Part One: The Medieval Model of the Cosmos


Gustave Dore’s depiction of Dante’s Divine Comedy: The Celestial Rose – seeing the universe from a spiritual point of view

In his essay, “First and Second Things,” Lewis wrote that “you can’t get second things by putting them first; you can get second things only by putting first things first.”[1] In fact, he continues, if you put second things first, you will end up getting neither. The thing that strikes one most when studying the differences between the Medieval Model and our own is the inversion of first and second things between the two. The medieval mind took for granted that the world, though complex, was ordered. They looked to first things to help them discover its structure, two of which were God’s goodness and Mankind’s sinfulness. Taking these as starting points, along with a tremendous respect for the wisdom of the past, they constructed their cosmology. Modern man has debunked these first things and begins with himself: cogito ergo sum. The consequences of this inversion reverberate throughout our cosmology, creating a very different reaction to the universe as compared to the medieval stargazer. Lewis writes that it is precisely this inversion that has led to the emptying and “desiccation of the outer universe” that characterizes our model, not the scientific discoveries of our more technologically advanced age.[2] He calls the inversion a result of a “great movement of internalization and that consequent aggrandizement of man,” something that is the subject of his book The Abolition of Man.[3] In other words, we have dispensed with the hierarchy of the medieval model and have put mankind into a first-place in our world, crushing everything into a “flat equality.”[4] Therefore, it is not so much its details but the Medieval Model’s ordering of first and second things that can speak wisdom into our current age and illuminate where we have gone wrong. The medieval observer’s respect for authority and recognition of Mankind’s place within an objective hierarchical order provide powerful correctives for our modern age. It reveals how our distrust of authority, our hunger for autonomy, and our worship of radical individualism have shaped our own model of the universe in such a way that it has shrunk to the point where “the parts seem greater than the whole.”[5]

In his book The Beginnings of Western Science, historian David C. Lindberg writes that by the thirteenth century, the Aristotelian world picture “gained center stage” out of all the competing, but mostly complementary cosmologies that the medieval era had inherited.[6] Though the relation of certain elements of this cosmology to theology would be debated, on the whole, it was accepted because it “offered a persuasive and satisfying account of the world as they perceived it.”[7]  Lewis writes that the best way to understand the satisfying nature of the Medieval Model is not from their books, but from experience. He encourages us to see a starry night from the medieval perspective, that is, with “an absolute Up and Down.”[8] We must try to imagine the Earth in a central and lowest position. This is Chesterton’s valley from which we can see great things.

We then measure the distance to the stars above in height rather than light years. Measuring in height is key, Lewis writes, for it has an immediate effect on “our muscles and nerves.”[9] The Model then engages us physically, rather than merely mentally. Yes, the distances are unimaginably large in both, but the Medieval Model involves our senses in such a way that despite its vastness, the universe still feels finite. We have a specific home within this model. Again, this grows out of the assumption that God has ordered the universe in accordance with the maxim, “a place for everything and everything in the right place.”[10] The Medieval Model grounds us, so to speak, and in more than one way, as we shall see.

Lewis adds that “one unexpected result of this [grounding] is to make the smallness of Earth more vividly felt.”[11] Yes, we are a pale blue dot in our own model, but in comparison to the whole, so is everything else. It is difficult to get a concrete feel for where we fit. For us, small is an abstraction that is difficult to grasp. In the Medieval Model, “the word ‘small’ as applied to Earth …takes on a far more absolute significance.”[12] It is tangible and this has a psychological effect that is markedly different from the effect of our model. We feel a sense of homelessness and alienation in ours. Lewis writes that one indication of this is that medieval literature lacks all of the pathos of greatness and wretchedness that pervades our own. “To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building,” he writes, while “the ‘space’ of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie.”[13] Our model is decidedly more romantic and wild, less ordered and classical. Beginning from cogito ergo sum is supremely romantic, indeed, and it ends up being supremely subjective in such a way as to affect our science as we shall see.

The difference in perspective is best displayed in the words we use to describe the natural world. Our language is more immaterial and formal, speaking in terms of “natural ‘laws’ with every event described as happening in ‘obedience’ to them.”[14] It is deterministic and fatalist, the obedience is inevitable and immutable, as fact as fact can be. Medieval science thought of nature as comprising of “certain sympathies, antipathies, and strivings,” that are “inherent in matter itself.”[15] What we would call the law of gravity, they saw as “the ‘kindly enclyning’ of terrestrial bodies to their ‘kindly stede’ the Earth.”[16] Matter is more living and willful for them, acting with more gentleness than the police-state-like actions of our own model. Though the medieval observer did not believe that “inanimate objects were sentient and purposive,” they were not purposeless, either, but designed with intrinsic “sympathetic and antipathetic properties,” that enabled them to behave in certain ways.[17] Matter in their model was not constrained by blind destiny. The intentionality that they observed in Nature was not explained away as an illusion, as it is done in our model, rather their descriptions encompassed it. In our world of flattened equality, all is matter, and even our own sentience and purposiveness is explained as a sort of pattern-making survival mechanism. Again, one sees much less from a peak.

