From Crowded Heavens to Crowded Streets — Part II

In my previous post I introduced the Medieval idea of the cosmos and that it has had a large imaginative impact on me. I now want to explain further how it has affected me and how it compares with our modern idea of the cosmos. For a moment let’s stick with the theme of architecture from in the last post. The view informing much of today’s architecture is summed up in Lewis’s novel, That Hideous Strength. A character in the evil N.I.C.E. organization — a physician named Filostrato — presents his perfect world: “At present, I allow, we must have forests, for the atmosphere. Presently we find a chemical substitute. And then why any natural trees? I foresee nothing but the art tree all over the earth. In fact, we clean the planet.”1 Filostrato is mainly speaking against the presence of organic life, and not primarily about a denial of spirits populating the heavens. But the impulse grows from the same root. Modern architecture (although skillfully made and visually pleasing) is polished clean of vestiges of life and agency — is stark, towering, bleak, and impersonal. Like Filostrato’s utopia, it is wiped clean of birds, trees, flowers, and all the organics and organisms which complement our duty to “be fertile and multiply.”2 On the flip side, the carvings on Oxford’s old buildings transport viewers back to a time when the spiritual and physical realms were seen to be packed full of activity and life.

Modern Skyscrapers

Another positive effect the medieval cosmos had on me dealt with reason and logic. Medieval thinkers knew that to use our reason properly was to accept it as coming from, and participating with, divine reason. These academic predecessors acknowledged that we could only learn via logic because of the divine logos — the Word which precedes all other words. Modern buildings still may have some writings and carvings, but nothing to the degree of the medieval ones. The new designs still mostly exclude the divine. By disposing of God, secular education cuts itself off from the only source of true knowledge and certainly. The medieval thinkers, working from an acceptance of God, remained connected to the true trunk and roots of knowledge and certainty. The medieval thinkers knew that if reason strictly came from irrational, evolutionary processes, it could not convey truth. It is only if reason is anchored in God — created and guided by God — that it is reliable.

The N.I.C.E. from That Hideous Strength

In “Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages,” originally a talk delivered to a group of scientists, Lewis helpfully summarizes the Ptolemaic system and its potential imaginative import. He focused not on the scientific accuracy of the geocentric model compared to that of the Copernican model, but on its potential imaginative effect on those who picture themselves living in a world in which it is true. Medieval man, who had “A place for everything, and everything in its (right) place,”3 thought in such a way that he was constantly trying to find order in everything. He had the characteristically Christian idea that since he could apprehend structure and order in the universe, it made sense that it was designed. Medieval thinkers had tempers “systematic . . . great mental powers, unwearied patience, and a robust delight in their work.”4 I mention this clerk-like character of the medieval thinkers to emphasize that they were not backward and illiterate regarding these matters. We can trust writers like Dante and Aquinas to deliver extremely well-thought-out takes on the world. And the medieval thinkers’ takes on the Ptolemaic cosmological model reflected a grand design.

An argument possibly leveled at the medieval worldview is that it’s influence by an untrue model. Well, that is just one angle at which to approach the medieval mind. Another angle is to plunge into the medieval mind as fully as possible without the intrusion of one’s presuppositions or biases. The difference is between, on one hand, only analyzing a mindset, and on the other, trying to dive into experiencing that mindset. I think it’s indispensable that one trying to understand medieval thought get as “baptized” in it as possible. One can analyze a lover’s feelings for his spouse as being mere chemical phenomena, but to the lover the feeling is heavily drenched in meaning and purpose — the intensity and depth of which only he can grasp. The same with the medieval view of the cosmos: It would most help a curious seeker to grasp the quantitative and qualitative effect of the medieval model.

Even though the Ptolemaic system is different, scientifically, there’s a similarity that isn’t lost even with newer astronomical discoveries. Medieval astronomers still formulated, refined, and studied the material properties and mathematical measurements of the solar system as much as they could: they still thought, based on Aristotle’s calculations, that the terminus of our solar system was millions of miles away from Earth — still a staggering distance. Lewis points out that the difference to our imaginations between Aristotle’s distances and those found by modern satellites is not that different. Both modern and medieval man find themselves imagining mind-boggling distances between planets. Lewis informs us that “medieval man thought about the insignificance of Earth more persistently, if anything, than his modern descendants.”5 This goes to show that despite the calculative differences, both models have something in common. It wasn’t as if medieval astronomers thought the earth was flat: they knew much more than people today give them credit for.

I want to further examine how different views of the cosmos imaginatively affect us. Say someone finds himself lost in the heart of a bustling metropolis. Regardless of his location, he can still enjoy his surroundings. He can visit the cafés he encounters; he can gaze at the surrounding architecture; he can strike up random conversations with those with whom he shares a sidewalk. He could find meaning, to a certain extent, in his immediate surroundings; but he is still generally lost. Vaguely, he can sense the direction of his goal, but cannot verify it or zero in on it. He can walk long distances, but without certainty he is heading in the right direction. He may even stop to ask for directions, but given different backgrounds and beliefs, he may be given too circuitous directions from one, and too incorrect directions from another. This is inevitable since directional impressions and interpretations vary widely. Our wanderer needs a good map and a sense of compass directions before making headway. Without these, he probably will remain lost indefinitely.

