The Philosophy of Piers Plowman: The Ethics and Epistemology of Love in Late Medieval Thought
Strong examines PPl in light of contemporary intellectual thought. He argues that where the philosophers John Duns Scotus (c. 1266–1308) and William of Ockham (c. 1285–1347) revolutionize the view of human potential through their theories of epistemology, ethics, and freedom of the will, L vivifies these ideas by contextualizing them in an individual’s search for truth and love. The innovations of Scotus and Ockham not only serve as a vital hermeneutic for PPl, but also proves that a literary expression of philosophy works bilaterally, fostering a deepened awareness of the other discipline. The text’s overriding question, thus, lies not in how faith drives Will’s search forward, but which choices respond most efficaciously to God’s goodness.
The opening chapter situates Scotus and Ockham within the Scholastic milieu, specifically how their theories empower each person to realize his potential in recognizing and reciprocating divine love. The next chapter focuses upon the poem’s second vision where the King must grasp that certain natural rights supersede the pre-determined boundaries of social law or custom. These rights are liberties guaranteed to every person so that they can lead a productive, meaningful life. The King’s interpretation of their import mirrors the early modern theory of subjective rights promulgated by William of Ockham and highlights the individual ability to assess what is morally desirable. The third chapter delves into the matter of epistemology, specifically that of intuitive and abstractive cognition. Under this lens, Will’s interaction with the hypostatized figures of the mind, such as Wit, Study, and Imagynatyf, distinguishes speculation from concrete perception, marks the bounds of cognition, and reveals the point where one must rely upon faith. In the final chapters, Will’s inquiries shift from cognitive to affective ones. The instruction he receives makes clear that his choice to love supersedes all other concerns. Similarly, Scotus and Ockham maintain that although the intellect can discern God as the highest good to be loved, the will is not compelled to act upon this knowledge; it can either seek or not seek beatitude. Both the will and Will’s freedom to choose not only functions as an incorporeal fingerprint defining one’s identity, but also depicts the challenge confronting every individual – maintaining a loving relationship.
Strong contends that Scotus’s and Ockham’s innovation mirrors the ethical and epistemic issues developed in the later sections of the poem, known as the ‘vita,’ which display the ‘life of learning’ that Will has undergone. Both thinkers prioritize the will above the other faculties, asserting that it can initiate an act of love on its own. Their volitionist thinking explains the text’s culminating emphasis upon charity and exercising it. When Anima states that charity springs from ‘a fre liberal wille,’ it becomes clear that the font of love springs from within (B.XV.150). This meeting with Anima marks the turning point of the poem, for Will must recognize and utilize this internal power in order to fulfill his intended goal. Depicting the will as the most direct path to fulfillment proves consonant with Scotist and Ockhamist thought. By affording the will a distinct power, their advances redefine the psychology of love and, in the process, affirm the veracity of the counsel presented in the fifth and final visions as well as the kind of knowing that Will seeks throughout his journey.