C S Lewis: The classical and medieval resonances of his moral teachings

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

A medieval teacher to be named later in this post . . .

Just got back from the 2012 International Medieval Congress at Kalamazoo’s Western Michigan University. Hands down my favorite meeting–and it’s not even in my primary area of research.

For the second year I was invited, by Crystal Kirgiss of the Purdue C S Lewis society, to give a paper at the congress on Lewis and a medieval theme. This all started because of the popular book I’m working on for Baker Books, Getting Medieval, with a Little Help from C S Lewis and Friends. Each chapter of that book will open with some Lewisian material related to the chapter’s topic (e.g. medieval theology, ethics, compassionate ministry, monasticism, affective devotion, etc.).

Here’s this year’s paper. Hope y’all enjoy it:


He was a philosopher first, and then a master of literature, with his Christianity informing both.

He grew up surrounded by and saturated with books, and his greatest work demonstrates his amazing capacities of recall, organization, logic, and synthesis.

He was perhaps the best-educated man of his generation—and that generation found itself already gathering speed as it rolled down into a valley of forgetfulness and ignorance, heedless of the rich traditions that had nurtured its parents and grandparents.

He became to that dark generation a public intellectual and educator of huge popular impact—an impact that continued after his death.

His greatest pedagogical work he did not do in the classroom, but in writing fiction, poetry, allegory. He was at heart a popularizer.

He wrote accessible theological works of an orthodox sort—content to pass on, to those less erudite than he, the wisdom of tradition.

For him, however, that tradition most certainly included the best of the Pagan philosophers; he wove their wisdom into his writings; and indeed, he revered Plato, Aristotle, and their ilk so highly that some questioned his commitment to the Christian faith.

Nonetheless, many devout Christians who came after him called his name blessed (even “sainted”) and tried (with varying degrees of success) to repeat his arguments and make use of his literary techniques.

He was sensitive to people’s existential troubles and emotional states; in fact, when passing on the wisdom of the ancients, he started at just that point.

He was foremost a moral philosopher, not only in his treatises, but also in his imaginative work.

He took no comfort in the doctrine of predestination; as a moralist, he valued human free will too much to go with Augustine in that great African’s extreme monergism. And he understood that God’s omniscience does not create a situation where all our actions are determined.

He valued happiness highly, but he knew better than to rest his hope in earthly happiness or believe the world owed it to him.

But he was no fatalist: he knew that what from a human perspective looks like bad fortune is often, indeed always, the guiding, correcting, disciplining hand of God. His philosophy had more than a little Stoicism in it—the “stiff upper lip” needed in a troubled time. When the going got tough, he learned not to demand an explanation from God, knowing that the only answer he would get would be the one Job got. He learned to rest in the knowledge that God’s ways are higher than our ways. And as a remedy and salve for life’s ordinary pains, he learned to turn to prayer.

And when this great Christian philosopher-poet came to the attention of C. S. Lewis, it changed Lewis’s life.

I speak, you may perhaps have guessed, of Anicius Manlius Severinus Boëthius (ca. 480–524 or 525 AD). But if my list of descriptors sounded like someone else, then I may already be starting to make my point. This paper is the beginning of a larger project to ferret out the nature of Boethius’s influence on Lewis—an influence suggested, I think, by some of the qualities in both men that I have listed.

As a bonus, in the process I am once again proving the adage: “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and conference paper titles.” For my paper today (by Crystal Kirgiss’s permission) is in fact not titled “The Classical and Medieval Resonances of Lewis’s Moral Teachings,” but simply “Lewis the Boethian.”

In 1962, The Christian Century magazine asked Lewis the question, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” Of the ten books this great medievalist listed in response, only one is medieval. Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy.

What follows, then, is the small beginning of an attempt to ferret out of Lewis’s writings the nature of his debt to Boethius and Boethius’s greatest work, the Consolation.

First, I will assume in what follows that Lewis’s debt was not limited to the holding of certain Boethian ideas. Like any good schoolchild, Lewis would have paid careful attention to the wording of the question the Century set for him. They had asked him not “Whose ideas do you admire the most,” or “who influenced your literary style?” Rather, they asked about the shaping of Lewis’s very vocation and philosophy of life. Those are deep sorts of influence, indeed.

In fact, in the brief time I have here, I’m going to focus on “vocation” more than “philosophy of life.” And I think a good place to start is with the glowing epithet Lewis used for Boethius (you can find it in his Allegory of Love). He called Boethius “the divine popularizer.”

In a 2010 essay, Samuel Joeckel explores Lewis’s vocation as a “public intellectual.” That is to say, “a figure who defends religious, political, or ideological beliefs in a manner that requires the expertise of a scholar, possessing the learning and critical acumen to engage with proficiency a wide range of complex issues, and the communicative skills of a journalist, capable of making those complex beliefs understandable to the layperson.” (44) Thus a public intellectual must be a “philosopher-poet”— possessing both subtlety and depth of rational thinking and the rhetorical skill to communicate that thinking powerfully and winsomely.

