C S Lewis as medieval moral philosopher – a snippet from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis


C S LEWIS IN THE EAGLE & CHILD – OXFORD (Photo credit: summonedbyfells)

Still working away today on the “moral fabric of medieval faith” chapter of my book Getting Medieval with C S Lewis. Having opened the chapter with a statement of the “modern problem,” I intend to turn next to Lewis.

So far the shape this “Lewis section” is taking is that I open with a brief reminder of Lewis’s development in ethical thinking, then move to his defense of objective value, then show how his highest and most lasting form of moral discourse was actually his imaginative fiction – and along the way indicate at every step the debts he owed to medieval understandings.

The draft is still much longer than it should be – unwieldy and circuitous. But posting these things here has always helped me work through them, especially as people have responded with comments. So this is an invitation: What works here for you? What doesn’t? Where can I trim, reorganize, compress? What is confusing or redundant?

Introduction [to lewis section]

Lewis walked cultural ground sown with the seeds of this modern situation: denial of objective value, lack of a coherent social ethic, moral passivity and blame-shifting, and a failure to pass on a moral framework to the next generation through the training of what he called the “moral sentiments.” He would point out to us, as he did to his own day, that it is no good skewering the younger generation’s failures when we, their elders, have failed to teach them well. “In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests [that is, well-trained moral sentiments] and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”

These are Lewis’s words in his seminal short essay The Abolition of Man. And the same analysis also echoed through the pages of his imaginative writings – yes, the Narnia Chronicles, but also, and more explicitly, the Screwtape Letters, the Great Divorce, and the Space Trilogy: Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength. In such works, Lewis worked out in the flesh-and-blood form of characters and events not just the moral problems facing modern society, but their solution: the graced renovation of the human heart. Indeed I would argue that in everything Lewis wrote, non-fiction or fiction, he wrote first of all as a (Christian) moral philosopher.

More than this: Lewis’s Christian moral philosophy owed much to medieval faith, both for its intellectual framework and for its didactic use of story and imagination. In this chapter we will pull the threads of Lewis’s debts to the epic moral vision and social critique of Dante Alighieri’s 1300 masterpiece, the Comedia; to the medieval virtue ethics that had influenced Dante via Aquinas and the scholastics – and Lewis more directly via his classical studies; to the medieval traditions of the Seven Capital Vices (more popularly known today as the Seven Deadly Sins) and Seven Cardinal Virtues—and the psychologically acute desert tradition that stood behind those; and to the medieval insistence, following Matthew 25’s parable of the sheep and the goats, that our faith must issue in compassionate works such as the Seven Works of Corporal Mercy and Seven Works of Spiritual Mercy.

Lewis the moral philosopher

In the theology chapter we asked, What is a philosopher? And we saw that a philosopher is someone who seeks to understand and live life in light of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. From early in his life, Lewis’s thought was imbued in that tradition, although as a young man before his conversion to Christianity he struggled against aspects of it.

As we have seen in discussing Lewis’s commitment to the authority of tradition, his training, from 16 to 18, under William T. Kirkpatrick had prepared him to find in “old books” not only aesthetic pleasures but meaning for living. His stint at the front during the Great War momentarily sundered his moral understandings from his imagination, and from the Christian sources of the Western ethical framework. Returning, wounded, from the front and taking up his studies again in January, 1919, he was constructing a stoical creed he called his “new look” – the belief that this material world is all that we can know, and our job is to “bear its deep pains and cherish its moderate joys with as much courage as we can muster.” This new “no-nonsense philosophy” came with its own moral philosophy, which denied the existence of any grounds for making objective judgments about value.[1]

Lewis the defender of objective value

Soon, however, he encountered a non-relativistic set of ethical theories that allowed appeals to history and to the Western tradition of moral understandings handed down from the Judeo-Christian scriptures and Roman law. Shortly after his return to Oxford, and still a decade before his Christian conversion, Lewis already began to defend objective value in ethics.

