By Ed Raymond
Three Men Who Turned Me Into a Social Liberal and a Moral Capitalist
My political beliefs were not forged by Greek philosophers, Nobel economists, politicians, and historians. They were born and matured by words of steel by three writers of fiction: Howard Pyle, Geoffrey Chaucer, and William Shakespeare. In District #54 in Morrison County we averaged about three kids per grade, give or take (I graduated from Eighth Grade with Jim and Adeline). Our library shelves were loaded with about 300 books for all the grades.
In Fourth Grade I read Howard Pyle’s Men of Iron, a novel about sixteen-year-old Myles Falworth, the son of a blind nobleman with powerful enemies in the local castle. He was surprised to be “drafted” by a local earl to serve as a squire to knights at his castle. Cocky and a bit stubborn, he gradually learns to serve knighthood. During his experiences he learns restraint and integrity, becomes a virtuous knight and battles to restore his father’s honor.
Because of that book I wanted to read everything in the tiny library. In my last year I told the teacher I would not pester her if she would let me read library books along with the regular prescribed textbooks. I told her I would help her teach reading to three first graders. She immediately said: “Deal!”
Chaucer: Biographer of Common Men, Cunning Churchmen, and Lusty Women
My first exposure to Geoffrey Chaucer was in English class at Little Falls High School where I later graduated with 241 others. We read “The Miller’s Tale” and “The Knight’s Tale” of the 24 tales told by members of a pilgrimage traveling to Canterbury to worship at the shrine of Thomas Becket. Fascinating stories, but I guess at 18 we were too young and innocent to handle the irreligious “The Pardoner’s Tale” and the sex and adultery of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale.”
Chaucer began The Canterbury Tales in 1387 and hadn’t finished it when he died in 1400. His “tales” were told by average low and middle-class people experiencing life in medieval England as farmers, reeves, ship captains, laborers, and craftsmen in various trades. He presents a very colorful picture of medieval social and working life of all classes, from nobles and aristocrats, drunkards and thieves, and monks and nuns. There actually is nothing like it in all of literature regardless of country.
Let’s examine “The Pardoner’s Tale” here because the Catholic religion is going through the same travails 600 years later as it was in the 14th century. It’s all about sex, celibacy, silly and traumatic rules and canons, swindling cons by Vatican fund raisers, and monks on the prowl.
The pardoner works for himself and the Vatican with pockets filled with expensive indulgences and fake relics. Want to spend less time in purgatory and more time in heaven? Buy indulgences guaranteed to save you sixor twelve weeks, depending upon your mortal or venial sins. I also have the bones of saints and the foreskin of Jesus for a good price, too. Both will help you get to heaven—or at least purgatory. Meanwhile, the pardoner preaches against avarice, gluttony, gambling, and blasphemy while asserting he can get you divine forgiveness for a price. After all, “greed is the root of all evil.”
And Here Comes the Woman of the Millennium, the Wife of Bath
While working for a broad English, Creative Writing and Journalism major at Moorhead State Teachers College, I read the entire work of Chaucer, some of it in Middle English. This is where I learned that language can change dramatically over the years. The English of 600 years ago is a foreign language.
We presently have a majority on the Supreme Court called “originalists” who believe we should always follow the original language white slavers who wrote “all men are created equal” in the Constitution. In 240 years that language has turned into a tower of babble because of radio waves, combustion engines, jet flight, rocket flight, the International Space Station, electricity, the Internet, and travel to Mars. Age and invention has transformed the meaning of words. What does “equal” mean today? Two hundred years ago it also meant “three-fifths.”
But back to my favorite character in Chaucer’s long poem, the wife of Bath. Considering the station of women in the country, Chaucer turned a little wife of no standing into a hero of all English women. Certainly she would have been the feminist Woman of the Century!
The Wife of Bath begins her tale of submission and dominance with a long dissertation about marriage and relationships. First, let’s understand she enjoys sex all the time but knows when to use it to her advantage—and when to refuse it. Rather remarkable conversation for the 14th century. But she has had lots of experience. She has bewildered and enslaved five husbands in her lifetime—so far. Her first three husbands were old men who had money and she used her various talents to have a good life with them. But her last two were younger than she was so they were more of a problem. She enjoyed the better sex but did not like them to attempt to dominate her. Her last husband was a twenty-year old dandy without much sense. He often read her materials which stated men should dominate women. One day she got so angry with him she tore pages of offending material to shreds. He struck her and made her deaf in one ear. In the end, he felt so guilty about striking her he was submissive for the rest of her life.
