C S Lewis and his homeboy Boethius – two “public intellectual” peas in a pod

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

Boethius teaching his students (1385). Boethius, a 6th-c. Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in the post-Roman West. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Here’s another in the brief series I’ve started of posts from the Tradition chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. First came a couple of posts that looked at Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). Then a look at his prescription for this illness: old books. This post looks at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius.

What Lewis did himself

Lewis was not content just to stand on the sidelines of modern discussion about Christian theology and lob in the occasional reminder of tradition. Again and again, in his essays, stories, and letters, Lewis insists that apart from tradition, we are adrift in the errors of our own age. Indeed, soon after his 1931 conversion, this compulsion became a full-blown vocation for the Oxford don and lay theologian. He was to become a public intellectual—a conduit to past wisdom for an amnesiac generation. It was a vocation he shared with one of his favorite writers, who was also one of the most influential thought leaders in the medieval period – a man who wrote as the Roman Empire was crumbling, and attempted to preserve Christian as well as Greek philosophical truth for a time in danger of losing its inherited wisdom.

In 1962, The Christian Century magazine asked Lewis the question, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” Of the ten books this great medievalist listed in response, only one is medieval. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy. Lewis’s debt was not limited to the holding of certain Boethian ideas. Like any good schoolchild, Lewis would have paid careful attention to the wording of the question the Century set for him. They had asked him not “Whose ideas do you admire the most,” or “who influenced your literary style?” Rather, they asked about the shaping of Lewis’s very vocation and philosophy of life. Those are deep sorts of influence, indeed.

Who was Boethius?

Boethius (c. 480 – c. 524) was a Christian philosopher who drew deeply from classical wells; he found no contradiction in that: precedents abounded in the early church, from Justin Martyr to Clement of Alexandria to Origen to Augustine. And in that openness to wisdom wherever it was found, but understood and corrected through the lenses of the Christian faith, he prefigured the attitude of the High (1000s – 1300; Anselm through Dante) and late (1300s – 1500; Wycliffe through Luther) Middle Ages, though as I’ve said, he himself stood at the cusp of a period of near-loss of the classical sources—what is typically known in the literature as the “Dark Ages” or simply Early Middle Ages (500s – 1000; Benedict through the Carolingian Empire) . . . though the self-designated “Holy Roman Emperor” Charlemagne (800s) did try, in a limited and derivative way, to revive classical learning.

If you know about Lewis, then see whether this description of Boethius rings a bell:

He was perhaps the best-educated man of his generation—and that generation found itself already gathering speed as it rolled down into a valley of forgetfulness and ignorance, heedless of the rich traditions that had nurtured its parents and grandparents.

He became to that dark generation a public intellectual and educator of huge popular impact—an impact that continued after his death.

He wrote accessible theological works of an orthodox sort—content to pass on, to those less erudite than he, the wisdom of tradition.

For him, however, that tradition most certainly included the best of the Pagan philosophers; he wove their wisdom into his writings; and indeed, he revered Plato, Aristotle, and their ilk so highly that some questioned his commitment to the Christian faith.

Nonetheless, many devout Christians who came after him called his name blessed (even “sainted”) and tried (with varying degrees of success) to repeat his arguments and make use of his literary techniques.

He was sensitive to people’s existential troubles and emotional states; in fact, when passing on the wisdom of the ancients, he started at just that point.

He was foremost a moral philosopher, not only in his treatises, but also in his imaginative work.

In short, Boethius, like Lewis, was a public intellectual. The public intellectual stands at a time of radical cultural change. Certainly this was true of Boethius, to the degree that he has been interpreted as the Last Educated Man standing against an encroaching barbarism. This image is made vivid, of course, by the nature of his end. This cultured philosopher was first imprisoned by barbarians—the Ostrogothic king Theodoric and, as Lewis put it, his “huge, fair-skinned, beer-drinking, boasting thanes”—until “presently they twisted ropes round his head till his eyes dropped out and finished him off with a bludgeon” (DI, 76). What a tempting symbol of the death of the old Roman culture and the dawning of the dark ages. Yet, Boethius’s death did not, in fact, terminate the influence of that classical culture—not by a long shot. The blood of this martyr was the seed of Christian culture. For Boethius was something unkillable: a 100,000-megawatt transmitter of tradition.

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