Chapter 4: Conversion

IF the Variae was a defense of Gothic rule in Italy, it is the last such document to survive. Dependent as we are on Cassiodorus for our knowledge of the internal affairs of that kingdom, our view of the reconquest is obstructed by a major shift in the character of the evidence that Cassiodorus provides at this period. Sometime in 538, as he concluded the publication of the Variae and departed from public life, Cassiodorus published a short treatise De anima, choosing a new genre and a new focus for his literary interests.

The political and military situation in Italy after 537 did not admit any great sphere of activity for intellectual bureaucrats.[[1]] Witigis besieged Rome, then lifted the siege in 538; in 539 the Goths recaptured Milan, but Belisarius, in spite of his feud with Narses, captured Ariminum. Finally, Belisarius captured Ravenna in 540 and with it the chief part of the Gothic nobility, including Witigis himself.[[2]] These important captives Belisarius took with him to Constantinople, inspiring Justinian to bedeck himself with the title Gothicus. But the war was only beginning back in Italy, for after a brief interregnum of divided leadership, the young Totila took the Gothic throne and began an impressive series of victories. All through the 540's he more than occupied the Byzantine forces in Italy, capturing Rome twice, eventually going down to defeat in 552 before Narses, by then sole Byzantine commander in Italy. In 553 the last Gothic ruler, Teias, was defeated and slain, and the Ostrogothic kingdom passed from the stage of history.

Because the Variae ends with letters from 537, we perceive, perhaps rightly, a change in the tone of government after that date. When Cassiodorus refuses to be our guide any longer, we see only a trackless waste of war and destruction. The pretence of civilitas was too expensive a luxury to maintain in the midst of battle.

We know little of Cassiodorus in this period with certainty. If we assume that the Variae was published while Cassiodorus was still in office or at least still in contact with the files of government, then it follows that its contents give a good terminus post quem for either retirement or publication, whichever came first. The opening of the De anima, which speaks of the compilation of the Variae as a task completed shortly before, also seems to imply that the author's retirement was due to literary pursuits. Certainly there are none of the whining complaints about the pressures of office that characterize the prefaces in the Variae. The likeliest sequence, therefore, seems to be that Cassiodorus ceased to function as prefect in late 537 or early 538 (whether because he was dismissed by the Goths, because there had ceased to be tasks for a civil servant to perform in the Ostrogothic government at war, or because of a simple desire to seek retirement unconnected with the particular crises of the time-- and the last of these is the least likely) and more or less immediately set himself to compiling the Variae for publication.[[3]] This was a task that might not unreasonably be expected to have taken some months, perhaps a year or so, if it involved searching through the files to collect material, then editing and arranging it, and finally composing the prefaces and taking some steps to see that the work reached whatever audience Cassiodorus had in mind. Thus, by some time late in 538 or early in 539, Cassiodorus was at last truly at liberty, though apparently still living at Ravenna and not immediately desirous of moving from there; for Ravenna was still an island of comparative safety, and it may not have been clear how lenient the Byzantine forces would be with someone who had served the Gothic government in such high positions. The De anima seems to have been written in this milieu, almost surely before the capture of Ravenna in the spring of 540. The first sentence of the preface of the Expositio Psalmorum refers to an increasing interest in scriptural studies while Cassiodorus was still in Ravenna: "After I had rid myself of the duties of office at Ravenna, weary of all the world's foul-tasting woes, then when I tasted of the heavenly Psalter, a honey for souls, I plunged myself into their study greedily, to banish the aftertaste of bitter deeds with sweet verses" (Ex. Ps. Praef. lines 1-5).[[4]]

Thus the composition of the De anima occurred between late 538 and early 540. In reality we come here to a serious lacuna in the evidence for Cassiodorus' activities. We do not next have definite knowledge of his whereabouts until 550, when he was in Constantinople in the circle of persons known to Pope Vigilius during that pontiff's long stay in the eastern capital. We will discuss the nature and extent of Cassiodorus' stay in Constantinople in the next chapter in connection with the Psalm commentary, which was largely composed there. For the moment we must concern ourselves simply with the narrower question of how Cassiodorus got from Ravenna before its capture to Constantinople sometime in the 540's. In the complete absence of direct evidence, hypotheses must be confected.

The commonest reconstruction of Cassiodorus' career at this point has argued that he returned to his family estates at Squillace upon his retirement from office; there, the theory progresses, he rounded at least some forerunner of the later monastic community and was busy on most of the Psalm commentary. Then he went to Constantinople with other refugees from the military activity of Totila in about 547/9, at about the same time as Vigilius made the same trek.[[5]] There are two military difficulties with this thesis. First, it assumes that the chief civil official of the Ostrogothic kingdom was not only released by the Byzantine forces but that he was allowed to pass unmolested down the entire length of Italy to his family estates on the extreme shore of the southernmost province. Furthermore, it assumes that at a later date Cassiodorus, the lifelong supporter of the Gothic regime, fled in fear from the approach of a Gothic army. It is certainly conceivable that Cassiodorus changed his coat completely on the approach of the Byzantine armies; but there is not one slightest shred of evidence, direct or indirect, for any such event. Our whole interpretation of the Variae as a pro-Gothic dossier compiled on the eve (or morn) of Cassiodorus' retirement runs counter to such a view.

