Though fate is strong, there is a First Mover who transcends the revolutions of Fortune’s Wheel. In our world of perpetual change, all is in flux; even the mightiest tree will someday fall and the broadest river turn to dust. Yet the First Cause rises above these temporal twists and turns.

Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?

Chaucer: On Influence

Your age may know more facts about the universe, but you have lost your sense of wonder and awe before its glory and majesty. You’ve stripped it of its power, its mystery, its fullness. You’ve torn down the heavens and replaced them with cold empty space. The cosmos is no longer your home; it is merely your house.

Worst of all, you have cut yourselves off from any and all interaction with the stars and planets that glimmer and shine in that luminous field that stretches out its arms above the moon. In my day, we lived in a sympathetic universe. The movement of the planets was not a natural phenomenon to be studied, but a cosmic dance to be witnessed and enjoyed. Indeed, that dance called forth our full attention, for we believed that its ceaseless spinning shed down upon us and our world a celestial influence.

I don’t mean to suggest that the stars control us, but they do exert a real and lasting influence upon our characters and our fortunes. Those born under the moon show a tendency to lunacy and fickleness, while those born under Mercury become merchants, restlessly seeking for profit no matter the risk. And those, of course, who are born under Venus receive that planet’s amorous influence and become lovers.

Why is that so hard for your age to believe? Can it really be that we and our world are wholly unaffected by the vast, eternal motions of the heavens? Is there truly no exchange, no dialogue between the universe (the macrocosm) and we ourselves (the microcosm)? Does our world of change and decay and that more perfect, unchanging world above exist in hermetically sealed boxes with no trafficking between them?

Think of my pilgrims. Their decision to take the long road to Canterbury is made in the spring, when all the trees and flowers are bursting with new life. Just as the sap rises up in the roots, so the desire for pilgrimage rises up in people who would otherwise play it safe and stay at home to tend their fields and shops.

Still, please remember dear friends that none of us is forced or fated to obey the influence of the seasons or the planets. It is true that those born under Mars are predisposed to a martial temperament, but depending on how they receive that influence, they can grow to be Roland or Attila the Hun, a heroic soldier willing to lay down his life for his country or a violent warlord who crushes anyone who stands in the way of his lust for power. Similarly, those who receive into their souls the heavy, saturnine influence of Saturn can become contemplative monks or depressed, suicidal melancholies. We cannot control the influence itself, but we can control how we receive and manifest it.

I have read some of your books, and I see that many of you blame your sins and your reckless decisions on your social and economic environment in the same way that the lazy and wicked men of my age blame their sloth and treachery on the star under which they were born. Do not fall into this trap, into this destructive, self-deluding abdication of responsibility. Yes, influences must be taken into account, but they do not absolve us of all guilt when we choose a foolish or immoral cause of action.

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Consider the courtly, romantic tale that my Knight tells as he and his fellow pilgrims set out for Canterbury. In imitation of one of my literary and philosophical heroes, Boethius (I do believe he wrote you some letters!), I decided to deny to the heroes of my Knight’s Tale the fuller revelations of Christianity. Like Boethius, I set out to address the age-old issues of fate, free will, and fortune’s wheel against a pagan, pre-Christian backdrop.

After all, the Greeks and Romans of old believed just as firmly in planetary influence as my age, though they, unlike us, believed that the planets were gods. They struggled as mightily as we (and you) do to discern the difference between destiny and chance. All men, whether pre-Christian, Christian, or post-Christian, must wrestle with the external forces that would limit and define us and the internal will through which we assert our own uniqueness and worth.

In the romance that my Knight shares with his fellow pilgrims, two noble cousins, Palamon and Arcite, are put in prison by King Theseus of Athens. Though the two are blood brothers, their friendship is torn apart when they both fall in love with the same woman, Emily. Through a series of seemingly random events, both men eventually escape their cell, only to meet, by chance, in a grove. Each refuses to relinquish his love for Emily, preferring to fight for her in a duel. Serendipitously, their duel is stopped by Theseus, who charges them to gather two armies and return one year later for a final showdown to determine who will wed the fair Emily.

In preparation, each of the three builds an altar: Arcite the warrior to Mars; Palamon the lover to Venus; Emily the maiden to Diana. By doing so, their earthly struggle takes on celestial dimensions: it is not just humans who are locked in struggle, but gods and planets as well.

And that struggle is a dark one, for it is overseen by Saturn—both the planet and the god—whose influence brings war, plague, disaster, and accident upon the earth. Favored by Mars, Arcite wins the contest, but the grim influence of Saturn will not have so easy a victory. The saturnine planet calls upon the god of the underworld to send forth a fury to frighten Arcite’s horse. As a result, the hero is thrown and dies soon after.

Ah, my friends of the future, this world is but a thoroughfare of woe, and we no more than pilgrims passing through. Still, the possibility of consolation remains. After a period of mourning, Theseus intervenes and bids Palamon and Emily to put their grief behind them and wed.

The advice that Theseus gives, which I am unashamed to admit I lifted from my beloved Boethius, I now pass on to you who live in an age that thinks itself immune to influence. Though fate is strong, there is a First Mover who transcends the revolutions of Fortune’s Wheel. In our world of perpetual change, all is in flux; even the mightiest tree will someday fall and the broadest river turn to dust. Yet the First Cause rises above these temporal twists and turns.

Let there be an end to mourning; let feast give way to fast and sorrowful funeral to hopeful wedding. For God, not Fortune, is in control. It is his influence, and his alone, that propels all things to their appointed end

—Chaucer

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The featured image is of “Statutes of the Order of St. Michael” from the workshop of Étienne Colaud, courtesy of  Wikimedia Commons.

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