Boethius and Aquinas

Boethius and Aquinas

by Ralph McInerny

View All Available Formats & Editions

Editorial Reviews

A major path through which Greek culture came to the Latin West was Boethius, whose writings were known to Aquinas. Many scholars contend that Aquinas did not read Boethius correctly and did not understand him. Through an examination of Thomas' commentaries on two of Boethius' works, McInerny (medieval studies, U. of Notre Dame) shows that Aquinas understood the earlier philosopher and assimilated his ideas. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (

Product Details

Catholic Univ.of America Press
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.64(d)

Read an Excerpt

Boethius and Aquinas



Copyright © 2012 The Catholic University of America Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8132-2110-6

Chapter One

Commenting on Aristotle

The most obvious point of contact between St. Thomas and Boethius is the commentaries the former wrote on the latter. As has been noted, we have an incomplete commentary on the De trinitate and a complete exposition of the De hebdomadibus. Discussions have arisen as to the similarities between the thought of Thomas and Boethius, and such discussions are most pointed when they refer to a Boethian text and a comment of Thomas on it. As we will see, Thomists have adopted a very cavalier attitude toward Thomas's commentaries on Boethius, particularly that on the De hebdomadibus. It has become commonplace to suggest that what the Thomistic commentary says the Boethian text says is not true, yet somehow this does not lead to what one might think is the obvious judgment on Thomas as commentator.

An explanation of their odd discipleship might be had if these Thomists held a theory of commenting as a recognized convention according to which such fundamental discrepancies were simply the order of the day. On the face of it, however, it seems unlikely that when one man set out to explain the book of another he meant to do anything else than that. We shall need to know, in short, what commentaries are and what Thomas set out to do when he commented on Boethian tractates.

To write a commentary in the thirteenth century was to adopt a literary genre, not to invent one, and among the chief influences on the genre is none other than Boethius himself. We remember that in setting forth his literary project, Boethius planned to put the whole of Aristotle into Latin and then comment on it. "Ego omne Aristotelis opus quodcunque in manus venerit, in Romanum stylum vertens, eorum omnium commenta Latina oratione perscribam...." Those commentaries formed part of the patrimony of medieval education. The theory of commenting which is thematically discussed as well as exemplified in them is of enormous importance for understanding what Thomas himself thought a commentary is. Indeed, as we shall see, Thomas will in his own Aristotelian commentaries sometimes take issue with Boethius's interpretation by appealing to the commonly understood task of the commentator.

Thus we must first turn our attention to the Boethian commentaries and to the remarks we find there as to the canons of the genre. Boethius is quite consciously adopting a well-known genre among the Greeks and making it available to the Latins. Once we have achieved some clarity on what Boethius thinks the task of the commentator is, we can put the same question to Thomas, with particular reference to his commentaries on Boethius.


Boethius's first commentary on the Isagoge of Porphyry is described in the second as meant for beginners in logic whereas the second is for the advanced. Chadwick, who feels this is an afterthought some five years later, claims that the second is really no more demanding than the first, but leaves untouched the question why there should be two. Then again, why should there be any?

The answer lies in the project Boethius had set himself, one that if it were well carried out would make the need for Greek works a thing of the past. But just getting the great treasure of logic and ethics and natural philosophy into Latin was not enough: id quodam lumine commentationis illustrem: I shall clarify it with commentary. This task beyond translation would have been suggested to him by the practices of Greek culture. Boethius's own techniques as a commentator are learned from Greek predecessors. Indeed, much of the recent discussion on the Boethian commentators has to do with their relation to their Greek counterparts. Pierre Courcelle was not the first to describe what Boethius is doing as plagiarism. It would be a considerable diversion from my purposes to examine in detail the house of cards Courcelle constructs in order to deprive Boethius of any claim on our attention as a serious thinker in the area of logic. The apodictic ring of his assertions can only be explained by the flimsiness of his evidence. It would of course be another matter if his judgment of Boethius as largely a plagiarizer were widely shared. Fortunately it is not. That being said, no one can read Courcelle without gain.

Prolegomena to Commentaries

At the beginning of his first commentary on Porphyry, based on the Latin translation of Marius Victorinus, Boethius refers to didascalicis quibusdam that expositors or commentators use to induce docility in the minds of students.

Then I said [the work pretends to be a dialogue between Boethius and Fabius], altogether there are six things that masters first set down in any exposition. For they first teach what is the intention of the work, which they call its skopos; second, what its usefulness is, which the Greeks call kresimon; third, what is its order, which they call toxin; fourth, whether it is indeed a work of the author, which they usually express as gnesion; fifth, what is the title of the work, named by the Greeks epigraphein. (When the intention of any work is dealt with clumsily, its intention too will be discussed by those less skilled.) Sixth, the part of philosophy to which the work belongs, given its intention, is discussed, something expressed in the Greek phrase eis poion meros philosophias anagetai. All these then it is usual to ask about and deal with in the case of any philosophical work.

