Lewis: The Discarded Image

August 29, 2010
I wrote this back in 2006, before All Manner of Thing started, but I am posting it today because it relates to a book I hope to write about in the next week or two: Michael Ward’s Planet Narnia.


The Discarded Image
An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature

C.S. Lewis (Cambridge, 1964)
251 pp.  First reading.

C.S. Lewis is today known mostly for his much admired works of fiction and of Christian apologetics, but by profession he was a teacher of medieval and renaissance literature at Oxford and Cambridge universities, and he wrote a number of academic books on those subjects.  His Preface to Paradise Lost and The Allegory of Love are perhaps the best known of these, but I also have on my shelf a rare copy of the big volume he contributed to the Oxford History of English Literature, which bears the endearing title English Literature in the Sixteenth Century Excluding Drama.  These works about literature, like all his books, are accessible to non-specialists, and are written with great wit and grace.

The Discarded Image, the last book he completed before his death, is another of his professional works.  Though billed as a general introduction to literature of the period, the focus is in fact narrower: it is a study of the relationship between the literature and science of the medieval period.  More precisely, it is a generous, and fascinating, introduction to the medieval model of the universe — what Lewis simply calls “the Model” — and the ways in which it was influenced by, and in turn exerted influence on, imaginative literature.

This theme might seem marginal and esoteric — hardly enough to justify the book’s broad sub-title — but Lewis thinks not.  Medieval literature is notable, he says, for the amount of “solid instruction” that it contains, meaning that medieval writers were fond of working into their writing many details of the Model, and this fondness, he argues, was but a consequence of their fondness for the Model itself.  It was a fondness that Lewis evidently shared:

I have made no serious effort to hide the fact that the old Model delights me as I believe it delighted our ancestors. Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree… Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination.

That “solid instruction” was at home in medieval literature was also a consequence of the cluster of stylistic and structural conventions that governed medieval rhetoric. They seem to have simply enjoyed didactic digressions restating what was believed about the universe, digressions which, while they seem unnecessary to the total design, were evidently deemed worthwhile for their own sake. This, I suppose, should not really be surprising to anyone who has looked closely at Gothic architecture or paged through medieval manuscripts, for they display the same relish of detail, frequently on themes of nature, along the margins and spires. To us this embellishment seems to be without rhyme or reason, and, in a sense, Lewis agrees. They did not justify its inclusion, he says, because they did not think it needed justification; it was its own justification. If the natural world and its order is intrinsically interesting, what literary work would not be enhanced by an artful discourse on the theme?

This attitude to literature — that to write well one only need find a worthy subject — highlights the basic humility of medieval art. This humility is apt to be misunderstood. It is true that medieval art is frequently anonymous and that, if intentional, this could be a result of the artist’s humility.  But it goes deeper, for even when not anonymous, even when the author was ambitious for personal fame, there remains something basically humble about the art itself. The subject of medieval art is rarely original. The medieval imagination, says Lewis, was a realising imagination. Authors took stories already in existence and re-told them, re-imagined them, gave them fresh life. The art consisted not in invention, but in the artful telling of the tale. Some are liable to think this practice was the result of a lack of imagination on their part, a dimwittedness or rigidity that prevented them from expressing themselves in new and original works.  Lewis sees it otherwise:

If you had asked Layamon or Chaucer ‘Why do you not make up a brand-new story of your own?’ I think they might have replied (in effect) ‘Surely we are not yet reduced to that?’ Spin something out of one’s own head when the world teems with so many noble deeds, wholesome examples, pitiful tragedies, strange adventures, and merry jests which have never yet been set forth quite so well as they deserve?

The aim was to present a worthy story worthily.

This conception of literature naturally meant that stories were about the past. Their fiction was historical fiction.  In this connection I have often wondered: to what extent did they distinguish between fiction and non-fiction in literature, and in what sense did they understand it as historical fiction? To the first question, Lewis says that in general there was a lack of clarity about what was truly historical and what was not, and this was so because they were not really interested in the question. It didn’t come up. This seems strange to us. But if the point of the story is the noble deed or the tragic ending, what difference does it really make to the story if it is historically true?

It is by no means necessary to suppose that Chaucer’s contemporaries believed the tale of Troy or Thebes as we believe in the Napoleonic Wars; but neither did they disbelieve them as we disbelieve a novel… I am inclined to think that most of those who read ‘historial’ works about Troy, Alexander, Arthur, or Charlemagne, believed their matter to be in the main true.  But I feel much more certain that they did not believe it to be false.  I feel surest of all that the question of belief or disbelief was seldom uppermost in their minds.

