On Liberty by John Stuart Mill

In his famous essay, John Stuart Mill defends the importance of individual liberty, which he suggests has been ignored in previous philosophical work. He explores the boundaries between our own individual liberty and society’s right to impede upon it, which Mill foresees as being “the vital question of the future.”

The major conclusion of the essay can be summarized like this: individuals should be free to make their own choices concerning themselves and their own interests without coercion from society or others, except if their choices harm others or society. Being able to consult our individual preference and ideas are a necessary ingredient for human happiness. People are at their best, happiest, and display their most admirable qualities when they are free to pursue their own interests. When society interferes and says you must do this and can’t do that in matters that only concern ourselves, people feel stifled and unhappy.

The problem is that society often does try to shape our values and limit our freedom. One way society does this is through laws. Some laws are just and necessary in so far as they regulate situations where one person may harm another, but many laws try to control behavior, actions, or permissible thoughts of others that have no direct effect on other people. Even democratic representative governments can pose problems for individual liberty in so far as the political ruling class serves the tyranny of the majority. There is a danger in the majority of society or the current ruling class infringing upon personal liberty and forcing others to adopt their values.

People often want to legislate their own sense of morality. Mill argues that what they are really doing is consulting their own preferences and confusing them with objective reality. Our ideas of how we think others should act are often just our personal preferences. I think it is worth mention that this can also happen at an individual level and not only at the societal level. Think of everyday remarks such as someone who says in disgust “why would you want to eat sushi?” People who make remarks like this fail to acknowledge that people have diverse tastes and they’re not forcing you to eat sushi if you dislike it.

Another factor that prevents us from consulting our inclinations and embracing our individual liberty is custom. Often we ignore our own preferences in order to conform to customs of our social class, religion, or culture. Customs require no discernment or critical thinking; they are already there and all we must do is accept them. Again, I don’t believe Mill is claiming we should never follow a custom if they conform to our individual preferences. Instead I think he means we shouldn’t follow customs blindly; we shouldn’t practice a custom simply because everyone else does or without thinking about our own reasons. If a person considers why they follow a custom and decide they enjoy the custom, then in many cases this may be a sufficient reason for continuing to follow it.

One way people can push back against ideas they dislike or think are harmful for individuals is through free speech. Mill is a strong advocate of free speech. People should be free to convince others that their way of life or their ideas about a particular topic are wrong. His arguments against society infringing on personal liberty mostly pertain to laws or attempts of suppression of free speech. One reason to support free speech is that people should have the opportunity to hear both sides of an argument. Suppression is bad because it prevents us from hearing both sides. We shouldn’t silence opinions because they may be true and since humans are fallible we may miss an opportunity of learning the truth. If we silence those who have different ideas, we may fail to learn the reason why our own ideas are false and discover what is true. In some cases, it’s possible that neither side has the truth, but “a portion of truth.” It is only in “the collision of adverse opinions” that occurs during a debate that we can hope to identify the portion of truth in each position that is missing from the other. Mill conceptualizes history as short bursts of progress made from one age to another in which the succeeding age has discovered a portion of the truth and progressed further than its predecessor, but not all the way, which is why progress continues to be made as history moves forward. Free speech is a critical part in the beginning stages of this progress from age to age that benefits everyone. Another reason that free speech is so important is that in cases where a person has the truth, it is worthless as a truth if it is never tested in the arena of debate. In Mill’s view, a truth is worthless if we can’t explain why it is true. Truth, even when true, becomes a dogma without good reasons and evidence and tests in debate to back it up.  The wise man tests his opinions by seeing if they can survive the many objections they will encounter and corrects his own when necessary. It is this process of testing and accumulation over time that brings wisdom to society as a whole. The only time opinions or free speech should be limited is when it may cause someone to act violently to others. He also suggests that insults and intemperate language should be avoided in debates whenever possible. Insults and mockery typically are advantageous to received or accepted opinion, however, minority opinions should avoid it for practical purposes as it decreases the likelihood of getting a fair hearing from those in the majority. The ideal person in a discussion gives everyone a fair hearing, interprets everyone’s arguments fairly, and even calls out unfair debate tactics of people on his or her own side.

Defending the principle of personal liberty allows everyone who takes advantage of it to engage in that which will make them happiest and the best human being they can be. Those who don’t wish to take advantage of this liberty and are fine with the status quo or received traditions can still benefit from those who do. Freethinking individuals are in a good position to identify when old truths no longer suffice or have evidence to support them, while their originality of lifestyle can offer new models for society of ways to live. Without those who innovate, life and society would not progress. We would be in a “stagnant pool.” Society needs these free individuals to create progress and persons of genius thrive in an atmosphere of freedom.

At the same, we do have some obligations to society as members who benefit from it. We have a duty to society to provide help to others who are in danger (such as someone who is on the side of the road and injured in a car accident), serve on a jury in a trial, and be drafted for the nation’s defense. In its best form, society protects our interests, so we owe our service to society in these things as needed.

PENSÉES by Blaise Pascal

Like St. Augustine and Peter Abelard, Blaise Pascal is yet another example of the smartest kid on the block having a mystical experience that transformed him into a devout Christian. Prior to his conversion, Pascal was a prodigy in math and performed early experiments involving barometric pressure. The Pensees literally translated as “thoughts” represent his philosophical-religious statements on the human condition and an argument for the truth and necessity of Christianity.

 

Pascal sees the human condition as one governed by lusts and desires. We seek amusement to ignore how miserable and discontent we feel. We’re not really happy. Each time we achieve a desire, we only have new desires. We don’t cultivate virtues for its own sake, but we only care for them in so far as they make us appear superior in others’ eyes. We desire to be admired. All the things we value in the world are vanity. Man is foolish because he esteems things that are not important or essential. There is not true justice in the world. Justice is a matter of custom; since every country and province has its own sense of justice it cannot be objective. Only God can give us true justice.  We also can never have true knowledge of things. The history of philosophy has been dominated by the desire to either know the first principle or the ultimate truth, which can be restated as the reality underlying everything or knowledge of the purpose of all things. Many philosophers have claimed to have uncovered the first principle or ultimate truth, but they’re mistaken and are only fooling themselves. Most philosophical arguments fail because they ignore man’s epistemological limitations.  In comparison to beasts, man is privileged in that he has a rational capacity and the ability to ascertain some things about nature. Pascal is not denying that science and mathematics are able to give us some forms of concrete knowledge. However, in most cases they only lead to new questions, and when and if those questions are answered, they, too, lead to more questions, creating an infinite regress in which we never can arrive at the first principle underlying everything or discover the ultimate truth. In this way, man can never have true knowledge of the universe; he is only capable of possessing limited knowledge about it.

