In preparation for a class assignment I recently had a chance to revisit The Discarded Image, one of my favorite books by C.S. Lewis. Different in tone and substance from much of his other writings, it is a series of lectures on the Medieval worldview drawn from his lectures on Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Oxford University.
One of my primary interests in the book is the aesthetic beauty of an outmoded view of creation, the “discarded image” of the title. Lewis’s description of the geocentric model is a stunning tour-de-force which invites the reader to truly understand how people viewed the world in a bygone culture. Drawn from classical sources such as Aristotle and Ptolemy, and passed on by early Medievals such as Lucan and particularly Boetheus, the model was appropriated by the Christian church, grafted into Biblical interpretation, and served as a foundational cosmology for nearly a millenium. Most literate adults are most familiar with a version of this model from Dante, but Lewis presents a portait that encompasses a vast swath of literature and poetry. This view of the universe did not only influence the imagination of the past, but has continued to provide influence for composers (such as Orff’s Carmina Burana) and writers such as Tolkein, Lewis’s own Narnia series, and even arguably for more recent fantasy writers such as Rowling. It is a universe filled with light, intelligence, and love. It is one of the most detailed, rational, and internally coherent cosmologies ever constructed.
And of course, it was wrong.
This is the other fascinating aspect of Lewis’s book which I love: it serves as a cautionary tale of being too tied to our cosmologies or theories of how reality functions. Many otherwise intelligent people had become so wedded to this model of the universe that its disproval threatened the foundation of their faith. As much as modern Christians want to erase the episode from history, the reality is that many (but certainly not all) people of faith argued vociferously against heliocentrism as a potentially fatal compromise to the integrity of scripture, including many of the Protestant reformers. Since that time, most have recognized and corrected for the role that a particular medieval culture played in interpreting scripture to support a fatally flawed cosmology. There is a warning here, though, against allowing our culture (or allowing a reaction against our culture) to tie us down with non-essential or decontextualized interpretations of religious beliefs.
Writing in the mid-Twentieth century, Lewis shared a concern with contemporaries such as Tolkein and Elliott that modernity had become a dehumanizing, anti-personal force. Almost prophetically, Lewis saw the handwriting on the wall for hyper-rational atheistic materialism and its mirror image (what we would call postmodernism), both leading to despair. Just as the Medieval worldview crumpled in when it could not “preserve the phenomena” presented by empirical science, the modern scientific worldview has demonstrated a fatal weakness in its lack of attention to the movements of the human heart. Are we in the midst of a large-scale change of worldviews again? Is the conflict between modernist and postmodern philosophies a precursor to a new image that is in process of development?
In the midst of our current cultural turmoil, it is also fascinating to note that forms of geocentricsm are making a comeback in some quarters. I will return to this intriguing question later.