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From the Jan/Feb, 2012 issue of Touchstone


Poetry & Philosophy by Kathleen Curran Sweeney

Poetry & Philosophy

Language Redeemed: Chaucer’s Mature Poetry
by David Williams
Sapientia Press, 2007
(121 pages, $18.95, paperback)

reviewed by Kathleen Curran Sweeney

At the time Geoffrey Chaucer was writing his poetry, the philosophy known as nominalism was stirring up widespread debate since it challenged the realist philosophy developed by Thomas Aquinas based on Aristotelian metaphysics. David Williams, emeritus professor of English literature at McGill University and currently at Ave Maria University, has written a fascinating study of how Chaucer incorporates this debate into his later poems, Troilus and Crisedye and The Canterbury Tales.

Chaucer was born in 1342 during the final years of nominalism’s originator, the Franciscan friar William of Ockham (c.1287–1347). Ockham had concluded that only particular individual beings have reality and that conceptions we have in the mind do not refer to universal realities but are only names we have created as a language of description (i.e., nominal realities). Ockham thus rejected the reality of essences. This conclusion results in the loss of an understanding of the nature of things, i.e., that all trees share a certain nature, that horses have their own nature, that human beings share a common nature as rational animals, and so on.

Traditional metaphysics up to this point had held either the Platonic view—that universals such as Beauty, Justice, the Good, and Human Nature have a reality independent of man’s knowledge and words, existing prior to the particular—or the Aristotelian view—that the universals exist as real but within and dependent upon subsistent beings. These two views are known as the philosophies of realism. The understanding that our abstract concepts are based in reality infers that the names we give to things and the terms we use to articulate our ideas are meaningful signs of truths in the world that make sense of our existence. St. Augustine remarked that “in words it is the truth we love, not the words.”

Literature is intrinsically involved in the nominalism-versus-realism debate because the relationship between language and the truth of reality is central to its focus. Poetry, in particular, purports to express through concrete particulars in the created world some wider and deeper universal truths, the poetic words and descriptions being symbols for a reality recognizable by others. If nominalism reduces what is real to particular individuals that have no inner connection, then the unity of human experience, which literature hopes to communicate, is lost.

Chaucer Weighs In

Geoffrey Chaucer apparently wanted to address this problem. In his poetry, he created characters that personify either a nominalist approach to life or a realist one. Williams says that “there are Nominalists and Realists scattered all over Chaucer’s writings.” For example, the character Pandarus, the uncle of Criseyde in the narrative poem Troilus and Criseyde, displays an impressive ability with words, but does not care about truth. He thinks words can mean whatever he chooses them to mean, like Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty.

Pandarus also believes that ethical norms are mere constructs of language, which he can and does manipulate to lead Troilus to his downfall. Words in such a case become simply a tool to be used to assert power over others. Chaucer himself, however, inserts a realist comment into the text, when he describes love as a universal beyond the particular words men may have used for it in different times and places:

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speeche is chaunge
Within a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden pris [value], now wonder nice [foolish] and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winnen love in sondry ages
In sondry landes sondry been usages. (Book II, 22–28)

The reader’s relationship to the story depends on this relation between reality and language because, if love is a universal, not just a subjective concept, then the particular experience of Troilus and Criseyde can be compared to our own experiences, which is what makes it meaningful. To a medieval Christian, the world derived its intrinsic

value from being created by a loving God as a participation in his Beauty, Goodness, and Truth, the transcendental universals so central to both classical and medieval thought. Poetry and liturgy put concrete flesh on these realities that touch our minds and hearts.

Williams relates how several of the characters in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales misuse language, including Scripture, twisting the real meaning to convey something else that serves their purpose. Commenting on the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, which tells of the rooster Chanticleer and the fox, Williams points out that removing the objective relationship of words to reality amounts to lying:

The fox’s sweet words overcome the rooster’s natural knowledge, and we realize that the Nun’s Priest’s message concerning language is that as long as words are signs, they can be made to stand for things other than their proper signifieds. Thus lies are possible. By the same token, the very existence of the lie attests to the existence of the truth that the lie requires to be a lie. (p. 116)

Williams summarized the long-term effect of nominalism as follows:

Medieval Nominalism eventually came to emphasize the contingency of human knowledge to the point of anticipating the relativism of later periods, in the sense that, if human understanding is based on individual experience, and if there is no inherent bond between one person’s experience and another’s (that is, there is nothing real that they, as knowers, share, like human nature; nor is there anything universal or essential to be perceived in the thing known), then one person’s perception of the truth is as good and as “true” as another’s.

As such a view settles in, the very concept of Truth becomes questionable: If there are many valid versions of the truth, then there is no one truth; if there is no one truth, there is no Truth, per se, at all. The progression is from Nominalism to Relativism to Nihilism. This, of course, is where we find ourselves today in mainstream western thought. (pp. 8–9)

A Relevant Debate

In this slim book, Williams has provided a valuable insight into the serious reflections embedded in Chaucer’s poetry. He brings to his literary analysis an important awareness of the philosophical influences acting on both Chaucer’s era and subsequent times. This nominalist–realist debate has not disappeared but has undergone a certain metamorphosis into other forms of thought, as the above quote indicates. It is of critical relevance to discern such influences in literature so that readers do not miss what is being indirectly communicated by the author.

Williams’s book deserves careful study, not only for an understanding of its philosophical analysis, but also for an appreciation of the moral and psychological sensitivity Chaucer expressed in his two great works. In addition to analyzing each of the five books of Troilus and Crisedye and four of the tales in The Canterbury Tales, Williams carefully annotates the influence on Chaucer of such luminaries as Dante, Virgil, Boethius, and St. Augustine, and he discusses some of Chaucer’s literary devices, such as the “naive narrator” and the “frame tale” structure. His focus on the philosophic aspects of language, especially his explication of how the nominalist–realist debate forms a sub-theme of Chaucer’s dramatic poetry, provides a valuable contribution to both literary analysis and philosophical reflection. •

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“Poetry & Philosophy” first appeared in the Jan/Feb 2012 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue. Support the work of Touchstone by subscribing today!

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