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.

Primary Source: Psalms 23, 51, and 137 (Introduction to Western Civilization 2.9)

There are 150 psalms in the Book of Psalms in the Bible. The psalms in the Bible were written by many different people. One of the authors of many of the psalms is King David. The psalms contain some of the best and most moving poetry ever written. The biblical psalms are stilled used by Jews and Christians in their prayers and worship services. You will read three psalms below. The first is Psalm 23, which is a psalm written by King David to show his devotion to God. It is probably the most popular of the psalms. The second is Psalm 51, which David wrote while he was repenting of his sin. The third and final psalm you will read below is Psalm 137, which was written by an anonymous poet during the Babylonian Exile, which you will read about later.


Psalm 23

 1 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

    He makes me lie down in green pastures.

He leads me beside still waters.

    He restores my soul.
He leads me in paths of righteousness
for his name’s sake.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies;
you anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me
all the days of my life,
and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord


Psalm 51

 1 Have mercy on me, O God,

according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity,
and cleanse me from my sin!

For I know my transgressions,
and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you only, have I sinned
and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words
and blameless in your judgment.
Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity,
and in sin did my mother conceive me.
Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean;
wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness;
let the bones that you have broken rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins,
and blot out all my iniquities.
10 Create in me a clean heart, O God,
and renew a right spirit within me.
11 Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit from me.
12 Restore to me the joy of your salvation,
and uphold me with a willing spirit.

13 Then I will teach transgressors your ways,
and sinners will return to you.
14 Deliver me from bloodguiltiness, O God,
O God of my salvation,
and my tongue will sing aloud of your righteousness.
15 O Lord, open my lips,
and my mouth will declare your praise.
16 For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it;
you will not be pleased with a burnt offering.
17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.

18 Do good to Zion in your good pleasure;
build up the walls of Jerusalem;
19 then will you delight in right sacrifices,
in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings;
then bulls will be offered on your altar.


Psalm 137

 1 By the waters of Babylon,

there we sat down and wept,
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our lyres.
For there our captors
required of us songs,
and our tormentors, mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How shall we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
If I forget you, O Jerusalem,
let my right hand forget its skill!
Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth,
if I do not remember you,
if I do not set Jerusalem
above my highest joy!

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites
the day of Jerusalem,
how they said, “Lay it bare, lay it bare,
down to its foundations!”
O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed,
blessed shall he be who repays you
with what you have done to us!
Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones
and dashes them against the rock!


Review Questions

 1. In your own words, describe the relationship between God and King David in Psalm 23.

2. In Psalm 137, what kind of emotions is the poet expressing?

Ways of knowing

Human beings, by their nature, seek to understand themselves and the world around them. Each of us is placed into a world which we neither created nor comprehend. It is as if we have woken up in a dark room with no knowledge of who we are or how we got here. As our eyes gradually adjust to the dark, we glimpse a variety of unknown objects, clues to our origins, the origins of the room and the task we have been place into the room to complete. Before anything else can be done, we must answer the questions: who am I and what am I doing here? Throughout history, many answers to these questions, of varying validity, have been offered.

Today, and since the Enlightenment, one way of answering these questions, the scientific, has come to predominate to the detriment of other ways of answering. While the means provided by science have provided numerous benefits, they have proven incomplete and unsatisfactory at best. While the scientific method may be able to measure the speed and quantity of the water pouring over a waterfall, its chemical composition and its erosive effects, scientists can say relatively little about its beauty and its evocation of a sense of sublimity in its human observers. This, rather, is the place of the poet and the artist, whose ways of understanding do not contradict those of the scientist but do indeed complete and even surpass them. Knowledge is the imposition of human order onto otherwise apparently disorderly experience of disparate phenomena with the bodily senses and the faculties of the mind. Genius, then, is the ability to form connections between what appear to others to be entirely unrelated experiences. With these definitions in mind, the poet is the genius par excellence; he is a creator of cosmos out of chaos through the use of metaphor.

Richard Wilbur is undoubtedly an outstanding modern example of such a genius. For Wilbur, in his poetry, there is nothing that is not both significant and signifying; each experience is both valuable in itself and valuable in its ability to represent or otherwise point beyond itself to something else, entering thereby into the cohesive network of all created (and, perhaps, uncreated) things. With this dual relevance of each thing as his axiom, Wilbur is able to transform the mundane into the infinitely meaningful and thereby imbue the mundane itself with infinite meaning. In “Transit,” Wilbur begins with a chance sighting of “a woman I have never seen before” exiting her townhouse on a city street. He describes her as “so beautiful that she or time must fade,” thereby entering through an otherwise prosaic event into a poetic meditation on beauty and time. In “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World,” Wilbur again exhibits his ability to begin with the banal and end in the eternal. The poem begins as Wilbur sees laundry drying on the line “outside the open window.” He begins immediately to imagine that the drying laundry is “angels,” some of whom “are in bed-sheets, some are in blouses, some are in smocks.” Nearly at the climax of the poem, Wilbur records the cry of his soul: “Oh, let there be nothing on earth but laundry, / Nothing but rosy hands in the rising steam / And clear dances done in the sight of heaven.” In the poetic genius of Wilbur, the daily drudgery of cleaning clothes and sheets has become a celebration of life, a spotting of angelic beings and an affirmation of the inherent goodness of the created world as it stands.

