatest author of the seminal period, and his De Consolatione Philosophiæ was for centuries one of the most influential books ever written in Latin. It was translated into Old High German, Italian, Spanish, and Greek; into French by Jean de Meung; into English by Alfred [the Great], Chaucer, [Queen] Elizabeth I, and others. Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love it. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalised to the Middle Ages.

Boethius, scholar and aristocrat, was a minister to Theodoric the Ostrogoth, the first barbarian king in Italy and an Arian by religion, though no persecutor. As always, the word ‘barbarian’ might mislead. Though Theodoric was illiterate, he had passed his youth in high Byzantine society. He was in some ways a better ruler than many Roman emperors had been. His reign in Italy was not a sheer monstrosity as, say, the rule of Chaka or Dingaan in 19th-c. England would have been. It was more as if a (popish) highland chieftain (who had acquired a little polish and a taste for claret in the French service) had reigned over the partly Protestant and partly sceptical England of Johnson and Lord Chesterfield. It is not, however, surprising that the Roman aristocracy were soon caught intriguing with the Eastern Emperor [4] in the hope of delivering themselves from this alien. Boethius, whether justly or not, fell under suspicion. He was imprisoned at Pavia. Presently they twisted ropes round his head till his eyes dropped out and finished him off with a bludgeon. [5]

Later on, having summarised the Consolation, Lewis concludes:

I have so ruthlessly condensed an argument of such importance, both historical and intrinsic, that the wise reader will go for it to the original. I cannot help thinking that Boethius has here expounded a Platonic conception more luminously than Plato ever did himself.

. . .

Gibbon has expressed in cadences of habitual beauty his contempt for the impotence of such ‘philosophy’ to subdue the feelings of the human heart. [6] But no one ever said it would have subdued Gibbon’s. It sounds as if it had done something for Boethius. It is historically certain that for more than a thousand years many minds, not contemptible, found it nourishing. [7]

So I end with a plea, to all those who respect the most deeply held opinions of C.S. Lewis [8]—and how can one not when one enjoys his work?—follow his example and exhortation. Read old books. You could do worse than to begin with St Athanasius’s On the Incarnation or Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. It is a fitting reflection today, when we have just celebrated the feastday of St Benedict Biscop, England’s ‘first book collector’ (here and here).


[1] This ‘new barbarism’, a rereading of Abolition of Man has just reminded me, is also what Lewis is referring to when he speaks of having to awaken his pupils ‘from the slumber of cold vulgarity’ (C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man [NY: Touchstone, 1996], p. 27).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, with Screwtape Proposes a Toast (NY: HarperCollins, 2001), p. 150.

[3] C.S. Lewis, ‘Introduction’, On the Incarnation, by St Athanasius, trand. & ed. A Religious of CSMV (Crestwood, NY: SVS, 1996), p. 4.

[4] To whom even Theodoric wrote, ‘Our royalty is an imitation of yours, a copy of the only Empire on earth’ (qtd. in Victor Watts, ‘Introduction’, The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius, trans. Victor Watts [London: Penguin, 1999], p. xix).

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval & Renaissance Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge U, 2002), pp. 75-6.

[6] Keep in mind, however, that even Gibbon referred to the book as ‘a golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully’ (qtd. in Watts, p. xi).

[7] Lewis, Discarded Image, pp. 89-90.

[8] Lewis himself has already made the appeal to the desire for truth and wisdom, Chesterton to the desire to preserve the best of human culture. I shall simply appeal, here, to Lewis.

14 comments:

L. Vance said...

Many years ago I wrote a paper later published by the NY CS Lewis Society which leaned heavily on Milton and Spenser. Realized then the terrible gaps in my own reading. (I have never been able to acquire CSL's enthusiasm for George MacDonald, however.)

aaronandbrighid said...

Yes, of MacDonald's works I've only read Phantastes. While I liked it and found it interesting, it's certainly not something I could see becoming 'enthusiastic' for!

protov said...

Why do I feel that Boethius' Lady Philosophy is the Sophia of Soloviov and Bulgakov?

aaronandbrighid said...

Well, of course, there are similarities, but it seems to me that Boethius regards Lady Philosophy more as a literary device than an ontological reality.

protov said...

Are you sure?

aaronandbrighid said...

Of course not. But to my knowledge nothing else he wrote suggests that he held such a belief, and I've never seen anyone try to argue that he did. It has all the trappings of a literary device. On the other hand, there is much evidence against Soloviov and Bulgakov, who were afflicted with a romantic temperament that strikes me as foreign to 6th-century Rome. The identification could be due in part, however, to influence by Boethius on the Russians without his having the same understanding of this mystical female figure that they held.

mark eugune said...

any recommended translations of Boethius?

aaronandbrighid said...

Mark> The only one I've read all the way through is the Penguin Classics, translated by Victor Watts. I highly recommend it, but I've also heard that the new translation by David Slavitt is good.

protov said...

Among the accusations brought against Boethius was also magic and sacrilege. He probably has not remained completely untouched by the "theurgy" of the neoplatonics.

aaronandbrighid said...

Perhaps not, but of course, St Photius the Great was also accused of practicing magic!

protov said...

My point was rather that the enthusiasm for Porphyry, or Iamblichus, or Proclus, declared enemies of Christianity, could not fail to attract such accusations.

aaronandbrighid said...

Sure, but let's not forget that the people accusing him were Arians, which fact led to his local commemoration as a martyr. We know that in part it was the Neoplatonists' use of Aristotle that he found useful about them (Copleston remarks, 'in view of the predominantly neo-Platonic character of foregoing Christian philosophy, the Aristotelian element in the thought of Boethius is more remarkable & significant than the specifically neo-Platonic elements'). Based on the Consolation it seems to me that he is also indebted to those points that they have in common with St Dionysius the Areopagite. Nowhere in all of this do we find an actual advocacy of Neoplatonist theurgy, nor is there much similarity between so poetic a figure as his Lady Philosophy and such abstract things as the Neoplatonists' divine intermediaries.

But I'm not quite certain what the point of all of this is. The point of my post was that we should read old books, and that the Consolation is a good one to read, partly because of its historical importance, but more significantly because of its useful arguments about providence and free will. Are your comments somehow meant to dispute this?

protov said...

I do not mean to dispute this. Reading old books help you to meditate on the grand problems of existence, for sure. But make you also meditate about the books themselves and their authors and their influence.
Boethius is a case in point. There is no secret that strong doubts about his Christianity have been repeatedly expressed and his Consolatio does little to dispel them. He did not die as a martyr of the orthodox faith at the hand of the heretical Arians, whom he served diligently for nearly twenty years and upon whom the same Arians heaped lavish favors.

aaronandbrighid said...

I am certainly not uncritical when it comes to books outside of the Orthodox patristic tradition, but I tend to think that the average modern person will get more benefit than harm from the best of even the pagans and heretics of ancient times if they can only read them outside of their modern presuppositions.

As for Boethius, strong doubts about his Christianity have been repeatedly expressed, and repeatedly answered, particularly by C.S. Lewis. Ditto for the notion that an Orthodox Christian could not have flourished under Theodoric. Seriously, did you not bother to actually read the excerpt I posted from Discarded Image?

I appreciate the forced admission that there is at least some point to reading old books, but really, I think I will have to close the comments on this one. You insist on missing the point of this post, and my suspicions are further confirmed that you've missed the point of whole blog. I've never closed comments before, but I have no intention of allowing this to degenerate into a forum for debating the merits of the likes of Virgil and Boethius. This blog is a 'refuge' and a 'treasury', not a college classroom where everything is up for grabs. Further comments like these on other posts will be deleted.