Saturday, March 1, 2008

C.S. Lewis' Short Course on the Middle Ages

I've been lucky to travel more than most in my life, though certainly I haven't traveled as much as some. Of the dozen or so foreign countries I've visited, one that always calls me back is the Middle Ages. It would be hard to calculate the time I've spent there. I can say I've been a week in Japan or a month in Mexico, but what can I say of visits to the Middle Ages? They were tentative and sketchy, usually made through reading or via an aftrnoon in some cathedral or museum. But no: reading was normally the main means of transit. And during these visits--though it's true I share some beliefs with my medieval hosts--there was definitely no forgetting I was in a foreign country.

Modern Japanese or Thais may look at human relations in ways quite different from Westerners. To us these people are certainly foreigners. But when they look at the movement of history or the physical universe (the facts of astronomy, biology, etc.) they will most likely use roughly the same concepts we do, if only because most Japanese and Thais live in the same globalized modern world we do. The medievals, on the other hand, looked out at a universe quite different from ours. Though we think of it as part of our own cultural heritage, the Middle Ages is for us a country more foreign than almost any we could visit on our current globe.

Medieval perceptions of fundamental things like time and space were radically different from ours. It's in great measure such fundamental but hard to grasp differences that account for the strong sense of foreignness one feels upon entering the Middle Ages--and this whether we enter it through literature or via some painting or tapestry. How can a traveler come closer to understanding?

An excellent brief guide to the essentials of the medieval mind is C.S. Lewis' The Discarded Image. The book was published some time ago now, 1964 in fact, but Lewis' presentation has hardly dated. Of the different introductions to medieval culture I've read, Lewis' book is by a long shot the most striking in its inspiration, as it's also the most impressive in its economy. The argument everywhere shows the care of the masterful teacher, one with long experience in outlining the crucial differences between the medievals and ourselves. With a paragraph or two Lewis brings into sharp relief something a less skillful writer would have to leave vague. Not content to merely give the facts of medieval thought, he leads the reader to consider each idea in terms of affect, in terms of its implications for everyday perceptions and the perceptions of the medieval artist.

In 220 pages Lewis manages to cover a vast territory. His goal is to sketch the main features of what he calls "the medieval Model"--this being the particular medieval understanding of the universe in terms of a synthesis of theology and science, that medieval Cosmos in which God, man, the angels, nature and the heavenly bodies all had their place. Lewis' initial chapters lay out the origins of the synthesis in late antique writers such as Chalcidius, Macrobius, Boethius and the Pseudo-Dionysius. It is the best portrait I've yet read of the manner in which the Middle Ages came to inherit Platonism: what elements were inherited, what not, and why.

Lewis then moves on to a consideration of the Ptolemaic astronomy and medieval theories of the structure of the universe. Far from being the usual dry laying out of facts in the manner of an encyclopedia article, this exposition of the structure of the medieval cosmos makes for the inspired core of the book. The implications of the medievals' grand cosmic architecture are carefully drawn out in terms of affect. What would such a universe would mean to one looking up at the night sky? What does it mean for the heavenly journeys of medieval poets, for the understanding of the movements of angels or of time and change? Step by step the reader is drawn out of our modern universe of darkness and void and brought to see and feel this medieval Universe-as-Cathedral, the cosmos known to Dante and Chaucer and the medieval astronomers.

