Here’s the talk I’m giving [or have given, depending on when you’re reading this, at NYU, 6:30pm, May 1, 244 Greene Street in Manhattan]. I’m posting it so that people can read along with it as I read. You’ll note, perhaps, that my title is slightly different.
Hi everyone. Thanks for being here, and thanks to Jessica Chace and Katie Clark for the honor of the invitation, and to NYU’s Medieval Forum for making all this possible. What you’ll witness today is my second time talking in public about what might be my third book; the first time was last month, in Miami, for the International Piers Plowman Conference, and, as promised, I’m going to talk about some Langland here too, eventually.
(As you’ve just heard) My first book dealt with systematic medieval thinking about human/animal difference. My second, coming out, I hope, towards the year’s end, with the University of Minnesota Press, is How Not to Make a Human: Pets, Feral Children, Worms, Sky Burial, Oysters. The chapters follow a trajectory from a slight indifference to the human/animal boundary — that’s the pets chapter — to a maximal indifference, with oysters. A bit on that, to whet your appetite: at least from Plato to the Enlightenment Encyclopedists, oysters were the animal at the bottom end of the scale of animals. They weren’t plants, but they were only just not plants, because they possessed sense alone, but nothing to sense with. The fifteenth-century commentary on Plato’s Philebus by Marsilio Ficino characterized these minimal animals as having “a life of pleasure without wisdom . . . the lowest form of life, the one closest to death.” The life of pleasure, the one closest to death! Eventually, I try to re-imagine human existence through this form of bare life, to suggest that we too might recognize ourself as also being like oysters — and here I quote Chaucer’s translation of The Consolation of Philosophy — “such things as feed clinging to rocks.” And that’s my pitch for the book! I’m happy to chat further about it during the q & a or at the reception that follows this talk.
Book three’s title might turn out to be The Irrational Animal. It’ll track “animal irrationality” as a master trope for justifying subordination. As the word “animal” could simply mean any living thing — since the word derives from “anima,” soul — medieval writers often used some form of the phrase “irrational animal” to distinguish nonhuman from human animals. Most humans don’t benefit from that distinction, however. Dominant humans tend to judge subordinated groups — Jews, women, the mentally ill, peasants, and so on — as wanting in reason, and therefore as more animal than human, with all that implied for whether they have what ethicists term moral or legal considerability.
Challenging the hierarchies of that distinction between irrational and rational requires digging into what medieval people meant by Reason, and also paying attention to the ways that the supposed humanity of Reason could go awry. I’ve long been guided by Derrida’s question “whether what calls itself human has the right rigorously to attribute to man, which means therefore to attribute to himself, what he refuses the animal”: key attributions include language, free response—contrasted with a merely instinctual reaction—and, of course, reason itself. A doctrinaire deconstructionist reaction would point out that all abstract concepts fail when subjected to a sufficiently rigorous investigation. So, perhaps predictably, I’m going to follow how claims to Reason collapse when we try to make them live up to their pretensions. My two chief medieval case studies will be Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls and then the autobiographical self-justification from the C version of Piers Plowman.
Humans are called the rational animals because they, uniquely among mortal life, are recognized as having the rational soul. Mainstream medieval Christian thought held that all living things had souls: thus, in the thirteenth century, Roger Bacon scoffed, in audible frustration, at the “mob of uneducated people who still believe that only humans have souls,” who “mock clergymen who say that dogs and other beasts have souls” (Immo vulgus laicorum in multis regnis adhuc credit quod soli homines animas habent, unde derident clericos qui dicunt canes et cetera bruta habere animas”). Clergymen got their beliefs ultimately from Aristotle’s treatise on the soul, which observed that although plants, animals, and humans are all alive, they don’t seem to possess the same form of life. The solution to that problem is a tripartite soul, three different forms of life, all three of which are gathered in humans: plants have the vegetative soul, through which they can feed and grow; nonhuman animals have that soul as well as the sensitive soul, through which they can sense things and, for the most part, move; and the human animal has these first two as well as the rational soul, “added,” as Bacon observes, “from without and by an act of creation” [ab extrinseco et a creatione], by which he presumably means not through merely material processes. The rational soul was generally thought to be able to act without a body or sensory organs; in other words, it had, and needed, no material component. Proving its existence, and that humans had it, was therefore no simple matter.
