The Medieval Review 11.09.11

Rosenfeld, Jessica. Ethics and Enjoyment in Late Medieval Poetry: Love after Aristotle. Cambridge Studies in medieval Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011. Pp. 245. $90. ISBN 978-1-107-00011-7. . .

Reviewed by:

Greg Stone
Louisiana State University

Jessica Rosenfeld's Ethics and Enjoyment in Late Medieval Poetry: Love after Aristotle analyzes the way that a number of late medieval European authors used the discourse of love poetry to carry out an ongoing and evolving debate revolving around issues raised in the wake of the thirteenth-century reception of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics in the Latin West. This worthwhile and well-executed book is a deserving member of a growing body of important scholarship showing that a considerable portion of late medieval literature cannot be properly understood without being situated in the context of Aristotelian philosophy. (Here I am thinking of, for example, Antonio Gagliardi's Boccaccio: Poeta, Filosofo, Averroista, which shows that Boccaccio's early love poems, too easily dismissed as imitative exercises in style and genre, are deeply informed by the radical Aristotelianism [or so-called "Averroism"] that persisted in Italy in and beyond the fourteenth century.)

After a brief introduction, the first chapter ("Enjoyment: a medieval history") enumerates the sorts of issues that will be at stake in the literary analyses that will follow in subsequent chapters. Through clear, concise, and admirably well-informed expositions of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Abelard, and others, Rosenfeld shows that, while there was more or less unanimous agreement that the aim, end, or telos of human life is happiness or felicity, there was considerable disagreement concerning, first, the definition of happiness and, secondly, whether happiness is synonymous with related notions such as enjoyment, pleasure, and love. Some thinkers, for instance, disassociated loving from enjoyment, since the former implies a drive toward or striving for that which one does not presently enjoy. Is pleasure the ethical goal itself? Or does pleasure rather "supervene" upon the attainment of whatever might be the ethical goal itself? Or is pleasure entirely separate from if not in fact antithetical to the ethical goal itself? Does enjoyment consist in contemplation of the truth (rest) or practical activity (labor)? Do we attain happiness through intellection or through an act of the will? Does knowledge precede love or vice-versa? Is a life of theoretical speculation the best possible life? Can such speculation be attained here-and-now or only in the eternal afterlife? These are the sorts of questions that Rosenfeld claims occupied certain late medieval European vernacular love poets, especially following the assimilation of Aristotle's ethics in the latter half of the thirteenth century. The chapter ends with a brief discussion of early troubadour poetry. The failure to consider the poetry of Marcabru, by far the most learned of the early troubadours and the only one who could feasibly be regarded as an example of "the joint poetic and philosophical discourse of enjoyment" (38)--and, most importantly, the real originator of the ethic of fin amor-- detracts from the value of this section. It is also disappointing to find no discussion of Erich Köhler's brilliant writings, which, although now a half century old, still explain the historical origin of the courtly ethic of deferred enjoyment better than anything written since.

Chapter 2 ("Love and Ethics in Le Roman de la Rose") opens with a discussion of Guillaume de Lorris's portion of the Roman de la Rose, arguing that Guillaume's poem establishes, if only in order to then collapse or oscillate between, distinctions between productive and unproductive labor, between living love and merely writing about love, between love as desiring a specific object and love as a generalized and perpetual desire to desire. The chapter then turns to Jean de Meun's continuation of the Rose. Rosenfeld suggests that one of Jean de Meun's aims is "to critique Aristotelian notions of contemplation as the greatest good" (63)--in other words, to challenge those of his fellow Parisian philosophers who may have embraced an optimistic version of Averroism, according to which the philosopher who acquires theoretical (i.e., speculative) knowledge concerning metaphysical entities thereby attains the highest possible human happiness. Other strong points here include: an analysis of Jean de Meun's signaling the danger that the lover may mistake an image produced within himself by a faculty of his soul for an actual reality existing outside the self; a good presentation of the character Genius's critique of desire as a deferral of enjoyment--a critique, that is, of the ethic of love associated with the fin amor of the troubadours; and a convincing treatment of Jean de Meun's Pygmalion, which shows that Jean's unique interpretation of the Ovidian myth is grounded in Aristotle's discussion of an artist's love for his creation.

In the third chapter ("Metamorphoses of pleasure in the fourteenth- century dit amoureux"), love narratives by Guillaume de Machaut, Jean Froissart, and Chaucer (The Book of the Duchess) are read in the context of fourteenth-century philosophical debates regarding whether love, pleasure, and happiness are separable terms. Can there be happiness without pleasure? Can there be love without happiness? Can there be love without pleasure? For Rosenfeld, the key thinker underlying these love narratives is William of Ockham, who "effectively separates pleasure from happiness" (82) and for whom "love is still love without pleasure" (105). By narrating "love stories that resolutely follow their narratives beyond the moment of consummation and toward inevitable loss in betrayal or death" (76), these poets, following especially in the wake of Ockham, open up a space between love, on the one hand, and pleasure or happiness, on the other. In other words, they demystify the notion of love as pure unmitigated enjoyment or stable possession and allow for the notion of a love that persists despite sorrow, loss, and impermanence.

