Glimpses of C S Lewis’s The Discarded Image

C. S. Lewis‘s The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1964) is a key text in my course “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry.” Though it is studded with an erudite array of quotations and references that can prove daunting for the newcomer, this is a tremendous introductory survey on the medieval thought-world. The book’s central argument is that medievals held a certain idea of the cosmos not as a sort of random and trivial scientific fact, but as a living, pulsing image, worthy of allegiance and indeed love. He demonstrates this argument persuasively, and along the way challenges us to compare that image (which has the drawback of not being scientifically true, but a number of advantages too) with our own.

The following are quotations and brief passages I marked while reading the book. As with the David Bell, Jaroslav Pelikan, and Joseph Pearce “glimpses” and the glimpses of Benedict and Francis by Columba Stewart, Dennis Okholm, William Short, G. K. Chesterton, and Mark Galli, I thank my t.a., Shane Moe, who transcribed these and inserted  brief contextual tags where helpful. Page numbers are at the beginning of each excerpt. The designation “Q” means I wanted to save the text as a quotation, for use in teaching and writing. D means the definition of a term. “U” means I want to use an idea or statement in my teaching.

Q, 5: “When we speak of the Middle Ages as the ages of authority we are usually thinking about the authority of the Church. But they were the age not only of her authority, but of authorities.”

Q, 5: “The Middle Ages depended predominantly on books.”

Q, 8: “For one reference to Wade or Weland we meet fifty to Hector, Aeneas, Alexander, or Ceasar. For one probable relic of Celtic religion dug out of a medieval book we meet, clear and emphatic, a score of references to Mars and Venus and Diana.”

Q, 10: “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems.

Q, 10: “There was nothing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up.”

D (of medieval synthesis), 11: This is the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organisation of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe. The building of this Model is conditioned by two factors I have already mentioned: the essentially bookish character of their culture, and their intense love of system.

Q, 17: “The mass media which have in our time created a popular scientism, a caricature of the true sciences, did not then exist. The ignorant were more aware of their ignorance than they are now.”

Key for HS706 (Medieval Wisdom course): “One particular class of experts, the great spiritual writers, ignore the Model almost completely.”

Q, 31 (discussing Dante’s pulling both from contemporary authorities and ancient poets): “The poet is ranked with the scientist as authority for a purely scientific proposition. This astonishing failure or refusal to distinguish—in practice, though not always in theory—between books of different sorts must be borne in mind whenever we are trying to gauge the total effect of an ancient text on its medieval readers.”

Q, 38 (discussing Nature as goddess and concept): “But as long as the concept covers everything, the goddess (who personifies the concept) is necessarily a jejune and inactive deity; for everything is not a subject about which anything of much interest can be said. And her religious, and all her poetic, vitality depends on making her something less than everything.”

Q, 39: “They [the medieval poets] believed from the outset that Nature was not everything. She was created. She was not God’s highest, much less His only, creature. She had her proper place, below the Moon. She had her appointed duties as God’s vicegerent in that area. Her own lawful subjects, stimulated by rebel angels, might disobey her and become ‘unnatural’. There were things above her and things below. It is precisely this limitation and subordination of Nature which sets her free for her triumphant poetical career.”

D (daemon, CSL quoting Plato), 40: “Daemons are there creatures of a middle nature between gods and men—like Milton’s ‘Middle spirits’—Betwixt the angelical and human kind’. Through these intermediaries, and through them alone, we mortals have any intercourse with the gods.”

D (of genius), 42: genius as the standard Latin translation of an individual daemon

Q, 47 (key: Pagans were ascetics too! Discussing the transitional period from about 204 [the birth of Plotinus] to 533 [the first debatable reference to Dionysius]): “A world-renouncing, ascetic, and mystical character then marked the most eminent Pagans no less than their Christian opponents. It was the spirit of the age.”

Q, 47 (discussing the spirit of asceticism in the transitional period; see quote above): “The modern who dislikes the Christian Fathers would have disliked the Pagan philosophers equally, and for similar reasons.”

Q, 65: “Cicero, as we have seen, devised a heaven for statesmen. He looks no higher than public life and the virtues which that life demands. Macrobius brings to the reading of Cicero a wholly different point of view—the mystical, ascetic, world-renouncing theology of neo-Platonism.”

Q, 71 (quote, vs. MA’s naiveté re: angels; discussing Pseudo-Dionysius’s contribution to the Model via his angelology; referencing his Celestial Hierarchies): “Our author differs from all earlier and some later authorities by declaring the angels to be pure minds (mentes), unembodied. In art, to be sure, they are represented as corporeal pro captu nostro, as a concession to our capacity (i). And such symbolism, he adds, is not degrading, ‘for even matter, deriving its existence from the true Beauty, has in the fashion of all its parts some traces of beauty and worth’ (ii). This statement, in a book which came to be so authoritative, may be taken as proof that educated people in the Middle Ages never believed the winged men who represent angels in painting and sculpture to be more than symbols.”

