View Full Version : Boethius and cosmic insignificance

03-20-2015, 03:43 PM
I picked up my copy of Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy the other day, and flicked through it. I was struck by a part about astronomy that I didn't remember. I think I'd long assumed that cosmic insignificance was a fairly modern concept dating from the Copernican Revolution, but this seems to be erroneous. Even in the geocentric view, cosmic insignificance was a familiar idea.

This is the goddess of philosophy talking to the author, trying to persuade him of the uselessness of ambition and fame:

'And that,' she replied, 'is the one thing that could entice minds endowed with natural excellence though not yet perfected with the finishing touch of complete virtue - the desire for glory, the thought of being famed for the noblest of services to the state. But just think how puny and insubstantial such fame really is. It is well known, and you have seen it demonstrated by astronomers, that beside the extent of the heavens, the circumference of the earth has the size of a point; that is to say, compared with the magnitude of the celestial sphere, it may be thought of as having no extent at all. The surface of the world, then, is small enough, and of it, as you have learnt from the geographer Ptolemy, approximately one quarter is inhabited by living beings known to us. If from this quarter you subtract in your mind all that is covered by sea and marshes and the vast area made desert by lack of moisture, then scarcely the smallest of regions is left for men to live in. This is the tiny point within a point, shut in and hedged about, in which you think of spreading your fame and extending your renown, as if a glory constricted within such tight and narrow confines could have any breadth or splendour. Remember, too, that this same narrow enclosure in which we live is the home of many nations which differ in language, customs and their whole way of life. Because of the difficulty of the journey, the difference of speech and the infrequence of trade, even the renown of great cities does not reach them, let alone the fame of individuals. Cicero mentions somewhere that in his time the fame of Rome had still not penetrated the Caucasus mountains, although the empire was then fully grown and an object of fear to the Parthians and other peoples in the east.'

The book has a nice cover, too:

The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius €” Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists (http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/31837.The_Consolation_of_Philosophy)

Boethius - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

03-20-2015, 05:01 PM
Good old Boethius!

The hero of one of my favourite literary characters, Ignatius J. Reilly.

It's interesting. I was under the impression, too, that the idea of a non "cosy" wholly un-anthropocentric or horribly staggering (in terms of an almost unimaginably vast scale) cosmos was not unknown to the ancients. I'm sure I read something to that effect in a Jorge Luis Borges essay, but would have to look it up. The Ptolemy reference rings a bell somewhere.

Still, I suppose the sheer scale of anything is only really meaningful if it is being apprehended by something actually capable of considering the scale of anything to be meaningful.

Mark S.

03-20-2015, 07:45 PM
That's a wonderful catch. It seems that the medieval approach to cosmicism is rooted in the Rota Fortunae, as shown on that terrific cover. I'm not well-versed in ancient cosmology, but from what little I know, fatalism and predetermination date back to the ancient Greeks, if not to an even earlier culture, and the arrangement of the celestial spheres.

Thank you. I find it interesting that the Rota Fortunae, as described by Boethius (who, as you suggest, was - I'm sure - far from the first) seems to have an exact equivalent in the Chinese 'ming' described here:

ANCIENT CHINESE PHILOSOPHY- PHY 115: KNOWING MING (http://uz-phy115.blogspot.co.uk/p/knowing-ming.html)

It ('ming') is also discussed in the introduction to the Penguin edition of the Analects.

But I don't recall ever reading a passage quite like this. I'll need to pull out my Boethius tonight and take a look. Where was this particular passage located?

Page 41 of the Penguin edition, which is part VII of Book II.

06-10-2015, 10:30 AM
Written only a little later than Boethius' The Consolations of Philosophy, is Jordanes' Getica (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getica), in which I find the following account of Dicineus, as it were, civilising the Goths:

Their safety, their advantage, their one hope lay in this, that whatever their counsellor Dicineus advised should by all means be done... And when he saw that their minds were obedient to him in all things and that they had natural ability, he taught them the whole of philosophy... By demonstrating theoretical knowledge he urged them to contemplate the courses of the twelve signs and of the planets passing through them, and the whole of astronomy. He told them how the disc of the moon gains increase or suffers loss, and showed them how much the fiery globe of the sun exceeds in size our earthly planet.While I'm here, this seems an appropriate place to put a link to this little documentary about mediaeval philosophy:


If you can bear the populist presentation, it's actually quite interesting. Among other things, Terry Jones reminds us (I am sure I had heard this, but it is easy to forget), that the idea that the church opposed the voyage of Columbus on the grounds that the Earth is flat was a complete invention of (or was propagated by) the novelist Washington Irving.


06-10-2015, 11:59 AM
Thank you for putting this up. My philosophy training purposely skipped a lot of the Middle Ages Philosophers so the last 10 years I've been piecemealing them together asking anyone who will teach me to impart what they know. Much appreciated.

06-10-2015, 04:16 PM
The very first time I heard about Boethius was in a work of fiction, and there is no shame in that, since said work of fiction is:


06-11-2015, 01:57 AM
Yes, the first I heard of Boethius was from Toole's fictional character, Ignatius Reilly, also. Not a day goes by that I do not think of Ignatius and his writing tablets. What a tragic story about the author ...

