Tag Archives: Tradition

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

Storytelling ourselves back into a Christian ethic: C S Lewis’s approach to fiction

The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

C S Lewis wrote his stories to help readers imaginatively indwell a moral tradition. This is an excerpt of the “tradition chapter” draft from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Teaching through stories

Lewis saw literature’s purpose as “delighting and informing,” with a heavy (didactic) emphasis on the latter, I’d add!—this was famously the source of Tolkien’s low estimation of the Narnia Chronicles.

What Lewis did in his stories was to re-narrate the stories of our traditions, allowing his readers to indwell truths of the past, “Enjoying” them (that is, seeing the world by their light) and not just “Contemplating” them (that is, knowing the analytically and propositionally). This was his practical application of a principle he enunciated like this: “Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” Lewis, like the allegorist Boethius, knew that if we are to pass the meaning of our faith from generation to generation, an excellent way to do so is through story. Continue reading

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. . . . Continue reading

C S Lewis and his homeboy Boethius – two “public intellectual” peas in a pod

A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

Boethius teaching his students (1385). Boethius, a 6th-c. Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in the post-Roman West. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Here’s another in the brief series I’ve started of posts from the Tradition chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. First came a couple of posts that looked at Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). Then a look at his prescription for this illness: old books. This post looks at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius.

What Lewis did himself

Lewis was not content just to stand on the sidelines of modern discussion about Christian theology and lob in the occasional reminder of tradition. Again and again, in his essays, stories, and letters, Lewis insists that apart from tradition, we are adrift in the errors of our own age. Indeed, soon after his 1931 conversion, this compulsion became a full-blown vocation for the Oxford don and lay theologian. He was to become a public intellectual—a conduit to past wisdom for an amnesiac generation. It was a vocation he shared with one of his favorite writers, who was also one of the most influential thought leaders in the medieval period – a man who wrote as the Roman Empire was crumbling, and attempted to preserve Christian as well as Greek philosophical truth for a time in danger of losing its inherited wisdom. Continue reading

C S Lewis: You can, and must, teach a new church old books

C S Lewis and an Old Book

C S Lewis and an Old Book

These days I’m posting from the Tradition chapter of “Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.” The past couple of days have been dedicated to Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). This post begins to look at what he proposed to do about this syndrome of amnesia.

Lewis’s solution to the detachment from tradition in modern society

In his Cambridge lecture (“De Descriptione Temporum”), Lewis insisted that we needn’t think of history as nostalgia or slavish following of past wisdom. He reminded his listeners of the freeing effect experienced by those in therapy who surface and deal with forgotten elements from their individual pasts. Similarly, he argued, “I think no class of men are less enslaved to the past than historians. It is the unhistorical who are usually without knowing it enslaved to a very recent past.”

“Most of all, perhaps, we need intimate knowledge of the past . . . because we . . . need something to set against the present, to remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods. . . . A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.. . . .”[1] Continue reading

C S Lewis and chronological snobbery: “Why–damn it–it’s medieval!”

Old-books-on-shelves-001Lewis was born to save the modern world from trashing its traditions – both Christian and classical. Once he had converted from his own “chronological snobbery,” he quickly found a vocation in recovering tradition for others. This is the second post from the “Tradition chapter” of Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis. The first is here.

For an idea of how Lewis viewed the power of tradition, we turn to his answer to the Christian Century magazine when they asked him, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The wording of that question is crucial. They asked not “what books did most to influence your style?” or “fire your imagination?” or “give you templates for your own writing?” etc., but rather “what books shaped your vocational attitude and philosophy of life.” As we see in the preface to Sister Penelope’s translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione, retitled “On reading old books” in later anthologies, and even more in his De Descriptione Temporum address at Cambridge in the Fall of 1954, nothing more triggered for Lewis “the place where his deep gladness met the world’s deep need”[1] than the modern abandonment of tradition. I mean his sense that in abandoning tradition, the modern world had dealt itself a grievous wound, which only his Christian faith kept him from seeing as inevitably fatal.

Lewis was perhaps the best prepared person of his generation for the task of appreciating and passing on the wisdom of past generations to those yet to come. Continue reading

. . . in which C S Lewis’s Screwtape explains how “historicism” has rendered the past useless to modern scholars

C S Lewis's demon Screwtape, writing about how much he just LOVES "historicism"

C S Lewis’s demon Screwtape, writing about how much he just LOVES “historicism”

Today I begin posting from the “Tradition chapter” of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis – or as I’m now less flippantly inclined to call it: Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis.

Though this is not the opening of the chapter, I’d like to start with Lewis’s take on the “presenting problem” when the church begins talking about tradition in the 20th (and now 21st) century:

Lewis states the modern problem

The situation we find ourselves in, where we would even have to defend tradition as a good thing in the Christian church, dates back to Lewis’s day and beyond. In his famous lecture to the Cambridge University audience assembled to witness his installation as the Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Studies at that university, Lewis described his own mid-20th-century European setting as one of cultural darkness and amnesia, and himself as a kind of dinosaur—one of the few left in that dark age of wars and rumors of wars. He described himself as a specimen who still spoke the native language of the old Christian Western tradition as a native, and who could thus be a precious resource for a society and a culture that had drifted far from its moorings in the Great Tradition of Christianized Greek thought.

Lewis found this change diabolical, and he made this clear by putting it in the mouth of the senior demon in his Screwtape Letters: “Only the learned read old books and we have now so dealt with the learned that they are of all men the least likely to acquire wisdom by doing so.” The infernal realm had accomplished this, Screwtape continued, by making “the Historical Point of View” into a scholarly dogma. Continue reading

Gnostic or hedonist – it all amounts to devaluing Creation


I think I’m well and truly into the Creation chapter of Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Hoping to have it finished tonight or tomorrow. As with most of the other chapters, I’m starting with a framing of the modern problem(s) to which medieval faith suggests a solution. In this case, we’re looking at two sub-Christian attitudes to material stuff (including rocks, strawberries, gerbils, our human bodies, and all the ways we make culture in our social interactions). I don’t discuss the “medieval” solution yet – that will come in the next couple of posts.

