Greek philosophers enjoying a good dialectical throwdown
In our last post from the “tradition chapter” draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis, we saw that Lewis and the medievals shared a deep appreciation for the wisdom of the pagan philosophers. Was this some antiquarian hobby for Lewis, like collecting old stamps? Here we dig deeper: what possible use could the old philosophers still have for us today?
It is hard to overstate how much Lewis valued pagan knowledge. He had been told as a boy that “Christianity was 100% correct and every other religion, including the pagan myths of ancient Greece and Rome, was 100% wrong.” But because he had already encountered the wisdom of the philosophers, he found that this insistence on the opposition of Christianity to paganism drove him away from, rather than toward, the Christian faith. As it turned out, he abandoned his childhood faith “largely under the influence of classical education.”
It was to this experience of valuing philosophy highly and then being told that Christianity must supplant it that Lewis owed his “firm conviction that the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for paganism.” Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged apologetics, Boethius, C S Lewis, classicalism, Classics, evangelism, Middle Ages, paganism, philosophy, Socratic Club, The Silver Chair, Tradition
Dante and Beatrice speak to the teachers of wisdom Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter Lombard and Sigier of Brabant in the Sphere of the Sun (fresco by Philipp Veit), Canto 10. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It’s all very well to say that C S Lewis and the medievals valued tradition–indeed, that they hung their hopes for understanding the Truth of things on their ability to understand and act on the wisdom passed down to them. But what was the nature of that tradition? Yes, Christian, of course. But also, as we will see, Pagan.
Tradition included Pagan as well as Christian wisdom
In Discarded Image, Lewis shows us that medievals implicitly trusted historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He also shows that they 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. This was true from Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr through Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante. Though the pagan philosophers had not known Christ in his incarnate form, they too, along with all people, had been given access to the logos – the wisdom of the second person of the Trinity.
In other words, medieval poets, jurists, moral teachers, romance writers, and theologians—all creating compendia of knowledge for their readers—were often gleefully syncretistic. Not that they didn’t care whether the deepest truth of things was to be understood in Christian, Platonic, Stoic, or Pagan terms. Christianity always provided the framework, the “norming norm,” for truth. But within that framework one might fit all the best thought of the pagans, as Christian thinkers had been doing ever since Paul spoke to the Greeks at Mars Hill about their “Unknown God,” using the words of their own poets (“In him we live and move and have our being.”)
What else would we expect from the early spread of “the Way” to the Gentiles? Continue reading
The Parable of the Good Samaritan by Jan Wijnants (1670) shows the Good Samaritan tending the injured man. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Here’s the next bit of the “hospitals chapter” in Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. It follows from this bit on Lewis and this introductory bit.
So how did all of this translate into a Christian emphasis on bodily care? For the early and medieval churches were notable for healing. Yes, miraculous healing, on occasion. But also, and much more frequently, the sort of healing that comes from basic nursing care and the application of medical knowledge (however rudimentary during most of the period we’re studying).
The Pagans in the Roman world of Christianity’s birth had no such distinctive. They had “no religious impulse for charity that took the form of personal concern for those in distress.” Indeed the Pagans taught neither compassion nor active mercy as virtues. To be merciful only helped the weak—those who were drags on society.
It is important that we “get” how radical this change was, from the Pagan to the Christian attitude toward illness and healing: “In the cramped, unsanitary warrens of the typical Roman city, under the miserable cycle of plagues and famines, the sick found no public institutions dedicated to their care and little in the way of sympathy or help.” Continue reading
Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A while back I gave, at the Madison, Wisconsin C S Lewis Society’s conference, sponsored by the Bradshaw-Knight Foundation, a much fuller version of the take on Lewis’s “Boethianism” than the one I had originally tried out on the Medieval Congress CSL crowd at Kalamazoo. Here’s the Madison paper.
There’s more here on Boethius’s philosophical influence on Lewis, as well as a refinement on the ways in which Boethius seems to have influenced Lewis vocationally. I did, however, truncate the end from what I had prepared to give. I’ll add my original pre-conclusion ending, which reflects on fortune and eudaimonism using Lewis’s last published essay, “We have no ‘right to happiness,'” after the paper proper.
Probably the author who influenced me most in my expansion of the Kzoo paper was Adam Barkman. Serendipitously, I discovered a few days before the conference that he was to give the paper right after me. It was an honor to get to know him and hang out with him at the conference. Everyone interested in Lewis and philosophy, or really, everyone seriously interested in Lewis from any perspective, needs to buy Adam’s book, C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life.
