Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

CHAUCER: Wife of Bath’s Prologue (Philosophy and Sex)

For the past three weeks we’ve been reading about Montesquieu’s principles of government. This week we meet a woman who doesn’t give a hoot about government. She’s not interested in how to be a good citizen but she’s very interested in men and women. This is a good place to look at one of the main criticisms of the Great Books program: it’s written entirely from a male perspective. In fact, all the writers in this series are white males; dead white males. In fact, all the writers in this series are dead white European (or American) males. The Wife of Bath helps tip the philosophical scales in the other direction. She’s something of a philosopher herself.
Imagine her sitting down with Socrates for a little chat. After a few minutes of Socratic dialogue she’d probably say something like: this philosophy’s not worth a fig in bed! And she’d be right. The Wife of Bath has the kind of wisdom that comes from experience. She didn’t learn about life by reading about it in a book or by talking with a wise man like Socrates. She learned about life by trying things out for herself. The Wife of Bath gets down to business and gives us her philosophy right upfront: “If there were no authority on earth except experience, mine, for what it’s worth, (and that’s enough for me) all goes to show…” Whoa. Right out of the gate she cuts through all the philosophical verbiage and gets to her main point: I don’t give a fig what Aristotle says about women or what Freud thinks about sex. I’ve had five husbands (so far) and I’m an expert on marriage. I’ve conducted some experiments of my own in the bedroom and what I’ve found out is… Put briefly, the Wife of Bath’s philosophy centers more on her body than her mind. Warning: before dismissing her theory of love, she’s no lightweight.
Let’s step back and look at the origins of Western philosophy. Socrates taught Plato and Plato taught Aristotle. But who taught Socrates? A woman named Diotima. In “The Symposium” Socrates says “it was she who taught me the philosophy of Love.” Diotima begins by asking, “Socrates, what do you suppose is the cause of all this longing and all this love? Haven’t you noticed what an extraordinary effect the breeding instinct has upon animals and birds, and how obsessed they are with the desire, first to mate, and then to raise their young?” The Wife of Bath would respond: now you’re talking. This is a philosophy I can understand. Diotima goes on to explain to Socrates that love begins “with the beauty of one individual body” and then moves on “to be the lover of every lovely body” and then “the beauties of the soul” and then “the beauty of laws” to the beauty of the sciences until finally “he will come upon one single form of knowledge, the knowledge of the beauty I am about to speak of… the final revelation… everlasting loveliness.” This is a long way from the Wife of Bath’s body-philosophy and way over her head but here’s the main point: she’s starting out at the right place. The journey to wisdom and everlasting loveliness is long but it starts right where we’re at now. The Wife of Bath is somewhere between the love of “one individual body” and love of “every lovely body.”
Diotima doesn’t speak for all women. In Flaubert’s story of “A Simple Heart” we get another perspective. Felicite isn’t motivated by sex. She has a different philosophy of love that doesn’t focus on her body. Felicite loved her parrot. “His name was LouLou. His body was green, the tips of his wings were pink, his forehead was blue, and his throat golden.” This philosophy of love is based on devotion to an ideal rather than a physical body. It takes a simple heart to find this kind of wisdom but in the end it too leads to a certain kind of everlasting loveliness. The Wife of Bath would say: you’ve got to be kidding. And Felicite is horrified by the Wife of Bath’s kind of love. Dead white males (especially Freud) need to stay out of that argument.


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