By Erin Suydam
Troilus’s Deathwish: Passive Free Will
In Troilus and Criseyde, Geoffrey Chaucer explores a topic that is fundamental to medieval philosophy: fate versus free will. The tragic lovers Troilus and Criseyde curse Fortune and the gods throughout the poem for dooming them, yet they—and the reader—are led to wonder what agency they have in shaping the events that unfold. Troilus, though he claims not to believe in free will at all, proves that he has in fact been exercising a passive free will in exhibiting and ultimately succumbing to a long-harbored deathwish.
In Book IV of Troilus and Criseyde, Troilus engages in an internal discourse over the philosophy of fate and free will, in which he ultimately decides that fate rules all. The Trojan Parliament has decided that Criseyde, Troilus’s secret lover, must be sent to her father in Greece in return for the restoration of the knight Antenor to the Trojans. Troilus, lamenting his situation in a temple, manifests the deathwish he has harbored since his love-woes began, praying that he may die so as to end his despair (IV.949-52). He launches into a mental exploration of divine foreknowledge, analyzing philosophical arguments and leaning toward the predestination camp. He decides that he is destined to lose Criseyde “syn God seeth every thyng, out of doutaunce,/ And hem disponyth, thorugh his ordinaunce,/ In hire merites sothly for to be,/ As they shul comen by predestyne” (IV.963-6). Troilus reasons that, assuming God knows all beforehand, there can be no such thing as free choice. If any thing is not foreknown, then divine foreknowledge is uncertain, and since God cannot be deceived, God is not God (IV. 974-94). Logic dictates that God cannot be God and not God (reductio ad absurdum), so therefore all things must be foreknown. Troilus proceeds to ponder causality and necessity, asking whether divine foreknowledge causes occurrences to be necessary, or the necessity of occurrences causes them to be foreknown. Troilus decides on the former, arguing that God’s omniscience causes necessity: “But now is this abusion, to seyn/ That fallyng of the thynges temporel/ Is cause of Goddes prescience eternel./ Now trewely, that is a fals sentence,/ That thyng to come sholde cause his prescience” (IV.1060-4). Troilus takes the sum of his philosophy to be that there is no free will and he is destined to suffer all the misfortune and woe in love that he is suffering. What Troilus fails to consciously realize, however, is that there is passive as well as active free will. Troilus utilizes the former, in the form of a deathwish, most effectively.
Passive free will is allowing events to unfold—choosing to accept instead of avoid—as opposed to actively working to shape the future. Troilus happens upon this line of reasoning at the end of his philosophical discourse, after he has decided not to believe in free will. He thinks, “And over al this, yet sey I more herto:/ That right as whan I wot ther is a thyng,/ Iwys that thyng moot nedfully be so;/ Ek right so, whan I woot a thyng comyng,/ So mot it come; and thus the bifallyng/ Of thynges that ben wist bifore the tyde,/ They mowe nat ben eschued on no syde” (IV. 1072-8). In other words, Troilus decides that when he knows a thing it must be so, and when he knows a thing is coming, it must come. Foreknown things cannot be avoided. Troilus’s exertion of passive free will is his application of this to death. Death, for Troilus, is a way out of woe. If he knows it is coming, it will come. So Troilus manifests a deathwish whenever events do not go the way he wants. He prays for death, convinces himself of its approach, at one point arrives at the brink of suicide, and eventually does indeed die. By pursuing his deathwish, Troilus surrenders to inevitability and is actually able to manipulate events for his own benefit.
