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Geoffrey Chaucer as the Renaissance Aesop
GEOFFREY CHAUCER AS THE RENAISSANCE AESOP
A DEONTOLOGICAL MARXIST ANALYSIS OF THE CANTERBURY TALES
For many, conceptions of the modern world do not extend much further than a century ago. But considering the modern English language, the “father of English” is in fact found in the fourteenth century: Geoffrey Chaucer. Even as an acclaimed storyteller bearing such an epithet, there is yet one man more “original gangster” than Chaucer: the Greek fabulist Aesop. *chaucer as aesop* Both the father of storytelling and the father of English have significantly shaped the literary world with which we interact today.
Geoffrey Chaucer established his reputation by breaking the stereotypical tradition of symbolic writings with a vast encyclopedic narrative of human character: The Canterbury Tales. This fictional set of poems contains twenty stories of the tales of thirty pilgrims’ travels, all of whom come from different backgrounds. Inspired by the Black Death, tension between the church and state, and a Classical education, Chaucer displays a variety of characters in his stories to reflect and parody the controversial norms of his society. In the context of the Middle Ages, he wrote during a time of turbulent wars, dynamic trade systems, and the pervasive nature of Christian theology throughout culture. Much of Medieval literature incorporated allegorical themes of Christianity within characters and conflicts to imply authors’ arguments supporting their personal philosophies. Many people had limited access to education and lacked decent literacy, so literature was often shared through oral presentation. In turn, authors wrote with the intention of such a delivery and recognized the audience interacting with their works.
Although he intended for the entire novel to contain 120 stories ‒ approaching the magnitude and influence of Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica ‒ Chaucer was unable to complete his work after writing only twenty-four tales. While it is not as expansive as it could have been, its influence on Western culture has stood the test of time and remains to be a central piece of literary work, since it represents the common people through characters reflecting the familiar moral, social, and economic world in which they lived.
As a frame-story, it contains stories within stories and portrays traditional pilgrimages of people telling stories to pass the time. One of these tales is told by a Pardoner, or someone who sells illegitimate pardons in exchange for spiritual salvation. Written in satire, this chapter reflects the surrounding social and political issues of religious hypocrisy. Chaucer uses a pardoner to teach against vices such as gluttony, gambling, and blasphemy, even though the pardoner knowingly practices those himself. He sells pardons and indulgences to travelers to protect them on their journey toward heaven, just in case death comes unexpectedly and they have no time to be pardoned of their sins through confession. While he teaches against lies and greed, these are exactly the behaviors we see him live out: in an attempt to sell his heretical indulgences, he manipulates his fickle audience with feelings of physical uncertainty, but promises spiritual security.
Through a Marxist analysis, I argue that Chaucer uses a deontological framework to defend rightly ordered affections and identify the root of evil, and he argues through negation in order to desensitize the brokenness of human nature and outline the virtues we ought to pursue.
I begin by defining Marxist theory and terms, and ethical paradigms including deontology, the Golden Rule, and utilitarianism that I reference in this dissertation. I then summarize and analyze one of Chaucer’s chapters that best captures his infamous style through a Marxist and deontological lens, and conclude with a call to appreciation and moral evaluation.
In simple terms, a Marxist criticism rejects classicism and capitalism in favor of the proletariat class over the bourgeoisie, and ultimately rejects the idea that wealth determines social mobility. One important distinction to make is the difference between Marxism as an economic system and a Marxist literary analysis. I choose to embrace the Marxist literary analysis versus the economic lens in order to best address the Marxist themes in Chaucer’s poetry. This particular criticism (fill in the blank after reading the JSTOR article). Commodification is a commonly used word within the context of Marxism that means to turn something, such as an intrinsic value or a work of art, into an economic object or sold for economic value.
Deontology holds that good means determine good ends, that good deeds will follow from following good moral guidelines. Similarly, most of us know the Golden Rule as “Do unto others as you would have done to you.” Gensler highlights the need for universal, prescriptive, and consistent conditions, that if you allow A to do X, then you would allow A to do the same X to you in similar circumstances. Utilitarianism is a consequentialist theory that the ends justify the means; more specifically, that the level of pleasure or pain determines the degree of rightness or wrongness of an action. For context, I also understand “penance” as an act of self-abasement, mortification, or devotion performed to show sorrow or repentance for sin, also known as the sacrament of confession in some churches.
“The Pardoner’s Tale” is a short narrative and an exemplum told as a sermon, intended to point to a moral or virtue. This story argues that greed is the root of all evil. Three reckless young men who waste their lives gambling, drinking, and loitering hear that Death is coming for them, after having stolen one of their companions. Conspiring to confront and defeat Death himself, they come upon an old man ambivalently seeking either death or youth, who sends them off with a blessing to find Death. Instead, the party discovers generous amounts of florins (their currency) and are unable to divide it evenly among themselves. After a short debate, two decidedly murder the other companion and drink wine in celebration of their newfound treasure, only to discover that their murdered friend had poisoned it, and so they were all reunited in death. Thus, the pardoner concludes his account with warnings against avarice, dishonesty, and gluttony.
