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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:

If, as Platonism taught… the visible world is made after an invisible pattern, if things below the Moon are all derived from things above her, the expectation that an anagogical or moral sense will have been built into the nature and behaviour of the creatures would not be a priori unreasonable.

Not only space was different, but also Time:

Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…The saints looked down on one’s spiritual life, the kings, sages, and warriors on one’s secular life, the great lovers of old on one’s own amours, to foster, encourage, and instruct. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.

This had the result that

Men were far less prone to think they could control the translunary forces that to think that those forces controlled them. Astrological determinism, not imitative magic, was the real danger.

The medieval world was ‘a world of built-in significance’, Lewis says:

Few constructions of the imagination seem to me to have combined splendour, sobriety, and coherence in the same degree. It is possible that some readers have long been itching to remind me that it had a serious defect; it was not true.

Barfield argues that the medieval model of the universe was an attempt by human beings to ‘save the appearances’ - in other words, to account for every possible observed phenomena, cosmic and human, in the most orderly and sensible way possible. If the Model ‘explained’ something that could be seen or felt, it was satisfactory. The idea that it might be objectively ‘true’ was not as important then as it is to scientists today: objective truth wasn’t the point of the thinking. In fact, according to Barfield, it was the slow shift of interest towards what might be 'objectively true' that created the universal model of the modern age and the enormous changes in human thought which accompanied it.

As Lewis sums up, the world-view could hardly now be more different:

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, and each succeeds in getting in a great many. But also, no less surely, each reflects the prevalent psychology of an age almost as much as it reflects the state of that age’s knowledge. Hardly any battery of new facts could have persuaded a Greek that the universe had an attribute so repugnant to him as infinity; hardly any such battery could persuade a modern that it is hierarchical.

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