Chaucer’s philosophical history

The Monk’s Tale, one of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, presents an interesting challenge to Aristotle’s famous assertion that “poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import than history, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals, whereas those of history are singulars.” The moralizing monk of Chaucer, however, presents a series of short biographies of powerful men and their respective downfalls that his listeners might “be warned by these examples, true and old.” In so doing, Chaucer’s monk calls into question Aristotle’s contention about the limits of history. By transforming history into poetry Chaucer has universalized the otherwise singular historical personage, thereby raising history to the level of the philosophic and gravely important occupied by poetry.

There are, however, some reasons to object to Chaucer’s derivation of morals from historical events. Descartes, for example, asserts in his Discourse on Method that “those who regulate their conduct” by the examples provided in history, “are liable to fall into the extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance, and form projects beyond their power of performance.” Descartes’s objection, though, extends wider than the purview of this essay in his rejection of extracting guidance for present conduct not only from history but from literature and poetry as well. Descartes rejects the moral guidance of narrative in a more general sense. He worries that because a narrative may be fictional or extravagant it may inspire a reader to the impossible. Given his allusion to Don Quixote, who did just the sort of thing about which he expresses his worries, however, it may legitimately be wondered whether a world full of men who imitate the Romances and so live their lives according to a strict code of honor and valor, virtues universally ascribed to Don Quixote by the other characters in his eponymous novel, would be such an undesirable place after all. Descartes’s statement brings him close to rejecting the study of history and literature altogether. If the past were indeed as distant and foreign as Descartes holds it to be, it might be legitimate to do so. Thucydides seems closer to the mark in his assertion in his History of the Peloponnesian War that “there is … no advantage in reflections on the past further than may be of service to the present.”

That the past is of service to the present seems self-evident, though Descartes may find room for disagreement. The means by which the past can be of service to the present, however, is a subject of debate. Dewey repositions the historical as the singular, for example, in his attempt to use the education of the young in history as a means by which to provide them with the impetus and ability to alter current social conditions. In his Education and Experience, Dewey claims that “the issues and problems of present social life are in such intimate and direct connection with the past that students cannot be prepared to understand either these problems or the best way of dealing with them without delving into their roots in the past.” Dewey, then, agrees with Chaucer in his belief that the experience of the past is a necessary source from which to learn how to act in the present. Dewey departs from Chaucer, however, in his beliefs about the nature of this knowledge. Whereas Chaucer sees the past as a mine filled with examples to be imitated or avoided, Dewey desires the student of history to study the root causes of the problems of the present in order to change them in the future.

There is at issue here a divergence in understandings of human nature as well as of a man’s place in society. Chaucer’s view relies upon an understanding of the immutability of human nature. Man must be the same sort of creature today as he was long ago for Chaucer’s use of the past as a source of moral guidance to be practicable. As a society consists of just such creatures, while the particulars, such as technology, government, and custom, may differ greatly in various eras, the essential nature of society qua society does not change. While a man or a society may be improved, in Chaucer’s view, the essential nature of man and society, generally, abides. Dewey, on the other hand, adheres to an ideology which seeks the improvement of man and society generally. Within this framework, history can be little more than a record of the follies of unimproved individual men and societies within the wider narrative of gradual improvement of man and society over time.

More than Dewey, Marx submerges the individual within this social and general paradigm in his view of history. For Marx, history is much more the record of the effects of abstract, general, and impersonal forces, what he calls “the natural laws of [a society’s] movement,” than it is of particular persons or peoples. If the great forces behind any given society are indeed abstract and impersonal, however, Chaucer’s extrapolation of moral guidance from history is misguided and unnecessary.

Chaucer’s moralization of history is only legitimate within the framework of the philosophy of history he espouses, one in which history is the record of the chosen activities of particular persons whose nature does not differ substantially from the persons of earlier or later ages. Chaucer’s very ability to draw meaningful guidance for persons in the present from the activities of persons in the past, however, also stands as an argument against the lack of utility in historical study as believed by Descartes, the belief in history as a record of the causes of society’s ills espoused by Dewey, and the impersonalization of history attempted by Marx. It may, in addition, belie Aristotle’s belief in the inferiority of history to poetry. Through his universalization of history, Chaucer, the great English poet, was able to raise history to the dignity and relevance of poetry.


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