Becoming Boethius: The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis

In the early 1960s the editors of the magazine, The Christian Century, sent a question to one hundred of the most famous literary and intellectual personalities of the day: “What books did most to shape your vocational attitude and your philosophy of life?” The editors were trying to map the books that had shaped the minds of their generation. C.S. Lewis was among those polled.[1]

By that time, Lewis had already been famous for two decades, as a “novelist, essayist, theologian,” as The Christian Century summed him up, curiously leaving out something he considered essential to his intellectual identity. He was particularly admired for his Screwtape Letters, his war-years broadcast, Mere Christianity, and for his imaginative, fictional writings (especially, The Chronicles of Narnia, published throughout the 1950s). Already in September 1947, he had been on the cover of Time Magazine, whose feature article on him was tellingly entitled, “Don vs. Devil.”

And over those years, he had spent two hours a day, patiently responding to the letters that poured in from his devoted admirers from across the anglophone world. He had hosted journalists seeking interviews with him and had accepted dozens of invitations to give lectures and sermons. In sum, his cultural standing was founded on his perceived mastery of psychology, his ability to recast Christianity imaginatively in myth, and his work in apologetics. As Rowan Williams, summing up fifty years of admiration, put it: Lewis’s gift was “what you might call pastoral theology: as an interpreter of people's moral and spiritual crises; as somebody who is a brilliant diagnostician of self-deception.”[2]

But there was a third Lewis.[3] In addition to the Christian apologist, whose sagacious words, delivered over radio waves, had been so comforting during England’s darkest hour; and in addition to Lewis the myth-maker, the creator of “Narnia” and fantastic tales of space travel; there was Lewis the scholar, the Oxford (and later Cambridge) don, who spent his days lecturing to students on medieval cosmology, and his nights looking up old words in dictionaries. This Lewis was the careful philologist who wrote essays on semantics, metaphors, etymologies, and textual reception; the school-master who fussed at students for not looking up treacherous words in their lexicons; the polyglot pedant who did not translate his quotations from medieval French, German, Italian, or from ancient Latin and Greek in his scholarly books; the man who wrote letters to children recommending that they study Latin until they reached the point they could read it fluently without a dictionary.

It was this professorial Lewis, who in a 1955 letter, complained about modern translations as making up a “dark conspiracy . . . to convince the modern barbarian that the poetry of the past was, in its own day, just as mean, colloquial, and ugly as our own” (Letters 3, 649). This was Lewis the antiquarian, who devoted much—indeed, most—of his life to breathing in the thoughts and feelings of distant ages, and to reconstructing them in his scholarly writing and academic lectures. We hear, him, for example, recommend to his readers to read one old book for every modern one. Likewise, we hear him confess, in a 1958 letter, to Corbin Scott Carnell, that he could hardly think of any debt he owed to modern theologians. He thought Carnell has paid him “a wholly undeserved compliment,” assuming his reading was greater than it was:

There are hardly any such debts at all . . . Christendom, you see, reached me at first almost through books I took up not because they were Christian, but because they were famous as literature. Hence Dante, Spenser, Milton, the poems of George Herbert . . . were incomparably more important than any professed theologians.

Later, once he had “been caught by truth in places where I sought only pleasure—came St. Augustine, Hooker, Traherne, Wm Law, The Imitation, the Theologia Germanica. As for moderns, Tillich and Brunner, I don’t know [them] at all” (Letters 3, 978).[4] In sum, this was C.S. Lewis, the medievalist.

It is easy to forget that the man who became a celebrity Christian had an ardent love for the technical features of studying medieval language (indeed, sound laws which regulate vowel changes!), manuscript transmission, old books of science, and formal features of medieval poetry. To many of Lewis’s readers, it might seem absurd, maybe even irresponsible and escapist, to devote the whole of one’s adult life to the study of dead languages (Anglo-Saxon, Old Norse, Provencal, medieval Italian, or Latin) or reconstructing the details of ancient bestiaries (allegorical readings on the spiritual meaning of animals). Sure, studying New Testament Greek is useful, but trying to understand the subtleties of medieval debates, say, on the exact nature of moon spots (as Dante does in Paradiso 2)?

But Lewis, of course, did do exactly that: devote the entirety of his adult life to precisely these kinds of academic pursuits. But, perhaps of even greater surprise, is that these scholarly pursuits were not separate from his personal life. Lewis did not stop thinking about medieval symbolism, cosmology, and allegory when he left the office. Indeed, what is most telling to my mind, is that even in the midst of the messy and painful affairs of life and grief and loss, his mind habitually returned to the old books for comfort and consolation.