Not only are the three friends lacking in true prudence, as is made evident and emphasized by their youth, but their deficiency in wisdom is the result of greed: the root of all evil. The old pardoner has a much more significant role than first meets the eye. In old age, he mourns his lost youth and longs for Death to come and take him in order that his suffering might come to an end. His very age acts as a warning for the three companions, that they could potentially waste their lives away on fickle treasures, and that their lives might fly by without accomplishing anything meaningful or even being properly spiritually saved, just as he had. His age is a manifestation of the common fate for all men and women and an opportunity for self-reflection to the young men. He himself is not an admirable individual, nor should we embody his poor life choices, but instead see him as motivation to make the opposite decisions and welcome death with open arms in the knowledge that one is saved by grace through faith, not indulgences.
The party’s collective youth and ignorance are overtly embraced, which demonstrates that prudence is best harnessed and cultivated as an older individual because one will have gained more time and experience to prepare physically and spiritually for old age and salvation to come. The pardoner argues that people must invest in something they know to be truly concrete to prepare themselves for the next life, should anything unexpected happen to them. Thus, he calls his audience to take up their salvation as quickly as they would with money. Lines 645-654 state, “It is an honor to each one that’s here, that you may have a competent pardoner to give you absolution as you ride; for all adventures that may still betide, perchance from horse may fall one or two … and it might well be you.” In doing so, the pardoner is also calling people to place their worries above the security of God’s given grace and thus rely on material things to provide safety and assurance for eternal life.
This commodification captures the idea that one can “put a price tag on anything.” Some objects can be exchanged for another (exchange value), or one’s status can be gained or lost based on the ownership of some object (sign exchange value). Given the selling of indulgences to passersby in “The Pardoner’s Tale”, this significantly reduces the act of forgiveness into a “pass” into heaven that you can buy. Eternal treasures are being bound by physical trinkets, which feeds the lack of man’s desire for permanence. By placing earthly devotions above God, they develop poor habits of ingratitude, lust, pride, and gluttony. Avarice instigates a need to compensate for the many things one might think they deserve, which causes a domino effect of wrongly ordered affections and misplaced priorities. And in ethical terms, to quantify the unquantifiable ‒ which in this case is salvation ‒ is morally reprehensible.
Humans are naturally driven by desire; we often choose to pursue whatever will bring about the greatest benefit to ourselves and sometimes to those around us. In a more complicated sense, most people would say that the Golden Rule is the most effective and universal mode of ethical thought, even though many still behave according to utilitarian ideals. It is far easier to make decisions based on what you will personally gain and what others may lose, rather than aligning your will (or subconscious) with an ethical code of conduct. In light of this, we see the friends rashly pursue revenge on behalf of their beloved companion, pride in their self-assured ability to conquer Death, and gluttony as they pay the ultimate cost to assume the greatest amount of wealth possible. All of these behaviors stem from the core obsession with wanting and the lack of gratitude that would satisfy their selfish thirsts, following a utilitarian way of thinking.
The corrupt protagonists are entirely fixated on the ends of their moral decisions that they hardly stop and consider the choices they make to achieve such ends. Chaucer shows us what happens when you follow in their footsteps: you are left completely empty-handed. As important as teleological, religious considerations are for the purpose and end-goal of life, Chaucer calls for a deontological framework of thought. It may seem that he is contradicting the entirety of “end-oriented” Christian thought during his lifetime (with the focus on the assurance of salvation through confession) when he outlines the way in which we ought to approach our ultimate purpose. The three friends have admirable goals to avenge the death of another and to share the wealth of the pardon equally. However, they improperly went about accomplishing those things: they neglected common considerations of human character that would allow better actions to follow better rules of thought. In addition, the pardoner almost takes pride in his own corruption, not only by selling relics for forgiveness, but also underselling others’ “salvation.” He is depicted as consciously exploiting an established system of redemption for his personal gain, a solution born out of worldly prudence. His lack of self-discipline is marked not of piety, in the sense that he is impatient to participate in eternal life after death, but of avarice and similar vices that he ironically preaches against.
Christianity offers deontological ethics as the principles of moral obligations. Derived from the divine command theory, religious laws guide us toward patterns of thought and behavior that are considered ethical when in alignment with moral rules we hold personally. Thus, efforts of piety, faithfulness, grace, charity, etc are intrinsic values that might assist us in living ethically and virtuously. As we can see, Chaucer’s group of companions disregard these virtues and behave recklessly, thus their actions are unethical, regardless of the consequences.
