On “Chaucer’s Dialectic: How the Establishment Theology is Subjected to Scrutiny in Five Canterbury Tales” by Barbara Tovey

In Barbara Tovey’s essay “Chaucer’s Dialectic: How the Establishment Theology is Subjected to Scrutiny in Five Canterbury Tales” (published in Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy in 2004), she begins her examination of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales by contextualizing the Middle Ages –an epoch which many of us are inclined to say is “characterized by an overwhelming uniformity of thought and belief, a time when independence of inquiry was utterly stifled. That the vast majority of people accepted unquestioningly and on faith the teachings of a single and as yet undivided Christian Church is, of course, not to be doubted, and in this respect the age contrasts markedly with our own.” However, while this is a broadly accepted portrait of the age, Tovey makes note of a small but “educated minority” wherein skepticism and unbelief were by no means unknown phenomena, particularly at the universities at Padua and Paris, where Arab influence was the strongest. And the heresy of courtly love which prevailed among the unlearned aristocracy sheds light on certain tensions with the teachings of the Christian Church.  

With this in mind, the fourteenth century’s “intense intellectual activity” is reflected perhaps most strongly in the poetic works of Chaucer. And yet, tempted as we might be to simply suggest Chaucer is a mere poet and nothing more, following from his intellectual predecessor, contemporary, and model –Bocaccio– Chaucer offers us something deeper, as in the rich tradition of Virgil, Dante, and Petrarch. “The greatest poetry invariably presents, although in veiled and secretive form, a teaching concerning the central philosophic questions.”    

Unlike other poets of the age, Chaucer’s “chief concern was undoubtedly with human beings and their problems” –showcasing all manner of natures and labors (as Shakespeare will emulate centuries later). And despite not being a theologian himself, “Chaucer was sufficiently wise to know that the answers to these questions depend greatly upon the solution that is given to certain crucial theological and metaphysical problems.” For example, if there is an afterlife which renders this life little more than a moment (i.e. the body being merely a purgatorial passage until the soul can finally be liberated to life ever-lasting), our attitudes toward “this world” will be starkly different than if we accept our lives as the end-all be-all. Or if an all-wise, all-good Providence rules the universe, then our interpretation of human life would be different than if we held the contrary opinion. With this premise in mind, Tovey’s thesis is that “Chaucer believed these problems to be of the utmost importance. Whatever his ultimate conclusions about these questions, he was not content to simply adopt the establishment teaching without questioning the ready-made answers provided by the official teachings of the Church.” Tovey likens Chaucer to the The Wife of Bath in The Canterbury Tales, rather than Griselda in The Clerk’s Tale, because like The Wife of Bath, Chaucer approaches difficult questions with a spirit of “critical, independent inquiry,” which makes him “a non-conformist in the highest and best sense of the word, a free spirit who took the sublime liberty of subjecting the assumptions of his age to critical scrutiny.” Therefore, Tovey endeavors to examine at least five of Chaucer’s tales in order to disentangle a dialectical discussion of key philosophical problems, allowing for certain orthodox and unorthodox views to consider, respond, and confront one another.

Chaucer’s esotericism is borne out of a need to protect himself from retribution for asking unorthodox questions. Thus, we see him place his most controversial opinions in the mouths of his traveling pilgrims, who fabricate their own stories –and the most unorthodox views are espoused by characters largely portrayed as disreputable (Shakespeare also tended to place his own unorthodox views within the mouths of his fools and madmen). As a model for the medieval theological understanding, one of the chief sources of inquiry for Chaucer was Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy, and it is worth noting that nowhere in Chaucer’s poetry does he concern himself with the parts of Dame Philosophy’s argument (namely, regarding the perfectness and goodness of God), though his characters frequently raise this question as a subject for critical speculation. For example, Tovey notes that Philosophy’s answer to Boethius in The Consolation of Philosophy regarding foreordination and free will is indicated in The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, though the narrator refrains from accepting the answers provided by either Boethius, Augustine, or Brawardine. Tovey carefully reminds us that while the words of Chaucer’s characters cannot be personally ascribed to Chaucer himself, Chaucer’s technique –” the elaborate presentation of the argument against the established view followed by silence concerning the answer”—recurs again and again throughout his works, leading us to at least “the possibility that Chaucer, insofar as these particular theological problems were concerned, intended us to see that his silence concerning the accepted Christian solution was tantamount to a statement of the inadequacy of this solution.”