For instance, in an intimate letter to Sheldon Van Auken, after his friend had lost his wife, Lewis’s mind could think of nothing better than to recommend his friend read Boethius in the Loeb edition, with Latin pages facing the English translation! He then followed up that recommendation to read the Consolation with the recommendation of a second medieval book:

As you say in one of your postscripts—your love for Jean must, in one sense, be “killed” and “God must do it.” You’d better read the Paradiso hadn’t you? Note the moment at which Beatrice turns her eyes way form Dante ‘to the eternal Fountain,’ and Dante is quite content” (Letters 3, 616).

Only a few years later, in 1961, when Lewis was suffering from grief over the loss of his own wife, Joy, his mind drifted back to the same passage in Dante. The last line in A Grief Observed is the same he had quoted to Van Auken: “I am at peace with God. She smiled, but not at me. Poi si tornò all’eterna fontana” (Grief Observed, 76).

And this is what I mean by the “third Lewis” emerging alongside those sides of Lewis we know better, the apologist and imaginative writer. This third Lewis is the writer who spent so much time studying medieval tales and arguments, ancient grammar and vocabulary, pre-modern rhetoric and even the rhythmic flow of ancient speech, that he could barely formulate an argument, write a letter, offer a word of consolation, or weave a fictional story of his own without opening up the dam and letting all the old ideas and emotions, stored up in his memory by long reading, break forth. Medieval literature, ancient languages, and the pre-modern way of looking at the universe were not just Lewis’s study or his day job, but his passion, his love, his life’s work, as well as his spiritual formation and even his “vocation.”

In his intellectual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, he famously described three moments in his youth, in which he was moved to spiritual longing through reading. He comments early on in the book: “The reader who finds these three episodes of no interest need read this book no further, for in a sense the central story of my life is about nothing else” (SBJ, 17). The purpose of my recently published book, The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis: How the Great Books Shaped a Great Mind, is to explore how this third Lewis is just beneath the surface even in his more appreciated imaginative and devotional writings. We will see that the great medievalist was not a successful modernizer of Christianity and writer of fiction despite the fact he spent so much time studying old, dusty books, but because of them. And this brings us back to our list.

Perhaps to our surprise, this third Lewis, the medievalist, emerges in the 1962 list that he shared with The Christian Century. When Lewis replied to the editors, he mentioned ten books that shaped his sense of vocation and his philosophy of life, some of which we would expect: 1) George MacDonald’s Phantastes; 2) G.K. Chesterton’s Everlasting Man; 3) Virgil’s Aeneid; 4) The Temple, by George Herbert; 5) William Wordsworth’s Prelude; 6) Rudolf Otto’s The Idea of the Holy; 7) Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy; 8) The Life of Samuel Johnson, by James Boswell; 9) Descent into Hell, by Charles Williams; and 10) Arthur James Balfour, Theism and Humanism. Some of these books, even if they have been largely forgotten by us, make sense in light of Lewis’s interest in apologetics.

For instance, Arthur James Balfour, a British politician, delivered The Gifford Lectures in 1915, in which he attempted to show, among other things, the limits of a strict naturalist philosophy. In those writings where Lewis sets himself to explaining how materialistic or naturalistic philosophy is incapable of explaining human moral and psychological development, his thought often drifts back to Balfour. George MacDonald’s Phantastes, as readers of Surprised by Joy know, caught the young Lewis by surprise. As a young man, he picked it off a bookstall while waiting for a train, and instantly fell in love with the strange but beautiful imaginary landscape contained within. Lewis’s mind was drawn into a foreign world where he breathed the atmosphere of something he had never known before: holiness.

G.K. Chesterton (or, perhaps, Charles Williams) is the writer we would, perhaps, most expect to find on a list of those who influenced his “philosophy of life and sense of vocation,” as Chesterton, too, was a modern, English writer who engaged a secularized public in a lively, vernacular style. Lewis was a little surprised with himself that he, an atheist at the time, liked Chesterton so much, concluding: “I liked him for his goodness” (SBJ, 191). Lewis adds: “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for. A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading . . . God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous” (SBJ, 191).