Shakespeare Never Comes Up With a Final Solution
Shakespeare is my main man, a psychiatric genius of relationships between man and woman, daughter and father, son and mother, and lover and hater. Some blossom addict claimed Shakespeare had used 20,000 flowers to add symbolic meaning to his musings. I doubt it’s true, but when he writes about Ophelia floating down a river before she drowns, he keeps referring to different flowers…
He wrote 37 plays: twelve comedies, ten tragedies, ten historicals, and five romances. I have read and studied most of them. Most have survived. Most have been on stage, radio, opera, screen, Broadway, and theaters around the world. Many have been stolen by lesser developers to make a buck and entertain: Romeo and Juliet morphed to West Side Story, The Taming of the Shrew morphed to Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and this list could go on. His historical plays, seven about four Henrys and two about the Richards, cover a most interesting part of English history with a number of Trumps, LBJs, Lincolns, and Roosevelts dominating the scenes.
But it’s in his tragedies that he covers religion, race, the constant violations of the Elizabethan Chain of Being, the problems of governing the common man by queen, lord, and noble, the assassination of leaders such as Julius Caesar and King Duncan in Macbeth, the death of Cleopatra after her seduction of Mark Antony, the relationships of King Lear and his daughters, the problems of Othello with Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca. Miranda’s exclamation “O! Brave new world!” in The Tempest ends up being the title of Huxley’s “Brave New World” 400 years later – and it goes on and on…
Shakespeare reaches the peak of his analytical literary powers in Hamlet’s soliloquy when he questions what happens to us after “we have shuffled off this mortal coil.” Is it nothing or is it heaven, purgatory, or hell? Are we really dead? After all, what do we know? No one has ever returned from those three places to tell us about atmospheric conditions there.
An excerpt: “Who would fardels bear, to grunt and sweat under a weary life,
But that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country,
From whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will, and makes us rather
bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of?
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all, and thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought, and enterprises of great moment
With this regard their currents turn awry and lose the name of action.”
We have no physical evidence there is an afterlife, but many have faith there is more than nothing after death. That’s where religion makes us “grunt and sweat.” In the long run we are either conservative or liberal when it comes to politics. Conservatives want to retain the status quo as much as possible. After one reads Chaucer and Shakespeare about the social and living conditions of the common man and the kings and queens, would not one want to promote change? If you accept what they are describing as truth, wouldn’t you want to make liberal changes?
A Critical Fact: Planet Earth and Everything on It Is Evolving
It’s hard to identify eternal truths even if the major religions give it a good try. Religions are currently emptying churches, synagogues, mosques, and Sunday rentals because they have refused to accept science and reality. Shakespeare calls them “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”
A current ridiculous example of religious dogma is conservative Roman Catholic bishops insisting that priests must say “I” instead of “We” in performing baptisms. The inviolable rule is baptisms are invalid with “we” and must be repeated if the subject wants to go to heaven! What’s the difference between “I baptize” and “We baptize?” No wonder the younger generation flees the pews. No wonder American and European Catholic churches have become fast food joints at an alarming rate. No wonder 3,544 Roman Catholic parishes in the U.S. lack a parish priest!
Another example is the sudden discovery that homosexuality is not “intrinsically disordered” and that gay humans are riding gay horses every day and visit gay penguins raising little ones in zoos because they are so loving—and cute. Gays have been around since Lucy fell out of that African tree—and the Gallup Poll recently discovered there are more of them. LBGTQ+ members are dramatically increasing because more are “outing.” According to the poll, 7.1% of the population are now members, up from 3.5% just from 2012. That means possibly one or two of Christ’s apostles were gay, possibly a dozen of the North Dakota Legislature is gay, one justice on the Supreme Court. Oh! Good God! More than 25 million in the USA? Stop!
Chaucer and Shakespeare are world-famous Brits. Jeremy Bentham, who certainly had read both, is not. In the 18th Century he was the equivalent of our Bernie Sanders today. A gifted politician and teacher, he advocated individual freedom, social welfare, separation of church and state, free speech, equal rights for women and divorce, LBGTQ+ rights, abolition of slavery and capital and physical punishments, support of animal rights, and said there was no such thing as “divine right of kings.”
Further, he ridiculed the idea of natural law and rights pushed by Roman Catholic bishops and the Vatican, calling both “nonsense on stilts.” He also played a dynamic role in reforming prisons, schools, poor laws, English courts, and parliament itself. He designed the circular prison, the panopticon shape used all over the world today. He left his body to authorities so it could be dissected for study by students at University College London. His body is still on public display at the entrance. Bentham needs to be studied. He’s another reason I’m a liberal instead of a conservative. To hell with the status quo.
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