 

Only the Creator who initiated the first cause and who is immortal and not bound by human limitations can have knowledge of the true nature of things. Man must know both sides of his nature to be whole and happy. We are both great and wretched. The wretchedness we have serves as proof of the veracity of the Fall of Man, whereas the Greatness we possess demonstrates that we’re made in God’s image. The Fall of Man is why we have an idea of happiness (since once upon a time we were happy in the Garden of Eden), but it is also the reason why we yearn for happiness and can never achieve it. This event left an imprint on us. The only way for us to be happy, the only way for us to achieve true justice, and the only way for us to know the truth is through God. The proper thoughts of man should be on God alone. We can only practice the true religion if we love God and hate ourselves.

 

Although many have tried, religion and God cannot be proved by reason. Now a reader might be wondering: isn’t Pascal trying to prove that people ought to believe in God and that the Christian religion is true? Yes. However, what he seems to mean is that he won’t be engaging in formal proofs based in logic like some of his medieval predecessors, but rather religion is something you support with faith. God is felt in the heart and He grants belief to whom He chooses. God purposely gave enough evidence of his existence (mostly through scripture) to be justified in accusing those who fail to believe in Him, but He also obscured Himself enough so the truly wicked and unworthy will not believe and suffer eternal damnation. Pascal acknowledges many times that God is a hidden God.  You feel God through intuition (i. e. the Holy Spirit), but you don’t experience Him in the material world; at least not directly. This brings us to the most famous part of his argument: Pascal’s wager. Some interpret it to be as an argument to believe; others as an argument about why it is important to investigate the issue of God’s existence in the first place. The wager goes like this: If the Christian religion is wrong you will be dead for eternity and it doesn’t matter, yet if it is right you will suffer in hell for eternity should you fail to believe correctly. You have more to gain in believing than not believing. We need to enlighten ourselves whether an afterlife exists since it’s the most important question of our lives. People who are indifferent to these questions are ignoring a matter important to their eternal happiness and salvation and given the chance that they could be wrong and it could cost them so much it is only reasonable that we attempt to try and figure out the truth. I think the opening of the wager section imploring us to investigate is fine. However, there are many objections to the Wager proper.

 

After sharing his views on the human condition, Pascal spends the second half of his book trying to prove why Christianity is the true religion and the other Abrahamic religions are false. Heathens love the world and hate God, Jews love the world and love God, while Christians hate the world and love God. Pascal suggests that the Old Testament Tales were designed as typologies to foreshadow Jesus, and thus Jews who fail to recognize this have been blinded to their true meaning. In this view, the Binding of Isaac not only happened historically, but God instigated this event and had it recorded in scripture in order to foreshadow the eventuality of Jesus’ sacrifice. Pascal argues that these typologies serve as another piece of evidence of Jesus’ divinity in addition to more explicit prophecies. Pascal believes that Jews focus on the surface features of the text, missing these important typologies and the true spirit of the text. These typologies that foreshadow Jesus also serve as evidence of God’s hiddenness. The Holy Spirit allows Christians to see them. This textual “blindness” is further supported by various prophecies in the Old Testament that Pascal understands to predict that Jews will be blind to the true spirit of the law. The Old Laws were valid at the time in so far as they were designed to bring people to the Holy Spirit and functioned as another typology, but the literal commandments don’t matter anymore.

All of this leads us to the biggest problem of the book. Most of Pascal’s arguments are examples of circular reasoning. It is hard to imagine anyone buying into his arguments unless they already agreed with them prior to reading the book. To support his argument about Christians interpreting the bible correctly in comparison to Jews, he’s saying, “Those blessed by God with the Holy Spirt will interpret the Bible correctly. Those who interpret the Bible correctly demonstrate that they are blessed with the Holy Spirit. Therefore those with the Holy Spirit (Christians) interpret the Bible correctly.” He also quotes an enormous amount of scripture to support these arguments, but when you actually look at the passages of these Old Testament quotes they are almost always taken out of context and come off as dubious interpretations. He calls the Bible the oldest and most accurate history in the world. While modern archaeology has supported some parts of the Bible, it has also called into question a good amount of Biblical historicity. Similarly, archaeology in Mesopotamia has found many texts older than the Bible. In all fairness to Pascal, he lived in a time before all these discoveries and the rise of modern archaeology; the study of history in his day was mostly a textual affair. So many of the arguments he makes depend precisely on him uncritically forwarding the religious assumptions of his times.  Christians who already buy into Pascal’s arguments will probably love this book, whereas those who don’t buy into his arguments will not suddenly be convinced.

The Book of the City of Ladies by Christine de Pizan (trans. Earl Jeffrey Richards)

Christine de Pizan is a rare example of a literary woman from the Medieval period. She was raised in the French Court after her Italian father took a job there as an astrologer and physician. There she achieved a high level of education that wouldn’t have been possible in the male-dominated arenas of the Italian City-States. Married at fifteen to a court official and widowed from her happy marriage, she attempted to support herself and her children through her writing.

The Book of the City of Ladies addresses the slander that women are by nature full of vice and evil. Ancient and contemporary writers often accused women of being lewd and unable to control their sexual desires, as being weak and cowardly, as being unfit for government or law, as unintelligent, who brought nothing but unhappiness to their husbands, and were the cause of humanity’s downfall through Eve.

“[J]udging from the treatises of all philosophers and poets and from all the orators . . .  it seems that they all speak from one and the same mouth. They all concur in one conclusion: that the behavior of women is inclined to and full of every vice (4).”

All of this anti-female discourse found in the great works fills Christine with low self-esteem, self-hated, and loathing of her own sex.

“I finally decided that God formed a vile creature when He made woman, and I wondered how such a worthy artisan could have deigned to make such an abominable work which, from what they say, is the vessel as well as the refuge and abode of every evil and vice. . . . I detested myself and the entire feminine sex, as though we were monstrosities in nature (5).”

Christine is confronted by the female allegorical figures Reason, Rectitude, and Justice. Like much medieval allegorical work, Christine is influenced by Boethius’ The Consolation of Philosophy in which Lady Philosophy arrives to comfort Boethius at the dawn of his execution and correct his mistaken views about divine justice. Like Lady Philosophy, Reason, Rectitude, and Justice have come to comfort Christine in her distress, challenge the lies of these male writers, and help her build a City of Ladies for future generations whose walls will defend the virtue of women.

“What more do you want me to tell you, my dear daughter? It seems to me that I have brought sufficient proof of my intention, which was to show you, through reasoning and example, that God has never held, nor now holds, the feminine sex—nor that of men—in reproach (97).”

Reason points out that those who blame Eve for humanity’s Fall ignore the more important contribution of the Virgin Mary who provided humanity’s salvation. Reason acknowledges that there may be some merit in attacking “lewd” women, but writers that do so often go beyond these reasonable boundaries and assume all women are dissolute. Reason tells Christine that these male writers attack women due to their own vices, jealousy, and enjoyment of slander.