As to the question of their awareness of where these historical events belonged in history, Lewis says that medieval people had little or no sense of historical period. For instance, they assumed that people in the past dressed the same way they did, observed much the same social conventions, and shared the same temper and mental climate. This short-sightedness, while inevitably causing some misunderstandings, did have at least one positive result: it meant that to them the people and events of the past were psychologically closer than the chronology might suggest. The past was alive to them in a way that it is not to us. The past, they might have said, is like the present, but better. “Hector was like any other knight, only braver.”

They did, by the way, believe that the past was, by and large, better than the present. But it is part of the admirable spirit of the times that this was not dispiriting. Their humility was healthy, for they felt delight rather than self-pity. They honoured the great feats and figures of the past without envy. Lewis points out, too, that this preoccupation with the past is but the mirror of modernity’s preoccupation with the future. Are we sure which is better?

Medieval and nineteenth century man agreed that their present was no very admirable age; not to be compared (said one) with the glory that was, not to be compared (said the other) with the glory that is still to come.  The odd thing is that the first view seems to have bred on the whole a more cheerful temper.  Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight.  The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age.  One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

Thus far I have dwelt on the character of medieval literature on its own terms, and have said little about the Model, which was supposed to be the main topic. In fact, much of the pleasure of this book is in the sweeping portrait it paints of the medieval Universe. Many of the fascinating details were new to me, so I can’t resist making some comments about them.

First some preliminary principles that governed the structure and operation of the world according to their Model.  First, in place of our notion of ‘natural law’ their world was governed by sympathies, antipathies, and strivings which were said to be inherent in matter.

Every kindly thing that is
Hath a kindly stede ther he
May best in hit conserved be;
Unto which place every thing
Through his kindly enclyning
Moveth for to come to.
— Chaucer, Hous of Fame, II, 730 sq

Objects seek their natural place in the universe under the influence of these sympathies: fire strives to rise, earth to fall. This ‘kindly enclyning’, like our ‘natural law’, was a metaphor; there is no evidence that they ascribed will or desire to matter any more than we regard matter as literally law-abiding. (It is interesting to note, too, that their metaphor was less anthropomorphic than ours, for an animal may incline, but only a human obeys laws.)

Two other general principles are worth mentioning.  The first is what Lewis calls the ‘Principle of Plenitude’.  There ought to be a creature living in every region and hierarchical layer in the Model.  They thought it fitting that the world be bursting with life, and they populated their Model accordingly. There were creatures inhabiting the sea, the land, and the air, of course, but what about the region of air above where birds can fly?  This was the domain of the daemons,  spirit-like rational animals which filled the space between us and the higher beings, not only physically but in their natures. And above them, tier after tier of the heavens were home to ever greater beings.

A second principle Lewis calls the ‘Principle of the Triad’, and it states that whenever two things are related, there must be some third thing to mediate the relation. One application of this principle was to posit a human ‘spirit’ to mediate between the body and the soul, a trained sentiment of honour to mediate between appetite and reason.  But the main consequence of this principle was that the universe was filled with beings whose primary role was mediation between one hierarchical level and another. Angels, for instance, found a natural place as messengers between higher and lower regions, and of course it wouldn’t do to have just one kind of angel: they speculated about a whole ladder of angelic orders mediating influences up and down through the Model, such that the universe became a grand fugue on the Triad principle.

Incidentally, they didn’t conjure these principles up out of nothing;  both are stated in the De Deo Socratis of Apuleius. Belief in daemons was derived from pagan writers, and the medieval angelology was taken from The Celestial Hierarchies of Pseudo-Dionysius (sixth century). Lewis remarks, in this connection, that medieval scholars were unduly credulous when reading ancient authors. “They find it hard to believe that anything an old auctour has said is simply untrue.” Almost all of the elements of their Model can find a precedent in writings of Greek, Roman, and early Christian writers, and a good portion of Lewis’ book is devoted to tracing the literary sources for common medieval beliefs about the world.


