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medieval cosmology 2

Ecologists tell us that the interdependence of all living things makes the world more than a mechanism, more than the sum of its parts, perhaps even in some sense organically alive in its own right. But this is little more than a rediscovery in scientific terms of what had already been understood “poetically” in all previous civilizations. They may not have had (or needed) the term “ecology,” but the ancient writers were deeply aware of the inter-relatedness of the natural world, and of man as the focus or nexus of that world, which they expressed in the doctrine of correspondences. It was, of course, not scientific in its formulation, but it expressed a profound insight that remains valid, and the present ecological crisis could only have developed in a world that has forgotten it, or forgotten to live by it.

In A Secular Age (p. 60), the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, contrasts the ancient notion of cosmos with the modern secular universe:

I use “cosmos” for our forebearers’ idea of the totality of existence because it contains the idea of an ordered whole. It is not that our own universe isn’t in its own way ordered, but in the cosmos the order of things was a humanly meaningful one. That is, the principle of order in the cosmos was closely related to, often identical with, that which gives shape to our lives.

Thus Aristotle’s cosmos has at its apex and centre God, whose ceaseless and unvarying action exemplifies something close to Plato’s eternity. But this action, a kind of thinking, is also at the centre of our lives. Theoretical thought is in us that which is “most divine.” And for Plato, and this whole mode of thought in general, the cosmos exhibits the order which we should exemplify in our own lives, both individually and as societies.

Taylor adds that for medieval Christians, as for many of the ancients,

This kind of cosmos is a hierarchy; it has higher and lower levels of being. And it reaches its apex in eternity; it is indeed, held together by what exists on the level of eternity, the Ideas, or God, or both together – Ideas as the thoughts of the creator.

C.S. Lewis, who knew and loved the medieval “cosmos”, describes it as “tingling with anthropomorphic life, dancing, ceremonial, a festival not a machine” (cited in Ward, Planet Narnia, p. 24). It was an organic whole, ordered from within, animated by a hierarchy of souls, perhaps even by a “world soul.” This is not pantheism, although it could become so once the transcendence of God had been forgotten. It meant that nature possessed a sacred and spiritual value, by virtue of its creation by God and the immanent presence of God within it. The world was a book, pregnant with meanings that God had placed there. All things, even the conjectured world soul, were creatures. The stars and planets in particular were angelic creatures, participating in their own way in the cosmic intelligence, the movements of their high dance helping to determine the pattern of events unfolding below.

Each of the seven planets–by which is meant the seven heavenly bodies that can be perceived by the naked eye to move–was thought to sing a certain note, together expressing the harmony of the universe; a harmony that may be transmitted through music to the human soul. According to Lewis (cited in Ward, p. 21), this music of the spheres

is the only sound which has never for one split second ceased in any part of the universe; with this positive we have no negative to contrast. Presumably if (per impossibile) it ever did stop, then with terror and dismay, with a dislocation of our whole auditory life, we should feel that the bottom had dropped out of our lives. But it never does. The music which is too familiar to be heard enfolds us day and night and in all ages.

One of the most telling moments in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader comes when Eustace meets the retired star, Ramandu. Rather puzzled, he remarks that, “In our world, a star is a huge ball of flaming gas.” Ramandu replies: “Even in your world, my son, that is not what a star is but only what it is made of.”

The fact that this conversation takes place in the Dawn Treader volume of the Narniad is not without significance, as we shall see when we look at Michael Ward’s theory about the composition of the series in a moment. But let us stay with the distinction between what a star is, and what it is made of. Presupposed here is the importance of ontology, or the study of being, of existence or “isness” you might say.[1]

Modern physics has a very different notion of “substance”, which has both advantages and disadvantages.[2] Science wanted to know how things work and what they are made of, and became very effective in analysing exactly how one event leads to another, and how to take something apart into its constituent elements. But to investigate only what a star is made of and how it moves or changes, rather than why it does so, is to leave out the very being of the star. Why does the star exist? It exists to be a certain thing, as the expression of an idea or form in the mind of God, in order to fulfill a part of some harmonious design in which we too have a part to play. That is what lies behind Ramandu’s comment. That is the religious and ancient perspective on things, and Lewis believed that in losing it we have lost something important to our humanity.