In response to the claim that women should have no place in law, government, or dispensing justice, Reason offers many examples of women leaders who were known for their just rule such as Nicaula the Empress of Ethiopia and Fredegund the Queen of France. To counter the point that women are physically weaker, cowardly, and have less strength, Reason notes how nature often makes up for defects in one area by giving an advantage in another. Aristotle was misshapen physically, but had a first-rate mind. Alexander the Great was ugly and sickly, but his courageous heart and virtuous qualities made him a first-rate warrior and leader. Likewise, some strong men, far from being virtuous, have committed such heinous acts during war that they’ve damned their souls and would’ve been better off being born with weak feminine bodies. Reason goes on to list the many women who have demonstrated courage and strength in history. She mentions Semiramis of Nineveh who conquered Babylon, Assyria, Ethiopia, and India. Another exemplar is Queen Thamiramis of the Amazons who defeated the Persian King Cyrus, and then chopped off his head, and threw it into a bucket of blood as ridicule for his never-ending bloodlust. While the Amazon warriors Menalippe and Hippolyta unhorsed Hercules and Theseus in battle, and Penthesilea the Amazon took on whole armies of Greeks to avenge Hector’s death. She could only be stopped when Pyrrhus, Achilles’ son, ambushed her with all his forces.

Reason next addresses whether women can be as clever and intelligent as men. The perception that women know less than men arises from lack of equal access to education and that women spend their days running a household rather than participating in a variety of human activities that would require of them and provide them with a broader education. Examples of educated women include Conficia who went to school with her brother and became a famous poet mentioned by both Saint Gregory and Boccaccio. While Proba mastered all seven liberal arts and knew all of Virgil’s works by heart. The Greek Sappho who also gets a mention was not only well-educated, but a celebrated poet. Reason elaborates on this claim further by pointing out that many women have invented new fields and technology. Nicostrata also called Carmentis was the first to institute laws in the Italian lands that would later become Rome. Minerva invented techniques for making armor. Indeed, she was so wise and so skilled that according to Reason the pagans mistook her for a goddess. Ceres invented the science of agriculture and farming, while Isis invented the art of gardening and planting.  The last part of Reason’s discussion involves prudence or the discipline to complete what needs to be done. Here Reason buttresses her argument by offering a gloss on the biblical proverbs. Some of her prudent women include Gaia Cirilla, Queen Dido, Opis, and Lavinia who marries Aeneas in the Aeneid.

 

Next it is Rectitude’s turn who calls out the foolishness of parents that desire sons over daughters. She argues that sons are more likely to resent their parent’s poverty or desire their parent’s death if their parents happen to be rich in order to inherit property quicker, while daughters tend to be more loyal. Rectitude then gives example of daughters loyal to parents through tough times. Next, Rectitude challenges the stereotype that marriage is filled with unhappiness for men because of controlling, disloyal wives. Indeed, often the opposite is true.

“How many women are there actually, dear friend—and you yourself know—who because of their husbands’ harshness spend their weary lives in the bond of marriage in greater suffering than if they were slaves among the Saracens? My God! How many harsh beatings—without cause and without reason—how many injuries, how many cruelties, insults, humiliations, and outrages have so many upright women suffered, none of whom cried out for help? And consider all the women who die of hunger and grief with a home full of children, while their husbands carouse dissolutely or go on binges in every tavern all over town, and still the poor women are beaten by their husbands when they return, and that is their supper! (119).”

This denunciation against abusive husbands challenges the slander that women make men unhappy in marriage. In reality, it is men who often make women unhappy in marriage.  Still, women often remain loyal to their husbands, despite this mistreatment.

To challenge the claim that women are unfaithful, Rectitude turns to well-known mythological examples such as Dido’s loyalty to Aeneas, Medea’s loyalty to Jason, Thisbe to Pyramus, Hero to Leander, and the Griselda tale, which is such a prototypical tale of constancy in the Middle Ages, that it is retold in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s the Decameron as well. Rectitude tells of Portia who is so loyal to her husband, Brutus, that after he is defeated in battle during the Civil War that follows Julius Caesar’s assassination, she swallows burning coals to commit suicide in solidarity with her deceased spouse.  Rectitude also lists women who helped save their people from destruction or danger such as the biblical figures Mary, Judith, and Queen Esther. Rectitude shows that men are often happier or would be happier if they listened to their wives’ sound advice to keep them out of mischief. One such example is Veturia the wife of Cornelius who convinces her husband not to destroy Rome.

The final allegorical figure is Justice who comes to complete the city. The Virgin Mary is brought to reign as Queen of the City of Ladies. Justice speaks of female saints who suffer and survive many tortures at the hands of tyrannical Roman Emperors and zealous pagans. Christine saves these figures for last because they have the most unimpeachable virtue. She provides countless examples of saintly women who were chosen by God Himself to suffer in His name and convert the pagans. Any male writer who wishes to claim all women are nothing but vice and evil will struggle to rebut the many examples of female saints who represent the most virtuous of people in the Christian worldview and the exact opposite of their claims. Not only is Christine making a statement of who is most deserving to occupy the choicest places of her allegorical city, but seen in terms of a rhetorical strategy she is saving her best arguments for last.
Christine should be viewed as a proto-Feminist who focuses on women’s issues and questions the stereotypes men have of women, yet she is also a product of her times. It is inaccurate to envision her as a feminist in the modern sense fighting for complete liberation from patriarchal society or who supports free love. As Reason says earlier women who live dissolute lives should be criticized; in so far as this reflects Christine’s views, she is not someone who’s going to argue that women should be able to sleep with as many partners as they want. Her ideal women are chaste virgins who devote their lives to God, as shown by her female saints occupying the highest mansions of the City of Ladies, and those who do choose to get married she argues at various points should be subject to their husbands as St. Paul suggests. However, she does call out bad husbands explicitly and doesn’t shy away from challenging male authority when it is wrong or immoral by those same Christian standards. Her devotion to Christianity doesn’t come second to her advocating for women’s rights; the work is a synthesis of the two where the slander of men is wrong in part because women are often good Christians demonstrating virtuous behavior and productive members of society.