Our law-like metaphors also betray the different way we approach information as compared to them. For them, the models were always provisional and open to change. Words like “kindly” and “inclining” are more living and fluid. In containing more life, they end up portraying more complexity, too. Our words convey more rigidity and this reflects the “just the facts,” Gradgrindian way we approach information in the modern world. We call them cold, hard facts for a reason. Though both ways of referring to our observations are certainly metaphorical, Lewis notes that “ours is the more anthropomorphic of the two,” in the sense that we are attributing to them more specifically human-like characteristics.[18] He writes that to talk “as if inanimate bodies had a homing instinct is to bring them no nearer to us than the pigeons; to talk as if they could ‘obey laws’ is to treat them like men and even like citizens.”[19] Chesterton notes that calling some repeated phenomenon “a law implies that we know the nature of the generalization and enactment; not merely that we have noticed some of the effects.” But does mere repetition make it as necessary and inevitable as a law? In the end, both betray a very different imaginative engagement with the world.

Now that we are grounded in the medieval universe, our gaze can now extend up into the heavenlies, looking through an “immense cathedral” of celestial spheres. These are put into harmonic motion by the last and largest of these, the Primum Mobile that borders the timeless and spaceless Empyrean, the home of God, the Unmoved Mover. Lewis writes that “all power, movement, and efficacy descend from God to the Primum Mobile, causing it to rotate.”[20] This then creates a cascading rotation all the way down to the last of the seven planetary spheres, that of the moon. For the Medieval mind, the moon was the great transition point between the certainties of the heavens and the contingencies of Earth.  “The Primum Mobile is moved by its love for God,” he writes, “and, being moved, communicates motion to the rest of the universe.”[21] When Dante writes of the “love that moves the sun and other stars,” this is what he is describing. Again, this movement is best described as motions striving against counter motions, with every sphere inclining towards toward the others, aligning themselves with the love that descends through them. And this movement is accompanied not by Pascal’s silence but is “a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music.”[22] It is more merrymaking than a machine-like in its operations. Lewis writes that when Medieval Man looked at the night sky, he “felt he was looking in” past the gates of Day into what would be for us an “opera or a feast” full of life and grandeur.[23] Here we see that what Lewis calls the anthropoperipheral nature of the Model where “we are creatures of the Margin” looking in.[24] We look to the heavenlies here in the sublunary realm of contingency and, as Psalm 19 and the first chapter of Romans declare, we learn of God’s eternal power and divine nature as the heavenlies move in tune with His love. God was a ‘first thing’ for them, then and all the secondary things fell into place from there. Even the motions of the stars were filled with meaning and life.

The experience of looking at the night sky for us is completely reversed for we look “out of somewhere warm and lighted into dark, cold, indifferent desolation, out of a house on to the dark waste of the sea.”[25] Our stars move in accordance with a mechanistic and impersonal law rather than love. For us, mankind is a first-thing, we begin with ourselves. Our psychology then shapes the rest of our model building. Lewis writes that “nature gives most of her evidence in answer to the questions we ask her.”[26] Those questions themselves are shaped by what we deem as important and fundamental. As he points out in The Abolition of Man, man has put himself in first place and has reduced all things, in a sort of flattening equality, to Nature. Modernity tries to “see through [the] first principles” of the old models, declaring its autonomy from the authority of the past, reducing the hierarchy to mere Nature, and resting all final authority upon itself.[27] In this, we strip the world of objective meaning and place the burden of creating it squarely on our shoulders. But as Lewis notes, in “valuing too highly a real but subordinate good,” namely our freedom, “we have come closer to losing the good itself.”[28] He writes that “as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same.”[29]

While scale with respect to size was an issue for our ancestors’ model, scale with respect to explanatory power is ours. This is a consequence of the difference in our starting points. The medieval clerk began with “God is the measure of all things,” and though his model was limited by the amount of data he had on hand, it certainly accounted for all that he knew. We begin with “man as the measure of all things,” with order and meaning being useful fictions instilled in us by an instinct for survival and, as a result, our cosmos contracts. Much of the data of our experience is either explained away or ignored. One could say that our synthesizing principle involves cutting down jungles, rather than seeking and respecting their delicately interconnected ecosystem. When all is said and done, all we can see from our lonely peaks are dry and desolate deserts.[30]



[1] C.S. Lewis, “First and Second Things” The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis (New York: Inspirational Press), 490.

[2] C.S. Lewis The Discarded Image, 42.

[3] Ibid., 42.

[4] Ibid., 12.

[5] G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson Publishers, 2006), 19.

[6] David C. Lindberg, The Beginnings of Western Science: Second Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2007), 255.

[7] Lindberg, 256.

[8] C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image, 98.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid., 10.

[11] Ibid., 99.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 92.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid., 94.

[18] Ibid., Kindle 1334-1339.

[19] Ibid., Kindle 1335-1336.

[20] Ibid., 102.

[21] Ibid., 113.

[22] Ibid., 112.

[23] Ibid., 59.

[24] Ibid., 58.

[25] Ibid., 59.

[26] Ibid., 223.

[27] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1955), 91.

[28] C.S. Lewis, “First and Second Things” The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis, 490.

[29] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, 83.

[30]Ibid., 24.

One thought on “Part One: The Medieval Model of the Cosmos

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

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