In 1922 he read Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy for the first time – its cadences were no doubt ringing in his ears when, as a test essay for a fellowship in philosophy, he submitted an argument for the existence of natural law—the subject of his later work The Abolition of Man. And when he secured the philosophy position (which he was to hold for one year) at University College, Oxford, he taught on “moral goodness.”[2]

In 1925, Lewis took up what would become his long-standing teaching position at Magdalen College, Oxford. The dominant philosopher there was a man named John Alexander Smith, who was certainly no relativist, and who “displayed a polite skepticism toward anyone who would propose in 1920 to reject the cumulative moral wisdom of over two thousand years on behalf of any conceivable new theory” (a position on the authority of tradition that we have described, in the “tradition chapter,” as distinctly medieval). This likely reinforced the young literature professor’s commitment to the traditional doctrine of an objectively real moral law, and his resolve to make “intellectual war on the utilitarians, the idealists, and the moral subjectivists.”[3]

Of course, when in 1931 Lewis came to Christian faith, it gave a new ground for his moral understandings—he could now see them as being created along with all material creation, by God. However, he was far from insisting that only Christians, or theists, could be moral. In his early spiritual autobiography, The Pilgrim’s Regress (1933), Lewis made clear that “the Landlord” (God) makes the rules, but that those rules, though originating from God, are present in the world in a way that informs all people and at least to some degree compels most. What is new in Christianity is that in the redemption purchased for us by Christ, the writer of the rules comes to our hearts and helps us to keep them.[4]

How thoroughly these assumptions had suffused medieval culture James Patrick reminds us: “Aristotle had assumed it, and Plato. Cicero had spoken of it when he called it the law that is not written down. When St. Paul wrote that even the Gentiles knew that certain kinds of behavior were wrong, he was appealing to natural law. This same idea informed the thought of St. Augustine in the fourth century [the towering figure of theology and ethics throughout the early and into the high medieval period] and St. Thomas in the thirteenth [the pinnacle of scholastic theology and philosophy].”[5]

Virtue in concrete form: Lewis and the use of story in moral teaching

One more facet of Lewis’s moral thought links him to the Middle Ages. While he continued, after his conversion, making the intellectual argument for objective value, he was also captivated by the typically medieval use of imaginative story in teaching morality at the affective level (training the “moral sentiments” or the “chest”—two of the phrases he used in The Abolition of Man for the ethical seat (biblically the “heart”) of humans). The medieval devotional authors he was reading through the 1930s and 1940s, from Julian of Norwich to Walter Hilton to the anonymous author of the Theologia Germanica, along with such medieval litterateurs as Dante and Chaucer, all painted the Christian moral life in image-rich narrative colors.

In two decades of introductory lectures on medieval poetry, Lewis told his students at Cambridge, where he finished his career in the chair of medieval and renaissance literature, that the medieval cosmos was “a world of built-in significance”—its physical realities all shot through with meaning and the divine.[6] Medievals, unlike moderns, refused to sunder the realities of mundane existence – including the moral life – from the highest things: Truth, Beauty, and Goodness.  And his deep engagement in medieval literature led Lewis to build on his understanding of objective value first a commitment to discerning that value through stories that showed the virtues (and vices) in concrete form, and then soon enough, a commitment to teach virtue through story. We will focus here especially on the influence of Dante’s Comedia, which he was reading and enjoying before his conversion, in 1930, along with his friend Owen Barfield.

A medieval schoolboy, Lewis told us in his Sixteenth-Century Literature, learned “farriery, forestry, archery, hawking, sowing, ditching, thatching, brewing, baking, weaving, and practical astronomy. This concrete knowledge, mixed with their law, rhetoric, theology, and mythology, bred an outlook very different from our own. High abstractions and rarified artifices jostled the earthiest particulars . . . They talked more readily than we about large universals such as death, change, fortune, friendship, or salvation; but also about pigs, loaves, boots, and boats. The mind darted more easily to and fro between that mental heaven and earth: the cloud of middle generalizations, hanging between the two, was then much smaller. Hence, as it seems to us, both the naivety and the energy of their writing . . . They talk something like angels and something like sailors and stable-boys; never like civil servants or writers of leading articles.’”[7]