With her Christian beliefs in mind, Christine adopts a euhemerist model to handle her pagan mythological references. This view of mythology argues that the figures of myth are real historical figures, usually great men and women, whose actual history has become exaggerated, obscured, and transformed over time into myth. When she mentions Uranus and Vesta, they are no longer the progenitor sky and earth deities, but Uranus is reduced to “an extremely powerful man in Greece (95).” Saturn is not the King of the Titans anymore, but rather he is the King of Crete. Christine applies these assumptions with many other classical gods and goddess, claiming they were humans whose wisdom or excessive virtue led the pagans to incorrectly believe they were gods. In this vein, Rectitude talks about the ten sibyls. It was a medieval belief that one of the sibyls prophesied Jesus and spoke out against paganism. This bring us to an important point in Christine’s literary strategy. She wants to be able to use ancient sources steeped in paganism, but obviously can’t use them wholesale due to Christian social mores. So in the case of the sibyls she turns them into proto-Christians and in the case of the pagan deities she uses a euhemeristic understanding of mythology to make these exemplars more palatable to a Christian audience and reconcilable to her monotheistic beliefs.

This leaves us with the City itself, which Reason, Rectitude, and Justice help build with their arguments. The walls and structures of the city are built out of all the virtuous qualities the women of history, literature, the Bible, and mythology have shown. By erecting the city on these arguments, they are designed to protect women from future slander.

The Letters of Abelard and Heloise (trans. Betty Radice and M. T. Clanchy).

In his first letter, titled “Historia Calamitatum”, Abelard tells an anonymous friend the story of his tragic early life. He was born on the borders of Brittany to noble parents. As the eldest son, he stood to inherit lands and a castle, but his father also encouraged his children in their learning, which led Abelard to abandon military life for the life of learning.

“I renounced the glory of military life, made over my inheritance and rights of the eldest son to my brothers, and withdrew from the court of Mars in order to be educated in the lap of Minerva (3).”

He went to Paris to learn dialectic under William of Champeaux, but after disputing with him on some points of philosophy his former teacher became an enemy. In many ways, the life of a scholar and teacher was far more treacherous than the military life. The world Abelard describes in his letter was one of cut-throat competition where a teacher’s reputation could make or break them. After falling out with William, Abelard goes off to setup a rival school. The more William and others denigrate him, the better his reputation becomes and the more students he gains.

 

After studying and teaching philosophy, particularly Aristotelian logic, Abelard decides to go off to study Scripture with Anselm of Laon (not to be confused with the better known St. Anselm), who was the preeminent scholar of the Bible in his day. Abelard finds Anselm unintelligent and not very insightful, often being unable to answer simple questions and leaving his students more confused about a particular point than when they began. Some of his students start speaking poorly of him to Anselm, especially after Abelard decides to start skipping lecture. On a challenge from his fellow students, Abelard writes his own lecture on a particularly difficult passage of Ezekiel. Everyone is so impressed with his interpretation that he soon gains the ire of Anselm too. However, this backfires as well and soon gains him students who want his Biblical interpretations.

It’s at the height of this worldly success when he first meets Heloise.

“In looks she did not rank lowest, while in the extent of her learning she stood supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her most renowned throughout the realm. I considered all the usual attractions for a lover and decided she was the one to bring to my bed, confident that I should have an easy success; for at the time I had youth and exceptional good looks as well as my great reputation to recommend me, and feared no rebuff from any woman I might choose to honour with my love (10).”

Abelard convinces her uncle to hire him as her private tutor. They have a secret passionate love affair. She gets pregnant. Abelard takes her away into his own country to deliver the baby. This, of course, means the uncle learns of the affair.  He tries to appease the uncle by marrying Heloise, but hoped to keep the marriage a secret so it doesn’t damage his reputation. Heloise tries to convince him that this is a bad idea and won’t really satisfy her uncle who feels his honor has been damaged. Once they are married the uncle reveals their union to everyone and constantly berates Heloise. Abelard sends her to a convent, which leads the uncle and her family to believe he is preparing to divorce her. Angered by this final insult, they break into his house by bribing a servant and castrate him.

 

 

Humiliated and mutilated, Abelard retires to a monastery, which at first welcomes a man of his reputation, but once he starts criticizing some of their evil habits they begin to resent and hate him as well. He writes his first major book on scripture. Heloise goes off and becomes a nun for real at exhortations of Abelard. Meanwhile his intellectual rivals convince higher officials that the book is heretical and this causes him to be summoned to a trial. During his first trial of heresy, they struggle to find any evidence in his book that could be deemed heretical and are about to let him go with no charges, but his rivals at the last second convince the heads of the trial to punish him anyway. They misrepresent his views about the trinity, force him to recant views he doesn’t hold, and then burn his book.

 

Abelard returns to the monastery where everyone hates him. The monks trump up charges against based on some comments about the origins of the French Church and plan to bring him to justice before the king. He flees to the protection of Count Theobald, a powerful neighboring lord, whose strength is equal to the king’s. He then retires to the wilderness where his students follow him. They help him build a monastery to house his school, which he calls the Paraclete. Shortly after, he gains a post as an abbot at St. Gildas. The unruly monks hate his strict rules and try to poison him.

He gives the Paraclete to Heloise and her nuns as their new convent once their old one was confiscated.

Abelard views his early intellectual successes as sinful pride and leads to his carnal lust. He believes God punished his pride and lust through his subsequent castration and having his books burnt at the first heresy trial. At the end of his letter, he explains that he views his tribulations as tests from God. The Bible shows that this is the nature of the world and all these misfortunes that have befallen him are part of God’s plan.

After being out contact with Heloise for many years, they begin writing letters to each other again. In this letter, written by Heloise, we get to hear her take on the events Abelard has recounted of their past life together. Despite her high position as an abbess in charge of nuns, she says her time with him as his lover was the highest point of her life and she still loves him more than anyone.

“In my case, the pleasures of lovers which we shared have been too sweet – they cannot displease me, and can scarcely shift from my memory. Wherever I turn they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold upon my unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness instead of on prayers (68).”

She still lusts for him even after these many years. She seems to regret the course of events their lives have taken. She knows she should repent, but she still longs for the past.

Abelard in his next letter responds that their entrance into religious life should be seen as divine mercy rather than as divine punishment. God gave them the opportunity to use their intellectual gifts for the good of the faith and not spoil it on selfish concerns. In an obvious rationalization, Abelard argues that this tragic event was actually a good event when you look back on it from a different lens.

Seeming ready to move forward, Heloise wants guidance on the proper way to run a convent according to religious principles. She enquires about the history of nuns. She points out that there are many who join the monastic orders who aren’t prepared to live by their rules.

Abelard writes a letter that discusses how monasteries and convents should be properly run. His letters are often peppered with copious examples from the Bible and quotations from the church fathers as well as the occasional reference to Ovid and Cicero. He turns to these sources for the origin of the nuns and monks and using these sources he makes a strong argument for women playing an important role in the Church.

Unsurprisingly, Abelard couldn’t keep himself out of controversy and soon ended up in a second heresy trial at Sens in 1140 led by Bernard of Clairvaux.  Peter the Venerable, the abbot of the powerful Cluny monastery, took him in Abelard and supported him in his final years. Along with the letters between Abelard and Heloise, the collection also includes a brief set of correspondence between Peter the Venerable and Heloise concerning Abelard.