Significantly for both the case of Boethius and that of Lewis, Joeckel tells us that the public intellectual serves a “translative” function. To speak intelligibly to a diverse company, “patrician and plebian, bourgeoisie and proletariat, rich and poor, educated and semi-educated, specialist and nonspecialist,” he or she must use a language they all understand—the vernacular. Aside from the Consolation, the work of Boethius that most shaped the Middle Ages is his labor translating the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, which he read in their original language, into the vernacular of his day, Latin. And Lewis of course both was master of many languages and could “translate” the most complex philosophical ideas not just into clear radio addresses for the masses, but into the imaginative, concrete world of children’s books.

The public intellectual also, says Joeckel, stands at a time of radical cultural change. Certainly this was true of Boethius, to the degree that he has been interpreted (over-interpreted, says Marenbon) as the Last Educated Man standing against an encroaching barbarism. This image is made vivid, of course, by the nature of his end. This cultured philosopher was first imprisoned by barbarians—the Ostrogothic king Theodoric and, as Lewis put it, his “huge, fair-skinned, beer-drinking, boasting thanes”—until “presently they twisted ropes round his head till his eyes dropped out and finished him off with a bludgeon” (DI, 76). What a tempting symbol of the death of the old Roman culture and the dawning of the dark ages. Yet, Boethius’s death did not, in fact, terminate the influence of that classical culture—not by a long shot. The blood of this martyr was the seed of Christian culture. For Boethius was something unkillable: a 100,000-megawatt transmitter of tradition.

It is hard to think of an apter description, in fact, of C. S. Lewis. Though like Boethius, Lewis was not just a transmitter but also a thinker of great originality, when in 1954 Lewis described his vocation to the audience gathered at Cambridge University to witness his installation to the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature, he turned to this function of cultural transmission.

First, he framed the cultural moment: “We have lived,” he says “to see the second death of ancient learning. In our time something which was once the possession of all educated men has shrunk to being the technical accomplishment of a few specialists.” As he had written almost a decade before in his book Miracles (1947), “All over the world, until quite modern times, the direct insight of the mystics and the reasonings of the philosophers percolated to the mass of the people by authority and tradition; they could be received by those who were no great reasoners themselves in the concrete form of myth and ritual and the whole pattern of life.” [Miracles (NY: 1947), 42.] But now the West had become cut off from its traditions, and the results, Lewis was sure, would be dire: “A society where the simple many obey the few seers can live: a society where all were seers could live even more fully. But a society where the mass is still simple and the seers are no longer attended to can achieve only superficiality, baseness, ugliness, and in the end extinction.” [Miracles, 43]. As much as did Boethius, Lewis wanted to stand in the gap of that cataclysmic loss, to bring the tradition back to the people. He told his Cambridge audience, “I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours. . . . I read as a native texts [w]hat you must read as foreigners. . . . That way, where I fail as a critic, I may yet be useful as a specimen.”

What, exactly, did Lewis feel was being lost in this new Dark Ages? Not “just” tales and songs, myths and poems, but the very wisdom that, following Barfield, he felt was inextricably embodied in that lost literature. What wisdom? The Christian Gospel? Well, yes, that. But more deeply, the particular complex, perceptive, philosophically sophisticated and morally robust appropriation of the gospel to the Pagan mind that Boethius epitomized. After all, Lewis said, “Christians and Pagans had much more in common with each other than either has with a post-Christian. The gap between those who worship different gods is not so wide as that between those who worship and those who do not. . . .”

In fact, this point about Paganism is an important one that occurs throughout Lewis’s writings and joins him even more firmly to Boethius. In response to those who argue that the modern world is lapsing into Paganism, Lewis responded, in essence, “If only we would!” For there is wisdom in Pagan culture that we need (a “consolation” of philosophy). But alas, in this new Dark Ages, “The post-Christian is cut off from the Christian past and therefore doubly from the Pagan past.”

Much ink has been spilled on the question of why Boethius, imprisoned, exiled, his goods scattered, and awaiting execution, turned not to the consolation of religion, but rather the consolation of philosophy. Certainly there are Christian elements in his book that none of his Pagan sources would have recognized: his recommendation of prayer and his portrayal of God in personal terms are just two. The first thing to say here is that modern scholarship has shown with no reasonable doubt that Boethius was a Christian, of an orthodox and a committed sort. The second is that Lewis, who taught philosophy before he taught literature, and who read the classics voraciously under Kirkpatrick before coming to Christianity, joined Boethius in feeling the power of such consolation.

