Thursday, March 13, 2008

General Audience: On Boethius and Cassiodorus

~from Zenit

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 Emperor Justinian.

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 torture.

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 respected.

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.

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