Dusting off an Old Image
“Medieval man shared many ignorances with the savage, and some of his beliefs may suggest savage parallels to an anthropologist. But he had not usually reached these beliefs by the same route as the savage.” – The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis, Page 1.
Such begins C.S. Lewis’s book The Discarded Image, one of C.S. Lewis’s greatest books, in my opinion.
It is not a story. There are no memorable characters. There are no Christ-like lions. There are aren’t parallels to classic works, like the myth of Psyche and Cupid or Dante’s Divine Comedy. There aren’t even simple explanations of the Christian faith or a new way of looking at quite common problems.
Instead, it is quite dense. It is a printed form of lectures given to people who are assumed to both know who Ovid is and to have read him in the original Latin; who are assumed to know their Latin, plus be able to comprehend Middle and Olde English, and be competent in some basic Greek. They are also supposed to know who “Albertus” is.
Yikes. Upon picking it up the first time, that was not me.
Justifying a Classic
While this book is not for the faint of heart, I now know it to be intensely valuable. There is an unbelievable amount of information there for the taking. As we live in a Postmodern world, built on Modern scientific revolutions and Enlightenment thinking, we can forget where we came from. This books helps to bridge that gap.
Take one example: What is “space”? That’s where the stars and planets are, right? Well, that’s where we believe they are now. Five hundred years ago, and for centuries before that, the planets and stars would be in “the heavens.” As Plato explained, the perfect element “aether/ether” exists in the heavens, and allows the perfect motions of the stars and planets, as opposed to the chaotic path of things on earth.
However, John Milton wrote his epic poem Paradise Lost and published it in 1667, long after Copernicus in 1514, Tycho Brae in 1602, Kepler in 1609, and Galileo in 1610 blew up that old model of “the heavens.” Satan is supposed to come to Earth, but what surrounds Earth? Satan can’t fly through “aether,” because that doesn’t exist. Well, this thing above Earth must be empty. It must be vast. I guess we’ll say….
“How first began this Heav’n which we behold
Distant so high, with moving Fires adornd
Innumerable, and this which yeelds or fills
All space, the ambient Aire wide interfus’d
Imbracing round this florid Earth. . .”
All “space” . . . the ambient air inter-fused, embracing round this florid earth….
- ambient – “relating to the immediate surroundings of something”
- Aire – “air”
- interfused – late 16th century: from Latin, ‘poured among,’
- “imbracing round” – old spelling of “embracing,” to mean “going all around.”
- florid – excessively intricate or elaborate, also: “flowering”
How beautiful. And yes, that is why we call space “space.” Thank you, Milton. That tidbit can be found in a throwaway line of The Discarded Image on page 100.
Not only that, here’s another bit of information for the taking: 1 Samuel 16:12. It describes the future King David and says:
“And he sent and brought him in. Now he was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome. And the Lord said, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he.”
That word “ruddy” is quite tricky for the average Bible reader. You look in the dictionary, and it means “red-faced.” Huh? What does that mean? Did David run home from the fields, and is he now red-faced out of exhaustion? Does he have acne? Is he embarrassed?
Well, if you know the basics of medieval health, documented in pages 169-175 of The Discarded Image, you would know that having a “red face” is not just about color. Like having a “green face,” it means more. Lewis: “A fifteenth-century manuscript symbolises this complexion by a man . . . Richly dressed, playing on stringed instruments in a flowery place.” Stringed instrument? Richly Dressed? Sound like any king from the Bible you know?
Being “green” denotes being sick. Being “red” for the medieval man meant being full of something (blood) that makes you jolly. Ever wonder why Santa Claus has red cheeks? The man with an abundance of blood is both cheerful and hopeful. “His anger is easily roused but short-lived.” Does this not add to the character of David, who can both dance before the Lord with all his might and call down vengeance on his enemies in his Psalms? –both humiliate Saul by cutting off his robe and sneak into his camp to cut down his enemy and also spare his life in the end on both occasions? –both kill his friend Uriah for his wife and fall on his knees before Nathan to beg for forgiveness before the Lord?
David doesn’t merely “have a red face.” He is ruddy. It is a comment about who he is, not just about how he looks.
There are hundreds of others. And that’s the beauty of this book, it explains things you didn’t even know were things and allows you to see things you did not see before.