That all of this may be far from the way most people experience the world, with all of its necessities and drudgeries, is precisely an argument in favor of Wilbur’s genius. He has taken up our shared sense impressions and the ideations they produce and reoriented them in an exuberant and original way. The laundry is indeed still laundry and the laundry must be done, but it is also something else; it is fuel for the often forgotten but most essential aspect of man: his eternal soul. Wilbur himself provides the most succinct, and, of course, poetical, description of his genius in his poem “A Wood”:

Given a source of light so far away
That nothing, short or tall, comes very near it,
Would it not take a proper fool to say
That any tree has not the proper spirit?
Air, water, earth and fire are to be blended,
But no one style, I think, is recommended.

Wilbur has here avoided an error reciprocal to scientism. He has not asserted the tyranny of his position but rather acknowledged that if his understanding is correct, if indeed each thing is both significant and signifying, there must, then, be as many ways of metaphoring, as establishing connections between apparently disparate elements, as many ways of knowing as there are ways of being human, which is to say, they must be as numerous as are human beings themselves.

Plato and Aristotle on Drama and Poetry

Plato and Aristotle differ from each other in some important ways in their views of poetry and drama. The primary difference between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle on the subject is in what each considers the function of these arts. It is from this point of departure that the rest of their disagreements on the subject arise.

Plato sees the primary function of poetry as the presentation of examples which the viewer is intended to, or inevitably does, imitate. Plato believes that the viewer is seduced into entering into a state of empathy and even identification with the characters witnessed on the stage or told about in the story. As a result, the viewer comes to sympathize with subjects for which he should rather feel “disgust” than “enjoyment and admiration.”1  This delight in entering into the fiction being portrayed, says Plato, leads us to imitate such behavior because “what we feel for other people must infect what we feel for ourselves.”2  According to Plato, then, “bad taste in the theatre may insensibly lead you into becoming a buffoon at home.”3  In other words, one comes through the fictions of poetry and drama to identify with the bad behavior of bad characters and so to behave badly and to become bad oneself.

As a remedy to this potentially insidious influence of poetry, Plato recommends banning many of the great classics of Greek theater from his ideal state, including even those written by Homer. He orders instead that “the only poetry that should be allowed in a state is hymns to the gods and paeans in praise of good men.”4  In other words, Plato believes that, because the hearers of poetry naturally imitate what they hear, they should only be allowed to hear poems which incite them to piety and to the imitation of the great deeds of good men.

Aristotle views the function of poetry and drama quite differently. According to Aristotle, the primary function of these arts is katharsis. Through viewing a tragedy, says Aristotle, the viewer is “accomplishing by means of pity and fear the cleansing [katharsis] of these [negative] states and feelings.”5  For Aristotle as for Plato, drama is imitation, but Aristotle’s ideas concerning who is doing the imitating and who is being imitated are very different from those of Plato. Whereas Plato believed that viewers imitate the characters they see on the stage, Aristotle instead sees the actors as the imitators of plausible but ultimately fictional events. The viewers share in this imitation and, as a result, are cleansed through the “pity and fear” they feel for and with the characters. The viewers, then, vicariously participate in the tragedy and are, in fact, motivated to the opposite course of action from imitating what they have seen. This view led Aristotle to declare that “poetry is a more philosophical and more serious thing than history.”6  Rather than merely recounting the facts of a matter, says Aristotle, poetry purifies the viewer and prepares him to choose the right course of action.

For this reason, Aristotle believed that the persons portrayed in drama should be neither of an especially good character nor of an especially bad character, but somewhere in between these two extremes. The individual portrayed should be, according to Aristotle, “the sort of person who is not surpassing in virtue and justice, but does not change into misfortune through bad character and vice.”7  In other words, he should be normal, relatable, and sympathetic. He should be someone with whom the average viewer of the drama can easily identify. And his “misfortune” should result from “some missing of the mark,” a single error, rather than from some connatural or ineradicable defect of character. For similar reasons, he also expressed an apparent disdain for biography, recommending that poets tell the story of a single part of a person’s life rather than the whole of it at once.

