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Reviewed by:
  • Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth
  • James G. Williams
Job, Boethius, and Epic Truth, by Ann W. Anstell; xiii & 240pp. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994, $32.95.

Ann Anstell succeeds in showing that the book of Job and Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy served as vehicles for the transmission and transformation of heroic poetry through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance. The style is sometimes forbidding for the nonspecialist because of dry descriptions of various texts and the extensive quotation of Latin without translation. There are certain sections, however, where the author is clearly passionately engaged in the subject and consequently comes across much more clearly and vividly to the reader; this is especially true of part of the discussion of Gregory’s Moralia in Job and the chapter on “Boethian Lovers,” particularly the treatment of Abelard’s Historia Calamitatum.

The thesis and argument of the book are of great potential interest both to literary critics and literary historians and to philosophers and historians of philosophy. The “epic truth” of the title is a bridge between literary genre and transmission and the kind of philosophy concerned with concepts of self and [End Page 379] world. Anstell argues that the conventional distinctions between classical epic and medieval romance tend to overlook the historical continuity between the two genres. “The Middle Ages interpreted classical epic in a way that entailed its subsequent imitation in romance” (p. 212). Romance makes explicit what epic is implicitly about, namely a way or journey to self-knowledge.

Boethius, writing about 525 as a prisoner, draws upon Virgil’s Georgics and Stoic and Neoplatonic writings. Lady Philosophy appears to him and educes him into recollection of his own true being through remembering the heroes of the past. He thus recognizes his own mortality and passions, the importance of reason, and the reality of his immortal soul. This journey to concrete awareness of the immortal soul is a key step towards the epic truth that emerged in Christian thinking, but in Boethius the centrality of Christ as Logos-Redeemer does not come into view. It does, however, in the tradition of reading and interpreting Job.

Through his meditations and moral instructions on Job, Gregory (Pope, 590–604) used the precedent of Boethius’ Consolation to draw the classical form of the vir, the heroic mortal and the model of virtus, virtue, into the Christian configuration of sainthood. Using a Christian form of allegory, the “other-speaking” of a text that articulates its deeper structure and truth, Gregory portrays Job as a man of fortitude, courage, and patience whose suffering becomes the occasion truly to understand that his immutable soul is not the prisoner of the body that is sick and dying. “Job’s human nature, perfected in wisdom and power through suffering, reflects Christ’s own divine humanity, and far surpasses in heroic virtue the excellence of even an allegorized Aeneas” (p. 91).

These two works, then, are the chief exemplars of the “heroic poetry” of the Middle Ages, which joined the literatures commonly designated as “epic” and “romance.” This medieval synthesis insisted on figural or allegorical continuity with classical antiquity but departed formally from classical literary conventions. Job and Boethius provided critical authorization for these tendencies. Job as Christ-figure was the model for legends of the saints, while the Consolation influenced the romance literature that featured stages of spiritual growth; this literature “extended into a history of personal salvation by assimilating the lover’s sufferings to those of Job and Christ” (p. 214). These two paradigmatic works, which provided models of the stable saint as Christ-figure and the emotional pilgrim on a spiritual journey, began to dissolve in the Renaissance. Boethius’s Consolation ceased to be understood in terms of the epic and Job came to be seen as a drama and a tragedy. Thus the author concludes that “the virtues . . . the Middle Ages attributed to Job, especially wisdom and fortitude, belong no longer to man but to God” (p. 215). Human beings must make their way in an inconstant, puzzling world separated from God.

James G. Williams
Syracuse University

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pp. 379-380
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