C.S. Lewis
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C.S. Lewis: How ‘Medieval’ Was He?

An important new addition to Lewis studies explores the influence of the medievals on Lewis the writer. But Lewis the thinker was just as importantly an anti-modernist modern.

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When it comes to evaluating C.S. Lewis’ engagement with medieval authors, Jason Baxter performs the heavy lifting with ease, almost with wings. The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind comprises, in effect, a sequence of primers on major and minor figures—Boethius, Pseudo-Dionysius, Calcidius, Dante, Nicholas of Cusa, Bernard Sylvestris, inter alios—while it traces their imprint on Lewis’ writings. The reader of this book enjoys the double benefit of lucid exposition of great Christian writers who are distant in time and of watching Lewis assimilate them into his work. Baxter shows considerable mastery of Lewis’ vast corpus, including the letters, and he engages the secondary literature with a sure and generous touch.

The author takes his unifying theme of “transposition” from Lewis’ 1962 sermon of that name. This theme is Platonic, and one comes away from The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis with a renewed appreciation of Alfred North Whitehead’s remark that all philosophy “consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” For Lewis, as Baxter explains, “the medieval universe was not just a system of exploded scientific beliefs, but the natural icon of transposition, the greatest example of the spiritual world expressing itself in the limited vocabulary of the physical, natural world.” Approached in this manner, the medieval universe unfolds through analogy: The higher reality is superior to the natural world as we ourselves are superior to our conceptions and imaginings, though these themselves may harbor important truths.

Once he has established us firmly in the “medieval imaginary” (as he likes to call it), Baxter presents what may be the finest work to date on the living, medieval atmosphere in Lewis. Baxter is remarkably helpful on Dante, an author he knows intimately well, and so we see the Dantean effects in The Great Divorce and Till We Have Faces in a richer, medieval light. Baxter’s wonderful analysis of Orual’s judgment scene, which builds on a comparison to Dante’s “unveiling” before Beatrice at the end of the Purgatorio, made my nerves tingles with pleasure. We come to feel like fellow pilgrims of Lewis’ imagination, led by our excellent guide to a new appreciation of the air of Glome or, as the case may be, of Narnia or Perelandra.

Baxter turns to one of Lewis’ rare, favored moderns, the German Lutheran theologian Rudolph Otto (1869–1937), to show how negative or apophatic theology complements regular or cataphatic theology in Lewis’ work. In Baxter’s capable hands, Otto’s insights into the “numinous” rest conceptually on discussions of Pseudo-Dionysius and the anonymous 15th-century work The Cloud of Unknowing. What is so like Lewis, so brisk and illuminating, is Baxter’s ability to capture the emotional intensity of apophatic theology. We proceed through a series of intellectual landscapes, expositions of well-culled passages, to arrive at a major takeaway: “Such authors represent the negative (or apophatic) tradition: bracing, icy, pure, clean, cold—like the thin air you breathe in the mountains during the winter. It’s sobering and purging. It wakes you up from that suffocating sentimentality that passes for religion, but which Lewis was absolutely allergic to.” What Lewis was allergic to was, in short, the version of Christianity that many critics of the faith find congenial to their destructive purposes.

When reviewing a book of such high quality, the honest reviewer senses that differences between himself and the author are more subjective than not. I was glad to see Baxter seize the opportunity, in his final chapter and in his conclusion, to place Lewis solidly in the 20th century. For Baxter it’s as if Lewis’ genius was essentially medieval and, at the same time, up-to-date and even prophetic. It may be the reviewer’s problem and not the author’s, but I am not persuaded by his case for “The Relevance of Medieval Cosmology.” In the end, I balk at Baxter’s assertion that “modern science and ancient mythology can be reconciled.” The question is: To what extent? It is not enough for the medieval apologist to say, “We can pose questions about the simple, underlying levels of reality and get answers with predictive power, but our answers do not help us get at the essence of what’s happening at the deeper levels.” This is Nietzsche’s critique of modern science—that it lacks depth—and the point is well taken. But all cats are gray in the dark. I must frankly confess that the advances in laser technology that saved my life last spring belong to modern science. This gain is practical in the best sense of the word (“you shall know them by their fruits”), and it is a gain in terms of metaphysical realism, that is, of rigorously understanding the cosmos. There is more at stake here than a historical exchange of paradigms or “Models,” as Lewis and Baxter refer to them.