Regarding the question of Chaucer’s awareness of his esotericism and his need to be silent on certain matters, consider the ending of The Canon Yeoman’s Tale in which philosophy is compared to alchemy, and an injunction of silence is laid upon the philosophers with regard to their most profound truths, truths which are necessarily kept hidden from the “lewd” many. Tovey also points us to the subsequent tale, The Manciple’s Tale, where Chaucer presents a different, less sympathetic, portrayal of Phebus when contrasted with his source material in Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Chaucer’s version, this simple morality tale, in truth, is revealed to be much darker –a cautionary tale about the nature of truth-tellers, and the scorn they will surely face from those for whom they lift the veil of delusion. Therefore, a “weakening of faith may well produce harmful effects for the majority of people.” The Manciple is portrayed in The General Prologue as an unscrupulous but clever rogue who, as a distinguished lawyer, was no doubt a master in the art of deception. After all, in the prologue to his tale, he presents an unpleasant truth which is then smoothed over with wine for the Cook –perhaps this is a metaphor for the Tales, as a whole, whose goal is to both edify and entertain (i.e. to “maken ernest of game!”).

However, Chaucer does not merely provide one side of the dispute. Tovey argues that the skeptical queries raised in The Knight’s Tale, for example, are responded to with an assertion of the accepted faith in the Man of Law’s Tale. A response is then given by the unorthodox and disreputable Wife of Bath, who is answered by the subtle and critical religious defense in the Clerk’s Tale, until a “final synthesis” is provided the Franklin’s Tale, who weaves together elements of orthodox and unorthodox views in an extraordinarily complex manner. Thus, we are given a subtle dialectical debate in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.     

With the Knight’s Tale, we are given a story that presents contrasting patterns of order and chaos in life. Order comes in the figure of Theseus and the livelihood of his court, whereas chaos comes from international relations which are out of Theseus’s control –the sacking of Athens by Thebes, casualties from the Theban War, and the harsh treatment of prisoners. Even the gods themselves are depicted as irrational beings, in conflict with one another, creators of disorder, and bringers of senseless human suffering upon the word. None of the characters seem to question the existence of divine powers, but the narrative is confined to questioning the beneficence of these rulers. For instance, Palomon bemoans his state of affairs, crying out against the order of divine providence while being counseled from his prison cell by Arcite and his Boethian advice of “resignation and patience in the face of the vicissitudes of fortune” is found sorely lacking. Arcite offers the solution to the problem of evil which has plagued Christian theology from the beginning –that in truth there is no evil. The appearance of evil is merely due to human lack of comprehension of the complicated, but ultimately beneficent workings, of Providence. Therefore, Arcite comes to light as a defender of the Orthodox Christian position. Palomon, on the other hand, challenges the goodness and justice of divine rule. He cries out at the indifference of the gods who apparently care very little for the affairs of humans. Why then does Arcite (who adopts the optimistic view of divine Providence) and not Palomon suffer death at the hands of the gods? Tovey says, “The upholder of the goodness of the deity is subjected to defeat and punishment; the unsubmissive rebel wins the ultimate victory.” Additionally, his excruciating death is given greater emphasis and detail than in the source material in Bocaccio’s Teseida. Since he dies not in battle, but rather from falling off his horse resulting from the careless, sickening forces of nature, his death is little more than a horrifying catastrophe. As he lays dying, rather than praising divine order, he bitterly laments his lot in life. It is the exact reverse of Boethius’s intellectual development in The Consolation of Philosophy.

Tovey delves deep into much of Chaucer’s prior writings as we uncover where the author stands on these difficult questions, in particular she examines Chaucer’s subtlety in raising doubts about immortality and an “afterlife.” Why? Because it relies upon faith in authority. Every person relies on trust in authority in some ways –how else would we know about the Aegean Sea? Surely not everyone would need to bear witness to the Aegean in order to possess some knowledge of it. And, on the other hand, most Christians would likely not accept the testimony that all written works equally share in self-proclaimed divine inspiration. For if all divinely inspired scripture is to be believed, then authority is diminished. Therefore, not all authority is reliable –we are naturally skeptical beings. “No Christian, of course, would contend that everything that is spoken or written should be believed. He would solve the problem in question by identifying his authority with the revealed word of God.” At any rate, in pointing us to this central problem of theology, Chaucer only offers his silence. We may only speculate, for example, as to why he uses the word “opinion” rather than “knowledge” in the Knight’s Tale when characters reference claims to a life after death.

