The Medieval Model and Modern Meaninglessness

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Durham Cathedral

“For, whatever the medieval faults, they went with one merit. Medieval people never worried about being medieval; and modern people do worry horribly about being modern.” ~ G.K. Chesterton “On Turnpikes and Medievalism”

When modern people think of the Medieval period, invariably ignorance, fear, and superstition come to mind. We imagine a sort of suffocating curtain being pulled over civilization, weighing heavily on mankind and hindering his progress. Though not necessarily savage, we might concede, medieval man was certainly backward with his bestiaries, celestial spheres, humours, and stories of perilous, dragon-filled realms. These delight us, indeed, but we assume that our ancestors viewed these as incontrovertible facts, projecting onto them a bit of our own rigid approach to information. In his book The Discarded Image, C.S. Lewis contends that this view of ours is nothing more than a walking shadow, a tale told out of ignorance, full of drama but fully unsound. If we were to travel back to that time, we might be surprised to find that medieval man was more clerkish than cloddish, more preoccupied with books than brutality. Behind the dizzying array of fantastic beasts and fanciful tales was a rather unromantic “codifier,” whose chief delight was in organization.[1] “A place for everything and everything in the right place,” the sign above his scriptorium door would declare.[2]  Lewis writes that we can look to their Model of the Universe to see the best of this “bookish culture” with its “intense love of system.”[3] “This [Model] is the medieval synthesis itself,” he writes, “the whole organisation of their theology, science, and history into a single, complex, [and] harmonious mental” structure.[4] The fundamental assumptions that drove their synthesis stand in stark contrast to many of the assumptions that shape our modern world. In accordance with the Gospel he loved, the medieval clerk placed himself in a diminished point with respect to the cosmos, looking up into the heavens from whence his help came, like a beggar being beckoned into a fire-lit parlor on a wintry night. Meaning was everywhere to be discovered in a world created and upheld by his God of the Cross. In contrast, we moderns begin from a place of self-conscious skepticism, the burden of meaning being ours to make rather than find. There is no welcoming hearth where we can rest our weary feet. Medieval man was a discoverer, searching out everything under the sun and beyond for the fingerprints of his Golden King.  Modern man “is the alchemist who must turn base metal into gold” and meaninglessness into some sort of useful, but cold fiction.[5] Lewis tells us that the perspective we choose, medieval or modern, “makes a radical difference,” psychologically, spiritually, artistically, and even scientifically.[6] Namely, how we view our place in the cosmos affects everything we do, whether we are conscious of it or not. G.K. Chesterton wrote that “one sees great things from the valley; only small things from the peak.”[7] Let us descend the peak to the valley below where our medieval ancestors reside. Let us see how their view might correct and expand ours.

Part One: The Medieval Model of the Cosmos

Part Two: Medieval and Modern Suffering

Part Three: Conclusion

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[1] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013),, 10.

[2] Ibid., 10.

[3] Ibid., 5.

[4] Ibid., 11.

[5] Ibid., 211.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Chesterton, The Innocence of Father Brown, “The Hammer of God” (New York: ImPress Mystery, 2010), 203.

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