Changing Views of the World: Lewis and Barfield


As discussed in an earlier blog entry, C. S. Lewis’s last book, The Discarded Image, introduces modern readers to the now-largely-lost medieval thought-world. It’s worth comparing a view that Lewis held of the way medievals thought with the view of Lewis’s long-time friend Owen Barfield, who was a major influence on Lewis’s thought and work. The central argument of The Discarded Image is that medieval thinkers did not perceive the universe in the same way that we do, as an empty void for scientific study, but as a living entity, worthy of love and intimately involved with us on every level; Barfield, in his book Saving the Appearances, suggests that this wasn’t just a difference in perception as far as literature and the arts went but an actual difference in the way in which medieval people interacted with the world around them: i.e. that they felt that the cosmos was that way.

Lewis approaches the topic in a way that we are more likely to accept, by painting a picture of the kind of culture that existed during the Middle Ages in Europe:

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…The Middle Ages depended predominantly on books.

Thinkers of that time, Lewis argues, were interested in categorising the world around them:

At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organiser, a codifier, a builder of systems…There was nothing which medieval people liked better, or did better, than sorting out and tidying up.

Barfield, on the other hand, tackles the issue from a more difficult angle, which is perhaps why his works are less well-known. In Saving the Appearances, he suggests that there is an evolution of consciousness which is taking place, and that the way we perceive the world now is a result of an actual splitting apart of things from the way we feel or interact with them - in other words, that the ‘scientific’ view of the universe which we now have has grown out of an entirely different way of viewing things. The familiar world arrives with us through a mental activity which Barfield called ‘figuration’, a largely subconscious, imaginative activity through which we participate in producing (‘figuring’) the phenomena around us. This mental activity changed in nature in what has been termed the Scientific Revolution, which has resulted in a great deal more understanding about objects and forces and the way in which things operate, but has also produced a divorce between us as human beings and that world of objects and forces.

In Lewis’s book, the medieval view is described matter-of-factly:

They [the medieval poets] believed from the outset that Nature was not everything. She was created. She was not God’s highest, much less His only, creature. She had her proper place, below the Moon. She had her appointed duties as God’s vicegerent in that area. Her own lawful subjects, stimulated by rebel angels, might disobey her and become “unnatural”. There were things above her and things below.

For Barfield, this different way of looking at things meant that the things themselves were different.

Both agree that for the medieval person walking around, the world was a different place:

You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music….Each sphere, or something resident in each sphere, is a conscious and intellectual being, moved by “intellectual love” of God.

With a world structured around the sense that everything was in perfect harmony except below the orbit of the Moon, where Nature had fallen into disorder because of the Fall of Man, it was understandable that what was perceived in the heavens was also mirrored in the world below: