Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Medieval cosmology - looking up at the stars...


From Imagination and Thought in the Middle Ages, by C.S. Lewis (in Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature, 1966).


Go out on any starry night and walk alone for half an hour, resolutely assuming that pre-Copernican astronomy is true.


You will be looking at a world unimaginably large but quite definitely finite. At no speed possible to man, in no lifetime possible to man, could you ever reach its frontier, but the frontier is there; hard, clear, sudden as a national frontier.

And secondly, because the Earth is an absolute centre, and Earthwards from any part of this universe is downwards, you will find that you are looking at the planet and stars not merely in terms of 'distance' but of that very special kind of distance we call 'height'. They are not only a long way from Earth, but a long way above it.


Now these two factors taken together - enormous but finite size, and distances which, however vast, remain unambiguously vertical, and indeed vertiginous - at once present you with something which differs from the Newtonian picture rather as a great building differs from a great jungle.

You can lose yourself in infinity; there is indeed nothing much else you can do with it. It arouses questions, it prompts to a certain kind of wonder and reverie, usually a sombre kind (...) But it answers no questions; necessarily shapeless and trackless, patient of no absolute order or direction, it leads, after a little, to boredom or despair or (often) to the haunting conviction that it must be an illusion.


But the effect of the old model becomes even more interesting when we consider order.

It is not merely very large, it is a whole of finely graded parts. Everything descends from the circumference with a steady diminution in size, speed, power and dignity. (...)

All above the Empyrean [Firmament] is in a special, immaterial sense 'Heaven', full of the divine substance.

From the Empyrean down to the Moon is the realm of aether - that strange half-matter in which so many different ages have believed (...) - changeless, necessary, not subject to Fortune.

From the Moon down to the Earth is the realm of air (...) which is also the realm of luck, change, birth, death and contingence.


It is a structure, a finished work, a unity articulated through a great and harmonious plurality. It evokes not mere wonder but admiration. It provides food for thought and satisfaction for our aesthetic nature.


After the dimensions and the order we must consider the dynamics. (...)

The infinite, according to Aristotle, is not actual. No infinite object exists; no infinite processes occur. Hence we cannot explain the movement of one body by another and so on forever. (...)

All the movements of the universe must therefore, in the last resort, result from a compulsive force exercised by something immovable.(...)

He called this Unmoved Mover either 'God' or 'Mind'. It moves the Primum Mobile [or outermost sphere of the universe] by love. (...)

Accordingly we find (not now by analogy but in strictest fact) that in every sphere there is a rational creature called an Intelligence which is compelled to move, and therefore to keep his sphere moving, by his incessant desire for God. (...)


A modern might ask why a love for God should lead to a perpetual rotation. I think, because this love or appetite for God is a desire to participate as much as possible in his nature; i.e. to imitate it. And the nearest approach to His eternal immobility, the second best, is eternal regular movement in the most perfect figure, which, for any Greek, is the circle.


[A man of the middle ages] did not think that the spaces he looked up at were silent, or dark or empty. Far from being silent, they were perpetually filled with sweet, immeasurable sound. The vast hollow spheres, turning each at its proper interval inside its superior, gave out a blended harmony.


Nor were these high regions dark. The darkness in which the stars (for us) is set is merely the darkness of the long, conical shadow cast by the earth when the sun is below our feet. They knew (...) that the apex of this dark cone must fall well above the moon.

Beyond that apex the higher heavens are bathed in perpetual sunshine.


And these spaces, bright and resonant, were also inhabited. We have already peopled them with the Intelligences who either animate or guide the spheres.

Distinct from these, but of course equally immortal and superhuman, are the angels. Their natural habitat is between the Empyrean and the Moon and their number is probably enormous. (...)

[Humans] touch only the lowest fringe of angelic life. (...) They are ordered in nine classes which are arranged in three groups of three classes each. (...)

The lowest hierarchy deals with human affairs; Principalities with the destiny of nations, Archangels and Angels, in varying ways, with those of individuals.


[God governs the world through the angels; the whole angelic population, without prejudice to its complex internal triads, is the medium between God as agent and Nature (or man) as patient.]


But I must crowd the sky a little more. (...) Besides the Intelligences and the angelic hierarchies are the planets themselves. Each of them is doing things to us as every moment.


Go back for a moment to the experience I mentioned at the beginning; that of looking up at the stars (...).

The full contrast between the medieval experience and ours is only now apparent.

For whatever else we feel, we certainly feel that we are looking out; out of somewhere warm and lighted into cold, indifferent desolation, out of a house onto the dark waste of the sea.

But the medieval man felt he was looking in.

Here is the outside. The Moon's orbit is the city wall. Night opens the gates for a moment and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps which are going on inside; staring as animals stare at the fires of the encampment they cannot enter, as rustics stare at a city, as surburbia stares at Mayfair.


These spheres are moved by love, by intellectual desire, never sated because they can never completely assimilate themselves to their object, and never frustrated because they continually do so to the fullest extent which their nature admits or requires.

Their existence is thus one of delight.

The motions of the universe are to be conceived not as those of a machine or even an army, but rather as a dance, a festival, a symphony, a ritual, a carnival, or all these in one.

They are the unimpeded movement of the most perfect impulse towards the most perfect object.



  1. Do you think anything remotely like this view of the universe is still salvageable, even for a Christian?

  2. Yes - I would regard this as a rather typically over-logical, over-inclusive, excessively-detailed Western Christian medieval extrapolation of what is - at the deep level - the truth about the world.

    Of course for specific practical purposes we have discovered other more partial accounts of how things work - such as modern astronomy - but none of these are a cosmology. And it is crazy (but people do it all the time) to use such partial and local systems as if they were a cosmology.

    A description of the whole is bound to differ from descriptions of the part (i.e. to be incommensurable) - indeed it is *normal* that different sciences are incommensurable. For example, just to take the biological specialty of neuroscience (which I know well) - this is a mass of incommensurable sub-specialties, each with its own methods and rules.

    For example, teleology, purposiveness, which is here expressed by 'love', is unavoidable in a coherent metaphysic - modern metaphysics being either incoherent or else having concealed teleology.

    Of course the medieval picture is metaphorical, but humans can only think in metaphors - and as metaphors go these medieval ones are closer the reality than those we now use.

  3. A modern might ask why a love for God should lead to a perpetual rotation. I think, because this love or appetite for God is a desire to participate as much as possible in his nature; i.e. to imitate it.

    This strikes me as the sanest explanation for seeking the divine that I have found. Many people seek excuses, or assurances, from religion; those who are truly driven seek reasons for being and through them, some form of transcendent beauty in the universe.

  4. Please allow me to recommend to interested people the learning of some of the major constellations if one is able to see stars. (Many people live in cities with a "ceiling" of light between them and the stars at night and might not be able to see any stars or planets except the brightest.) Being able to name constellations, and individual stars, helps one to perceive their beauty. And the patterns of the stars are beautiful and the colors of the stars are not all the same. They do not become boring with time, as they would if they were excessively regular, nor do they appear as simply random spots of light. They are always pleasing to see. I set myself to learn major constellations about 20 years ago, with the help of an inexpensive planisphere. This device lets one see which constellations are visible at a given hour and date. I'm sure that there are online resources for such self-directed study too.

    Lewis himself enjoyed naked-eye observation of the night sky, as may be seen from a few comments in his letters and as is suggested by a passage or two in That Hideous Strength.

  5. @Dael - endorsed!

    It is particularly wonderful to see the planets, and how they 'wander' among the constellations.