The closing lines of the Knight’s Tale are often interpreted as a return to an optimistic orthodox perspective, however Tovey makes the compelling case for why this speech can be accepted as either pagan or Christian –ancient or modern—and that the speech revisits the tension between experience and authority (i.e. our example of the Aegean). It seems to point us to an answer, namely that experience is sufficient over and against the light of human reason. However, again, we return to the problem that a human being cannot have experiential knowledge of divine things –unless one is simply content to leave the question unanswered, and merely accept certain divine mysteries. Thus, the Knight’s Tale concludes with the impression of a return to the Boethian, orthodox Christian view of the universe, that is to say it concludes with the cloak of respectability after raising some daring questions in the main body of the text. Tovey likens it to the “one step forward, one step backward” technique which has been employed throughout Chaucer’s corpus of writings. Upon closer examination, the conclusion of the Knight’s Tale presents an unsatisfying answer to the problems it has raised. The chief problem concerns the existence of evil along with a Providence that is at once omnipotent and of perfect goodness. In some respects, in response, we may be tempted to join German poet Heinrich Heine who asserts that the best fate of all is not to have been born (especially in Theseus’s reference to “this foule prisoun of this lyf” in the tale). From this perspective, often portrayed as a brand of “hope” or “redemption,” life is degraded.

It is surely no accident that Chaucer describes his Knight as a man who has traveled to many different places, and has observed many different customs and religions –each believing their own customs and religions to be both natural and right. Tovey notes that at both Belmarye and Tramyssene the Knight would have witnessed the Islamic faith, and in Lithuania, which was not Christianized until 1386, he would have encountered an ancient pagan religion. The Knight was also was said to have fraternized with the lord of Palatye, a “heathen” who was bound by friendship with the Christian King Peter of Cyprus. Perhaps this experience of conflicting customs has led the Knight to a more skeptical perspective –since the natural tendency to accept one’s customs without question is sometimes shaken by the discovery of alternative creeds, especially those which seem to be just as veraciously defended. An unorthodox tale like the Knight’s Tale is fitting for a man with the Knight’s particular background.

Now, we turn to the Man of Law’s Tale, which Tovey suggests is “a reply to the Knight and a reassertion of orthodoxy.” The Man of Law, by his very title, is a defender of the status quo and consequently of the received faith. It should be noted that, per Aristotle, the laws of a country tend to be associated with its opinions and even religious beliefs. They also require unquestioning obedience. Therefore, there is a tension between law, legality, opinion, faith, which are frequently in opposition to philosophy (philosophy is a dangerous attempt to transcend opinion in search of knowledge). At any rate, whereas the Knight was well-traveled and observed the manners and mores of many different people, the Man of Law is an expert in the law of his own country. According to Tovey, the Man of Law has the appearance of “the superficial show of wisdom.” He is a great moralist who is nevertheless a man who makes many transactions for the purpose of personal enrichment. Chaucer offers the Man of Law for us to closely scrutinize his morality, wisdom, and justice.

While subtly portrayed as a hypocrite, the Man of Law’s Tale is “pious in the extreme and constitutes a praise of otherworldly Christian virtue.” His economic prowess is couched in Christian Biblical imagery and language. And in his tale, his theology is entirely Christian, whereas the Knight’s Tale was explicitly pagan (albeit couched in terms of a universal Providence which is nevertheless shown to be, at best indifferent, or at worst cruel toward the affairs of mankind). However, in the Man of Law’s Tale, the virtuous and pious are rewarded by divine dispensation after suffering at great length. We are confronted with repeated moments of a deus ex machina as it continues to bring miraculous salvation to Constance, rewarding her faith.

