Boethius in the Knight's Tale

Jean Di Paolo


The Consolation by Boethius had a profound and far-reaching effect on the work of Chaucer. Boethius interpreted philosophy for Chaucer. Chaucer considered the problem of chance in The Knight's Tale and borrowed from Boethius's Consolation to describe chance as an angel of grace subservient to God. Throughout The Knight's Tale there are many examples of Boethian influence. The greatest part of Boethian influence in The Knight's Tale is concentrated into 3 long speeches. Each speech is on a common theme and that theme is the relation of Providence to man's happiness. In the first of speech, the speech by Arcite, he, ill satisfied with events, wonders why he cannot understand the wise purveyance of god, who does all things for the best; but blames himself for stumbling around so blindly for false happiness--such stumbling as Dame philosophy describes in the Consolation. In the second speech, the speech by Palamon, he does not blame himself but takes the benighted postion in which Boethius describes himself at the beginning of the Consolation; he like Boethius cries out against the cruel Gods who permit innocent men to suffer. The speech by Theseus seems to be the most important one to focus on in terms of Boethian influence, however first I would like to begin with a few smaller examples of Boethian influence in The Knight's Tale.

Prison imagery is used in Knight's Tale. The prison in which Palamon and Arcite are put for life is realized powerfully in the poem as a matter of walls and bars. Their thoughts repeatedly revert to this until imprisonment becomes for them an image of the human condition itself. This idea of life in prison from which men only escape by death is a fundamental notion in the philosophical work of the Consolation. There, Boethius is in a physical prison, which eventually he comes to see an image of life itself. In The Knight's Tale, in the long speech derived from Boethian philosophy with which Theseus atempts to expound the significance and moral of the poem's events, this same idea occurs when he argues

That goode Arcite, of chivalrie the flour, 
Departed is with ductee and honour
Out of this foule prisoun of this lyf.

Theseus blames neither God nor himself but by explaining the origin of the universe, shows, as Dame philosophy does, that there is an established order to which men must submit and which turns all things good. However this is a contradicition of Boethian beliefs as is most of Theseus's speech which we will expand upon later.

Philosophical questioning in The Knight's Tale is also derived from Boethius. In The Knight's Tale, this questioning flows naturally from the individual situation and the argument is more passionate, rebellious and memorable than in the Consolation. Arcite asks desperatly why men should queston the 'purveiance of God, or of Fortune' when many, like himself have desired for themselves apparent goods which have proved disasters. He gives a summary of the situation by saying "Imfinite harmes been in this mateere." He goes on to assert that men seek for the good, but mistake its true nature:

We faren as he that dronke is as a mous.
A dronke man woot wel he hath an hous,
But he noot which the righte way is thider, 
And to a dronke man the wey is slider.
And certes, in this world so faren we;
We seken faste after felicitee,
But we goon wrong ful often, trewly.

The image of the drunkard, more familiar and immediate than is expected of philosophical discourse, sounds typically Chaucerian, but in fact it, like the argument, is borrowed from Boethius:

...the corage alwey reherseth ans seketh the soverein good, al be it so that it be with a derked memorie; but he not by whiche path, right as a droken man not by whiche path he may retorne him to his hous.

Finally we come to the speech of Theseus which has been regarded as the great philosophical climax of The Knight's Tale. This speech, usually referred to as the First Mover's Speech has been interpreted as Chaucer's greatest and most complete expostion of the philosophy of Boethius. Although Chaucer uses Boethian concepts and phrases, he produces an argument that is actually a parody of the Consolation. For Theseus, the First Mover is Jupiter, the king, who he pictures as a tyrant-prince against whom rebellion is futile. Basically, the theme of the speech is that the First Mover has created everything for his own purposes and has decreed that everything must eventually die. Since we have only to look around us to see that everything does, in fact die, we can see that the First Mover is stable and eternal and that it is useless to try to strive against him. See lines 3035-46 of The Knight's Tale. Such a conclustion is a direct contradiction of Boethius's insistence that it is the duty of every man to strive to shape his own fortune. Theseus fails to carry Boethius's arguement to its conclusion which is that only in striving for the good man can place himself beyond the change of fortune. Theseus reduces Boethius's arguement to a tyrant's demand for passive submission. He presents only the duties of the ruler and the ruled. In addition, Theseus fails to make the distinction between Providence and Fate which is the core of Boethius's arguement. For Boethius, providence is the good to which all things strive, and it is a unity with happiness, love, and God. Fate on the other hand is merely the day to day happenings of chance. We may not be able to make sense of the ups and downs of fate but we must keep our minds focused on a single, unmoving center, providence which never changes and is always good.

As well as the contradictory ideas, the imagery is a bit skewed in Theseus's speech. Theseus borrows the images of the tree, the stone, and the river from Boethius, but uses them only to show that nothing lasts forever. See lines 3017-26 of The Knight's Tale. Boethius on the other hands, uses these images as eveidence of the harmony of the universe, by which the behaviour of even intimate objects is consistent with their nature so as to preserve them.

Finally, the greatest contradiction in Theseus's speech is the conclusion he draws after all his philosophizing that the best thing that we can hope for in the "foul prison of this life" is to die in our prime, b/c then we can be more certain of our good name enduring. See lines 3047-56 of The Knight's Tale. The contradiciton is that Boethius considered the long life of one's good name as nothing at all: "But if you really consider the infinite space of eternity, have you any reason to rejoice in the long life of your own name...?" He also considered the man who runs after glory to be a fool.



Jean DiPaolo. February 8, 1999.