Tag Archives: Boethius

C. S. Lewis on pagan philosophy as a road to Christian faith


Greek philosophers enjoying a good metaphysical throwdown

Greek philosophers enjoying a good dialectical throwdown

In our last post from the “tradition chapter” draft of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S  Lewis, we saw that Lewis and the medievals shared a deep appreciation for the wisdom of the pagan philosophers. Was this some antiquarian hobby for Lewis, like collecting old stamps? Here we dig deeper: what possible use could the old philosophers still have for us today?

It is hard to overstate how much Lewis valued pagan knowledge. He had been told as a boy that “Christianity was 100% correct and every other religion, including the pagan myths of ancient Greece and Rome, was 100% wrong.” But because he had already encountered the wisdom of the philosophers, he found that this insistence on the opposition of Christianity to paganism drove him away from, rather than toward, the Christian faith. As it turned out, he abandoned his childhood faith “largely under the influence of classical education.”[1]

It was to this experience of valuing philosophy highly and then being told that Christianity must supplant it that Lewis owed his “firm conviction that the only possible basis for Christian apologetics is a proper respect for paganism.” Continue reading

The Pagan element of Christian tradition: All truth is God’s truth


Dante and Beatrice speak to the teachers of wi...

Dante and Beatrice speak to the teachers of wisdom Thomas Aquinas, Albertus Magnus, Peter Lombard and Sigier of Brabant in the Sphere of the Sun (fresco by Philipp Veit), Canto 10. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s all very well to say that C S Lewis and the medievals valued tradition–indeed, that they hung their hopes for understanding the Truth of things on their ability to understand and act on the wisdom passed down to them. But what was the nature of that tradition? Yes, Christian, of course. But also, as we will see, Pagan.

Tradition included Pagan as well as Christian wisdom

In Discarded Image, Lewis shows us that medievals implicitly trusted historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He also shows that they saw truth not just in Scripture and explicitly Christian tradition, but also in the words of the Pagan philosophers and the works of Greco-Roman culture. This was true from Clement of Alexandria and Justin Martyr through Boethius, Thomas Aquinas, and Dante. Though the pagan philosophers had not known Christ in his incarnate form, they too, along with all people, had been given access to the logos – the wisdom of the second person of the Trinity.

In other words, medieval poets, jurists, moral teachers, romance writers, and theologians—all creating compendia of knowledge for their readers—were often gleefully syncretistic. Not that they didn’t care whether the deepest truth of things was to be understood in Christian, Platonic, Stoic, or Pagan terms. Christianity always provided the framework, the “norming norm,” for truth. But within that framework one might fit all the best thought of the pagans, as Christian thinkers had been doing ever since Paul spoke to the Greeks at Mars Hill about their “Unknown God,” using the words of their own poets (“In him we live and move and have our being.”)

What else would we expect from the early spread of “the Way” to the Gentiles? Continue reading

In which C S Lewis meets the “bookish people” of the Middle Ages and shares their love of old books with new readers


A Roman Missal - the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A Roman Missal – the Catholic book that preserves liturgical tradition for modern use

A few posts ago, we looked at C S Lewis’s youthful disdain of the medieval period. When at Oxford he had been faced with the thoroughgoing (if heretodox) supernaturalism of two friends who had become converts to Rudolf Steiner‘s mystical Anthroposophy, he had thrown his hands up in despair: “why–damn it–it’s medieval!” Such ancient superstitions, he had snorted, had no place in the modern mind, guided as it is by the light of clear-eyed reason.

Little did this self-described “chronological snob” know that he would soon become not only a scholar of medieval literature, but in fact one of the foremost modern exponents of that thoroughly supernatural ancient and medieval faith: Christianity. Before long he was urging his readers to read two old books for every new book they read, for the latter are still untested (and often simply wrong).

Near the end of his long, Boethian career as a “traditionerfor a dark and amnesiac age, Lewis compiled and refined the notes from twenty years of Cambridge lectures on medieval culture, and published them under the title The Discarded Image.

Here, with great and obvious affection, Lewis described medieval people’s passionate allegiance to the “traditioned” (passed-down) written word. The subtext throughout was clear: If only we moderns could catch this same lovesickness for the past: How much wiser we would be! Not, he clearly warned, that we should swallow whole the errors of past thinkers. But that we should let their ancient wisdom correct our own:

the Middle Ages as time of “traditioning”

In Discarded Image (a compendium of lectures he gave at Cambridge), Lewis shows us that medievals trusted implicitly historical texts as the repositories of God’s truth. He notes “the overwhelmingly bookish . . . character of medieval culture,” elaborating: “When we speak of the Middle Ages as the ages of authority we are usually thinking about the authority of the Church. But they were the age not only of her authority, but of authorities. . . . Every writer, if he possibly can, bases himself on an earlier writer . . . preferably a Latin one.” He distinguishes this impulse both from the “savage” (primitive) community, in which “you absorb your culture . . . from the immemorial pattern of behavior” and from the modern West, in which “most knowledge depends, in the last resort, on observation” (that is, the empiricism of the scientific method). “But,” he concludes, “the Middle Ages depended predominantly on books,” despite lower literacy rates than much of the modern world enjoys. (DI, 5)

Lewis also shows that medievals saw truth not just in Scripture and explicitly Christian tradition, but also in the words of the Pagan philosophers and the works of Greco-Roman culture—indeed far more the Roman than the Germanic authorities [note: “For one reference to Wade or Weland we meet fifty to Hector, Aeneas, Alexander, or Caesar.” (DI, 8)].