As he wrote to Griffiths: “[I]t is only since I have become a Christian that I have learned really to value the elements of truth in Paganism and Idealism. I wished to value [134] them in the old days; now I really do. Don’t suppose that I ever thought myself that certain elements of pantheism were incompatible with Christianity or with Catholicism.” (133 – 4) In a 1944 address to the Socratic Club at Oxford, he made the point more emphatically: “Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men. The Divine light, we are told, ‘lighteneth every man.’ We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth” (“Is Theology Poetry?” addressed to the Socratic Club at Oxford, 6 nov 1944, Weight of Glory, 83).

The nature of the modern darkness in Lewis’s eyes is well enough known: materialism, utilitarianism, subjectivism—all conspired to destroy the wisdom that had made it all the way from the ancients to the time of Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott. Now, especially in the face of cataclysmic world wars, even Oxford’s students were wondering to themselves, Why study philosophy? In his address “Learning in War Time,” Lewis gave the answer:

“Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” And where is that good philosophy to be found? “Most of all . . . we need intimate knowledge of the past.” (28) Of course he recognized, and no doubt understood that Boethius also recognized, that there are limits to all merely human philosophy. But its power could be great nonetheless. In his essay “Christianity and Culture,” Lewis reflected: “[C]ulture is a storehouse of the best (sub-Christian) values. These values are in themselves of the soul, not the spirit. But God created the soul. Its values may be expected, therefore, to contain some reflection or antepast of the spiritual values.” (23)

“There is another way,” he wrote, “in which it [that is, culture, especially literature] may predispose to conversion. The difficulty of converting an uneducated man nowadays lies in his complacency. Popularized science, the conventions or ‘unconventions’ of his immediate circle, party programmes, etc., enclose him in a tiny windowless universe which he mistakes for the only possible universe. There are no distant horizons, no mysteries. He thinks everything has been settled.”

A tiny, windowless universe. I am reminded of Chesterton’s definition of insanity: “The clean, well-lit room of one idea.” Our modern room is well lit by the bare bulb of science. But of what lies beyond, we see nothing. Like the children in the Silver Chair, trapped underground with the witch, we cannot even reason from the light bulb to the sun of heaven. For that, we would need to open the windows of culture. Lewis continues:

“A cultured person, on the other hand, is almost compelled to be aware that reality is very odd and that the ultimate truth, whatever it may be, must have the characteristics of strangeness—must be something that would seem remote and fantastic to the uncultured. Thus some obstacles to faith have been removed already.” (23)

What better description can we find than this of Boethius’s Consolation? Boethius the character starts the book grieving hysterically in the small, blind room of his own bad fortune. Slowly, gently, Lady Philosophy opens the windows, allowing Boethius to see that his happiness cannot and must not rest in the things on earth that fortune both gives and takes away. This is a Platonic insight as well as a Christian one: a classical philosophical foretaste of an important Truth given fully only in the Christian gospel. Lady Philosophy is bringing Boethius to a “pre-evangelistic” realization, by which, as Lewis says of culture in general, “some obstacles to faith have been removed already.”

This realization of Boethius’s is a close cousin to the “argument from desire” so often used by Lewis—indeed, used as the framework for his artful story about his own conversion. It does, it must, start with the existential: the miserable reality of our own sense of the wrongness of the world and our own inability to find happiness in it. Then it slowly comes to conclude, as Lady Philosophy leads Boethius to conclude, that if one’s happiness rests only in earthly fortune, then that happiness can never be secure.

Lewis concludes his essay about Christianity and culture with the assertion that “culture has a distinct part to play in bringing certain souls to Christ.” Without doubt, he would have said that one of these “certain souls” was himself. Perhaps Boethius’s Consolation even had a role in that philosophical journey, which is told in outline in Surprised by Joy and in great detail in the Pilgrim’s Regress. But whether it did or not, this vocational understanding that Lewis had of himself as a Boethian public intellectual, traditioner, and conduit of culture was surely made even more powerful by the fact that he shared Boethius’s faith and, like Boethius, adeptly wove that faith into the garment even of writings that seemed purely “cultural” – “philosophical” – “poetical.”

[Yes, that’s a picture of Boethius teaching some students, up at the top of this post.]

6 responses to “C S Lewis: The classical and medieval resonances of his moral teachings

  1. Hi Chris! Thank you for posting this paper…

    Though I managed to read The Consolation of Philosophy last year, my understanding of it is rudimentary. However, when considering the ‘Beatific Vision’ as described by Aquinas and illustrated by Dante, am I right to think of this as a Boethian idea of happiness or is it more nuanced than that?

  2. Great read, thank you. When is the book due out?

  3. This was also probably my favorite session of the conference, thanks in no small part to your paper. Is this society limited to Purdue faculty and students, or were the presenters also members? If not, are you aware of any other scholarly C.S. Lewis societies that are worth joining? Thanks again for your paper.

  4. Pingback: Links and Notes for May 16 2010 | Leadingchurch.com

  5. Hey Chris, Sorry I missed you this year. This looks like another good paper I didn’t see, pretty common at Kalamazoo.

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