Tag Archives: 2021

Chaucer, CT, Man of Law’s Tale

Index to this series

The tale of Chaucer’s Man of Law is a strange fantasy, taking place in the Mediterranean and England, at a time when there are

  • a Muslim sultan in Syria,
  • pagan rulers in England,
  • both an emperor and a pope in Rome.

There does not seem to have been such a time historically. The pope crowned emperors such as Charlemagne, but they didn’t sit in Rome.

The Man of Law names only one male historical figure, who is King Ælla of Northumbria, who died in 867. Several women are named, particularly Constance, who is apparently to be taken as the type of a virtuous Christian woman.

While telling his tale, the Serjeant asserts that our fates are written in the stars, if only we could read them. He also says he learned his tale from a merchant, years ago, and Chaucer will have to versify it. But then Chaucer the poet is having his character called the Serjeant or Man of Law say this in the first place.

The reading has three parts.

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Chaucer, CT, Miller’s and Reeve’s Tales

Index to this series

When I read the Miller’s Tale for high school, I thought it was supposed to show how titillation was possible through learning (in this case, learning Middle English). We didn’t read the Reeve’s ensuing tale (it was not in the selection that we had).

The two tales are comedies. Chaucer bases them on existing plots, as far as I know, but tries to make them fit his pilgrims. Though the Reeve may derive the lesson, “A gylour shal him-self bigyled be” (line 4321), I see no reason to think Chaucer is trying to teach this or any other lesson. He portrays corruption in the Church, but does not seem to be a Luther in the making.

There are many more tales to come. Meanwhile, I wonder how Chaucer came to describe the mote and beam of Matthew 7:3 as a stalk and a balk; see lines 3919–20.

Before passing to the text itself, I try to summarize, highlighting the comedy.

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Chaucer, CT, Knight’s Tale

Index to this series

I had read the Knight’s Tale in college and written an essay about it, but I could remember little of the Tale itself or the essay.

After obtaining and annotating the text of the Tale as below, I went back to reread my old essay after thirty-six years. It’s better than I feared, and it drew my attention to points that I had missed in the latest reading of the Knight’s Tale itself. But my concerns are somehow different now.

This is what I say now about the Knight’s Tale. It is about the resolution of a love triangle. Palamon and Arcite both love Emily. Arcite wins her, but Palamon ends up with her.

By the anachronistic conceit of the teller of the tale (be he Chaucer or Chaucer’s Knight), Palamon and Arcite are knights in ancient Greece. Theseus arranges for them to fight one another for the hand of Emily. Palamon prays Venus to win Emily or die. Arcite prays Mars to give him victory. Emily prays Diana to leave her single, if possible.

Maidenhead is not allowed. However, Arcite will go to the man who loves her most. Victory is Arcite’s, but then accident takes his life, and Theseus gives Emily to Palamon.

I could keep adding details until I had repeated the whole story told in Chaucer’s verses; but I am not going to do that.

A question raised in our seminar is, What does it mean that Chaucer has a Christian knight tell a story about knights who worship pagan gods?

Palamon and Arcite get what they say they want, literally. Oracles work that way:

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Chaucer, CT, Prologue

Below is a text (in black) of the Prologue of the Canterbury Tales of Geoffrey Chaucer, with

  • my comments in blue (as now),
  • my highlighting in yellow.

The Prologue tells the frame story of a pilgrimage from London to the shrine of the “holy blissful martyr” at Canterbury; along the way, the pilgrims will tell the tales that make up the rest of the collection.

Chaucer was born around 1340; the dramatic date of his Prologue may be 1387. The martyr in Canterbury is Thomas Becket, assassinated in the cathedral there in 1170 by agents of King Henry II of England.

The Black Death was 1346–53.

Reasons to read Chaucer include testing Collingwood’s assertion in the Prologue of Speculum Mentis (1924),

Chaucer and Dante are no shallow optimists, but their tragedies are discords perpetually resolved in the harmony of a celestial music. The fundamental thing in Chaucer is the ‘mery tale’ of human life as a heartening and lovely pageant … The medieval mind feels itself surrounded, beyond the sphere of trial and danger, by a great peace, an infinite happiness.

Those clauses are from this paragraph, elaborating on medieval happiness:

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Hostility and Hospitality

After seventeen weekly posts of readings with my annotations, the Pensées of Pascal join two other works that I have blogged about systematically, chapter by chapter or book by book:

  • R. G. Collingwood, The New Leviathan, or Man, Society, Civilization, and Barbarism (1942);

  • Homer, the Iliad, in George Chapman’s translation.

Do three authors belong together, for any other reason than that I have spent time with each of them?

  • For Pascal, the Torah is history, but the Iliad was written too late to be that, and is just a novel (S 688 / L 436 / B 628). It has no concept of law, he says (S 691 / L 451 / B 620), but later Greeks took this and other things from the Jews. I discussed this in “Judaism for Pascal.” For example, Philo Judaeus thinks that when Heraclitus says, “We live their death and we die their life,” this is the death wrought by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in Genesis.

  • Pascal and Collingwood both come to terms with a world of contrariety. Collingwood calls it “a Heraclitean world,” alluding to how Plato has Socrates tell Hermogenes in the Cratylus (402a, Loeb translation by Harold North Fowler),

    Heracleitus says, you know, that all things move and nothing remains still, and he likens the universe to the current of a river, saying that you cannot step twice into the same stream.

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Pascal, Pensées, S 791–813

Index for this series

The text of our final reading of Pascal’s Pensées is below in black. The fragments are Sellier 791–813, labelled below by the enumerations of

Sellier–Le Guern–Lafuma–Brunschwicg.

