Sunday, June 18, 2017


Christian Vogel, Boethius' Übersetzungsprojekt: philosophische Grundlagen und didaktische Methoden eines spätantiken Wissenstransfers. Episteme in Bewegung. Beiträge zu einer transdisziplinären Wissensgeschichte, 6. Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2016. Pp. x, 184. ISBN 9783447106092. €48.00.

Reviewed by Pieter Beullens, KU Leuven, Institute of Philosophy, Aristoteles Latinus (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

What would you do if you found yourself in a society that seemed to lose interest in the writings of the ancient Greek culture which it had always valued? Boethius, the Roman senator who lived (and died) under the rule of the Goths in the early 6th century CE, saw the decline in Greek studies among his contemporaries. Therefore, he decided to make the works of Plato and Aristotle accessible to his Roman readership through Latin translations and commentaries. As Boethius only realized this intention for (most of) Aristotle's logical works and for Porphyry's introduction to the Aristotelian logic, his enterprise is usually considered incomplete or even failed.

This book stems from a research project at the Freie Universität Berlin. Its general scope is to investigate different forms of knowledge-transfer from antiquity through the early modern age, and not limited to European culture. In his study, Vogel specifically aims to reappraise Boethius' translation activity, for which the theoretical framework appears throughout his works, including in the Consolation of Philosophy. From this approach, Boethius' viewpoints as a translator should necessarily be in line with those of Boethius the author of philosophical texts, and the whole of his output has to be considered.

Vogel's first step in investigating Boethius' project of knowledge-transfer is to define his views on education (ch. 2, 'Bildungstheoretischer Rahmen des Übersetzungsprojekt'). Boethius chose to begin his plan with Aristotle's logic based on his assessment that it not only is the starting point for all philosophical activity, but especially that its training leads to the perfection of the soul and finally opens the way to eternal bliss in the study of theology. For that reason, Boethius does not consider his translations and commentaries as the ultimate purpose of his activity, but as necessary constituent parts of an education for which the next steps are to be found is his works on the quadrivium. Vogel argues that this conception of education is coherent with Boethius' views on the soul (ch. 3, 'Boethius' Seelenkonzeption'). Although he did not devote an entire work to the subject nor develop an explicit psychology, Vogel sketches his knowledge of Aristotle's De anima and his own interpretation from information scattered throughout Boethius' output. The study of logic ultimately leads to the perfection of the third and specifically human part of the soul in its threefold Aristotelian composition (the other two being nourishment and sense perception).

In the fourth chapter ('Boethius' Sprachkonzept'), Vogel turns to Boethius' concept of language as a form of assimilation within the soul, the intellectus, and to the question whether words get their meaning through nature or convention. While developing his own position, the Roman philosopher displays a good knowledge of Plato's treatment of the same subject in his Cratylus and of the Aristotelian position, especially as exposed by Ammonius. Throughout his works, Boethius relies on and evaluates the commentaries of his Greek colleagues and predecessors. The approach is consistent with contemporary currents in Platonic and Aristotelian scholarship, where texts were not merely reproduced, but also discussed and commented upon. The commentators traditionally intended to harmonize Platonic and Aristotelian doctrines. Boethius' projected audience for his works makes his position peculiar. His students were not familiar with the language of the original writings nor with the longstanding commentary tradition in the Greek world. His method accordingly is not limited to the translation of the texts alone. The commentaries that he wrote allowed him to enter into a dialogue with the content of the Aristotelian treatises and to interpret them for his readers. His work, Vogel argues, is aimed at transfer, rather than mere transformation.

Now that this backdrop of Boethius' project has been established, his translation theory and practice enter the scene (ch. 5, 'Boethius' Übersetzungstheorie und -praxis'). Vogel recalls the classical interpretation of the fidus interpres as developed by Cicero and Horace, and especially by Saint Jerome. He also discusses the traditional view of the deficiency of the Latin language with respect to the Greek philosophical terminology and the development of a specific vocabulary in this field in later antiquity. Boethius mostly chooses the same Latin words to translate certain Greek terms. Yet he is aware of the difficulty caused by the fact that Aristotle sometimes attaches different meanings to one word or that he varies between terms to render a similar concept. Vogel lengthily discusses Boethius' use of the same Latin term nota for both Greek words σύμβολον and σημεῖον. While the translator's choice was criticized by modern scholars as a significant interpretative failure, Vogel defends the consistency of the terminology with Boethius' general views on translation. As it turns out, this is the only case where the author addresses a concrete translation problem that Boethius had to face.

This observation brings my review to the evaluation stage. It would not be fair to judge a book based on what is not in it. As this book deals with Boethius' overall method in transforming Greek philosophy for his Roman readership, I was struck by a conspicuous absence. Lorenzo Minio-Paluello, the editor of logical treatises in the Aristoteles Latinus series, discovered that each translation of these texts circulated in two different versions. He suggested that Boethius prepared two recensions of every translation, one literal and close to the Greek text, the other with greater fluency and following the rules of Latin rhetorical diction. Minio-Paluello revised his hypothesis as his editing of Boethius' translations progressed and it seems to have gained general acceptance among scholars.1 Since Boethius' attempts to translate Aristotle's treatises must be considered as important steps in the hermeneutical process, it would have been useful to at least consider how this choice can be brought in line with the book's overall thesis. Surprisingly, Vogel does not even mention this peculiarity.

In general, the volume is nicely presented by the publisher. The illustration on the front cover is inspired by a miniature in a fourteenth-century manuscript from Glasgow University Library.2 As for the Latin in the footnotes, it is sometimes marked by a certain carelessness. In particular, the original quotations from Boethius' works that accompany the long passages in German translation contain numerous mistakes. Most of them are typical scanning errors and should have been eliminated during proofreading. Occasionally, the main body of the text is also affected, as on pp. 53 and 115 where the author mistakenly refers to quidam vis. Beside the extensive bibliography, the book contains an index locorum, but no general index of persons or cited works.

To conclude with the words of Jean-Pierre Levet, Boethius' translation and commentary endeavour is a combined effort in philology, logic, and pedagogy.3 Vogel's book supplies a rich study of Boethius' didactic and philosophical ideas, especially his psychology and language theory, yet the philological side of the project is all but absent. The author almost exclusively discusses metatheoretical information about translation practice gathered from Boethius' commentaries and other works. The translations themselves are mostly left out of the discussion. It is a telling sign that only the edition of his Analytica priora translation is listed in the bibliography of primary sources.


1.   There is a survey of Minio-Paluello's evolving views in Jozef Brams, La riscoperta di Aristotele in Occidente (Milano: Jaca Book, 2003), pp. 29-34. For a critical note, see Sten Ebbesen, 'The Aristotelian Commentator,' in The Cambridge Companion to Boethius, ed. John Marenbon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), pp. 34-55, at p. 51, n. 5.
2.   A full colour picture of the relevant manuscript page is on display University of Glasgow: Manuscripts Catalogue.
3.   Jean-Pierre Levet, 'Philologie et logique: Boèce traducteur des premiers chapitres du Livre I des Analytica priora d'Aristote,' in Revue d'histoire des textes18 (1988), pp. 1-62, at p. 6: "une telle recherche, qui relève à la fois d'une démarche de philologue - elle a pour fin de trouver la meilleure formule, la plus juste, la plus adéquate - d'un travail de logicien - on doit respecter le plus possible la vérité exprimée - et enfin d'une tâche de pédagogue, puisque donner la possibilité de lire Aristote ne suffit pas."

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