“He was engaged on such holy occupations when the Visitor of the Gospels came to find him, and found him awake, not asleep like so many; found him truly awake, and summoned him to the wedding of eternal life . . . For he brought with him a lamp full of oil, that is, a conscience filled with the testimony of his saintly life. As the time came for him to pay the common debt of humanity, the sickness from which he suffered worsened and quickly brought him to his last hour (222).”

We find out from their letters that after his Abelard’s death, Peter the Venerable transported Abelard’s body to Heloise and her nuns and that Peter granted him absolution for his sins.

Piers Plowman by William Langland (edited by Elizabeth Robertson and Stephen H. A. Shepherd).

Piers Plowman is a Christian allegorical poem written in Middle English alliterative verse. It is one of the most important English vernacular works to be written along with Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. Three different variants of the work exist known as the A-Text, the B-Text, and the C-text. The biggest differences between the versions:

  • the B-text adds additional visions (chapters) to the ones found in the A-Text
  • the allegorical character giving speeches in certain sections change between the different versions (such as Conscience preaching in the A-Text to the Seven Deadly Sins, while Reason is the preacher during this same part in the B-text)
  • sometimes certain allegorical figures are not included at all (Wrath is absent from the A-Text during the above-mentioned scene, but is present in the B-text)
  • the C-Text adds an autobiographical section tacked onto one of the visions.

I read the Norton Critical Edition of the B-text translated into modern English by E. Talbot Donaldson. The work follows a Christian dreamer named Will, identified sometimes with William Langland himself, who searches for answers to his existential questions concerning theological, spiritual, and ethical issues. He has different dreams or visions that occur across twenty chapters called “Passus,” which in Latin means “Step,” implying that the work involves a journey as he discovers the answers to these questions. It is a very different sort of journey than the one found in John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, which is another Christian allegory from a later literary time period. Bunyan’s work externalizes the allegorical elements as part of an adventurous quest plot that isn’t much different from the basic plot structure one might find in a modern epic fantasy, while Piers Plowman consists mostly of dialogues in which Will, the dreamer, puts troublesome spiritual questions to various allegorical figures who offer loquacious answers. The “journey” in this work is an internal one with an inconclusive finale. It reads a lot like Plato’s dialogues and nothing like an adventure story. Another somewhat unique characteristic of the work is its positive portrayal of the lower classes often missing from other medieval works. The poem melds religious allegory about salvation and ethical living with social satire of medieval society.

The poem opens with Will falling asleep beneath a tree and having his first vision in which he views a tower on a hill where Truth resides (God), a terrible dungeon below (hell), and “a faire felde ful of folke (2)” between them consisting of all sorts of people in society from the highest to the lowest. This middle ground represents the world and how people navigate its mazes to end up either in the Tower (heaven) or in the dungeon (hell). A woman arrives who introduces herself as the Church and desires that Will should enter the Tower where Truth resides. She goes on to elaborate on the nature of Truth and God, focusing on divine love and the importance of giving charity to the poor. Will desires to learn not only Truth, but also how he can determine what is false. Lady Church tells him to look to his left side where he sees her many enemies: False, Favel, and the beautifully dressed Lady Meed. Favel represents lying or deceit. Lady Meed symbolizes reward and profit. False and Favel with the help of Simony and Civil try to bribe various officials in order to marry Meed to Falseness. Eventually the King learns about all this bribery happening in his realm through the assistance of his adviser, Conscience (who not only represents moral conscience in the modern sense, but also consciousness in general) and orders the arrest of all these villains.

In custody, King wants Meed to marry Conscience, but he refuses to marry her due to her past sins. Meanwhile in custody, she is busy corrupting the king’s officials left and right with all her bribery. Conscience says he’ll only consider the marriage if Reason agrees. Reason arrives and convinces the king to reject the idea of such a marriage. This turns the King against Meed. Reason offers the advice that the best and most just kingdoms are those ruled by Reason. By having the king turn against Meed on the advice of Reason and hearing a sermon on how a just kingdom is ruled by reason, this scene serves as a social commentary on the rightful role of kings. Kings who rule by Reason and put the interests of the realm first tend to be good rulers, while those who put their own greed and self-interests first, as represented by Meed, end up corrupting the whole realm through their bad rule. These bad kings have married their conscience, their primary guide to ethical concerns, to Meed (their desire for reward and profit) and have failed to consult their reason.

Reason follows this success with the king by going out and giving a sermon to the entire populace. The Allegorical Seven Sins appear and each repent before Reason their various offenses, often involving colorful stories related to their specific natures. It is in this vision that we first meet Piers Plowman who offers his own sermon about the way to Truth and how a humble workman like himself tries to live by the principles of simplicity, faith in God, and helping others. Piers convinces the pilgrims to help him plow the fields and promises them as much food as they need as a reward for their assistance. At first many agree, but over time many of the people grow lazy and stop helping. Piers complains about Waster, an allegorical figure that represents those who waste and do nothing productive for their fellow man. Piers asks Hunger to punish Waster with hunger. He then asks Hunger what should be done about beggars. Hunger tells Piers that it is the way of the righteous to help beggars and the poor who genuinely cannot work or help themselves. The text suggests through this juxtaposition between Wasters and the needy that the difference between them lies in that Wasters can work, but choose laziness, and therefore steal vital resources from true beggars who genuinely need the charity of others because they’re incapable of working.
After this vision, Will returns to the world in desperate search of Do Well as the key to his salvation. Unable to find him in the world, Will has another dream where he encounters a larger version of himself named Thought. Thought explains to him that Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best are three virtues found in anyone who is meek, mild, truthful, and willing to do his or her fair share of work and keep only what he or she has earned. In other words, he is the opposite of the proud, greedy, and intemperate person.

“Do-Wel, my [dere], is to don as lawe techeth,
To love [and to lowe thee and no lyf to greve;
Ac to love and to lene], leve me, that is Do-Bet;
To yiven and to yemen bothe Yonge and olde,
To helen and to helpen, is Do-Best of alle (138).”

To Do Well is to follow God’s laws, to act humbly, behave towards others with love, and harm no other person. In an excerpt taken from the Dictionary of the Middle Ages that is included in the Norton Critical Edition, Donaldson describes the poem’s presentation of Do-Well as a secular person who lives his life according to Christian precepts, Do-Better as the contemplative man who spends his time helping others and engaging in charity, and Do-Best is like a Bishop or Priest who challenges the wicked and ministers to the good (499). Donaldson goes on to suggest that Piers Plowman serves as one of the central figures of the poem precisely because he “transition[s] from Do-Well to Do-Better (499)” and eventually to Do-Best in the final sections of the poem.

