There is perhaps no spell stronger or more lasting than self-delusion. Who among us cannot see the hypocrisy in others; how few of us can see the hypocrisy in ourselves.

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 Self-Delusion

How easily we fool ourselves. We only see the things we want to see. Though most of our flaws are clearly evident to anyone who’s known us for more than a week, we ourselves remain stubbornly ignorant of them. Whether we be the strongest person in the room or the weakest, the smartest or the dullest, our willful blindness is the same.

There is perhaps no spell stronger or more lasting than self-delusion. Who among us cannot see the hypocrisy in others; how few of us can see the hypocrisy in ourselves.

#

Consider John the Carpenter. Though old and slow-witted, he married a young, impetuous, lascivious girl named Alison. Had he asked the advice of anyone, even a simpleton, he would have been warned away from a match so unnatural and so fraught with danger. But he did not. He thought he could handle Alison as easily as he handled a piece of wood on his lathe.

In fact, so deluded was he that he thought nothing about taking into his home a handsome, lady-killing student from Oxford named Nick. Anyone could have told him that he was asking for trouble, but, again, he never bothered to ask anyone else’s opinion but his own. Besides, it made him feel important to be lodging a student who possessed a keen knowledge of astrology.

Nick quickly conquered the heart (and body) of Alison, but he refused to be satisfied by his too-easy conquest. And so he began to devise a scheme that would allow him to sleep all night with Alison, right under the nose of her gullible husband. The ruse involved convincing John that God was about to send a flood upon the earth—but that if John heeded Nick’s advice, he could save himself and his dear wife from the deluge.

But how to get John to believe so crazy a tale? In order to draw him in, Nick locked himself in his room and pretended to be seized by a fit of madness. John, knowing of Nick’s obsession with astrology, feared that Nick’s attempts to seek out forbidden knowledge that God had hidden from men’s eyes had caused him to lose his wits.

“Oh yes,” John vowed to himself, “people should leave such secrets alone and stick to the simple creeds of the church. Let me never be like the absent-minded professor who became so engrossed in studying the stars that he fell headlong into an open pit.”

If only John had taken his own advice, all would have been well. But he was no better at taking good advice from himself than from others. Rather than leave well enough alone, John questioned Nick and, consumed by superstition and fatal curiosity, accepted his vision of the coming flood as a divine warning.

From that point on, John’s imagination ran away from him, and he walked like a timid, frightened deer right into Nick’s trap. Cuckolded, publicly humiliated, and branded as mad by his fellow townsmen, John reaped a terrible reward for his self-delusion.

Now listen up, you people of the twenty-first century who fancy yourselves smarter and more sophisticated than the men of my day. Any of us can end up like John if we don’t learn to see ourselves as others see us. If we are foolish enough to let trouble in our front door, then we deserve all that we get.

And don’t think that because you are more educated than John that you will never fall prey to his fate. It is often the cleverest, most educated people who are the most blind to themselves.

#

Consider my Pardoner, a savvy survivor if there ever was one. He made a fortune traveling from one small English town to the next deceiving gullible sinners into purchasing his phony indulgences and relics. I believe you still have such men among you, men who peddle salvation for profit and manipulate the fears, anxieties, and hypocrisies of weak-willed people.

Proud of his lucrative “ministry,” the Pardoner went so far as to lay bear his methods before his fellow pilgrims. Oh, what a scoundrel! Because he was a creature of pure avarice, he knew well how to play upon the avarice of his listeners. Indeed, though he possessed neither the will nor the desire to rid himself of his own greed, he was able to use his oratorical powers to make his audience flee from theirs.

He was, if I may be permitted the analogy, a perversion of Christ, for he gladly took upon himself the full weight of his listeners’ avarice. Not that he cared tuppence for their souls. He only wanted to free them from their coin long enough to secure the transfer to his own wallet.

Well, so proud was the Pardoner of his skills that, after revealing his methods and his motives, he plunged into telling one of his favorite sermons on avarice. Oh, it was a strapping tale, guaranteed to cause everyone who heard it to search his heart and seek to weed out the avarice lurking therein.

Indeed, caught up himself in the power of his own rhetoric, the Pardoner, having told his tale, launched immediately into his spiritual sales pitch. “Come,” he promised his traveling companions, “buy my holy pardons and my sacred relics, and God will forgive you of your avarice. Think how lucky you are to have me among your company. If you like, I’ll give you a fresh new pardon after every mile of the journey. Never fear, my presence shall keep you all safe from harm. Now, come, take out your money belts and unburden yourselves of every trace of greed.”

I do hope that the six hundred years that separate my age from yours will not blind you to the almost comic nature of the Pardoner’s blindness! The last stage, my friends, of self-delusion comes when we begin to believe our own lies, when we can no longer distinguish bad from good, black from white, vice from virtue.

Can it be that the Pardoner forgot so quickly that he had already confessed his false methods to his fellow pilgrims? Or has he grown so invested in his lies that he has, quite literally, become the lie?

Beware, my friends of the future, that the same does not happen to you. For it can and with a swiftness that will leave you lost and stranded in a dark, despairing world of deceit and delusion.

—Chaucer

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The featured image is a detail of the Pardoner from William Blake’s “The Canterbury Pilgrims” courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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