18.10.16, Hill, Chaucer's Neoplatonism

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Kathryn L. Lynch

The Medieval Review 18.10.16

Hill, John M. Chaucer's Neoplatonism: Varieties of Love, Friendship, and Community. Studies in Medieval Literature. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2018. pp. viii, 201. ISBN: 978-1-4985-6193-8 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Kathryn Lynch
Wellesley College

In Chaucer's Neoplatonism: Varieties of Love, Friendship, and Community, John M. Hill makes a brave case that Chaucer's poetry is deeply informed by a rationalist Neoplatonism, filtered through medieval predecessors like Alain de Lille and late antique philosophical antecedents like Macrobius's Commentary on the Dream of Scipio and, most notably, Boethius's Consolation of Philosophy, which Chaucer translated. This is not a new or surprising genealogy: scholars have long recognized Chaucer's debt to this tradition and set of texts, which the poet himself specifically names as important sources. But what other readers have seen as local or genre-bound influences, Hill pursues as consistently central to the deepest meaning of Chaucer's body of work.

This identification of Chaucer as a complete and thoroughgoing Christian Neoplatonist sets Hill firmly against most other interpreters of the poet's philosophy and temperament. Hill simultaneously resists the mid-twentieth-century tradition of critics like D. W. Robertson who stress Chaucer's rejection of carnal human desire, as well as more recent readings that give sway to Chaucer's worldly preoccupations and disregard for ultimate schemes. Hill is no friend to Christian or to psychoanalytic readers, to nominalists or to New Historians, or to any who understand poetry through culture rather than on its own declared terms. As this summary suggests, the sweep of critical approaches that he engages is broad, but it also ends up being narrow. Hill's bibliography is capacious, but even as it reaches back to critics like G. L. Kittredge and C. S. Lewis, whom it is no longer customary to cite, it also passes over significant contemporary work that is arguably relevant to his philosophical approach (e.g., recent work on Chaucer's nominalism or language theory, which he passes over too swiftly [15]).

For his part, Hill makes a point of reading Chaucer pragmatically and, whenever he can, of taking him at his word. While one philosophical source for this approach to reading is the "universal pragmatics" of J├╝rgen Habermas (with nods to John Dewey and Stephen Pepper; 52), Neoplatonism itself is hospitable to such valuing of the literal level, for the Neoplatonist finds evidence of "truth even in unlikely places and manifestations" (1), a phrase that aptly describes Hill's general methodology. Neoplatonism is thus not only the subject of this monograph but also its strategy. Hill reads as a Neoplatonist, with careful respect for the literal level and an inclination to credit claims made by the narrator and characters about their motivations and perceptions, even when such claims lead them into moral or epistemological peril.

Chaucer's Neoplatonism sets out its argument over the course of six chapters and a conclusion. In the first chapter, Hill presents a working definition of Neoplatonism and prefigures the general shape of his argument as it will evolve through his study of Chaucer's poetic oeuvre. Hill sees the poet turning from a defense of books and poetry as the vehicle for Neoplatonic insights in the dream visions to the full poetic exposition of Neoplatonic love and friendship in Troilus and Criseyde to the exfoliation of community in its different (and at times disappointing) variants as Chaucer seeks the common good in The Canterbury Tales. In the dream visions, as Hill discusses them in chapter 2, the poet confronts the limits of poetic fictions and "old books" to mirror truth. Even though fables, like dreams, are contaminated by their material manifestations, Chaucer finds that they retain hints of the good and the true, though in imperfect form. The dream visions thus comprise Chaucer's ars poetica and prepare the way for his magnum opus of Platonic love, Troilus and Criseyde, where the noble experience of friendship and erotic heterosexual love incarnate an earthly summum bonum.

Chapters 3, 4, and 5--making up more than half the book in words and pages--concern Troilus and Criseyde and constitute the heart of Hill's argument. The most original aspect of this book is its sustained defense of Pandarus's good faith. Hill is to be commended for taking on the problem of Pandarus directly, for Pandarus's behavior and language offer the most persuasive evidence against reading the poem as a straightforward paean to love and friendship. Not only have critics from R. K. Root (in 1926) to Gretchen Mieszkowski (in 2006) condemned Troilus's friend and Criseyde's uncle for his manipulations in pursuit of a scandalous and vicarious sexual objective; the poem's three primary characters themselves express discomfort with Pandarus's procurement of his niece for Troilus's pleasure. As Hill acknowledges, Criseyde herself accuses her uncle of drawing her in by deploying a "'paynted process' whose 'fyn' (end) is a pitch for carpe diem" (81). And later, in response to Pandarus's own anxieties, Troilus must reassure his friend that he does not regard him as a pander (of course the name derives from Pandarus; i.e., "swich a meene / As maken wommen unto men to comen") because, as Troilus temporizes, he acted from "gentilesse" or noble motives (125-126). Here the poem itself seems to be making the point that these are distinctions without a difference, leading many readers to the conclusion, as Hill allows, that "Pandarus is most certainly a melodramatic manipulator if not entirely a perverted abuser of his niece's trust" (91). Hill gives this argument its due and full sweep.