The alternate view does seem simpler.[[6]] If we allow Cassiodorus to remain in the comparative safety of Ravenna until its capture in 540, the probability then increases that he would have left Italy at that time with Belisarius and Witigis. He might or might not have gone voluntarily. If he was still interested in politics he may have thought that Constantinople was the place where the fate of Gothic Italy might most profitably be settled; but if he was entirely devoted to religion, a desire for the relative security of Constantinople might well have been enhanced by a desire to acquaint himself with the ecclesiastical institutions of the eastern church. He may simply have had no choice. Some combination of both political and religious motives, volition and constraint, may well have obtained.

If our dating of Cassiodorus' birth in the mid-480's (made possible by the discovery of the Ordo generis) is correct, then Cassiodorus was in his early fifties upon the fall of Ravenna; not only is this an age still adventurous enough to go off to Constantinople for considerations at least partly still political, but it enables us to place the date of his final return to Squillace at around 554 and his age at that time at about sixty-five to seventy, a reasonable age for genuine retirement in any century.

Thus we provisionally accept the hypothesis of a prolonged stay at Constantinople, lasting from 540 to 554. In the next chapter we will see that there is indirect evidence to support this belief further. Nevertheless, the question does not, it must be emphasized, admit of certain proof in either direction. Our choice of probabilities must in part be conditioned by a sense for the tenor of the life we have seen Cassiodorus creating for himself and a preference for the simpler hypothesis.

It is customary (and reasonable) to see in the De anima, the first religious treatise that Cassiodorus wrote, a document of his "conversion" from the life of a public statesman to that of a private man of religion. It is important, however, not to be misled by modern notions of what "conversion" involves; furthermore, we should take into account again what little we do know of Cassiodorus' religious life before his retirement. Some of the evidence for religious leanings in Cassiodorus the statesman was blotted out for us, partly by reticence in the first place, and perhaps partly by later self-censorship at the time of compiling the Variae, because of the difficult relations between Arian Goths and Catholic Italians. While Theoderic is praised as a model of tolerance by his contemporaries and by modern readers of the Variae, he was still a hated Arian to, for example, the so-called Anonymus Valesianus chronicler. What image of religious peace there was in Italy is at least partly a creation of the tacit agreement of all concerned to say nothing about the subject in public.

To be sure, Dom Cappuyns saw signs of increasing religious devotion in Cassiodorus' years as praetorian prefect.[[7]] The only firm pieces of evidence to which he could point, however, the letters at the beginning of Book XI addressed to Pope John II and the bishops of Italy, are not strong testimony (Var. 11.2-3). We do not know how customary such professions of faith and loyalty by new prefects were, nor how hollow they were in practice. Furthermore, similarly respectful rhetoric had been written by Cassiodorus and addressed to bishops and clergy of the orthodox church in the name of Arian rulers long before that time. There is no reason why the conventional cannot be sincere, but the presence of the conventional cannot be taken as proof positive of special sincerity.

On the other hand, one piece of evidence from a later date for Cassiodorus' growing interest in religion somewhere around this time is more substantive. The whole effort of Cassiodorus to found a school of Christian learning at Rome in concert with Pope Agapetus (elected 535, died 536) will be discussed at greater length in Chapter 6; but this kind of activity (which may have begun before 533 and before Agapetus was pope or Cassiodorus prefect) is clear evidence of an interest in Christian intellectual activity, whether newfound or long established. The only other evidence for Cassiodorus' religious development at this time indicates that the concern was some time in developing. The enthusiastic praise in the Institutiones for the talents and the work of Dionysius Exiguus indicates that Cassiodorus was personally acquainted with the Scythian monk. As we have seen, opportunities existed for the two men to know each other, either as teacher and student or simply as brother scholars, both before Cassiodorus' public life and during the years from 511 to 523, some part of which, at least, Cassiodorus seems to have spent at Rome. Thus the education of Cassiodorus, and even his intellectual pastimes in adult years spent out of office in semiretirement, may well have been directed toward the Christian life of learning for decades before his term as prefect. The sudden desire to found a school may be evidence, not of new concern for religious affairs, but rather of a newly developed consciousness of his ability to carry off such a project, which depends more on financial resources, like-minded cosponsors, and a certain amount of the confidence of mature years than on simple religious fervor. Thus while the notion of Cassiodorus' growing religious concerns during these years remains unproven, it can plausibly be replaced by a picture of a more lasting and developed interest.

It is therefore useful to speak of the process whose outward product was the De anima as one of conversion if we take care to understand that term. Current usage in English commonly limits "conversion" to the adoption of a particular religious creed by an individual or group formerly outside the community of faith thus entered; other uses are analogical. There is a strain of evangelical Christianity that speaks of conversion even in cases of individuals who have been brought up within organized Christianity; this is actually a revival of some of the original content of the concept.

For "conversion" in early medieval Christianity is not a simple event, a declaration of allegiance comparable to the acquisition of naturalized citizenship by a legal process. Instead, the term, rooted in the etymological notion of a turning towards God, had extensive use for many sorts of religious experience. To take the most familiar case, the young Augustine had been brought up by a Christian mother and enrolled as a catechumen; his chief religious activity as a young man was with the peripherally Christian Manichaeans, but by the time of his acceptance of the chair of rhetoric at Milan he was willing to attend orthodox Christian services while remaining officially a catechumen. Thus in the modern sense of the term, the event that took place in the garden at Milan in 386, and that has become the archetype for "conversion" discussions ever since, could bc treated merely as the decision of a man who had been in Christian milieux all his life to accept baptism; even this is not so remarkable as it would be today, since late baptism was common.

