Boethius – divine foreknowledge


This is Boethius’ most famous and original work. Written while he was in prison awaiting execution on charges of treason against the Ostrogothic emperor Theodoric, the Consolation of Philosophy  is a dialogue in five books with the personification of Philosophy on the nature of fate and providence, recalling Socrates’ long examination of immortality in the Phaedo on the day of his execution.

Boethius Consolations V is prosimetric – ie written in alternating passages of prose and poetry – and has therefore been the subject of divided treatments as a literary and philosophical work. (Our translated selection has omitted the verse sections.) The first four books are in general less philosophical in style, which changes in the final book to a more technical discussion. Although Boethius was undoubtedly a Christian, the CP is notoriously lacking in explicit references to scripture or Christian authors. Boethius himself traces the difficulty of foreknowledge back to Cicero. CP V contains Boethius’ most original philosophical contribution, and it is one that carries influence even today (see Eleonore Stump and Norman Kretzmann, “Eternity,” J. of Phil. 78 [1981] 429-58). For background, translation, Latin text and a philosophical and philological commentary, see RW Sharples, Cicero: On Fate and Boethius: The Consolation of Philosophy, IV.5-V.6. (Warminster, 1991).


Statement of the problem:

  • If God infallibly foreknows our choices, then they necessarily occur as God knows them.
  • If our choices are free and contingent, then God cannot have foreknowledge of them.

Origen’s solution and its rejection

Solution of Origen:

  • God’s foreknowledge does not cause our choices.

Boethius’s reply:

  • Causality irrelevant.
  • Temporal things cannot cause divine knowledge.
  • God cannot know contingent events as certain:
 “What is conceived as certain knowledge cannot be otherwise than as conceived” (Id quod ab scientia concipitur esse aliter atque concipitur nequit).


  • Limitation of human reason.
  • Epistemological principle:
 “Things are not known according to its own power or nature, but according to the capacity of the knower.” (Omne enim quod cognoscitur non secundum sui vim sed secundum cognoscentium potius comprehenditur facultatem.)
  • Hierarchy of powers: 
sensus, imaginatio, ratio, intelligentia.
  • Definition of eternity: 
”Eternity is endless life possessed all at once in its totality and perfection.” (Aeternitas igitur est interminabilis vitae tota simul et perfecta possessio.)
  • Distinction in necessity: 
”There are two necessities, one absolute … the other conditional … ” (Duae sunt etenim necessitates, simplex una … altera conditions.)

Also see The Boethian Solution in the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy (scroll to section 2.2).






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