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The Nun’s Priest’s Tale

Les Reid on sex, freedom and literature.

The Nun’s Priest’s Tale is one of the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer. It contains a passing reference to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381 and for that reason it is believed to have been written some time in the mid-1380s. Although it is highly prized as a treasure of English literature, its worth as a classic of early English philosophy has been much less appreciated. In that respect, its format, being a work of humorous verse, has been a drawback, obscuring the fact that it deals with philosophical issues of mind, body, freewill and determinism. Behind the colourful display of medieval romance and comedy, a sharp intelligence is at work, comparing human with animal behaviour and challenging us to clarify our belief that free will is a distinguishing feature of human actions.

The story of the vain cock and the cunning fox was an ancient folk-tale even in Chaucer’s time. It is a fable, closely related to those gathered by Aesop in the sixth century BCE, which the Romans later spread across Europe. Several medieval versions survive, including one in the Roman de Renard from the 12th century which gives the cock the same name as in Chaucer’s version, i.e. Chauntecler. The medieval audience which heard or read Chaucer’s Tale would probably have been familiar with the basic story-line.

Thus the very act of telling the Tale becomes an illustration of one of the philosophical issues: the freedom that Chaucer has as a creative artist is bound within the limits of the traditional tale. The audience know that Chauntecler will escape by tricking the fox in the same way that the cock himself was tricked, but they do not know how that conclusion will be reached. The Tale has new details, new dialogue and new events, all the creation of Chaucer, and so the audience find it a fresh, unpredictable telling of the Tale, even though they know the final outcome. In this way free choice and predestination are combined. Chaucer has free choice in the way he tells the Tale, but his freedom is limited by the necessity of the predetermined conclusion. Conversely, the audience have foreknowledge in that they know how the Tale will end, but their knowledge is incomplete since they do not know how Chaucer will bring them to that conclusion.

The issue of free choice and foreknowledge is first broached in the Tale through a discussion of the nature of dreams. Chauntecler has had a frightening dream in which a beast seized him and tried to kill him. Believing the dream to be a premonition, he tells his lady-love, Pertelote the hen,about it, but she heaps scorn upon his fear, telling him that dreams are caused by overeating and that all he needs is a laxative. Pertelote appears to be a materialist in her outlook, relegating dreams to the world of causes and treating them as ephemeral by-products like bubbles on the surface of a stream. Chauntecler disagrees. For him, dreams belong to the world of intentions and he believes that his dream is a warning of impending disaster. He cites several classical authors in support of his opinion and his trump card, given the hegemonic role of religion in medieval culture, is to refer to examples of dreams-aswarnings in the Bible. So Chauntecler has Biblical authority for believing that dreams can be premonitions of events to come.

The problem of free will versus predestination soon follows. If a dream can represent truthfully a future state of affairs, then that scenario must in some sense already exist. The future must already be mapped out so that the prophetic dreamer can catch a glimpse of it. If the future was a nothing, because future events have not yet happened, then there would be nothing for the dreamer to see.

Prediction, as practised by prophetic dreamers, is a form of foreknowledge. It is a patchy version of the total foreknowledge attributed to God. Patchy or total, however, foreknowledge runs counter to common sense belief in free will. If certain scenarios have been foreseen and are therefore inevitable, the human agents involved can have no real freedom of action. Otherwise, they could spoil the predicted scenarios, making choices which result in different scenarios and thereby reducing God’s foreknowledge to mere guesswork. The actions of a free agent must be unpredictable, if the agent is truly free to act as he or she thinks fit. Therefore predictable scenarios, including the whole future as claimed for God’s foreknowledge, cannot include any free agents.

Chaucer refers to the great debate on this issue among theologians, mentioning Augustine, Boethius and his own contemporary, Bradwardine. They regarded God’s absolute foreknowledge as a given and then endeavoured to accommodate human free will within that framework. Chaucer expresses the contradiction between foreknowledge and free will thus (lines 477ff):

“Wheither that Goddes worthy forwityng
[Whether God’s divine foreknowledge]
Streyneth me nedely for to doon a thyng,
[compels me of necessity to do a thing,]
Or elles if free choys be graunted me
[or if free choice be granted me]
To do that same thyng or do it noght…”
[to do that thing or not …]

The conclusion that Chaucer seems to favour is that of limited free choice, or ‘conditional necessity’. This means that God, like the audience for the Tale, knows what the outcome will be, but free will is granted in the choice of pathway to that destination. This solution is unsatisfactory. First, it allows only patchy foreknowledge, i.e. the conclusion is known, not the path taken, but God’s foreknowledge is supposed to be total. Secondly, it relegates free choice to minor matters of detail while accepting determinism for the great decisions of life, so that you can decide to wear pink socks but you cannot do anything about going to heaven or hell. So the theological paradox is not solved by introducing ‘conditional necessity.’