But clearly Augustine treats his experience in Milan as a conversion, by which he has reference more specifically to the spiritual content of his life than generally to legal formalities. This distinction is central to early medieval notions of conversion.[[8]] The best evidence for the importance of this notion is found in the textual history of the Regula of Benedict, buried beneath a mountain of misplaced philological effort.[[9]] In several places in that text, Benedict speaks of "conversion" as something central to the life of the monk. In Chapter 58, with the enumeration of the vows that the new monk is to make, the subject is emphasized; the novice is made to promise obedience, stabilitas, and conversatio morum suorum.[[10]] The philological difficulty is with the word conversatio. That it is only a philological difficulty is best attested by the paleographical information that in the places in the rule were conversatio should be taken in the sense of "conversion," the medieval monks and copyists who lived under the Regula simply changed their text to read conversio, following the spirit and sense of their founder's command, rather than the letter.[[11]]

The explanation for Benedict's use of conversatio has been obscured in the later history of the term and the ideas it represents; for Benedict's conversatio had connotations of durative action lacking in conversio. Thus its initial use directly implied an obligation on the part of the monk whom Benedict was describing to continue throughout his life the process begun with the taking of the monastic vows. The term, then, not only focuses attention on the spiritual life of the monk, rather than his external acts, but demands a continuing process of turning to God anew each day, rather than a simple, once-and-for-all event at one stage of his life. This emphasis is directly attuned to the whole purpose and nature of monastic life, something that seeks new perfections each day. In a similar vein, in the seventh chapter of the Regula, Benedict listed twelve "steps of humility" for the monk to climb, envisioning a continuing effort at perfection that will only have its ultimate success in the next life, but that must be labored at diligently in this.

Thus in late antiquity one could still speak of the conversion of a heathen, and even of a heretic (e.g., a Gothic Arian), when all that was meant by it was the acceptance of catholic Christianity by an individual. But by the extension fostered in the manner just described, the term could also be used of actions taken by men who were already, to all appearances, loyal Christians. Thus we begin to hear of men who are called conversi (Cassiodorus in later life, for one); these are men who, after a life dedicated to public or military service, have turned to a more explicitly religious way of life. The term can refer both to those who do so in the midst of home and family (in a kind of heightened experience of the more exclusively literary retirement of earlier aristocrats grown weary of public life) and to those who make formal profession of membership in an organized monastic community.

The final stage of religious ascent to which the notion of conversion could be applied was that of devoted cenobitic monks who chose to retire to the eremitic life; both Benedict and Cassiodorus recommend the hermit's life, when prudently and wisely undertaken, as the highest life open to man.[[12]] Hermitage thus culminates a ladder of external experiences of the religious life that gave practical realization to the different levels of conversion that men could undergo in their interior spiritual life.

The theology of conversion could be seen under two different aspects as well. First, the point of view could be God's rather than the individual's, in the context of the relationship of grace. The prophet's words, "Convert us to you, 0 Lord, and we will be converted" (Lam. 5.21), could be a summary of this understanding.[[13]] But in that narrow context, the terminology of conversion was influenced by Luke: "If thy brother sin against thee, reprove him: and if he do penance forgive him. And if he sin against thee seven times in a day, and seven times in a day be converted unto thee, saying, I repent; forgive him" (Luke 17.3-4). Obviously, here the term is referring to little more than ordinary penance; but it is important to notice the iterative quality of this kind of penance and to recall how it reflects the repeated and continuous nature of Christian conversion at the highest level.

Conversion could also be understood, not from the point of view of temporal things, from which one is expected to turn towards God, but from that of eternity. The goal, the ideal state of man's life, is thus stabilitas, the state eventually reached by conversion when it shakes the soul loose from attachment to (and repeated turnings away from God as a result of attachment to) unstable temporal things. It is no coincidence that the vow that appears in grammatical parallel with that of conversatio morum suorum in the Regula of Benedict is that of stabilitas; this kind of monastic stability was only, to be sure, a faint echo of the kind of stability ultimately sought, but its appearance is strongly figurative of that other stability. Cassiodorus himself summarized this doctrine very neatly in the De anima: "Clearly the soul in this world can gain and lose goodness, converted by an unstable and shifting will, nor does it always abide in one firm purpose of the will, but even against its own disposition is changed in its orientation [se conversione mutare]" (De an. 4.214-218). Conversion is thus the action of the soul, understood temporally, intended to counteract the adverse influence of temporal things, while stabilitas is the state to be achieved by that motion, beyond temporality, in the next life.