As a matter of fact, we may even have lost our sanity. A peculiar kind of madness lies in this narrowing of reason to what we can measure and manipulate; William Blake called it “Newton’s sleep”, and for C.S. Lewis it was exemplified in the figure of Professor Weston in the Space Trilogy. This is the madness that comes from trying to understand the universe without attributing to it any meaning–other than what we can give it by subordinating it by force to our own ends and purposes. That is what happens when we take seriously Sir Francis Bacon’s aphorism that “Knowledge is power”, or Marx’s that “up to now philosophers have only interpreted the world, the point is to change it.”[3]

The point I am trying to make here is simply that we are living in an era shaped by philosophical battles that most of us are unaware ever took place.[4] As Taylor puts it in A Secular Age, the typically modern person lives as an isolated or “buffered self” in a “disenchanted world.” He feels himself to be disengaged from the world around him, rather than intrinsically related to it (by family, tribe, birthplace, religion, or vocation). He is expected to forge his own destiny by an exercise of choice. He is concerned less with what is right than with what his rights are, or rather he grounds the former on the latter. The world for him is just a neutral space for his action, his free choice, and the greatest mysteries lie not outside but within himself.[5]

Lewis was not “modern” in this sense, and he found fiction an ideal medium for counteracting the influence of the secular worldview. Against the disenchanted world of modernism he set the enchanted world of Narnia–and of course the unfallen worlds of Mars and Venus in the Space Trilogy. In his book Planet Narnia, Michael Ward argues–convincingly to my mind–that each of the seven volumes of the series were arranged secretly by Lewis, in a kind of elaborate private joke, according to the traditional characters and associations of the seven astrological planets, which he regarded as spiritual symbols of permanent value. In this way Lewis was consciously ranging the Medieval worldview against the modern critics. Not even Tolkien was let in on the secret–although perhaps if he had shown more interest and sympathy for the Narnia stories I suspect Lewis might have divulged it. The spiritual symbol that illuminates The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is of course Sol, the Sun, the nearest of those “huge balls of flaming gas” that we call stars, which is why Lewis inserts within it the encounter with Ramandu and his daughter. The Lion, the Witch and Wardrobe revolves around Jupiter, the four Pevensie children being like the four biggest moons of the giant planet, and the theme of “joviality” making sense of the otherwise unaccountable presence of Father Christmas at the turning-point of the story. The themes of The Silver Chair are lunar–the pale lamps in the darkness, the concern with memory and with lunacy, and so forth. Each of the novels can be related to one of the other planets just as easily.

But the place to look for an explicit account of Lewis’s cosmology is not the Narnia series. It is in his professional academic work, especially his essay “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages”, dating from 1956 (published by Cambridge in 1966 in the collection Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature), and its expanded version, which turned out to be his final book, The Discarded Image (published by Cambridge the year after his death, i.e. 1964). There he describes the Medieval worldview in some detail, and in so doing he disposes of several common mistakes that we tend to make when we have been “taken in” (as Lewis might have said) by the myth of progress.

He explains that medieval Europeans did not think of the world as flat, or the cosmos as small, and they didn’t even locate themselves at the centre of the universe. In fact they thought the stars were something like 118 million miles away–which to the imagination is not much different from 118 billion or 118 trillion, since all these figures are too big for us to comprehend (Lewis 1966, p. 46). They knew the world was round, as did the ancient Greeks. And while they did make use of a Ptolemaic cosmology in which the sun and planets orbited the earth, there were two ways in which this did not put us exactly in the centre of things. Firstly, the Devil was in the middle of the earth, so in a way he was at the centre of things. (That obviously did not make him as important as God, or even as important as us.) Secondly, when we look upwards, past the moon and the planets at the fixed stars, we are not looking not outwards but inwards, like street urchins peering in through the windows of a palace. Our little sphere below the moon was dark and dingy, fallen and corrupt, but the world of the heavens was high and splendid, full of life and light. It was not bounded only by a cold Infinity that reduces everything to something less than dust, but by the spheres of the moving, intelligent stars and ultimately by the Primum Mobile, the wall of heaven itself–which, he says (Lewis 1966, p. 60) was depicted in at least one manuscript in the form of “a girl dancing and playing a tambourine; a picture of gaiety, almost of frolic.”

The heavenly spheres are not moved mechanically, mindlessly, pointlessly by impersonal forces. They are

moved by love, by intellectual desire, never sated because they can never completely assimilate themselves to their object, and never frustrated because they continually do so to the fullest extent which their nature admits or requires. Their existence is thus one of delight. The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one. They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect Object.