Hill's method, however, is the inverse. Rather than impose an external framework upon the poem--in this case the anthropological model of patriarchal society based in a kinship system that involves the exchange of women--he moves slowly and organically through successive scenes taking seriously the poem's claims to represent romantic heterosexual love as an earthly "approximation of the Boethian good" (122). He is not wrong that "the vast majority of readers...do not accept the sexual joy of Book III as a great good" (122), nor that present-day suspicion of the love described reads against the obvious grain of the poem. To restore appreciation of the poem as a celebration of romantic love and "fulle" Ciceronian friendship, Hill meticulously chronicles scene after scene, where Pandarus finds his dear friend in despair, unfolds his friend's love to his niece, and where she gradually opens her heart to earthly love, and finally to a betrayal of that love that nonetheless does not diminish its value or power. Sometimes these painstaking readings are so laboriously protracted that they feel like special pleading. Yet they do provide a corrective to the modern practice of reading Chaucer's great love poem with undue cynicism, denying the rich "interiority" of its characters, and ultimately repudiating Chaucer's (or at least his narrator's) sincerity. Hill makes good on his promise not to judge Pandarus, as others have done, "from a height so great that judgment can seem to have formed well before one's attention to the scene" (53). His recounting of the development of Troilus and Criseyde's love is at least as true to the experience of reading and teaching this poem as are the many disenchanted readings that have prevailed in modern criticism, even if it too is in the end partial and (gently) tendentious.

In the final full chapter of the book, Hill turns from Chaucer's exploration of love and friendship as adumbrations of the "Good," and takes up the pressure that the topic of "community," an extension of friendship, exerts on the Neoplatonic vision of the world in The Canterbury Tales. Focusing on a "roadside drama" that he dubs The Pilgrim's Tale (146-147), Hill distinguishes "at least ten versions" (148) of overlapping communities (though his list names only nine), recognizing that some are much more faulty than others. Thus, he acknowledges that the first fragment concludes in a breakdown of community, just as he characterizes the "communities" invoked in the Summoner's and Friar's tales as negative, dystopian examples, more covens than communities. But in Hill's reading no Canterbury pilgrim is ever cast out of the circle of mortals who ultimately have access to Christian grace and forgiveness, and communities are repeatedly disrupted only to be reconstituted and elevated. The descent of the Good can be highly attenuated; it is never entirely absent. In the end, the pilgrims are transformed into "an inclusive, listening community" (172) under the pastoral guidance of the Parson. Hill's reading of The Canterbury Tales works best as a characterization of the work's overall form, as is reflected in the absence of sustained close readings of individual tales in this chapter.

Chaucer's Neoplatonism is a valuable book, but like the Neoplatonic shadows it describes, an imperfect one. For a study so responsibly attuned to possible objections to its theories and approaches, it tends also to be careless, not only in occasional lapses in proofreading but also in inaccurately framing interpretive or textual issues. For instance, Hill follows the Riversideedition in naming the Shipman as the speaker who volunteers a tale after the Man of Law (156-157), without mentioning what is clear from the Riversidenote, that this assignment is an editorial convenience with only a single manuscript attestation. With similar inattention, he simplifies the evolution of thought in Chaucer's poetry without regard to the complexities of dating and revision. His Chaucer turns from an exploration of love and friendship in Troilus and Criseyde "next" (145) to the topic of community in The Canterbury Tales, when of course The Legend of Good Women intervened, and that poem demonstrates that Chaucer had already drafted a version of the Knight's Tale, which documented "al the love of Palamon and Arcite" (F 420), before he undertook The Canterbury Tales, thus challenging Hill's developmental narrative.

But Hill's most consequential point is that blemishes do not cancel out beauty. The strengths of Chaucer's Neoplatonism recommend it to serious readers of Chaucer or other Ricardian writers. Often eloquently, Hill nudges Chaucer's readers back to an appreciation of the poet as sincerely and genuinely engaged with his subject matter, lest we forget our duty to read the medieval poet on his own terms.

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