Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. As with so many of the most important things in life, the most profound realities can often be encapsulated in a paradox, an apparent contradiction that points to a deeper truth. For those who insist on the facts, only the facts, and nothing but the facts, these deepest truths are inaccessible, unreachable. For such factual literalists, a paradox is merely a contradiction that illustrates nothing but its own absurdity. Take the paradox with which we began. The literalist, blinded by the fog and finitude of the facts, will insist that the paradox is nothing but arrant nonsense. If things change, he will insist, they do not remain the same. Change and sameness are not the same. Indeed they are opposites. One excludes the other.
It might be conceded that the literalist has a point. On the purely literal level, his logic is unassailable. The problem is that reality does not reside purely or solely on the literal level. In order to reside in reality we need to move beyond the facts to the truths to which the facts point; we need to move beyond the physical to the metaphysical.
Returning to our original paradox, we will see the truth to which the apparent contradiction points if we look at Chaucer and his age and compare them with ourselves and the age in which we live.
Much has changed in the six hundred years that separate late medieval England and the “postmodern” world. Theologically, we have passed from Christian orthodoxy, via heresy, to Godless hedonism. Philosophically, we have passed from realism, via nominalism, to radical relativism. Politically, we have passed from monarchy, via regicide and republicanism, to a plutocracy which masquerades as a democracy. Economically, we have passed from feudal agrarianism, via Machiavellian manipulation and mercantile industrialism, to global consumerism. Technologically, we have passed from plough and scythe, via steam and electricity, to outer space and cyberspace.
On first perusal we could be forgiven for thinking that our initial paradox is indeed arrant nonsense. We might be tempted, in fact, to conclude that everything changes and that nothing remains the same.
But let’s look a little closer.
Theologically, Christian orthodoxy is unchanged and is as true today as it was in Chaucer’s time. Philosophically, realism still reflects reality regardless of the relative rise of relativism. Politically, power is still centralized in the hands of Big Government, which uses it in its own interest and to the detriment of the interests of the relatively powerless majority. (A plutocracy, whatever its monarchist or republican flavor, tastes as rich!) Economically, the real health and wealth of the people is still rooted ultimately in the fruits of the earth and the way in which that fruit is harvested by the tilling of the land and the toiling of labour. Technologically, nothing has changed except the tools with which we toil and the toys with which we play. We are not defined or changed in any major or meaningful way by our tools and our toys. Reality is not ultimately altered or changed by virtual reality.
Nothing has changed, everything remains the same. Plus ça change …
In Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales we see essentially the same unchanging humanity struggling with essentially the same unchanging problems. We see the same struggle between holiness and hedonism, sanctity and sin, virtue and vice. The seven deadly sins are as deadly now as they were in Chaucer’s time. They kill human society as surely as they kill the human soul. They destroy the love of God and neighbour as surely as they destroy the wholeness or holiness of the self-centred self. Pride is still pride, and it still precedes a fall; lust is still lust, and it is as destructive to life and to marriage now as it always was; avarice is still avarice, gluttony is still gluttony, sloth is still sloth, envy is still envy, wrath is still wrath, ad nauseam, ad infinitum.
Nothing has changed, everything has remained the same. Plus ça change ….
We are approaching the crux of our initial paradox. Things seem to change and yet they also seem to remain the same. In fact, of course, and to hone the paradox to its truest meaning, some things change whereas some things remain the same. The key to understanding the paradox is the knowledge that the things that change are not as important as the things that remain the same, nor do the things that change have any power to change the unchanging things. To toy with the language of the philosopher, the changing things can be said to be accidents; they are not essential. They are part of temporal reality’s transience. They are subject to time and will pass away with it. They are temporary. The unchanging things, on the other hand, are essential. They are part of eternal reality’s permanence. They are not subject to time and will not pass away with it. They simply are.
Not only does Chaucer know this axiomatic and essential truth, it is the very animating principle of his Muse. The Canterbury Tales are an engagement theologically with the essential truth of the Gospel, in opposition to the hell of hedonism and the concupiscent cornucopia of deadly delights that it offers, and also an engagement philosophically with the essential truth of realism, in opposition to the proto-relativism of nominalism.
To see as Chaucer sees is not to see reality as a late mediaeval Englishman saw it, but to see reality as it is. But, we might be tempted to argue, what about all those things that have really changed in the past six hundred years? Surely a mediaeval Englishman can’t see as we see. In order to address such a seemingly reasonable objection, let’s return to our earlier list of all those things that have changed in the apparent abyss that separates our time from Chaucer’s.
Theologically, we have passed from Christian orthodoxy, via heresy, to hedonism. Such “change” is merely the falling into error. As such, Chaucer sees reality whereas most of our contemporaries do not. Reality has not changed, nor is it subject to so-called “democracy” any more than it is subject to time. A thing does not become less real because someone doesn’t believe it, nor does something become more real because a majority of people believe it. The majority of people can be as wrong about the things in which they believe as they are wrong about the politicians for whom they vote. To see through the eyes of the hedonistic relativist is to see nothing but the trivia and trash of transient things. To see through the eyes of Chaucer is to see the truth, the holy truth, and nothing but the truth.
This essay originally appeared in The St. Austin Review and is republished here with permission.