The Central Theme
But in the arcane facts and dense writing, the theme of the book emerges: the Medieval Mind had an organized model of the universe which heavily influenced the thinking of medieval men.
When new information came in, the goal of the thinker was not to throw out some old bit of information and replace it. Rather, it was to coalesce all human knowledge into a single understanding: a vastly complex and highly nuanced body of knowledge.
Not only was this model a useful one, says Lewis, but it was a beautiful one:
In speaking of the perfected Model as a work to be set beside the Summa and the Comedy, I meant that it is capable of giving a similar satisfaction to the mind, and for some of the same reasons. Like them it is vast in scale but limited and intelligible. Its sublimity is not the sort that depends on anything vague or obscure. It is, as I shall try to show later, a classical rather than a Gothic sublimity. Its contents, however rich and various, are in harmony.We see how everything links up with everything else; at one, not in flat equality, but in a hierarchical ladder. It might be supposed that this beauty of the Model was apparently chiefly to us who, no longer accepting it as true, are free to regard it — or reduced to regarding it — as if it were a work of art. But I believe this is not so. I think there is abundant evidence that it gave profound satisfaction while it was still believed in. I hope to persuade the reader not only that this Model of the Universe is a supreme medieval work of art but that it is in a sense the central work, that in which most particular works were embedded, to which they constantly referred, from which they drew a great deal of their strength.
– The Discarded Image, page 12 [emphasis added].
The Medieval Model of the universe was thoroughly coherent. Its literature agreed with its science because (as this is its chief weakness in the modern eye), there was very little difference between the categories of literature and science.
The medieval way of thinking was one of categorization and synthesis. Medieval thinkers read old authors and assumed that what they wrote was true. If the books were not true — or at least mostly true — why would the resources necessary to write, copy, recopy, and preserve them over generations be expended?
Today, the average person asks why we should believe nonsense we read in old books. Before, the average person believed that if a book were old, it was not nonsense.
The Medieval Model synthesized by taking old ideas, pulling out whatever truth could be gleaned, and synthesizing it with new knowledge. This is why Albertus Magnus around 1260 — for example and mentioned above — distills Christian and Aristotelian ideas and instructs us that yes, the old gods/planets of Jupiter, Saturn, Venus, Mars, etc. influence everything from crops to human events, but no good Christian can properly say that they control us.
So the old classical writers’ knowledge needs to be “updated” — but certainly not “cast out.” That is the scholastic categorization, slicing into smaller and smaller bits of understanding to gain a new coherent structure of all knowledge. Hence, Albertus tells us:
The burial in your field of a plate inscribed with the character of hieroglyph of a planet is permissible; to use with it invocations or ‘suffumigations’ is not (Speculum Astronomiae, X) – The Discarded Image, p. 104.
All new knowledge coming into the model was fit into the model. The old model was adjusted to fit in the new information. A beautiful coherence emerged.
The Old Model And The New
The prime benefit of reading the Discarded Image is not so much in understanding the medieval mind. Instead, it is the benefit of understanding our own time’s mind.
The Medieval Model of the universe, begun in Greek antiquity and culminating in the grand God-centered cosmology of Dante’s Divine Comedy and the comprehensive philosophy of the Summa Theologica, was dead and gone by the late 1600s. But something was taking its place. What was that new model?
The New Belief in the Upward Arc of History
Today, we no longer believe in the four humors, the four elements, the four contraries, or the seven planets (even though we keep them in our names of the days of the week). And these examples highlight the chief downside of the medieval model in the realm of astronomy and scientific discovery: it is not true. This lack of truth might lead one to believe that it is good to drop the entire medieval body of thought.
But this would be a mistake. Most causal observers of history believe that it was the astronomical discoveries of Copernicus, Galileo, and Kepler which brought on the end of the old way of thinking about things. And this is true. . . . . .for the most part.
The medieval model was not merely about science and astronomy. Lewis shows this in his concluding chapter. The quote is long because it is worth it to read in full:
But the change of Models did not involve astronomy alone. It involved also, in biology, the change–arguably more important–from a devolutionary to an evolutionary scheme; from a cosmology in which it was axiomatic that ‘all perfect things precede all imperfect things’ to one in which it is axiomatic that ‘the starting point (Entwicklungsgrund) is always lower than what is developed’ (the degree of change can be gauged by the fact that primitive is now in most contexts a pejorative term).
