We give lavish attention to C.S. Lewis the apologist and to Lewis the fiction writer, but most modern readers know little to nothing about a third Lewis: Lewis the medievalist.
In his new book, The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis: How Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, Jason M. Baxter provides an introduction to the literary and theological substance of what we may call, following Baxter’s own clues, C.S. Lewis’ “long-medieval Christian humanism.”
But more than this, Baxter suggests an understanding of Lewis’ distinctive approach to the cultural crisis of his life — shadowed as it was by two World Wars — and an assessment of what we can learn from that approach for our own troubled times.
Baxter’s brief account of this “third Lewis” is a genre-defying and discipline-crossing book — part literary criticism, part pastoral theology, part cultural history, and part intellectual biography. In that generalism and associated historical breadth, Baxter mirrors both his subject (Lewis) and the post-WWII Christian humanist movement, in which — as Alan Jacobs has recently reminded us in his Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis (2018) — Lewis both participated and, at times, led.
‘Going back is the quickest way on.’
We know that Lewis was a critic, fiction writer, public theologian, moral philosopher, pastoral letter-writer, and medieval scholar all at once, and that his work was read and respected in each of these genres and more.
As a man dedicated to reading literature (and philosophy and theology) as a “way of life” rather than simply an academic exercise, Lewis read and wrote almost indiscriminately across the periods as defined by the academy, and he quite often saw more continuity than discontinuity between them. Because of this, Baxter identifies Lewis’ medievalism as more of a “‘Long Middle Ages,’ which extended from Plato to Samuel Johnson, and sometimes even to Wordsworth” — marshaling, as the great-books thinkers of his time did, everyone from Plato to Wordsworth into a single premodern “lost model” for understanding ourselves and our world, even as he urgently called his readers to reclaim and reshape facets of that model for our own time.
This theme of modern applicability, too, suffuses both Baxter’s book and Lewis’ career. So, for example, we find Lewis, in the crisis year of 1941, in the “hot” medium of a radio talk (later published as part of his famous work of public theology, Mere Christianity), entreating his listeners: “If you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistakes. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on.”
As for this post-WWII Christian humanist movement, among other things, it birthed the “great books movement” in higher education — famous for lining up, for example, Aristotle, Augustine, Chaucer, Erasmus, Calvin, Locke, Tolstoy, and Solzhenitsyn in one sprawling educational program to re-educate the modern West in the humanism that the two world wars clearly proved had been lost.
Lewis’ very scholarship shows a man coming to similar conclusions as the other Christian humanists of his age (even as that scholarly work remained firmly anchored in the Middle Ages): a sense of contemporary crisis, a high regard for the thinking of past ages as still relevant (and perhaps crucially so) for us today, a historical approach that focuses on a humanistic continuum from the ancient Pagans through Christian antiquity, the Middle Ages, and into even the 19th century. These characteristics of Lewis’ “medieval mind,” so helpfully framed in this book, were shared by the larger movement of 20th-century humanists.
Lewis’ Christian Humanism in Crisis: A Guide for Our Time
Most importantly, we should notice that the breadth and multifacetedness — and the aspects of Lewis’ thought that it points to — also make this book very much a tract for our own time. This may seem, on the face of it, a ludicrous claim: How can a book that delves into the medievalism of a medieval scholar be somehow a necessary book for a 21st-century reader?
Yet Christian humanism has again and again proved itself a creed for times of crisis (as theologian Jens Zimmermann has taught us) — from the second-century apologists responding to persecution, to Thomas More standing against Henry VIII as the Reformation erupted around him, to Dietrich Bonhoeffer giving his life in the anti-Nazi cause, and all the post-war humanists following soon after, trying to figure out how to reconstruct a war-torn Europe (and not to forget, in the Catholic world, leading their church inexorably to The Council That Changed Everything).
So when Baxter, early in his book, reminds us of the urgency of Lewis’ vocation as a “new Boethius” responding to modernity’s barbarism by calling his readers, listeners, students, and correspondents back to “old books,” he also describes the central program of post-war humanism: Lewis was convinced “that ancient books were urgent, not just representative of past beliefs. For … Lewis, the old books had a sense of timeliness (not just timelessness).”
