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The actual title of the book is the titles of the essays: On the Supreme Good, On the Eternity of the World, On Dreams.

This is not by the Boethius you're thinking of. (Yes, there was more than one of them.) The one you're thinking of, the famous one, lived in Rome in the early sixth century and wrote The Consolation of Philosophy while in jail for conspiracy against the emperor.

This one, Boethius of Dacia, was a Master in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Paris in the late thirteenth century. Apart from his being Danish, we know very little about him, except that when the Bishop of Paris held a condemnation of heresy in 1277 some of the propositions were aimed in Boethius' direction.

Which is fair, really, because for medieval philosophy this is odd stuff, rather ahead of its time. 'On the Supreme Good', for instance, insists that happiness is awesome, because you can only be really happy if you are living up to your best nature, i.e. doing good and delighting in it. Happiness was not terribly in vogue in Western Europe at that point. It had the whiff of materialism about it, because clearly if anything other than God made a person happy it was a problem. Boethius' essay only mentions God twice; it's trying to figure out what the highest good for human beings is through pure reason, and concludes that it is contemplation and finding things out and understanding-- and the delight that comes from understanding.

'On Dreams' is an interesting little scientific text, an attempt to explain whether dreams can actually foretell the future, and, again oddly for the time period, he says that they can't. Sometimes things we see in dreams happen through pure coincidence; sometimes we plan things out and solve problems in our dreams, and then carry out our plans when we wake up; sometimes an outside influence, such as a star, is acting on us to raise phantasms in our imaginations, and since that influence continues whether we are awake or asleep we are liable to act the same way under it whether we are dreaming or conscious. But dreams themselves do not foretell, unless one is visited by angels, which he does not rule out.

The centerpiece of the book, though, 'On the Eternity of the World', is an attempt to reconcile the Christian belief in a world created by God in seven days with the Aristotelian belief that the world is infinite and was never created. It was probably influential on Aquinas, who was the next major thinker to try to meld those opposites, and I have to say Boethius does a pretty good job, in a way that I think would later work itself into Renaissance humanism.

What he concludes is that, at the time of his writing, natural science had no way of disproving the idea of an infinitely existing world and no way of proving a creation. Therefore it is correct for the natural scientist to say that as far as he can tell, the world was never created-- as long as he is acting as a natural scientist, and therefore following the rules of his discipline. Each discipline can only conclude that things are correct which they can prove according to their own rules. But, should the natural scientist happen to take off his natural science hat and put on that of a theologian, the rules change. Theology, after all, is the study of things which cannot be proved by logic or reason and must be taken on faith. Therefore, according to the rules of the theologian, one must believe that the world was created. And according to the Bible, the rules of the theologian, namely the path of faith, are the set of rules one should follow beneath all other disciplines, as a simple person. It is possible, then, for a single person to be able to say both that he believes in a creation, and that natural science insists that there was not one, and both statements to be true.

This came perilously close to the idea of double truth, that contradictory things could be true at the same time, which was heretical, and it got him unkind notice. In fact what he was saying is that one set of rules tells you one thing, and another another, and you cannot say a person is lying when they are using a set of rules you have all agreed on as true. You can subsume different sets of rules into each other and use them in different circumstances.

And this was huge, this is why he is remembered, because this is a man who said: theology is not philosophy, they do different things, and theology cannot tell philosophy what to think; neither can philosophy tell theology it has no proof in physical reality. We all know what's true overall, he says, but in limited circumstances other things appear to be true, and it is all right to treat that appearance as factual, when it happens.

From that split between theology and philosophy, eventually, from the idea that the rules of one discipline may not be used on another, comes, centuries later, the Enlightenment.


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