Fundamental Boethius: A Practical Guide to the Theological Tractates and Consolation of Philosophy

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But the only source of numerical difference mentioned so far is that which follows on the possession of accidents, and God cannot have any accidents since there is no subject or substratum of the divine form. Boethius will return to this difficulty, but first he wants to discuss the manner in which predicates are applied to God. In chapter four Boethius has recourse to the Aristotelian doctrine of categories, the ten categories which can be universally predicated of things.

As predicated, some of the categories are substantial predicates, namely, substance, quantity, and quality, while the rest are accidental predicates. Boethius states that none of these categories can mean the same thing as predicated of God and creature. Thus, while "God" predicated of God would seem to denote a substance, Boethius suggests that we think of it as a supersubstantial predicate. Likewise, when we say that God is just or great, these predicates must be taken to signify supersubstantial quality and quantity since we do not mean to suggest any composition of the divine substance or any accidental attribute.

God is justice; God is greatness. Boethius goes on to discuss the rest of the categories with a view to denying that any of them has application to God. He tentatively concludes that substance is the only category that applies to God, although this must not be taken to mean that he is a subject. That is, again, the term "substance" does not mean the same thing as predicated of God and creature. In running through the categories in chapter five Boethius omits any discussion of relation; he turns to this category in his sixth chapter, indicating that this has been his goal all along.

Relative terms, it may be said, do not alter the substance to which they are applied. For example, a man is called a master because of his relation to a servant. If the servant dies or leaves his employ, the man ceases to be a master, but this does not alter his substance in any way.

From this observation Boethius wants to conclude that the category of relation does not increase, decrease, or in any way alter the substance to which it is applied, and on this basis he can say that if Father, Son, and Holy Spirit relate to the divine nature as predicates of relation, they will not introduce any difference into the divine nature itself, although they indicate a difference between the Persons in that nature. Boethius' general conclusion is that the category of substance preserves the unity of the divine nature and the category of relation differentiates the Persons without introducing difference into the divine nature as such.

This glance at On the Trinity gives an indication of the way in which Boethius employs philosophy in meditating on the truths of faith. We have stressed his use of philosophical doctrines already at hand. Boethius made any number of philosophical contributions himself; however, his definitions may have the greatest influence, especially those he gave of eternity and person. In the third chapter of his work on Nestorius and Eutychus he defines person as naturae rationabilis individua substantia an individual substance of a rational nature.

With that definition in hand he was able to refute the two heresies. The tractates generally, along with Augustine's works, figure in all subsequent theological discussion on the Trinity and Incarnation. The theological tractates of Boethius reveal a use of reason and a reliance on philosophy in discussions of doctrines of faith which justify calling Boethius the first Scholastic.

Let us turn now to the work which, as we have indicated, is almost disturbingly restricted to the philosophical level. The Consolation of Philosophy. This work is divided into five books, in each of which a prose section alternates with a verse section. This literary form can be traced back through Martianus Capella who wrote a work on the liberal arts in this form to Varro and on to a Greek origin in the Menippean Satire.

Quite apart from its content, on which we shall concentrate, the Consolation enjoyed an almost unparalleled fame during the Middle Ages as a work of art. The meters of its verse are varied and the result highly esteemed; the style of its prose passages is a thing of beauty.

Chapter IV

One is reminded of the Phaedo of Plato, but with this overwhelming difference. Socrates did not compose his immortal epitaph; Plato did -- and in retrospect. The Consolation , on the other hand, must have been composed by the victim in his cell. This increases the enigma of Boethius. That a man, particularly a man of Boethius' talent and background, should have the thoughts expressed in the Consolation is understandable enough; that he might write them down does not unduly strain the imagination; but that he should cast them into the exacting literary form he did is a severe test of our credulity.

Nevertheless, there seem to be no grounds for skepticism about the facts. The central question to which the Consolation addresses itself is this: What rational explanation can be found for the fact that the innocent suffer while the wicked not only go unpunished but prosper? This seemingly irrational state of affairs must be examined to see if it is not, after all, reasonable and tolerable. In the opening poem of book one Boethius laments his outcast state.

In the prose section following he describes the entry into his cell of a woman, tall, majestic, her eyes flashing and her manner authoritative. She is Dame Philosophy and she grandly dismisses the poetical muses who have been attempting to give solace to a man brought up by Eleatic and Academic studies. The muses can only increase his sorrow and self-pity.

Boethius' spirits begin to rise slightly when he is reminded that Philosophy did not abandon Socrates, Anaxagoras, and Zeno in their hour of need, and no more will she abandon him. Encouraged, Boethius responds with a lengthy account of the evils that have befallen him despite his many contributions to the public weal and asks Dame Philosophy why the sovereign harmony which is apparent in the cosmos is so conspicuously and sadly absent from the affairs of men pr.

