Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Natural Law in Dryden's Translations of Chaucer and Boccaccio

Academic journal article The Seventeenth Century

Natural Law in Dryden's Translations of Chaucer and Boccaccio

Article excerpt

In his Preface to Fables, Ancient and Modern (1700), reflecting upon the process of poetic rebirth, Dryden voices the maxim: "mankind is ever the same, and nothing lost out of nature, though everything is altered" (p. 76).1 This paradox is essentially a definition of natural law, a concept of human nature and morality, which since its inception has been conceived of as a dictate both eternal and universal, yet ever variable and contingent in the circumstances of its application. Heraclitus, arguably the theory's first proponent, affirms these two underpinning principles of natural law philosophy. For, while being celebrated by Plato for his thesis of the ceaseless flux of nature - "all things pass and nothing stays"2 - Heraclitus also testified to an underlying unity and stability of things at a deeper level, as "all human laws are nourished by one, the divine law ... [which] suffices for all".3 Amidst the changeable world, for Heraclitus, man's nature and ethical goal resides in conforming to this fundamental entai decree: "Wisdom", he says, "consists ... in lending an ear to nature and acting according to her".4

Yet, despite this promise of what Derrida would call the "signifié transcendental", the intellectual history of natural law has constituted a matrix for the disciplines of theology, jurisprudence and philosophy, promulgating in the process a wealth of different understandings of both the terms "law" and "nature", which lends little coherence to its discourse.5 As Michael Stolleis puts it, "there is no such thing as 'the' natural law; instead ... the success of natural law was based on [its] wide variety of religious, theoretical and political approaches".6 For this reason, natural law is probably best comprehended, not as an immutable doctrine, but as a language through which an array of conflicting doctrines were formulated. It might be said that the translations of Chaucer and Boccaccio in Dryden's Fables hinge on precisely this premise. Indeed, the aim of this paper was to elucidate how Dryden's distinctive linguistic adaptations of these two authors embody a poetic interrogation of the diverging visions of natural law that prevailed during the seventeenth century. For as we shall see, Dryden's tales thrive upon stretching the vocabulary of natural law and placing the ambiguities which arose from its purely academic discussion within stories substantially more humanly complex.7

Sex, slaves and sovereignty: "Sigismonda and Guiscardo" and "The Wife of Bath, her Tale"

The relationship between natural law and political thought has perhaps always been fraught with contradiction. In his seminal study, The Natural Law, Heinrich Rommen declared it "a remarkable fact" that since its very inception "a distinction came to light ... between two conceptions of the natural law". On one hand, "the idea of a revolutionary and individualistic natural law ... bound up with the conception of the state as a social unit which rests upon free contract"; on the other, "the idea of natural law grounded in metaphysics ... that does not exist before the 'laws', but lives and ought to live in them - a natural law which one would ... style conservative".8 Nowhere is this historical antagonism more perceptible than during the seventeenth century, where in the rampant cacophony of disputes regarding the legal government of the country and the status of its subjects, each party sought to claim nature's law for their own, and drew upon different classical philosophies in their efforts to do so.

As Quentin Skinner writes, those in favour of civic sovereignty, who supported the rights and privileges of both parliament and the people, justified their claims through a "neo-Roman vision of fundamental liberties", of which Cicero was taken to be the chief exponent.9 For Cicero had testified that natural law was an equalizing force, which held a moral authority above all: "True law is right reason in agreement with nature; it is of universal application . …

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