I’ve long been interested in Augustine’s solution to this problem in his On the Free Choice of the Will. He needs to establish that humans possess reason, because without reason, we have no free choice, and without free choice, we have no moral culpability, and without moral culpability, there’s no point to the whole economy of salvation. What sense could the ideas of sin and merit have if humans couldn’t choose to do good or bad? To prove we have reason, and thus, ultimately, to save the meaningfulness of Christ’s sacrifice, Augustine surprisingly doesn’t point to what we might typically think of as rational actions. He doesn’t talk abut us writing laws, or engaging in acts of altruism, or philosophizing: rather, he talks about how we dominate animals. Augustine admits that animals do sometimes get the better of us, but in the long term, we overmaster them. He concludes, “something is not present in their souls (and so we tame them) that is present in ours, so that we are better than they are. Since it is apparent to anyone that this is neither insignificant nor trivial, what else shall I call it more rightly than ‘reason’?”
I’m struck by the vagueness of what counts reason here, and what that says about what the claim is for. Perhaps a decade later, in his Literal Commentary on Genesis, Augustine’s notably no more eager to nail down precisely what reason is: “man,” he writes, “was made to the image of God in that part of his nature wherein he surpasses the brute beasts. This is, of course, his reason or mind or intelligence, or whatever we wish to call it.” Medieval thinkers could, of course, be more specific about what reason was, or what it allowed us to do: it allowed us, for example, to form abstract concepts. But what about animals that seem to be able to do the same? When sheep run from wolves, are they frightened of only that particular wolf, or by lupinity as a whole? Dogs are neutral, even excited, about sticks; but beat a dog with a stick — that’s a medieval example, from Avicenna, not from me — and the dog grows generally frightened of sticks: does the dog now have an abstract sense of universal stickiness?
A key resource here is Anselm Oelze’s recent book on later medieval theories of animal rationality. Oelze demonstrates that medieval thinkers recognized a subtle range of quasi-rational capacities in nonhuman animals, but underlying all that recognition is an unwavering commitment to denying animals reason, so that reason can be preserved as a faculty proper only to humans and to spiritual beings, like angels. Derrida calls the list of qualities proper to humans “nonfinite” in the mainstream philosophical tradition: they’re nonfinite, not so much infinite, because there’s always just one more. For whenever animals seem to be acting human — by universalizing about sticks, for example — the definition of what counts as rational activity shifts slightly, and defensively, to keep humans on the inside, and to keep animals out. So, here’s my first conclusion, one whose implications I explore at length in my first book: the claim to human rationality is less about claiming a particular set of capacities for humans, than it is about claiming both human difference and human superiority, and laying claim to everything that follows from that. The claim to have reason, like the claim to “the absolutism of reason,” is primarily a hierarchical one, rather than a description of a particular kind of thought, necessarily weaponized against both nonhuman animals and most humans.
But what does reason look like? What does it want us to do? With all due respect to Thomas Paine, I’m tempted to call the Middle Ages the Age of Reason. Personification — of the soul, the body, the virtues, the vices, wine, anything imaginable — are figures common to medieval writing, personifications of Reason among them. I’ve started to collect these figures, and, while I haven’t yet read some of what might be your favorites — the Reason personification from The Pilgrimage of the Life of Man chief among them — I’ve read enough to get a sense of what they tend to do and to advise us to do. I’ve been surprised to discover that in this tradition Reason tends not to be a figure of free will, or skepticism, or meta-analysis, or independence from tradition, nor even logical induction. I’ve been surprised, as I’ll describe at length soon, at a certain animality to Reason in this tradition. As the inheritors or victims of our own “Age of Reason,” all our expectations of what Reason is are bound to be disappointed.
