C S Lewis and “medieval morality”


The following are some thoughts on how C S Lewis will figure as a “guide” into the look and feel of the “moral fabric of the Middle Ages,” and how that fabric differs from our own. It’s basically me grinding away at the grist for this Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants book.

My argument in this chapter is not that Christianity—either in the medieval period or any other period—has taught some distinctive morality, or even that it taught that morality in a distinctive way (although it did, from the earliest years of the church, as Robert Louis Wilken persuasively argues in The Spirit of Early Christian Thought). Rather, my argument is that today, Protestants, especially evangelicals, have fallen so in love with Luther’s (Augustine’s) message of grace, and have so spiritualized their faith (I almost said Gnosticized, and sometimes I wonder) that questions of morality have receded from view. So we need to hear again from a time (the Middle Ages) when Christianity structured not only people’s worship, but also their moral lives.

This is easy to see in terms of the public morality. But in fact, private morality too has receded. What? All we evangelicals can seem to talk about is private morality—especially of the sexual sort. Yes, that’s true, but it doesn’t cut very deep for us. It is more in the mode of preachment: WE don’t do this sort of thing (abortion, homosexuality, etc.). YOU (non-evangelicals) do. Therefore YOU are wrong and sinful and must come to the truth, and if we can get political power to impose our sexual mores on the rest of you, then by God we will. There is nothing here in the way of teaching about how we can become better, more virtuous people. Here we have what Richard Lovelace called “the sanctification gap,” and Ron Sider is still calling “the scandal of the evangelical conscience.”

So, what I want to describe in this chapter is not some old-fashioned/new-fangled adaptation of medieval morality—as if “the rules” were different for medievals than for us, and we need to submit ourselves to their rules. Rather, I want to take us to a time when people took virtue seriously—when virtue was the substance and message of countless songs and stories—when Christians understood that virtue is not something invented by Christians, nor even by Christ (at least in his teachings), but rather is woven into the fabric of all human culture, such that they were comfortable in absorbing the “four classical virtues” of the ancient Greeks into their thought about what it means, morally, to be a disciple of Christ.

Now, I’m thinking that the way to bring Lewis in on this and show his debt to medieval ways of thinking about morality may not initially be through virtue ethics and Aquinas—though he uses virtue ethics/natural law quite a bit in Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity. Rather, it may be through the (paradoxically) “down-to-earth,” visual, imaginative, mythological framing of the virtues in the planets, via Dante (for example), then his working of those virtues into his series of children’s stories.

Note that the teaching of children was the “trigger point” for his writing of the moral screed against utilitarianism, the “subjectivizing” of meaning and morality, and much else, in Abolition of Man. And so we may see the Narnian Chronicles as a demonstration of how, given the chance, Lewis would teach children—and in particular, teach them the virtues—the classical virtues, the theological virtues, the medieval virtues.

Virtue ethics was without doubt his approach: the growth of character through habit and example. Sure, he probably got it more from Aristotle directly than through Aquinas. This makes him no less medieval. Story was also without doubt the method he felt was most powerful in the instantiation of virtues. That too was a venerable medieval tradition (e.g. ‘exempla,’ saints lives, etc. And adduce both Dante and Chaucer as key examples of that use of stories to teach virtues).

He has decided that the best way to teach the virtues is not directly, through a kind of didactic listing of virtues (Aquinas), but rather through storytelling, of the sort that a Dante or a Chaucer or a Spenser do. In general, this appeal to the imagination through story is a medieval way of approaching moral education. And of course, in particular, this use of the planets and all their poetic, classical, and Christian resonances, is a very medieval way of presenting virtues. This accounts for why Dante uses the planets to structure his Paradiso, for example. And I think for why, as Michael Ward has shown, Lewis uses them to structure his Narnia Chronicles.

And now a few words from Sister Mary J. Beattie, The Humane Medievalist: A Study of C. S. Lewis’ Criticism of Medieval Literature (Ph.D. [in Language and Literature, general], University of Pittsburgh, 1967).