Q, 73 (discussing pseudo-Dionysius on theophanies): “The Divine splendour (illustratio) comes to us filtered, as it were, through the Hierarchies.”

Q, 88 (discussing Boethius on providence, foreknowledge, and freedom): “The question never was whether foreknowledge necessitates the act but whether it is not evidence that the act must have been necessary.”

D (“eternity”), 89: “Eternity is the actual and timeless fruition of illimitable life. Time, even endless time, is only an image, almost a parody, of that plenitude; a hopeless attempt to compensate for the transitoriness of its ‘presents’ by infinitely multiplying them.”

Q, 90: “Boethius has here [in his conception of human freedom in light of divine eternity] expounded a Platonic conception more luminously than Plato ever did himself.”

Q, 112 (discussing the medievals on the heavens, and particularly a “nocturnal walk with the medieval astronomy in mind”): “You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.”

Q, 114 (discussing the Prime Mover as object of desire; note: Nature—love to God; Theology of grace—love from God): “the thirsty and aspiring love of creatures for Him”

Q, 115 (discussing the Model and the spheres): “Each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by ‘intellectual love’ of God.”

Q, 147: “A good medievalist (A. J. Carlyle) once said in my hearing, ‘The typical Knight of the Middle Ages was far more interested in pigs than in tournaments’.”

Q, 147: “The written zoology of their period is mainly a mass of cock-and-bull stories about creatures the authors had never seen, and often about creatures that never existed.”

Q, 152: “If, as Platonism taught—nor would Browne himself have dissented—the visible world is made after an invisible pattern, if things below the Moon are all derived from things above her, the expectation that an anagogical or moral sense will have been built into the nature and behaviour of the creatures would not be a priori unreasonable.”

Q, 177 (discussing John Barbour on the reasons for studying history): “Historiography has then three functions: to entertain our imagination, to gratify our curiosity, and to discharge a debt we owe our ancestors.”

Q, 183 (discussing the medievals on the past): “It was known that Adam went naked till he fell. After that, they pictured the whole past in terms of their own age.”

Q, 185 (discussing the medievals’ esteem for the past and future rather than their own age): “Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration.”

Q, 185: “The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own amours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.”

Q, 188: “Dialectic in the [characteristic mnemonic] couplet ‘teaches words’; an obscure saying. What is really meant is that, having learned from grammar how to talk, we must learn from Dialectic how to talk sense, to argue, to prove, and disprove.”

Q, 200 (discussing how M authors, despite the rarity of books, often presented or repeated things their audience already knew): “One gets the impression that medieval people, like Professor Tolkien’s Hobbits, enjoyed books which told them what they already knew.”

Q, 202-3: “[M]edieval and Renaissance credulity ran in the opposite direction [than that of the ‘savage’ man’s attempt to mimic the operations of nature, say by making a noise like a thunderclap]. Men were far less prone to think they could control the translunary forces that to think that those forces controlled them. Astrological determinism, not imitative magic, was the real danger.

“The simplest explanation is, I believe, the true one. Poets and other artists depicted these things because their minds loved to dwell on them. Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination. Marcus Aurelius wished that men would love the universe as a man can love his own city. I believe that something like this was really possible in the period I am discussing.”

Q, 203: “Where Homer rejoiced in the particulars the later artist rejoiced also in that great imagined structure which gave them all their place. Every particular fact and story became more interesting and more pleasurable if, by being properly fitted in, it carried one’s mind back to the Model as a whole.”

Q, 204: “a world of built-in significance”

Q, 208 (discussing M writing and imagination): “…their devout attention to their matter and their confidence in it. They are not trying to heighten it or transform it. It possesses them wholly. Their eyes and ears are steadily fixed upon it, and so—perhaps hardly aware how much they are inventing—they see and hear what the event must have been like.”

Q, 209 (discussing the prevalence of additions to not-necessarily-original works in the medieval): “One is tempted to say that almost the typical activity of the medieval author consists in touching up something that was already there.”

Q, 214 (discussing the arts in the medieval period): “Literature exists to teach what is useful, to honour what deserves honour, to appreciate what is delightful. The useful, honourable, and delightful things are superior to it: it exists for their sake; its own use, honour, or delightfulness is derivative from theirs.”

Q, 215: “Always, century by century, item after item is transferred from the object’s side of the account to the subject’s. And now, in some extreme forms of Behaviourism, the subject himself is discounted as merely subjective; we only think that we think. Having eaten up everything else, he eats himself up too.”

Q, 216: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree. It is possible that some readers have long been itching to remind me that it had a serious defect; it was not true.”

Q, 222: “No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical.”

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