All of this stands in stark contrast to Plato’s view. Whereas Plato preferred the biographies of great men of history in order to inspire others to imitate their great deeds, Aristotle recommends instead the recounting of particular incidents involving errors committed by fairly average men in order to allow the viewer to participate vicariously in these errors and so avoid them in the future. Where Plato and Aristotle do agree, however, is in one basic but rather important assumption; they agree that the arts of poetry and drama have a significant effect on those who view them and on the societies of which they are a part. Although they disagree on what this effect is and how this effect is accomplished, the starting point for both is essentially identical. As such, each sees the issue of poetry as of great importance. In spite of this common beginning, however, their respective views diverge significantly from each other.

1 Plato, “Poets Banned from the Ideal State,” from The Republic, trans. Desmond Lee, 203.

2 Ibid., 203-204.

3 Ibid., 204.

4 Ibid., 204.

5 Aristotle, Poetics, ch. 6, trans. Joe Sachs (Newburyport: Focus Publishing, 2006), 26.

6 Ibid., ch. 9, 32.

7 Ibid., ch. 13, 37.

The Silver Age of Russian Culture

The Silver Age of Russian culture during the first two decades of the twentieth century, roughly from 1898 to 1918, was a period simultaneously marked by a burst of creativity and a foreboding pessimism. This dichotomy and the general diversity of the era make it a difficult time to accurately summarize. Russian artists, composers, poets, authors, and other cultural figures of the Silver Age exhibited “aestheticism, mysticism, decadence, sensualism, idealism, and pessimism,” as well as a “sense of uncertainty and disintegration, of deep skepticism about all received truths and certainties, and a pessimistic foreboding … though also hopeful anticipation.”1 In short, there is no easy way to describe the full range of Russian culture during the Silver Age.

The beginning of the Silver Age of Russian culture is generally identified with the publication of the periodical Mir iskusstva, or The World of Art, by Sergei Diaghilev and Alexander Benois in 1898. The periodical, published bimonthly for its first two years and monthly after 1900, was intended “to lead its Russian readers away from Realism … and to introduce them to the freer styles that were flourishing throughout Europe.”2 Diaghilev and Benois saw Russian art of the late nineteenth century as stagnant and overly focused on the concrete. Through The World of Art, they attempted to expose Russian audiences to the art then popular in Western Europe and elsewhere throughout the world, which tended toward the abstract and the innovative. Their hope was that this exposure to new forms of art would act as an impetus for Russians to take up these new styles themselves. Their hopes quickly came to fruition.

“What followed was a cultural explosion,” according to historians Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg: “almost overnight there sprung up in Russia a rich variety of literary and artistic creeds, circles, and movements.”3 While a variety of young artists took up the call put out by Diaghilev and Benois, outstanding figures in the visual arts of this period include, for instance, Mark Chagall and Kazimir Malevich. Chagall pioneered a new form of painting that avoided the extremes of either realism or complete abstraction. According to James Johnson Sweeney, an expert in modern art, “this is Chagall’s contribution to contemporary art: the reawakening of a poetry of representation, avoiding factual illustration on the one hand, and non-figurative abstractions on the other.”4 His unique style was a significant influence on surrealism.

Kazimir Malevich, meanwhile, established the foundations for a new style of art he referred to as “Suprematism.” In contrast to other, more representational artistic styles, Suprematism embraced the abstract and instead focused on basic geometric shapes like circles and squares. Perhaps the most well-known exhibition of Suprematist art was Malevich’s 1915 exhibition in Moscow, which he titled “0.10: The Last Futurist Painting Exhibition.” The most remarkable feature of the exhibit, which included a number of Suprematist paintings, was the placement of the Black Square, a solid black square on white canvas, in the icon corner, the place where Eastern Orthodox icons of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and other important religious figures would traditionally be placed in a Russian home. Though initially “most reviewers voiced incomprehension and even scorn in viewing these experiments in abstraction as a new way of seeing,”5 and even Malevich’s friend and coworker Vladimir Tatlin broke with him over the exhibit, Malevich and his Suprematist school continue, like Chagall, to exert a considerable influence on artists even today. In addition to his influence, his popularity has also continued to increase; one of his paintings, Suprematist Composition, painted in 1916, sold for $60,002,500 at Sotheby’s in 2008.6

Closely connected to the new movements in art were the new movements in musical composition and performance; Malevich, for instance, designed the set for the 1913 Russian Futurist opera Victory over the Sun. In addition to this connection between artists and composers, many of the same themes and styles predominated in Russian music, which tended to focus on “the lyrical and elegaic to the mystical, Dionysian, and even apocalyptic.”7 The composers Sergei Rachmaninov and Alexander Scriabin represent two of the extremes of Russian musical culture in the Silver Age.