Troilus’s love affair with Criseyde is jinxed from the start, and every time another mishap befalls them, Troilus decides he wants to die. In Book III, for instance, when Criseyde chides him for believing rumors that she has been false (though he does not; Pandarus only told Criseyde so), Troilus allows himself to lapse into despair. Right before Troilus actually passes out cold, “…he felt aboute his herte crepe,/ For even tere which that Criseyde asterte,/ The crampe of deth to streyne him by the herte./ And in his mynde he gan the tyme acorse/ That he com there, and that, that he was born…” (III.1069-73). Troilus had entered into his meeting with Criseyde by praying to the gods to help him (III.712-35). When this seems not to work, Troilus turns to death for an escape. The “death cramp” to which he succumbs is so strong that he falls into a swoon and even appears as one dead (III.1086-1101). The effect of this event is Cris-eyde’s taking pity on him and, ultimately, the consummation of their relationship (III.1177-1253). Troilus, then, attains his desire: “…For al this world, in swych present gladnesse/ Was Troilus, and hath his lady swete” (III.1244-5). His deathwish enables him to manipulate his situation without his actively trying to assert free will; Troilus does nothing to get Criseyde to sleep with him, but instead allows a thing to happen which leads her to yield to his desire.
Troilus exhibits the same behavior in Book IV immediately after learning that Criseyde is to be traded to the Greeks in return for Antenor. Troilus feels helpless, and his fortunes have definitely taken a turn for the worse. Locking himself in his room, he embarks on a half-hearted attempt at suicide: “Right so gan he aboute the chambre sterte,/ Smytyng his brest ay with his fistes smerte; /His hed to the wal, his body to the grounde/ Ful ofte he swapte, hymselven to confounde” (IV.242-5). He begs for death, and again curses the day he was born as well as Fortune and the gods (IV.250-301). When his rage abates and he finds himself still alive, Troilus again exerts his passive free will. He voices his deathwish: “O wery goost, that errest to and fro,/ Why nyltow fleen out of the wofulleste/ Body that evere myghte on grounde go?/ O soule, lurkynge in this wo, unneste,/ Fle forthe out of myne herte, and lat it breste…” (IV. 302-6). As Troilus yields himself to his deathwish, he again begins to swoon, and invites the pity of his friend Pandarus (IV.337-85). The effect of this whole situation is, ultimately, another oppor-tunity for Troilus to meet with Criseyde. To free him from despair, Pandarus tries giving friendly advice, but when it fails he decides to afford Troilus a way to meet with Criseyde to discuss their options (IV.393-658). Though this does not effectively solve Troilus and Cris-eyde’s problem, Troilus is momentarily relieved. He is, at least, revived by Pandarus’s advice and the prospect of enjoying time with Criseyde for which he otherwise may not have had pretense: “This Troilus gan with tho wordes quyken,/ And seyde, ‘Frend, graunt mercy, ich assente…” (IV.631-2). For the moment at least, Troilus is calmed, having been able to manipul-ate his situation for his benefit without actually taking any action.
The closest Troilus comes to really acting is when he unsheathes his sword to kill himself after concluding that Criseyde has died. This near-execution of his deathwish is another asser-tion of passive free will because, though the deed is not completed, Troilus again gets what he desires. When Troilus meets Criseyde (as Pandarus has arranged) near the end of Book IV, Criseyde, overcome with sorrow, passes into a death-like swoon. Consciously defying the fate that cursed his love, Troilus resolutely faces death:
And after this, with sterne and cruel herte,
His swerd anon out of his shethe he twighte
Hymself to slen, how sore that hym smerte,
So that his soule hire soule folwen myghte
Ther as the doom of Mynos wolde it dighte,
Syn Love and cruel Fortune it ne wolde
That in this world he lenger lyven sholde. (IV. 1184-90)
By accepting death, even speeding it along, Troilus is able to reduce fate’s power over him. He taunts the higher powers, crying, “O cruel Jove, and thow, Fortune adverse,/…Fy on youre myght and werkes so dyverse!/ Thus cowardly ye shul me nevere wynne;/ Ther shal no deth me fro my lady twynne” (IV.1192-7). Troilus’s passive free will appears in his (rather confusedly) accepting the inevitability of death, and the effect of this acceptance is, again, a boon for him. For when Criseyde awakens and sees her lover on the brink of suicide, she immediately tries to comfort him. Not only do they embark on another tryst, but they also decide upon a plan for Criseyde to escape her captivity and return to Troy in ten days (IV.1219-48). Though Troilus is never entirely satisfied with this plan, it at least lessens his grief: “But fynaly, he gan his herte wreste/ To trusten hire, and took it for the best// For which the grete furie of his penaunce/ Was queynt with hope, and therwith hem bitwene/ Bigan for joie th’amorouse daunce…” (IV.1427-31). Again, Troilus’s passive free will allows him a reprieve and a fulfillment of his desires.
