I’ve labeled this a book highlight rather than a review because I don’t have the book in front of me and I’m not planning on sticking to a formal tone. Recently, I picked up The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis and read it on the side over a few days. Although most people know Lewis for his imaginative renderings of Christian theology, in this book Lewis shows us his day job as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance English at Cambridge University. The Discarded Image is a personal tour through the medieval cosmos. And who better to do this than the same man who took us through heaven and hell in The Great Divorce?
Lewis’ purpose is to illuminate the medieval Model, the entire interconnecting, thoroughly ordered understanding of the cosmos that dominated the Middle Ages. He starts with the literary inheritance of the ancient world; this part may not be particularly interesting to many readers, but it brings up an important point. Literature up until the cusp of modernity was a great conversation in which authors, rather than creating entirely original pieces, set forth their creative powers by imaginatively reworking the past. So, a person who reads Dante’s Commedia without any background in Virgil or Ovid will miss half of Dante’s work. No matter how “closely” you read a medieval text, you are jumping into a conversation halfway.
Somewhat later on are the sections that I suppose will most interest most readers. Lewis sketches a macro-picture of the cosmos, talking about the different elements below and above the moon, the celestial spheres and their movement, and the many creatures that fill these different realms. I was struck by how full the medieval Model is; even above the moon there is hardly anything deserving the term “space.” The cosmos is not only full, but integrally connected. The position of the planets exerts influence upon the events of earth, though not in a deterministic way; for that matter, so does the proportion of the humors (four basic liquids) in your body.
To the medieval soul, the Earth was an enchanted realm. Angels and demons, along with fairy folk (rather different than Shakespeare’s) worked good and ill for men. The majority of medievals believed in a spherical earth, but thought that the equatorial zone was so hot that it was impassible for man. The Aristotelian qualities – hot, cold, dry, wet – formed in combination all earthly elements, so one can see the allure of alchemy.
Above all is the idea of hierarchy. Every being has its place in the great chain or ladder. God reaches Earth only (well, usually) through a host of mediators. On a more positive note, everything in the cosmos then can serve as a signpost pointing back up the ladder toward God. Lewis’ idea of aesthetics, that the beauty we sense in a moving piece of music is an echo of the beauty to which God calls us, springs from this medieval mindset. We can say that in a conceptual way, though certainly not a literal one, Lewis really owned some contours of the Model for himself.
At the end of the book Lewis gives some profound reflections on the fate of the Model, on the changes from the medieval period through to the middle of the twentieth century. The book is really a delight, even though the beginning chapters are a bit heavy. Beyond that, I believe it will be helpful for putting my medieval reading in better perspective. Besides, how can you not read a book once you know it’s by C. S. Lewis?