This crisis-consciousness may have been true for WWII-era British intellectuals. But are we experiencing it again today? And does this crisis manifest still today — for at least some observers — as a loss of an older humanism?
Baxter clearly believes that we are, that it does, and that Lewis’ response in that previous crisis moment is already proving relevant for our own crises: “During the Covid-19 pandemic, Lewis’ ‘On Living in an Atomic Age’ was everywhere on the internet, because, as many commentators pointed out, all you had to do was perform a ‘find and replace’ search (switching ‘atomic bomb’ for ‘global pandemic’) and you had relevant, comforting advice” — advice, I would add, that was clearly and centrally humanist. C.S. Lewis’ “Atomic Age” article shows us this same humanistic response to cultural crisis:
If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb … when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends over a pint and a game of darts. ... [B]ombs ... may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds.
Of Lewis’ work, the masterful The Abolition of Man also describes the modern cultural crisis as the loss of our understanding of what it is to be human, according to Jacobs, in his portrait of Lewis as a Christian humanist. One of the finest Lewis scholars presently working, from whom Baxter also draws, Michael Ward, has sensed this relevance too and produced a timely commentary on that essay: After Humanity: A Guide to C. S. Lewis’s The Abolition of Man (2021). No surprise here: Abolition also features prominently in Baxter’s case — particularly in chapter four: “Evil Enchantment: Psychology and Pedagogy in the Flatland” — for C.S. Lewis’ Christian humanism.
But those two works may still leave us asking: How does this sort of cultural commentary demonstrate not only Lewis’ Christian humanism, but also his “medieval mind”? Taking the “Atomic Age” article as a case in point, Baxter makes the connection quite directly by showing that Lewis clearly adapted its argument, and at some points its very words, from Boethius’ famous portrait of Lady Fortune in the Consolation of Philosophy — one of the most influential literary-philosophical texts of the entire medieval era and a book that Lewis said deeply influenced his own personal philosophy of life and sense of vocation (as I have pointed out in my chapter of C.S. Lewis’ List as well as in Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians, both books that Baxter draws upon in building his argument). And talk about a piece of crisis literature — Boethius wrote the piece while in jail awaiting execution. Lewis’ medieval mind brought this philosophy of Boethius to relevance in his own time.
How to sum up my response to Baxter’s book? Here is a Dante scholar writing about Lewis, who the late Marsha Daigle-Williamson has shown us was deeply indebted to the great medieval Italian poet, about how medieval literature shaped the Oxford don’s mind (see especially chapter 5: “Why Lewis Loved Dante”). Here is a deeply sacramental thinker teaching us “how to pray to a medieval God” (chapter 6) and drawing on Lewis’ “space trilogy” to do it, as an illustration of “how ubiquitous . . . ‘sacramentalism’ [is] in Lewis’ imagination,” reminding us, in the words of the underappreciated Lewis book The Four Loves: “Indeed, Lewis himself summed up the whole essence of the Christian life as turning ‘from the portraits to the Original, from the rivulets to the Fountain.’” And here is a committed Christian scholar peering into the Lewisian theme of salvation as personal transformation in an almost homiletical way: “Deep Conversion and Unveiling” (chapter 7).
There are many joys in this book that go beyond its portrayal of a modern Christian humanist who professed to have an almost entirely premodern mind. But as I conclude, I’d like to return to this theme and suggest that a reading program that sought to recapture Lewis’ long-medieval Christian humanism for the multi-layered moment of cultural crisis in which we live today might fruitfully start with Baxter.
After reading Baxter, move on to the books by Alan Jacobs and Michael Ward cited here, and then dive into the “deep end” with Regent College theologian Jens Zimmermann’s masterful survey of Christian humanism (and the anti-humanisms of modernity) from Plato to today, Incarnational Humanism: A Philosophy of Culture for the Church in the World (2012). From that point — who knows what vistas might open?