The Reason of Augustine’s Soliloquies is probably the closest we get to familiar ground among these personifications. This early dialog sees Augustine talking to Reason to try to find a way to know God. He offers fascinating material on the truth and falsity of art — an actor’s truth, Reason and Augustine observe, lies precisely in his able feigning — and an insistence that nonhuman animals — his examples here are fleas and bugs — have only animal life, but no life — that is, no rational life — worthy of being loved. Ultimately, what Augustine wants is as certain a knowledge of God as he has of abstract geometric truths, that is, a knowledge independent of the senses, and thus sure, steady, and unchanging, like God. Augustine turns to Reason because Reason’s capacity for immaterial abstraction can free Augustine from sensory limitations.
By contrast, the twelfth-century Anticlaudianus of Alan of Lille has its personified Reason know the the origins of material things, pure Form, independent of matter, and especially the constant motion of Form’s mingling with matter, which is always necessarily a degenerate imitation of Form’s supermaterial ideal. Alan based Anticlaudianus on Claudian’s fourth-century Against Rufinus, which characteristics a certain Flavius Rufinus as the worst possible man; Alan of Lille’s poem in turn imagines the best possible one: hence, Anti-claudianus. Alan’s presentation of Reason is therefore as good as it gets, but, even so, it suffers from limitations: its chariot falters as it tries to rise to knowledge of the divine, and only Theology — that’s with a capital T — can take things further. One of the work’s medieval French adaptations adds a scene where, as Reason drives the chariot headlong to flee the vices, her passengers, Prudence and Religion, cry out, “Reason, look out!…You’re going to roll the chariot!” (“Raison, prenez garde … Vus et le char verrez tumer,” 2945-2947). Reason knows things; it’s essential to being human; but it can go only so far, and it’s even reckless in its confidence: it’s to this particular branch of the personification tradition that my first sustained examples belong.
If you’re interested in the limitations of reason in medieval thinking, the place to look are spiritual guidebooks. I’m going to compare two, one of which gives us a standard picture of things, and the other, a surprising preservation of reason’s hierarchical and defensive functions, but now under another name. The first is the Middle English, anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, from the fourteenth century, and the second, Marguerite Porete’s Mirror of Simple Souls, from the late thirteenth. Neither work was unread in their era, even though Porete was burnt as a heretic in Paris in 1310. The Cloud would be translated from French into Latin several times in the fifteenth century, and, the Mirror, once safely stripped of the taint of its author’s name, into English, Italian, and Latin. Both works advise the spiritual practitioner to gradually empty themselves of all sensation and knowledge, and with this, all attempts to understand or comprehend God; because God is infinite, we cannot comprehend God, so the best, indeed the only way, to get close to him is through a process of self-abandonment and a gradual unloosing of the mind from all ways of knowing suitable for mere mortal, bounded things.
Apart from their own particular program of spiritual training, the two works differ chiefly in their use of allegorical personification: the Cloud, written in a single voice, doesn’t use it, and the Mirror, written as a set of sometimes contentious conversations, does. In the Cloud, Reason is chiefly a human capacity, and it functions as it typically does outside of such apophatic works; there’s nothing unusual, in other words, about how the Cloud uses reason. “Reason,” it explains, “is the faculty through which we separate bad from good, bad from worse, good from the better, the worse from the worst, and the better from the best” (Reson is a myght thorou the whiche we departe the ivel fro the good, the ivel fro the worse, the good fro the betir, the worse fro the worste, the betir from the best; Chapter 64). Reason is not without its limits: as it has been “blinded” by original sin, it now requires the illumination of Grace to properly do its work (Chapter 64). Having described Reason as a faculty of what we might call either general evaluation or moral judgment, the Cloud then describes the mind’s other capacities according to usual divisions of medieval faculty psychology: will, imagination, and sense-perception. Elsewhere, the Cloud explains that while Imagination and sense-perception are “secondary faculties,” because they “work bestially in all bodily things” (Ymaginacion and sensualité worchin beestly in alle bodely thinges, Chapter 63). Reason and Will are “principle faculties, because they work purely spiritually, without anything corporeal” (“principal mightes, for thei worchen in pure spirit withouten any maner of bodelines”). Reason divides us from animals, because animals don’t possess it; reason is incorporeal, because it functions without sense-perception, which, in the Middle English, is “sensualité,” a word that is, at this point, just starting to acquire its slightly disreputable connotation; Reason judges, and it also knows the “virtue and conditions” of material creation (“vertewe and the condicions of bodely creatures”), and what sustains their being or caused them to come to be, knowing them not as they present themselves to the senses, but according to their origins and ultimate purposes. For the Cloud, as in much other medieval thought, reason is thus a particularly human, and even ascetic, capacity that knows and judges things, which is no way impedes the techniques of prayer and meditation, the “work of contemplation,” through which it tries to bring the soul close to God.