But then we come to other books, older books, books without any obvious connection to modern apologetics or contemporary Christian fiction (to use a loathsome term), and, thus, more difficult to perceive as having shaped Lewis’s sense of vocational formation. There’s Rudolf Otto, a German, Lutheran scholar, whose major work, The Idea of the Holy, was a disconcertingly brilliant scholarly attempt to reconstruct the archaic world’s experience of the divine, what Otto called the “numinous,” the awe-filled and awe-ful sense of the transcendent glory of divinity. William Wordsworth’s Prelude is a two-hundred-page, nineteenth-century poem about a Romantic poet’s boyhood awakening to his spiritual and poetic mission. Lewis loved Wordsworth throughout his life, almost as much as Milton, Spenser, and Dante, but in what sense did Wordsworth influence his “sense of vocation”? This seems odd to us. And then we have four, even older works: Boswell’s Life of Johnson (1791); George Herbert’s seventeenth century, posthumously published book of devotional, lyric poems, The Temple; and then, even more surprisingly, Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy, a philosophical treatise written by an imprisoned Roman senator in the 500’s AD; and, finally, Virgil’s Aeneid, an epic poem written in Latin about a mythological hero, Aeneas, who fled Troy to found Rome, written sometime after 31 B.C.

In some ways, even if the 1962 list would have puzzled Lewis’s fans, devoted to the man for his apologetics or fiction, it would not have surprised his students, or his close friends. The Oxford professor, like most academics, loved to make lists, and so enumerations of his favorite authors and books appear everywhere in his writing. His youthful letters to his father, his brother, and closest friends, almost always talk about what he was reading then and what he thought the recipients would like about those books. Later, at a more mature stage of his career, he often provided, in his non-fictional essays, lists of recommended authors.

In “Religion without Dogma?,” for example, in an attempt to sketch out in the least controversial, broadest possible terms, a traditional understanding of God, he refers to accounts one could find in “Bishop Butler and Hooker and Thomas Aquinas and Augustine and St. Paul and Christ and Aristotle and Plato” (E.C., 173). In “Religion and Science,” an imaginary dialogue between author and an agnostic friend, the doubter, exasperated, makes reference to “all those old chaps you’re always talking about . . . I mean Boethius and Augustine and Thomas Aquinas and Dante” (E.C., 145). In “On the Reading of Old Books,” he recounts a list that overlaps with his most famous enumeration of his readings, as found in Surprised by Joy.

In both places he explains that authors “such as Hooker, Herbert, Traherne, Taylor, and Bunyan” he read “because they are themselves great English writers.” While “others, such as Boethius, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and Dante, because they were ‘influences.’” He adds, proudly: “George MacDonald I had found for myself.” Unlike modern pedantic scholars who are obsessed with their specialization and, thus, inordinately attach to the periodization of history, Lewis’s mind ranged generously over time: “[my authors] are, you will note, a mixed bag, representative of many Churches, climates and ages” (“On the Reading of Old Books,” E.C., 440). [5]

In light of these other lists, the 1962 Christian Century list is beginning to come into focus. It is drawn from the usual suspects, who show up on multiple lists, where there is nothing unusual about grouping Plato and Aristotle with medieval scholastic philosophers and seventeenth-century Anglican theologians. Together, they are all “in league,” and make up a cloud of witnesses, who belong to, what we could call, the “Long Middle Ages.” Although scholars might wish to define the Middle Ages as the era between 500 and 1500 A.D., Lewis felt such efforts to be arbitrary.

Indeed, his whole career was devoted to transgressing these boundaries, as he explained in his 1954 inaugural address given on assuming a Cambridge professorship made just for him. He left his beloved Oxford to accept this “Chair of Medieval and Renaissance Literature,” because he felt the “University was encouraging my own belief that the barrier between those two ages has been greatly exaggerated, if indeed it was not largely a figment of Humanist propaganda. At the very least, I was ready to welcome any increased flexibility in our conception of history. All lines of demarcation between what we call ‘periods’ should be subject to constant revision” (“De Decriptione,” 2).

In the same lecture, he lamented that historians cannot treat their subjects like Virginia Woolf does in her modernist, plotless novel, mingling everything together. “[U]nhappily we cannot as historians dispense with periods,” and yet, we have to keep in mind that “all divisions will falsify our material to some extent; the best one can hope is to choose those which will falsify it least” (“De descriptione,” 3). And elsewhere in his Discarded Image, Lewis warns his reader that he will use an ample, encompassing definition of the medieval period:

The reader will find that I freely illustrate features of the Model which I call “Medieval” from authors who wrote after the close of the Middle Ages; from Spenser, Donne or Milton. I do so because, at many points, the old Model still underlies their work. It was not totally and confidently abandoned till the end of the seventeenth century (DI, 13)

But he has no problem citing ancient Aristotle and Athenian Plato, not to mention Wordsworth, to help clarify the “Medieval model.” In other words, it was habitual for him to put ancients in dialogue with Christians, and medieval Christians in dialogue with Romantics, despite the intervening millennia.