It was no accident that it was his reading of a schoolbook for children that triggered Lewis’s most famous moral screed against utilitarianism, the Abolition of Man, nor that the most lasting testament to his own moral vision was a set of children’s novels. When Lewis began teaching morality by embedding it in the concrete details of story (the favored language of the “schoolboy” in every era and culture!), he was wielding one of the most venerable tools in the medieval ethical toolbox. For it was in writing stories that medievals most exercised that habit of mind described in the passage above, leading the mind of the reader to “dart . . . to and fro between that mental heaven and earth.”

Thomas Aquinas, following Aristotle, had taught that the moral life was to be achieved not by education in the mode of memorization, but instead by imitation leading to habituation. It was a key principle of Aristotelian virtue ethics that imitation requires living examples, not lists of ethical principles. To become virtuous, our hearts must be shaped by the lives and stories of others. In Lewis’s copy of Walter Hilton’s (1340 – 1396) widely used devotional guide, The Scale [or “Ladder”] of Perfection, he marked the following: “This is the conforming of a soul to God, which may not be had unless it be first reformed by fullness of virtues turned into affection; and that is when a man loveth virtues, for that they be good in themselves.” (21) It was to develop in readers the emotional taste for the inherent goodness of the virtues that Lewis wrote his stories. In doing this, he was imitating his master, fellow Dante fan and novelist George MacDonald.

In the preface to his tribute volume George MacDonald: An Anthology (1946), Lewis had this to say about his early encounter with MacDonald’s imaginative writings:

“The quality which had enchanted me in his imaginative works turned out to be the quality of the real universe, the divine, magical, terrifying, and ecstatic reality in which we all live. I should have been shocked in my teens if anyone had told me that what I learned to love in Phantastes was goodness. But now that I know, I see there was no deception. The deception is all the other way round-in that prosaic moralism which confines goodness to the region of Law and Duty, which never lets us feel in our face the sweet air blowing from “the land of righteousness,” never reveals that elusive Form which if once seen must inevitably be desired with all but sensuous desire-the thing (in Sappho’s phrase) “more gold than gold.””[8]

In Miracles, Lewis reminds us of what John 7:17 teaches us, “that only He who does the will of the Father will ever know the true doctrine.” It is “in the moral life,” as also in our liturgy and devotions, that “we touch something concrete which will at once begin to correct the growing emptiness of our idea of God.” In other words, we need the concreteness of moral action, as of devotional action, to ground our ideas of God, lest they float off into the Greek abstractions of immateriality, immutability, impassibility. Not that those high abstractions are not also true—they are. But the moral life grounds us in the “pigs, loaves, boots and boats”—the stuff of our actual lives—and thereby also grounds and makes real our understanding of the God who is above all understanding. As Lewis goes on to say, “One moment even of feeble contrition or blurred thankfulness will, at least in some degree, head us off from the abyss of abstraction.”[9]

As the medievals saw (and such medieval authors as Dante and Chaucer marshaled and applied this truth with a mastery unsurpassed since their time), stories are therefore the most appropriate medium for teaching eternal verities—both the nature of God, and the nature of the virtues (and in this, they only followed the literary form of most of the Christian Scriptures). Nowhere was Lewis more medieval than in helping his readers reach out to the transcendent God and the life of “godliness” through the instrument of concrete, detail-filled stories. “For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning. Imagination, producing new metaphors or revivifying old, is not the cause of truth, but its condition.”[10] Meaning is truth truly understood – internalized through concrete example and application. There can be no effective talk of virtue that remains abstract. Virtue is only virtue when we see it applied, and when we apply it ourselves—in the plot and circumstance of life.


