In the chapter, “Selected Materials, The Seminal Period,” Lewis introduces us to those authors whose works did indeed sew the seeds of what grew into the Medieval Model of the universe – that imaginative framework which had an “emotional effect” (p. 112) on the Medieval mind.
He starts out by commenting on the overlap between the classical Pagan mind and the Christian mind to which he refers in his famous “De Descriptione Temporum” speech, in which he says that the pagans had more in common with the Christian mind than do the moderns. He shows how the older classical mind had an enduring impact upon the nascent early Christian mind, which eventually developed into the Medieval mind.
He then reviews important authors who moved comfortably between the classical and Christian authors as they themselves wrote about the universe. These are Chalcidius, Macrobius, Pseudo-Dionysius, and Boethius. Of Boethius, he said, “To acquire a taste for it [his De Consolatione Philosophiae] is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages. (p. 75).
Because Boethius is so important, the rest of the chapter is an 11-page-worth Book-by-Book introduction and summary of the Consolatione. I’d buy the book just for this summary.
As you read his review of these authors, he refers to how later authors referred to these works, especially Dante and Milton. Part of the joy of reading this chapter are the “aha” moments when he shines light on these later authors. It’s also refreshing to have Lewis sweep away our misconceptions of what the early authors believed about the universe, and to learn how much genius was often at play.
In this chapter, Lewis surveys important classical works read by Medievals. Elements of the Medieval mind gleaned from this chapter are:
1 The Platonism they held was limited in scope and filtered down to them through other writers; they only had the Timaeus in those days. This means their Platonism had a particular character.
2 The Principle of the Triad: no two things relate to one another without some third acting as an intermediary.
3 The Principle of Plenitude: Spheres of existence must in some way be “inhabited.” There is no room for cold, dead space. This reminds us of Ransom’s experience of “outer space” in Out of the Silent Planet.
4 The body tends to have less importance than the mind or spirit.
5 Medievals tended to not distinguish between books of different sorts. Thus an old figurative description of something by a poet might be taken as a factual description, such as one might find in a travelogue.
6 You could say the Medievals developed their own goddess of Nature, because of the way they processed previous writings concerning “Nature.”
7 And, of course, their cosmology was inherited from the Classics and adapted.
Lewis’ The Discarded Image is meant to be something of a manual for reading Medieval literature. Lewis’ goal is to inform us about the Medieval mind so that we will be able to appreciate and understand Medieval literature “from the inside,” so to speak. He wants to deliver us from importing our modern, Western sentiments into the texts.
In ch. 1, he explains how the Medieval mind differs from a more “savage” kind of mind and the modern mind. The Medieval mind was “bookish,” credulously accepting as authority any old book at hand. It was concerned that all information be organized and fit into a theoretical structure. Medievals were also influenced by their Model of the Universe, based on both classical and Christian ideas. This Model was either the subject, conscious material, or assumed backdrop of everything they wrote. The typical “Romance” ideas we have of the Medieval mind – with knights errant, courtly love, and so forth – were incidental, not core.
Ch. 2 is an attempt to understand the nuances of this mind. It leans heavily on Owen Barfield’s Saving the Appearances, chapter vii. We can understand the idea of “saving the appearances” as referring to the Medieval attempt to make all the data from their books fit into a cohesive whole, where every fact had its own place. In Medieval times, over-arching theories that facilitated this unity were provisional, for they recognized that newer theories could arise which fit things together better than previously.
Lewis, via Barfield, explains that Copernicus’ theory of the heliocentric universe was considered one provisional theory along with others that could “save the appearance” of the unity of the learning of the time. Galileo was so controversial because he wanted the theory of the heliocentric universe to no longer be thought provisional but to be factually true. Medieval’s didn’t think you should do that!
Lewis throws in some other ideas of his own about how ideas work in cultures that are – typically – quite interesting and helpful.