“Lewis the Boethian,” paper for Bradshaw-Knight CSL conference Oct. 2012, Madison, Wisconsin
Copyright 2012 by Chris R. Armstrong. THIS PAPER IS DISTRIBUTED WITH THE UNDERSTANDING THAT THOSE READING IT WILL NOT CITE OR QUOTE IT WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR.
He was a philosopher first, and then a master of literature, with his Christianity informing both. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Adam Barkman, Aristotle, Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, CS Lewis, eudaemonism, Fortune, neoplatonism, Pagan culture, paganism, philosophy, Plato, The Discarded Image, vocation
The Muses dancing–an image from the 1500s. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yes, Lewis really did think, in this post-Christian world, that it would be a step forward if we returned to at least some forms, some values, of Paganism. A Classicist by temper and training, he argued this in some writings with great seriousness, but in the following poem with a wink:
Cliche Came Out of its Cage
You said ‘The world is going back to Paganism’.
Oh bright Vision! I saw our dynasty in the bar of the House
Spill from their tumblers a libation to the Erinyes,
And Leavis with Lord Russell wreathed in flowers, heralded with flutes,
Leading white bulls to the cathedral of the solemn Muses
To pay where due the glory of their latest theorem.
Hestia’s fire in every flat, rekindled, burned before
The Lardergods. Unmarried daughters with obedient hands
Tended it By the hearth the white-armd venerable mother
Domum servabat, lanam faciebat. at the hour
Of sacrifice their brothers came, silent, corrected, grave
Before their elders; on their downy cheeks easily the blush
Arose (it is the mark of freemen’s children) as they trooped,
Gleaming with oil, demurely home from the palaestra or the dance.
Walk carefully, do not wake the envy of the happy gods,
Shun Hubris. The middle of the road, the middle sort of men,
Are best. Aidos surpasses gold. Reverence for the aged
Is wholesome as seasonable rain, and for a man to die
Defending the city in battle is a harmonious thing.
Thus with magistral hand the Puritan Sophrosune
Cooled and schooled and tempered our uneasy motions;
Heathendom came again, the circumspection and the holy fears …
You said it. Did you mean it? Oh inordinate liar, stop.
Or did you mean another kind of heathenry?
Think, then, that under heaven-roof the little disc of the earth,
Fortified Midgard, lies encircled by the ravening Worm.
Over its icy bastions faces of giant and troll
Look in, ready to invade it. The Wolf, admittedly, is bound;
But the bond will break, the Beast run free. The weary gods,
Scarred with old wounds the one-eyed Odin, Tyr who has lost a hand,
Will limp to their stations for the Last defence. Make it your hope
To be counted worthy on that day to stand beside them;
For the end of man is to partake of their defeat and die
His second, final death in good company. The stupid, strong
Unteachable monsters are certain to be victorious at last,
And every man of decent blood is on the losing side.
Take as your model the tall women with yellow hair in plaits
Who walked back into burning houses to die with men,
Or him who as the death spear entered into his vitals
Made critical comments on its workmanship and aim.
Are these the Pagans you spoke of? Know your betters and crouch, dogs;
You that have Vichy water in your veins and worship the event
Your goddess History (whom your fathers called the strumpet Fortune).
Clive Staples Lewis
Participants in yoga marathon (Wikimedia Commons)
As a student of medieval faith, I often see sophisticated appropriations of “non-Christian” cultural materials into a Christian framework. The original case of this, of course, was the 2nd-century apologists’ use of Greek philosophical material in explicating the faith to their contemporaries. Another example would be Gregory the Great‘s instructions to the monks he sent to evangelize England, that they should not destroy the pagan temples but “repurpose” them. Continue reading
From a fascinating book by Darrel W. Amundsen—Medicine, Society, and Faith in the Ancient and Medieval Worlds (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996)—come the following observations on early Christian attitudes toward medicine and physicians. These excerpts come from chapter 5, “Medicine and Faith in Early Christianity” (sentences not in quotation marks are comments from me). See here for further insights from Amundsen, on what medievals thought caused illness. And see here for some of his observations on the spiritual usefulness of illness and the meaning of plague.
“While among pagans  and Christians the same range of attitudes toward medicine and healing existed, there was one essential difference between pagans and at least those Christians who had actively embraced the gospel. . . . This pervasive difference between pagans and Christians resulted from the highly personal relationship existing between the individual Christian and an omnipotent God who was typically viewed as a having a direct concern with and involvement in the life of the believer. Continue reading
Posted in Resources for Radical Living
Tagged Augustine of Hippo, Gregory Nazianzen, healing, health, Jerome, John Chrysostom, medicine, Origen of Alexandria, paganism, stoicism, suffering