Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer)

Imagine a high classical version of Romeo and Juliet. The characters have a higher (although not by much) IQ. If one has read Shakespeare’s version, then this will not have the same shock value (though the ending is pretty obvious in these types of situations). Chaucer writes this in “Royal Rime:” seven line stanzas in a-b-a-bb-cc.

Troilus is the son of King Priam and brother of Hector. Criseyde is the widow of a Trojan soldier. Pandar, Criseyde’s uncle, serves as the middleman between the two.

I will not spoil too much of the story; rather, I will use this space to quote Troilus’s famous monologue on Necessity vs. Free Will. Chaucer is no doubt summarizing late medieval debates about predestination and necessity. This easily surpasses most systematic theologies in terms of sophistication and clarity.

(From Book IV, stanzas 137ff)

“For all that comes, comes by necessity,
Thus to be done for is my destiny.”

This is obviously a strong version of determinism. Troilus does not actually maintain this position.

“For if there were the slightest hesitation
Or any slip in God’s foreordering,
Foreknowledge then were not a certain thing.”

This is certainly true. What Troilus does not understand is that God’s knowing of a thing does not force one’s actions. He asks the correct question: does necessity reside in the event itself?

“Of all the human things we call events
Or does necessity in them reside.
And thus ordaining cause for them provide?”

Is the event itself the causal factor? Maybe proximately.

Troilus, unfortunately, is not able to maintain the balance between necessity and contingency. He opts for fatalism:

“And by these arguments you may well see
That all things that on the earth befall,
By plain necessity, they happen all.”

In philosophical terms, Troilus committed a modal fallacy.

P1. ☐, if Christ predicted Judas’s betrayal, then Judas would betray Christ.
P2. Christ predicted Judas’s betrayal.
C1: ☐, Judas betrayed Christ.

This fallacy confuses the necessity of the inference with the necessity of the consequent (a more absolute necessity). The inference of Q from the premises ☐ (P⊃Q) is necessary in accordance with modus ponens. But Q itself, the consequent of the conditional ☐ (P⊃Q), is not itself necessary.

Take premise Q by itself (Judas would betray Christ). It does not exist in isolation. It is not a necessarily self-generating proposition. It is only necessary as a conditional necessity within the syllogism. This is what the older Reformed writers called “the necessity of the consequence,” in distinction from the necessity of the consequent thing.

Back to the book. Although this is a poem about pagan heroes, Chaucer, for whatever reason, ends with a beautiful hymn to the Trinity:

“O Thou eternal Three and Two and One
Reigning forever in One and Two and Three,
Boundless, but binding all through Father and Son,
From Foes unseen and seen deliver me;
And blessed Jesus turn our love to thee…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s