Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Auctoritee and Experience

Yesterday, my Chaucer class was finishing up our work with "The Knight's Tale" by looking at Theseus' Prime Mover speech.

What I really wanted to do was help them make a good connection between their own education, and how we know or think we know, how we decide what we think is reality.

In case you don't remember the speech off hand, Theseus does this big set speech to try to deal with Arcite's seemingly meaningless death (he's killed by his horse during the victory lap after winning the battle; his horse is scared by a fiendthing sent by Pluto at Saturn's request, because Venus and Mars were bickering since both had promised Palamon and Arcite what they'd asked for).

Theseus begins by saying that he doesn't need authority (especially in the sense of famous authors who've written) because his own experience has been enough to lead him to assert that there's a Prime Mover, a god-like figure who's set up the world and set things in motion, and who basically gives meaning to human experience and activity. (Does this sound familiar? ID anyone?)

I wanted to get my students to see that a lot of college discussion is really about how we know, to what extent we value authority, either professorial, written, or whatever, to what extent we value experience. I especially wanted us to question how Theseus thinks he knows that this Prime Mover has really gotten things under control, when the readers know that Arcite's death was merely Saturn's way of stopping the bickering of Venus and Mars. I wanted us to think about experience as anecdote, and how suspicious we are of anecdotal evidence compared to aggregated experience, especially when it's analyzed statistically, or represented scientifically.

There are some days, though, when I just can't seem to lead a real discussion. I kept talking, and they nodded, but I wasn't getting the connections across at all.

Maybe it's more important to me, because I'm thinking about the ways I use evidence from unique texts, letters, and so forth, which is always anecdotal. I think anecdotal evidence helps us realize how complex early modern English culture was, just as ours is, how much relying on broad statistical evidence or generalizations can oversimplify important issues. On the other hand, anecdotal evidence can mislead us when we treat it as metonymy, as well. It's difficult to "know" how to read unique evidence, and I don't think that problem's as real to my students as it is to me at this point. And I couldn't communicate it to them.

On the other hand, how critically do we look at authority in modern culture, even when we really should suspect the motives of those in power? I often don't think we read authority critically enough, and yet, of course, I don't want students constantly questioning my own authority, at least not too much.

Tomorrow's another day. And we're taking up "The Miller's Tale." Now there's pure joy in the offing.


  1. It would be worth coming back to with the Wife of Bath, which I suspect might generate more response from your students ("Experience, though none auctoritee/Were in the world, is right enough for me"). If your students are like mine, half will be all, "You go, girl! What the hell do celibate men know about marriage and women?" and half will be all, "She's just justifying her own selfish and manipulative way of life!"

    At that point, they might be more prepared to return to Theseus and talk intelligently about the subject.

    It's a thought, anyway.

  2. Great idea, La Lecturess. We've got lots of time to get there, and we'll be coming back to the issue for the rest of the semester. It's such fun!