On the other hand, Reason in the Mirror is an ass. That’s Porete’s metaphor, not mine, in its French original, and the Middle English translation. Despite its sometimes incomprehensibility, I’m using the Middle English for my talk, to emphasize that Porete’s ideas circulated: though Porete’s treatment of Reason may be obscure, as the Mirror was neither isolated, unread, nor unused, it can stand as representative of at least one strain in late medieval thought.
So: “Truly,” Porete has Love explain to Reason, “the unsophistication and burden of those who are governed by reason surpasses all description. Reason’s teachings are a donkey’s work” (“Soþeli, seiþ sche, þei þat ben guerned by reson, þe rudenesse ne þe combringes of hem no man may seie. At her techinges it schewiþ an asse deede,” 317). For Porete, Reason is, astonishingly enough, bestial. “Ah Sheep,” shouts Soul at Reason, “how bestial is your understanding! You take the chaff and leave the grain” (“A, schepe, schepe, seiþ þe fre soule, what 3oure vndirstandynges ben beestli. 3e taken þe chaf and leuen þe greyn,” 309). People who follow Reason’s guidelines, says Soul, are “donkeys who seek God in creation” (“Suche folkis, seiþ þis soule, þat I clepe asses, seken God in creatures and bi hilles and dales,” 306). Those who listen to Reason’s advice “are so bestial and so asinine” that Soul wants nothing to do with them (“To alle þo, seiþ sche, þat lieun by 3oure counseil, þat ben s bestial & so assed þat me bihoueþ for her rudenesse answere my langage,” 304).. And late in the treatise, Soul offers to clarify a division of the spiritual practice to make sense for “the bestial understanders” (“bestials vndirstanders,” 331). Amid all this, Reason has been at least implicitly lumped in with merchants, here understood as “thralls,” servants or slaves, because they “meddle in merchandise,” and to a churl who shows up at a gentleman’s court, without the lineage that would justify his presence (“Þis peple, seiþ þis soule, ben marchauntes þat in þe world ben clepid þrallis, for þralles ben þei, for it falliþ not for no gentelman to kunne medle of marchaundise ne to be oon of hem. But shal seie 3ou, seiþ þis soule, whereynne I me apeese of þis peple. Of þis, lady loue, þat þei ben put out of þe curt of 3oure secres, ri3t as a cherle is out of a gentelmannes court in iugement of Parise, for þere may noon be hadde but if he be of gentel lynage and nameli in þe kynges court,” 302).
Porete’s Reason simply doesn’t know what it’s doing. In her Mirror, its chief role is to exclaim in dismay as it’s assailed with one paradox after another, occasionally stopping to suggest that Love or its other interlocutors have gone too far. Reason is incredulous, committed to obedience to the virtues — surely as is appropriate for a faculty of moral judgment — and angrily befuddled whenever it has to abandon the principle of non-contradiction. Porete’s Reason, in sum, represents her reader prior to receiving the techniques of meditation and prayer she teaches; a perfectly good Christian, but merely rule bound, without much access to grace or God’s infinitude.
That Porete thinks Reason inadequate for her techniques is not unusual. But typically, the problem is understood to be the human limitations of reason. Dante’s Letter to Cangrande, for example, in talking of his Paradiso, speaks of the “intellect in its ascent passing beyond human reason,” humanam rationem…transierat” (XIII.80), and in the Paradiso itself,Dante speaks of Richard of Saint Victor, “as he whose meditation made him more than man” (“che a considerar fu più che viro,” X.132). Richard’s own twelfth-century contemplative manual, his Mystical Ark, speaks of a level of contemplation that “rises above reason,” and one that goes still further “by admitting no human reason,” humanam rationem, “at all” (I.ix). And The Book of Privy Counseling,also by the Cloud author, interprets the Biblical Rachel’s death, in giving birth to Benjamin, as demonstrating how “human reason completely dies” “as soon as the soul is touched with true contemplation.” In all these treatments, reason retains its human character, and because of that, it must be abandoned by the contemplative as they move beyond the limitations of being a merely created, human being.
