20 January 2007

Does the Exception Prove the Rule?

In one of the first posts of this blog, I raised the old chestnut of why Boethius, a Christian, should have written his Consolation without, it seems, even a trace of an expression of any distinctively Christian belief. (Compare, for instance, the very different approach to consolation in prison, written byThomas More, "A Dialogue of Comfort against Tribulation".)

Yet perhaps it is wrong to hold that there is no trace. There is, perhaps, a single allusion to Sacred Scripture in the work, as John Marenbon, in his SEP article on Boethius observes:

One, perfectly plausible way of reading the Consolation is to take it, as most philosophical works are taken, at face value. On this reading, Philosophy is recognized as a clearly authoritative figure, whose teaching should not be doubted and whose success in consoling the character Boethius must be assumed to be complete. The apparent changes of direction noted [above] will be taken either as stages in Boethius's re-education or as unintended effects of the author's wish to make this work into a compendium of a syncretistic philosophical system, and Philosophy's own view that she has resolved the problem of prescience will be accepted as that of Boethius the author.

Yet there are a number of reasons which suggest that Boethius's intention as an author was more complex. First, it would have been hard for his intended audience of educated Christians to ignore the fact that in this dialogue a Christian, Boethius, is being instructed by a figure who clearly represents the tradition of pagan Philosophy, and who proposes some positions (on the World Soul in III m.9, and on the sempiternity of the world in V.6) which most Christians would have found dubious. Boethius the character says nothing which is explicitly Christian, but when in III.12 Philosophy says, echoing the words of Wisdom viii, 1 that ‘it is the highest good that rules all things strongly and disposes them sweetly’, he expresses his delight not just in what she has said but much more ‘in those very words’ that she uses—a broad hint to the reader that he remembers his Christian identity even in the midst of his philosophical instruction.

I confess this was new to me. The exact words of the verse from the Liber Sapientiae of the Vulgate are (understand Sapientia as the subject):
Attingit ergo a fine usque ad finem fortiter,
Et disponit omnia suaviter.
And in the Consolatio:
22. -- est igitur summum, inquit, bonum quod regit cuncta fortiter suauiterque disponit. 23. -- tum ego: quam, inquam, me non modo ea quae conclusa est summa rationum, uerum multo magis haec ipsa quibus uteris uerba delectant, ut tandem aliquando stultitiam magna lacerantem sui pudeat! --
Which the translator of my Penguin version, Victor Watts, renders (alas, somewhat lamely):
'It is the supreme good, then, which mightily and sweetly orders all things.'
Then I said, 'The conclusion of this highest of arguments has made me happy, and I am even more happy because of the words you used. I am now ashamed of the stupidity of all my railing.'
Marenbon says that that one passage provides a "hint" of Boethius' "Christian identity". Watts in a footnote says that, if indeed Boethius is here "complimenting Philosophy for echoing the words of the Book of Wisdom", then this "is an important indication of Boethius's attitude to faith and revelation".

But how exactly would it be an "important indication"? And why should a single reference to a Hellenized book in Hebrew Scripture show anything about the "Christian identity" or "faith" of the author?

(Question to Dissoi Blogoi readers: Would Boethius have thought of the Book of Wisdom as having the title, Sapientia Solomonis, or under the more philosophical-sounding titles, Liber Sapientia, or, as among some Greek Fathers, h( qei/a sofi/a, h( pana/retoj sofi/a?)

If the lines are an allusion, then it seems better to say, as cracking that old chestnut: Boethius, even though a Christian, supposed he could write his Consolation as he did, in just the same way that the Liber Sapientia could, as he thought, have a standing, and an important and distinctive role, within the canon of Christian Scripture. If no one would wonder why a Christian might read on its own and indeed treasure, in his collection of inspired writings, something like the Book of Wisdom, then why should we wonder that a Christian should write, as standing on its own, a book which gives (what he takes to be) an account of wisdom?


RJR said...

Has anyone done any work on the Old Latin text of the Liber Sapientiae? Presumably that could be helpful here.

Figulus said...

Presumably, the old Latin text is identical to that found in the Vulgate. This is not one of the books that Jerome translated.