Who was Boethius?
- What is the "problem of universals"?
- Was Boethius guilty or innocent of plotting against Theodoric the Great?
- How is Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy both stoic and Neoplatonic?
- Did early Neoplatonism include women philosophers?
- Who was Hypatia of Alexandria?
- Did Asclepigenia suffer the same fate as Hypatia?
Boethius, Anicius Manlius Severinus (c. 480-c. 525) was the most famous christian Neoplatonist in the West. He wrote extensively on the Trinity and produced many influential translations of commentaries on Aristotle, as well as works on education, science, and philosophy. His focus on logic later became a preoccupation with methods of thought among scholastic philosophers. In his commentary on Porphyry (233-309), Boethius set up "the problem of universals," based on conflicts between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, which was to preoccupy scholastic thinkers between 1000 and 1150.
What is the "problem of universals"?
"The problem of universals," as addressed by Boethius (480-c.525), has to do with what makes a kind of thing distinct from other things. Take, for example, the domestic dog. Dogs have the greatest genetic variety of any living species. Scientists can now identify every one of them as dogs, from Chihuahuas to Great Danes (in principle, that is—they don't actually do this), by their DNA, which has certain pre-determined resemblances to earlier lines of canines. However, well before the discovery of genes and DNA, human beings could both identify any particular animal that was a dog as a dog, even though that dog had a unique appearance and personality.
What is true of dogs in this sense is true of all natural species—all of their members seem to share "something." Plato would have said that a dog's essence is a copy of an ideal form of dog, in which all dogs "participate." Aristotle would have said that there is an essence of "dogness," which can be known to human beings and which is shared by all dogs, but that the dog essence is in each dog and only abstracted by the mind.
Strictly speaking, for Aristotle there does not exist a dog essence apart from Rover, Jake, Lacey, Mirabelle, or any other name that designates a unique animal. The problem of universals is the question of whether Plato or Aristotle was correct. Philosophers have agonized over this question and burnt many candles, oil lamps, and computers in the process. Those who think that the essences in individual things are real have been called realists. Those who think that essences are abstractions or creations of the human mind have been called nominalists.
Was Boethius guilty or innocent of plotting against Theodoric the Great?
Boethius (480-c. 525) was arrested for suspicion of treason after his correspondence with constantinople was disclosed. He had been very critical of Theodoric during his first year as Master of Offices under Theodoric the Great (454-526), and this resulted in several enemies. They convinced Theodoric, based on his theological writings that seemed to support the Eastern church, that Boethius sympathized with Justinian, who ruled in the remains of the Roman Empire in the East and aspired to reunite the Empire. (The Church had split into two churches in 318 over the tenets of Arianism, which denied the trinity.)
Boethius' executioners beat him to death after tightening a cord around his neck, which caused his eyes to pop out of his head. Theodoric later regretted this cruel
How else has Boëthius been influential long after his death?
Boëthius (480-c. 525) is best known for his stoic-Neoplatonic text, The Consolation of Philosophy, which he wrote while in prison after having been accused of conspiring with Justinian to overthrow Theodoric. This text was influential throughout the Middle Ages and beyond. It was translated into Anglo-Saxon, German, and French by 1300, and it inspired the writers Dante, Boccaccio, and Chaucer, as well as many, many others.
In The Consolation of Philosophy Boëthius defined God as eternal and the complete and perfect sum total of never-ending life. The created universe had no beginning or end, but existed in time. Boëthius resolved the contradiction between the fact that God knows everything and the fact that man has free will by claiming that God has a simultaneous understanding of everything that happens in time, including human freedom.
death sentence, but soon after his arrest, Boethius had said, "Had there been any hopes of liberty I should have freely indulged them. Had I known of a conspiracy against the King ... you would not have known of it from me."
How is Boethius' Consolation of Philosophy both stoic and Neoplatonic?
The Consolation of Philosophy was written as a dialogue in which Boethius (480-c. 525), in despair, is visited by Philosophy in the form of an uplifting and encouraging angel. Philosophy says to Boethius:
What is it, mortal man, that has cast you down into grief and mourning? You have seen something unwonted, it would seem, something strange to you. But if you think that Fortune has changed towards you, you are wrong. These are ever her ways: this is her very nature. She has with you preserved her own constancy by her very change. She was ever changeable at the time when she smiled upon you, when she was mocking you with the allurements of false good Fortune. You have discovered both the different faces of the blind goddess.
That Boethius could have an angel appear to him is an occurrence with roots in Neoplatonist theurgy, or magic. And that the angel instills peace of mind in the face of turmoil and apparent misfortune evokes a decidedly stoic doctrine.
Did early Neoplatonism include women philosophers?
Yes. Overall, Christianity emphasized the importance of the individual immortal soul, and although the Church was run by men and its dominant theologians were male, the religious lives and work of women had a recognized place in schools and convents. This change was first evident in the Neoplatonist movement.
Who was Hypatia of Alexandria?
A philosopher and educator who achieved lasting renown, Hypatia of Alexandria in Egypt (c. 350—415) became famous throughout intellectual communities for her abilities in Neoplatonist philosophy and mathematics. In the Neoplatonic tradition, Hypatia used mathematics as a path toward understanding the higher world. In Theon, Hypatia's father comments on Ptolemy's Almagest, which set forth the geocentric model of the universe, and he credits her for the work of Book 3.
Although Hypatia was a pagan, the Roman Christian Egyptian government appointed her head of a school of Plotinus. Hypatia held that post for about 15 years, teaching both male and female students. She was said to have been very beautiful and was much admired personally. Synesius (c. 373-c. 414), her pupil who was to become bishop of Ptomemais, conveyed her views in essays, hymns, and letters. She was the heroine of Charles Kingsley's 1853 novel, Hypatia; or, New Foes with an Old Face.
Hypatia was associated with Alexandria's prefect, who was opposed by Saint Cyril of Alexandria (c. 378-444), the militant archbishop. As a result of her involvement in that dispute, Hypatia was hacked to pieces with sharp shells and her body burned by a mob of Christian monks. (The contemporary feminist philosophy journal, Hypatia, is named after her.)
Did Asclepigenia suffer the same fate as Hypatia?
No. Asclepigenia of Athens (430—485) taught Neoplatonism in her father's school. She applied knowledge of Plato and Aristotle to Christian moral questions. Proclus (412—485) was one of her students. Asclepigenia's main interests appear to have been in mysticism, magic, and other "mysteries."