Gentillesse is a concept in Middle English that is usually translated as “nobility.” In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, for example, Theseus (in “The Knight’s Tale”), the knight (in “The Wife of Bath’s Tale”), and various characters involved in a love triangle (in “The Franklin’s Tale”) all exhibit some form of gentillesse. Perhaps the medievalists among us (I’m looking at a certain former professor of mine) can correct me, but my understanding is that this concept is primarily concerned about the appropriate use of power. Someone is gentle, is noble, when he uses his power in contextually appropriate ways (how and when being the primary factors). In this way, then, gentillesse is very similar to the Greek idea of arete, which is usually translated into English as “virtue.”
Aristotle tries to use the notion of a mean between the more and the less to give a general characterization of the virtues: courage lies between rashness and timidity, justice between doing injustice and suffering injustice, liberality between prodigality and meanness. For each virtue therefore there are two corresponding vices. And what it is to fall into a vice cannot be adequately specified independently of circumstances: the very same action which would in one situation be liberality could in another be prodigality and in a third meanness. Hence judgment has an indisputable role in the life of the virtuous man which does not and could not have in, for example, the life of the merely law-abiding or rule-abiding man.
Virtue, then, is context specific. It, like gentillesse, is primarily concerned about how and when to act in accordance with received principles of right behavior. Unlike chivalry (which I unfavorably contrast with gentillesse when I teach) which is primarily concerned (like monasticism) with strict adherence to a Rule, gentilesse and virtue insist that while the ordering principles are fixed, their specific manifestations shift.
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At the school where I teach, I’ve recently taken on the task of crafting the spiritual formation curriculum for our 7th and 8th graders. Being inspired by Peter Kreeft‘s excellent Back to Virtue, my boss and I decided that we should spend the rest of this semester exploring the relationships between the seven deadly sins (which Rebecca DeYoung thinks should be re-named the seven capital vices) and the beatitudes. In addition to Kreeft. I am basing the curriculum on Jeff Cook’s Seven (essentially the same project as Kreeft’s book, but with different stories and more relatable anecdotes) and Rebecca DeYoung’s Glittering Vices (essentially St. Thomas Aquinas on virtue and vice without having to read St. Thomas).
This week I told the kids that as we discuss sin, we are discussing things God gets upset about because they prevent us from being truly human as he designed us to be. Sin is usually punished by God not by his taking direct action against us, but by letting us experience the natural consequences. In Romans 1 Paul describes God as giving sinners “over to their desires” as a form of judgement. That is, letting them suffer the consequences. Virtue, in contrast, is whatever contributes to human flourishing according to God’s good design. We act virtuously when we act in step with how we have been made.
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My students have been reading Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales over the last couple of weeks (just the three that I mentioned above). And, as I’ve taught them about Chaucer’s reaction to the bifurcated form of love in the Middle Ages (courtly love on the one hand with marital love, expressed through obligation, on the other) through his assertion of a form of love that operates out of gentillesse, I’ve had to find ways to explain what I’m talking about.
In “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” we are told of a knight who took advantage of a young woman (rape is implied) and, for his crime, King Arthur has sentenced him to death. But all of the ladies of the court, including the queen, intervene on the knight’s behalf. Rather than just executing him, the queen instead insists that he be given the opportunity to go on a quest in which he will learn his lesson and be reformed. So, she gives him a year and a day to find out the true answer to this question: what do secular women truly want? In the knight’s travels, he runs into an old hag who tells him the answer (women want to dominate their husbands) in exchange for is promise to do anything that she asks of him. The knight returns to the queen and gives his answer. Immediately following, the hag informs the court that the knight promised her anything she wanted and that she had come to claim that promise. She demands that he marry her. He marries her but is depressed all through the wedding. Once the wedding is over and they get to the marriage bed, the knight exclaims how he cannot bring himself to have sex with the hag because she is 1) old and ugly, 2) poor, and 3) of low birth. The hag then gives an impassioned defense of all three qualities after which she appeals to the knight’s gentillesse, his nobility. She offers the knight this choice: she will either remain old and ugly but she will be faithful always or she will make herself young and beautiful but risk the possibility of adultery. He tells her that she is to pick which one is best because he trusts her. This was the right answer and so, as a reward, the hag takes the best of both worlds and becomes young and beautiful and promises to remain faithful.
