Langland’s Sages: Reading Aristotle and Solomon in their Medieval Context
L exploits the ‘paradox of non-Christian wisdom’ that Aristotle and Solomon create: the problem of benefiting spiritually from the wisdom of those who are morally imperfect and ignorant of the Gospel. Will repeatedly links Aristotle and Solomon together as authorities and as degenerates, continuously exposing and refusing to resolve the cognitive dissonance between their behavior and their contributions to Christian learning. Building on a rich tradition, L explores the question of whether or not these flawed individuals can be divorced from their teachings. Both figures brought with them developed mythologies and new philosophical resonances that represented them in various, often contradictory ways. In Aristotle’s case, texts like the Secretum secretorum and portrayals of ‘mounted Aristotle’ connect his philosophical ideas to his pseudo-biography. The tension between Solomon’s bad behavior and his wisdom is intensified by his centrality to the Christian tradition. Together, the two sages reinforce each other’s authority as well as their immoral lives and their ignorance of the Gospel. L’s transition from natural knowledge to revelation in the third vision (B.8–12) is not a linear progression, but rather a dynamic back-and-forth in which Aristotle and Solomon figure prominently as flawed non-Christians, embodiments of particular types of wisdom, and voices of authority. Will’s persistent interrogation of the implications of benefitting from their wisdom informs both his quest for understanding and the reasoning behind his own assumption of authority. In the B text, the enormous question of whether flawed wise men like Aristotle and Solomon should guide living Christians speaks to a more self-reflexive and meta-textual concern: should a poet who repeatedly fails to grasp spiritual truths be writing a didactic text? Ultimately, L refuses to resolve this problem for his readers. The enthusiasm with which he incorporates the teachings of his sages and Imaginatif’s optimism about their salvation, however, imply that L held out hope for them and for himself.
Yearbook of Langland Studies, 31 (2017), 87–118.