Tag Archives: Discarded Image

In which C S Lewis meets the “bookish people” of the Middle Ages and shares their love of old books with new readers


A Roman Missal - the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A Roman Missal – the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A few posts ago, we looked at C S Lewis’s youthful disdain of the medieval period. When at Oxford he had been faced with the thoroughgoing (if heretodox) supernaturalism of two friends who had become converts to Rudolf Steiner‘s mystical Anthroposophy, he had thrown his hands up in despair: “why–damn it–it’s medieval!” Such ancient superstitions, he had snorted, had no place in the modern mind, guided as it is by the light of clear-eyed reason.

Little did this self-described “chronological snob” know that he would soon become not only a scholar of medieval literature, but in fact one of the foremost modern exponents of that thoroughly supernatural ancient and medieval faith: Christianity. Before long he was urging his readers to read two old books for every new book they read, for the latter are still untested (and often simply wrong).

Near the end of his long, Boethian career as a “traditionerfor a dark and amnesiac age, Lewis compiled and refined the notes from twenty years of Cambridge lectures on medieval culture, and published them under the title The Discarded Image.

Here, with great and obvious affection, Lewis described medieval people’s passionate allegiance to the “traditioned” (passed-down) written word. The subtext throughout was clear: If only we moderns could catch this same lovesickness for the past: How much wiser we would be! Not, he clearly warned, that we should swallow whole the errors of past thinkers. But that we should let their ancient wisdom correct our own:

the Middle Ages as time of “traditioning”

In Discarded Image (a compendium of lectures he gave at Cambridge), Lewis shows us that medievals trusted implicitly historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He notes “the overwhelmingly bookish . . . character of medieval culture,” elaborating: “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. . . . Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer . . . preferably a Latin one.” He distinguishes this impulse both from the “savage” (primitive) community, in which “you absorb your culture . . . from the immemorial pattern of behavior” and from the modern West, in which “most knowledge depends, in the last resort, on observation” (that is, the empiricism of the scientific method). “But,” he concludes, “the Middle Ages depended predominantly on books,” despite lower literacy rates than much of the modern world enjoys. (DI, 5)

Lewis also shows that medievals saw truth not just in Scripture and explicitly Christian tradition, but also in the words of the Pagan philosophers and the works of Greco-Roman culture—indeed far more the Roman than the Germanic authorities [note: “For one reference to Wade or Weland we meet fifty to Hector, Aeneas, Alexander, or Caesar.” (DI, 8)].

For the medieval person, tradition was not past but present. And it was not merely intellectual—some card-file of truths that one dragged out in an argument. It was a matter of the heart. Continue reading

C S Lewis and the ancient/medieval path of desire


Augustine, desiring.

Augustine, desiring.

Here’s a bit of Lewis material from the draft introduction to the “affective devotion” chapter of my Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. This is the setup for the following post, which will delve more into what Lewis, following Boethius and the Neoplatonists, thought was our real desire, and how following it would make us more truly ourselves:

Lewis was a scholar of the medieval period, but his medievalism was much more than intellectual. He was medieval not only in his mind, but also in his heart. This we see not only in his youthful encounters with sehnsucht (yearning joy) while reading medieval Norse myths, or in his abiding affection for the passionate poetic vision of Dante, but also in his love for the way medieval people viewed the world and their place in it. As he said in The Discarded Image: “I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old [medieval cosmological] Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors.”[1]

At the center of this heart sympathy for the medieval way of seeing the world was a very particular understanding of how our emotions move each of us along our path to God. Significantly, in his apologetic writings, Lewis frames both his own movement toward faith and the usual human process of conversion as an Augustinian quest of desire. Augustine’s dictum “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee” and his cry, in the Confessions, “Inebriate me, O God!” arose from a Christianization of a classical philosophy called eudaemonism (from the Greek word for happiness, eudaimonia). Classical philosophers had asked, “What makes man truly happy?” Early and medieval Christian eudaemonists answered out of the ubiquitous scriptural language of reward: We are happy when God fulfills his promises and our desires by giving us his loving presence. According to Augustine, the key to happiness is to want the one right thing, which is God himself.

Lewis agreed, and he found pernicious and un-Christian the modern ethic of absolute abnegation of desire: Continue reading