Geoffrey Chaucer (ca. 1343-1400) loved Boethius (480-524). Not only did Chaucer make a complete translation of “Boece’s Concolacione Philosophie,” he cited Boethius frequently. Partly to prove he was a learned man, Chaucer would haul out a few lines of Boethius anytime he needed a character to say something philosophical.
So it’s no surprise that at the end of “The Knight’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales, when Theseus, Duke of Athens, makes an important speech, the philosophy of Boethius figures prominently in it. What’s funnier is that in “The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,” when Chanticleer, the tricky chicken, hops up on a fence and makes a speech, he also cites Boethius.
Boethius’ scholarly project was to translate, comment on, and harmonize all the works of Plato and Aristotle. He barely got to start on the project before his untimely death. But the fragment of work he did accomplish laid a foundation for the medieval scholastic dispute over universals: do these big meaning-conferring categories really inhere in particulars, do they have a separate existence outside of those particulars, or are they just nominally applied, with no existence of their own at all? That fruitful way of putting the question comes from a neoplatonist named Porphyry, by way of Boethius who translated and commented on Porphyry’s introduction to Aristotle. And to speak very generally indeed, Boethius’ masterpiece, the Consolation of Philosophy, shows some interest in getting the universal and the particular into a harmonious relation.
How hard did Geoffrey Chaucer think about the ideas of this Roman philosopher? He must have thought pretty hard about the ideas as he made his translation of the Consolation. It would be a mistake to take a work like the Canterbury Tales as being about something so philosophical as all that –in fact, it would be a mistake to take the Canterbury Tales as being all about anything whatsoever, it’s such a glorious sloppy mess.
But when Theseus and Chanticleer both cite Boethius, something’s going on. And as background, Boethius gives some heft to the argument in “The Knight’s Tale,” when young Arcite and Palamon are arguing about who loves the beautiful girl they have just seen. To prove his love is greater, Arcite says:
Thou woost nat yet now
Wheither she be a womman or goddesse!
Thyn is affeccioun of hoolynesse,
And myn is love as to a creature;
Here is an explicit conflict between an ideal and the real.