We are men of the middle ages, not only because that is our destiny, the fatality of history, but also because we will it. You, you are still men of modern times, because you refuse to choose. ~ Nicolas Berdyaev
To understand the Middle Ages, The Discarded Image by C. S. Lewis, is indispensible. He has remarkable insight, even if his perspective and motives differ from ours. In this discussion, I will use Traditional concepts as an adjunct to what Lewis wrote. First of all, he points out that the Medievals were quite aware of the Logos, or Cosmic Order. Lewis describes them:
As his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems. He wanted a place for everything and everything in the right place. Distinction, definition, tabulation were his delight. Though full of turbulent activities, he was equally full of the impulse to formalize them.
- War was formalized by the art of heraldry and the rules of chivalry.
- Sexual passion, by an elaborate code of love.
- Highly original and soaring philosophical speculation squeezes itself into a rigid dialectical pattern copied form Aristotle.
- Studies like Law and Moral Theology, which demand the ordering of very diverse particulars especially flourish.
- Every way in which a poet can write is classified in the Arts of Rhetoric.
Lewis points to three supreme works that exemplify the Medieval mind as its highest expression.
- The Summa by St. Thomas Aquinas.
- The Divine Comedy by Dante.
- The Model of the Universe.
For quite different reasons, viz., we don’t see them as merely a complex scheme of categorization, this fits in with our entire perspective.
- The Summa is the supreme work of Western metaphysics, or Theology, as a manifestation of the Idea of Truth.
- The Divine Comedy is the highest poetic work, as the manifestation of the Idea of Beauty. The “elaborate code of Love” is not what Lewis thinks it is. Rather, it reveals the path of Initiation culminating in the knowledge of the Divine Sophia.
- We have referred to the Model of the Universe on several occasions.
The Model of the Universe
Although Lewis is thorough in his analysis of the Medieval model, he lacks real understanding of it. He assumes it is little more than a glass bead game, an intellectual exercise that tries to organize and consolidate received texts into a tenuous and fragile system. Nevertheless, he regards it as the supreme accomplishment of the Medieval mind. What he leaves unclear is why we should be concerned about it, not as an antiquarian interest for specialist, but as a living system.
According to Lewis, these are the building blocks of the System; they included
a syncretistic Model not only out of Platonic, Aristotelian, and Stoical, but also out of Pagan and Christian elements.
To understand the Whole, it is necessary to account for all phenomena. The Modern mind stalls at this point: a man is a Pagan or a Christian, a Platonist or an Aristotelian. The modern mentality cannot balance such cognitive dissonance and so becomes addicted to the demon of dialectics, wasting his time on anger-filled arguments rather than a dispassionate synthesis.
Although the Middle Ages is known as the Age of Faith, Lewis concedes that in some writings – and he probably read every work available from the era – he can’t determine with certainty if it was written by a pagan or a Christian. He explains:
Their cosmology and their religion were not such easy bedfellows as might be supposed. At first we may fail to notice this, for the cosmology appears to us, in its firmly theistic basis and its ready welcome to the supernatural, to be eminently religious. And so in one sense it is. But it is not eminently Christian. The Pagan elements embedded in it involved a conception of God, and of man’s place in the universe, which, if not in logical contradiction to Christianity, were subtly out of harmony with it.
Here, obviously, he is regarding Christianity from the point of view of the modern mentality, not as Christians at the time saw themselves. Rather than a riddle, we see here the evidence of Tradition, built from the Nordic-Roman synthesis described by Evola. As Guenon has pointed out, at the changing of an exoteric tradition, the elite will bury concepts from the older into the newer. Obviously, the logical mind of the Middle Ages could recognize a contradiction. However, in esoteric writings, such conundrums are not uncommon. To the uninitiated, they seem to be a mistake and a stumbling block. A more careful reader will come to a different understanding. Such contradictions are meant to force the reader to pause and think things through for himself. The modern mind, so accustomed to propaganda, can only absorb whatever fits into his preconceived world view.
Lewis’ book is worth reading for its erudition and descriptions of the Medieval Model. However, a similar book needs to be written from the point of view of Tradition.
Nevertheless, the book suffers from a fatal flaw: Lewis regards the Model as something along the lines of a scientific theory, that is, as a likely story on the same level as competing likely stories. This is quite untrue. The Medievals, and Aquinas in particular, were quite aware of the ambiguous logical status of a physical theory whose purpose is to “save the appearances”. The Medieval Model, on the contrary, is not a theory of the physical world. Rather, it is an esoteric teaching that describes the inner states of consciousness, and needs to be read as such.
The Modern Model — of the upward progress of the human race into more and more freedom, equality, and fraternity — is the one that cannot survive close scrutiny. “Medieval” is used as an insult signifying ignorance and obscurity. In psychological terms, that is called Projection.