I do recognize that there are differences of technique between, say, Porete and Richard and the Cloud author that are of enormous importance to both the scholars and practitioners of contemplation, but for my present purposes Porete’s difference from her fellow contemplatives is not so much in her contemplative schema as it is in her characterization of reason. For in teaching her readers to be better Christians, Porete is also teaching them to realize their full humanity, and does this — in the paradox characteristic of such spiritual guidebooks– by demanding that her readers recognize their rational humanity as actually bestial.
But, after a fashion, Porete still preserves the prejudices of Reason. Yes, Porete wants her readers to abandon Reason and enter into a superrational realm where the dull boundaries of created Being no longer apply. But as she does so, she also preserves the characteristic structural division between Reason and Irrationality, but, in this case, by demoting what she calls “Reason” to the side of irrationality. The contemplative is not moving beyond human reason, but moving beyond a reason now understood to be bestial. Submissive to the virtues, Reason is rule-bound, without freedom. Attentive to the created world, including its own self — for the human rational soul is a created thing – it is bound to this world so long as it refuses to allow itself to move past itself towards the infinite. By reading only for the literal sense, Reason “takes the husk and leaves the grain”: this medieval metaphor of bad exegesis could hardly be more widespread, and here means that Reason can understand no more than what is right before it.
That is, Porete’s Reason reads like an animal thinks. Or, for that matter, like a Jew, according to a common Christian antisemitic prejudice. I’ll offer but one typical example of this Christian collapse of Jewishness, animality, and literal interpretation, from the twelfth-century autobiography by a convert to Christianity who calls himself “Hermann, the Former Jew,” where he says of his former coreligionists that “the Jews, like certain brute beasts of burden, are contented, in these things, by the letter alone, like unto chaff, [while] Christians, as men who use reason, may be refreshed by spiritual understanding, like unto the most sweet kernel within the chaff” (“ut scilicit Iudeis tamquam brutis quibusdam iumentis sola in his littera velut palea contentis, Christiani ut homines ratione utentes spirituali intelligentia velut dulcissima palee medulla reficerentur”).
It’s not that Porete lets go of reason, then, so much as she preserves its standard function under another name, and thus allows us to understand the function of the category of reason without getting hung up on what we suppose reason does,or on our own self-regard as rational creatures. For in the Mirror of Simple Souls,and, I suspect, more generally, Reason might well describe a particular set of activities — calculation, judgment, analysis, and so on — but above all, it describes a particular boundary. That boundary places the so-called rational actor on the side of freedom: freedom from the body, freedom from stolid animality, and freedom from those humans who might as well be animals, in this case, merchants and peasants — the Third Estate that is — and Jews. Porete’s animalized Reason has thus smuggled in the ideological function of Reason through its liberatory practice of mysticism, and, as much as she claims to be devaluing or moving past what she calls “Reason,” she preserves the distinctions that typically travel under the titles of Reason and Irrationality. The implications are equally typical: those on the wrong side of the boundary might be able to read, but they’re unable to think; they can read, but only mechanically, without true understanding; what they mistake as thinking is actually only obedience; and, at best, they are made to serve. Ultimately, it little matters that Porete scorns what she calls Reason as “bestial understanding,” as she’s preserved Reason’s hierarchies, prejudices, and self regard when she presents herself, and her practice, as the only proper activity for truly liberated, free-thinking people. Or, to put this another way, for the only people.
That’s how personifications of Reason work in spiritual handbooks: they claim to abandon or move beyond Reason, but they preserve the prejudices of reason so long as they preserve the binaries of freedom versus instinct, transcendence versus immanence, and especially liberation versus being rule-bound. These are personifications that seek to help to achieve the Self reach beyond itself, to achieve what its immortal soul just barely makes possible.
