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What is Truth? A Literary Reflection

May 13, 2019

Flee from the crowd and dwell with truth
Let what you have suffice, though it be small,
For hoarding leads to hate and ambitious climbing to uncertainty,
The crowd has envy, and wealth blinds completely
Savour no more than is appropriate for you,
Rule yourself well, you who counsel others
And truth will deliver you, without a doubt.
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What to you is sent, receive with obedience;
Wrestling for this world is only asking for a fall.
Here is no home; here is nothing but wilderness.
Forth, pilgrim, forth! Forth, beast, out of your stall!
Know your country, look up, thank God of all;
Hold the high way and let your spirit lead you,
And truth will deliver you, without a doubt.
(Chaucer’s “Truth” ll. 1-7, 15-21)

As a medievalist in the Department of English, I strive to help students recognize the truth of two claims: (1) words matter, and (2) old books have much to teach us.

When I am faced with a question like “What is truth?” I turn to a poem written in the 14th century by Geoffrey Chaucer. Though the poem is called “Truth,” it does not seem interested in making philosophical claims or “stating truths”; rather, it offers ethical counsel to a nobleman, probably Sir Philip de la Vache (c. 1348-1408). In the Middle Ages, truth primarily meant loyalty, fidelity, and the keeping of one’s word. This is why we still speak of being “true to one’s word” or being a “true friend.” The poem urges Sir Philip to be faithful – faithful to other people by using wealth and power lovingly, faithful to God by receiving what He gives “with obedience.”

To be faithful (true) we must learn to see the world—and ourselves in it—with a holy imagination. Chaucer knows that Sir Philip will not be faithful unless he learns to see himself in the light of God’s revealed Word, so he calls Sir Philip a “beast,” reminding him of his dependence on God.

The poem also invites Sir Philip to see himself as a “pilgrim” whose home is not in this world but in God’s heavenly kingdom. If he is to be true, Sir Philip must learn to see himself as part of a larger story of hope. We define ourselves by the stories we tell, but these stories can be overwhelming since we live in a world of competing narratives.

English education at King’s equips students to read and interpret narratives in a Gospel light. We can only be true when we see the world truly, as part of God’s story of creation, fall, redemption, and glory.

The refrain of the poem says “truth will deliver you, without a doubt.” This is a reference to John 8:31, where Jesus tells his disciples, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31 ESV).

Truth means many things, but these meanings culminate in a promise at the end of the verse. God keeps promises; he is true to his word. This is good news. It means our struggle to live faithfully is grounded in the certainty of God’s faithfulness to us. “Without a doubt,” He will be true to his promise made in Jesus Christ, who is “the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).

So what is truth? Chaucer suggests it is faithful living, faithful seeing, and faithful storytelling, all of which depend on the Faithful One who created and sustains all things. It may mean other things as well; I do not claim to have the definitive answer to such a daunting question. But how I go about answering the question is my attempt, as a teacher of English literature, to be a faithful witness to the truth of two statements: (1) words matter, and (2) the relevance of old literature never expires. As Chaucer himself puts it, “out of old fields, as men say, comes all this new grain from year to year, and out of old books ... comes all this new knowledge that men learn” (The Parliament of Fowls ll. 22-25)


By Dr. Brett Roscoe

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