Although the three friends act ethically according to utilitarianism, under a deontological perspective it is considerate to ponder whether their motivations of self-interest could be perceived as a morally valid rule for them to pursue. To contextualize their sociocultural influences of thought, Medieval England was a strongly Christian country and the public participated in similarly inspired codes of conduct. Although Christian ethics was not as prominent of a paradigm before the Reformation in the sixteenth century, many shared values and behaviors were practiced in the fourteenth century during which time Chaucer’s Tales were set. Two foundational values were the “penitential system and monastic ideals.” G. Scott Davis from the University of Richmond extrapolates as follows,
To be in a state of sin is to be excluded from the community of God and the neighbor. To remain in a state of sin jeopardizes the very possibility of eternal happiness. Thus the sacrament of penance actively reflects the early medieval vision of genuine human good,
its responsibilities and the consequences of breaching the proper order of society.
Philosopher Peter Abelard (1079-1142) notes similarly,
The natural law, [equated] with moral teaching, [is] also called ethics. But reason is so denigrated by the common intellect that the search for the good is mired in tradition and bias … Acts are good when they accord with what God wills for people, and wicked when they evince contempt for God or knowingly violate what God demands … an
individual cannot be held guilty if he acts in accord with the dictates of conscience.
This being said, acting out of self-interest is not a great evil, since it is in line with your will. However, we ought to shape our will so that we follow what God calls of us, and that we act in accordance with our conscience. Aligning these centers of moral guidance allows us to do good “because it just makes sense,” and we follow the good rules we hold convictionally.
This is where the three friends fail to recognize the pardoner as a foreshadowing of what they will become. Chaucer uses both the young companions and the old man to show how greed destroys people’s lives and uproots their ethical and spiritual action. This argument of negation utilizes contrast in order to demonstrate the negative consequences of poor ethical behavior. The underhanded, unrighteous actions depicted throughout “The Pardoner’s Tale” do not yield any advantageous outcomes: all three young men end up dead, and the pardoner remains just as indecisive as in the status quo. Chaucer explicitly portrays their motivations, actions, and responses as a dramatized version of our own thoughts, actions, and responses. They exhibit perfectly human qualities, such as the mourning of a lost friend or the thrill of receiving money. However, the ethical “rules” they followed to act on their feelings were rooted in their more selfish greed, which grows into a lifetime of poor decisions.
You might think that, since Chaucer is arguing merely for what you should not do, we are left with an incredibly vague guide of moral customs. Chaucer could have implored for a small range of courses of action we might take if we want to live virtuously. However, this could prove to be problematic because of Chaucer’s intended audience. Wanting to appeal to a larger pool of readers, the author chose to chastise the unethical decisions made by the three young characters so negatively in order to open up the possibilities for our own extrapolations of the opposite kinds of character we ought to embody instead. The room for interpretation allows us to insert ourselves into the narrative and discover what most compels us to think differently than the protagonists.
While there is no guarantee that all readers will respond to this tale by embracing a whole new ethical framework, at the very least they should be able to identify with aspects of the narrative that speak to their own life, even in a separate era and sociocultural context. Chaucer took many liberties to write specifically for the people’s enjoyment, first of which includes the very language in which he wrote The Canterbury Tales: English. Revolutionary, right? At the time, the vernacular spoken by everyone was French, but Chaucer decided to write in English ‒ not to appear pitiful, elitist, or above the other, more proletariat (working) classes with lower educational opportunities, but to give the common people a narrative that describes their very world in satirically comedic and relevant manner.
In fact, most Medieval literature was written for the purpose of oral presentation, so many authors wrote with consideration toward a definitively small, immediate audience. Even though Chaucer’s works are not performed live as often as they once were, and some may argue that his poems have lost their “full effect,” it was still to his advantage that he intentionally wrote with an eye toward the public. This allows his literature to withstand the test of time, since the audience is so openly invited to participate in his ever-relevant entertainment and humor.
An important aspect of his writing style to consider is his credibility. He actually worked several different kinds of jobs within the feudal system, which gave him the exposure and ability to accurately describe so many different kinds of pilgrims, such as knights, monks, squires, clerks, and more. The depth of his experience inspired him to share his discoveries about human nature and the practical wisdom that he encourages within the tale of each pilgrim. His background gives him the credibility to empathize with his intended audience, and by writing in English he connects with more people on a more humane than instructive level. One critic says, “Just as Chaucer creates a narrator addressing an audience, so he creates an audience being addressed by this narrator.” His use of frame-story allows him to use narration as a means of speaking directly to his audience, both intended and expanded. Because he pulls ideas from realism, there exists a familiarity between readers and the cultural issues addressed. Chaucer even provides solutions (though at times ironic) to common ideals and other public concerns and arbitrates, evaluates, and judges society fairly because of his background.
