C S Lewis and his homeboy Boethius – part II

From a 1385 Italian manuscript of the Consolat...

From a 1385 Italian manuscript of the Consolation: Miniatures of Boethius teaching and in prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post is the second looking at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius. It is from the draft “Tradition chapter” of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. The first may be found here.

Lewis valued Boethius highly as a historian and traditioner, bringing the light of one age’s wisdom out into the darkness of another’s depravity and forgetfulness. He referred to Boethius as “that divine popularizer,”[1] which indicates the “translative” function served by public intellectuals. To speak intelligibly to a diverse company, “patrician and plebian, bourgeoisie and proletariat, rich and poor, educated and semi-educated, specialist and nonspecialist,” the public intellectual must use a language they all understand—the vernacular. Aside from the Consolation, the work of Boethius that most shaped the Middle Ages was 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.

It is hard to think of an apter description, in fact, of C. S. Lewis. As much as did Boethius, Lewis wanted to stand in the gap of cataclysmic cultural 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.” In other words, Lewis didn’t just study the medieval and renaissance period as a “subject” (in his role as a scholar and professor), and he didn’t just teach it as a “subject”—he was medieval in that he treated philosophy as a “way,” and indeed medievalism as a way.

This creation of an “atmosphere” or “mood” is not to be undervalued in Lewis’s thought. It is akin to the “model” of his Discarded Image: a “way of seeing.” Lewis as historian sought to indwell, to recreate the experience of, other eras. To keep alive an experience, a way of seeing, as Boethius did, is for him perhaps the same thing as keeping a living Tradition alive, and thus preserving the wisdom of that Tradition for future generations. This, at least, seems to be part of the burden of what Lewis is saying in Screwtape Letter #27.

For this, Lewis loved Boethius. And thus, it is clear from his answer to the Christian Century, he also felt a kind of vocational kinship to Boethius. His epithet for Boethius—“divine popularizer”— is a heroic epithet, in which he hoped to participate (almost mystically) himself. This was a man who saw books as friends, and relished their reading, as many (including Lewis) do the fellow-feeling of a lively discussion over cakes and ales. To be in continuity with the Elders of days of yore is to be in their fellowship and to “hear” them—and Boethius’s primary work was this work of making the Elders heard to his age—a Dark Age, desperate for wisdom and sustenance, as CSL felt his own, too, was dark and needy.

[1]  (In Allegory of Love)

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