Pope Benedict XVI- General Audiences
On Boethius and Cassiodorus
"Both Were Anxious to Preserve the Heritage of Greek and Roman Learning"
H.H. Benedict XVI
March 12, 2008
Dear brothers and sisters,
Today I would like to speak to you about two Christian writers; Boethius
and Cassiodorus, who lived during some of the most troubled years in the
Christian West, and in particular in the Italian peninsula.
Odoacre, king of a Germanic race called the Eruli rebelled and
threatened the end of the Western Roman Empire in 476, but then quickly
had to succumb to the Theodoric's Ostrogoths, who secured control of the
Italian peninsula for several decades.
Boethius, born in Rome around 480 and descended from the noble line of
the Anicii, entered public life when he was very young and attained the
post of senator when he was still only 25 years old.
Faithful to the family tradition, he entered politics, convinced that
the principles of Roman society could be integrated with the values of
the new populations.
In this new era of an encounter between cultures, he considered it his
personal mission to reconcile and join these two cultures -- the
classical Roman culture with the culture of the Ostrogoths. He was
actively involved in politics during Theodoric's rule, who initially
held him in high esteem.
Despite being so active in public life, Boethius did not neglect his
studies. In particular, he dedicated himself to a deeper understanding
of subjects of a philosophical and religious nature. He also wrote
manuals on geometry, music and astronomy, all with the intention of
passing on the great Greek and Roman culture to the new generations of
the new times. In his efforts to promote unity of the two cultures, he
used Greek philosophy to put forward the Christian faith, again striving
for a synthesis of the Roman Hellenic heritage and the evangelical
message. It is precisely because of this that Boethius has been
qualified as the last representative of ancient Roman culture and the
first representative of the medieval intellectuals.
Without doubt, his most famous work is the "De consolatione philosophiae."
He wrote this when in jail, to give some sense to the unjustified
detention. He had in fact been accused of conspiring against King
Theodoric for assuming the defense of a friend -- Senator Albino. This
was just an excuse. The truth was that the Arian King Theodoric was a
barbarian and suspected that Boethius sympathized with the Byzantine
He was tried and condemned to death and was executed on Oct. 23, 524 at
only 44 years of age.
Precisely because of this dramatic end, he can truly speak from the
heart of his experience to modern man, and above all to the many people
who suffer the same fate because of the injustice present in many areas
of “human justice.”
In this work, completed while in jail, he searches for comfort, he
searches for light, and he searches for wisdom. He tells us that
precisely in the situation in which he finds himself, he is able to
distinguish between apparent goods -- these disappear in jail -- and
true goods, such as real friendship which never disappears, even if you
are in jail.
The greatest good is God: Boethius learned and now teaches us not to
succumb to fatalism, which extinguishes hope. He teaches us that fate
does govern our lives -- Providence does and Providence has a face. You
can speak to Providence because Providence is God. So, even in jail it
is still possible to pray, to talk to him who will save us. At the same
time, even in these circumstances he retains a sense of the beauty of
culture and recalls the teachings of the ancient Greek and Roman
philosophers such as Plato, Aristotle -- he began translating these into
Latin -- Cicero, Seneca and even poets like Tibullus and Virgilius.
Philosophy, in the sense of being the search for true wisdom, is
according to Boethius, the true medicine for the soul (Book I). On the
other hand, man can only test true happiness within himself (Book II).
Boethius is able to make sense of his own personal tragedy in the light
of wise text of the Old Testament (Wisdom 7:30-8:1), which he quotes: “
Wickedness cannot prevail against wisdom. Wisdom stretches from one
border to the other and governs all things with a wonderful goodness”
(Book III, 12: PL 63, col. 780). The so-called progress of evil
therefore proves to be a lie (Book IV), and the providential nature of "adversa
fortuna" is revealed.
The difficulties we experience in life not only reveal how fleeting this
is but also prove useful in identifying and maintaining true
relationships between men. The "adversa fortuna" allows us to
distinguish true friends from false ones and makes us realize that
nothing is more precious to man than true friendship. To accept
suffering with a fatalistic attitude is very dangerous, the believer
Boethius adds, because “it destroys the very root of the possibility of
prayer and theological hope which are the foundations of the
relationship between man and God” (Book V, 3: PL 63, col. 842).
The final plea of "De consolatione philosophiae" can be considered a
synthesis of all the teachings which Boethius directs to himself and to
all those who may find themselves in similar circumstances. This is what
he writes while in jail: “Fight against your vices, dedicate yourselves
to a virtuous life directed by hope which elevates your heart to the
skies with humble prayer. The pain you have suffered may change, refuse
to lie; it is an advantage to keep the supreme judge in your sights. He
knows how things really stand” (Book V, 6: PL 63, col. 862). Every
detainee, no matter what the reason of his incarceration, will
understand how heavily this weighs upon you, especially if the situation
is exacerbated -- as was the case with Boethius -- by the use of
It is particularly reprehensible that someone should be tortured to
death, as Boethius was -- he was recognized and celebrated by the city
of Pavia in the liturgy as a martyr -- for no reason other than one’s
own political and religious ideals. Boethius, symbol of the huge number
of detainees, unjustly arrested from all the different times and regions
in our history, is an objective doorway to contemplating the mystery of
the Crucifixion on Golgotha.