Rather than arguing through explicitly biased language in disagreement of religious hypocrisy, Chaucer utilized paradoxes in his tales over straightforward statements to prompt individual criticisms in readers instead of mob-mentality. Part of the appeal to Chaucer’s relatability is the encouragement of original thought over reaching the same conclusion as everyone else. Not only does this allow for different literary interpretations, but also various emotional or intellectual extrapolations. Chaucer’s tales are not allegorical like the majority of the content from his age, but in exposing the virtues and vices of humanity through his characters, many opportunities are made available for readers to pursue deeper reflection and form their own opinion. Similarly, the ambiguity that drives participation is assisted through discrepancies between ethical dilemmas. “The Pardoner’s Tale” asks both the characters and audience whether one’s desires are values worth pursuing or if the process to reach such values is a process worth making. The conflict between theoretical (asked of us) and actual (asked within the plot) questions challenges the audience to see through the parallels. For example, the wholesome marriage that concludes “The Knight’s Tale”, thus solving the main conflict, is the very source of issues in the following “Miller’s Tale”. Given the pervasive nature of themes, the emphasis is on contemplation of the puzzle rather than the immediate solution to each individual narration. Edmund Reiss states,
From one point of view, the precise answers arrived at are less important than the dilemmas themselves. Since ultimate Truth would have been clear and unambiguous for Chaucer’s audience, the various conclusions reached are in one sense identical. But in the moment at hand, the dramatic moment shared by the poet and his audience, these conclusions, contradictory and inadequate as they
may be, are dominant and demand attention.
To reiterate, the dilemma itself produces much deeper thought and investment into the narrative than the shallow answer offered.
While this might sound engaging to some, an important concern worth consideration is the potential manipulation of thought for those living under the same religious and social context and the possible irrelevance to other (later) audiences. Chaucer wrote in satire ‒ a genre that humorously uses irony and exaggeration to expose and hold human flaws under judgement or ridicule. His criticisms are genuine reflections of his personal opinions, but are not meant to be taken as serious convictions. Instead, the language and structure of each tale are intentionally structured in order to inspire thoughts of judgement of moral contradictions as well as feelings of curiosity and confusion. Chaucer exploits the art of language and presentation of literature in order to preserve an authentic response from the audience. The response implied by his works appears intellectually elitist and hyper-aware, but is intended to be an ethically psychological puzzle for us to solve.
Chaucer’s (sometimes short) narratives all use simple, vernacular language to tell stories of the people and of everyday experiences, feelings, and learnings. His tales almost talk down to readers ‒ since they tend to be driven by an explicit moral of the story ‒ so much that it can almost feel like a children’s book. Regardless of how simple some ideas are in The Canterbury Tales, I argue there is still merit in us revisiting them and exploring those themes of empathy and moral upstanding. Not only is it a necessary reminder to embrace fundamental and universal truths that societies have held for centuries, but the humor and familiarity brings pleasure to reading. Is it a bad thing to enjoy reading a book? I don’t think so.
The moral implications and entertaining anecdotes woven throughout plots and characters are not so different from childhood books we once read, including Aesop’s Fables. Many of us are familiar with “The Fox and the Grapes,” or “The Goose with the Golden Egg” and of course “The Hare and the Tortoise” ‒ stories that personify objects and animals such that they sound and act like humans. Not only does it effectively illustrate the story, but it creatively and concisely expresses ideas and deepens connections with readers. Aesop also often shows how the mistakes of characters negatively impacts themselves and others, thus arguing through negation. In a similar way, Chaucer uses simplification and abstraction to encourage identification. That is, he uses simplified, or stereotypical characters in his life to share narratives about their personal (fictional) experiences in order to speak to his audience so that they might relate to characters and learn from their experience, often through negation (do the opposite of their behavior to receive a better fate). This is what reading is all about: to gain understanding and empathy in order that we might become more knowledgeable and kind people.
“The Pardoner’s Tale” captures Chaucer’s use of identification and commodification to offer a pragmatic attitude toward his disagreements with the problems within Medieval culture, namely the corruption of the church. He reduces the concept of salvation through indulgences, or pardons, and uses satires as a form of humor in order to comment on society. He uses deontological theory to suggest the ethical course of action in contrast to the main characters of this tale. He ironically embraces the hero’s journey from the path of evil to the path of good, so as to subvert it in light of the hypocrisy of the church’s issues and depicts human character more candidly than ever seen before. His simplistic call to action, parallel to that of Aesop, brings us to identify with his narrative and examine our own moral values and actions. His awareness of an imminent audience and rejection of the French vernacular function as an essential factor to his cultural relevance that has stood the test of time.
*idea on note to anachronistic sensitivities: “He is truly a modern poet because his works have all the elements of modern writings. He has realism, catholicity, humor, Renaissance spirit, and style which are the prominent features of modernism.” (slideshare.net/MuhammadZubair560/geoffrey-chaucer-as-a-modern-poet)
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