Friday is the feast of Saint Severin – at least that is the name under which the Sacred Congregation of the Vatican Rites canonized him in 1883. But history knows him and celebrates him under another name: Boethius. The gap is oddly suited to someone whose various efforts – literary, political, religious – have orbit in sometimes contradictory ways; indeed, for a time some scholars believed that the historical Boethius was two different people. A Roman aristocrat after the fall of Rome, a devoted Christian and fascinated by secular philosophy, Boethius took refuge in a world of ideas – a retreat which, centuries later, indelibly influenced the European musical style.
Born in 480, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius rose through the Roman political ranks (then mainly ceremonial) until becoming the principal administrator of the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great. After Theodoric accused him of treason, Boethius was imprisoned and killed (the probably political murder nevertheless inscribing him in the roles of Christian martyrs). While awaiting the execution, Boethius wrote his most famous work, the “Consolation of Philosophy”, a fanciful dialogue with a personified philosophy, a rumination on knowledge, fortune and purpose which condensed a life of Platonic studies and Aristotelian, and would anchor his posthumous work. reputation. The prolific writings of Boethius, having survived the Dark Ages, came to represent, in medieval Europe, the final flourishing of ancient philosophy.
In music, in particular, his influence was far-reaching – though murky. Thanks to Boethius’s unfinished investigation, “De institutione musica”, ancient ideas about music entered medieval discourse; most elements of European musical craftsmanship owe something to what medieval scholars read (or thought they read) in Boethius, and to what Boethius read (or thought to read) in older sources. But for Boethius, music as we understand it was a by-product of a much broader conception, a study of mathematical ratios and proportions (as in “music of the spheres”), disciplining the mind towards truths. higher metaphysics. Such speculation stood dissonantly beside the practical music theory it spawned: music that sounds, however complex, can only approach mathematically pure ideals. Debates about the perception of musical beauty were based on principles originally designed to transcend the senses rather than to satisfy them.
Yet his fame was lasting. Not that Boethius could – or, perhaps, would have – cared. In “Consolation”, philosophy rejects literary immortality as an illusion in relation to the acquisition of eternal knowledge. “[T]there will always be a relation between finite things, ”she notes,“ but between the finite and the infinite, there can never be a comparison. “
Matthew Guerrieri can be contacted at email@example.com.