This revolution was certainly not brought about by the discovery of new facts. When I was a boy I believed that ‘Darwin discovered evolution’ and that the far more general, radical, and even cosmic developmentalism which which till lately dominated all popular thought was a superstructure raised on the biological theorem. This view has been sufficiently disproved. (See Lovejoy, op. cit. cap. ix.) The Statement Which I have just quoted about the Entwicklungsgrund was made by Schelling in 1812. In him, Keats, in Wagner’s Tetralogy, in Goethe, in Herder, the change to the new point of view has already taken place. It’s growth can be traced far further back in Leibniz, Akenside, Kant, Maupertuis, Diderot. Already in 1786 Robinet believes in an ‘active principle’ which overcomes brute matter, and la progression n’est pas finie. For him, as for Bergson or de Chardonnay, the ‘gates of the future are wide open’. The demand for a developing world–a demand obviously in harmony both with the revolutionary and the romantic temper–grows up first; when it is full grown the scientists go to work and discover the evidence on which our belief in that sort of universe would now be held to rest.
–The Discarded Image, Page 220-221.
The implications of this passage are immense, and compelling.
Lewis claims that Darwin did not discover the theory of evolution by going out, finding information, and then distilling it into a workable theory. Rather, Lewis claims that the philosophical work of Leibniz (died 1716), of Akenside (died 1740), of Kant (died 1804), of Goethe (died 1832), of Keats (died 1821), of Herder (died 1803), of Maupertuis (died 1759), and of Diderot (died 1784) is what allowed Darwin (On the Origin of the Species was published in 1859) to even imagine such a synthesis of the things he was seeing.
— Or to be more precise and bombastic: these philosophers and thinkers and poets were what made Darwin even go out looking for an answer to the question of the origin of the species.
Observing the Question
Some may balk at my suggestion that Darwin was “looking for” things.
This sounds like a cheap shot that denies the integrity of his method. His method was to explain past changes by causes currently in action. That is good, useful, and beneficial. That is not a loss. Rather, before I point to the loss, I’d like to observe that for the majority of history, no one was interested in “the origin of the species,” much less in classifying species in the manner of finding a common ancestor. Why was Darwin even thinking about this?
Aristotle was the first real zoologist (Sorry, Adam in Genesis 2 doesn’t count), and he was much more interested in the purpose of the species, not its origin. “What is it’s PURPOSE?” Not “where did it come from?” This telos was his curiosity, and the main way animals were classified, including Man.
Categories of motion, shape, feeling, and parts were involved. Aristotle wrote “The History of Animals,” and in it he makes concrete observations and comes to conclusions. As one example, take this passage from Book I of this work, where he correctly classifies sponges as “animals” instead of “plants”:
And, by the way, the sponge appears to be endowed with a certain sensibility: as a proof of which it is alleged that the difficulty in detaching it from its moorings is increased if the movement to detach it be not covertly applied.”
Is it really true that Aristotle and everyone for the 2000 years after him was too ignorant or bridled by religious authorities to consider the topics that Darwin considered? Or was it that an overarching philosophy that directed both Darwin and everyone else’s endeavors? The ancients knew about breeding. Why did no one connect the dots in the same way? Common ancestor? What would the point of such a category be?
Is the first move observation or overarching philosophy?
Room to Wiggle
It is worth noting that in the textbook level explanation of the Scientific Method, forming a hypothesis comes before the observation or experiment. Other iterations have steps like “observation” or “question” before “hypothesis” or “experiment,” but there is still room for a philosophy or a general assumption about the universe to creep in. How is one to make sense of particular observations without an assumption about how the world works?
As the classics said, education is not making the young “know and not know what they ought to know and not know.” Rather, proper education is making the young “like and dislike what you ought to like and dislike.” Ought? What is an ought? It is an assumption about what something should be — and “should be” is a phrase that admits that the “what” you’re thinking about doesn’t yet exist. It sees an idea and says how things should fit into that model of things.
There is a great deal of wiggle-room for philosophies to beg questions and push answers, even in science.
The Control of the Model over Man
So let us turn back to the issue of Darwin and Lewis’s (and my) accusation of him “looking for” things. How is this so?
