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




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