Chapter 4 ("Love's knowledge: fabliau, allegory, and fourteenth- century anti-intellectualism") treats the shift from "intellectualism" to "voluntarism" which marked fourteenth-century scholastic philosophy. To her credit, Rosenfeld recognizes that "radical Aristotelianism" (which posited that the intellection of metaphysical truth, insofar as it might be possible, would be the ultimate felicity for humans) did not come to an end with the condemnations of 1277 but rather persisted throughout the following century. There is no doubt that fourteenth-century philosophers and poets were troubled by "the dangers of over-reaching intellectualism" (108). Here Rosenfeld indentifies two such dangers: first, the notion that human reason alone (unaided by revelation) is sufficient to acquire divine truth; secondly, complacency concerning morality--i.e., the notion that the intellectual is, by virtue of his knowledge, necessarily a morally good person. She reads Guillaume de Deguileville's Pélerinage de Vie Humaine as a remedy for the first of these dangers and William Langland's Piers Plowman, along with some tales recounting Aristotle's being overcome by passionate love, as remedies for the second.

The implicit paradigm underlying the readings in the fifth chapter ("On human happiness: Dante, Chaucer, and the felicity of friendship") is Aquinas's rehabilitating the value of earthly pursuits, both political and philosophical. Following Aristotle and in some ways opposing Augustine, Aquinas insists on the legitimate value of human happiness here on earth, so long as one recognizes that such happiness is not ultimate but rather is imperfect in comparison with the eternal happiness of the afterlife. Here Rosenfeld discusses Dante's Convivio (rather briefly) and Chaucer's Troilus and Criseyde, arguing that these works promote the value of human friendship and reciprocally positive love relationships, while recognizing that these relations are impermanent, contingent, and "always...imperfect" (159). The treatment of Chaucer's poem is convincing: Criseyde is indeed able to enjoy loving a fellow human without thinking that this love's passing away is a catastrophe or that the enjoyment of such love is the ultimate human good. The treatment of Dante is unconvincing, not because Dante does not value friendship and "shared conversation about the pursuit of the good" (159) but because the passages from Convivio that Rosenfeld chooses in support of her argument are taken very much out of context. For example, the vita felice of Convivio 4.4.1, which Rosenfeld implies has something to do with private friendship, the human need for companionship, and the possibility of a "happy life" in an imperfect world, in fact has nothing to do with happiness shared between private individuals; it is, rather, the ultimate happiness of humankind taken as a whole, the felicity that will be attained, for all humans, in a politically perfect world, when the entirely peaceful cosmopolitan global empire will have been established on earth. Similarly, Rosenfeld suggests that Dante's phrase "quella gente che qui s'innamora" ("those people who are in love here"; Convivio 3.13.3) has something to do with friendship and "devotion or dedication between two people" (149) during their ordinary lives here on earth. Dante's gloss to this phrase, however, makes it clear that the love in question is not between people; the verse in fact speaks of the relation between the philosopher and intelligible theoretical objects: the philosopher (who is "here") attains actual intellection of objects of theory only sporadically, whereas the superlunary Intelligences (who are "up there") enjoy eternal intellection of those same objects. There does exist in Dante's corpus a perfect example of the notion of love (and philosophy) as shared private conversation that Rosenfeld is seeking, but it is one that she fails to mention: his little lyric poem written to the one whom he called his "best friend," Guido Cavalcanti, in which he wishes that he and Guido and another friend could sail away together, along with their girlfriends, and spend their time occupied with nothing but discoursing on love.

Ethics and Enjoyment ends with a brief epilogue ("Coda: Chaucer's philosophical women") in which Rosenfeld maintains that the view of love eventually arrived at by Chaucer in Troilus and Criseyde is consonant with Lacan's understanding of a positive love in which "both subjects are striving toward a manifestation of [the] good, both desiring the love of an Other whom they know does not exist" (164). This is a notion according to which the lover is no longer trapped by the logic of desire, no longer suffering under the illusion that in attaining the desired object one will attain das Ding, the ultimate Thing that would complete and heal the lacking and wounded subject. The Lacanian view is relevant to late medieval writing both because it is grounded in Lacan's understanding of Aristotle's philia and because it is developed in the context of Lacan's discussions, in his seventh and twentieth seminars, of troubadour fin amor. The epilogue helps make clear the reasons for the occasional references to Lacan scattered throughout the preceding chapters. Rosenfeld displays a solid grasp of Lacanian theory in general and of his critique of courtly love in particular. I would argue that in the final analysis Lacan's view concerning the ethics of courtly love is more positive than Rosenfeld represents it to be--but a thorough discussion of this issue is beyond the scope of the present review.

