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Boethius on God, Eternity, and Free Will

1. Who Was Boethius?

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In this module, we introduce Boethius, by reviewing his life and the historical context around his writings. In particular we focus on (i) the significance of the end of the Western Roman Emperor, and subsequent ruling, to Boethius’ life (ii) Boethius’ scholarly importance as an intermediary between ancient philosophy and the Latin Middle Ages, as well as commentator on theological controversies (iii) Boethius’ relationship with Emperor Theoderic, and the events which led to Theoderic’s order of Boethius’ execution (iv) The relevance of Boethius’ time spent in prison to writing his influential dialogue The Consolation of Philosophy


In this course Professor John Marenbon (University of Cambridge) examines Boethius and the problem of prescience, and how Boethius’ response to this problem shapes our understanding of divine eternity and human free will. In the first module, we introduce Boethius: his life, writings, rise in power and influence, and, eventually, his execution. Having discovered a bit more about Boethius, we move on to look at three conceptions of eternity: endless duration, atemporality, and Boethius' own definition of eternity. In the third module, we examine divine foreknowledge, and investigate why this presents problems. We then look at some solutions to the problems of prescience, before moving on to some criticisms of these solutions. Finally, we compare and contrast the methodologies of different philosophers who have examined similar issues of God, eternity and free will.

Glossary of Terms:
Boethius’ problem: The problem of divine prescience as put forward by Boethius the author in his work The Consolation of Philosophy.
The Boethian problem: The modern reconstruction of Boethius’ problem of divine prescience as put forward by contemporary philosophers.
Divine Foreknowledge: God’s knowing of events anterior to their happening.
Divine Predetermination: God’s ordaining of events anterior to their happening.
Libertarian free will: Unconstrained and undetermined choice between alternatives.
Necessity: A proposition (P) that cannot fail to be the case.
Contingency: A proposition (P) that is neither necessary nor impossible.
Accidental necessity: Conditional necessity attributed to the past on the basis that the past cannot be changed.
Endless duration: A conception of eternity whereby time moves forwards, backwards, or forwards and backwards without stopping.
Atemporality: A conception of eternity whereby eternity is outside time, often said to be evidenced by universals.
Universals: Items or abstractions which exist independently of time e.g. numbers or essences.
Boethius’ conception of eternity: A divine life which takes place perfectly and all at once.
Modes of Cognition Principle: The idea that knowledge is relativised to different knowers, who have different objects of knowledge.
Transcendental Argument: An argument which enquires into the necessary conditions of the possibility of something (e.g. what are the necessary conditions for the possibility of experience?)
Modality: Propositions which inform us about what could or must be the case.
Absolute necessity: Propositions which are necessary by cohering with physical or logical facts, e.g. The sun will rise tomorrow.
Conditional necessity: Propositions whose necessity is conditional upon other facts, and from which absolute necessity does not follow, e.g. It is necessary that I am walking, when I am walking, but it does not follow that it is absolutely necessary that I am walking.

List of Names:
Boethius (character): A character in Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, based on the author, who falls from a position of eminence to downfall.
Philosophy (character): A character in Boethius' The Consolation of Philosophy, who personifies the philosophical tradition of Ancient Greece and Rome.
Boethius (historical figure): The author of the dialogue The Consolation of Philosophy.


John Marenbon is a Fellow of the British Academy, Senior Research Fellow of Trinity College, and Honorary Professor of Medieval Philosophy, as well as Visiting Professor at the Philosophy Department of Peking University. His interests cover the whole breadth of philosophy in the Long Middle Ages (c. 200 – c. 1700), in the Latin and Greek Christian, Islamic and Jewish traditions. He has written both general books (especially Medieval Philosophy: an historical and philosophical introduction (2007) and (as editor) the Oxford Handbook of Medieval Philosophy (2012), as well as more specialized studies of Boethius and Abelard. His most recent book is Pagans and Philosophers. The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz (2015). You can find a CV, List of Publications and copies of many of his recent articles at

He is is one of the leaders of the project 'Immateriality, Thinking and the Self in the Philosophy of the Long Middle Ages', a joint project of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Cambridge and the Department of Philosophy, Peking University, financed by the British Academy through an International Partnership and Mobility Grant, March 2015 – February 2016.

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APA style

Marenbon, J. (2022, March 02). Boethius on God, Eternity, and Free Will - Who Was Boethius? [Video]. MASSOLIT.

MLA style

Marenbon, J. "Boethius on God, Eternity, and Free Will – Who Was Boethius?." MASSOLIT, uploaded by MASSOLIT, 02 Mar 2022,

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