Darwin made some observations. Very good ones. He saw that tortoises and finches and all sorts of animals were different on different geographically separated islands. He observed fossils that showed giant versions of tortoises, armadillos, and various other animals. He observed that the changes were suited to the survival within those particular environments. He reasoned to make the astute logical leap that over time, species of animals change.
Good, good. But then the assumptions come in:
- We see many species that seem to be quite specially adapted to the unique circumstances of their environment. We see small differences in the offspring of animals, including height, speed, beak shape, etc. We also see that differences which are most likely to survive, do survive most often, and these differences are often passed down to future generations through heredity.
(These observations are almost undeniably true)
- The best way to explain past events, including the origin of the species, is by choosing causes that we see presently in action.
(a very useful assumption)
- Therefore the origin of the species — that is, all species, including humans who are just animals — is the process of natural selection working over time.
(an unwarranted assumption)
- This process can be visualized like a tree, where one ancestor sprouts offspring who split off, followed by new offspring, who also split off.
(A synthesis completely received from the philosophers and poets)
Why do I call these assumptions? What proof do I have that this is wrong? Well, I don’t have proof, because we’re no longer in the realm of science and observation, or even rationality. We’re at the level of assumption.
Let me ask a few questions that poke at some of the assumptions:
- Why one tree?
- Why not three trees? Or five trees? Or ten trees?
- Why do all our visualizations show an “upward” trend?
- Why choose a tree for a visualization?
- Why not a downward trend?
- Why not a waterfall?
- Why not a river delta?
- Why not a complex plinko machine?
- Why not the world’s largest chaotic pool game on the world’s largest pool table?
How confident are you that what Darwin found was “the truth” as opposed to an explanation that was chosen because it fit in well with an underlying assumption — Schelling’s 1812 declaration that “all perfect things precede all imperfect things”?
How confident should you be?
Now, one very popular theory is that Darwin, as opposed to almost all who came before him, was the first to split from the Church’s position that “all things devolve from God” rather than the discovered Enlightenment truth that “Everything which is altered is altered by things that are perceptible to the senses.”
So perhaps it is a true advance of pure knowledge. But no. I call it explanation built on inherited assumptions. And I also call this general the-Church-hates-science narrative outright propaganda.
Why? Because “Everything which is altered is altered by things that are perceptible to the senses” actually comes from Aristotle, Physics, Book VII (~ 330 BC). The “Church’s position” about everything “devolving” from God? That was Plato. (See Susan Wise Bauer, The History of Western Science, Chapter 4.)
We cannot overlook the amount to which we just simply accept things given to us.
The Usefulness of the Medieval Model
This old understanding is not just good for “debunking” things or figuring out things like why the days of the week are named something. For myself I have found great practical use of the Medieval Model is to understand the Bible.
For example, one verse from the dialogue of Jesus in Matthew 23 kept bugging me. When decrying the Pharisees, Jesus Says:
29 “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets and decorate the graves of the righteous.30 And you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets.’ 31 So you testify against yourselves that you are the descendants of those who murdered the prophets. 32 Go ahead, then, and complete what your ancestors started!
Now, I’m a lawyer. I could not figure out how teachers of the law and Pharisees “testify against” themselves when they say they are descendants of those who murdered the prophets.
I know the Fifth Amendment. I know about self-incrimination. But if this were a courtroom and the Pharisees were my clients, I couldn’t figure out how the ancestry of these individuals would be self-incriminating. That’s not testimony against the Pharisees. That’s testimony against someone else.
Why is it testimony against them? One way to make sense of this is to say Jesus is hearkening back to some hard-core Deuteronomy, “punishing the children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me.” That sounds pretty harsh, and not very Jesus-y. Is that what this really means?
No. It doesn’t. The only reason this passage didn’t make sense to me is that I live in an age where people believe “the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.” We believe we’re going UP and getting BETTER. Those who rebel from this modern view usually think that we merely “stay the same.” But for most all of human history, people believed that all things DE-volve. They did not believe that people, animals, societies, or our morals E-volve. It was general knowledge that “you are no better than your father.”
If the fathers of the Pharisees murdered prophets, it will be impossible for the Pharisees to be any morally superior to those who murdered prophets. So, they should “go ahead,” and “complete what your ancestors started.”
And though they didn’t get it at the time, it’s not like the Pharisees didn’t believe this themselves. In their extended dialogue in the gospel of John, the Pharisees mock Jesus’s claims by saying “Are you greater than our father Abraham?” That’s not a genuine question. It’s a self-evident point: you are not better than Abraham.
Jesus shares this devolutionary framework. That’s why, rather than a simple “yes,” he responds with “Before Abraham was born, I am.” This is not just a comment about old age or time-travel. It’s a comment about who is better.
Likewise, Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 10:24-25 “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If they have called the master of the house Beelzebul, how much more will they malign those of his household.”
Again, after Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he tells them ““You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master.” Later he returns to this theme and says, “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.”
The modern evangelical reader trying to take the Bible seriously will likely read Jesus’s words as a lesson in humility about us compared to Jesus, and a prediction of things to come, and leading by example. But knowing the old way of thinking about the world makes things different. “A servant is not greater than his master” is not a bit of divine knowledge. It is an obvious truth. It not only leads by example, it is a real-world example that explains based on the assumptions the disciples already held.
What Does This Mean?
The main loss in the move to Enlightenment Modernism from medieval thinking is the conscious knowledge that your wisdom depends on thinkers who came before you and that your thought now rests on the assumptions those thinkers uncovered.
Descartes is an excellent case study of the dangers of abandoning assumptions. In seeking to doubt everything that came before, he doubts that even he, others, God, or the world exists. He wants to take nothing for granted, to take no vestiges of old assumptions and to ONLY rely on reason. To build his new understanding of the world, he pronounces as his starting axiom:
Cogito, ergo sum.
He says, “I think: Therefore, I am.” If this doubt of all these things exists, then something’s thinking. What’s thinking? Descartes is thinking. And if he’s thinking, then he exists: Cogito, ergo sum. From this single point of reference, we will regain true knowledge of the world.
Now, that’s cute, but he’s writing in Latin. Seeped into his very language is the grammar, definitions, and assumptions of this dead language used by educated men precisely for the purpose of being precise and having a unified body of knowledge.
Freud and his followers may say “I” think? Why “I” think or is it “id” thinks, or “ego” thinks? Philosophers of language and psychologist and neuroscientists could certainly raise good questions about who/what is ACTUALLY thinking, and “What do you ACTUALLY mean by cogito, ergo, and sum?” Even in his assumption-free statement, assumptions still reside.
Additionally, Descartes has certain assumptions about causes and levels of reality that are not only wrong, but seem to be borrowed and twisted from Aristotle/Aquinas and Plato, respectively. I mean, thanks for trying, but this does not get us closer to the truth.
But there is a better way.
There is a real intellectual power — a pattern of thought, base level assumptions and axioms about humanity, God, and morality — that is passed down and refined to create human societies, knowledge, and culture. This is the real horse that is pulling the load of our wisdom. We’re not doing this on our own. We got on this wagon not very long ago. The Clydesdale was already hitched up. The real power is not a human driver of the buggy who, through his own mental strength and knowledge, pushes human wisdom forward by his efforts and discovery. No. He merely drives the horse he received.
We build on what we have. We do not make things brand new. If we hold our own knowledge, discoveries, and society as evidence of our own intellectual and moral superiority over our ancestors, then we would ignore the past events that even allowed our current discoveries or functioning societies. Doing this falls into an old trap: condemning a sin that, thanks to the efforts of our predecessors, no longer exists in our society. It’s quite prideful and — regarding the truth of things — misleading. It blinds us to our own new sins, as we pat ourselves on the back for winning battles we never fought.
To return to my metaphor. . . . . . it puts Descartes before the horse.
In Conclusion…. …And More to Come
In an effort to keep my posts under 5000 words, I have decided to break this piece into two parts.
I hope that from this post you can see that all people, both medieval and current humanity, have a general framework of how they understand the universe to work. This framework of thinking is their “model,” and the model has enormous influence on what they believe and why they believe it.
I hope that I have exposed how both ancient and medieval people were not “dumber” than we are today, but rather that they had a different model and a different set of information.
I hope that you can see how it is useful to know about the Medieval Model (whose true origins go back further than the Middle Ages) so that we can understand the past and understand that we have a model ourselves which influences our own way of thinking.
In Part II, I intend to show why I think that returning to many ways of thinking that were ordinary for medieval men would be beneficial for us today. In doing so, I will finish my explanation of why I’m Neo-Medieval.
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