Our issues: Gnosticism and materialism


The early Christian Gnostics disavowed the spiritual significance and goodness of the material world: the world was created not by our God, who called his handiwork “good,” but rather by an inferior sub-god called a “demiurge.” Thus one must set aside the material world if one is to reach God. The world cannot be in any way a channel of Grace – it is rather an impediment to grace.

One online author who is convinced he sees Gnosticism all over the modern church suggests the following tests—a sort of “you might be a gnostic if . . .” The signs of gnostic thinking he identifies are (1) thinking Christianity is about “spiritual” things (only), (2) thinking of our destiny only in terms of our souls going off to heaven, (3) forgetting that “Christianity teaches the redemption of all creation (New Creation) and not evacuation from creation (‘the rapture’),” and (4) believing that God neither gives us material things as means of grace, nor indeed cares about the earth at all – and neither should we.

This syndrome of devaluing the material—sapping it of all spiritual significance—supports a number of modern Christian bad habits. One is the sort of “it’s all gonna burn” end-times scenario indulged in the Left Behind novels. Another is the excuse Baby Boomers (and others) make for the fact that their faith makes no difference in their daily life: “I’m ‘spiritual but not religious.’”[1] Continue reading

C S Lewis’s use of story to “train the heart,” per Paul Ford, in the latter’s delightful Companion to Narnia

The Pevensy children and the lamppost

This is me reflecting in my “Tradition chapter” draft (for the forthcoming Getting Medieval with C. S. Lewis) on Paul Ford’s understanding of how C S Lewis used story, in the Narnia Chronicles, to initiate readers into a traditional moral reality by drawing their desires into play. It supports and resonates with this post.

Paul Ford, Companion to Narnia, “Introduction” and “Story”

“Story, Stories” (pp. 412-13)

“The seven books of the Chronicles of Narnia are testament to the fact that Lewis valued stories and story-telling as the best way to transmit values down through the generations. The difference in quality between the New Narnians and the Old Narnians (as personified by Miraz and Prince Caspian) is faith. Miraz thinks fairy tales are for children and to be outgrown, while for Caspian the old stories are his salvation.” (412)

“Introduction,” sub-section “What Is a Story?

There is much wisdom here about story as moral education because it is a key way our emotions are trained. So too tradition: it is handed down as of immense value, it forms our culture’s “ways of seeing,” of “Enjoying” truths by indwelling them and using them to “see other things by”—like “looking along the beam” rather than “looking at the beam”—the latter being the analytical mode that Lewis calls Contemplating, rather than Enjoying.

The nature of the education that story gives us is described by Gilbert Meilaender, quoted at length in this section: “‘Moral education . . . does not look much like teaching. One cannot have classes in it. It involves the inculcation of proper emotional responses and is as much a ‘knowing how’ as a ‘knowing that.’ . . . The picture we get when we think of ‘knowing how’ is the apprentice working with the master. And the inculcation of right emotional responses [see “men without chests” image in Abolition of Man] will take place only if the youth has around him examples of men and women for whom such responses have become natural. . . . Lewis, like Aristotle, believes that moral principles are learned indirectly from others around us, who serve as exemplars Continue reading

Beyond labels: Alan Jacobs defends three “potentially conservative” ideas, not caring whether he is actually “a conservative”

Good brief article from Wheaton English professor and C S Lewis biographer Alan Jacobs over at the American Conservative website.

Here’s how he starts off:

Am I a conservative? Heck if I know. All I know for sure is that the good people here atThe American Conservative are interested enough in what I have to say to give me a platform on which to say it. For which I am genuinely grateful.

I am not and never have been a Republican. I feel roughly as alienated from that party as I do from the Democratic Party. I hold a number of political views that strong-minded Republicans typically find appalling: I think racism is one of the greatest problems in American society today; I am not convinced that austerity programs are helpful in addressing our economic condition; I am absolutely convinced that what many Republicans call free-market capitalism is in fact crony capitalism, calculated to favor the extremely wealthy and immensely powerful multinational corporations; I think that for all of the flaws of Obamacare, it was at least an attempt to solve a drastically unjust and often morally corrupt network of medical care in this country; I dislike military adventurism, and believe that our various attempts at nation-building over the past decade were miscalculated from the outset.

So is there any sense in which I might plausibly be called a conservative? I don’t really know; I’ll leave that to others to decide. It doesn’t really matter to me whether I fit into any pre-existing political or intellectual categories. I can only say this: that I do have three overarching political commitments (or beliefs, or convictions) that are more important to me than any others.

Jacobs goes on to articulate three stances that he holds that may be considered “conservative”: (1) a consistent pro-life position, (2) support for the principle of subsidiarity in political and social thought, and (3) need to interact with tradition/the past.

I have a great deal of sympathy with the positions Jacobs identifies here. I am especially delighted to see subsidiarity articulately described and defended. I am with Novak, Nisbet, Chesterton, Belloc, certain encyclicals, and others on the necessity of protecting folks from “the ravishments of the centralized political state” (Nisbet). I also find this a powerful statement of one of our most urgent current tasks: “A great deal of suffering in America today is caused by the evacuation of intermediary structures: the church, the family, voluntary organizations. These intermediary structures are in desperate need of renewal and that can only happen if there is a systematic shift of power, wealth, and influence from state and national governments to local units.”