Cast in religious terms, this debate is of limited interest to a modern audience. Once you cease to believe in God, problems arising from his alleged foreknowledge evaporate immediately. But there is more to this issue than mere theological dispute. The extent to which we humans have free will, if at all, is still a valid question and Chaucer shows that he is aware of the non-religious aspects too. Remove God’s foreknowledge from the problem and other deterministic factors loom large. Character is shown to be one such factor.

In Chaucer’s version of the tale much emphasis is placed on the different characters of the protagonists. They act as they do because that is the nature of their characters. Chauntecler is vain and therefore his actions tend to follow a pattern. For example, he has the choice whether to heed his dream and stay out of harm’s way on his perch, or to ignore it and display his fine feathers in the yard as usual. True to his character, he chooses the latter course. He is driven by his vanity and the fox exploits that weakness in order to seize him. For his part, the fox is cunning and ruthless. Flattery and deceit come easy to him. His actions are all of a kind and show the set traits of his character. As for Pertelote, she is domineering and dim-witted. Her arguments are deeply flawed, but she pronounces them with great conviction. She fails to distinguish between courage and foolhardiness and demands both of Chauntecler as proof of his manhood. Her actions tend to hasten the disaster and her character causes her to commit those actions.

A medieval account of character differs from ours today because it involved astrology and the theory of the humours (choler, melancholy, sanguinity and phlegm). The configurations of the stars and the mixture of humours in the body were thought to influence a person’s actions and to shape his or her character. This deterministic view of character has its modern counterpart in the belief that the body is best understood in terms of genetics, hormones and nutrition,while social conditioning and personal experience contribute to a person’s psychological formation. Thus, if someone is suffering from depression, all those various factors will be examined to see what is causing the depression. In a less acute form, depression may be thought of as simply sadness, or perhaps as a habitually pessimistic outlook. Thus we move from the medical condition, depression, to a consideration of character, thought of as an accumulation of habits and assumptions, an accretion which produces an identifiable pattern of behaviour. Our freedom of action is therefore constrained by factors which derive from our personal histories and physical constitutions.

Vanity is a human character trait. The rapacity of the fox, however, shades over into instinctual animal behaviour. When we describe animal behaviour we often attribute it to instinct and thereby deny that any free will was involved. A young cuckoo, for example, never meets its natural parents. It is reared by an unsuspecting host of a different species and yet, at maturity, it behaves like a cuckoo and acts out its parasitic role by instinct. We now think of instinct as behaviour which is programmed into an organism as part of its genetic make-up.

The Prologue to the Canterbury Tales shows that Chaucer was prepared to link humans and animals in terms of instinctual patterns of behaviour. He says that Spring revives all of nature: the sun returns and it wakens the seeds, it starts the birds singing, and it inspires people to go on pilgrimages.

“So priketh hem nature in hir corages” (l. 11)
[Thus Nature drives them in their inclinations]

No doubt Chaucer makes this comparison with a mildly humorous intent, but that does not detract from its validity.

However, the more significant forms of instinctual behaviour in humans are to do with sex and parenting. We humans have evolved differently from our close relatives, the other species in the mammal group, but the basic functions of sex and parenting are not so different. Such basic functions have been programmed into us by long millennia of evolution, some of which we share with the other mammals in terms of our common ancestors. Unfortunately for Chaucer, he lived in pre-scientific times, five centuries before Darwin and had no conception of the real links between humans and other animal species. Nevertheless, he can see that sex is a driving force in human and in animal behaviour.

Chauntecler, who is of course the cock of the story, is at times driven by lust. Thus, although he speaks at length on the life-threatening danger which he believes is imminent, he ignores all his own reasoning and flies down into the yard because of his passion for Pertelote (lines 410ff)

“Real he was, he was namore aferd;
[Royal he was, he was no more afraid;]
He fethered Pertelote twenty tyme,
[he caressed Pertelote twenty times]
And trad as ofte, er that it was prime.”
[and mounted her as often, before morning.]

Chauntecler cannot follow the advice that his own arguments provided. His lust drives him to have sex with Pertelote twenty times and his vanity drives him to strut around the yard in his pride at his accomplishments. His reason is the slave of his passions, to use Hume’s phrase. He knows what he ought to do, but the force of reason cannot compete with the other forces that are driving him.