As Lewis mentions, and as Owen Barfield (one of Lewis’s fellow Inklings) expounded in a classic little book called Saving the Appearances, it was not even the case that the medieval thinkers believed that the Ptolemaic theory was “true”. It was a “model”, a construction designed to enable astrologers to work out and predict the movements of the heavens, but for all we know, wrote Aquinas, those movements could be accounted for as well or better by some other set of assumptions (Lewis 1964, p. 16). It was with Galileo that the claim began to be made that a scientific theory could be “true” in a way that might come into conflict with the teachings of the Church. Funnily enough, in the twentieth century, with the fall of Newtonian physics, and the rise of the Copenhagen interpretation and postmodern philosophies of science, that claim to absolute knowledge has, it appears, been rescinded, and we are back again with the idea that science can only offer hypotheses, or “truth” in the sense of an account that “works” but for which we can make no higher claim. Of course, in the meantime we have also (most of us) lost faith in the ability of the Church to teach any other kind of truth, but that is another story.

In The Discarded Image Lewis looks in some detail at the medieval model of the world, on which so much literature depends–not least The Divine Comedy–and traces its origins in the Classical and Pagan world. Christian writers in the period before the rediscovery of much Classical learning in the Renaissance were dependent, of course, on an extremely limited supply of books, which they treated with exaggerated reverence and did their best to reconcile. Among these, many of Cicero’s works, Plato’s cosmological Timaeus dialogue and some Neoplatonist texts loomed large. They also inherited a couple of fundamental principles to guide them in constructing their model of the world, one of these being the Principle of the Triad (present in Plato but obviously extremely appealing to Christians), and the other the Principle of Plenitude. This partly explains why the medieval world is so heavily populated, not only with the nine choirs of Angels, but with the Longaevi – the sprites, elves, fairies, gnomes and immortals of popular imagination.

In the Epilogue to The Discarded Image, Lewis tells us what he thinks of the medieval model. He says it “delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors”. Of course, he admits “it is not true”, but nor–he goes on to say–is any model “true”. The medieval model has the advantage that it is better suited to our imagination and our unaided perception of the world. I would add, as I think Lewis hints, that the medieval model is better able to capture for us the real meaning and significance of things. The modern “universe” is devoid of significance, and so we have to give a meaning to our own lives, by willpower if necessary. The old cosmos might not be a very useful map for space travelers, but it does alright as a map for worshippers. And there is a further point that Lewis makes. The old model was based on a notion of hierarchy. The new one is based on a notion of evolution. But it was not the case that evolution was simply discovered–by Darwin, for example. Rather it was an idea whose time had come, and it had been hypothesized as the basis for the new model for some time before Darwin found some evidence for it. Nature tends to produce the evidence we are looking for. (As he says on page 221, “Nature has all sorts of phenomena in stock and can suit many different tastes.”) The model we have adopted is not likely to be final, and every model to some extent “reflects the psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge” (p. 222). Where that leaves us is anyone’s guess.

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Notes:

