The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature
by C.S. Lewis
Cambridge University Press, 1964
232 pages (paperback)
The Discarded Image is both the title of this blog and of the highly-regarded, but lesser-known and final book of C.S Lewis. Lewis’s work, which is more than its title lets on, examines medieval cosmology or what he calls a “model.” The medieval system served its purpose, but like many models, it met its end. Lewis’s work is an attempt to remind us of why it existed in the first place; why did it serve as a muse for poets and as a key to the universe for awestruck theologians?
In popular literature today, the medieval model—and its Ptolemaic foundation—are ridiculed as anthropocentric and the thing of simpletons. Added to this, we are offered the illusion that the average medieval believed the earth was flat. Lewis turns these misconceptions on their heads. He is not advocating a return to the medieval system as much as he calls the reader to understand the role such a model played for the world to which it belonged. “We can no longer dismiss the change of Models as a simple progress from error to truth. No Model is a catalogue of ultimate realities, and none is a mere fantasy. Each is a serious attempt to get in all the phenomena known at a given period….”
The medieval model, for all its scientific misunderstanding, is detailed, complex, and beautiful. “This is the medieval synthesis itself,” Lewis explains, “the whole organization of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, harmonious mental Model of the Universe. The building of this Model is conditioned by two factors…the essential bookish character of their culture, and their intense love of system.” Lewis’s book is a helpful decoder of this world for the befuddled modern.
He delves deeply and comfortably into the this foreign land, providing background, both metaphysically and physically, for the medieval world and its inhabitants, human, animal, and mythical. Nymphs, fairies, and the like, find their way into Lewis’s portrait of the medieval model, perhaps even providing a good background for understanding his more popular series, The Chronicles of Narnia.
Anthropocentrism, as Lewis understands it, is a reading of the Model driven primarily by a modern worldview. Lewis raises the examples of Chalcidius, who saw the world as “infinitesimally small by cosmic standards.” The geocentricity of the Ptolemaic system, says Lewis, is not anthropocentric. Why is the Earth the center? In Chalcidius’s voice, Lewis tells us that “it is so placed in order that the celestial dance may have a centre to revolve around—in fact, as an aesthetic convenience for the celestial beings.” In other words, Earth is the cosmic disco ball.
The French poet, Alanus ab Insulis compares the system to a city. The emperor sits on his throne in the central castle, but Earth is outside the walls of the city. “The Medieval Model is, if we may use the word,” says Lewis, “anthropoperipheral. We are creatures of the Margin.” As I read this, I could not help but wonder what this did for the medieval theologian. Christ, as he or she may have seen it, left the central heavenly throne and entered the humble life of those who live in the margins, the weak, the poor, and the tired. In this way, the model makes sense, it served their theology well in a hard world. Only a caring God would give it all up to live with the undesirables.
What about the flat earth? Lewis demonstrates well what might seem to be the obvious. “The implications of a spherical Earth were fully grasped,” he writes. There were “Flat-earthers” he admits—and a simple search on Google will tell you they still exist today—however, the dominant view was that the “Earth is a globe; all the authors of the high Middle Ages are agreed on this….”
Like a guide in a strange land, Lewis points out all of the point of interest that do not usually make the tour brochures. He also brings the reader back to the idea of change. No model is above change, he tells us, sometimes that change comes with barely a whimper and sometimes with a bang. “The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm,” he writes, “may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heavens but in ‘a new theory of the nature of theory’.” I would add that it did not help when Galileo compared the pope to the antichrist.
Lewis’s concept of the discarded image serves as an important reminder for myself. What I have discovered is this, whatever the current model I have for life is, it only serves to make sense of life for me now. I’ve lived by other, now forsaken models. In the past, the image that served as a synthesis for my life (my cosmological model) has run into new data, new life experiences, new realizations, and has been discarded or, at the very least, seriously remodeled. (Usually science has something to do with it.) I plan to continue that journey, always engaging my brain and facing the possibility that there is a better model, as often as necessary for the rest of my life.
It seems to me that Lewis practiced this in some way himself. His wrestling with an incorrect view of myth (as equaling lie) and his subsequent conversion to Christianity represents a change toward a model that he believed best made sense of the world as he knew it. Additionally, as difficult as it was to understand its relationship to theology, he accepted the idea of evolution because the evidence seemed impossible to ignore. And there is evidence that though he held a low view of women throughout much of his life—some would add that it was entirely misogynistic—he found a significant change of mind after meeting Joy Davidman and appears to have embraced some form of gender equality.
For some, the discarded image is the idea of a real God; for others, it is the a form of their religion. Discarding an image, however, does not exclude regarding it. Whatever I decide as untenable, I remind myself that something of that previous image will always remain and makes me who I am today. For that reason, I regard it as part of my ontology.
Lewis’s book is not for beginners, despite its use of the word “introduction.” He presumes a lot of familiarity with names like Dante, Chaucer, and Milton, and weaves in and out of texts like a cab driver navigating traffic in Chicago. There is a good reason for this, the book is based on a series of lectures given at Oxford, and it does, at times, read like lectures on a theme, but it holds together well enough, with the details of the medieval model finding more attention toward the middle. This book is a keeper for the serious library. Whatever one thinks of Lewis, this is not the kind of book one simply discards.