Reading CS Lewis’s medieval retrieval as a Christian humanism for today

I’ve had occasion before to recommend on this blog the excellent magazine Common Good. Despite my occasional appearance in its pages, it’s just chock full of good stuff, and it’s well worth subscribing. Here’s a review of a fascinating new book (I don’t say this just because its author cites my Medieval Wisdom book a bunch) that they asked me to write – it’ll appear in an upcoming issue, no doubt improved from this draft by editor extraordinaire Aaron Cline Hanbury:

Jason M. Baxter’s new book The Medieval Mind of C S Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind is a suggestive introduction to the literary and theological substance of what we may call, following Baxter’s own clues, CS Lewis’s “long-medieval Christian humanism.”

It is suggestive in helping us understand Lewis’s mind better—Baxter starts the book by puzzling over the fact that despite lavish attention to Lewis the apologist and Lewis the fiction-writer, most modern readers know little to nothing about a “third Lewis”: Lewis the medievalist.

But more than this, it is suggestive in understanding Lewis’s distinctive approach to the cultural crisis of his lifetime – shadowed as it was by two World Wars – and in assessing what we can learn from that approach for our own troubled times.

Baxter’s brief account of this “third Lewis” is a genre-defying and discipline-crossing book – part literary criticism, part pastoral theology, part cultural history, and part intellectual biography. In that generalism and an associated historical breadth, Baxter mirrors both his subject (Lewis) and the post-WW II Christian humanist movement in which, as Alan Jacobs has recently reminded us in his Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (2018), Lewis both participated and, at times, led.

In terms of interdisciplinarity, we know that Lewis was critic, fiction-writer, public theologian, moral philosopher, pastoral letter-writer, and medieval scholar all at once, and was read and respected in each of these genres and more. (This actually makes Lewis scholarship particularly challenging!)

In terms of historical breadth: as a man dedicated to reading literature (and philosophy and theology) as a “way of life” (see Adam Barkman’s helpful volume, C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life) rather than simply an academic exercise, Lewis flouted the periodizations standard in his field. He read and wrote almost indiscriminately across the periods as defined in the academy, and he quite often saw more continuity than discontinuity. So Baxter identifies Lewis’s medievalism as more a “long medievalism” – marshalling, as the great-books thinkers of his time did, everyone from Plato to Wordsworth into a single premodern “lost model” for understanding ourselves and our world, even as he urgently called his readers to reclaim and reshape facets of that model for our own time. (“We can loosely think of Lewis’s medieval period as the ‘Long Middle Ages,’ which extended from Plato to Samuel Johnson, and sometimes even to Wordsworth” (11)).

This theme of modern applicability, too, suffuses both Baxter’s book and Lewis’s career. So for example we find Lewis, in the crisis year of 1941, in the “hot” medium of a radio talk (later published as part of his famous work of public theology, Mere Christianity), entreating his listeners: “. . . if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.” [n. 34: Mere Christianity, 28-29; cited in Jacobs, Year of Our Lord 1943, p. 34]

As for the post-WW II Christian humanist movement, Jacobs has helpfully situated Lewis in that movement, which among other things birthed the “great books movement” in higher education—famous for lining up (for example) Aristotle, Augustine, Chaucer, Erasmus, Calvin, Locke, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn in one sprawling educational program to re-educate the modern West in the humanism(s) which two World Wars clearly showed had been lost.

And Baxter’s book gives us a fine-grained look at how Lewis’s very scholarship shows a man coming to similar conclusions as the other Christian humanists of his age, even as that scholarly work remained firmly anchored in the Middle Ages: a sense of contemporary crisis, a high regard for the thinking of past ages as still relevant – perhaps crucially so – for us today, a historical approach that is broad and focuses on a humanistic continuum from the ancient Pagans through Christian antiquity, the Middle Ages, and into even the 19th century: these characteristics of Lewis’s “medieval mind,” so helpfully framed in this book, were also shared by the larger movement of 20th-century humanists.

Most importantly, we should notice that this breadth and multi-facetedness also make this book – and the aspects of Lewis’s thought that it points to – very much a tract for our times.

This may seem, on the face of it, a ludicrous claim: how can a book that delves into the medievalism of a medieval scholar be somehow a necessary book for a 21st-century reader?

