Freewill and predestination – Boëthius and Chaucer

BOËTHIUS AND CHAUCER: foreknowledge and free will


The Consolation of Philosophy by Anicius Boёthius [6th century CE] and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde [14th century CE]




Philosophers have debated whether humans do indeed have free will.


Some Christian thinkers claim that some people are predestined to be “saved”, whatever good works they carry out.  On the other hand, we are told that we possess sufficient free will to choose between good and evil.  In John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Lucifer deliberately chooses evil.


It appears impossible to “prove” whether we have free will.   However, it is not possible to live a life without assuming that we are free to make choices, albeit in the context of internal constraints, such as society’s laws and our personal resources.


The Consolation of Philosophy


Boёthius was a minister of the Ostrogoth King Theodoric.  He was arrested on a charge of treason (it is thought, unjustly) and executed in 525 CE.  The Consolation is believed to have been written by Boёthius when he was in prison awaiting his fate.  Edward Gibbon called it “a golden volume not unworthy of the leisure of Plato or Tully” (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, XXXIX).


In prison, the writer rails against his misfortune and the injustice he has suffered.  He is visited by Lady Philosophy, ie philosophy personified.  This reminds one of Wisdom, personified in books of the Old Testament and the Apocrypha, namely, Proverbs, The Wisdom of Solomon and Ecclesiasticus (also known as Sirach), and of Job.  Classical philosophy is relevant too, eg stoicism.


Philosophy identifies happiness with goodness and goodness in turn with God.  The good become like gods.  Virtue is its own reward.


Boёthius addresses the issue of free will versus predestination (or foreknowledge).  Some things happen of necessity, such as the daily rising of the sun; other things happen of free will, such as the decisions of human beings.  Human understanding is not equal to that of God.  “The operation of human reasoning cannot approach the immediacy of divine foreknowledge.” (Boёthius, Book 5 – tr V Watts, Penguin, London, 1999).  Moreover, to God, all events take place in an eternal present.


The argument is well put rather than resolved.  (Indeed, can it be resolved?)


Troilus and Criseyde


Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales are widely known; but Troilus and Criseyde is finished and polished, psychologically perceptive, funny and sad by turns, indeed very poignant.


Troilus is written in five books – in “rhyme royal stanzas”: ABABBCC.


The story is based on the Filostrato of Giovanni Boccaccio [14th century].  Chaucer also draws upon Boёthius and other classical and medieval writers.


Chaucer’s love story mainly involves the eponymous Troilus and Criseyde, and Pandarus, who aids and abets them.  It is set against the background of the Trojan War.  The first three books give an account of the success of the love affair.


Books 4 and 5 describe the break-up of the relationship, consequent upon an exchange of prisoners of war, and Troilus’s vain efforts to find Criseyde and to renew their relationship, in the face of her new loyalty to the Greek warrior, Diomede.


Troilus speculates as to whether the break-up was inevitable, decreed by fate.  He enters upon Boёthian philosophising, but stops before he finds any resolution, such as that offered in the Consolation.  He emphasises predestination at the expense of free will:


For al that comth, comth by necesitee:

Thus to ben lorn [lost], it is my destinee.


(Book 4, lines 958-9)


[‘Riverside Chaucer’, ed LG Benson, OUP, Oxford, 1988]


Troilus turns from thought to action.  He takes it upon himself to fight harder than ever for the Trojan cause.  He is eventually killed, by Achilles (Book 5).


So far, the story is sad, verging on the tragic.  But Chaucer provides a sophisticated sort of happy ending – not the sort one might expect.


Chaucer writes an epilogue to the whole, drawing upon Boccaccio’s Teseida and Dante’s Paradiso.  He portrays Troilus’s soul rising from earth to heaven, through the spheres of the Ptolemaic system.  The point is that now Troilus looks back with detachment at the mundane concerns of the living:


And down from thennes faste he gan avyse [look at]

This litel spot of erthe that with the se [sea]

Embraced is, and fully gan despise

This wrecched world, and held al vanite

To [in] respect of the pleyn felicite

That is in hevene above….


(Bk 5, lines 1814-19)


The end Chaucer chooses – does it appear contrived or fitting?  One can argue it either way.  I think that many writers (especially later ones) would choose to end the story with Troilus’s death, or even earlier, at the point where he understands that his love affair is over (see Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida).  The epilogue (concerning detachment) is itself detachable!


