Is Boethius Platonic, Aristotelian or Stoic in his View on Foreknowledge?

The medieval philosopher Boethius became puzzled by the problem of divine foreknowledge and attempted to answer this conundrum in the form of a dialogue between him and philosophy that is given the guise of a lady known as Lady Philosophy. Being educated in the Neo-Platonic tradition Boethius had knowledge of Platonic and Aristotelian modes of thought, both of which can be seen within his arguments on the topic of divine knowledge. However the purpose of this essay is to determine whether Boethius’ position is Platonic, Aristotelian or Stoic, as elements of Stoicism can also be found throughout Boethius’ dialogue with Lady Philosophy.  In order to achieve this I shall begin by highlighting the parallels between Plato and Boethius, then the parallels between Aristotle and Boethius before moving onto the parallels between the Stoics and Boethius.

However the issue is a complex one due to the complications within Boethius’ style of writing so I shall draw my conclusion to two possibilities, one being based on the notion that the character of Boethius and Lady Philosophy are the same person that is Boethius the author, with the other being centred around the idea that they are two separate entities; Boethius and a manifestation of the views he argues against played by Lady Philosophy. I do not intend to answer the question as to whether or not we ought to or ought not to read the text as two separate entities or as both belonging to the same person, I merely acknowledge that this is a concern which can confuse my main focus so needs to be made clear. By the end of this essay I hope it shall become clear than Boethius can be argued to be Aristotelian in his views on divine foreknowledge regardless of whether you take Lady Philosophy’s arguments to be views separate or part of Boethius’ own views.

First let us look at the similarities between Plato and Boethius starting with one which although may seem trivial could hold deeper implications later on. The style in which Boethius goes about writing, in the form of a dialogue, is characteristic of Plato within a number of his works including The Republic and Timaeus, suggesting that Boethius has some Platonic leanings. Although by writing in this way it does also raise the issue as to whether we can attach what is said by Lady Philosophy to Boethius or whether he is using this second character in order to distance himself from views separate from his own.

In the first book of Consolations of Philosophy we are provided with an account of the character of Boethius’ early life as a public figure, which does bear some small resemblance to Plato’s concept of a philosopher king in book seven of The Republic, although it also shares some similarity to Aristotle’s argument that the life of the philosopher is a political one within The Nicomachean Ethics [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095b-1097b ]. So it can be said that in his earlier years Boethius showed some Platonic tendencies. Equally it can be argued that Boethius, in his early years, showed some Aristotelian tendencies, however, in order to determine which is more prevalent more evidence is required.

There are a number of passages within book three which hint at the possibility of Boethius being a Platonist, firstly there is the line “to that true happiness your soul dreams of but cannot see because your sight is distracted by images” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pp.59-60] the notion of man being distracted from the truth by way of images is one which appears in The Republic, specifically in the simile of the divided line [Plato, The Republic, 509d-511e].

Also a little further on in the dialogue appears the line “it isn’t the human body then, that is attractive, but only the weakness of human vision that makes it seem so” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.78], this could be interpreted to be an attack of those who concern themselves with aesthetics rather than truth in itself as they allow themselves to be carried away by the senses instead of appealing to reason. This is also argued similarly by Plato when he attacks the lovers of art, “for those who love looking and listening enjoy learning about things…but they’re a peculiar lot to class as philosophers, because nothing would induce them to spend time on any kind of serious argument” [Plato, The Republic, 475d].

Thirdly it is argued that “everything that exists is unitary, and that oneness itself is good” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.118], which in this case Boethius argues to be God and so a section of his argument for God’s foreknowledge is because we are part of him and he of us that he possess knowledge of us in the present, past and future and to him all occurs simultaneous being an atemporal being [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.170]. Plato also argues that everything is unitary “since beauty and ugliness are opposites, they are two…and as they are two, each of them is single…the same is true of…all qualities, each of them is in itself single, but they seem to be a multiplicity because they appear everywhere” [Plato, The Republic, 476a], even though at the beginning it looks like Plato is saying that everything is divided into individual pieces the final phrase “but they seem to be a multiplicity because they appear everywhere” [Plato, The Republic, 476a] shows that Plato realises that every individual is connected to something more unified higher up the chain of order within the cosmos, for Plato this would be the form of the Good within the intelligible realm of the Forms, for Boethius it would be God both of which are considered the Good which links back to the end part Boethius’ statement “and that oneness itself is good” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.118]. However all of these lines are written for Lady Philosophy so as to whether we can attribute these to Boethius as his views or not remains at question.