The book's most serious shortcoming is its utter silence regarding the absolutely fundamental role played by the tradition of medieval Muslim and Jewish rationalist philosophy in transmitting, shaping, mediating, and transforming Aristotle's reception by the late medieval Latin West. The challenges and dangers posed by Aristotelianism were inseparable from those posed by a radically unorthodox tradition (referred to, anachronistically but not without justification, by both Ernst Bloch and Alain de Libera as a "left-wing Aristotelianism") whose major figures include al-Farabi, Avicenna, Avempace, Averroes, and Maimonides). Not a single one of these thinkers, nor any other of the falasifa, is so much as mentioned a single time. Yet it was this tradition, picked up by Albertus Magnus and a host of others, including three of Dante's s contemporaries, his best friend and mentor Guido Cavalcanti, the arch-Averroist Jean of Jandun, and the great Provenal Jewish philosopher Gersonides, that set the terms for discussions of happiness (the ultimate human felicity) in late medieval intellectual circles. Some study of Arabo-Islamic rationalism would have provided Rosenfeld further material to consider (such as al-Farabi's "The Attainment of Happiness" or Avempace's "Farewell Letter," the latter of which includes a nuanced discussion of pleasure in terms quite pertinent to Rosenfeld's aims). Familiarity with al-Farabi's formulation of the distinction between praxis (moral philosophy, ethics, right and wrong) and theoria (speculation, knowledge, truth and falsity), a distinction fundamental to Maimonides' whole enterprise, succinctly formulated by Dante in Monarchy, and represented allegorically by Dante in Comedy as the distinction between Virgil and Beatrice, would have prevented Rosenfeld from suggesting that any well-informed late medieval Aristotelian would ever have confused ethics and speculation. Moral philosophy or ethics treats only objects of praxis; it is never a matter or speculatio or theoria. No one schooled in the Aristotelianism of Maimonides or Averroes or Dante would ever have confused the two by speaking of "all ethics becom[ing] speculative" (118), of "morality" as a "simply speculative problem" (112), or of "virtuous action" requiring "speculative understanding" (125). More importantly, consideration of the Islamicized and Judaicized Aristotle would have led Rosenfeld at least to test out positions more radical than the relatively moderate (if not "right-of-center") ones staked out by Aquinas. It would have led to Cavalcanti's famous canzone "Donna me prega," a poem saturated with Avicenna and Averroes and without doubt the single greatest instance of what Rosenfeld calls "love after Aristotle" (the fusion of love poetry and Aristotelian ethics) in the history of literature. Cavalcanti's poem (to which Dante's Comedy is in many ways a response) is thoroughly immersed in the main stream of the Arabo-Islamic rationalists' teaching concerning human immortality. According to this teaching (which was "esoteric" in the sense that it was only meant to be shared with other philosophers and not to be divulged to the mass of ordinary, non-philosophical, humans), humans are not born immortal but rather with an inborn potential to attain immortality. This immortality can only be attained through the study of philosophy. But not just any philosophy will do the trick (physics or moral philosophy will not suffice). Only metaphysical theoria, speculative intellection of an eternal, immaterial Intelligence, will make actual the human's potentially immortal intellect. Only through such an act of intellection, the Conjunction with the Active Intellect, is there any real possibility of "salvation" or an "afterlife" for humans. Some of the falasifa--perhaps al-Farabi, probably Averroes and Maimonides, certainly Cavalcanti--although they held up the Conjunction as the highest human good and the ultimate human happiness, were not at all convinced that such a Conjunction is ever really possible. Others-- and here I would place Avicenna, Avempace, Ibn Tufayl, Gersonides, and Dante--admit the possibility of the Conjunction, but only for a very small elite of metaphysicians who are themselves dependent on a kind of divine grace. What is common to all of these thinkers is their quietly maintaining that for virtually all humans there is no immortal afterlife and, hence, that the highest good and ultimate happiness for the multitude of non-theoretician humans is to be found here on earth, in the just and perfect political community. There is no doubt that this Arabized Aristotle posed the "danger of over-reaching intellectualism" (108). But this danger went far beyond the ordinary moral danger described by Rosenfeld (the danger of a braininess that would by-pass and atrophy the ethical faculty for right and wrong action). Ultimately, the danger posed by the Arabo-Islamic Aristotle was the danger of a thorough-going secularism, according to which what really matters is not salvation but politics. It was this danger against which Aquinas fought by attempting to enforce his much tamer version of secularism. It is Aquinas's moderate secularism which informs Rosenfeld's book in general and, specifically, her readings of Dante and Chaucer.