Indeed, Dante himself had done it (see his Inferno 1, where the pilgrim meets the ancient poet, Virgil). Thus, despite the intervening years, and differences in emotions, they were all dedicated to the same project. The real chasm, the “Great Divide,” is what separates “us” (Lewis meant mid-twentieth century, machine-using, materialistic modernity), from the early nineteenth century. Just as Christians and non-Christians alike will today talk about “light speed” or “inferiority complexes” or the “One Percent,” without necessarily being advocates of or specialists in Einstein, Freud, or Marx, so, too, did medieval Christians and ancient Pagans share a number of general, “background” beliefs that made them “far more like each other than either was like a modern man” (DI, 46). For this reason, Lewis thought an ancient Roman had more in common with human beings from the eighteenth century (like, say, Samuel Johnson), indeed, even with Jane Austin, than either of them have in common with us, “because,” he explains, “the old Model still underlies their work” (DI, 13). For this reason we can loosely define the range of my book as being the “Long Medieval Period,” which extends from Plato to Samuel Johnson and, sometimes even to Wordsworth.

In addition to this idiosyncratic definition of the Long Medieval Period, we find another way in which the Third Lewis emerges in the Christian Century list; that is, his conviction that ancient books were urgent, not just representative of past beliefs. For Lewis, the old books had a sense of timeliness (not just timelessness), and, thus, Boethius and Virgil could share space with a novelist who wrote just two decades. And so, I would like to conclude this discussion by devoting special attention to the presence of Boethius on this list, for, in a special way, toward the end of his life, Lewis seems to have begun to think of himself as a new, British Boethius, consciously modeling his own sense of vocation on that of the sixth-century writer.

Boethius, the late antique patrician known as the last of the Romans and the first of the medievals, was born into a wealthy, aristocratic family, and when he was orphaned as a child, he was adopted into a family of even higher prestige, and so we should not be shocked by the length of full name, the indubitable sign of ancient aristocracy: Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius, adopted by the patrician, Symacchus. At any other time, such connections, wealth, and education would have led to venerable old age, but Boethius’s life overlapped with that of Theodoric, the King of the Ostrogoths, who was in the process of taking over the handles of Roman government.

And so, in the midst of a time in which the classical world was crumbling, Greek-speaking Boethius felt the need to preserve as much of the classical heritage as possible. He had hoped to translate all of the works of Aristotle from Greek into Latin, then do the same for Plato. He had designs as well to create an introductory textbook for all of the seven liberal arts, and then write a treatise which reconciled theology and the liberal arts, and then reconciled Plato and Aristotle (in a project which anticipated Raphael’s School of Athens by 1000 years). But he was only able to complete a fragment of his project, because he was arrested by Theodoric on trumped up charges of treachery. While waiting for his brutal execution, in exile, he penned Consolation of Philosophy, in which he tried to get that project down to its essence, while also trying to convince himself that his life had not been a waste.[6]

Lewis loved Boethius. Indeed, he thought that the ability, not just to know, but to love the Consolation, to internalize it, was a mark of which side of the Great Divide your heart was on: “Until about two hundred years ago it would, I think, have been hard to find an educated man in any European country who did not love [the Consolation]. To acquire a taste for it is almost to become naturalized in the Middle Ages” (Discarded Image, 75). And Lewis was proud of the fact that he had expatriated and become a naturalized citizen of the medieval period. In this way, Boethius became a special exemplar. Just as the sixth-century philosopher lived in an age overrun by barbarians (“huge, fair-skinned, beer-drinking, boasting thanes,” D.I., 79), and desperately gathered and saved whatever fragments he could from the old “high Pagan past,” so, too, did Lewis feel it his duty to save, not this or that ancient author, but the general wisdom of the Long Middle Ages, and then vernacularize it for his world, which was now dominated by a new type of barbarian (see Letters 3, 649).

His own age was one of “Proletarianism,” which was now, in a way similar to Boethius’s barbarians, cut off from the classical past and proud of its distance from classical antiquity: we are “self-satisfied to a degree perhaps beyond the self-satisfaction of any recorded aristocracy”; we are men who have become as “practical as the irrational animals” (“Modern Man and his Categories of Thought,” E.C., 617-19). Having abandoned the study of the old, modern barbarians no longer have access to any values other than those “of modern industrial civilization,” and so, Lewis wondered if “we shall not have to re-convert men to real Paganism as a preliminary to converting them to Christianity” (“Modern Man,” E.C., 619).

In this way, Lewis followed the path of Boethius, who chose not to focus on “what divided him from Virgil, Seneca, Plato, and the old Republican heroes” but rather, “he preferred [a theme] that enabled him to feel how nearly they had been right, to think of them not as ‘they’ but as ‘we’” (D.I., 79). Lewis’s vocation, like Boethius’s, was the humble one of making old books live again: “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that first-hand knowledge is not only more worth acquiring than second-hand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire” (“On the Reading of Old Books,” E.C., 438).