The life of a conversus (of one "correcting his evil ways, doing good, pursuing the reward of good works," as Isidore of Seville would define him [Isidore, Sententiae 2.7.7]) is thus a life deliberately (and somewhat ostentatiously, to be sure) ordered along Christian principles. In this broad sense, it is not incorrect to speak of Cassiodorus as a conversus from the time that he began writing the De anima and studying the Psalter, though he only used the term of himself at a later date. Given the limitations of our evidence, there still seems to be a direct and connected progression from Cassiodorus the public servant active in reconciliation between warring parties to Cassiodorus the author of the short philosophical treatise to Cassiodorus the commentator on the Psalms and the founder of monasteries. We are, to be sure, not in possession of any direct biographical testimony for this period, nor can we tell what vicissitudes may have disturbed this apparently smooth and direct passage.

What we do know of the De anima, however, should caution us to avoid making too much of the discontinuity between the last works of the politician and the first of the conversus. First of all, the De anima, despite its clearly religious content, is not one of the works listed in the preface to the De orthographia as the fruits of Cassiodorus' life of conversion; that list, written perhaps about 580, begins with the "Psalm commentary, to which, with God's help, I devoted my first efforts at the time of my conversion" (De orth. 144.1-2). Thus, however justified we are in speaking of Cassiodorus' conversion as beginning, or appearing to begin, with the De anima, very late in his life Cassiodorus was not putting the date back quite so early.

The second consideration limiting our estimate of the religiosity of Cassiodorus' intentions at this time is the explicit connection between the De anima and the Variae. We have already noticed that the De anima is mentioned in the preface to Books XI and XII of the Variae as the work that immediately followed the compilation of the Variae (Var. 11, Praef. 7).[[14]] The reason for making mention of the De anima at that point was to justify its inclusion in the same volume with the Variae, as almost a thirteenth book; the treatise does in fact survive in one family of manuscripts, following immediately on the last page of the Variae. The same thing is stated explicitly in the Psalm commentary, which refers to something "in the book about the soul, which is the thirteenth book in the Variae" (Ex. Ps. 145.30).[[15]]

An appreciation of the state of Cassiodorus' mind on religious matters at the time of the composition of the De anima must thus take into account this connection with the Variae.

First, the De anima must have been completed before the preface to the last two books of the Variae was written; thus the two works seem to have been in production simultaneously. Second, the state of Cassiodorus' mind before and after his retirement is not therefore drastically changed. There is a certain very gentle irony (not emphasized at all) in placing this philosophical disquisition, with its chapters on how to detect good men from bad by their appearances, at the end of a long work in which a great many good and bad men are seen in the midst of temporal affairs. But there is no reason to think that Cassiodorus was undergoing any more than a very gradual change of mind during this period. If Cassiodorus was always a devoted man in religious matters, a horrible war that he had long sought to avoid would make those religious concerns more visible to his neighbors and his literary posterity; they would not necessarily in themselves bring about radical change. Moreover, the evidence as it stands for the period 537-540 does not logically require us to assume anything more than this unveiling of concerns hitherto hidden by chance and literary circumstance.

The Cassiodorus of 537-540 is therefore a man who, in the loosest early medieval sense of the word, is in the first stages of a conversion. Whether, however, he was aware of this very strongly himself is not known to us. At this time more than at any other in his life, the literary persona through which Cassiodorus speaks to us obstructs almost completely our view of what we would like to believe is the real man. There is certainly none of the self-revelation of an Augustine before us, nor will there ever be. Very quietly, behind all the literary smoke screens, Cassiodorus continues to develop out of one phase of his life and into another by a quiet and continuous process, no more theatrical or melodramatic than the course of a gentle river to the sea. If there is something for us to grasp here of the character of the man, we must do so gently to avoid crushing our catch with the vigor of our own analysis. The simplest thing to say is that the conversion we are witnessing is only a conversion in the medieval, gradual sense. By modern standards, the development is too subtle, too deliberate, too unspectacular.

Thus as we turn to the text of the De anima to see what its author would have us learn from it, the great surprise is the absence of surprises, the simplicity and straightforwardness of the treatment of a comparatively unexciting subject. Our task must be to determine the particular interest that this topic aroused in Cassiodorus' mind and how the composition of this book seemed to him to be a beneficial contribution to his own intellectual development and to his audience's understanding of the truths of faith.

But as soon as we look for testimony about the origin and purpose of the work, we run into a familiar feature: a rhetorical preface in which the demands of friends are represented as the real source of the work. "While I was rejoicing in the happy conclusion of the work I had undertaken, and the quiet harbor took me in battered from the ocean of those twelve books, whence I had arrived freed from, if not always praised for, my labor, a thoughtful group of friends drove me out again onto the sea of thought, demanding that I discuss some of the things which I had read in theological and secular books about the soul and its powers, since the soul is a key which unlocks secrets of greater things; they said it is silly of us to be ignorant of that through which we know so many other things, since it is always useful to know how it is that we know" (De an. 1.110). This weighty, not altogether attractive sentence tells us much and little. The temporal connection between finishing the Variae and beginning the De anima has already been noted; the "group of friends" is suspiciously reminiscent of the earlier preface to the Variae; and the expressed philosophical purpose has already been alluded to in the preface to Book XI of the Variae.

we must hesitate to judge how much truth there is in the preface to the Variae on the matter of the anonymous friends, we are so much the more on shaky ground here. To hear Cassiodorus tell it, he had never yet in his life had an original idea for a literary work; his panegyrical-historical works were all inspired by his kings, and now the Variae and the De anima are produced grudgingly at the behest of friends who remain hidden from us. The bulk of the first little chapter of the De anima is placed in the putative words of the friends, who expound a little their notion of the subject and enunciate twelve questions for Cassiodorus to answer. It is this last point that offers the surest grounds for doubting the genuineness of this supposed dialogue; for the twelve questions so elaborated follow from one another so neatly and comprehensively that they must have been worked out, at the very least, by the true author in conjunction with, perhaps, philosophically inclined friends. If we admit that the entire device of the curious friends may be fictitious, we then conclude that in fact what we have before us is only a rather hackneyed introduction to the larger work. In either case it is a clumsy beginning.