The question I asked my students was this: When the knight agrees to submit to the decision of the hag, was that action itself a morally righteous act even though he didn’t feel attracted to her in the slightest?
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The question I asked my students led us to a discussion of virtue during which I drew Plato’s conception of the soul (which you can find to the left) and which pictures the will as a cart drawn by two horses, one named intellect and the other named passions. When the passions overrule the intellect, and thus drag the will with it, we call it sin or vice. When the intellect overruled the passions, and thus drags the will with it, we call it a virtuous act. But the hope, the whole goal of operating out of virtue in the first place, is to train the passions to desire to work together with the intellect to pull the will forward.
For example, if I see a pile of 18 donuts on one plate and a well-balanced meal on the next, and I am told to pick one to eat for breakfast, I have the opportunity to either act sinfully or to act virtuously. I obviously desire the donuts, but I know that eating all of them would be bad for me and would leave me wallowing in gluttony. I don’t really desire to eat the well-balanced meal, but I know that eating it will make me far more satisfied than eating the donuts will. And, besides, I have an obligation to God, myself, and my family to take care of myself. Choosing to eat the donuts over the protests of my conscience is the horse of passion overruling the horse of intellect. Choosing to eat the well-balanced meal over the protests of my emotions is the horse of the intellect overruling the horse of the passions. And, in general, practicing self-control is the place in which we typically find ourselves.
However, the true hope and the real point is that, eventually, I will choose the well-balanced meal because it is best for me AND because I truly want it. In the Christian virtue tradition, this is the idea that the Holy Spirit (operating through Sacraments, sacramentals, and common grace) regenerates even our desires in the service of living out our true humanity. At baptism the Spirit descends on us and renews our minds, but does not immediately renew our flesh. That takes time. That is the work of sanctification.
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Rebecca DeYoung notes, in her book Glittering Vices, the following:
In the end, both virtues and vices are habits that can eventually become “natural” to us. Philosophers describe the perfect achievement of virtue as yielding internal harmony and integrity. Compare, for example, the following two married persons: The first, let’s call Jane. Although she resists them, Jane regularly struggles with sexual feelings for men other than her husband. The second, call him Joe, enjoys an ardent affection for his wife throughout the ups and downs of thirty years of marriage. Are they both faithful? In a technical sense, at least, yes. Jane successfully exercises self-control over her wayward desires. But only Joe embodies fidelity as a virtue. His faithfulness is deeply rooted in who he is. While we can give her moral credit for her efforts, Jane’s faithfulness stays on the surface; it is the uncomfortable voice of conscience countering her adulterous inclinations and keeping her actions in check. By contrast, Joe’s desires are in harmony with his considered judgment. Who wouldn’t rather have a spouse with Joe’s fidelity than Jane’s self control? The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle called this the difference between acting according to virtue–that is, according to an external standard which tells us what we ought to do whether we feel like it or not–and acting from virtue–that is, from the internalized disposition which naturally yields its corresponding action. The person who acts from virtue performs actions that fit seamlessly with his or her inward character. Thus, the telltale signs of virtue is doing the right thing with a sense of peace and pleasure. What feels like “second nature” to you? These are the marks of your character.
In some ways, then, “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” is the story of a knight who moves from being controlled exclusively by his passions to, upon the conclusion of the speech from the hag, fighting a pitched battle between his passions and his intellect, to, finally (once the hag changed into a young and beautiful woman) a virtuous man whose intellect and passions pulled the will forward in unison.
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May we, as the apostle Paul commands, not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.
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P.S. The whole experience of being able to teach Chaucer and then connect Chaucer to the Christian virtue tradition in ways that I think will help my students be spiritually formed is another reason in a long list of why I absolutely love my job.