One of Lewis’s chief concerns, then, was with finding ways to transpose, translate, and recreate the atmosphere of the ancient world in a modern vernacular, as he once explained in a lecture on Christian apologetics: “you must translate every bit of your Theology into the vernacular” (“Christian Apologetics,” 155). In this way, Lewis became a British Boethius, the philosopher whom he once described as the “divine popularizer” (Allegory of Love, 46), who had helped to create “the very atmosphere in which the [medieval] world awoke” (Allegory of Love, 46; emphasis mine).

Take, for example, Lewis’s attempt to make the old Boethian argument on the “wheel of fortune” suitable for a modern palette. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lewis’s “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. To the question, “How are we to live in an atomic age?” Lewis replied:

Why, as you would have lived in the sixteenth century when the plagued visited London almost every year, or as you would have lived in a Viking age when raiders from Scandinavia might land and cut your throat at night . . . [T]he first action to take is to pull ourselves together. If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb come 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—not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs. They may break our bodies (a microbe can do that) but they need not dominate our minds” (E.C., 361).

In other words, we should not exaggerate “the novelty of our situation” (E.C., 361). Nothing has changed; rather, our new circumstances “remind us forcibly of the sort of world we are living in and which, during the prosperous years before 1914, we were beginning to forget. We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities” (E.C., 362).

I love this passage in Lewis, and I found good comfort in it in early 2020, but what interests me the most now is how close it is to Book II of Consolation of Philosophy, where Boethius developed a poetic image to describe the world’s unpredictable, topsy-turvy nature: the allegorical figure of Lady Fortune, spinning her great wheel, the Wheel of Fortune.

In this part of the philosophical dialogue, Lady Philosophy comforts the prisoner, suffering unjust imprisonment and awaiting his brutal execution, by telling him that at least he has awakened to the true nature of reality: “You imagine that fortune’s attitude to you has changed; you are wrong. Such was always her way, such is her nature. Instead, all she has done in your case is remain constant to her own inconstancy.”[7] No worldly good is ours by possession; they are always being shifted from here to there, from country to country. Nothing has really changed. In other words, take away the allegorical figuration of Fortune, and we have Lewis’s argument, at some points, word for word.

We know that Lewis loved this passage in Boethius. He praised it as the “great apologia” and said it impressed itself “firmly on the imagination of succeeding ages” (D.I., 81). No one throughout the medieval period who ever read Boethius’s allegorized Fortune “could forget her long” (D.I., 82). It became one of the great commonplaces in the Middle Ages, rewritten and translated continuously over the centuries. Thus, by writing “On Living in an Atomic Age,” Lewis did something analogous to the late medieval writers (like Chaucer) who had translated Boethius from Latin into Middle English or French or Italian. He, too, was a “popularizer” of ancient wisdom for a barbarian age.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is an adaptation of the introductory chapter of The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis: How the Great Books Shaped a Great Mind by Jason M. Baxter, used by permission of IVP Press ©2022, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

[1] The responses appeared over a number of issues. Lewis’s response (along with that of Ann Landers) appeared in The Christian Century, June 6, 1962 (719).

[2] As interviewed by Sam Leith, “CS Lewis's literary legacy: 'dodgy and unpleasant' or 'exceptionally good'?” in The Guardian Nov 19, 2013

[3] For books which do take an account of Lewis the medievalist, see Michael Ward, Planet Narnia (OxfordUniversity Press, 2010); Alister McGrath, The Intellectual World of  Lewis (London: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013); Cambridge Companion to C.S.  Lewis, ed. McSwain and Ward (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

[4] In that letter, he does mention one exception: “Otto’s [The Idea of the Holy] I have been deeply influenced by.”

[5] Cp. to SBJ, “Checkmate,” 212-15.

[6] For Boethius’s struggle to save as much of classical learning as possible in his new age of barbarism, in addition to Lewis’s pages on him in Discarded Image, see Henry Chadwick, Boethius: The Consolations of Music, Logic, Theology, and Philosophy  (Oxford University Press, 1990); Antonio Donato, Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy as a Product of Late Antiquity (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).

[7] Tractates and Consolation, trans. Stewart and Rand, Lobe Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 1928),  II.1, 177

Featured Image: C.S. Lewis in his office, circa 1951; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.


Jason Baxter

Jason M. Baxter is an associate professor of fine arts and humanities at Wyoming Catholic College. He is the author of The Medieval Mind of C.S. Lewis and his online writings can be found here.

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