What role does Wit play as a teacher in William Langland's Piers the Plowman?

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Stephen Holliday | College Teacher | (Level 1) Distinguished Educator

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Wit, the personification of intelligence, has a profound teaching role in Piers Plowman.  In Langland's allegory, Wit is divided into two components: first, Wit itself is natural intelligence or reason, the faculty with which we perceive and then make sense of the external world; second, but more important, is what Langland describes as Inwitte, that is, conscience or inward judgment, the element of intelligence that guides us to make moral judgments or decisions.  In fact, in Middle English, the phrase ayenbite of Inwitte, translated as the remorse of conscience (a guilty conscience), perfectly expresses the importance of Inwitte.  As we shall see, of the two, conscience has a higher role in the hierarchy of intelligence, but the components together function as teachers.

At the end of Passus VIII, Thought and Will have been discussing the nature of Do-Well and encounter Wit, who, they believe, might describe Do-Well:

how Do-Well differs from Do-Better, Do-Best from both. . . . [and] where Do-Well, Do-Better and Do-Best make their home. . . . (ll. 121-124, Williams trans.)

As Langland scholars have observed, many readers across many centuries still argue about the nature and roles of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best, which shift slightly throughout the poem and yet are central to the allegory's meaning. 

Passus IX is devoted to Wit's lengthy description of how Do-Well, Do-Bet, and Do-Best relate to each other, but this section also gives Wit the opportunity to tell his listeners how to lead a Christian life, alluding to biblical stories that the poem's readers would be familiar with, and framing the description in the feudal society easily recognizable to 14thC. readers, including a castle designed to protect Soul, the beloved of Sir Do-Well.

The castle is staffed by allegorical characters central to the poem's main theme:

Nature's aware of this [the dangers to Soul] and watches her well,/putting over her Do-Well, duke of this realm./  Her handmaid is Do-Better, Sir Do-Well's daughter . . . /Do-Best is above both, a bishop in rank. (IX: 10-14)

Above everyone, the constable of the castle, is Judgment.  Langland has replicated the military hierarchy of a 14thC. castle: Do-Well commands the castle and surrounding territory; Do-Better, Do-Well's trusted second-in-command, provides immediate protection to the castle's most precious inhabitant, Soul; and Do-Best represents the supreme power of the church.  A castle's constable has overall military responsibility for its safety.  Unfortunately for Thought and Will, this description of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best probably adds more confusion than certainty to defining their natures in a Christian context.  But this confusion is replayed throughout the poem.

One of the most important teaching moments in Passus IX occurs when Wit is describing Nature, which is "the creator of all things,/father and fashioner of everything made" (that is, God) (ll. 26-27):

For Judgment [Inwitte or conscience] is the greatest thing, after God's grace; men who abuse it will undergo woe . . . Since they serve Satan he will seize their souls. (ll. 58-61)

Conscience, a component of Wit (intelligence), is second only to God's grace in the hierarchy of God's gifts, and its importance cannot be overstated because conscience is present in all men--both good men and bad can exercise it or abuse it, and, according to Wit, those who ignore their consciences are doomed.

For the most part, Wit's comments in Passus IX comprise a Christian textbook for a good life--for example, marry for love, not money, and the church should take care of those who cannot care for themselves--but he also addresses the relation of Do-Well, Do-Better, and Do-Best to the Christian life:

He who fears God does-well, he who fears him/for love/and not dread of vengeance, he does-better;/he does-best who refrains, by day and by night,/from wasting speech or a long space of time. (ll. 94-97)

This description of how the three are different, I think, uncovers the essential difference: Do-Well fears God, a good start on the path to a Christian life; Do-Better fears God as his rightful sovereign, not because Do-Better fears God's anger but because of Do-Better's complete faith in God's goodness; and most important, Do-Best, not merely restricted to loving God, acts out the Christian ideal by doing rather than contemplating--in other words, Do-Best does not talk about the Christian life; rather, he wastes no time in implementing the Christian life by helping those in need.

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