For the medieval person, tradition was not past but present. And it was not merely intellectual—some card-file of truths that one dragged out in an argument. It was a matter of the heart. Continue reading

Storytelling ourselves back into a Christian ethic: C S Lewis’s approach to fiction


The Chronicles of Narnia

The Chronicles of Narnia (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

C S Lewis wrote his stories to help readers imaginatively indwell a moral tradition. This is an excerpt of the “tradition chapter” draft from my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis:

Teaching through stories

Lewis saw literature’s purpose as “delighting and informing,” with a heavy (didactic) emphasis on the latter, I’d add!—this was famously the source of Tolkien’s low estimation of the Narnia Chronicles.

What Lewis did in his stories was to re-narrate the stories of our traditions, allowing his readers to indwell truths of the past, “Enjoying” them (that is, seeing the world by their light) and not just “Contemplating” them (that is, knowing the analytically and propositionally). This was his practical application of a principle he enunciated like this: “Reason is the organ of truth; imagination is the organ of meaning.” Lewis, like the allegorist Boethius, knew that if we are to pass the meaning of our faith from generation to generation, an excellent way to do so is through story. Continue reading

C S Lewis and his homeboy Boethius – part II


From a 1385 Italian manuscript of the Consolat...

From a 1385 Italian manuscript of the Consolation: Miniatures of Boethius teaching and in prison (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This post is the second looking at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius. It is from the draft “Tradition chapter” of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. The first may be found here.

Lewis valued Boethius highly as a historian and traditioner, bringing the light of one age’s wisdom out into the darkness of another’s depravity and forgetfulness. He referred to Boethius as “that divine popularizer,”[1] which indicates the “translative” function served by public intellectuals. To speak intelligibly to a diverse company, “patrician and plebian, bourgeoisie and proletariat, rich and poor, educated and semi-educated, specialist and nonspecialist,” the public intellectual must use a language they all understand—the vernacular. Aside from the Consolation, the work of Boethius that most shaped the Middle Ages was his labor translating the wisdom of the ancient Greeks, which he read in their original language, into the vernacular of his day, Latin. And Lewis of course both was master of many languages and could “translate” the most complex philosophical ideas not just into clear radio addresses for the masses, but into the imaginative, concrete world of children’s books.

It is hard to think of an apter description, in fact, of C. S. Lewis. As much as did Boethius, Lewis wanted to stand in the gap of cataclysmic cultural loss, to bring “the tradition” back to the people. He told his Cambridge audience, “I myself belong far more to that Old Western order than to yours. . . . Continue reading

C S Lewis and his homeboy Boethius – two “public intellectual” peas in a pod


A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (...

Boethius teaching his students (1385). Boethius, a 6th-c. Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in the post-Roman West. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Here’s another in the brief series I’ve started of posts from the Tradition chapter of my forthcoming Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis. First came a couple of posts that looked at Lewis’s sense of horror at a modern world–including its guild of historians!–that refuses to learn from the past (though he himself had once held the same attitudes). Then a look at his prescription for this illness: old books. This post looks at Lewis’s foremost medieval model for the task of calling church and society back to traditional wisdom: Boethius.

What Lewis did himself

Lewis was not content just to stand on the sidelines of modern discussion about Christian theology and lob in the occasional reminder of tradition. Again and again, in his essays, stories, and letters, Lewis insists that apart from tradition, we are adrift in the errors of our own age. Indeed, soon after his 1931 conversion, this compulsion became a full-blown vocation for the Oxford don and lay theologian. He was to become a public intellectual—a conduit to past wisdom for an amnesiac generation. It was a vocation he shared with one of his favorite writers, who was also one of the most influential thought leaders in the medieval period – a man who wrote as the Roman Empire was crumbling, and attempted to preserve Christian as well as Greek philosophical truth for a time in danger of losing its inherited wisdom. Continue reading

C S Lewis and chronological snobbery: “Why–damn it–it’s medieval!”


Old-books-on-shelves-001Lewis was born to save the modern world from trashing its traditions – both Christian and classical. Once he had converted from his own “chronological snobbery,” he quickly found a vocation in recovering tradition for others. This is the second post from the “Tradition chapter” of Medieval Wisdom: An exploration with C S Lewis. The first is here.

For an idea of how Lewis viewed the power of tradition, we turn to his answer to the Christian Century magazine when they asked him, “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The wording of that question is crucial. They asked not “what books did most to influence your style?” or “fire your imagination?” or “give you templates for your own writing?” etc., but rather “what books shaped your vocational attitude and philosophy of life.” As we see in the preface to Sister Penelope’s translation of Athanasius’s De Incarnatione, retitled “On reading old books” in later anthologies, and even more in his De Descriptione Temporum address at Cambridge in the Fall of 1954, nothing more triggered for Lewis “the place where his deep gladness met the world’s deep need”[1] than the modern abandonment of tradition. I mean his sense that in abandoning tradition, the modern world had dealt itself a grievous wound, which only his Christian faith kept him from seeing as inevitably fatal.

Lewis was perhaps the best prepared person of his generation for the task of appreciating and passing on the wisdom of past generations to those yet to come. Continue reading