Here they turn to Wit to find out where Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best live. Wit tells them that Do Better is Do Well’s daughter and serves as a lady-in-waiting to Anima (soul). They all let Do Best guide them as their Bishop. In this castle is a constable named Inwit (understanding and rational capacity) whose sons Sir See-Well, Sir Say-Well, Sir Hear-Well, Sir Work-Well-With-Your-Hands, and Sir Godfrey Go-Well protect the safety of Anima. Kind has made a castle where Do Well and Anima reside. Kind is one of the allegorical identities of God in the poem. Wit describes what sort of being Kind is and how He tries to take care of all souls and give them what they need. This discourse ends on a discussion of the correct nature of marriage, which is not one based in the desire to gain money or land or one that involves partners of drastically different ages, but equal partners who marry out of love.
After this discourse, Wit’s wife, Dame Study, arrives and castigates him for wasting his wisdom on fools and mockers who will not be able to appreciate them. She attacks the wealthy as mockers of religion who often talk blasphemous and superficially about God. She views Will’s desire to know the difference between Do Well and Do Better as the equivalent of questioning God and His purposes, apprehensive of his motives. At the direction of Wit, the dreamer humbles himself before Dame Study. She softens before his humility and decides to help him after all by acquainting him with her cousin, Clergy, and his wife, Scripture.

 

Will comes to fear that he will never save his soul without more theological knowledge. Scripture teaches him that great learning and wisdom doesn’t save men. Many well-educated clerks and officials of the church will end up in hell for their abuses of their office, while many lowly uneducated men will be saved. Pure faith is superior to a deep knowledge of theology. Often the lowest and most ignorant are the first in heaven as the Bible teaches. True faith doesn’t require learning and quoting scripture from heart, but love of God, fellow Christians, and even one’s enemies.

“For every Cristene creature shulde be kynde til other,
And sithen hethen to helpe in hope of amendement.
God hoteth bothe heigh and lowe that no man hurte other (158).”

 

At this point, Will enters a dream within a dream in which the Flesh and all its seeming pleasures tries to seduce him. As he listens to their seductive speeches, Old Age arrives and warns him that fortune and pleasure who speak such lovely words now will abandon him in time. Recklessness then appears to try and convince dreamer to ignore the warnings of Old Age.

Will has a vision of nature and animals where he comes to realize all animals are guided by Reason, except humanity. He tries to rebuke Reason for not guiding them, but Reason criticizes Will for interfering in the order of things of which he cannot judge properly (repeating Adam’s sin of wanting the wisdom of God), so Reason refuses to instruct him further.

In the next vision, Will witnesses a dinner being partaken by Conscience, Clergy, and Patience. He sits at a side table with Patience eating mediocre food, while at the head of the main table is a hypocritical friar eating all kinds of delicacies. They put some questions to the friar who offers memorized and academic answers to their theological questions, while the poem hints at the friar’s hypocrisy by knowing the answers, but not living by them. During the dinner, Conscience decides to join Patience on a pilgrimage into the world to develop his spiritual self through direct experience as opposed to the theoretical book learning that Clergy offers.

On this journey, Conscience and Patience meet Hawkins the Active Man. This man is all about appearance, wanting to appear the smartest, greatest, holiest, and best of men. He is all talk, pretends to be holy, but is really a sinner and prideful. His sins appear as dirt and specks on his outer coat. Such a man eventually ends up in a state of despair, unable to live by the church’s creed and falling so far into sin that a deep sense of hopelessness pervades him from the fear that his sins have grown too great for salvation. In response to being criticized for his dirty clothes, Hawkin’s claims that he cannot ever seem to get his clothes spotless; every time he cleans it via confession and contrition it gets dirty soon after.  At one point, he even blames his wife for the dirty state of his clothes (echoing Adam blaming Eve for convincing him to eat the forbidden fruit). In response to Hawkins, Patience preaches moderation (the opposite of the “active life.”). The poem reiterates that the world is corrupt and participating in it only leads to sin. In order to achieve heaven, Christians must hate this world. Patience goes on to explain how the poor have an advantage with the Seven Deadly sins compared to the rich. It cannot affect the poor as strongly because their desires and means to engage in these sins are restricted.

Will has a new dream in which he converses with Anima (the soul) who describes her many forms. Sometimes Anima takes the form of Mens (capacity for knowing), Memoria (remembrance), Reason, Sensus (empathy/feeling for others), Conscience, Amor (when the soul loves God and others), Spiritus (when freed from the flesh). Will’s desire to know everything is a sin and similar to the pride of Lucifer – only God knows everything. This is emphasized by the way many of the allegorical figures rebuke him throughout the various parts of the poem for his questions and how he’s often not content with the answers he does receive from them.

Will has a vision of Piers Plowman who has erected three polls to protect this tree from “the worlde [which] is a wyked wynde to hem the wolden treuthe” (274). Satan wishes to take all its fruits for himself. We are told that this tree was planted in a garden by God. The tree metaphor for the Truth and Charity draws on the Garden of Eden story from the Bible and highlights the theme found in other parts of the poem that knowledge is often bad, whereas it’s charity, simplicity, and faith that lead one to God.

Pier’s tree equals Truth and grows in a soil of goodness. The three polls symbolize: the Power of God, Wisdom of God, and Grace and the Holy Spirt respectively. In another metaphor, Piers Plowman, in the roll of a priestly figure and thus representing his ascension to the symbolic role of Do-Best tills the soil of Truth with his oxen: Luke, Mark, Matthew, and John. Following them are four horses to harrow: Austin, Ambrose, Gregory, and Jerome that use the harrows, Old Testament and New Testament, to help plant seeds in men’s souls. These seeds they wish to plant are the Spirit of Prudence, the Spirit of Temperance, the Spirit of Fortitude, and the Spirit of Justice.

 

In another vision, Will watches as Jesus arrives in Jerusalem to joust with Satan in order to overcome Death and win the fruits back from Piers Plowman’s tree. The poem retells the story of the Crucifixion. After Jesus’s death, Truth, Mercy, Peace, and Righteousness debate the meaning of the light that hangs over hell. Then the harrowing of Hell occurs when Jesus arrives to save the Old Testament figures from eternal damnation and their demonic tormentors.

The final dream is an apocalyptic and pessimistic vision of Conscience besieged by the Antichrist and his army of the Seven Deadly Sins. As the sins injure the men inside Conscience’s fortress, the wounded grow weary with the slow, harsh, and difficult cures that the parish priests offer, turning to a friar who promises to offer a quicker and easier salvation for a hefty fee. Conscience believes the friar is a liar betraying the Christians who want an easier path towards salvation. The text’s earlier criticisms of the greedy and parasitic monastic orders culminate in this final vision in which it is implied that Christian society and salvation itself is threatened by the presence of these corrupt Friars.