One should note, however, that Chaucer has already prepared for the conclusion: in Book 5 he gives a physical description of the principal characters, as a resumé, and in the process he subtly enables the reader to become detached from them.  This prepares us for Troilus’s fortune at the end.


Both these books are fine pieces of writing.



David Harries




Thoughts on the Book of Job



Perhaps the greatest philosophical and emotional challenge we encounter in our lives is that of misfortune.


We are affected by the death of a loved one.  We are moved by the tribulations of others – a drought, a flood, a tsunami, a murder, a war.


Preachers and their followers attribute good fortune to the kind provision of God.  God is not blamed for what goes wrong.  It may be attributed to the evil doings of human beings.  It may be connected with climate change.


A grave misfortune challenges the beliefs of the believer.  Where is God in all this, one is inclined to ask.  Some people lose their faith in the face of a disaster – God should not allow it to happen, they think.


The Book of Job in the Old Testament is probably one of the oldest writings that has come down to us which addresses this issue, and it does so very poignantly.


The story is well-known, and I do not wish to repeat it here.


The account has a prologue (Chapters 1 and 2) and an epilogue (Chapter 42:7-17).  These may be additions.  The prologue provides a cause for Job’s misfortunes: the Satan (the adversary) sets out to test Job’s faith, by destroying his goods, killing his children and inflicting disease upon him.  The epilogue provides for the restoration of Job to something like his former state.


Moreover, there may be further additions: Chapter 28 is a self-contained poem about the value of wisdom, above all else, and where it is to be found; in Chapter 32 a fourth friend, Elihu, appears, without introduction.


It is clear that Job does not deserve his misfortunes.  It is also clear that the three “comforters” are misguided insofar as they tell him that he must have done something wrong.  Job does not accept this.  In the face of his adversity, he does not turn away from God, but he does give expression to his distress, his feelings of separation from God, his rejection by his friends and relatives, and his search for an explanation.


At the end, God speaks to Job.  He does not give him a simple explanation.  God gives Job an awesome account of his powers and his responsibilities.  He is very much God as Creator.  God tells Job that he does not understand His purposes.  Job humbly accepts that God possesses a much greater store of knowledge than he himself does.


The poetry of the book is magnificent – especially the speeches of God at the end.  It repays reading at length; short extracts do not do justice to it.


Job says (30:29-31):


“The wolf is now my brother,

The desert-owls have become my companions.

My blackened skin peels off,

And my body is scorched by the heat.

My lyre has been tuned for a dirge,

My flute to the sound of weeping.”


[Revised English Bible]


God says to Job (38:2-7):


“Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?
Tell me, if you know and understand.

Who fixed its dimensions?  Surely you know!

Who stretched his measuring-line over it?

On what do its supporting pillars rest?

Who set its corner-stone in place,

While the morning stars sang in chorus

And the sons of God all shouted for joy?”


Job’s final speech of acceptance of God’s will (42:2-6) is short, indeed perfunctory:


“I know that you can do all things

And that no purpose is beyond you.

But I have spoken of things which I have not understood,

Things too wonderful for me to know….

I knew of you then only by report,

But now I see you with my own eyes.

Therefore I yield, repenting in dust and ashes.”


The problem of sudden, undeserved misfortune is posed, rather than solved.  Moreover, God remains a stern, remote figure, with whom it is difficult to communicate: this is not a comfortable concept.


Perhaps we should accept that the story is a tragedy.  It is moving.  It reflects real life situations.  In our age we shall probably not expect God to intervene and to avert or ameliorate tragedies.  (Perhaps this is our own task.)


This does not fit in with a simple form of religion that thanks God for the good but diverts blame away from Him for the bad.




Job has features in common with Greek philosophy and Greek tragedy.  It portrays real problems.  It does not supply easy answers.


One of the aspects of tragedy is that it is not consistent with an easy-going, optimistic outlook on the position of ‘man’ in the world.


Traditional Christianity offers the doctrines of the incarnation, the atonement, salvation, and the prospect of an after-life.


Tragedy takes us away from this.  Comedy tends to do so too.  There are ambiguities in drama.  Ambiguity, humour and irony are not consistent with religious beliefs that supply all the “answers” and do not admit doubt.


Over the centuries, we have discovered that we still need drama; and we have to face up to tragedy both in real life and in fiction, where it is crystallised.



David Harries