Aurelius Cassiodorus, a contemporary of Boethius, was a Calabrian and
was born in Squillace around 485 and died at Vivarium around 580. He was
also of a good social standing and dedicated himself to political life
and cultural commitment as few others did in the Western Roman Empire in
his time. Perhaps the only ones equal to him in this double commitment
were Boethius himself and the future Pope, Gregory the Great (590-604).
Conscious of the need not to allow the human and humanistic patrimony
accumulated in the golden age of the Roman empire to vanish into
oblivion, Cassiodorus collaborated generously -- and at the highest
levels of political responsibility -- with the new peoples who had
entered the confines of the empire and had now settled in Italy. He also
set an example of how to join cultures, of dialogue and reconciliation.
Historical events prevented him from realizing his political and
cultural dreams which aspired to create a synthesis between Italian,
Roman and Christian traditions with the new Gothic culture. Those same
events convinced him of the providence of the monastic movement, which
was steadily growing in Christian lands. He decided to support them,
dedicating to them all his wealth and his spiritual efforts.
His was the idea to entrust the monks with the task of recovering,
preserving and transmitting to posterity the vast cultural property of
the ancients, so that it would not get lost. This is why he founded
Vivarium, a monastery organized in such a manner that the intellectual
work of the monks was considered most precious and vital.
He also arranged that those monks who did not have an intellectual
education should not only occupy themselves with material work, such as
agriculture, but also with transcribing manuscripts and thereby help
transmit the great culture to the future generations. This was to be
done without losing focus of the Christian monastic and spiritual
commitment and on charity toward the poor.
In his teaching -- spread in various works, above all in the essay "De
anima e nelle Institutiones divinarum litterarum" -- prayer (cf. PL 69,
col. 1108), which is nourished by sacred Scripture and especially by the
assiduous contemplation of the Psalms (cf. PL 69, col 1149), always
holds a central position as necessary nourishment for all.
This is how the erudite Calabrian scholar introduces his "Expositio in
Psalterium": "After I rejected and left in Ravenna all the demands of a
political career -- marked by the disgusting flavor of worldly concerns
-- and having enjoyed the Psalter, a book that came from the heavens
like an authentic honey of the soul, I plunged into it like a thirsty
man to scrutinize it relentlessly without pause and let it permeate me
with that healthy sweetness, after I had enough of the bitterness of the
active life" (PL 70, col. 10).
The search for God, oriented toward his contemplation, notes
Cassiodorus, remains the permanent aim of monastic life (cf. PL 69, col.
1107). He adds, however, that with the help of divine favor (cf. PL 69,
col. 1131.1142), it is possible to reveal a better use of the holy word
through the use of scientific breakthroughs, “secular” cultural
instruments already in the possession of the Greeks and the Romans (cf.
PL 69, col. 1140).
Cassiodorus himself was dedicated to philosophical, theological and
exegetical studies, without being particularly creative, but was
attentive to the intuitions that he recognized as valid in others. He
devotedly read the writings of Jerome and Augustine whom he particularly
Of Augustine he said: “There is so much richness in Augustine's work
that it seems impossible to find anything which has not been dealt with
in-depth by him” (cf. PL 70, col. 10).
Mentioning Jerome, he urged the monks at Vivarium: "Not only those who
fight until the effusion of blood or those who live in virginity will
achieve the victory palm, but also all those who, with God’s help,
overcome the vices of the body and preserve a straight faith. But in
order to win more easily against the requests of the world and its
enticements -- always with the help of God -- staying in the world like
pilgrims in a continuous journey, try first to ensure the help suggested
in the first psalm, which recommends reflecting night and day on the law
of the Lord. In fact, if all your attention is occupied by Christ the
enemy will not find any opening to attack you" ("De Institutione
Divinarum Scripturarum," 32: PL 69, col. 1147).
It is an admonishment we can relate to. We also live in times where
cultures meet, where violence threatens to destroy culture, where we
have a duty to pass on the great values and to teach the new generations
the ways of peace and reconciliation. We will find this way by turning
toward God and his human face, the God revealed to us in Christ.
[Translation by Laura Leoncini]
[After his address, the Holy Father greeted the pilgrims in various
languages. In English, he said:]
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Today I wish to speak to you about two great Christian writers from the
Italian peninsula during the period after the fall of the Roman Empire
in the West: Boethius and Cassiodorus. Both were anxious to preserve the
heritage of Greek and Roman learning, handed down through generations of
Christian believers, in the context of the Gothic culture that dominated
Italy at the time. Boethius, born in Rome in 480, entered public life
and became a senator, though he continued his philosophical and
religious studies alongside his public responsibilities. Unjustly
imprisoned and later executed by King Theodoric, he wrote his greatest
philosophical work in prison.
Reflecting on the injustice of his situation, in the light of Biblical
Wisdom literature and Classical authors, he concluded that true
happiness lies in continuing to hope in God, despite adversity. Indeed,
harsh fortune helps us to distinguish true friends from false ones, and
there can be few greater consolations than that of true friendship.
His contemporary, Cassiodorus, devoted much time and energy to promoting
the monastic movement, in the belief that monks were the people best
placed to preserve and hand on the heritage of Classical Christian
culture. We would do well to take note of his advice to them: "Meditate
day and night on the law of the Lord and always focus your attention
I am pleased to welcome the English-speaking pilgrims and visitors here
today, including groups from England, Ireland, Japan, Australia,
Scandinavia, and North America. I greet especially the many students and
teachers who are present, including those from Saint Augustine’s
College, Wiltshire, England. Upon all of you, and upon your families and
loved ones at home, I invoke God’s blessings of joy and peace.
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