The End of Knowledge: The Argus Legend and Chaucer
Essays in Medieval Studies, vol. 10 (1993)
In the story of Jupiter and Io in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the guardian Argus, a minor figure, presents a paradoxical image of power and impotence, keenness and sightlessness. Because of his hundred eyes, Argus is a perceiver without peer, but because all hundred eyes are lulled to sleep by Mercury, Argus is also a figure of ridicule, a failure on a grand scale. His deception and his death at Mercury’s hands point to the limitations, even the futility, of visual perception as a means of knowledge. Several medieval authors allude to Argus; for some, the guard symbolizes reason, but he also represents a warning against the figurative blindness that comes from relying solely on sensory perceptions. Geoffrey Chaucer makes several references to the Argus legend, depicting Argus as a powerful yet failed perceiver. Just as Argus fails in his vigil and loses Io, the object of his looking, so several of Chaucer’s characters fail to see and to understand the women whom they seek to know. Chaucer’s use of the legend points to the problematic relation of seeing and knowing, suggesting that perceptual keenness can accompany and even foster the loss of knowledge.