But another tradition of Personification, that of Rational Consolation, is about following the rules: it doesn’t demand freedom. Rather, it constrains the addressee, by demanding that they “be reasonable,” which is to say, by demanding they accommodate themselves to the prevailing circumstances, where any analysis it offers always draws its interlocutor to a foreordained conclusion of just getting along with things as they are. Isidore of Seville’s Synonyms is the key early text in this tradition. Middle English scholars perhaps know this work from Hoccleve’s fifteenth-century paraphrase of it in the first of his Series, when he turns to it to make sense of his own period of mental illness: Hoccleve doesn’t focus on the section where Isidore has Reason spell out an appropriate way of life for virtuous men according to their professions, but instead on the section where Reason helps the unconsoled penitent understand that his sorrow is a divine gift of punishment. He has to learn to be happy not only with his madness, but also with the social ostracism he suffers, because that, Reason tells him, has been sent to him from God. In essence, the consolation Hoccleve temporarily finds in Reason is one of learning to endure his suffering by convincing himself that God has sent it, that, in other words, of convincing himself that someone else must be doing the reasoning on his behalf.
The Reason of Jean de Meun’s Roman de la Rose continuation, perhaps the chief of these Consolation Personifications, is the hingepoint to my final example, and a perfect example of the unthinking, sclerotic Reason of the Consolation tradition. Jean has has Dreamer encounter a successive set of figures, some of them allegorical personifications, to advise him about love and seduction: an old woman, a scheming man, “False Seeming,” and first of all, Reason herself, who urges the Dreamer to abandon his erotic goals and, by extension, all his attachments to the temporary gifts of fortune. Desire comes and goes, and is, by its nature, mobile. What Reason advises in response is immobility. Reason insists that the life of perfect rational virtue can be found in Socrates, “whose expression,” Jean writes, “always stayed the same and was found unmoved even by those who killed him with hemlock.” The ultimate source for Jean here is Solinus’s third-century Collectaneum rerum memorabilium, his Collection of Memorable Things. But the Roman de la Rose has Reason give the common story a subtly but significant twist: Solinus is one of many writers who has Socrates remain imperturbable in the face of his impending death. Reason’s Socrates, on the other hand, has an unchanging face, “whatever happened to him.” Not in the face of danger, but in the face of everything, Socrates never reacts. Although Socrates had become, in Christian storytelling, martyred for his contempt for idols, he here has taken on a face of absolute fixity, whose living expression is, one imagines, indistinguishable from a unmoving, carved one. Here is miniature is Reason’s advice to the Dreamer: Reason does not suggest analysis, nor does it move the spirit at least partially upwards towards God, as it does in Alan of Lille, nor does it use the knowledge of unchanging, abstract things as a helpful analog for knowledge of the divine, as in Augustine. Instead, Reason offers this consolation to ward off not only love, but all sensation: a kind of numbness of simply not caring about what happens, or, to put this another way, of making peace with things as they are.
It’s with that in mind that I turn to my last example, the Reason of William Langland’s Piers Plowman, which I think offers a particularly sharp example of the political cruelties of the demand to “just be reasonable.” As many of you already know, Langland revised Piers Plowman over the course of decades, unsystematically and more than a little obsessively, in response both to political events, and to his attempts to imagine both a perfect politics and the right route to salvation. There are three major versions of Piers: the A, B, and C texts, and although personifications of Reason are important to every version of Piers, it’s the C text that’s going to concern me tonight.
The classics of criticism are very interested in situating Reason within Langland’s own version of faculty psychology. Reason can do things that Kind Wit and Conscience can’t. I’m happy that critical tradition exists, and have no interest in correcting it; but neither do I have any interest in expanding it. Instead I’m going to try to open a new path. I wonder at bit at Derek Pearsall’s note in his C-Text edition, where he explains “Reason is the personification of the waking dreamer’s own rational self-analysis“: that’s slightly circular reasoning, yes? Reason is Rational is Analytical is Admirable, because of course self-analysis is admirable: only by leaning harder on reason itself as a category can we break that circle’s track.
