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
A depiction of Boetius teaching his students (1385). Boetius, a 6th century Christian philosopher, helped keep alive the classic tradition in post-Roman Italy. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Before beginning the research on Getting Medieval with C S Lewis, I had often thought that there is something a bit exotic and strange about Lewis’s treatment of desire and salvation. Now I know what that is: he was a Neoplatonic Christian in a Boethian mold. This bit of the “affective devotion chapter” sorts some of that out, with the help of Canadian philosopher and Lewis specialist Adam Barkman.
Lewis’s reading of Boethius, quite a while before his Christian conversion, revealed to him a particularly Christian understanding of the role of our desires in the path to God. His knowledge of this tradition would lead Lewis to craft a form of a traditional apologetic argument for Christianity: the argument from desire.
Since Boethius’s book was one of the most translated, most influential books of the whole middle ages, let’s look for a moment at how this influential argument from desire looks in the Consolation. Boethius the character in the allegory begins the book in a very agitated state. His fortunes have turned for the worse, he has been accused of political skullduggery, his goods have been confiscated, he is under arrest. And with the righteous fervor of a Job and the melancholy of a Psalm of lament, he says, “I seem to see the wicked haunts of criminals overflowing with happiness and joy.” How is it that the wicked can be enjoying themselves, and he, who has lived an upright life as a faithful servant of Theodoric, has had happiness snatched away from him?
Now Lady Philosophy spends much of the first half of the book convincing Boethius that the things he thinks will bring him secure happiness—money, fame, power, pleasure—are actually will-o-the-wisps, or pale shadows of true happiness. But she does not disagree with Boethius’s premise: that happiness is our proper end. Continue reading
I just read that I’m now a “distinguished guest speaker.” Checked quickly in the mirror: doesn’t look like I have any more grey hairs . . .
Anyhow, the Madison C S Lewis Society has just posted the audio of a tremendous series of nine top scholars, plus me, speaking at their Oct 2012 conference on the ten books that most influenced C S Lewis. I’ve got to say this was the most stimulating conference I’ve attended in a long, long time.
These were the books Lewis listed toward the end of his life in answer to a question from the American magazine The Christian Century about which books had most influenced his “sense of vocation and philosophy of life.” My assignment: to discuss how Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, of which the medievalist Lewis said, “To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages,” influenced the Oxford don.
Appropriate to my activities these days in Bethel Seminary’s Work with Purpose initiative, in this talk I pay particular attention to the question of how Lewis saw his own vocation as a public intellectual attempting to preserve and recommend the Old Western Christian tradition.
The link is here. (In my bit, the talk is around 40 minutes; the lively Q&A at the end is perhaps the most interesting part: you may just want to skip ahead!) And here is the full list of books and speakers:
|The Idea of the Holy by Rudolf Otto presented by Dr. Adam Barkman from Redeemer University College.
|The Life of Samuel Johnson by James Boswell presented by Dr. Paul Tankard from the University of Otago, NZ.
|Theism and Humanism by Arthur James Balfour presented by Dr. Charles Taliferro from St. Olaf College.
|The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius presented by Dr. Chris Armstrong from Bethel University.
|Phantastes by George MacDonald presented by Dr. David Neuhouser from Taylor University
|The Temple by George Herbert presented by Dr. Don King from Montreat College.
|The Everlasting Man by G. K. Chesterton presented by Dr. Donald T. Williams from Toccoa Falls College.
|Descent Into Hell by Charles Williams presented by Dr. Holly Ordway, Houston Baptist University.
|The Aeneid by Virgil presented by Dr. Louis Markos from Houston Baptist University.
|The Prelude by William Wordsworth presented by Dr. Mary Ritter from New York University.
Boethius imprisoned (from 1385 manuscript of the Consolation) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
A while back I gave, at the Madison, Wisconsin C S Lewis Society’s conference, sponsored by the Bradshaw-Knight Foundation, a much fuller version of the take on Lewis’s “Boethianism” than the one I had originally tried out on the Medieval Congress CSL crowd at Kalamazoo. Here’s the Madison paper.
There’s more here on Boethius’s philosophical influence on Lewis, as well as a refinement on the ways in which Boethius seems to have influenced Lewis vocationally. I did, however, truncate the end from what I had prepared to give. I’ll add my original pre-conclusion ending, which reflects on fortune and eudaimonism using Lewis’s last published essay, “We have no ‘right to happiness,'” after the paper proper.
Probably the author who influenced me most in my expansion of the Kzoo paper was Adam Barkman. Serendipitously, I discovered a few days before the conference that he was to give the paper right after me. It was an honor to get to know him and hang out with him at the conference. Everyone interested in Lewis and philosophy, or really, everyone seriously interested in Lewis from any perspective, needs to buy Adam’s book, C. S. Lewis and Philosophy as a Way of Life.
“Lewis the Boethian,” paper for Bradshaw-Knight CSL conference Oct. 2012, Madison, Wisconsin
Copyright 2012 by Chris R. Armstrong. THIS PAPER IS DISTRIBUTED WITH THE UNDERSTANDING THAT THOSE READING IT WILL NOT CITE OR QUOTE IT WITHOUT EXPRESS PERMISSION FROM THE AUTHOR.
He was a philosopher first, and then a master of literature, with his Christianity informing both. Continue reading
Posted in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Protestants
Tagged Adam Barkman, Aristotle, Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, CS Lewis, eudaemonism, Fortune, neoplatonism, Pagan culture, paganism, philosophy, Plato, The Discarded Image, vocation