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Mistaken Identities

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Some mornings, I get up, get my tea, do my work–and then feel sort of all over the place.  It isn’t that I’m finding it hard to concentrate.  It’s that all the functions of my brain feel like they’re being flown on a kite.  That probably doesn’t make any sense. And  I don’t really know how to explain it.  All  I’ll say is that I’m sorry if what follows doesn’t seem as…solid..as my posts sometimes are.

I’m in the middle of reading Dante’s Paradiso, the third part of the Divine Comedy.  I read Inferno and Purgatorio over the past couple of years, and I finally got to the place where I was ready to do it again.  You have to sort of gear up for Dante, even in translation.   And translation is the good news.  The original Italian is written in something called terza rima, a rhyme scheme that goes


and on and on and on, through three line verses almost wthout number–but not quite.  It’s something like 4000 lines.  I think I’d go completely insane trying to read that.

The translation is not in terza rima, of course, because it would be nearly impossible to get it that way given the differences between Italian and English, never mind medieval Italian and modern English.  That means I’m free to concentrate on content, and the content has just thrown up something interesting.

Consider Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.

Or rather, don’t consider him in toto. 

Just consider the Boethius part for a moment.

I first herad of Boethius–or thought I first heard of him–about ten years ago or so.  Boethius lived in the late fifth and early sixth centuries, and he ended his life imprisoned, tortured, starving and finally executed, because he ran afoul of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric.

I’d heard of him because he has recently become a secular sant to many people in the Humanist and Freethought movements, with his last written work, called The Consolation of Philosophy, put forward as the last great example of the Stoic tradition, and as nearly an ideal example of how secular people should face the realities of life and death.

I’ll admit that I was not terribly curious.  I did order a copy of the book–which I  haven’t read yet; it’s one of those things–but I had some vague idea of who this person was, and I just let it float.

What I thought I knew was this:  that Boethius, who was called “the last Roman” by a lot of people (even in history), was a pagan persecuted possibly for his refusal to accept Christianity, or something like that, and that when he was imprisoned he fell back on pagan philosophy to soldier through.

This was, pretty much, what the Humanist magazines were putting out, and I had no reason to doubt it, or even think about it, until I got to Dante’s Paradiso.

And there was Boethius again, except that this time he had another name, and I had heard of that one.

It was St. Severinus.

The full name is, as above, Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius.

Here’s the thing.

Boethius was a Christian theologian, and a campaigner against the Arian heresy, of which Theodoric–the guy who executed him–was an adherent. Down through the ages, until very recently, Boethius’s execution has been attributed to his refusal to abandon the traditional Christian faith in favor of Theodoric’s Arianism.

Boethius left numerous works of theology, and a long list of minor works, partial works, pieces of letters and other records that testify to his steadfast Christian faith over decades. 

And although it’s true enough that Christ is not mentioned in The Consolation of Philosophy, the work was well know immediately after Boethius’s death, and it didn’t stop the Catholic Church from consecrating him a saint as a Christian martyr. 

I don’t know where the revisionist history started that tried to prove either that he wasn’t a Christian at all (hardly credible, given all that theology), or that he’d given up his Christian faith before he died.  I just know that it’s become a favorite subject in Humanist circles.

It’s also almost certainly wrong.  The Consolation of Philosophy does not contradict the Christian faith, even if it doesn’t mention it.  The book was extremely popular with Christians throughout the next centuries, and it remains popular in the Catholic Church today. 

The Humanist assumption seems to be that if the Church is not mentioned it must be rejected, because the Church would not accept that there was any other way than the narrowly “religious” one to face the problems of life.

In other words, it’s a mistake based on that same assumption that Christians are everywhere and always narrow-minded, anti-intellectual and stupid.

But there’s more to this, if you think about it.

No matter who Boethius actually was, he now serves thousands of people in the US alone as the poster child for persecuted intellectualism–the brilliant pagan philosopher tortured and executed by a rapacious, violent and destructive Church. 

It almost doesn’t matter if this is not true, because the lack of truth in it does not stop the image from being accepted and embraced by a lot of people who don’t know better.

And this is not the kind of thing you can expect people to know better about.  Even in the kind of rigorous intellectual history-oriente sort of education I’m in favor of, you’re unlikely to come across much about Boethius.  I think I may have put up The Consolation of Philosopher on The Western Canon According to Me, but mostly as example of a certain kind of philosophical reasoning.  Just reading the book won’t tell you much of anything about Boethius’s life.

And Boethius is hardly the only person in history who has come to stand for something completely opposed to what it was he really was.

My favorite example of this is still Robin Hood, who has gone down through the centuries as the man who “robbed from the rich and gave to the poor,” as if he were some kind of proto-Communist.

What he really did was to rob tax collectors and give the tax money back to the people who’d had to pay it.  He should be the patron saint of Libertarianism.  But everybody “knows” the other thing, and there we are.