The last fragment, discovered in 1952, is thus not in Lafuma or Brunschvicg. The rest are Lafuma 956–67, 969, 971–2, 983, 985–91, 993.


This section is based on an email that I sent to the discussion group. For our final discussion, one participant has proposed looking back also at fragments in our third reading:

  • S 230 / L 199 / B 72: “The Disproportion of Man”

  • S 231 / L 200 / B 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed …”

These are a reason why I wanted to join this group in the first place. I propose to include the continuation,

  • S 232 / L 200 / B 347 “All our dignity consists then in thought. That’s how we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time, which we could never fill. Let us then try to think well: this is the principle of morality.”

Other suggestions may be forthcoming; meanwhile, I propose also to look at some fragments in the last (in the sense of previous) and last (in the sense of final) reading, and in Matthew and the Quran, that may illuminate, or be illuminated by, S 230–2.

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Pascal, Pensées, S 755–790

Index for this series

The reading is Sellier 755–90. These are labelled below by the enumerations of

Sellier–Le Guern–Lafuma–Brunschwicg.

Apparently S 772–85 were in a manuscript that was discovered, or were discovered to be in a manuscript, by Jean Mesnard in 1962. Those fragments then are not in Lafuma’s edition, much less Brunschwicg’s, except S 781–2, which were already known from another manuscript. These and the rest of the reading are Lafuma 926–35, 937–48, 950–1, 974, 977, 980–2, 984, and 992. One of the fragments, S 786 / L 977 / B 320, is not on the site of Descotes and Proust.

A page at the site that might have more information on the later manuscripts is currently en chantier. Looking elsewhere, I found a review (Girdlestone, C. M. Blackfriars, vol. 34, no. 395, 1953, pp. 100–102. JSTOR. Accessed 30 May 2021) of the translation by G. S. Fraser of Pascal: His Life and Works by Jean Mesnard. The book would seem to correct the picture of Pascal passed along by Eric Temple Bell, as in a quotation I made in connection with 142–110–282 in the second reading. According to the reviewer, Mesnard

rectifies many a misconception still current about its hero, the image of whom is still often based on that first outlined by Voltaire who had, let it be remembered, only the adulterated Port-Royal edition to judge him by. Pascal was not a ‘madman’, not even ‘of genius’. Even after his mystical experience of November 23, 1654, he never became the ‘fierce solitary of Port-Royal’ of which so many biographers speak. He did not abandon the world but sought to conquer it. He never ‘discovered’ for himself, as a child of twelve, the first thirty-two theorems of Euclid and his sister never claimed he did; what she says is that ‘he was surprised by his father when he was seeking to demonstrate the thirty-second theorem’ itself. Divided as he was between scientific and mathematical research and the pursuit of that unum necessarium which Baudin calls his soteriologial pragmatism, he would swing from one to the other, but he did not give up his scientific studies till 1659, a couple of years before his death, and he did so not under the influence of frigid asceticism but of ill-health, which made sustained thought impossible. In this light, the tendentious lamentations of Sully-Prudhomme or Paul Valéry, weeping over the loss to science caused by his devotion to religion, sound rather ludicrous.

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To Be Civilized

A fellow mathematician called Robert Craigen told me in a tweet last October (2020),

I’m quite comfortable with the definition and usage of the term [“civilization”] in the work of Niall Ferguson.

Ferguson’s work then is going to be my concern here. I had asked Craigen in July,

Have you got a theory of civilization, to explain what is being destroyed? I admire (and have blogged about) Collingwood’s theory, worked out in The New Leviathan (1942) in response to the Nazis.

This was in response to his saying,

If you listen closely to those pushing all these things, destruction of civilized society is an explicitly articulated goal.

He was talking about a thread of tweets by Peter Boghossian. I am not going to talk about those tweets as such, but here they are for the record:

How to destroy civilization in 10 easy steps:

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Pascal, Pensées, S 739–754

Index for this series

The remaining three readings are of fragments “not registered by Copy B” (Ariew).

The present reading is Sellier 739–54, of which all but 741 correspond to Lafuma 913–25, 936, 975–6, and 978–9. Each of these but one (namely Mémorial, S 742, L 913) n’est pas encore analysé at the Descotes–Proust site.

Major fragments:

  • Mémorial (742–711–913–[0])

  • Texte Amour propre (743–758–978–100)

  • The Mystery of Jesus: 749–717–919–553, 751–(717)–(919)–(553), (751)–(717)–(919)–791


  • Contrariety of inside and outside, now in (751)–727–936–698 and S 753, but seen also in the ninth reading, 499–514–923–905.

  • The Jesuits against the Jansenists: 744–712–914–882, 745–713–915–902 bis, 746–714–916–920, 750–718–920–957. Thus the importance of speaking the truth as one sees it. This was seen also in:

    • Third reading, 184–151–211: If we refuse to act as if alone, we witness our greater esteem for the esteem of others than for the truth.

    • Ninth reading, 492–505–592–750, and the last reading: The Jews are the best witnesses for not having all converted; thus one needs to be free to convert or not.

    • Eleventh reading, (672)–(457)–505–(260). Believe according to your own lights. The punishment for those who sin is error (thus perhaps error is its own punishment).

Summary of each fragment

Pascal, Pensées, S 720–738

Index for this series

The reading is Sellier 720–738, which is Lafuma 485–503:

Labels are Sellier–La Guern–Lafuma–Brunschvicg.


A difficult reading for its quotations, paraphrases, and unexplained citations from the Hebrew Bible; but also, in another sense, for its attempt to explain (even in Pascal’s own words) what’s wrong with the Jews.

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