Dame Philosophy is distressed to find that Boethius has sunk so low, and she undertakes a gradual process of consolation.


Credit offered by NewDay Ltd, over 18s only, subject to status. The idea of a benevolent God who is the source of the universe and who continues to direct each thing in it seems to be contradicted by the existence of evil. The change of perspective Phi losophy is trying to induce follows on the judgments made in the second and third books. None of these ways in which something numerically one is common to many can explain the community of genus, for the latter must be wholly, simultaneously, and substantially common to individuals. In prose twelve of the same book another argument is presented. Which of these positions Boethius himself held has been the object of lengthy discussion.

The therapy begins with a number of questions which will enable her to ascertain the present condition of Boethius. Boethius is asked if he would say that the world is merely the arena of chance and caprice or that it is ordered and directed; he replies that it is governed by reason. The world is the handiwork of God who has fashioned it and now directs and governs it.

What then is man? Boethius knows that he is a rational animal, but that is the extent of his answer. Philosophy remarks that he is in worse straits than she had thought. Confused about the end of things, Boethius has become so forgetful of himself that he thinks the prosperity of the wicked a good and the misfortune of the virtuous an evil. We have the greatest nourisher of thy health, the true opinion of the government of the world, in that thou believest that it is not subject to the events of chance, but to divine reason.

Wherefore, fear nothing; out of this little sparkle will be enkindled thy vital heat. In book two Philosophy uses the "sweetness of Rhetoric's persuasions" to prepare Boethius for more solid consolation. First, they must examine the nature of fortune or luck, a natural topic since Boethius considers his present plight to be a misfortune and professes surprise at what has befallen him. Philosophy assures him that fortune has not changed but with consistent inconsistency now takes away without cause what was bestowed without cause. Whether good or bad, fortune is beyond man's control and comes to him from outside.

Boethius' difficulty is that he does not see that his prior state, when he was the recipient of the goods of fortune, was just as irrational as his present unfortunate condition. In these restless times Boethius should have been impressed by the inconstancy of luck and learned thereby to seek happiness within, in an arena where his own efforts can play an essential role. Again and again in the sequel he returns to the idea that happiness does not simply happen to a man. The third book makes the point in great detail.

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Happiness cannot be a matter of riches or honor or worldly power. Nor can carnal pleasure of whatever sort make a man happy. The true good, that in which human happiness lies, cannot be found in terrestrial things. Indeed, when we seek the marks of the good we find that they must all be found in one substance and that this substance must exist outside the material world.

God is the sovereign good, and he is also true human happiness. All beings aspire to rejoin their source; since all things have the same source, God is the universal or common end of everything in the universe. Boethius is urged to turn his eyes from earth to heaven if he would find consolation in his darkest hour.

This sunny view becomes clouded as book four begins.

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The idea of a benevolent God who is the source of the universe and who continues to direct each thing in it seems to be contradicted by the existence of evil. Dame Philosophy must be able to solve the problem of evil, or what has been said up to now is as nothing. She bends her best efforts to the task.

If God is the benign governor of the universe, it would seem to follow that the good are never without reward and that the evil never go unpunished. To see that this is actually the case, we must acquire a perspective which will reveal the prosperity of the wicked as only apparent and the suffering of the virtuous as something less than unhappiness. Dame Philosophy urges Boethius to the heights where he may gain the proper perspective. Boethius is dubious but willing.

Philosophy argues that it can be shown that if the virtuous are strong, the bad must be weak. He is strong who is able to attain the end he seeks, and the end sought by all men is nothing else than true happiness. But who can attain this good if not the virtuous, and who fail to attain it if not the vicious?

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Therefore, good men attain the object of their desires and evil men do not. The change of perspective Phi losophy is trying to induce follows on the judgments made in the second and third books. The judgment that happiness cannot be constituted by honor, fame, riches, bodily pleasures, and so forth must be stringently applied; one must see that though wicked men enjoy any or all of these things, they are not thereby happy.

The wicked want happiness yet are powerless to attain it since they are committed to pseudo-goods. There is an echo of Plato and Aristotle in this section. Boethius realizes that the wicked are not and cannot be happy. How silly then to envy them. What they require is our pity. That Boethius is able to acquiesce to all these conclusions is a sign to Dame Philosophy that his sanity is returning. She urges him to recognize that whatever happens happens because God wills it, and, consequently, everything is ultimately ordered to the good. Both good fortune and bad fortune play an edifying role if we have the eye to see it.

In a profound sense there is no misfortune for the virtuous who, similarly, do not view good fortune as a true good. The final book of the Consolation takes up the question of the compatibility of providence and human freedom. If God directs all things, if his providence encompasses everything in the universe, it must direct the acts of men as well.

But are not human acts precisely those which cannot be directed from without but have their source within man? We seem forced to say that free human acts either escape the providence of God or, being included in it, are not what they appear, namely, free. Dame Philosophy will try to show the compatibility of providence and free will by beginning with a discussion of chance events.

