Beauty, Ethics and Numbers in Boethius’ Quadrivial Treatises

Cecilia Panti


The convergence of the Neoplatonic/Neopythagorean approach with the Aristotelian organization of the sciences is one of the most interesting features that characterizes the two influential mathematical treatises on On Arithmetics (De institutione arithmetica) and On Music (De institutione musica) by Severinus Boethius. Basing his reasoning on Nicomachus and Ptolemy, Boethius follows the philosophical tradition that had tried to reconcile Plato’s and Aristotle’s views. This attitude is examined in the present paper as regards Boethius’ response concerning the relation between numbers, ethics and aesthetics. His view emerges as coming out of a rather complex construction, which assigns the ethical scope of mathematics in indicating to the human mind how to correct the ratios that realize the best relationship in movements of the soul and the body. More precisely, its ethical aim is to correct the specific form of movement of human beings, that is their actions, exemplified in the way in which mathematical ratios represent the forms of government and musical ratios evoke and heal psychophysical affections. More complex, on the other hand, is the relationship between mathematics and beauty. In clear antithesis to the position taken by Augustine on the beauty of the rhythmic patterns that better represent the beauty of unity, Boethius does not relate the mathematical ratios of the consonances to an esthetical judgment by making use of the category of beauty. For him, the physical world is totally immersed in changes and movements, and this cannot but impede things from expressing the stable unity, which is required for contemplating the beautiful.


Boethius; ethics; aesthetics; medieval philosophy

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