“Flowing from and dependent upon the hierarchic order of the discarded image is the last important characteristic of Lewis’ medieval universe, the doctrine of objective value. This is ‘. . . the belief that certain attitudes are really true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of thing we are.’[1] Lewis has established his model as one having a significant order imposed by its Creator, its structure, and its purpose. Therefore, the function of man as artist was not to invest the universe with value but to respond adequately to the value already inherent in the universe.” (27)

“Such a belief in the objective value of the universe was not opposed to the Platonism or Neo-Platonism of [28] the Middle Ages. The order of the universe always retained value, for even if it were seen only as an image of a higher order, it had at least that order and meaning. . . . Instead of opposing his model to Platonism, Lewis contrasts the ancient and medieval objectivity with the modern denial of objective value. He writes that ‘. . . a man today often, perhaps usually, feels himself confronted with a reality whose significance he cannot know, or a reality that has no significance, or even a reality such that the very question whether it has a meaning is itself a meaningless question. It is for him, by his own sensibility, to discover a meaning, or out of his own subjectivity, to give a meaning [Charles Taylor: romantic expressivism]—or at least a shape—to what in itself had neither. But the Model universe of our ancestors had a built-in significance. And that in two senses, as having “significant form” (it is an admirable design) and as a manifestation of the wisdom and goodness that created it. There was no question of waking it into beauty or life. . . . The achieved perfection was already there. The only difficulty was to make an adequate response.’[2] (27-28)

“The doctrine of objective value as it was contained in the ‘medieval model’ carried, for L, crucial ethical implications. He described the transition from [30] the objective value of the Middle Ages to the modern condition as ‘that great movement of internalization, and that consequent aggrandizement of man and desiccation of the outer universe, in which the psychological history of the West has so largely consisted.’[3] The debilitation of value and law resulting from this internalization would lead in Lewis’ opinion to the abolition of man himself.” (29 – 30)

Sister Beattie continues:

“L made two attempts to halt the progress of abolition, or at least to point out its dangers to his contemporaries. The first of these, a series of collected lectures titled The Abolition of Man, attempts to demonstrate that analytical man in conquering Nature is, in reality, destroying value both in Nature and in himself.[4] I shall not now argue for the validity of the Natural Law as a response to objective value and as the essential requirement for law. Instead, I wish simply to state that this is the conviction which L sets forth in these lectures. In his second attempt to halt the internalizing process, L presents for public approval a book calculated ‘to reverse a movement of thought which has been going on since the beginning of philosophy.’

[Footnote in Beattie: “Preface” to The Hierarchy of Heaven and Earth: A New Diagram of Man in the Universe by D. E. Harding (New York, 1952), p. 9.

[I looked up Lewis’s preface to Harding’s book, itself. Here is some of what he says there: “We can observe a single one-way progression. At the outset the universe appears packed with will, intelligence, life and positive qualities; every tree is a nymph and every planet a god. Man himself is akin to the gods. The advance of knowledge gradually empties this rich and genial universe: first of its gods, then of its colours, smells, sounds and tastes, finally of solidity itself as solidity was originally imagined. As these items are taken from the world, they are transferred to the subjective side of the account: classified as our sensations, thoughts, images or emotions. The Subject becomes gorged, inflated, at the expense of the Object. But the matter does not rest there. The same method which has emptied the world now proceeds to empty ourselves. The masters of the method soon announce that we were just as mistaken (and mistaken in much the same way) when we attributed ‘souls’, or ‘selves’ or minds’ to human organisms, as when we attributed Dryads to the trees. Animism, apparently, begins at home. We, who have personified all other things, turn out to be ourselves mere personifications. Man is indeed akin to the gods: that is, he is no less phantasmal than they. Just as the Dryad is a ‘ghost’, an abbreviated symbol for all the facts we know about the tree foolishly mistaken for a mysterious entity over and above the facts, so [10] the man’s ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’ is an abbreviated symbol for certain verifiable facts about his behaviour: a symbol mistaken for a thing. And just as we have been broken of our bad habit of personifying trees, so we must now be broken of our bad habit of personifying men: a reform already effected in the political field. There never was a Subjective account into which we could transfer the items which the Object had lost. There is no ‘consciousness’ to contain, as images or private experiences, all the lost gods, colours, and concepts. Consciousness is ‘not the sort of noun that can be used that way’.” (9-10)

[The preface, continued: “It is as though a man, deceived by the linguistic similarity between ‘myself’ and ‘my spectacles’, should start looking round for his ‘self’ to put in his pocket before he left his bedroom in the morning: he might want it during the course of the day. If we lament the discovery that our friends have no ‘selves’ in the old sense, we shall be behaving like a man who shed bitter tears at being unable to find his ‘self’ anywhere on the dressing-table or even underneath it.” (10) and “Now there is of course nothing new in the attempt to arrest the process that has led us from the living universe where man meets the gods to the final void where almost-nobody discovers his mistakes about almost-nothing. Every step in that process has been contested. Many rearguard actions have been fought: some are being fought at the moment. But it has only been a question of arresting, not of reversing, the movement . . .” (11)]

[Beattie continues]: The process is described grimly as that ‘which has led us from the living universe where man meets the gods to the final void where almost-nobody discovers his mistakes about almost-nothing.’ The final void of the modern space [31] age was a reality to which L could never become reconciled after reconstructing the Heavens of medieval man, filled with life, light, and music.” (30-31)


[1] N. 49: The Abolition of Man (New York, 1965), p. 29.