  1. Being, or the fact that things are at all, is either the most significant or the least significant bit of information we possess about them. Atheists are happy to assert that the world “just is”, and from that point they proceed to explain how it came to be the way it is, probably through some process of evolution, going back to fluctuations in a quantum vacuum. But to the metaphysical mind, the fact that things are is, in itself, wondrous, because clearly they might not have been. What does that tell us? It tells us that the existence of things (and this applies whether or not they had a beginning in time) is not the same as what they are. In other words, we can’t say they “just are” without doing violence to reason and language. The only thing of which we could say without falsehood that it just is, is the kind of thing – if there is one – whose very nature is “to exist”; that is, a necessary being; and this is what we conventionally call God, as a way of naming the only possible ground of all that exists. In this way we see that cosmology leads to metaphysics, and metaphysics to the threshold of theology
  2. In the ancient view, found in Aristotle, there are four main types of explanation or account that we can give for things: final, formal, efficient and material. The final cause is what they are for or what purpose they serve. The formal cause is the inner shaping idea that makes them what they are. Both of these types of explanation dropped out of view in modern science, leaving only the last two. The efficient cause is what brings something about, or makes it do what it does. The material cause is what it is made of.
  3. One more remark might be helpful before I return to Lewis. It is possible to predict other aspects of this “madness of reason” that occurs once we dispose of metaphysics. Certain consequences follow. According to the medieval view, which Lewis shared, Being is the anchor or central converging-point of objective values, which traditionally resolve themselves under the three headings of Truth, Goodness and Beauty. These three so-called “transcendentals” are the universal properties of Being, which transcend any particular manifestation of them in the world. That is, they transcend all the categories into which Being can be divided. Each of them points towards the Infinite. They are what, in Being, unite the world into a cosmos, and in a sense they help to create it. So we can say that if Being goes, or the appreciation of Being in the human mind, so will the sense of the objective reality of values. This is what we saw in the history of science when Galileo and Descartes removed primary or objective qualities from things and relegated them to a secondary, subjective realm. And they did this partly because they wanted to deal only with values that could be quantified, measured, and experimented upon, in a way that depended as little as possible on the judgement of the experimenter. Fair enough. As a method for doing a certain kind of science that is perfectly reasonable. But as a substitute for metaphysics it is dangerous and debilitating. And C.S. Lewis, in his book The Abolition of Man, tells us that he suspects that we have thereby missed out on other, equally valid but perhaps wiser, ways of doing science – he hopes for a gentler empiricism or “regenerate science”.
  4. The influence of Nominalism, or the philosophical voluntarism associated with it, lies behind secular modernity. Voluntarism is sometimes traced back to the scholastic philosopher Duns Scotus. Benedict XVI in his talk at Regensburg in September 2006 describes Scotus’s voluntarism as potentially leading to an “image of a capricious God, who is not even bound to truth and goodness.” Pickstock and Barron blame Scotus’s univocal concept of existence, i.e. his placing of God and the creature in the same category of being. Previously the being of God – the sense in which he “exists” – was only analogously related to the being of creatures, but henceforth “God and creatures are appreciated as existing side by side, as beings of varying types and degrees of intensity. Furthermore, unanchored from their shared participation in God, no longer grounded in a common source, creatures lose their essential connectedness to one another. Isolated and self-contained individuals (God the supreme being and the many creatures) are now what is most basically real” (Barron 2007, 14). For Pickstock it is a small jump from there to Descartes and the “necrophilia” of the present age: the rape of atomized, mechanized nature.
  5. In Vol. 5 of The Glory of the Lord, Hans Urs von Balthasar writes: “During the Nominalist period the universe lost its theophanic radiance – the devout no longer encounter God outside but only within themselves. At the same time, the universe loses its hierarchic gradation and collapses into ‘matter’ which, itself without essence, becomes that which is merely mathematically calculable and which is present to be exploited by man” (p. 452).
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5 replies to this post
  1. Nicely written, thank you. While I agree with much of Ward’s argument, I still find the volumes in Lewis’ space trilogy to be the best examples of his view of the cosmos. Specifically, I enjoy the ways in which the Oyarsu and the inhabitants of the planets embody the medieval and mythological characteristics attributed to those planets. I also enjoy Lewis’ speculation on what it might be to live among intelligent creatures who were untouched by Adam’s fall.

    Again, nicely done.

  2. Wonderful – very much enjoyed. I recently posted this quote by CS Lewis: “That’s what happens when you study men: you find mare’s nests. I happen to believe that you can’t study men: you can only get to know them, which is quite a different thing.” I wanted to take a minute to expound, but I didn’t have one. I am glad I didn’t though, because you put it so well (I’ll have to quote you.): “Science wanted to know how things work and what they are made of, and became very effective in analysing exactly how one event leads to another, and how to take something apart into its constituent elements. But to investigate only what a star is made of and how it moves or changes, rather than why it does so, is to leave out the very being of the star. Why does the star exist?”

    Thank you! 🙂

  3. I tie the Ramandu encounter in “Dawn Treader” to Lewis’ interchange with Tolkien which moved the latter to respond with his poem “Mythopoeia”. There, Tolkien charges Lewis with believing that “a star’s a star: some matter in a ball.”
    He later says, “He sees no stars who does not see them first / Of living silver made that sudden burst / To flame like flowers beneath an ancient song, / Whose very echo after-music long / Has since pursued.”
    I have always hoped to one day learn that Lewis in Ramandu’s words acknowledged what his friend and mentor had written in his poetic rebuke.

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