The Lais of Marie De France (trans. Glynn S.Burgess and Keith Busby)

Marie de France may have been the half-sister of King Henry II. She may have been born in France and wrote her tales in England. Our knowledge of Marie is limited and the authorship of these tales is often debated. As the introduction of my edition states, “We can assert with conviction that at least one poet by the name of Marie was writing in the second half of the twelfth century, but it is equally certain that the author who composed the lays . . . was not called Marie de France (7).” In other words, it may be that some anonymous author wrote these works and they have become associated with her name over time. Although these lays are technically poetry, in translation they read like an early form of the short story.

In “Guigemar,” a knight known for his prowess in battle and lack of interest in women is cursed after being wounded during a hunt. His victim, a talking animal, warns Guigemar that his wound will not heal until he knows love. Soon after, he ends up on a mysterious ship that takes him to a tower where an elderly lord has locked up his young and beautiful wife. The knight and the young lady fall in love with each other. They get separated after their love affair gets discovered by the elderly lord, but before they do they exchange tokens in order to recognize each other in the future if they ever meet again and eventually they do.

In “Equitan,” a powerful king falls in love with his vassal’s wife. She agrees to have a love affair with him. They plan to kill her husband by throwing him into a boiling tub of water, but the vassal discovers their plot and ends up throwing them into the boiling water instead as a punishment for their treachery.

In “Le Fresne,” a noble woman insults the honor of her guest pregnant with twins by claiming that twins can only be conceived by sleeping with two men. Shortly after, the accuser herself becomes pregnant with twins and her words rebound against her. So to save her honor, she has a servant take one of the children away to an abbey. The girl becomes known as Le Fresne and after growing up she becomes a lover to a powerful Lord named Gurun.  After some time, his vassals chastise him for his love affair and want him to marry a proper lady. Le Fresne resigns herself to give up her lover. However, it turns out the lady they find to marry Gurun is actually her twin sister. Through some tokens of recognition, they all discover the truth and Le Fresne now able to establish her identity as the sister of the highborn lady gets to marry Gurun.

In “Bisclavret,” a noblewoman wheedles out of her husband the secret reason why he disappears every few nights. It turns out every few nights he transforms into a werewolf. He informs her it is his clothes that allow him to return to his human form again. The wife decides that she “no longer wished to lie with him (69)” and steals his clothes so he is unable to resume his human form. Then she takes another knight for her lover. During a hunt, the king realizes the werewolf he is hunting acts sentient like a human and decides to take him back to his castle as a cherished pet. After summoning his vassals, the wife and her new lover arrive at court and the werewolf attacks them. Through torture they discover from the truth from the lady about the werewolf. They restore his clothes and he resumes human form.

In “Lanval,” the knight of the same name is selected by a rich and mysterious lady to be her lover with the catch that if he ever tells anyone about her he will never see her again. After Lanval’s fame rises, the Queen falls in love with him and tries to seduce him, but he rejects her advances and insults her with the beauty of his secret lover. Angry at this insult, the Queen accuses Lanval of trying to seduce her and the King puts him on trial for his life. In a fit of depression, Lanval is prepared to die, assuming he will never see his beloved again since he broke her rule and spoke about her, but the lady arrives at the king’s court in order to save his life and prove the truth of his words.

In “Les Deus Amanz,” a knight takes on a challenge to win his beloved by carrying her up a mountain. She tries to assist him by getting a family member to provide him with a restorative potion. However, he forgets the potion during the task and dies in the process.

In “Yonec,” a jealous old man locks his young beautiful wife in a tower. A bird comes to the window and transforms into a knight who becomes her lover in secret. Soon the old man discovers their affairs and places traps around the window. The knight is fatally injured by these traps. The woman jumps out of the window chasing after her injured husband, manages to survive her fall, and follows the path of blood to her lover’s kingdom. He prophesies that their child with take revenge on her husband. She has her lover’s child and her husband raises the child thinking it is his own. When the child learns the truth he takes revenge on his stepfather and then inherits his dead father’s kingdom.

In “Laustic,” a married lady who loves a knight from afar wakes up every night just to get a glimpse of her lover. The suspicion husband realizes what she is doing and kills a nightingale that the lady uses as her excuse for staying up so late.

In “Milun,” a knight has an illicit affair with a woman and gets her pregnant. They send the baby away. Eventually the child grows up and becomes a renowned knight. He fights his father in a tournament where they discover each other’s identities.

In “Chaitivel,” a woman falls in love with four knights and cannot choose between them. Three of them die in a tournament. The lady takes care of the surviving knight who is severely injured. Unfortunately, he is now impotent. She tells him she wants to compose a lay about the tragedy of the three dead men, but he tells her the real tragedy is his since he survived and gets the chance to talk with her all the time, but his injuries prevent him from physical love with her.

In “Chevrefoil,” King Mark banishes his nephew, Tristram, after rumors that he loves the Queen. In his banishment, the Queen finds him and reveals her love for Tristram. King Mark regrets banishing him and Tristram returns to his service.

In “Eliduc,” false rumors causes a king to banish the knight Eliduc. His wife has him promise to stay faithful to her in his exile. He goes to another kingdom and serves a different king besieged by enemies. Eliduc shines in battle and wins an honored place with this other king. The king’s daughter falls in love with him. After some reluctance, he becomes her lover. The original king that banished Eliduc calls him back. Eliduc returns to his wife, but is extremely unhappy to lose his new lover. After winning the war for his original liege, he returns back to the other kingdom and takes the princess back with him to his homeland. On the way, a storm threatens their ship and a servant in fear that they have offended God reveals to the princess that Eludic is married. This knowledge with her seasickness causes her to feint and Eludic believes she is dead. He makes plans to bury her. After becoming suspicious of her husband’s behavior, the wife discovers the existence of the lover and learns that she isn’t dead. She witnesses a weasel use a plant to restore another weasel. She then takes this plant and uses it to restore the princess. The wife agrees to take a vows in order to leave Eludic free to marry his true love.

 

These stories are extremely short. Some no longer than two pages. The minimalism of the characters and the occasional magical element (like the talking animal that curses Guigemar, the hawk-knight in Yonec and the werewolf in Bisclavret) gives these tales an atmosphere similar to those of a fairy tale. Even when the tales give a particular locale, the world it presents feels like a generic medieval kingdom that could be anywhere and is highly idealized.

