Did you know that Geoffrey Chaucer was a Christian? Did you know that he later wrote a recantation of his works except for his moral writings? Have you heard of Boethius, a Christian philosopher far ahead of his time?
If you have an interest in Medieval or English literature or Christian history, this essay is for you!
The Wheels of God
by Danielle Dumas
“Retribution”, Poetic Aphorisms, 1846):
Though the mills of God grind slowly; Yet they grind exceeding small;
Though with patience He stands waiting, With exactness grinds He all.
This subject of ‘divine retribution’ or of justice, has long been a subject explored by humanity and is still a subject hotly debated today. We hear the cries of “Where is justice?” from many poor or disenfranchised or badly wounded people. We see their signs and marches and scathing social media posts. Still more people shout for it in their hearts and look for it in many different places and with differing ways. Centuries ago; two of those people who searched for it were Boethius, an intellectual and philosopher living in the sixth century, and the writer and observer Chaucer, who lived in the fourteenth century.
If there ever was a person who needed justice, it was Anicius Boethius. Unfairly accused, this prolific and brilliant writer, statesman, and philosopher was sentenced to prison and then eventual death. His only crime was living during troubled times while selfish men schemed for power. While awaiting his unjust fate, Boethius wrote The Consolation of Philosophy, his personal consolation and exploration of justice amidst his suffering. His book would become widely known and remain influential throughout centuries (it became a pillar of Western thought [ Boethius ix]) and inspired famous writers throughout time, including Geoffrey Chaucer.
Chaucer was also a man living in uncertain times. A brilliant man and linguist, he was the perfect liaison between the royal household and whatever they commissioned for him. He was at times a royal diplomat or port customs official or the ‘go to’ acquisitions person. Chaucer ably and often walked the tightrope between two different worlds—between royalty and everyone else. Using his excellent powers of observation, he wrote (among other books, including a translation of The Consolation of Philosophy) his famous Canterbury Tales.
The Canterbury Tales are unique in their diversity and satire and Chaucer intertwines throughout his story Boethius’ ideas of fortune and fate and God’s justice. In the following paragraphs of this essay, I will attempt to show a few of the similarities between how they portray these ideas and further clarify Boethius’ concepts of virtue and fortune, as perhaps best illustrated by Chaucer’s Tales. I will draw most of my examples from one of the Tales, “The Knight’s Tale”. In the “Knight’s Tale”, Chaucer introduces the idea of “Fortune’s wheel” early in the story, when the honorable duke meets the two ladies that he will later help avenge. “Lord, to whom Fortune hath yeven Victorye, and as a conquerour to liven, Noght greveth us youre glorye and youre honour…Thanked be Fortune and hir false wheel, That noon estaat assureth to be weel.” (Chaucer 37) Later again in the story Chaucer (the narrator) is foretelling and warning us that Arcite doesn’t know that his death is near: “Til that Fortune had broght him in the snare.” (Chaucer 57) And again at Arcite’s funeral the narrator intones “That knew this worldes transmutatcioun, As he hadde seyn it change, bothe up and down, Joye after wo, and wo after gladnesse; And shewe hem ensample and liknesse.” (Chaucer 105)
What is this “Fortune’s wheel” that Chaucer is referencing and imbuing with characteristics such as ‘false’, ‘snare’ and ‘up and down’? Boethius first referenced in his Consolation of Philosophy the idea of Fortune, or fate, to be a “monster”, who “pretends to be friendly to those whom she intends to cheat and disappoints those she unexpectedly leaves with intolerable sorrow.” (Boethius 21) Boethius goes on to describe Fortune as a lady, with a changeable nature and who is blind. (Boethius 22) Lady Fortune also turns a giant wheel that we are powerless to stop. Sometimes a person is on top of the wheel, with success or riches or honor, but then unexpectedly a person can find themselves on the bottom, in poverty or dishonor or death. “If is should stop turning, it would cease to be Fortune’s wheel.” (Boethius 22) Wise Boethius also points out that we all will experience Fortune’s wheel, and none will escape it—and it is foolish to think that we can. “You live in a world which all men share, so you ought not desire to live by some special law.” (Boethius 25) To round out his argument, Boethius anticipated our displeasure with this idea of ‘unfairness’ and said that even if there were not a wheel, even if God “were overgenerous with treasures of gold and deigned to satisfy every plea…” (Boethius 25) that men still would be miserable and complain and would not be satisfied with what we asked for. Our human hearts will always want more. Just look at a child for confirmation: even if given everything he/she wants, do they not always want ‘just a bit more’ or ‘something else’ or just cry because they don’t know what they want? Boethius well understood this concept of Fortune and was the first to give her a face.
