Thursday, January 25, 2007

1500 Years of Light from Death Row

In the picture for this post, you see our hero, Dale Ahlquist, between two great English writers - er - between actors portraying two great English writers. Even I - no lit'ry guy - know who they are. I hope you know too.

Today, as I peruse the amazing treasure-house of Dover Publications, in awe of its strong resonance with the works of G. K. Chesterton, I would like to tell you about a book not by Chesterton - but which is mentioned by Chesterton. GKC's Chaucer links not two great writers (like Dale in the picture!) but three - Alfred the Great, (849-899) the King of Wessex; Jeff (aka Geoffrey) Chaucer (ca. 1340-1400); and Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius, executed for treason (?) in 524 A.D.

I mention the full name of the third author in order to avoid the confusion GKC fell into:
I wrote in these columns some reference to Alfred the Great translating Boethius. [See August 27, 1910 CW 28:588; July 26, 1927 CW 34:343, or October 19, 1935] When this was mentioned. in the hotel then my home, I naturally supposed it was an interest in Alfred the Great. I found everybody indifferent to that glory of Wessex and the world, but full of a most commendable cultural curiosity about Boethius. One four-square Yorkshire merchant faced me firmly and said, "Who was Boethius?" I told him the very little I know about that sage of the Dark Ages; how he made a digest of the old pagan philosophy for the use of Christians, and was a popular authority throughout the Middle Ages; how he was killed by Theodoric; see any encyclopaedia. A moment after, a lady shot up to me, shrill with congratulations, and cried, "Oh, Mr. Chesterton, I'm so glad you mentioned Boethius." I was bemused. I went out into the night. In the front of the hotel I found the porter - and the portent. For the porter also pronounced the name of Boethius, though he pronounced it in a curious way. Also, he went into fits of laughter. I then found that Boethius was the name of a horse, running in a race of enormous national importance. ... it is much more exciting that Alfred translated Boethius than that he did or did not burn cakes. For those who can appreciate a fight, when it is a fight for anything worth fighting for, the career of Alfred of Wessex is much more thrilling than a horse-race. Nor is it irrelevant, in the matter of the race between rival ideas in history. Alfred in translating Boethius had certainly picked a winner. It is all part of one very dramatic story, which stars with Boethius being murdered by a barbarian chief, and ends with Alfred being victorious over the barbarian chiefs. The relation between the Saxon king and the Roman philosopher stands for that relation between England and Europe, which was actually in some ways more intimate and international in the rude conditions of the Dark Ages than in the more refined conditions of the modern age.
[GKC ILN Feb 8, 1936; thanks to Frank Petta and my mother]
Yes, King Alfred the Great (the hero in GKC's "Ballad of the White Horse" - no pun intended!) did indeed translate Boethius.

But so did Chaucer.

If you want to read more about Boethius and his book, and how this relates to Chaucer, order CW18 from The American Chesterton Society.

Or click here for an excerpt...
Here's an excerpt from GKC's Chaucer:
The business of the translation of Boethius touches a general truth, even at the beginning, which will become more apparent and important towards the end. The relation of medieval men to philosophy, and enlightenment in general, was rather curious; and is not covered by the natural metaphors employed. We used to talk of the Dark Ages; most of us know by now that the true Dark Ages came before the true Middle Ages; and that in many ways the Middle Ages were far from dark. But, following the figure of an age of darkness, we are apt to think of an age of twilight; or perhaps, of grey morning light. But the metaphor itself is misleading. Twilight means an equally diffused light; and the difficulty of medievalism was the difficulty of diffusion. It would be truer to compare even the Dark Ages to a dark room, with certain chinks in the shutters through which particular rays of light could pierce. But the light was daylight, what there was of it; and not even a dull or troubled daylight. It was broad daylight that came through a narrow hole. Or it was like some long narrow ray of a searchlight sent out from a great city and falling like a spotlight on a remote village or a lonely man. And just as any man, however much in darkness, if he looks right down the searchlight, looks into a furnace of white-hot radiance, so any medieval man, who had the luck to hear the right lectures or look at the right manuscript, did not merely 'follow a gleam', a grey glimmer in a mystical forest; but looked straight down the ages into the radiant mind of Aristotle. There was indeed, as I have said, any amount of indirect transmission of light; any amount of reflection - in every sense. But I am not talking of the quantity, but of the quality of the light. Such light as they had came, not only from the broad daylight, but from the brilliant daylight; it was the buried sunlight of the Mediterranean. These men seem to be, and in some ways were, men simple or primitive. But their philosophy was not merely simple or primitive. In some cases it came from a ripe and rounded civilization; in some cases even from an over-ripe, from an autumnal civilization; from an over-civilized civilization. We might compare them to children in some cold and gloomy March, looking at the barns filled with the grain garnered by dead men in a forgotten autumn; but anyhow they fed their wild boyhood on things that were mature, and sometimes more than mature. Hence we have the paradox that a rude and primitive society, in some sense starting afresh, yet had so often for its guides, not merely the writers of the old world, but the writers of the world when it was growing old. All such paradoxes work back to the paradox: that the further we go back to first ages of the modern world, the nearer we are to the last ages of the ancient world: as King Arthur stands in Britain at once as the first of the Britons and last of the Romans. Thus a primitive poem, like Abbo's 'Siege of Paris', stops amid the storm of northern arrows rattling on rude roofs and walls, to make mythological conceits that had been copied from the copyists of Ovid or Virgil for five hundred years. But Ovid and Virgil are not the less civilized poets because barbarians continued to copy them. The men of a new civilization were not the less able to understand the civilized poets, because they had been continually copied. In a word, medieval men were not in the twilight; what they knew they knew. They had not read Homer at all; and (strange as it seems in a literate and enlightened age) did not despise him because they had not read him. They had read Virgil much more fully and thoroughly than we have. Anyone who doubts it may make the experiment of quoting beautiful Virgilian lines in a first-class railway carriage, full of politicians and captains of industry. In a word, though their knowledge of civilized antiquity was in a sense scrappy, though the scraps were not only old scraps but sometimes stale scraps, they had enough of them to understand what the great ancients had meant by wisdom; and, unlike some others, they had the great wisdom truly to try to be wise.