The pretext for the work is a bit of sophistry implied in the passage quoted above. The purpose of the friends' questions is to know more about that thing, the anima, through which the human mind obtains knowledge. To justify this theme, a distinction is drawn between the pursuits of mundani doctores (from whom we seek to know the courses of the planets, the height of the heavens, the measure of the earth, and the four elements) and more enlightened students of theology. The curiosity of the doctores is hypocritical: "for when we are taught by the sages, 'know thyself,' how far can it be tolerated that we should be thus ignorant of ourselves?" (De an. 1.16-18). There is much to this argument that is mere quibble, but something more is present, imperfectly expressed in the stilted prose. For the contrast presented in the first sentence between the things to be discovered about the anima in the libri sacri and those found in libri saeculares presents to us for the first time what is probably the most fruitful (if not original) idea that Cassiodorus ever had, the one that moved to the center of his life's work within a few years.

Already in his years in public life, he had sought, together with Agapetus, the establishment of a school for sacred, as opposed to secular, studies. The first words of the Institutiones, written at least fifteen to twenty years after the De anima, reflect the attitudes of the last years of Cassiodorus' public career and the very words of the preface of the De anima.[[16]] The contrast vaguely stated by the friends in the preface to the De anima between the wide-ranging concerns of the worldly men of learning and the more subtle discourses that they were demanding of Cassiodorus surely shows the same discomfort that Cassiodorus expressed more clearly after settling at Squillace. For the meantime he was trapped in wartime Ravenna, probably conscious that his first effort at rounding a school had failed. At this time the intellectual activity of Cassiodorus was guided by the same principles but supported by little of the confidence with which both the Roman school and the later enterprise at the Vivarium were undertaken.

The De anima, then, undertook the study of a philosophical issue from a point of view not strictly philosophical, making reference to scriptural texts. Unlike Augustine's early works on the soul, which argued from the conclusions available to unaided human reason, Cassiodorus argues from authority. Unlike Claudianus Mamertus' De statu animae, which borrows heavily in its second book from worldly philosophers, Cassiodorus argues from specifically Christian authority (Augustine is the only author he cites by name).[[17]]

Any overt religiosity of purpose, however, is not very clearly represented in the outline of the work proposed; the subjects are clearly of a philosophical order, though capable of theological answers. It is of course typically Cassiodorian that there should be exactly twelve questions proposed and answered in order. In the original Cassiodorian edition of the work, these twelve questions were the chief structural features. In the manuscript tradition there is a further division of the work into seventeen or eighteen capitula; the seventeenth century edition of Garet preserves a twelvefold division of chapters (from a less populous family of manuscripts) that tries to reflect Cassiodorus' intentions more faithfully. However, it is probable that the twelvefold division was left implicit in the most primitive form of the work, the form in which it first left Cassiodorus' hands, and that all chapter divisions are later interpolations, even if by the author himself.[[18]]

The division into eighteen chapters comprises two introductory chapters presenting the queries of friends and the reply of Cassiodorus (a similar dialogue in the preface to the Variae was not divided into chapters), twelve chapters corresponding to the twelve questions answered, two further chapter-divisions interpolated into the answer of the twelfth question, a recapitulatio, and a concluding oratio. For the purposes of content, the chapter titles interpolated over the answer to each question are superfluous. See, for example, the end of the fourth chapter (the end of the second response): "Now let us go on to treat the soul's substantialis qualitas in well-chosen words--you recall that this was your third question" (De an. 4.227-229). With that, the intervening title, "De qualitate animae," is superfluous and less informative than the preceding sentence. Rather than being an isolated event, this case is in fact typical of the work. At the end of every single one of the first eleven responses there is a similar sentence (most have the word nunc directing the reader's attention) providing an easy and natural transition to the next chapter.[[19]] The most interesting case is that of the beginning of the very first answer, where Cassiodorus almost seems to forget that the questions were set for him by someone else and begins to speak of what he must treat before he enters on the res expetita; but in fact this prolegomenon is only the first of those very things suggested by his friends.

After the discussion of the future state of souls in the answer to the twelfth question, another transition is prepared in the text: "Now we must put aside this bundle of questions and summarize our complex and wordy argument under a few headings, so that we can add up our conclusions briefly and store them away in the barns of memory" (De an. 16.60-63). This sentence confirms that the discussion of the questions has included everything up to this point; it also makes the insertion there of the next chapter heading, "Recapitulatio," superfluous and uninformative again. That chapter is taken up partly with a listing of the twelve conclusions reached in the work, but it quickly becomes a concluding discourse that praises the virtues of the anima and then a prayer addressed in the second person to the Lord.[[20]] After this had gone on for a page or so, the author of the eighteenfold division noticed that recapitulation had become prayer, so he interrupted our reading once again with the unhelpful title, "Oratio." In this case, the last of these intrusions, otherwise moderately helpful in signaling the contents of the work for impatient modern readers, is simply misplaced.