These stories reflect the values of the nobility. This can be seen in that all the main characters and most of the characters through the tales are knights, kings, lords, and princesses; the peasantry are almost entirely absent from the idealized medieval world of these stories. The shortness of the tales doesn’t leave much time for character development; instead, the characters are described by generic and idealized qualities such as their valor, how beautiful or handsome they appear, and generous behavior towards others. The exploration of the values of courtly love features in all the stories. The love depicted in these tales feels artificial and forced; the characters usually just meet, share a few words, and just fall in love with each other without much development. Although sometimes the tales suggest that a princess falls in love with a particular knight due to his prowess in battle and he falls for her due to her unmatched beauty. The underlying logic of these stories is that since he is the best knight in the area, therefore he deserves the most beautiful and noblest born of the ladies. In stories like “Equitan,” we have characters punished not so much for their infidelity, but their disloyalty to their vassal. After all, if feudalism is a political and social system built on loyalty, it would follow that disloyalty undermines the entire system. “Eliduc” takes the logic of both these ideas to its furthest conclusion in that Eliduc is often torn between loyalties. Should he serve his original king when he is called back to assist him after swearing his service to the new king for a year? Should he break his promise to his wife and become the princess’s lover? The system of feudalism and the ideal of noble behavior can form quite a tangled web of allegiances. Here is an academic website that provides even more information on Marie De France and has links to online translations different than the ones I used.

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

The Woman in White is considered one of the first sensation novels and a mystery. With that said, if you prefer to maintain the mystery for yourself, which is one of the joys of reading this novel you may not wish to read further in this post as it will contain spoilers.

 

On his way to accepting a position as drawing-master down at Limmeridge House, Walter Hartright encounters the mysterious woman in white who has escaped from an asylum. Walter little realizes how this one fateful night will embroil him in an extraordinary mystery and conspiracy. At Limmeridge House, he begins to teach the talkative and strong-willed Ms. Marian Halcombe and the beautiful, quiet, naïve Ms. Laura Fairlie, half-sisters to each other, only to fall in love with Laura. She returns Walter’s feelings, but unfortunately is already arranged to be married to a baronet named Sir Percival Glyde, which were the final wishes of her father on his death-bed. Soon an anonymous letter arrives for Laura describing Sir Percival Glyde as a heartless monster and warning her against marrying him. After some inquiry in town, it is discovered that the letter comes from the woman in white. Ms. Halcombe and Walter also learn from old letters of the late Mrs. Fairlie that the woman is named Anne Catherick and has once been to Limmeridge House. Walter speaks to Anne and finds out it was Sir Percival Glyde that locked her up in the asylum, but before they can find out the reason why Catherick flees in fear. It turns out that the Sir Percival sent her to an asylum because he believes Anne knows a terrible secret that could ruin him. The impending marriage sends Hartright to the Americas to forget his troubled emotions over Laura and Laura ends up in a loveless marriage that will lead to a conspiracy to steal her inheritance. Sir Percival Glyde marries Laura for her money to help pay off major debts. Once married Sir Percival’s friend, the cunning Count Fosco along with his wife who happens to be Laura’s aunt, come to stay at Blackwater Park, the estate of Sir Percival. Much of the novel is spent with Ms. Halcombe analyzing the behavior of these two men and attempting to outwit them in their conspiracies against her and Laura. Eventually the right opportunity comes and Count Fosco manages to switch Anne Catherick who strongly resemble Laura Fairlie with Laura Fairlie. Anne dies under the identity of Laura Fairlie, which allows the two men to inherit Laura’s money, while it is Laura who ends up in the madhouse as Anne Catherick. Ms. Halcombe rescues her sister from the asylum and Walter Hartright returns from the Americas and assists them in unraveling the conspiracy and restoring Laura’s identity as a living person.

 

The novel reveals the limits and problems of the law. Laura’s uncle, Mr. Fairlie who is an invalid and hates to be bothered with responsibilities, shows an unwillingness to fight for the best possible marriage settlement for Laura at the advice of his lawyer. Laura is at the whims of her male uncle’s decisions. If he had accepted the lawyers suggestion to not include her entire inheritance in the marriage settlement should Laura die it is likely the conspiracy against his niece never would have occurred. Likewise, the law has no recourse to prove the conspiracy perpetuated on Laura without the hard-gained evidence gathered by Walter Hartright. Even Percival Glyde’s secret which involved him forging information about his parent’s marriage in a registry at a church in order to inherit his titles and estates fails to be discovered by the means of the law. On the other hand, it is the laws of society that lead Sir Percival to forge the information in the first place. He is in fact the son of the previous Baronet and his lover, but because they were never legally married he isn’t entitled to his father’s estate according to society’s law. This arbitrary rule of society that his parents must be married for him to inherit shows the inadequacy of the law. It isn’t the law that brings Count Fosco to justice, but an assassin serving the secret society that he betrayed; in other words, vigilante justice, the very opposite of the law. The novel then shows the many ways the law fails to bring justice on various crucial issues.

Count Fosco is a challenge to the Victorian assumption that the arts and literature morally improve a person. He is as cultivated in the arts and in the sciences as one can be during this time period and claims to be sensitive to others emotions and feelings (a man of sentiment), yet he questions morality and virtue, and displaying a willingness to kill, ruin, or destroy anyone who gets in the way of his own interests. He not only shows us this, but tells us he is will punish anyone who threatens his interests. He also makes a speech before the two lady’s against virtue. Sir Percival represents a very different type of evil. He is all anger, tyranny, and resentment towards others, unable to control his emotions, yet hesitant to go as far as Fosco and kill others, preferring to control them through intimidation. As Fosco reveals in his letter that appears towards the end of the book, if Sir Percival had just taken his advice to have Mr. Hartright murdered and had recommitted Laura to the asylum they never would’ve been outwitted in the end.

Eventually Percival Glyde and Count Fosco do get their comeuppance. Percival dies in a fire after accidentally locking himself in the vestry when trying to destroy the forgery that he made all those years ago in attempt to remove the evidence against himself. Count Fosco is murdered in Paris for betraying a political brotherhood he once belonged to as a younger man in Italy. Walter attributes their demises, along with the necessary and accidental discoveries he makes along the way that help him solve the many mysteries in the book and restore Laura’s good name, to divine providence. This directly repudiates the Count’s philosophy against virtue that he makes in his speech. On the other hand, Laura marries Sir Percival and rejects Walter out of virtue (honoring her father’s wishes as opposed to her own “selfish” desires). She even reveals to Sir Percival that she will marry him, but doesn’t love him as her heart belongs to another. This admission is the virtuous thing to do, which of course only leads to Sir Percival’s resentment and is used by him as an emotional weapon against her. Insistence on virtue then causes the characters many problems. The story then at least partially affirms some of the Count’s arguments against virtue, even if it also rejects it overall. Perhaps Collins is suggesting too much virtue can be just as dangerous and just as much a character flaw as rejecting it completely. Another possibility is that Collins is implying that good and virtuous people might suffer from those who feel no such compunctions in the short term, but eventually justice and the divine plan rewards those who remain good and virtuous no matter what problems life throws at them.