Boethius assures Fabius that without the bridge of Porphyry's introduction Aristotle simply could not be understood, and doubtless a close commentary on it is equally requisite for understanding the Aristotelian text.

We will come back to see how Boethius fulfills this sixth task, but first let us make a survey of the beginnings of his commentaries in the light of what he has told us a commentator should always do.

The second commentary on Porphyry, this one on the text of Boethius's own translation, does not of course repeat the six prolegomenal points. Rather, Boethius leads into the work circuitously by mentioning the three powers of the soul, the vegetative, sensitive and mental or rational, with the first serving the second and both serving the third. "This [the third] is wholly constituted in reason, which is taken up either with the firmest conception of present things, the understanding of what is absent, or the inquiry into what is unknown." Our overall task is twofold, first to know, then to act in accord with knowledge. But there is a great danger that we might equate the way we think with the way things are. Boethius uses the following example. In calculating, there is a one-to-one correspondence between digits and things counted. But it is not so in reasoning. There is a danger not only of reasoning badly about things but of thinking the process of reasoning is identical with the real. We must then first learn to reason well in the various modes of reasoning, namely, discovery and judgment.

Having written two commentaries on Porphyry, Boethius turns to the Categories itself, which he will first explain in an undemanding way. Having said that, he turns immediately to the intentio operis. The human race alone can impose names on the things that are, but we also have names for our names, such as "name" itself. The second obviously presupposes the first imposition (prima positio). "Man is a name." In the Categories, Boethius says, things are dealt with not in their proper natures but as signified by names. Such words of second imposition as genus and species, already discussed by Porphyry in the Isagoge, will be brought into play. "Therefore the intention of this work is to treat of words signifying things insofar as they are signifying."

It will expedite matters, Boethius says, if he follows Porphyry closely here. (Such a disclosure ought to be kept in mind when charges of plagiarism are bandied about.) Having discussed the intention of the work, Boethius goes on to note its usefulness, its order, its title and author. And of course, since we are told it is a logical work, we know which part of philosophy it pertains to. If he meant to write a second commentary on the Categories, we do not have it. But he tells us that in it he will discuss the intention, usefulness and order of the work.

The first commentary on the Perihermeneias announces that it is the first of two and that difficult matters will be postponed until the second. Boethius says he will briefly discuss the intention of the work and he does so by discussing its title, noting that the work deals only with interpretationes which are true or false and not with commands and the like. Not all the preliminaries come into play here and those that do seem aspects of a single consideration rather than a series of separate matters.

The second commentary begins with references to a number of Greek commentators. Alexander was prompted to write his commentaries because he found himself in disagreement with existing ones. Boethius notes the tack taken by Vetius Praetextatus of simply putting into Latin the commentary of Themistius on the Analytics. Since no one so far as he knows has provided a continuous commentary on the Perihermeneias—he means in Latin—he has taken on that task. Whereupon he plunges immediately into what he calls an exceptionally subtle book because of its brevity and succinctness.

The first thing Aristotle must do is define vox or expression and, in discussing this, Boethius fulfills some of the prolegomenal tasks. He contrasts the intention of this book with that of the Categories as well as noting the different treatment of speech in the Poetics and the Perihermeneias. We get a much fuller discussion of the interpretative speech that will not be discussed in this work. The five kinds of speech are deprecativa or prayerful, imperativa, interrogativa, vocativa and enunciativa. Only the last is susceptible of truth or falsity and it alone is the subject of this work.

At this point, Boethius mentions Theophrastus and the Stoics (who have done much with complex propositions) and gives us a florilegium of views of commentators, Alexander, Aspasius, Porphyry, Andronicus. Boethius takes issue with Alexander's view that the title of the work is defective because it does not deal with interpretatio or hermeneia in general, agreeing with Porphyry's defense. He accepts Alexander's rejection of Andronicus's opinion that this work is not Aristotle's. To Boethius it is clear that, just as the Perihermeneias presupposes the Categories, so it is presupposed by the Analytics. It will thus be seen that Boethius indirectly takes up the six prolegomenal points.

In his commentary on Cicero's Topica, Boethius begins with a dedication to Patricius, notes that Marius Victorinus devoted four books of commentary to this work of Cicero's, suggests that a task remains for him to do, and then moves to Cicero's proemium, about which he says this.

Omne proemium, quod ad componendum intendit auditorem, ut in rhetoricis discitur, aut benevolentiam captat, aut attentionem praeparat, aut efficit docilitatem....

As one learns in rhetoric texts, every proemium that aims at winning over its hearer seeks to obtain goodwill, prepares attentiveness, or produces aptness for learning....