At the beginning of Cassiodorus' part of the work he is faced with his friends' final request: "Tell us these things in order, God willing, so we may follow you easily and so you may earn the title doctor" (De an. 1.51-53). This would not be Cassiodorus if he did not first protest against such implicit praise. He pleads the difficulty of the subject, arising specifically out of the sophistry by which it was introduced just as the eye sees stars, but not itself, so the anima knows all things save itself. This, of course, does not actually stop Cassiodorus, but it lets him complain that "these matters do not resemble the royal commands with which we have lately busied ourselves, but befit serious and abstract dialogues which speak not to corporeal ears but to the purified hearing of the inner man" (De an. 2.1-4). Moreover, he claims, he is fatigued by the effort of producing the Variae: What sort of thing can I write, wearied as I am from the work I have just been hurrying to finish?" (De an. 2.12-13). But his friends, as we suspected all along, are relentless, and he wins only the reprieve of a few days (aliquot dies). The work is tolerable, indeed almost pleasant: "But now I find it unburdensome to be urged to speak of matters which, if I handle them truthfully and with God's help, will invigorate my audience and illuminate my own understanding as I make the argument" (De an. 2.23-26).

Whereupon he truly begins, first by distinguishing the inconveniently similar terms for different things that often confuse men. Thus the first question thoughtfully provided for him is an etymological one, which he enjoys as is his wont Anima, he claims, derives from anema, signifying dissimilarity to blood, which is the source of the life of beasts; animus is conversely derived "apo tu animu," namely the wind, since its cogitation is similarly swift.[[21]] With soul and mind thus distinguished, he adds almost gratuitous differentiations from other terms. Mens is defined, but the distinction from animus is not made explicit. Spiritus is defined, and opposed to anima, in three ways. Thus, he concludes, "the soul is defined as a spiritual substance which in no way perishes" along with the body (De an. 3.34-36).

With his terminology settled, Cassiodorus turns to defining the anima philosophically. He begins by presenting various opinions, first from magistri saecularium litterarum, who "say the soul is a simple substance, a natural shape, separate from the matter of its body, a divisible whole, having the power of life" (De an. 4.1-4). This contribution from the oracles of secular wisdom, the straw men of Cassiodorus' argument, is not wrong but incomplete. "The soul of man, as the opinion of truthful scholars has it [ut veracium doctorum consentit auctoritas], is a unique spiritual substance created by God, enlivening its body, rational and immortal, but capable of converting itself to both good and evil" (De an. 4.4-7). The first definition echoes Chalcidius' Plato and Aristotle, while the opinion of the veraces doctores depends on Augustine's De quantitate animae, at least indirectly. It is this more comprehensive, and at the same time more religious, definition that Cassiodorus proceeds to analyze in detail. The chapter that does this, and on which the rest of the work is to be based, is longer then any of the other responses and approximately three to four times as long as all but the ninth and the twelfth. For this definition "is set out before us like a hen's egg, containing within the life of the unborn bird and the pleasing array of feathers. Now we will unpack that definition because men learn more readily what appears clearly divided in parts" (De an. 4.7-11).[[22]] Each term of the definition of the veraces doctores is then elaborated at some length.

The first topic is the createdness of the soul, on which for the first time in the work scriptural authority is cited (from Ecclesiastes and Isaiah) in two passages that state straightforwardly that God is the source of spiritus and omnis flatus (De an. 4.18-20). Another paragraph explains the association of the soul with the body and its quality as spirit, again quoting the authority of scripture. And so Cassiodorus proceeds through the definition; his longest section is reserved for the discussion of the immortality of the soul. In this case his procedure imitates that of the work as a whole: first he presents the syllogisms of the auctores saecularium litterarum, but then he states, "We have no trouble confirming the immortality of the soul on the authority of inspired texts," and he alludes to Genesis 1.26 to argue that immortality is a necessary consequence of creation in the image and likeness of God (De an. 4.127-132). To this argument are then added for support only refutations of objections that might be brought against such an interpretation of the Genesis passage; for example, it might be objected that image and likeness entail the power to create, so Cassiodorus refutes this in hopes of leaving his original argument erect. With such explanation he passes on to the last elements of the definition, arguing the soul's convertibility towards good and evil on the basis of common experience. Finally this point is used to conclude the section by showing how this convertibility is what formally distinguishes for us between the soul of man and that of God.

The third response, concerning the qualitas of the soul's substance, only refers at the beginning to secular auctores, but the first theory presented is clearly pre-Christian, to which again Cassiodorus responds with scripture and echoes of Augustine. The remainder of the questions from this point on are of a philosophical nature, always colored with this desire to show how the Christian answer differs from (mainly by improving upon rather than refuting) the view of the secular authorities. Thus the fourth section concludes that the soul does not have corporeal form, the fifth that the moral virtues are the riches of the soul struggling against corporal impurity. Justice in this view combats the prava vel iniqua in which man is susceptible, while prudence defends against confusa and incerta; similar claims are made for fortitude and temperance. Thus the cardinal virtues are made a fourfold shield against the onslaughts of vice. Cassiodorus concentrates on the cardinal, rather than the theological, virtues, infusing the old classical ideas with Christian meaning rather than transcending them completely. Thus these moral virtues are contrasted only to the natural virtues of the soul, which we would call its characteristic powers.