Just as Boethius transformed his concepts of Fortune and Philosophy into fictional figures, Chaucer also transformed his philosophies into fictional figures. Using Boethius’ idea of “to please in order to teach” (Boethius xxi) Chaucer made his characters real. He gave them detailed descriptions and personalities, and then gently mocked many of them—including himself. In the ‘higher’ tales such as “The Franklin’s Tale” and “The Knights Tale” Chaucer emphasized his and Boethius’ deep value of personal honor and obeying God and devotion towards duty by giving the characters with noble qualities descriptions such as ‘beautiful’ and ‘gallant’. A quick synopsis of the “Knight’s Tale” is that a noble duke helps two ladies and then in the process captures two honorable enemy knights named Arcite and Palamoun. The duke places these knights in his prison tower. These knights both look down from their prison tower and fall in love and want to serve Emelye, a beautiful and pure lady. Both men eventually manage to escape their prison tower, but they cannot forget Emelye. They come back for her and fight in a tournament to win her. Arcite dies, and Palamoun wins Lady Emelye’s hand in marriage. Both Palamoun and Lady Emelye first mourn the death of brave Arcite, and then Palamoun the Knight and Lady Emily choose to serve each other with love for the rest of their days. By doing so, they make their own ‘happily ever after’. (Chaucer 114) Throughout the Knight’s Tale each and every character in the story acts honorably and with decency- even if they perhaps were ‘justified’ if they chose to not act in good faith towards each other. Their moral choices changed the story. The ‘lower’ tales such as “The Clerk’s Tale” and “The Cook’s Tale’ characters were described as ‘foolish’ or ‘lusty’ or ‘gap-toothed’ or ‘drunk’. These ‘lower’ tales showed what happened when man follows his desires: “They are in utter slavery when they lose possession of their reason and give themselves wholly to vice.” (Boethius 104) None of the characters in The Canterbury Tales who followed their greed, ambition, or lust were happy or ended up living ‘happily ever after’. I believe the same is true today. Happiness may be temporary, and following your own desires to the exclusion of everyone else never ends well, does it? In fact, we see this truth magnified by dictators or selfish leaders. “When the evil sword of power is joined to the poison of passion, the commonwealth must groan under an intolerable burden” (Boethius 36).
With this view of Fortune’s wheel that turns–that everyone is upon–that never stops turning, comes the natural conclusion of ‘no respect of persons’, either rich or poor. This was (and still is) a very scandalous but very balanced view: the idea that ‘inside’ qualities such as virtue or wisdom or honor are far more important than ‘outside’ qualities that can be taken away or fade. (riches, favor and titles) Both Boethius and Chaucer believed that riches and power only serve to make a person more of what he really is. “Honor bestowed upon wicked men does not make them honorable; on the contrary, it betrays and emphasizes their dishonor”…(Boethius 36) Chaucer illustrated this when he characterized the priest who was very familiar with the bar, or the racist nun or the despicable cook. These character deficiencies were made abhorrent by the position that these people held in society. Expectations come with positions of responsibility, such as the title of priest should be given to a holy person and should not be given to a drunken wastrel or thief.
