Tuesday, September 08, 2009

C. S. Lewis and the Medieval Model

C. S. Lewis's The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (1964) sketches the "Medieval Model" of the universe and shows how that model shaped medieval and Renaissance literature. He shows how that cosmic model arose by combining ideas from Plato (especially the Timaeus), Aristotle, the Stoics, the Neo-Platonists, and the early Christians. This model was crafted during the first centuries of the Christian era and became the prevalent conception of the cosmos throughout the Middle Ages. Its influence on literature continued even through to the end of the seventeenth century.

Lewis's book helps us to see the moral, political, and philosophical implications of the modern scientific model of the cosmos, including Darwinian evolution, by showing us what the modern model replaced. In fact, much of the opposition to the evolutionary view of the cosmos is motivated by a longing for the Medieval Model.

One important point that emerges clearly in Lewis's book is that this Medieval Model of the cosmos depends on pagan ideas. Although it is "eminently religious," it is "not eminently Christian" (18-19), because much of it was out of harmony with biblical religion (45-46, 49-51, 76, 79, 119-20). I stress this because it shows that other than the biblical doctrine that God created the universe, biblical religion does not require any specific view of the cosmos; and it certainly doesn't require the geocentric cosmology of the Medieval Model.

That's why even though Lewis admires that model--"the old Model delights me" (216)--he concedes that it is "not true." And as I have indicated in a previous post, Lewis was a theistic evolutionist.

Lewis's appreciation for the Medieval Model is more artistic than philosophical or scientific. His primary concern, he says, is with the "emotional effect" of the Model rather than its literal truth (112).

As an indication of the primacy of artistic emotion over scientific truth in such models, Lewis indicates that medieval philosophers and scientists treated the model as merely "provisional" (16). "It is not in the nature of things that great thinkers should take much interest in Models. They have more difficult and more controversial matters in hand. Every Model is a construct of answered questions. The expert is engaged either in raising questions or in giving new answers to old ones. When he is doing the first, the old, agreed Model is of no interest to him; when he is doing the second, he is beginning an operation which will finally destroy the old Model altogether" (18).

This is the point I have suggested in some of my recent posts on Platonic cosmology: even as Plato has Timaeus and others lay out elaborate cosmological designs, Plato implies that the skepticism of Socratic questioning will never support a dogmatic commitment to any cosmic model.

But even if we doubt the literal truth of such a model, Lewis insists, we should recognize the artistic sublimity of the Medieval Model. He writes:

"Whatever else a modern feels when he looks at the night sky, he certainly feels that he is looking out--like one looking out from the saloon entrance on to the dark Atlantic or from the lighted porch upon dark and lonely moors. But if you accepted the Medieval Model, you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is 'outside the city wall.' When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. 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, like Meredith's Lucifer, '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. For in them the highest of faculties is always exercised without impediment on the noblest object; without satiety, since they can never completely make His perfection their own, yet never frustrated, since at every moment they approximate to Him in the fullest measure of which their nature is capable. You need not wonder that one old picture represents the Intelligence of the Primum Mobile as a girl dancing and playing with her sphere as with a ball. Then, laying aside whatever Theology or Atheology you held before, run your mind up heaven by heaven to Him who is really the centre, to your senses the circumference, of all; the quarry whom all these untiring huntsmen pursue, the candle to whom all these moths move yet are not burned" (119).

Lewis would say that this "revelry of insatiable love" expresses a truth about the erotic nature of the human soul in striving for eternal truth and union with God. So even if we deny the literal truth of the Medieval Model, we can take seriously the psychic truth of human longing.

Lewis argues that although the Medieval Model is "not true," the move to the Modern Model of the universe is not "a simple progress from error to truth" (216, 222). The reason for this is that every model captures some but not all of the total truth. A model accounts for some aspects of what we experience in the cosmos under the influence of some prevailing psychological propensities. Our choice of models inevitably shows our "taste in universes" (222-23).

The literal truth of models is always limited by their dependence on metaphors. After all, that's what we mean by the word "model." So, for example, Lewis observes: "The fundamental concept of modern science is, or was till very recently, that of natural 'laws,' and every event was described as happening in 'obedience' to them. In medieval science, the fundamental concept was that of certain sympathies, antipathies, and strivings inherent in matter itself. Everything has its right place, its home, the region that suits it, and, if not forcibly restrained, moves thither by a sort of homing instinct" (92). Our selection of cosmic metaphors is important. "On the imaginative and emotional level it makes a great difference whether, with the medievals, we project upon our universe our strivings and desires, or with the moderns, our police-system and our traffic regulations. The old language continually suggests a sort of continuity between merely physical events and our most spiritual aspirations" (94).

We should remember here that Darwin's idea of "natural selection" is a metaphor that treats nature as acting like a human breeder of plants and animals. In the 6th edition of The Origin of Species, Darwin added (in chapter 4) a defense of this metaphor: "It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as ruling the movements of the planets? Every one knows what is meant and is implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word Nature; but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten." So in trying to give a literal meaning to his metaphor "natural selection," Darwin uses another metaphor--"natural laws"!

Here we see why, as Lewis suggests, serious thinkers will always treat cosmic models as provisional formulations that approximate, but never fully capture, the whole truth. But even so, we can judge how well our models approximate the truth by seeing how well they account for the facts. And by that standard, Darwin could argue for the superiority of his model to the older model.

1 comment:

Tony said...

Dr. Arnhart,

I think this is a very excellent post. Lewis' conclusion (and your?) that choice of a cosmological model shows our "taste in universes" suggests that such models are more revealing of the human beings that hold them than of the cosmos itself. I think this to be both true and to be the position of the ancient philosophers. (Unlike some folks, I do not automatically assume these two to be the same.)

This post also reminds me of my suggestion the other day that Milton would be helpful for you in this area. The discussion in Paradise Lost between Adam and Raphael in particular is very interesting. Raphael warns Adam against thinking he can fully comprehend the cosmos and admonishes him to be "lowlie wise," bringing to mind both the Socratic turn and the Aristotelian position in the painter Raphael's portrait. (In light of this portrait, should it be considered coincidental that Milton has Raphael rather than one of the other angels give this advice?)
It does seem to me that Milton is correct to suggest that strict adherence to any cosmological model borders on idolatry.

Yet I think one should accept the prevailing model as the one that best fits the evidence. I also believe it is that most satisfying model from a Christian perspective as well--much more so than any of the ancient or medieval models. For it clearly points beyond itself while the earlier models suggest a universe so perfect as not to need anything beyond itself. (Even Aristotle's First Mover acts within rather than beyond the cosmos.)

Yet I'm not sure that evolutionary biology does not take our eyes away from the human things as we experience them much less than does astronomy and cosmology. Why wouldn't the principle of the Socratic turn apply to prehistorical terrestrial time as well to outer space?

On the one hand, from the perspective you present in this post, evolutionary biological would seem to be as provisional a model as any cosmological one.
One the other hand, however, from the perspective of modern science, evolutionary biology would seem to be far less "established" than the prevailing cosmological model.

What neither evolutionary biology nor the standard cosmology can answer for us is the mystery of why the universe should be intelligible at all. This question fueled Einstein's wonder as much as I imagine it did the ancient philosophers. It seems to me that the need to explain this lies behind the cosmology posited by Timaeus and the Athenian. Aristotle does not seem to think it as necessary as Plato. It's not clear to me that either thought it was actually possible as a matter of scientific knowledge. Thus, while Plato took occasion to fable about the heavens, Aristotle focused on studying the earthly things.