A more modern example of this would be all the events around the Scopes trial, which people tend to know only in the version given in Inherit The Wind, where the Scopes character is a well meaning high school teacher just wanting to open minds, and where everybody on the other side is ignorant, stupid, horrifically cruel or just plain crazy. 

In real life, Scopes never taught a single word of Darwin in a classroom, and the whole thing was a set up by Scopes and the ACLU to test the legitimacy of the law.  They were aided in this project by the municipal administration of Dayton, Tennesee, which was as interested in the outcome as they were.

What interests me is this:  does in matter, in PRACTICAL terms, whether the general public has the facts right in cases like these? 

With the Scopes trial, I think we can make a case–but I’m not really sre in the cases of  Boethius and Robin Hood. 

Whoever these people were  in real life, they are somebody else for us now, an the sombody elses they are are what have an impact on the way we live. 


I don’t really want to sound as if I don’t care what is true and what is not.  I do care.

It’s just that I think that the impact such people have on us is the impact they have on us.  And that impact may be significant even if its’ wrong.

And that means, I think, that we have to take that wrongness as seriously as if the legends were right.


I’ve stopped knowing how to make this make sense.

Written by janeh

June 17th, 2010 at 7:55 am

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses to 'Mistaken Identities'

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  1. ‘Daughter of Time’ – which I think all of us have read or at least know of – has other examples.

    Yes, it matters! Not only because it matters whether something is true or not, but because learning how and why some things are believed that are demonstrably not true both makes us more critical when presented with plausible claims, but also can make us think about how a lot of things function in society.

    Think about the ‘heroic’ types of biographies I read as a child. They tended to be about women who became the first doctor or professional nurse in various countries, or the first man to reach some obscure part of the world, especially the ones who went to the North or South poles. To the ‘child-me’, they were inspiring tales of what humans can do and become, as well as a picture of some place outside my small hometown. As a young and young(ish) adult, they were case studies how to produce false heroes to promote particular ways of looking at the world. As a older adult, I came to realize that even heroic humans can be profoundly fallible, and that what actually happened, or as much of it as we can grasp years later, has a reality that’s added to but not diminished by all the different uses made of them. Or, the various ‘somebody elses’ that they became over the years is merely another layer on the core of reality, and one that often tells us more of the teller of ‘somebody elses’ story than of the original person. It can be taken seriously enough, especially if the latest fashionable view on whoever it is is a strong and influential one, but it can’t be taken as reality. To do so is to abandon rationality entirely.

    I had no idea Boethius had become a secular hero. I can’t remember when I heard of him first, but I knew him as a Christian who was imprisoned and wrote a famous book that I might get around to reading sometime because it always seemed to end up on recommended reading lists. I don’t think I gave much thought as to exactly why he was imprisoned or executed – I didn’t know about the Arian connection and vaguely supposed it had something to do with one of those complicated political conflicts of the Middle Ages. It never occurred to me that he might have been a Pagan.

    By the way, I’m really enjoying ‘Athiest Delusions’.


    17 Jun 10 at 8:26 am

  2. I’m always amazed and pleased when I come out ahead in a matter of philosophy or Literature. (It doesn’t happen often enough to dull the wonder.) But I knew about Boethius for a long time, and two ways.

    He figures in Tolkien criticism–notably Shippey’s ROAD TO MIDDLE-EARTH–as one of the poles of of the Christian view of evil, with the Manichean Heresy as the opposite pole. Boethius holds that “evil is nothing”–the absence of good–while the Manicheans see evil as an active force, capable of creation of its own kind. And Tolkien’s One Ring, of course, partakes of both natures.

    But I knew of Boethius and the CONSOLATIONS OF PHILOSOPHY long before I read literary criticism. In John Dickson Carr’s MOST SECRET the pirate Felix Alexandre Charlemagne Souter keeps his treasured copy of Boethius in his cabin at all times–one of the two things necessary for happiness. (The other is politeness. “In de islands dey will say, ‘Ah, old Felix! He sink de ship. He take de women. He tie us to de mast for de crew to t’row bottles at, maybe. But old Felix, goddam, he is ALWAYS polite.'”)

    As for what to do when a historical person is misrepresented, if he has simply become polished, as it were, with the weaknesses of real life fading in the telling, then I believe John Ford was right: “When the legend becomes the fact, print the legend.” But when it’s a case of slander and someone is falsely accused of villainy, or held up as a champion of a cause he did not support, then as we do not wish our own reputations blackened or our causes misprepresented, than we have a duty to speak the truth and to correct error when we find it–no different for the living than for the dead.

    Let the freethinkers find a true martyr of their own cause, and let those who think of Robin Hood as a free-lance socialist make movies about Stalin in his bank robber days.


    17 Jun 10 at 4:26 pm

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