We will see Thomas keeping an eye out for such proemial notes in the introductory portions of the works on which he comments. It is interesting that Boethius contrasts his own commentary on Cicero with that of Marius Victorinus by saying that, unlike the latter, he will not get bogged down in the examination of isolated words but try to give a sense of the whole. If Boethius will sometimes reject the interpretations of other commentators, he will do so because there is a reasonable basis in the text to reject them. Sometimes, however, that basis is sought in more general views. Every effort is made to understand what the text is saying because, the assumption is, what the text is saying is true. A man who took on the literary project that Boethius did, whose ultimate objective was to show that Aristotle and Plato were in agreement with one another, is not likely to think a text of Aristotle is in disagreement with itself or with other writings of Aristotle.

In the logical works, Boethius as commentator urges a particular ordering of those books. Clearly, Porphyry's Introduction to the Categories should be read before the Categories, and this is to give Porphyry pride of place among the commentators. Plato and Aristotle are the authors and thus possess auctoritas, a term that Boethius applies to Porphyry himself. After the Categories come the Analytics. With such stress put on the order among different Aristotelian works, we are not surprised by the attention paid to the internal order of a work.

As someone joining a long distinguished line and having the added task of putting the authoritative texts into Latin, it is hardly surprising that Boethius would look to his predecessors. One would be stunned not to find the similarities which have led to excessive judgments such as those we find in Courcelle. The point of the commenting endeavor is not to come up with a novel and personal reading, but to get the text right.

It is the text, the opus, that is the center of attention and it is approached almost with reverence. The working assumption is that the text contains the truth and the reader's task is to find it. We remember that one of the aims of the proemium was to produce docility in the reader.

The Sixth Didascalicon

Given the similarities between Ammonius and Boethius that were pointed out by Brandt, it is worth noting that what Ammonius mentions as the sixth preliminary thing to be done by the commentator is to divide the text into chapters. Boethius, we recall, gave as the sixth task assigning the work in question to the appropriate part of philosophy. Ammonius is emphasizing the internal order of the text whereas Boethius is emphasizing the overall philosophical order which illuminates the text. It is just this question as to the appropriate part of philosophy that creates a difficulty when the work to be commented on is a logical one.

Is logic a part of philosophy? Any answer to the question clearly depends on what we mean by "philosophy" and what we mean by "logic." We have at least a preliminary notion of the first from the Introduction, and the preceding paragraphs had things to say about the contents of logical works. Nonetheless, it seems well to get clearer on the nature of logic.

Our chronology in the appendix makes it clear that Boethius was concerned with logic throughout his career; his logical writings include translations, commentaries and independent treatises. As to what logic is, we know from the above that for Boethius logic comprises a vast but ordered set of discussions, not quite all of which have been the subjects of Aristotelian works. The goal or telos of the study of logic is to get clear about arguments, about syllogisms. Syllogism is discussed in a number of works but the basic doctrine is laid out in the Prior Analytics.

Thus it is that those wishing to learn logic should first read this book (Categories). The whole of logic is concerned with the nature of syllogism which is a conjunction of propositions, but propositions are made up of words and that is why it is of the first importance for the meaning of science to know what words mean.

A syllogism is made up of propositions, but before considering the peculiar syllogistic conjunction of propositions and the role propositions play as premises or conclusions, we should first study the proposition itself, especially insofar as it is the carrier of truth or falsity. The proposition, however, is made up of terms, and these can be discussed either with regard to the roles they play in propositions—as subject or predicate—or in themselves. Terms as such are expressive of things, so that to know the meaning of a term is, ideally, to know the definition of a thing. The Categories is seen as part of the logic of definition. The order referred to here is not simply that of the dependence of the complex on its components; it is also a pedagogical order.

When logic is said to prepare a way (quasi quandam uiam par at) we will be put in mind of the liberal arts and indeed Boethius immediately discusses the relation of logic to grammar and rhetoric. Although he never calls these a trivium, he fashioned the term quadrivium to cover the mathematical arts: arithemetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

What is logic about? "Every account of discourse, what the old Peripatetics called logic, is divided into two parts, one of discovering, the other of judging. That part which instructs and purifies judgment, called Analytic by them, we can call the Resolutive, and that which serves the capacity for discovering is called Topics by the Greeks and Localis by us." How exactly are we to characterize such concerns? Boethius, we remember, contrasted calculation or counting and logic by suggesting that while there is a necessary fit between the counting and the counted, it would be a big mistake to think that rigor of reasoning implies rigor in the things reasoned about. We must not equate sermo and natura. It has been said that Neoplatonic logic differed from the Aristotelian in being more formal and less tied to ontology. Luca Obertello, on the other hand, seems to say that since the Categories is not a logical work, Boethius's interpretation of it as logical misses its point. We do seem to be told conflicting things by Boethius. On the one hand, the Categories is concerned with the types of things; on the other, it forms part of the art of reasoning.


Excerpted from Boethius and Aquinas by RALPH McINERNY Copyright © 2012 by The Catholic University of America Press. Excerpted by permission of THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >