Here is a paper I wrote back in February responding to C. S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image, for my course titled “Medieval Wisdom for Modern Ministry.” It’s not good, but for now it is all I can post.
In response to Max Weber’s assertion that modernity functioned as “the disenchantment of the world,” C. S. Lewis agreed with a caveat: that disenchantment is the work of an evil enchanter.1 He then argues in The Discarded Image that every age has a model of reality that is in relationship with the human mind, both influencing and being influenced by “the prevailing temper of mind” (222). Thus, the move from the medieval model of the universe to the modern one is not “a simple progress from error to truth,” but is evidence of a deep, inner change in human psychology which then demanded new answers from nature. Those answers were shaped by the questions we asked of nature, and those questions were limited by the presuppositions of modern thought which a priori excluded the possibility of the supernatural.2 This is an impoverishment of both human reason and human imagination, and thus the medieval model is in comparison more alive and more human than that of the modern world. While Lewis states that he is not recommending returning to the medieval model, it can be concluded that Lewis saw the modern psychology of man and thus the modern model of reality as partially wrought by the Devil fooling humanity into such a state. Our task, then, in the twenty-first century is not to attempt to reposition the medieval model but, like Lewis, to name and work against the evil enchanter that has forced upon us such presuppositions and such a psychology of mind, showing the world what closed-mindedness, meaninglessness and evil lurk behind and before our modern model. Sadly, our hearts and minds may need larger and more catastrophic events to displace our current model, ones far larger and more catastrophic to our psyches than was the nova of 1572 was to the medieval psyche.
Having detailed much of the medieval model (the heavens, earth and its creatures, humanity, angels, etc.), Lewis concludes that this model “had a built-in significance” (204), and thus the medieval writer did not have to “discover” or give the universe a meaning or shape by himself: he only had to make a proper response to its meaning that stood outside him and confronted him. This is a profoundly different situation than the one of modern man. Since he has been enchanted into strictly rationalistic presuppositions, modern man is not confronted with a universe that is alive with a plenitude of beings and structures which all have their own significance, but rather with a universe that is silent and vague and even chaotic and unknowable. While this is ‘our Model,’ we have made it thus. Ours is the Silent Planet: we have ceased speaking to the universe since we assume that it cannot possibly speak back to us in any lively way at all; we who make such models become like them (Ps. 115:8).
Lewis himself admits that the modern criticism of the medieval model stands: it is not true (216). Yet, we ought not discard the entire medieval image altogether since no model is entirely true, and the advances in quantum physics have recently born this generalization out in relation to our model. Lewis seems to be saying here that we ought not dismiss the new empirical evidence from science if it does not fit our current model (medieval or otherwise), but that we ought neither to dismiss every single element or presupposition of a model because one part of the model has been disproved. He clearly sees this being done by modern man: the supernatural, the enchantment, the living qualities of each part of reality, and even man’s imagination itself have all been discarded along with the biological and astronomical conclusions of the medieval model. Again, like Lewis we have to see that this move made 300 years ago has greatly impoverished humanity as humanity: our hearts have been taken from our chests and we no longer are able to “delight” in the world around us like the medievals did. Getting the mathematics and physics equations correct is only half of living as a human being; the other half involves the affections of our hearts which are there to delight in the world, and primarily in God himself. We have been reduced to “knowing” reality in only one way—and that one step removed from reality itself—by rationality and mathematics (216-7). Even though the medieval model was not completely “true,” ours is no more “true” since we are unable to get nearer to the real stuff of the universe than a metaphor or equation.
As well as asking if our model is “true,” Lewis would likely wish us to ask if it is moral: does the model under which we live help us live as fully-functioning human beings in the world, including helping us make our moral decisions? If not, if all that remains in the category of “truth” is mathematical and physical fact, and if the universe and humanity have no inherent significance and meaning, then the only decision humanity has before it is how to use those facts. Yet, without any guiding strictures on that “how” each individual human is bound to interpret and use those facts only for herself, since she is the sole locus and arbiter of significance and meaning in the world. This is the very definition of power, something which our century has proved to have no intrinsic moral value at all. Lewis clearly saw the medieval model of the universe as inherently moral—it was precisely Reason which deduced ideas about that universe that was also the organ of morality—thus in some sense normative for humanity at that time. Our model has severed that link in Reason and thus we have no ability to think rationally about morality in the public sphere; indeed, the idea is nearly nonsense to most and that is evidence, Lewis would say, that “you and I have need of the strongest spell that can be found to wake us.”3
1 C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses (New York: Macmillan, 1980), p. 7.
2 For evidence of this closed-mindedness of both Lewis and his tutor Dr. Kirkpatrick, see Lewis’ autobiographical Surprised by Joy (New York: Harvest Book, 1955), pp. 132ff.
3 Lewis, Weight of Glory, p. 7.