[2] N. 50: The Discarded Image (Cambridge, 1964), pp. 203-204)

[3] N. 54: The Discarded Image, p. 42.

[4] N. 55: See especially Chapter 3, “The Abolition of Man,” pp. 67-96.

7 responses to “C S Lewis and “medieval morality”

  1. Wow. If we both are acting irenic, do you think it coule spread?

  2. “Pugilistic”? Was that a pugilistic adjective? I’ll not assume so.

    If I’m making the same mistake as Carson–and if it is a mistake–maybe there is a reason for it. Maybe I’m tired of being dismissed as a “Modernist” just because I believe that truth is objective and that it is theoretically possible to overcome my subjectivity to the point where I can responsibly make truth claims that actually are truth claims, not just claims about my own subjective perspectives. Maybe I’m tired of being dismissed as a Modernist when I was critiquing Modernism while the “Young Evangelicals” were still in diapers. Maybe I’m tired of Modernism–for all its faults–being used as a whipping boy for all the evils in the world. If the “Young Evangelicals” don’t want people to have Carson’s reaction to them, maybe they should stop talking like they do and acting like nobody was aware of the subjective factor in our knowing before they came along.

    Let me hasten to add that you were guilty of none of these things in either your post or your response. I am sympathetic to the idea of a “chastened” support for objective value. The problem is that the PoMo Youg Evangelicals I know (and some of the ones I have read) are so chastened that they really do make one suspect that they have a problem with objective truth in any form. Even when they deny this, they will take their denial back in their next breath. Am I misreading them? Maybe. But if I am, and if they are concerned about this, they ought to stop begging me to do it!

  3. Curious. I would say that his emphasis on objective value makes Lewis precisely the patron saint Post-Moderns need; but that emphasis is the one thing the people I know who are comfortable with the PoMo label would never accept. Indeed, this pre-modern (!) medieval notion would get Lewis branded as a Modernist Satan even by the “Evangelical” PoMo’s I know pretty quickly. At least this situation should satisfy their need for constant irony!

    • Well, I suppose my sympathy for Lewis on this matter “outs” me as something of a modern. So be it. As long as we can agree at the same time on a kind of critical realism that admits we all grope toward that objective value through what Dorothy Sayers once called “a poetry of search”–and admit that when we write a “poetry of statement” instead, we are still aware of the hermeneutical nature of what we are doing.

      In other words, I think it is possible to occupy some middle ground – a “chastened modernism” or a “principled postmodernism” – in which objective value is acknowledged, as the medievals acknowledged it, and yet we keep to that apophatic dimension that the medievals also acknowledged: God is never fully knowable. Scripture admits to multiple (allegorical, spiritual) meanings. God is a living being who simply will not be put in our boxes. Images help us worship, but they do not capture God at his essence, in the mystery of those precious truths most tenaciously protected by the tradition: Trinity, Incarnation.

      The Christian tradition is living, supple, flexible, while at the same time strong and true. The Christian community, the church, has been the (ONLY) channel for that truth. Yet that tradition is always open to translation, correction, as we enter new human situations. We live not in certainty but in personal trust, rational reliance, as the tail of the ice-skaters’ whip–the tradition–that thrusts us out into OUR particular world in mission.

      Well, that’s the best I can do for now in response to your rather pugilistic comment. Perhaps I am showing my Canadian stripes. Perhaps I am wussing out. But I think I do know some “Evangelical PoMo’s” who would never dream of branding Lewis a Modernist Satan, because, first, they recognize some of this same chastened modernism in him, and second, they sympathize with his affirmation of objective value.

      But perhaps you would see these people as Postmodernist Satans. I am just having a hard time acknowledging the same polemical polarization that you seem to want to insist upon. I happen to think that, for example, D.A. Carson’s portrayal of “Emergent” Christians as thoroughgoing relativists is a serious misunderstanding of the concerns of that group identified by the late Bob Webber as the “younger evangelicals.” I sense something of Carson’s mistake in your note. But then, it’s just a brief note. And maybe I’m missing your meaning entirely.

  4. Great thoughts. I too have been frustrated with my evangelical heritage’s inability to speak about morality without the constant fear of “legalism.”

    On a side note, I think there is a typo in the third from the last paragraph: “so we must no be broken of our bad habit of personifying men”.

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