The most theological chapter treats the origin of the soul and attempts to understand the scientific facts represented by the scriptural account of creation.[[23]] Since the chapter itself begins with reference to scripture, there is no mention of secular views, and indeed the question is taken in such a way as to preclude its ever having been asked by secular authors. More traditional is the longest dispute, spread over two chapters, on the sedes animae and the arrangement of the body to perform the soul's bidding. These chapters are the least scriptural of the work, but the most obviously dependent on the commentaries of earlier Christian writers.[[24]]

This discussion completes the scientific section of the work and affords a return to moral issues. Two curious chapters come next, without much foundation in known sources, on the ways of identifying good and bad men: "De cognoscendis malis hominibus," and "De cognoscendis bonis hominibus" (De an. 12, 13). The first chapter describes the fall of man through sin, then asserts that there are certain obvious indicators by which evil men betray themselves. They are sad-eyed, easily distracted, and worried over what other people might think of them; moreover, they have literally an evil odor about their persons. Good men, the next chapter reveals, are forgiving, humble, self-effacing images of what unfallen man might have been (and they have a good odor besides). These laudable traits are not remarkable "in sexu validiore," but Cassiodorus professes himself unable to explain the virtues of virgins and widows (De an. 13.90-94).

It is easy to chuckle patronizingly at this kind of naive belief that good and evil men can be distinguished by external characteristics, but there is considerable psychological truth to the observations recorded in these chapters. They will not avail the reader much if he stands on a street corner scrutinizing the faces of passersby, but they will enable him better to look into his own soul and his own life. What are identified here are trivial external characteristics that spring from deeper moral qualities and can bc symptoms of much more significant things. There is a higher spiritual discipline in repressing and correcting trivial bad habits, both as an inherently valuable practice and as a way of getting at the more serious interior failings. Thus a concern for other people's opinion of oneself is not in itself a great sin, but it is frequently a sign that temptations to vainglory have not been altogether successfully resisted. Similarly, the virtues enumerated in the chapter on good men are the little signs by which genuine, thoroughgoing moral excellence can be recognized in other people. Cassiodorus is not suggesting with these chapters that men can or should ,judge one another by these criteria, but he shows how easily one's own failings and other people's virtues can be recognized by attention to detail.

The last long chapter in three parts, on the state of the soul after death, is second in length only to the definition chapter. Saeculares auctores have been forgotten, and Cassiodorus promises to speak on the basis of a diversa lectio. He first describes death scientifically (by sixth-century standards), then the approach to ,judgment: "There we are burdened no longer with toil, we are no longer refreshed by food, nor are we daily beset by hunger; but abiding without end in the soul's true nature we shall do no good or evil deeds, but until the day of judgment only grieve for our past misdeeds or rejoice in our probity" (De an. 14.6-11).

The bulk of this section describes the state of life in the futurum saeculum. The identifiable verbal parallels here go back to the last books of Augustine's De civitate Dei, where the subject was similar. Oddly, Cassiodorus does not depend at all on the descriptions of heaven and hell provided in scripture, perhaps out of a preference for attempting to rephrase familiar ideas. For the damned, hell is affliction without hope; for the just, heaven is a place where "the stable mind does not hesitate, is not vacillating, does not move, and is fixed in such a stable peace that it neither thinks nor seeks any good save contemplation" (De an. 15.44-47). This heaven, echoing the Augustinian formula, is a place where the soul is not able to sin (De an. 15.52-53). From here on, the work becomes palpably less and less a philosophy treatise and more and more a rhetorical evocation of, first, the conditions of the future life and, second, by an imperceptible transition, God Himself. To believers painfully conscious of how little they really could know of God, these verbal formulas were masterpieces of what the human intellect could achieve in cooperation with divine revelation; for they achieved the impossible: they captured something of the divine in mere words, enabling men to reach some part of the unspeakable mystery of God.

It is an interruption in an exulting contemplation for Cassiodorus to call his readers back to a mundane summary of the contents of the work here concluding, but he does so as briefly and concisely as possible. His only comment is on his use of the number twelve, which is the number of the zodiac signs, of the months of the year, of the principal winds of the earth, and of the hours of each half of the day's cycle.

After that short paragraph the remainder of the work is one final admonition growing gradually into a heartfelt prayer. "Now it remains, learned and astute readers, to transcend the material world and speedily offer ourselves to the divine mercy which illuminates all who behold it" (De an. 17.26-29). It is in that subjection to God that victory for the understanding will be found; "in Christ's service no heart which gives itself wholly up to Him is ever found untouchable, nor can it fail to see what it seeks, nor can it lose what it is given in reward for loyalty" (De an. 17.33-36). The second person of apostrophe to the divinity enters easily and naturally, still in the course of a praise of divine mercy in revealing such things to men. This in turn leads to worshipful consideration of the redemptive function of God in Christ.