Boethius and Chaucer both had a deep understanding of the importance of time. “One thing is certain, fixed by eternal law: nothing that is born can last” (Boethius 27). Chaucer echoes this fact while inserting himself as the Host in the “Man of Law’s Prologue”, urging the travelers to hurry on; “Lordinges, the time wasteth night and day, And steleth from us, what prively slepinge, And what thurgh necligence in oure waking, As dooth the streem that turneth nevere again, Descendinge from the montaigne into plain…..Biwaillen time moore than gold in cofre;” (Chaucer 165) Time is precious, as it is the only thing that turns Fortune’s wheel. Death is the only other thing that stops it. We have marginal to zero control over both of these facts of life, and Boethius and Chaucer accepted this. Any other belief to the opposite is madness!
What is left to us then if everything is given or taken away depending on the roll of the wheel? Since we have no power over when or where the wheel stops—what do we have power over? Our will. We have free will. We can choose to “look upward with your head held high [and] should also raise your soul to sublime things, lest while your body is raised above the earth, your mind should sink to the ground under its burden” (Boethius 114). We can choose like Boethius and Chaucer to value the good things, things like virtue, duty, respect, and faith. And, like Chaucer– we can understand that we are all travelers; we are all on a journey through life together. We can choose to be kind, to be honorable, and to have humor on our journey. Chaucer chose to laugh, and so should we.
Lastly, Boethius and Chaucer ultimately believed that time and events (chance) were Ordered and that we have a purpose and a consolation. “Therefore, we can define chance as an unexpected event brought about by a concurrence of causes which had other purposes in view. These causes come together because of that order which proceeds from inevitable connection of things, the order which flows from the source which is Providence and which disposes all things, each in its proper time and place” (Boethius 102). Our purpose is to “stand firm against vice and cultivate virtue. Lift up your soul to worthy hopes, and offer humble prayers to heaven” (Boethius 119). God gives the order, God sets the boundaries of time and God sees beyond the wheel. Our consolation is that God is our anchor within the spinning arcs of time and events, our shield from fortune and fate. Only God has perfect knowledge and wisdom from His never-changing present, and only He is able to guide us through to our journey’s end. He is our justice. Chaucer believed this, and interestingly asked for forgiveness for all his famous works that he had written -except for his translation of The Consolation of Philosophy and other moral writings. Chaucer ended his Canterbury Tales with a beautiful prayer to God. Though his Canterbury Tales are considered unfinished, it is no accident that the Tales ended on this prayer:
“And after the word of Jesu Crist, it is the endelees blisse of hevene, ther joye hath no contrarioustee of wo ne grevaunce; there alle harmes ben passed of this present life; theras is the sikernesse from the peine of helle; theras is the blissful comopaignye that rejoisen hem everemo, everich of others joye; theras the body of man, that whilom was foul and derk, is moore cleer than the sonne; theras the body that whilom was sik, freele, and feble, and mortal, is inmortal, and so strong, and so hool. That there may no thing apeiren it; theras ne is neither hunger of thurst, ne coold, but every sole replenissed with the sighte of the parfit knowinge of God” (Chaucer 782).
Here on this earth, we see only glimpses of a fascinating God. Our past and present are shrouded in many mysteries. We all live in uncertain times. We see selfish men scheming for power. At any moment, humanity somewhere is suffering and crying for justice. Lest we get too comfortable in our temporary positions in life, let us remember the wheel and remember that it never stops. Let us look up, with our hands held outward to help our brothers and sisters on this gift, this journey, this aventure called life.
“For we are strangers before you and sojourners, as all our fathers were. Our days on the earth are like a shadow, and there is no abiding”.
I Chronicles 29:15
“He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday.”
Psalm 37: 6
Boethius, Anicius. The Consolation of Philosophy. Translated by Richard Green. Martino Publishing, 2011. Print.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. The Canterbury Tales. Edited by Jill Mann. Penguin Classics, 2005. Print.
Longfellow, Henry Wadsworth. “Retribution”. Poetic Aphorisms. Retrieved from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mills_of_God#cite_note-11. Accessed 24 April 2018. Web.
The Holy Bible. I Chronicles 29:15 and Psalm 37:6. Retrieved from www.esv.org. Accessed 24 April 2018. Web.