In the words of Riasanovsky and Steinberg, “Rachmaninov’s work exudes gentle and lyrical spirituality, aestheticism, melancholy, and fatalism.”8 His two most important choral works, for instance, are both settings for services of the Orthodox Church, one for the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom (1910) and the other for the All-Night Vigil (1915). Ivan Moody, a modern British composer whose work is also deeply influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church’s liturgical traditions, has written of Rachmaninov’s setting for the Liturgy that “musically, the Liturgy today seems steeped in the spirit of archaic chant inflections, however modern it may have seemed at the time of its composition.”9 This ability to combine the ancient and the modern into a single cohesive whole characterizes the greater part of Rachmaninov’s works.

Alexander Scriabin, in contrast, was primarily “influenced by an eclectic mixture of Chopin, Wagner, Nietzsche, symbolism, and religious mysticism” in the form of the Theosophical occultism advocated by Helena Blavatsky; as a result, his work “offers a mix of Dionysian emotions, mystical spirituality, and pure sound.”10 His Poem of Ecstasy (1908) and Prometheus: The Poem of Fire (1910), for example, both revel in the sensuality, emotion, and individualism which Rachmaninov’s compositions sought to transcend.

In spite of the differences between the two composers, however, Rachmaninov and Scriabin retain a number of similarities. Their compositions both draw and build upon previous Russian music and contain a great number of religious, especially mystical, undertones and philosophical influences. In this, they are both examples of the musical currents in Russia during the Silver Age.

Like music, poetry remained an important conduit for self-expression during the Silver Age, just as it had during earlier periods of Russian history. However, also like music, poetry took on a distinctly different flavor during the Silver Age. The poetry of the acmeist school, which favored a principled clarity, simplicity, and personal theme to poetry, for instance, focused on subjects such as “love, beauty, and sadness.”11 The first published work of Anna Akhmatova, one of the most preeminent of the acmeist poets, for example, “reads like an intimate diary of a woman in love.”12 Consonant with the acmeist focus on simplicity and individuality, “Akhmatova speaks about simple earthly happiness and about simple intimate and personal sorrow.”13 Like Russian music of the Silver Age, and in great contradistinction to earlier ages, poetry of the period reveled in the sentimental, the emotional, the sensual, and above all else the personal.

Though each of the great figures of the Silver Age of Russian culture is unique in a variety of ways and different from his or her contemporaries in style, approach, and interest, there are a number of features which bind all of the great artists, poets, composers, and other cultural creators of the Silver Age together and which allow them to constitute a single and important age in Russian culture. The Russian cultural Silver Age is characterized by both a radical departure from previous currents in Russian culture and a remarkable continuity with previous themes. The Silver Age perhaps stands out most especially for the vibrant creative spirit that ran throughout the arts and for the focus on intimacy, personality, and the individual. When the Silver Age finally ended with the rise of the Bolsheviks to power in 1918, a period of great cultural growth and exploration closed on a terrible note that, with its consistent undertones of foreboding, it perhaps expected all along.

1 Nicholas V. Riasanovsky and Mark D. Steinberg, A History of Russia (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 450.

2 Michelle Potter, “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal,” National Library of Australia News Vol. 15 No. 10 (July 2005): 4, accessed 11 March 2012,

3 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 450.

4 James Johnson Sweeney, Marc Chagall (Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969), 7.

5 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 456.

6 Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year,” Art Knowledge News, accessed 11 March 2012,

7 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 453.

8 Ibid., 454.

9 Ivan Moody, “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom,” Hyperion Records, accessed 11 March 2012,

10 Riasanovsky and Steinberg, 454.

11 Ibid., 451.

12 Leonid I. Strakhovsky, “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love,” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Vol. 6 No. 1/2 (May, 1947): 2.

13 Ibid.
Moody, Ivan. “Rachmaninov: The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.” Hyperion Records. Accessed 11 March 2012.
Potter, Michelle. “Mir iskusstva: Serge Diaghilev’s Art Journal.” National Library of Australia News Volume 15 Number 10 (July 2005): 3-6. Accessed 11 March 2012.
Riasanovsky, Nicholas V. and Mark D. Steinberg. A History of Russia. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Sotheby’s 2008 Financial Highlights ~ Sales of $5.3 Billion in a Down Year.” Art Knowledge News. Accessed 11 March 2012.
Strakhovsky, Leonid I. “Anna Akhmatova—Poetess of Tragic Love.” American Slavic and Eastern European Review Volume 6 Number 1/2 (May, 1947): 1-18.
Sweeney, James Johnson. Marc Chagall. Manchester: Ayer Publishing, 1969.