The vigorous defense of orthodoxy in the Man of Law’s Tale is met only by the equally vigorous response made by the Wife of Bath. By depicting the Wife of Bath as “coarse, low, and disreputable” Chaucer can safely permit discussion of such heterodox ideas without garnering the ire of the ruling regime of the Middle Ages. While on first glimpse the Wife of Bath is interested in only the issues that affect the immediacy of her livelihood, the arguments she employs imply a far more heterodox position –as in her profound rejection of the Church teaching with regard to the superiority of virginity over marriage, or the right of a husband to rule over his wife. She appears to us as a silly caricature; however, Chaucer allows us to at least consider her freethinking attitude and unconventional perspective. Her skepticism of authority leads her to accept experience, rather than authority, as her teacher. After traveling widely and marrying several men, she has witnessed the ultimate vice of complete deference to authority.

With the orthodox view having been vociferously attacked, the response in this dialectic now falls to the Clerk who reasserts the goodness of the Christian virtues of duty, humility, and temperance, regardless of whatever sympathies the Clerk, an Aristotelian, may have had for the intellectual freedom of the Wife of Bath. The Clerk is concerned about the Wife of Bath’s cavalier dismissal of moral virtue by both human reason and divine command. Thus, he provides a qualified defense of orthodoxy wherein evil exists in the universe in spite of God’s perfectness –a belief which would not have been permitted by the Church because it implied creation ex nihilo. Nevertheless, the Clerk offers a much more satisfying theodicy than the Man of Law. For the Clerk, God imposes trials on the innocent for the dual purpose of testing (rather than tempting) their virtue and disciplining their souls. In disagreeing with Boethius, the Clerk suggests that some suffering in the world is apportioned toward greater goodness, however not all “pain and evil” in the world can be explained in these terms. God tests people, but He does not have necessity to do so (to suggest otherwise would be to deny divine omniscience).

The Clerk’s ostensible purpose, therefore, is to reassert orthodox conceptions against the assault on virtue by the Wife of Bath and the skepticism of the Knight, as well as the unquestioned goodness of Providence as propounded in the Man of Law’s Tale. In order to tie these threads together, Chaucer must skate on thin ice and assign a tale to the Clerk who must look to trans-theological questions in order to justify the particularities of Christianity in all its vices and virtues. However, Tovey claims that the Clerk’s Tale actually ends in an unsatisfying answer. A further dialectical resolution is then provided in the Franklin’s Tale, a tale which shows that self-deception is costly, as the magic of disappearing rocks is shown to be as unsatisfying an answer as the Christian theological answers to these difficult problems. The marriage of Walter and Griselda in the Clerk’s Tale comes to represent a metaphor for the relationship between God and Man, whereas the marriage of Arveragus and Dorigen in the Franklin’s Tale represents the relationship between truth and truth-seeker. “The Franklin’s Tale climaxes the dialectical debate concerning the problem of evil that had been initiated by the Knight. Of all the tales that have dealt with this issue, it contains the most emphatic and most cutting rejection of the official Christian solution. For that very reason it presents its teaching more deviously than had been the case in any previous narrative .” In the Franklin’s Tale, the dialectic ends on an affirmative note –that “Trouthe is the hyeste thyng that man m ay kepe.”     

Tovey, Barbara. “Chaucer’s Dialectic: How the Establishment Theology is Subjected to Scrutiny in Five Canterbury Tales.” Interpretation Journal (2004).  

The late Professor Barbara Tovey taught Philosophy at the University of New Hampshire, focusing on Shakespeare. This essay on Chaucer was left by Professor Tovey at the time of her death with instructions for it to be published. Her literary executor Professor Warren Brown of the University of New Hampshire and Professor Paul Cantor of Virginia worked to fulfill her wishes. Professor Cantor noted that the one question Tovey did not answer in this essay is why she selected these five tales. However, he managed to discover that she used the F.N. Robinson edition of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales which orders the tales differently than many other modern editions. In fact, it should be noted that we are entirely uncertain of the originally intended order of the tales. We know that the pilgrims were intended to arrive at the shrine of Thomas Becket in Canterbury, and that the Host had promised to reward the best stories with a meal at the Tabard Inn –even though both promises go unfulfilled in The Canterbury Tales (just as the dual promises of entertainment and food go unfulfilled in Plato’s Republic). Rather than food or prayer, in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales we must find our satiation in his philosophical poetry and the enduring questions raised therein.

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