Even in Dante’s Paradiso, the most abstract and “metaphysical” of the three books of the Comedia, Lewis found powerful and effective this medieval trait of making the transcendent concrete. In a 1948 essay “Imagery in the Last Eleven Cantos of Dante’s Comedy,” read to the Oxford Dante Society, he talks about Dante’s imagery having “an almost sensuous intensity about things not sensuous.” Through frequent use especially of images from the worlds of horticulture and the technical arts and crafts, the “continual reference both to the quiet, moistened earth and to the resonant pavements, workshops, and floors,” Dante “support[s] and make[s] convincing his invention of a heaven which, in the obvious sense, makes very few concessions to the natural man.”[11]

Though he does it in all his works of fiction (which, again, I argue he wrote always first as a moral philosopher), Lewis most explicitly confesses to this moral “concretizing of the transcendent” in the preface to That Hideous Strength, the third volume of his Space Trilogy. There he says, “This is a ‘tall story’ about devilry, though it has behind it a serious ‘point’ which I have tried to make in my Abolition of Man.”[12]

What this looks like in That Hideous Strength is the explicit use of the “seven medieval planets” (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Sol, and Luna). In medieval understanding, these were not cold, distant chunks of rock and gas. They were living beings, whose associated virtues both influenced and exampled our own. Our modern English words reveal these virtues: “jovial” hospitality for Jupiter (whose Middle English name was “Jove”), “martial” courage for Mars, even “venereal” or sexual love for Venus. Michael Ward argued convincingly, in his Planet Narnia, that these planetary characters are the implicit device Lewis used to structure the seven books of the Narnia Chronicles.

In the chronicles the planetary virtues appear subtly, woven invisibly into the fabric of each story (and the very hiddenness of this structure itself, as Ward shows us, is a medieval technique). But the science fiction novels came first in Lewis’s oeuvre (he wrote That Hideous Strength in 1950, five years before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), and here, the planets show up “in the flesh,” coming down to earth to communicate their virtues to the protagonists at crucial junctures in the plot, as they battle against the moral horror of the technocrats of N.I.C.E (the “National Institute of Coordinated Experiments”). The novel culminates, in fact, with Venus herself descending to the marriage bed of Mark and Jane Studdock, healing their crumbling relationship by restoring their sexual intimacy. How medieval of Lewis!

[1] James Patrick, “The Heart’s Desire and the Landlord’s Rules: C. S. Lewis as a Moral Philosopher,” in The Pilgrim’s Guide: C. S. Lewis and the Art of Witness, ed. David Mills (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans: 1998), 78-79.

[2] “Introduction,” Baggett, Habermas, & Walls, C. S. Lewis as Philosopher: Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. The entry in Joel Heck’s very thorough online chronology of Lewis’s life, http://www.joelheck.com/chronologically-lewis.php, for Tuesday, Nov 14, 1924, reads: “Jack’s first lecture at University College, ‘The Good, Its Position among Values,’ is heard by four people.” This was a few days shy of Lewis’s 26th birthday.

[3] Patrick, “Heart’s Desire,” 79.

[4] Patrick, 85.

[5] Patrick, 83.

[6] Discarded Image, 204.

[7] N. 29: Lewis, English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, p. 62.

[8] Lewis, “Preface,” George MacDonald: An Anthology, xxxviii

[9] Lewis, Miracles, in The Complete C. S. Lewis Signature Classics, 1167.

[10] Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes: A Semantic Nightmare,” in Rehabilitations (1939).

[11] Studies in Words, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967), 41-63, 93.

[12] C. S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (Mcmillan, 1946), 7.

2 responses to “C S Lewis as medieval moral philosopher – a snippet from my forthcoming Getting Medieval with C S Lewis

  1. Pingback: From Mary-Sue to Heroine: Rethinkin Jacquel Romanov~by MagicalWolf | FanFiction Fridays

  2. Well, one thing I notice is that the section on the use of story in teaching morality overlaps significantly with sections of my tradition chapter (also blogged here). I’ll need to sort out that material, deciding which parts of it belong in this chapter, and which in that. In fact, since the “moral storytelling” material in the tradition chapter goes much more in-depth on the category of “desire” than does the material here, that may best be extracted to the “affective devotion” chapter. Oh the joys of authorship . . .

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