To put all my cards on the table, I do not think that Lewis had a “medieval mind.” He possessed the type of modern mind, however, that kicks against modernity. I would place him in the company not only of J.R.R. Tolkien but also of T.S. Eliot, in a line of artists that reaches back through romanticism to Edmund Burke. Lewis is a supremely self-expressive author who takes the title of his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, from Wordsworth. When Baxter describes Lewis’ “desire for a world….in which our own minds can incarnate themselves in the world around us,” he evokes the most famous footnote in English poetry, the opium-drenched “man from Porlock” incident that Samuel Taylor Coleridge concocts as a prelude to “Kubla Khan.” The crux of Lewis’ 1931 conversion was the defense, by Tolkien and Owen Barfield, of the divine essence of the human imagination. This divinizing of the imagination is a historical development that originates in the English Renaissance, with Christians Sidney and Spenser (more so than with Shakespeare), and returns with fresh, heretical force in Wordsworth and Coleridge. If Baxter follows Lewis’ lead in demoting the Renaissance, he follows Tolkien’s lead in overlooking Chapter XIII of the Biographia Literaria: “The primary imagination I hold to be the living power and prime agent of all human perception, and as a repetition in the finite mind of the eternal act of creation in the infinite I AM.” Tolkien and Lewis were stubborn men, and we mustn’t entirely confuse their obstinacy with their genius.

While Baxter’s range as a Lewis scholar is superb, and while this book must be considered required reading for both the scholar and the enthusiast alike, I think it important to place The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis within a broader conversation about the great man. We gain considerably from Baxter’s sympathetic picture of Lewis as an “‘exile’ from the past and from the enchanted cosmos.” On the other hand, we do not gain an appreciation of Lewis’ place in modern literary history. Lewis’ modernity is often best expressed through his satire, and Lewis the satirist is nowhere in sight. The one glaring omission from Baxter’s pages is The Pilgrim’s Regress. It doesn’t fit with Lewis the medieval exile. It is truculent and witty satire, a significant vein in Lewis’ work—a vein that, as Baxter astutely remarks, reappears in Lewis’ skewering of Governor Gumpas in Voyage of the Dawn Treader. But importantly, it extends in a lively manner to The Screwtape Letters, as well as to Gumpas’ spiritual relative John Wither, deputy director of the National Institute of Co-ordinated Experiments (the NICE) in That Hideous Strength.

Lewis is too important a writer to be limited to Christian consumption. We need to advance the case for his wider relevance. He was a man of keen contradictions: an ultra-refined wearer of shabby coats, a medievalist and a brilliant satirist, a secretive public man, a Christian humanist who detested humanism. He was ferociously engaged in the small world of academic politics. His differences with Cambridge’s I.A. Richards, the heir to Matthew Arnold, can help us think through the fate of the English curriculum. Warts and all, the true Lewis is preferable to a figure who dwells in intellectual bunkers where we Christians talk amongst ourselves. Baxter does not succumb to this tendency. He is lively, resourceful, and clear as a bell. And yet he is not invulnerable to the hagiographic and esoteric elements that have seeped into Lewis studies. He is overly sympathetic to the widespread narrative of decline that prefers the medieval cosmos to our own. My criticisms do not detract at all significantly from my sincere praise and appreciation of The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis. Baxter’s weighty contribution will prove, I hope, beneficial not just to Lewis studies but to all lovers of great literature.

Lee Oser

Lee Oser is professor of English at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. He is a former president of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers (ALSCW). His most recent books are Christian Humanism in Shakespeare: A Study in Religion and Old Enemies: A Satire.