There is one line which has Platonic resemblances and is spoken by the character of Boethius within the dialogue, “the universe is composed of so many different parts that it could never have come together unless there was one to join all these elements” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.99]. Again this hints as the idea that Boethius accepts Plato’s view that everything is part of a unity which is higher than any of its individual parts, but also it hints at the idea that Boethius argues that there is an intelligent design to the universe, for if there were no grand intellect to design such a perfect system then the parts would not work as smoothly with each other than they appear to do. A similar concept is forwarded by Plato in Timaeus “in his delight planned to make it still more like its pattern; and as this pattern is an eternal Living Being, he set out to make the universe resemble it in this way too as far as was possible” [Plato, Timaeus, 37d], thus Plato argues that the universe is made to be as similar to the perfect pattern of the Forms as is possible, just as Boethius argues the universe is made to be as similar to God’s perfection as possible.

 It would seem then if we are to take both Lady Philosophy and the character of Boethius as representing Boethius’ views then we do not have a worthy case for Boethius being a Platonist on the subject of foreknowledge, since there are no actual arguments on divine foreknowledge based upon Platonic ideas. Alternatively if we take only what the character of Boethius says within the dialogue to be the views of Boethius we still do not have a worthy case to argue that Boethius is a Platonist, as he argues against Lady Philosophy who is made, at least to some extent, to represent the views of Plato. The only part in which both characters are in agreement is that everything is part of unity, although given the nature of what Boethius is discussing within this text should he argue against a divine unity to the universe, denying God’s existence in the process of doing this, then any discussion on divine foreknowledge becomes a moot point, therefore Boethius must accept this point within this context whether he agrees to it or not.

Now we have observed the case for Boethius being a Platonist, which is unconvincing, let us look at the evidence which may suggest Boethius is an Aristotelian. Again I shall first look at the statements made by Lady Philosophy starting with book two where she utters the line “avarice is not admirable, but liberality is generally praised” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.43]. Here it shows a sympathy for Aristotelian ethics, although it does appear to be somewhat out of place within a text on divine foreknowledge, which argues that any characteristic when in excess is considered a vice [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1095a, 1104b and 1173a], and avarice being an excess of desire for power or material objects would be considered a vice under an Aristotelian system of morality. Since Boethius seems to show Aristotelian ethics a case, albeit a weak one as there is little evidence to show it to be the case, could be made that Boethius may be Aristotelian in other areas, although to do so off this piece is troublesome given Boethius’ background as a Christian and some models of Christian ethics, particularly Catholic based doctrines, preach that it is a sin to partake in avarice. Thus it is unclear here as to whether Boethius argues in support of an Aristotelian ethics or a Christian ethics.

Another line used by Lady Philosophy is “since men want happiness, and since happiness is in itself divinity, then it follows that men in the pursuit of happiness are actually in the pursuit of divinity” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.89] which bears resemblance with Aristotle’s view that “we assume the gods to be blessed and happy” [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1178b] but also that happiness for Aristotle comes from living a contemplative life and a contemplative life is the life of the gods [Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1177a-1178b]. What this does is brings up the idea that we are somehow joined to God in that he is happy and we wish to join him in his happiness although this holds no direct relation to divine foreknowledge so even though it does link Boethius to Aristotle it is not a strong argument to claim Boethius is Aristotelian in his stance of divine foreknowledge.

 Marenbon points out “Philosophy considers that…only what is necessary is certain. It follows that…future contingent events are not certain. But Philosophy also believes that…if someone knows something, he thereby knows it as something certain. If God knows future contingent events, it follows…that he judges them as being other than they are. But…if something is judged otherwise than it is, it is not known” [Marenbon, Medieval Philosophy, pg.44]. Meaning that if God knows future contingents then he knows them as certain which they are not, yet if he does not know future contingents then he cannot be omniscience and therefore cannot possess foreknowledge. Consequently Lady Philosophy must be mistaken on this occasion, which Boethius points out in his argument through the mouthpiece that is Lady Philosophy, “God has an eternal and omnipresent nature, his knowledge surpasses time’s movements and is made in the simplicity of a continual present” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.170], hence God does not know future contingents because for him there is no future so all events must be necessary from God’s perspective. This can be supported by Aristotle who says “what is, necessarily is, when it is” [Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 19a] and since everything is present for God then everything is when it is so everything must be necessary.