In A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, Ignatius passes around The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, a man unjustly imprisoned. It describes the plight of a just man in an unjust society, kind of like Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Boethius is tortured and killed. Philosophy may have consoled him, but it did not spare him from torture and untimely death. It is as though philosophy consoles those who encounter “the absurd”. Once one has encountered the absurd, hope becomes a poison. Life appears to be one disaster after another, and we take as much as we can until it eventually kills us.

Some notes about the author of A Confederacy of Dunces, John Kennedy Toole:

He committed suicide in 1969 at the age of thirty-two. It was his mother who was responsible for bringing his book to public light, pestering the hell out of Walker Percy, who was teaching at Loyola in 1976, to read it until finally that distinguished author relented. In his foreword to A Confederacy of Dunces, Percy laments the body of work lost to the world of literature with the author’s death, but rejoices “that this gargantuan tumultuous human tragicomedy is at least made available to a world of readers.”

Butterfly in the Typewriter was a worthwhile read. I think anyone who is interested in Toole and A Confederacy of Dunces would appreciate this biography. I transcribed some excerpts from it:

Cory MacLauchlin wrote:
David Shields barely restrained himself from a tirade against the monstrosity of New York publishing when he wrote, “One has to believe there was a deliberate effort somewhere in those ivory towers along the northeastern seaboard to keep this book from the reading public. Why? Well, the answer to that would overrun this space and wouldn’t be very pretty to boot.”

… the system of book publishing may serve the interests of a company more so than the interests of readers or the art of literature. The meeting point between art and business has never been easy. Writers such as Toole watched in the late 1960’s, as publishers grew into multimillion dollar corporations and agents became facillitators between writers and editors. And while the filtering process became more rigorous, there emerged an uneasy sense that it didn’t produce higher quality work. Writers and readers grumbled that the publishing industry, in its shift toward big business, might be rejecting works that deserved publication as a valuable cultural product, not just a sellable item created to attract the whims of the mass market.

This silencing is part of why the story of its publication held such interest to readers. It suggests that the presumed cultural role of publishers to deliver quality literature may be compromised by motives of profit and marketability. A solitary writer complaining about publishers, convinced no one appreciates his genius, has few sympathizers. Toole’s heartbreaking life story disables dismissals of those complaints, allowing many readers and writers to feel vindicated in their frustrations and suspicions of the publishing world.

…Granted, there was an undercurrent of Anti-Semitic discourse surrounding the novel at the time. It was suggested that, although not coming from Toole directly, that Gottlieb never accepted the novel on the basis of its representation of Jews, particularly Myrna Minkoff and the Levy’s , characters he felt didn’t work in the novel. While teaching at Hunter College, Toole had witnessed the intense sensitivity toward anything that might be construed as Anti-Semitic. It would not be surprising if Toole felt the Jewish characters were misinterpreted by Gottlieb. Furthermore, in the early 1960’s many of the publishing houses in New York were privately owned by Jewish families.

Thelma harbored suspicions of a Jewish plot to suppress the genius gentile voice of her son. She responded with clearly Anti-Semitic language.
I had been compiling notes in some "copybooks" of my own. I've been quite determined to peck away at a thankless literary project myself. Exhausted, I wandered over into this forum to lurk a bit. I was surprised to see "Boethius" in one of the post headings.

Also, "cosmic insignificance" grabbed my attention too.

I have been lurking here for quite awhile. There is so much to read here, I have been hesitant to add any content.

I tend to be verbose, but this is directed into my crazy scribblings which I am constantly organizing. It's chaos.

I just wanted to say hello. Now I will crawl back under my rock ... or, like Wile E Coyote, retreat to my cave.

07-24-2015, 07:07 PM
So, I've just been reading the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, and find there the same thoughts as expressed by Boethius, but in less detail.

Marcus Aurelius - 121 180 AD
Boethius - 480524 AD

So, Boethius was expanding on Aurelius, or there was some other source they both drew from (some other Stoic text?), or it was coincidence.

Aurelius wrote (in the Gregory Hays translation):

Or is it your reputation that's bothering you? But look at how soon we're all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us - how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth is a point in space - and most of it uninhabited.

07-26-2015, 05:34 PM
Q, I'd be more inclined to say that given Boethius's pre-existing breadth of knowledge, this was an expansion of Aurelius (intentional or unintentional we may never know; hard to determine authorial intent when the author was about to die very soon). As there have been many, many ancient texts lost to us over time I think it's an interesting thought to raise that there may have been another (most likely Stoic) text that Boethius was drawing from.

The Absolute Horizon
12-13-2016, 09:39 PM
Boethius was a Latinist and Christian; however, he wrote his last work in the Greek style of dialogue without including references to any religion. The topics discussed therein are providence, predestination, virtue and suffering, which he presents in the raw context of awaiting his execution after falling out of favor with Theoderic, who Cassiodorus had manipulated into believing Boethius to be a traitor. In light of his present situation, Boethius manages to question ethical-theological principles without really contradicting or rejecting any of them. Boethius' cosmology is reminiscent of Plato while his ethics resemble Aristotle's. For a greater perspective, one might view the debate between predestinarian Augustine and the Romanized Briton preacher, Pelagius, who denied Original Sin and Providence, altogether, in a stroke of quasi-humanism/existentialism.