Yet as Jens Zimmermann has taught us, Christian humanism has again and again proved itself a creed for times of crisis—from the 2nd-century apologists responding to persecution, to Thomas More standing against Henry VIII as the Reformation erupted around him, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer giving his life in the anti-Nazi cause . . . and all the post-war humanists following soon after, trying to figure out how to reconstruct a war-torn Europe (and in the Catholic world, leading their church inexorably to The Council That Changed Everything).

So when Baxter, early in his book, reminds us of the urgency of Lewis’s vocation as a “new Boethius” responding to modernity’s barbarism by calling his readers, listeners, students, and correspondents back to “old books,” he is also describing the central program of post-war humanism. (Lewis was convinced “that ancient books were urgent, not just representative of past beliefs. For . . . Lewis, the old books had a sense of timeliness (not just timelessness).” (11))

But we can still ask ourselves: This crisis-consciousness may have been true for (for example) WW II–era British intellectuals. But are we experiencing it again today? And does this crisis manifest still today—for at least some observers—as a loss of an older humanism? Baxter clearly believes that we are, that it does, and that Lewis’s response in that previous crisis moment is already proving relevant for our own crises:

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, Lewis’s “On Living in an Atomic Age” was everywhere on the internet, because, as many commentators pointed out, all you had to do was perform a ‘find and replace’ search (switching ‘atomic bomb’ for ‘global pandemic’) and you had relevant, comforting advice”—advice, I would add, that was clearly and centrally humanist. The “Atomic Age” article quoted by Baxter shows us this same humanistic response to cultural crisis:

“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb . . . when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts. . . . [B]ombs . . . may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.” (14-15)

Building his portrait of Lewis as a Christian humanist, Alan Jacobs has produced as “Exhibit A” Lewis’s masterful essay The Abolition of Man, which describes the modern cultural crisis as the loss of our understanding of what it is to be human. Today one of the finest Lewis scholars presently working, from whom Baxter also draws, Michael Ward, has sensed this relevance too and produced a timely commentary on that essay: After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (2021). No surprise here: Abolition also features prominently in Baxter’s book – particularly in chapter four: “Evil Enchantment: Psychology and Pedagogy in the Flatland.”

But those two books may still leave us asking: How does this sort of cultural commentary demonstrate not only Lewis’s Christian humanism, but also his “medieval mind”? And here Baxter can help us. Taking the “Atomic Age” article as a case in point, he makes the connection quite directly by showing that Lewis clearly adapted its argument, and at some points its very words, from Boethius’s famous portrait of Lady Fortune in the Consolation of Philosophy. What was the Consolation? Just one of the most influential literary-philosophical texts of the entire medieval era—Lewis had once written that to read it is almost to become “naturalized in the Middle Ages”—and a book that Lewis said deeply influenced his own personal philosophy of life and sense of vocation (as I have pointed out in my chapter of C S Lewis’s List as well as in my Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians – both books that Baxter draws upon in building his argument). Also, talk about a piece of crisis literature: Boethius wrote the piece while in jail awaiting execution!

How to sum up my response to Baxter’s book? Here is a Dante scholar writing about Lewis, who the late Marsha Daigle-Williamson has shown us was deeply indebted to the great medieval Italian poet, about how medieval literature shaped the Oxford don’s mind (see especially chapter 5: “Why Lewis Loved Dante”). Here is a deeply sacramental thinker teaching us “how to pray to a medieval God” (chapter 6) and drawing on Lewis’s “space trilogy” to do it, as an illustration of “how ubiquitous . . . ‘sacramentalism’ [is] in Lewis’s imagination,” reminding us, in the words of the underappreciated Lewis book The Four Loves: “Indeed, Lewis himself summed up the whole essence of the Christian life as turning ‘from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain.’” And here is a committed Christian scholar peering into the Lewisian theme of salvation as personal transformation in an almost homiletical way: “Deep Conversion and Unveiling” (chapter 7).

There are many joys in this book that go beyond its portrayal of a modern Christian humanist who professed to have an almost entirely premodern mind. But as I conclude, I’d like to return to this theme and suggest that a reading program that sought to recapture Lewis’s long-medieval Christian humanism for the multi-layered moment of cultural crisis in which we live today might fruitfully start with Baxter, before moving to the books by Alan Jacobs and Michael Ward cited above, and then diving into the “deep end” with Regent College theologian Jens Zimmermann’s masterful survey of Christian humanism (and the anti-humanisms of modernity) from Plato to today, Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (2012). From that point – who knows what vistas might open?

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