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LibraryThing: Science in Ancient Mesopotamia Week 6: Roman Science

Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy (6th century B.C.)

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Boethius, On the Consolation of Philosophy, pp. 134-135.
W.V. Cooper. (London: Dent, 1902).
Web Source
University of Virginia Electronic Text Center
Word count


Boethius, 1513On the Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius (ca. 480 - 524 A.D.) was perhaps the most widely copied non-religious work in medieval and early modern Europe, translated by King Alfred, Chaucer, Queen Elizabeth I, among many others. It is safe to say that it was read (and at least in part, memorized) by nearly every educated European through the 18th century. Boethius wrote it while imprisoned for apparent treason, perhaps knowing that his execution was imminent.

The overall theme, the "consolation" of philosophy, is the insight that an order ("Providence") underlies even the greatest misfortunes (a tenet shared by Stoics and Christians). There is no opposition between the natural and the divine wisdom. In the excerpt below, Boethius suggested that because Providence orders nature according to constant laws; therefore one may have faith that the same Providence also orders human lives, even in the midst of suffering. The natural order thus underlies, for the philosopher, an ethical posture of acceptance of fortune, whether good or bad.

This fact illustrates how, throughout the time periods studied in this course, science held a central place in education precisely because it was not an isolated or specialized endeavor. Rather, natural philosophy was perceived as of great relevance to other areas of philosophy and human knowledge, particularly ethics (a link which began to break down in the 19th century with Alfred Lord Tennyson's depiction of nature as "red in tooth and claw").


pp. 134-135.    'If thou wouldst diligently behold with unsullied mind the laws of the God of thunder upon high, look to the highest point of heaven above. There, by a fair and equal compact, do the stars keep their ancient peace. The sun is hurried on by its whirl of fire, but impedes not the moon's cool orb. The Bear [Ursa Major] turns its rushing course around the highest pole of the universe, and dips not in the western depths, and though it sees the other constellations sink, it never seeks to quench its flames in the ocean stream. In just divisions of time does the evening star foretell the coming of the late shadows, and, as Lucifer, brings back again the warming light of day. Thus does the interchanging bond of love bring round their neverfailing courses; and strife is for ever an exile from the starry realms. This unity rules by fair limits the elements, so that wet yields to dry, its opposite, and it faithfully joins cold to heat. Floating fire rises up on high, and matter by its weight sinks down. From these same causes in warm spring the flowering season breathes its scents; then the hot summer dries the grain; then with its burden of fruits comes autumn again, and winter's falling rain gives moisture. This mingling of seasons nourishes and brings forth all on earth that has the breath of life; and again snatches them away and hides them, whelming in death all that has arisen. Meanwhile the Creator sits on high, rules all and guides, king and Lord, fount and source of all, Law itself and wise judge of justice. He restrains all that stirs nature to motion, holds it back, and makes firm all that would stray. If He were not to recall them to their true paths, and set them again upon the circles of their courses, they would be torn from their source and so would perish. This is the common bond of love; all seek thus to be restrained by the limit of the good. In no other manner can they endure if this bond of love be not turned round again, and if the causes, which He has set, return not again.
     'Do you see now,' she continued,' what follows upon all that we have said? '
     'What is it?' I asked.
     'That all fortune is plainly good,' she answered.


Study Questions

Consider these questions as you read in order to gauge your understanding of the text. Hint: You may want to print this page and mark the key words and phrases relevant to these questions.

  1. Does Boethius seem to accept Aristotle's portrayal of incorruptible and perfect heavens?
    1. What is meant by the statement that the heat of the Sun does not impede the motion of the Moon in its sphere?
    2. What point does the "Bear" turn around in the sky?
    3. Why does the Bear not "quench its flames"?
    4. "Lucifer" is another name for Venus, the morning and evening star. What is meant by speaking of its motions according to "just divisions of time"?
    5. Why is love said to move the stars? Why is "strife for ever an exile from the starry realms"?
  2. Does Boethius seem to accept Aristotle's theory of the natural motions of the four sublunar elements?
  3. Does Boetheius seem to accept Aristotle's portrayal of the Earth and region below the Moon as the realm of "generation and corruption"?
  4. In his Meteorology, Aristotle had defined the study of the sublunar realm (meteorology) as the study of those things which are more subject to chance, that is, inherently less ordered, than the supralunar realm. Did Boethius share this view? That is, for Boethius, which realm (above the Moon, or beneath the Moon) follows an unvarying order? Or do both realms equally follow constant laws, contrary to Aristotle?
  5. As a theist who believed in a Creator, did Boethius argue that miracles prevent us from recognizing a natural law?
  6. How is the typical Roman concern with ethics and justice manifest in this brief excerpt?


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HSCI 3013. History of Science to 17th centuryCreative Commons license
Kerry Magruder, Instructor, 2004
Brent Purkaple, TA

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