The key point in Langland is that Reason is, at least for a while, top dog in the hierarchy of psychological qualities: a host of qualities crowd into the king’s court in Piers B and C Passus 4, but Reason’s ultimately left in charge. In the C Text, Passus 5, the Dreamer meets both Conscience and Reason, but Conscience drops out: it’s only Reason that rebukes him. Whatever the specific functions of Reason might be, we can simply mark its preeminence in these passus, while also recalling how it must function as a kind of placeholder or even a kind of encampment for human difference from nonhuman life, or at least as a principle of superiority.
In a passage unique to the C text, after having finished a dream in which Reason finally establishes himself as the chief of the King’s advisers, the Dreamer awakes, in Cornhill, a somewhat disreputable London locale, where he meets Conscience and Reason again. There Reason accosts him, because he sees the Dreamer as a good-for-nothing vagabond. Reason conducts a mean-spirited job placement interview: can you serve in a church? can you cook? load a cart? bail hay? can you stay out in a field all night, guarding grain against thieves? Can you “shep or kyne kepe” (C.17)? Do you have “eny othere kynes craft that to the comune nedeth” (C.20)?
I’m struck by how “kyne,” livestock, is echoed in “kynes,” kind of. Might we hear “kynes craft,” a kind of occupation or skill, as the shadow of a phrase we could also hear as animal labor? What is it actually that Reason is demanding the Dreamer do? What does “being Reasonable” actually look like? And does it look anything at all like thinking?
Many of you no doubt know Anne Middleton’s analysis of C-5 in the context of the September 1388 Cambridge Parliament’s legislation on beggars and vagabonds. That Reason wants the Dreamer, primarily, to take up some kind of agricultural labor is, no doubt, due to the 1388 statute’s effort to regulate precisely that: it wasn’t concerned with guildspeople. But, as Middleton also observed, the 1388 Statute, in its somewhat desperate attempt to force farmworkers back to the conditions of labor they had before the Black Death arrive, also tended to make all other occupations seem to be built on the base of agrarianism, so that, I would add, it tends to make all labor servile: people needed to know their place, to be put in it, and to remain in it, which is precisely what the Dreamer’s apologia ends up agitating for. Reason is about becoming useful, according to whatever seems most reasonable.
Which brings me, inevitably, to Max Horkheimer, especially his Eclipse of Reason, lectures he delivered at Columbia University in 1944, as he anticipated both the Nazi defeat and the dangers industrial rationality would continue to pose to free thought and free action in postwar democracies. Without getting into the dialectical history of Reason Horkheimer offers — the death of objective reason, the rise of subjective reason, and the negation of reason itself by the latter — I’m interested in his critique of how “in the view of formalized reason, an activity is reasonable only if it serves another purpose, e.g. health or relaxation, which helps to replenish his working power.” Reasonable action, reasonable thought, is made to have purpose; that purpose is neither thought nor critique, but rather just the preservation and renewal of the subject for socially useful practice. “Pragmatism” is a word Horkheimer can scarcely say without spitting.
Although I started with reason as the chief of human characteristics, the one that separates us from nonhuman animals, I gave you one form of animalized reason, from Marguerite Porte, and end with another, from Piers Plowman. For in Piers C-5, Reason is not a principle of thinking, but of social quiescence. To behave “reasonably” is to be made productive for the existing order. And in his encounter with Reason, that fundamental quality of being human, the Dreamer loses the flexibility–what we might call the capacity for vagabond thought–that we think of as essential to human freedom. And if the prevailing social order is understood as fundamentally agricultural, then living reasonably means being made to live productively, which means being made to feed the system in a quite particular way. And that particularity is where I hear, without much straining, the echo of “kyne” in “kynes craft,” of cattle in work. For what Reason demands of the Dreamer, and thus in a larger sense of everyone it addresses, is a brute rationality, of making oneself useful. Like a cow is made to be useful. This is a Reason that, as always, animalizes most people; it’s just that in this case, to the degree that we let ourselves be hailed by its demand for rational activity, that is, by its demand for productive labor, by its demand that we be reasonable on its terms, we are agreeing to precisely that bovine animalization.