Chaucer did not have the benefit of being able to refer to studies in comparative psychology and zoology, etc., but his observations accord well with the way we now think of, for example, the role of sex hormones in explaining behaviour patterns. Human freedom is limited by the fact that we are essentially bodies and therefore subject to biological imperatives which drive our behaviour, just as they drive the rest of the biosphere. The cocks and hens which mate and procreate in the farmyard are obeying instincts which are also seen to operate in human life. Part of the comedy of the Tale is to see the similarity between human sexual behaviour, for example, courtship rituals, and animal behaviour where we see similar forms of competitive display. The preening and strutting of Chauntecler in the farmyard is both a satirical comment on human sexually-motivated display and a realistic description of instinctual animal behaviour.

So far we have only considered the ways in which causal factors shape human behaviour. Clearly, human freedom has its limitations. But are there grounds for thinking that we have any freedom at all? Is it possible that free choice is an illusion and that causal explanation is all that is required?

In theological terms, insisting upon God’s absolute foreknowledge can lead to the complete denial of human freedom. Predestination theologies, which segregate people into the Damned and the Elect from the moment of birth, sacrifice freedom in order to admit absolute foreknowledge. Likewise, in scientific terms, an uncompromising belief in the methodological principle that every event has a cause leads to a similar conclusion: human behaviour is governed by causal laws which admit no exceptions and therefore no free choice.

But human freedom is easy to prove. You tell me what you predict that I am going to do and I shall disprove the prediction. Even if you gather up all the causal information that is possible in order to make your prediction, I shall prove my freedom by breaking your prediction. The same applies to God’s foreknowledge: if God tells me what She “knows” I am going to do, I shall have no hesitation in doing something quite different. Confounding predictions is one way to exercise freedom.

The basis of our freedom is surely language. Language gives us the ability to model different possible futures. We can describe different scenarios and compare them. On the basis of that comparison, we can then decide which course of action to take. Thus language lifts us out of the ruts of necessity and gives us the power to choose. We are enslaved neither by God’s foreknowledge nor by the chains of universal causality.

But let us not overstate the case. We are not creatures of pure reason, mere sentence-makers living in a realm of words. No, we are flesh and blood bodies, immersed in the world of causal connections, but able to use language to give us leverage on the world. Human behaviour is therefore a mixture of freedom and necessity.

On this point Chaucer succumbs to comedy. The traditional folktale which forms the basis of his Tale clouds the argument about human freedom by granting the power of language to birds and animals. The essentially human attribute of speech is given to Chauntecler, Pertelote and Russell, the fox. Here Chaucer follows tradition, but he adds to it by making his characters speak in a ridiculously learned and oratorical style. All three characters cite Roman and Greek writers as authorities and their speeches are in the manner of learned disputation. In this way Chaucer applies a reductio ad absurdum to the notion that animals could have the power of language. So the opposite is implied: that language is a distinctly human activity. Language gives humans a freedom which animals lack.

It is noteworthy too that the Tale ends with an appeal to the audience (line 672ff)

“But ye that holden this tale a folye
[As for you who think this tale a silly thing]
As of a fox, or of a cok and hen,
[dealing with a fox, or a cock and hen,]
Taketh the moralite, goode men.”
[take the moral from it, good sirs.]

The whole point of a moral tale is to make the audience think again – to make them think about the turning points in the narrative and apply them to their own lives, e.g. Chauntecler courting disaster by yielding to lust. The moral tale is a clear representative of the power of language. It asks the audience to model different scenarios and to amend their lives in the light of those models. Are you vain? Do you have bad habits? Do you give in to lust? These are the familiar challenges of the moral fable and Chaucer implies them in his reference to ‘the moralite’. But they have added resonance after the points that Chaucer has made in the course of the Tale. The moral challenge assumes that there is freedom of action, freedom to change one’s ways and be a better person. The moral challenge uses language to present different possible futures and exhorts us, as language users, to think through the possibilities and choose the better way. We do not have total freedom, but we are not helpless in the face of Destiny.

In conclusion, I have a confession and an attempted vindication. No doubt in my attempt to provide a commentary on Chaucer’s Tale, I may have grafted some ideas of my own onto his. For example, I do not deny that there is a change of emphasis in this essay from Chaucer’s conditional necessity to limited freedom. Perhaps it is more than just a change of emphasis. But I feel sure that Chaucer would have appreciated the way that the resulting combination of ideas illustrates yet again the interplay of freedom and necessity: my freedom to interpret, extrapolate and (yes) distort, operates within the necessity to acknowledge the ideas and insights which Chaucer has left us in his work. We are indeed fortunate to have this record of his wit and thought. His words enhance our freedom.

© Les Reid 2002

Les Reid is Secretary of the Belfast Humanist Group. He swears he kept one foot on the floor all the time he was writing this article.

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