The "Oratio" (as so designated in the MSS) begins with a plea to Christ for assistance.[[25]] For the serpent is everywhere troubling all men: "he casts the evil eye, alas, on such great peoples, because there are two of them, and still persecutes the time-bound men whom he makes mortal by his impious efforts" (De an. 18.10-12).[[26]] This one sentence has received more comment than any other in the De anima because scholars have been unanimous in seeing in it a reference to contemporary events; just how the content of that reference is to be interpreted, scholars have been far from unanimous. The two main possibilities are that the two peoples so pitied are the Ostrogoth-Roman kingdom of Italy and the Byzantines (argued by van de Vyver, and followed by Besselaar, Cappuyns, and Ludwig), or that they are the Catholic Romans and Arian Goths in Italy itself (Mommsen, followed by Schanz).[[27]] If there is a contemporary reference in this passage, the two poles of opinion seem to me to blur an important reality, namely the connection between the Catholic Romans in Italy and the Catholic Romans coming from the east. Thus both opinions can be true, but neither complete, if the reference is to the whole pattern of oppositions between peoples brought to a head by the Gothic war, but going back to all the attempts to justify and establish the position of the Gothic kingdom in Italy over the preceding decades. In this view the two parties are simply those who do and do not accept the rule of the Goths in Italy as legitimate; the whole crisis of identity which that kingdom suffered throughout its history is here encapsulated. Thus the theory is an attractive one; but it is dangerously undersupported by the flimsy text on which it is built. Some scholars have even professed to be able to date the composition of the work to within a few months on the basis of this passage almost alone; that is surely folly. The allusion is, in the end, obscure. The thought of the passage in which it is couched is a simple and nonpolitical one: that the devil is still active in the world to the detriment of men.

Having sought general assistance in this prayer against the devil, the emphasis turns personal and the pronouns become first person singular: "Lord... save me from myself and preserve me in you .... Then shall I belong to myself, when I truly belong to you" (De an. 18.19-22). Only in God will we understand ourselves and our troubles and successes. "All things rush to ruin when they revolt from loyalty to your might" (De an. 18.28-29). To love God is to be saved, to fear Him is to rejoice, to find Him is to grow, to have lost Him is to perish. Then another apparently contemporary reference: "It is in the end nobler to be your servant than to gain all the kingdoms of the earth" (De an. 18.31-32). This passage has also leapt out of the page and into the hands of scholars interested solely in the text as an (albeit unsatisfactory) historical source, telling them that Cassiodorus was profoundly disenchanted with public life and emotionally and spiritually in the process of a drastic conversion from a worldly to a spiritual life. Perhaps there is a special sight that reveals such hidden mysteries to some scrutinizers of ambiguous, conventional texts of this sort, which many a public servant of the age could have written only to return directly to the most distasteful political or military chores; if there be such a sight, I do not possess it and the text says nothing extraordinary to me. There is nothing in what we know concretely of Cassiodorus' public life to make us think that he ever lost sight completely of the superiority of heavenly to earthly kingdoms. The value as historical evidence of any such statement, moreover, is sharply reduced by its presence in a profoundly confessional rhetorical text such as this.[[28]] There is no reason to suspect that merely because it echoes the conventional, it is false; but neither are there grounds for seeing in it dramatic personal revelation. The whole tone of the work, with its extremely reserved self-representation, militates against such a conclusion.

The tone of self-abnegation reaches its height in the last paragraph of the prayer, where God's action in human life is extolled and sought after (De an. 18.52-54). Finally, a last short statement directly by the author to the reader completes the motif of humility, excusing the inadequacy of the treatment on grounds of the author's weakness, attributing the virtues of the work to his written sources.[[29]] "They can speak of these things blamelessly who have shown by the quality of their life that they have been purified in divine service" (De an. 18.58-60).

If we may for a moment ignore the author's petitions for forgiveness of his faults, what has this little book achieved? First, it has summarized the orthodox doctrine of the church in the sixth century on the human soul, arguing not from reason, nor again from secular authority, but from the authority of scripture and the fathers of the church. Second, more importantly, it has made the forbiddingly dry philosophical topic lead, as if naturally, into moral and theological considerations of the highest order, leading from the soul to its ultimate fate to the God that directs that fate. Third, it has embodied some stage or other in the spiritual development of its author. Concerned about the popularity of the saeculares doctores and the way they came to dominate philosophical discussion even in the Christian empire (as in Boethius' theological tractates, for example), Cassiodorus' work in the form we see it represents an epoch in the progression that will lead eventually to the monastic and intellectual enterprise at Squillace.

But we can comprehend the De anima no better than primitive man understood a rainbow. However attractive and unique the work seems to us to be, we are as unprepared to untangle with accuracy the circumstances of its composition as the primitive was to explain the refraction of light through suspended raindrops. We should be careful lest our desire to know more and more about Cassiodorus himself should lead us to skip over the simpler pleasure of observing his creation. Thus the period of this work remains for us a mystery, illuminated only by fleeting rays. We have arrived at a working hypothesis for Cassiodorus' movements at this time, determining that he may well have left Ravenna, perhaps under constraint, with the party in which Belisarius took Witigis to Constantinople, and that he settled in the eastern metropolis for over a decade. In the next chapter we will pursue the fragments of evidence that tell us about his stay in Constantinople, and we will look closely at the literary monument that he produced in that curious exile.

Go on to Chapter 5 or return to Table of Contents.