Aristotle's definition of the chance event is accepted. Aristotle had taught that when a determined cause, called such because it is ordered to producing a determinate effect, brings about as well or instead an unintended result, that result is said merely to happen, to be a chance effect.

Fundamental Boethius

If it is referred back to the cause, the cause is not a determinate explanation of it. If I dig for water and strike oil, the discovery of oil is the result of my digging for water, but it is unintended and accidental to my intention. Such accidental events may be unintended and unforeseen by me, but this does not prevent their being foreseen and intended by God. In somewhat the same way, Dame Philosophy suggests, we can find a compatibility between our undeniable certitude that we are free agents and the fact that our free acts come within the scope of divine providence.

As the Consolation reaches its term, Boethius is a changed man. At the outset he was a sobbing, self-pitying, broken man who was convinced that everything had turned against him, that the world, which had hitherto been a fairly reasonable place, had become suddenly and inexplicably absurd. Dame Philosophy has led him gradually from the view that external events and what other men can confer constitute happiness. Good luck is as absurd, finally, as bad luck. Happiness is not thrust upon us; it is something we must earn. We learn from considering this world that our happiness consists in something beyond this world.

A reversal of fortune can be a stroke of good luck if we take its occasion to reassess the nature of luck and reflect that the world is a whole whose order demands a governor. Our sense of values must alter when we contemplate God's governance of the world. The wicked are not happy; the unlucky virtuous man is not less virtuous, less truly happy. We can come to see that in this world all things work together for good, though it is not our part to grasp this truth in detail.

Thus, Boethius, unjustly accused and condemned to death, draws consolation from these philosophical considerations and is able to face death with equanimity. As befits philosophy, there is no discussion in the Consolation of the punishment of the souls of the wicked after death IV, pr. The immortality of the soul is said to be demonstrable II, pr. Let us conclude by examining the way in which the Consolation treats God, its theology, to determine if it is an example of a theology different from that exhibited in the tractates. The most striking thing about the Consolation , when compared with the tractates, is the absence of any concern with the Trinity.

God is often referred to as Father in the Consolation, but the word seems to function as the name of a nature, not of a person; moreover, it is Plato who suggests the appellation. What attitude is expressed in the Consolation with respect to the attainment of philosophical knowledge of God's existence?

Some have suggested that Boethius has no intention of offering a proof for the existence of God since his existence is assumed from the very beginning of the work. It is true that God's existence is taken for granted from the very outset, but Boethius also argues to that fact on several occasions in the Consolation. In prose ten, book three, a proof is found which has been likened to the later proof of St. In prose twelve of the same book another argument is presented. Boethius had said in Quomodo substantiae , with respect to the First Good, that his "being is admitted by the universal consensus of learned and unlearned opinion and can be deduced [ cognosci potest ] from the religious beliefs of savage races.

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Neither would the course of nature continue so certain, nor would the different parts hold so well-ordered motions in due places, times, causality, spaces, and qualities unless there were one who, himself remaining quiet, disposeth and ordereth this variety of motions. This, whatsoever it be, by which things created continue and are moved, I call God, a name which all men use. Although he was a Christian, the Consolation seems a conscious attempt to remain on the level of natural reason, unaided by faith, in order to show that a rational preparation for faith is possible.

There is a God who governs all things, and it is in him that perfect happiness is to be found. Christian faith teaches us far more of God than philosophy can and elevates us to the level of friendship with God. Nevertheless, one can find the beginnings of consolation in philosophy. Division of Philosophy Having seen Boethius' de facto recognition of the autonomy of philosophical reasoning, let us turn now to his remarks on the nature and division of philosophy.

While these remarks are fairly schematic and derivative, they are important because they were the vehicles whereby the Aristotelian division of philosophy was made known to later thinkers to whom the treatises of Aristotle containing the doctrine which makes the division meaningful were unknown. This fact led to some rather curious commentaries on the texts of Boethius which we want now to examine. However, because of the influence of Boethius the way had been more or less paved for the Aristotelian corpus as it became known at the end of the twelfth century.

In his first commentary on Porphyry, Boethius must ask what philosophy is and what its main divisions are to explain the role the Isagoge was intended to perform: For philosophy is the love, pursuit of, and, in a certain way, friendship with wisdom. Truth in speculation is caused by this illumination as well as by rectitude of action: In the second chapter of his De trinitate Boethius had written: There are three parts of speculative philosophy.

Natural philosophy considers things in motion which are not abstract; it considers the forms of bodies together with their matter since such forms cannot be actually separated. These bodies are in motion for example, earth is borne downward, fire upward and a form conjoined to matter is in motion. Mathematics considers inabstract things without motion, for it speculates on the forms of bodies without the matter and therefore without motion.

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