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Narnia fading

The slow twilight of medieval thought.
Hester_Jeff
In his last book, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, C.S. Lewis explores how Europeans before the Scientific Revolution thought about the world. Rather than intellectual creativity, Lewis relates, medieval Europe was all about wrapping up the elements of its culture into a nice, clean, tidy package: “At his most characteristic, medieval man was not a dreamer nor a wanderer. He was an organizer, a codifier, a builder of systems.” Lewis went so far as to jokingly say, “Of all our modern inventions I suspect that they would most have admired the card index.”

It would be wrong to mistake Lewis’ humor for derision. On the contrary, Lewis found the medieval world and its mindset captivating. Reading Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, it’s hard to escape the feeling that something was lost as the medieval world gave way to the modern. Lewis appreciated the appeal of a clearly articulated and universally accepted conception of the world. He understood the power of what he called “the medieval synthesis itself, the whole organization of their theology, science and history into a single complex, harmonious mental model of the universe.”

That “model” of which Lewis spoke was far more than a literary device. Every question had an answer, and that answer was to be found by appealing to authority. Such a feeling of certainty comforts a place deep within us. As I’ve discussed in earlier columns, we can’t even perceive the world without a mental model into which things, including ourselves, fit. And once we latch onto a mental model of the world, we hold on for dear life.

Therein lies the rub. Within a single lifetime we have learned more about life, the universe, and what it is to be human than our ancestors could have begun to imagine. Much of that is radically different from what our medieval ancestors would have considered certain knowledge.

ASYJH1018
This image of Jesus of Nazareth from the Irish Book of Kells dates from the late eighth century. In some ways, world culture has never moved beyond a medieval world model of the universe, although long ago scientific knowledge left it far behind.
Wikimedia Commons
Today, science sees humans as part of a universe vast and ancient beyond what we will ever feel in our guts, but not beyond the reach of our rational minds to explore. There are roughly a trillion galaxies in the part of the universe that we can see, each consisting of tens or hundreds of billions of stars. Quoting Douglas Adams from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Space is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space!” 

Even at that, the universe we can observe is still only a tiny bubble within a far larger universe, which itself may be only one of a potentially infinite number of universes. While not (yet?) a statement of scientific knowledge, many see modern physics and cosmology as pointing inevitably toward a multiverse in which all possibilities play themselves out, each as real as the others.

All of that can be hard to take in or to stomach, even for scientists. Erwin Schrödinger, who helped lay the foundation of quantum mechanics, was appalled by the success of his own work. His eponymous cat was intended not as an illustration of the counterintuitive nature of quantum mechanics so much as an expression of his horror at the theory’s implications. “I don’t like it, and I’m sorry I ever had anything to do with it!” he said.

But regardless of the hand-wringing, Schrödinger’s horrifying theory does a truly remarkable job of telling us how reality behaves. What remains as hard, objective fact is that quantum mechanics has never made an incorrect prediction. In a post-medieval world, objective facts beat Schrödinger’s unease hands down.

Which brings us back to C.S. Lewis. In The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy are torn between the magical land of Narnia and the hard realities of wartime Britain. That storyline echoes today’s tension between Lewis’ harmonious but profoundly flawed medieval model of the universe and an ever more successful schema that shatters the very foundations of traditional concepts. On the one hand, we long for certainty and the easy comfort of prepackaged answers. On the other hand, we are challenged to set aside cherished notions, accept uncertainty as a precondition of knowledge, and repudiate time-honored authority in deference to objective evidence.

It is little wonder that transition is difficult! In his autobiography, Max Planck observed, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die.”

Cultural echoes of medieval thought remain strong, even today. But as they surrender their hold, a new harmonious model of the universe — beautiful, elegant, and emotionally satisfying in its own right — is finding form and voice.

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