The imaginative relation of most people to the universe under our modern model mirrors the predicament of the lost city-wanderer. A set, cosmic hierarchy has been abolished; Earth has no special spatial place, and Man finds himself embedded, drowned, in an infinite sea of dead space, gas giants, black holes, and supernovae. Man may be able to manufacture meaning from his immediate experience, knowledge, and encounters, but compared to the order and design reflected in the medieval model, today’s findings leave a lot of people feeling insignificant. When imaginatively considering the modern model, there seems no end goal in the endless, impersonal churning of atoms down through the ages. Like the wanderer’s directional inquiries, we can ask the philosophers what the meaning of life is or to what end Man is progressing. But as history has shown, the given answers have differed as widely as the varying presuppositions and biases which have informed them.

The cosmology of today’s world implies, maybe even encourages, the view that Man is alone in an existentially meaningless world. The earth does not sit in a particularly important place like it does in the Ptolemaic system. Imaginatively reflecting on the universe as we know it today, it is easy to see how Earth and its inhabitants can be thought of as lost in an infinite sea of space — with no significant place or proximity in relation to any other place. Earth is not anywhere near a center because there is no objective center. Earthwards can be the down to no up because there is no up. Today’s decentralized system can easily encourage an existential decentralization.

The implications of this model do not end with physical: they run deep to the very spiritual core of Man’s being.

On the other hand, as I gazed at the gargoyles and statues in Oxford, I was reminded of the medieval mind and how its interpretation of the cosmos held a valuable imaginative key to re-orienting Man’s straying spirit. For example, regardless of a person’s global position, and assuming he is free from any stifling vertigo, he will intuit an objective up and down. True, he could remember the heliocentric cosmology’s lack of universal directions. But still he can easily grasp earthwards as “down” and skywards and “up.” To medieval man’s perspective, the cosmos expanded from this earthward direction outward (and, to them, upward), complementing and encouraging their natural sense of upward and downward. I started to see that the imaginative implications are vast, in that they imply a universal ordering, layering, or even ranking to the universe. Man can gaze upward and not feel as if he is a randomly-floating speck in a vast, cold, dark world: he can feel instead that he is gazing up through tier upon tier of increasing importance and meaning. He is looking upwards through the arcs of the planets which have presiding, personal influences — not through dark empty space, but through fields actually bright with light and thick with angelic society and personality. Along with being filled with light and life, the realm past the moon was thought to be filled with what “was necessary, regular, and eternal, all below it, contingent, irregular and perishable. And of course, for any Greek, what is necessary and eternal is more divine.”6 I was beginning to see the imaginative impact the medieval cosmos could have on those who let it work on them the way that people let art work on them.

Oxford Statue

As I walked the streets of Oxford and listened to riveting lectures on the Inklings, I thought, “There must be a connection between the imaginative impact of the medieval cosmos and the imaginative impact of art in general.” Literature has a way of reaching deeply into the human soul, regardless of how true the work itself is. Literature is art. For Holly Ordway, “[Christmas] music formed a little space in my soul, like a cup waiting to be filled, that by its very shape suggested something was meant to go there.”7 The literature we read and art we experience can expose voids in our being which can then be more easily filled with truth and knowledge and spiritual experience. The cosmic-model-as-art connection popped out to me because of Lewis’s observation that the medieval model appears not only as an orderly arrangement of the physical cosmos, but as a beautifully-wrought work of art.

For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy, especially the Paradiso, is an imaginative counterpart to the Ptolemaic model. As I thought about the medieval view of the universe cemented in the faces and bodies carved out of Oxford’s buildings, I also thought of how Dante imaginatively carved and sculpted, in words, beautiful imagery flowing from the heart of medieval religious thought. This religious thought is not separate from a study of the physical aspect: it is inextricably linked to it. Linked to it, but not coming from it. About this, Lewis wrote, “The truth seems to me the reverse.”8 Lewis said Medieval “theology might be thought to imply an Earth which counted for a good deal in the universe”; but “the odd thing is that their [medieval] cosmology does not, in any obvious sense, encourage this view.”9 Aristotle then Ptolemy built the structure from which the medieval imagination could hang and attach the various religious truth taught by the great doctors of the church. And Dante painted those attachments with his colorful words and metaphors. The architecture of the Ptolemaic system was the canvas on which Dante carefully painted his Divine Comedy. It is truly the “discarded image” Lewis loved and bountifully shared in his Ransom Trilogy and more implicitly in The Chronicles of Narnia. Lewis presents the medieval model translated in such a way that provides footing for the exploration of curious, seeking minds and hearts for generations to come.

Dante’s Paradiso

Keep checking back for more on this topic. Feel free to send my way your comments and/or questions: I’m excited about this topic, and I’d like to correspond with anyone out there who’s also interested in learning more.

1 C.S. Lewis, That Hideous Strength (New York: Scribner, 2003), 169.

2 Gen. 1:28 (NABRE).

3 C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 44.

4 C.S. Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, ed. Walter Hooper (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 45.

5 Ibid., 46.

6 Ibid., 42.

7 Holly Ordway, Not God’s Type (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2014), 22.

8 Lewis, Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 46.

9 Ibid., 46.