 The point of God knowing future contingents means he knows them as something they are not, for he would know what is uncertain as being certain, if he holds foreknowledge is expressed by the character of Boethius when he states “if anyone thinks that something is different from what it really is, then that is not knowledge but a false opinion” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.154], this can be taken to mean two things. Firstly Boethius is arguing that should God think future contingents are known with certainty then God is mistaken. Secondly if God thinks future contingents are known with certainty then it is us who are mistaken when we say they are uncertain, what we should be saying is that they are future necessities. Given that in the end Boethius accepts God as having foreknowledge then it is likely that Boethius is arguing for the second meaning rather than the first. In which case when we talk of future contingents as being uncertain we speak falsely for we are saying that they are known certainly and uncertainly (or to put it into a simplified formula F is X and not-X).

 This would mean that Boethius is accepting Aristotelian logic in his approach to determine whether God holds divine foreknowledge because, according to Aristotle, to say something is both X and not-X simultaneously goes against the law of non-contradiction so one of the claims must be false. The law of non-contradiction can be found in Aristotle’s metaphysics where he states in chapter three of book gamma of Metaphysics, “It is impossible for the same thing at the same time to be-in and not be-in the same thing in the same respect” [Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1005b]. The character of Boethius then goes on to say “once we have accepted this…there cannot be punishment for evil or reward for good if there are no free and voluntary actions” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.155], this suggests that he takes the second interpretation of the previous passage so that it is us who are mistaken when we talk about future contingents. Since God sees them as future necessities or simply just necessities as from his viewpoint there is no future, as pointed out earlier, then the notion of free will cannot be accepted as there is no room for random action coming about as a result of choice or chance. Again this is similar in a sense to Aristotle’s take on foreknowledge when he argues “nothing of what happens is as chance has it, but everything is and happens of necessity” [Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 18b], however Aristotle later makes room for free will as he states “it is not necessary for there to be or not to be a sea-battle tomorrow; but it is necessary for one to take place or not take place” [Aristotle, De Interpretatione, 19a]. This is where the similarity between Boethius and Aristotle stops since Boethius has trouble holding free will and divine foreknowledge whereas for Aristotle the problem does not appear to cause too much difficulty.

 There is a line within De Anima which may be able to link Boethius to Aristotle as it states “the soul knows everything” [Aristotle, De Anima, 405b]. If we are to assume that Boethius believes Plato’s claim that the universe is made from parts, and each soul then being be a part, joined together in and by God then God, knowing everything and having made the universe as close as possible to his own state of nature, would have handed down as much of his omniscience as possible. Also as our souls are part of God then through the soul he knows us and the decisions we have made, are making and will make, this would allow God to possess foreknowledge.  However as a consequence of accepting Plato’s claim of all being joined as part of a unity this passage only links Boethius to Aristotle so long as it links Boethius to being a Platonist

 Based on what has now been said on the parallels between Boethius and Aristotle it would seem that Boethius is Aristotelian, to a degree, within his stance on foreknowledge as he uses the same laws of logic set up by Aristotle and comes to a similar conclusion, although fails to reconcile free will and divine foreknowledge. Also Boethius makes statements which sound close to Aristotelian ethics which as said previously suggests that Boethius has Aristotelian sympathies. Although the passages relating to Aristotelian ethics are expressed by Lady Philosophy so may not be the views of Boethius, but instead be views he opposes which would suggest that he more Platonic in his ethical views, which could explain why Boethius has trouble accepting free will since Aristotelian ethics relies on free will to a certain extent. Whether or not the views are to be taken independently of each other or not there is a stronger case for Boethius as an Aristotelian than there is for him being a Platonist.

 Now the evidence for Boethius being Platonic and Aristotelian has been covered it is time to look at the small traces of evidence which highlight arguments which sound Stoic. First I shall look at the Stoic passages, before moving onto the sceptical ones. Once this has been done we can draw the whole thing together to determine whether Boethius is a Platonist, Aristotelian, Stoic or sceptic in his stance on divine foreknowledge.

Very early on in the text we see a direct reference to Stoicism as Lady Philosophy, when questioned about the state of her dress, which the character of Boethius refers to as being “a miracle of fine cloth…some ruffians had done violence to her elegant dress…bits of fabric had been torn away” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.3] , answers Boethius by saying “the squabbling mobs of Stoics and Epicureans fought to claim his[1] legacy and each side tried to carry me off, tearing this lovely dress” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.8]. What is being shown here is contempt for the Stoics and Epicureans, both by Lady Philosophy and by the character of Boethius. Furthermore is shows Boethius’ view that the Stoics and Epicureans are not to be considered philosophers in the same sense that Plato and Aristotle are, if at all, since Lady Philosophy is portrayed to be the manifestation of philosophy and it is said that the Stoics and Epicureans have damaged philosophy. This contempt for the two schools suggests that Boethius would try and argue against them and therefore prove that he is nether Stoic or Epicurean in his view on divine foreknowledge.

What happens instead is that Boethius offers no further argument against either the Stoics or the Epicureans and does not argue against Lady Philosophy with arguments from either school, even though Lady Philosophy tries to reason with him using Stoicism during book two. Lady Philosophy reprimands Boethius by saying, “you thought you were a philosopher, but let me tell you a story. There was a man who made such a claim…somebody came along to taunt him…this critic said that he would believe the claim if the man could bear all the injuries fate heaped upon him in calm and in silence” [Boethius, Consolations of Philosophy, pg.54-55]. This bears some semblance to Stoicism in the sense that it asks the character of Boethius to face the hardships of life without letting his emotions overpower his reason as according to the Stoics the “definition of the good, as follows: that which is perfectly in accord with nature for a rational being, qua rational” [Diogenes Laertius 7.94] and the Stoic concept of the soul is divided into eight parts; “the five sense organs and the vocal part and the thinking part[2] and the generative part. And corruption afflicts the intellect because of falsehoods and from such a mind there arise many passions…passion itself is, according to Zeno, the irrational” [Diogenes Laertius7.110], thus we ought to not allow the emotions[3] get in the way of reason.

 However this brief section of Stoic argument bears no significance on the main argument on divine foreknowledge thus is out of place within this text. Secondly the Stoicism comes from Lady Philosophy so if we are to take the two characters as being separate then Boethius is removing himself from Stoicism, either way we cannot make any claim to Boethius being Stoic in his view on divine foreknowledge therefore it is fair to say that Boethius is not Stoic whether we take Lady Philosophy’s arguments to be part of Boethius’s views or not.

To conclude if we take the two characters, Boethius and Lady Philosophy, to be holding the views of Boethius then we have a stronger case for him being Aristotelian in his view on divine foreknowledge than the case for him being Platonic. Alternatively if we consider the views of Lady Philosophy to be separate from the character of Boethius then even though Boethius argues more in line with Platonic modes of thinking there is little which is significant to the argument at hand against Lady Philosophy. Whereas the arguments made in line with Aristotelian modes of thought against Lady Philosophy are stronger due to their relevance, then we still have a strong case for Boethius being an Aristotelian in his view on divine foreknowledge. As for the brief resemblances to Stoicism there is so little and of what there is it fails to bear any relevance to the argument at hand, therefore there can no defendable argument that Boethius is a Stoic in his views whether or not we take the two characters to be separate or not.


·         Aristotle, 1995, ‘De Anima’, in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle Volume I (sixth edition)’, Chichester: Princeton University Press

·         Aristotle, 1995, ‘De Interpretatione’, in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle Volume I (sixth edition)’ Chichester: Princeton university Press

·         Aristotle, 2004, Metaphysics (translated by Lawson-Tancred. H), London: Penguin Books

·         Aristotle, 1995, ‘Nicomachean Ethics, in Barnes. J, ‘The Complete Works of Aristotle Volume I (sixth edition)’, Chichester: Princeton University Press

·         Boethius, 2008, Consolations of Philosophy (translated by Slavitt. D), Massachusetts: Harvard University Press

·         ‘Diogenes Laertius’ in, 1997, Hellenistic Philosophy Introductory Readings (second edition (translated by Gerson. L and Inwood. B)), Indianapolis: Hackett

·         Marendon. J, 2007, Medieval Philosophy an Historical and Philosophic Introduction, Abingdon: Routledge

·         Plato, 2007, The Republic (second edition (translated by Lee. D)),London: Penguin Book

Plato, 1970, Timaeus and Critias, London: Penguin Books

[1] Referring to Socrates

[2] which is the intellect itself

[3] Or passions as the Stoics called them


Posted on March 2, 2014, in philosophical, theological and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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