The case of Boethius illustrates specially the second truth; that the spring of medievalism had fed on the autumn of classicism. Boethius was a man who lived very late in the break-up of the Empire, under Theodoric. The period, with its power of amalgating [sic] old and new, has been much underrated. Boethius hands on the Stoic memories; but it is not really necessary to deny that he was a Christian or assert that he was a nominal Christian. Many pagan philosophers were converted by Christian philosophy. His work was a sort of distillation of all that had been best in Paganism; small in quantity but good in quality. Thus he served very truly as a guide, philosopher and friend to many Christians; precisely because, while his own times were corrupt, his own culture was complete. Generally speaking, the cultured Mediterranean man had come to play this part towards northern men. His disciples had not read Homer, but he had; they did not remember one kingdom acknowledged from Scotland to Syria, but he did; they did not know in detail what fine shades of feeling or criticism had come with Catullus or Lucian, but he did. Thus (in the special case of Boethius) we find this mirror of maturity still reflecting a lost daylight in the darkest age; and playing a unique part, especially in the development of the English. Boethius, who had been martyred for justice by his barbarian master, wrote in prison a book called 'The Consolations of Philosophy'; in which he summed up all the truth and tradition of antiquity. Alfred of Wessex, the first great man of our own island story, wishing to educate his half-savage Saxons, assumes at once that it can be done best by translating Boethius. He also, like those who followed him, put a great deal into Boethius that is not in Boethius. He may be said to have completed the old Stoic's conversion to Christianity after his death. Chaucer, perhaps the last great Englishman of the same united Christendom, feeling the same need of portable philosophy, instantly turned to the same idea of a translation of Boethius. He also quotes from Boethius, consciously and unconsciously, in any number of his ordinary poems. Boethius was a point of view; it was a calm and cultured and well-balanced point of view; and the essential thing to realize is that a medieval man could have it as a common and normal point of view; and take it quite easily, like Chaucer.
[GKC, Chaucer, CW18:242-5]

Translations of this book, The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, are still available, and can still have an effect. It affected me when I first heard about it in (of all places) a fraternity magazine! Though I have read it, I shall not attempt a review - I would make a far worse mess than the legend tells King Alfred made with the cakes. But it begins with Boethius in prison, and the mystic appearance of Philosophy as a beautiful woman with her robe (made by her own hands) bordered over and over with the great Q above the P yet connected by stairs - stirring and profound symbols teaching the resolution of the great conflict of the "liberal" versus the "technical" arts, and yet ignored by so many... the great prayer for wisdom she makes to God, for the enlightenment of Boethius... the explanation, settling forever the concept of "fortune" or "chance" versus the Divine Will... An amazing book read by people for more than a millennium, and still enlightening today.


  1. Its certainly a book I hope to enjoy soon. I believe Mr. C. S. Lewis listed it as one of the books he greatly favored. Any ideas on what Mr. Chesterton thought about it?

  2. GKC gives a rather "wide" view of the writer, his time and the impact of the book - but you may be seeking a more specific comment on the book itself. In order to help, I've lengthened the quote somewhat.

    And there's a little more in Chaucer, and some other hints elsewhere.

    We must also bear in mind that there are relatively large amounts of GKC still being collected into a useful form - very few of us have access to libraries which possess century-old issues of The Daily News or the other papers GKC wrote for, and many of these essays do not yet appear in any book. So stay tuned - and if you CAN help us with this work, please let us know!


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