Saturday, July 25, 2009

Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best

In Piers Plowman, the narrator has a dream about Piers Plowman that leads him to conclude that it is not enough to trust to the pardon the Church can give; he must seek out Do Well, for Do Well will be more help for the soul in the Day of Judgment. His search leads him to study theology.

'Do Well, and Do Better, and Do Best,' said Thought
'Are three fair virtues, not far to find.
He who is true of tongue, and true of his handiwork,
And by labour, as as a landlord, earns his living,
Trustworthy in his accounts, taking but his own,
And neither drunken nor disdainful, is the man for Do Well.
Do Better does all this, but he does much more.
And has run into religion and taught the Testament
And preaches to the people in Saint Paul's words
Libenter suffertis insipientis, cum sitis ipsi sapientes.
Suffer fools gladly; so God commands you.
Do Best is above both, with a bishop's crozier,
Hooked at one end to hale you from hell;
There's a spike on that spear, that will not spare the wicked.


According to Wit, a bit further on,

'Do Well is to dread God, Do Better is to suffer,
And Do Best springs from both, to abash the arrogant,
The wicked will, that is at war with work,
And drives Do Well away, through the deadly sins."


But the study of theology leaves him more confused than ever; it is all abstract and he still has no idea how to find Do Well in the real world. So he keeps traveling, and goes to a number of others, each of whom gives him a somewhat different account of what Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best are. The Friar or Doctor (i.e., teacher of theology) he meets later tells the narrator that Do Well is to do as the clergy teach; Do Better is to be the teacher; and Do Best is to teach well and practice what you teach. But it is the hermit Patience, dressed as a pilgrim, who in the end tells Langland the true meaning of the trio: We are to learn, teach, love our enemies. To learn is to Do Well; to teach is to Do Better; and to love is to Do Best. The Doctor, incidentally, is not pleased, and sternly says of Patience that pilgrims are often liars. Conscience, however, is struck by what Patience has said, and Conscience and Langland set out with Patience to understand better what the life of Do Well, Do Better, and Do Best must be. Only Piers Plowman knows the full secret; but, interestingly, the narrator never quite gets him in full view again, although he still learns from him. He comes in and out of the poem and the narrator's dreams; and the poem ends with Conscience seeking him out to turn back Antichrist, who has assaulted Church and subverted the clergy with Pride and Hypocrisy. But the narrator's learning from Piers is never really done. And perhaps that is the as it should be; for in real life the quest after Do Well is endless, with layers upon layers and knots within knots.

[Quotations from Visions from Piers Plowman, Nevill Coghill, tr. Phoenix House (London: 1949), pages 67 & 68).]

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