With these principles in mind, let’s turn to the actual form of the Model. Everyone knows that the world was believed to be constituted from the Four Elements: Earth, Water, Air, and Fire.  What I did not know was that these elements were not elementary in the modern sense, for they were produced by combining the truly elemental substances, the Four Contraries: Hot, Cold, Moist, and Dry (Hot and Dry for Fire, Hot and Moist for Air, Cold and Moist for Water, Cold and Dry for Earth).  The same combinations of Contraries within the human body produced the four Humours, the preponderence of which defined a person’s basic temperment.

Everyone also knows that the Earth was at the center of their universe. It was a sphere. (The common belief that they thought the earth flat is an absurdity originating in the nineteenth century.) The Earth was divided into five zones: two polar zones, both uninhabitable due to cold, two temperate zones, and straddling the equator a torrid zone, uninhabitable due to heat. The torrid zone, in fact, was not only uninhabitable but impassable, such that no human could pass from one temperate zone to the other. This naturally raised the question of who or what lived in the other temperate zone. Naturally, something should, and so they called those unknown and unknowable creatures the Antipodes — literally, those with their feet opposed. They understood that these creatures would be walking around ‘upside-down’, but also that ‘down’ really means ‘toward the center of the earth’, so that the ‘upside-downness’ equally well applied to humans, depending on your point of view. Each temperate zone was divided into four land masses, one of which was Europe, Africa, and Asia. These islands were divided by four great rivers running north-south, and the mixing of these rivers at the poles was apparently believed to be the cause of the tides, though Lewis does not explain why. All of these ideas about the Earth’s large-scale geography were derived from the writings of Cicero (Republic, Bk VI).

The globe of the Earth sat at the center of a grand structure. They knew that the Earth was larger than the Moon, but smaller than the Sun. In comparison to the size of the entire universe, however, the Earth was understood to be infinitesimal. The basic structure of the universe as a whole was that of a series of nested concentric spheres, nine in total.  The first seven spheres were those of the seven planets; in order: the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Beyond Saturn was the Stellatum, the sphere of the fixed stars, and the outermost sphere was called the Primum Mobile. This last sphere was not luminous, but its existence was inferred from its effect on the other spheres, as we shall see. And what was beyond the last sphere?  They seem to have believed that the very notions of spatiality and temporality broke down beyond the edge of the world.  Some held that this was Heaven, a region of “pure light, intellectual light, full of love” (Dante, Paradiso, 30.38). Lewis does a superb job of conveying what it may have felt like to gaze up at the sky with these ideas in mind, and it is worth quoting him at length:

You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology.  Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down.  The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement.  As a modern, you locate the stars at a great distance.  For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves.  The Medieval Model is vertiginous.  And… the medieval universe, while unimaginably large, was also unambiguously finite.  And one unexpected result of this is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt.  In our universe she is small, no doubt; but so are the galaxies, so is everything – and so what?  But in theirs there was an absolute standard of comparison.  The furthest sphere, Dante’s maggior corpo is, quite simply, the largest object in existence.  The word ‘small’ applied to Earth thus takes on a far more absolute significance.  Again, because the medieval universe is finite, it has a shape, the perfect spherical shape, containing within itself an ordered variety.  Hence to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon.  To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building.  The ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.

One aspect of the Model which surprised me was that the Sun was believed to illuminate the whole structure.  Starlight was, like moonlight, reflected.  But, more than that, the entire universe was filled with light, like perpetual daylight.  The only places of darkness were the shadows of solid objects.  As the Sun rotated about the Earth, the Earth cast a long finger of shadow out toward the spheres.  The night sky appeared dark only because we were looking at it through a shadow; in fact it was bright as day.

The dynamics of the spheres were caused, like all dynamics, by sympathies. All motion of the spheres originated at the outermost edge with the Primum Mobile. We might translate this is ‘First Movable’, and should not confuse it with God, the Unmoved Mover, who is the true and ultimate source of all motion.  But how can God be the source of motion if he himself does not move?  It is possible because the Primum Mobile is moved by its innate sympathy — its love — for God. In fact each celestial sphere is moved, each in its own way, more swiftly in the outer spheres than the inner, by its love for God and by the influence of the other spheres. But in what does this love subsist? Is the sphere a creature that loves God in the way that we say humans love?  Yes.  Each sphere was the abode of what they called an Intelligence, an angelic-like being of god-like strength and power.  In fact, they were the Christianized versions of the Pagan planetary gods.

But a question might occur to you.  If we grant that theory that the sphere is moved by love of God, why should it assume that very particular sort of motion called rotation?  They argued that in its love, each sphere desires to resemble God to the greatest extent that its finite nature allows, and “The nearest approach to the divine and perfect ubiquity that the spheres can attain is the swiftest and most regular possible movement, in the most perfect form, which is circular.”