The medieval universe was most strikingly unlike ours in that it was finite. The earth rested at the center of a series of enclosing spheres, beyond the furthest of which lay a different dimension, that of eternity. Aristotle was the first to theorize on what lay beyond this outer edge of the universe, concluding as follows:
Outside the heaven there is neither place nor void nor time. Hence whatever is there is of such a kind as not to occupy space, nor does time affect it.
Lewis comments:
The timidity, the hushed voice, is characteristic of the best Paganism. Adopted into Christianity, [Aristotle's] doctrine speaks loud and jubilant. What is in one sense "outside the heaven" is now, in another sense, "the very Heaven," caelum ipsum, and full of God, as Bernardus says. So when Dante passes that last frontier he is told, "We have got outside the largest corporeal thing into that Heaven which is pure light, intellectual light full of love" (Paradiso, XXX, 38). In other words, as we shall see more clearly later on, at this frontier the whole spatial way of thinking breaks down. There can be, in the ordinary spatial sense, no "end" to a three-dimensional space. The end of space is the end of spatiality. The light beyond the material universe is intellectual light. (96-7)
Man on the earth sat at the center of a finite and spherical universe encased in eternity. The medievals looked up at the stars and planets, knowing these were a great distance away, but though this distance was great it did not lead on infinitely, it was not the beginning of an endless unknown as is the case in our universe.
Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest--trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The "space" of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony. That is the sense in which our universe is romantic, and theirs was classical.

This explains why all sense of the pathless, the baffling, and the utterly alien--all agoraphobia--is so markedly absent from medieval poetry when it leads us, as so often, into the sky. Dante, whose theme might have been expected to invite it, never strikes that note. The meanest modern writer of science fiction can, in that department, do more for you than he. (99-100)
Lewis' chapter on the Heavens also dispels some still common misconceptions--most obviously the one I can still remember being taught in high school, namely that the medievals believed the earth to be flat. With the exception of the Norsemen, this is simply not true. What's more, the medievals did not consider the stars to be mere points of light in the sky. The stars were considered to be larger than the earth.
Isidore in the sixth century knows that the Sun is larger, and the Moon smaller than the Earth, Maimonides in the twelfth maintains that every star is ninety times as big, Roger Bacon in the thirteenth simply that the least star is "bigger" than she. (97)
After his consideration of the orderliness and sophistication of medieval astronomy, Lewis moves on to more intractable subjects. One chapter deals with the Longaevi, or "longlivers," the term Lewis chooses to designate all those earthly creatures that were imagined to possess rationality but existed on the margins of the human world. By Longaevi Lewis means the fairies, nymphs, gnomes, satyrs and other such creatures. The chapter is of interest in that it draws sharp distinctions between our own shabby post-Victorian conception of fairies as light and diaphanous things and the more troubling medieval conceptions.

Under the chapter heading "Earth and her Inhabitants," Lewis takes up medieval geography, zoology and anthropology. His pages on medieval ideas of history and historiography are especially instructive. As he points out, the distinction between fiction and history was not, for the medievals, nearly as fraught as it has become in the modern period. The fact that the medievals didn't tend to establish so fixed a border between what was understood to be a fictional story and what was understood to be an accurate historical account did not necessarily mean that they were historically gullible as we might imagine. This lack of clear genre distinction could cut both ways. While many medieval writers would vouch in their work for the "truth" of this or that episode from the story of Troy or the history of King Arthur's court, still--
It is by no means necessary to suppose that Chaucer's contemporaries believed the tale of Troy or Thebes as we believe in the Napoleonic Wars; but neither did they disbelieve them as we disbelieve a novel.
Such considerations are useful for us in the post-Enlightenment period because they may in some measure reflect back on our own blind spots. Is it not possible, as many historians and critics have come to believe, that our own belief in a strict distinction between history and fiction has lead us to grievous errors, even terrible crimes? Much of the systematic inhumanity of the last century was legitimized by the "scientific" historicism of post-Enlightenment thought.

Lewis' book closes with epistemological questions of a similar kind. He acknowledges that the medieval Model of the universe has one obvious disadvantage, namely that it is not true. But the meaning of this statement--"It is not true"--has a different weight for us now than it had in the overconfident 19th century. After the breakthroughs of 20th century physics, we have come to recognize the extent to which our own models of the universe are fallible--how they most likely tell us more about the structures of our own thought than they do about an external universe we can mathematically map and know. The medieval Model has certainly been superceded, Lewis implies, but ours will be too. What the medievals "knew" about the universe has an intrinsic beauty and harmony that is a truth of its own sort.

Check Lewis’ The Discarded Image.

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