In Book V, Troilus truly succumbs to the inevitability of death, thereby causing it to occur and attaining what he desires above all: freedom from woe. Confined to the Greek camp, Criseyde lets her loyalty to Troilus fall by the wayside and accepts the advances of the Greek knight Diomede. Troilus, suspicious Criseyde will forsake him and fail to return to Troy, waxes desperate, allowing death to take an ever firmer grasp on him throughout Book V. Suffering from dreadful dreams after Criseyde leaves and thereby divining she will never return, Troilus calls Pandarus to him to help prepare for his burial (V.246-322). Claiming an urgent need to prepare for death, he says to Pandarus, “For wele I fele, by my maladie/ And by my dremes now and yore ago,/ Al certeynly that I mot nedes dye” (V.316-8). As Troilus himself asserted in Book IV, when a thing is known, so must it come. Though he is in pain, he is assured of an escape in death. So from that point on he lets death take a deeper hold on him, allowing himself to physically waste away as Criseyde continually fails to materialize: “He so defet was, that no manere man/ Unneth hym myghte knowen ther he wente;/ So was he lene, and ther to pale and wan,/ And feble, that he walketh by potente;/ And with his ire he thus hymselve shente” (V.1219-23). Accepting thus his ruin, Troilus comes ever closer to death and his final escape. After another prophetic dream and a certain discovery of Criseyde’s infidelity, Troilus throws himself into warfare, seeking revenge and a swift end to his troubles (V.1751-64). He ultimately succeeds, finding in death both an end to his troubles and the peace he has so long desired:
And whan that he was slayn in this manere,
His lighte goost ful blisfully is went
Up to the holughnesse of the eighthe spere,
In convers letyng everich element;
And ther he saugh with ful avysement
The erratik sterres, herkenyng armonye
With sownes ful of hevenyssh melodie.
And down from thennes faste he gan avyse
This litel spot of erthe that with the se
Embraced is, and fully gan despise
This wrecched world, and held al vanite
To respect of the pleyn felicite
That is in hevene above; and at the laste,
Ther he was slayn his lokyng down he caste,
And in hymself he lough right at the wo
Of hem that wepten for his deth so faste,
And dampned al oure werk that foloweth so
The blynde lust, the which that may nat laste,
And sholden al oure herte on heven caste;
And forth he wente, shortly for to telle,
Ther as Mercurye sorted hym to dwelle. (V.1807-27)
And thus, without actually acting in any way but merely accepting the inevitability of his death, does Troilus attain the happiness for which he has so long yearned, and an escape from the despair love had brought him. By accepting and knowing the imminence of death, Troilus achieves it, thus exercising a free will he never thought he had.
Though Troilus claimed humans possess no power over their lives, the results of his behavior prove there is such a thing as passive free will, with which Troilus was able to exercise agency in his destiny. Troilus’s own argument regarding foreknowledge and necessity leads him to cultivate a deathwish, which he uses to convince himself that death is coming. Since he knows death will come, it eventually does. Each time Troilus’s deathwish guides his behavior, he is able to manipulate his situation for his own benefit. By determining not to fight fate but instead facilitate it, Troilus proves that free will does indeed exist, since one can attain one’s true desires even while actively denying individual choice altogether.
Chaucer, Geoffrey. Troilus and Criseyde. The Riverside Chaucer. Ed. Larry D. Benson. 3rd ed.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987. 473-585.
© Erin Suydam