When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see.  Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life.  And, looking in, we do not see…’the army of unalterable law’, but rather the revelry of insatiable love.  We are watching the activity of creatures whose experience we can only lamely compare to that of one in the act of drinking, his thirst delighted yet not quenched.

It is worth wrapping up these remarks on the Model with a few words about medieval astrology. You don’t have to have much contact with medieval culture to learn that they believed in planetary influence. What is interesting, however, is that this influence was believed to be a physical influence. The planetary spheres transmit effects to lower spheres, and the motion of the lowest sphere, the sphere of the Moon, disturbs the air, causing winds which, of course, are felt on the surface. This moving air was thought to be the medium by which the planets affected human affairs. (Etymology buffs will note that the very word ‘influence’ conveys this idea.) In other words, astrology for them was more scientific than one might have thought. Each planet had certain characteristics which would be reflected in the type of influence it had. (Again, these characteristics still leave traces in our language: lunatic, mercurial, venusian, martial, jovial, saturnine.)

It is often said that the Church opposed astrology, but this has to be understood correctly.  She did not oppose the scientific idea that the planets exerted a physical influence on men.  She did oppose astrological prediction of the future and astrological determinism, both of which would have undermined human freedom, and she did oppose the worship of the planets. In this the Church was largely successful — though one notes that to this day the planets are still called by the names of Roman gods.

There is more that could be said, about the grades of animal life, about the rational soul, about the five wits, or even about the overall epistemological status of the Model. The book has fascinating discussions of the seven liberal arts and the character of the various planets. There is a very fine section on Boethius’ De Consolatione Philosophiae. But brevity is the soul of wit, and tediousness its outward limbs and flourishings. I have gone on long enough.

Let me add just one final word about the waning and passing away of the Model. Lewis argues that the Model could have absorbed many of the astronomical and physical discoveries of later times, but in fact it was discarded well before the breaking point was reached, and mainly for non-empirical reasons; a new appetite for simplicity and a preference for an evolutionary model pushed the increasingly complicated, devolutionary medieval model to the margins. In other words, Lewis contends that, like any work of man, scientific ideas are influenced by the broader intellectual climate of the culture. It is not that our scientific theories are mere fancies — of course not — but, like a good lawyer during cross-examination, the testimony we elicit, though it be entirely truthful, is shaped by the questions we pose.

No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge.

Is it a coincidence, after all, that the medieval Model was produced by a world that loved hierarchy and heraldry, and ours by a world that loves democracy and egalitarianism? It is easy for us to see the mutual influence between medieval culture and the medieval Model; it is harder for us to see it in our own Model. That, I suppose, is to be expected. There are lessons here about the tentativeness of scientific theories, and the traffic between scientific and non-scientific ideas, but these are better saved for another time.

5 Responses to “Lewis: The Discarded Image”

  1. Many thanks for this. I read The Discarded Image for the first time last month, and it’s superb. You can’t read the “Hous of Fame”, Piers Plowmanor anything by the Pearl Poet without picking up bits and pieces of “the Model”, but Lewis does an admirable job of putting the pieces together.

    It’s also a great companion book to Owen Barfield’s difficult but rewarding Saving the Appearances, which Lewis cites at least once. Barfield shows the extent to which our intellectual activity consists of model-building, and Lewis shows how that activity played out in the Middle Ages.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Barfield’s book is around here somewhere — still in a box, I think — and I’ve been meaning to read it for years. Lewis himself regarded it highly, if I remember correctly.

  3. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    I’m excited to see you’re reading Planet Narnia. A friend of mine recently loaned me the Mars Hill Audio interview with Ward, and his book has been on my “should-certainly-read-sometime” list ever since.

    Barfield’s Poetic Diction is another great companion piece to The Discarded Image–a closer look at how models inform, and are informed by, language.

  4. cburrell Says:

    Ward is an interesting character, and I’d like to hear that Mars Hill interview. (I’m not a subscriber, I’m afraid.) His book is really fascinating, and my little Book Note, now taking shape, will not do justice to the thoroughness of his argument. If you’re a fan of Lewis, and have read a reasonably large swath of his writing, I don’t see how you could fail to appreciate Planet Narnia.

    I’m putting that Barfield book on my list.

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