Conclusion – The Medievals and Modernity

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“He understands everything, and everything does not seem worth understanding. His cosmos may be complete in every rivet and cog-wheel, but still his cosmos is smaller than our world.”[1]

I think I finally understand what G.K. Chesterton meant when he said that our modern world is topsy-turvy, that we are all born upside down when it comes to our cosmic perspective. It really has to do with the self-conscious way we look at the universe, from the smallest of things to the greatest. Of course, this self-consciousness began in the Garden, but it is particularly pronounced today. Lewis writes that our “whole attitude of the universe is inverted.”[2] “In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought,” he writes, “Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity.”[3]

This is the exact opposite of the position of medieval men. They were saddened by the fallenness of their world under the moon, but knew that its contingencies were only temporary for though the flower fades and the grass withers, they firmly believed that God’s promise of restoration stood forever. This was a first thing for them and it caused their cosmology to ring with joy. Scientifically limited as their Model was, the medieval people started with the Light of the world and never walked in darkness. They were always looking out in their universe – out into a brightly-lit festival of celestial beauty and harmony. It was a cosmic dance that welcomed and warmed.

The difference between their model of the universe and ours really is a matter of where we place ourselves in relation to the whole. It is truly the difference between the joy getting our heads into the heavens (the medieval view) and trying to get the heavens into our heads (the modern view). The former is expansive and welcoming, a great relief of cosmic proportions, “further up and further in,” as Lewis wrote. The latter crushes us into oblivion, into what Lewis called the abolition of man.

And Lewis contends that the movement in perspective from top-down to bottom-up was not a result of scientific advance or new evidence. It was a change in human psychology and the ethos of civilization. Lewis writes that “the real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Galileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heavens but in ‘a new theory of the nature of theory’.” [4] And this “new theory of the nature of theory” shifted the perspective from the top-down to the bottom-up, from starting with God and working down to starting with Man – from “looking in” to the universe to “looking out.” This ushered in an ethos of unhealthy skepticism that plagues our world to this day. If we start with ourselves, we have really nowhere to go.

He that loses his life will find it.

Chesterton wrote that “the sceptic may truly be said to be topsy-turvy; for his feet are dancing upwards in idle ecstasies, while his brain is in the abyss … he is standing on his head; which is a very weak pedestal to stand on.”[5] Our Christian creed affirms the sadness of our present state, and promises the joy that we long for. He continues,

The vault above us is not deaf because the universe is an idiot; the silence is not the heartless silence of an endless and aimless world. Rather the silence around us is a small and pitiful stillness like the prompt stillness in a sick-room. We are perhaps permitted tragedy as a sort of merciful comedy: because the frantic energy of divine things would knock us down like a drunken farce. We can take our own tears more lightly than we could take the tremendous levities of the angels. So we sit perhaps in a starry chamber of silence, while the laughter of the heavens is too loud for us to hear.[6]

Our world is the sick-room. When we look up at the night sky, we get a glimpse of our future health. The heavens declare …

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[1] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy , 18.

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, 74.

[3] Ibid., 74.

[4] Ibid., 16.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 155.

[6] Ibid.

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One thought on “Conclusion – The Medievals and Modernity

  1. Pingback: The Medieval Model and Modern Meaninglessness | Along the Beam

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