The Medieval Mind of C. S. Lewis, Jason M. Baxter. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2022.
Summary: An exploration of the great medieval writers whose works helped shape the mind and the works of C. S. Lewis.
Many of us who are Inklings lovers have heard the rule C. S. Lewis proposed that “after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in-between.” This was not mere scholarly pontification on the part of Lewis. As Jason Baxter observes, when asked about recommendations, Lewis would turn to a Kempis, Hilton, Theologica Germanica, Lady Julian, Dante, Spenser, Boethius, Milton, and the poet George Herbert. Rudolf Otto was the one relatively contemporary exception. Surprisingly, he read little or nothing of what many of us consider the great modern theological writers like Barth, Brunner, Tillich, or Niebuhr. This was Lewis the medieval scholar, the “third Lewis” lesser know to most of us who know him by his children’s stories and other fiction or his apologetics.
In this work, Jason Baxter contends that this third Lewis, in addition to scripture and ancient mythology, profoundly shaped all that Lewis thought or wrote. Lewis not only devoted himself to medieval scholarship, it was his native land, according to Baxter, and he was determined to bridge the chasm between the medieval and modern worlds, so convinced was he that even as there are things we understand that they did not grasp, there were things they understood that we have lost–and at times, we have slighted them in our understanding. The ancients also understood our smallness in the cosmos even though their models of the spheres were faulty.
He examines the cathedral of Salisbury and the writings of Augustine and Dante to capture the awe with which the ancients viewed the cosmos. It was his “medieval apprenticeship” that trained him that literature enables us to look, not at, but “along the beam” of light. The medieval sense of the world as a symphony reminds us of the chasm that has opened when we see the world, indeed all of life, as a form of machine. He was convinced of the need of a renewed chivalry that combined courage and civility in an age of “flat-chested” beings devoid of moral sentiments.
Baxter explores Lewis’s love of Dante, the wonder and weightiness of the Divine Comedy and the ways he drew upon this as he described the substantial weightiness of heaven in The Great Divorce. In Lewis we find both the apophatic of The Cloud of Unknowing and Otto’s “wholly other” and the incredibly intimate cataphatic of Nicholas of Cusa, captured in Lucy’s encounter with Aslan in Prince Caspian. In the unveiling of the pilgrim in Dante at the end of Purgatoria, we see Lewis’s own understanding of unveiling of our false selves when we stop hiding from God and are converted, portrayed in the concluding scene of Till We Have Faces. The final chapter explores the chasm between modern science and ancient myth and makes explicit that the ancients understood more of the world than we credited. We also discover the sources of Oyarses and the personalities of the planets.
We often say the Old Testament illumines the New. Likewise, the medieval writers and what Lewis gained from them illumine his writing and make our understanding of his works richer. Indeed, reading Baxter inclines me to pull Boethius off the shelf and determine to read all the way through the Divine Comedy, having not read past Inferno. I do have to admit, I’ve read Otto and fail to see Lewis’s attraction. In this case, I might choose Barth instead.
What Baxter also reminds me of regarding Lewis is how his voice stood out from the many clerical voices of his day. I can’t help but wonder if it was that he spoke from a different time, though living in ours, and hence from a different perspective. He brings “Narnian” (or perhaps Boethian) air into our modern, stale atmosphere. It also makes me wonder if so many who seek the mantle of Lewis miss something crucial–the startlingly different worlds of scripture, mythology, and ancient theological and literary figures with whom Lewis lived. He dared to speak from a different time rather than seeking to baptize the present with a veneer of Christianity. Perhaps we might begin, as this book models, with interspersing those old books with our new ones. Today we are encouraged to read diverse books. Lewis reminds us that the greatest diversity may be found in the writers from another time.