C.S. Lewis on the Right Way to Read Classics

You probably know C.S. Lewis for his imaginative Narnia fiction or perhaps for his non-fiction works on Christianity, but many are unaware of the groundbreaking and brilliant work he did within his scholarly field. Lewis was a Fellow and Tutor in English Literature at Oxford and the premier professor of Medieval and Renaissance literature at Cambridge, so his knowledge of greater literature itself was deep and profound. His students and colleagues were frequently amazed by his astonishing recall of minute detail in obscure works. He would play a game with you when you came to his office where he would have you pull down any book off his shelf and read a random passage out of it. He would tell you the work, author, and quote the surrounding context. Suffice it to say, the man knew his stuff.

CS-Lewis-on-the-Reading-of-Old-BooksBeing that Lewis had his ears to the ground with his students and was unusually fresh with his perspectives, his approaches to teaching literature would be a welcome and exciting change for many students weary of their dull college courses. Since many students just began their spring semesters, I think these thoughts of Lewis’s on understanding the classics would be pertinent at this time.

In his improperly titled A Preface to Paradise Lost, Lewis writes on multiple topics ranging from the genre of epic poetry to John Milton’s theology. In chapter IX, he tackles a method of reading classics that is still prevalent to this day (perhaps more so now I think) dubbed the method of “The Unchanging Human Heart.” Lewis describes it thus:

“According to this method the things which separate one age from another are superficial. Just as, if we stripped the armour off a medieval knight or the lace off a Caroline courtier, we should find beneath them an anatomy identical with our own, so, it is held, if we strip off from Virgil his Roman imperialism, from Sidney his code of honour, from Lucretius his Epicurean philosophy, and from all who have it their religion, we shall find the Unchanging Human Heart, and on this we are to concentrate.”

Lewis continues to say the he held to this method for many years, but that he has since abandoned it. I’m sure most people have naturally utilized this method in their readings, self-centered as we humans are. We look for ourselves in what we see. I’ve been guilty of it for years. We look for signs of familiarity in a foreign land. Shouldn’t we be appreciating what is new and foreign to us if we are to not be shallow tourists?

If we only look for this Unchanging Heart in everything we read, there is also the problem of imbalance in our understanding of the work. Lewis opines: “Our whole study of the poem will then become a battle between us and the author in which we are trying to twist his work into a shape he never gave it, to make him use the loud pedal where he really used the soft, to force into false prominence what he took in his stride, and to slur over what he actually threw into bold relief.”

Worse still, Lewis also points out that under the Unchanging Heart method that what we cslewismay wish to think is a facet of the unchanging nature of humanity, is actually just something we fancy because we like it now in the “modern mood”! This is egregious beyond making the author into ourself, because we are then morphing them into our culture as well.

Lewis wraps up the thought in a passage worth quoting at length:

“Fortunately there is a better way. Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace ; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries out of the Grand Cyrus. I had much rather know what I should feel like if I adopted the beliefs of Lucretius than how Lucretius would have felt if he had never entertained them. The possible Lucretius in myself interests me more than the possible C. S. Lewis in Lucretius.
[..]      To enjoy our full humanity we ought, so far as is possible, to contain within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed. You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson. Only thus will you be able to judge the work ‘in the same spirit that its author writ’ and to avoid chimerical criticism. It is better to study the changes in which the being of the Human Heart largely consists than to amuse ourselves with fictions about its immutability. For the truth is that when you have stripped off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being.”

With this far more balanced and informative view, we can better understand the actual meaning being presented in the work regardless of our modern approval of it. Lewis quotes scholar Denis Saurat as saying that one should “study what there is of lasting originality in Milton’s thought and especially to disentangle from theological rubbish the permanent and human interest.” This is beyond misguided, it is an influence of the darkness of this present age that desires to purge man of God and refuse to bother with the real meaning of texts that do not adhere to contemporary skepticism. Lewis points out that this is like saying that one should study Hamlet without the rubbish of revenge or Gothic architecture without spires. Without its most essential elements, these things do not exist. This should be widely recognized as insane critical methodology, and yet it persists.

Lewis says that “our plan must be very different – to plunge right into the ‘rubbish’, to see the world as if we believed it, and then, while we still hold that position in our imagination, to see what sort of a poem results.”

So the next time you pick up a book that wasn’t written in the last two hundred years (which Lewis recommended doing between every new book you read) approach it not with the desire to dig for nuggets of modernity or yourself. Listen to the author, and treat all his or her thoughts with the respect of attempting to truly understand them. You may find some things admirable, grotesque, beautiful, mistaken, complex, honorable, hopeful, and more.. but do please find them!

“Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
– Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass 






The Ten Commandments of Medieval Love

“For this was on seynt Volantynys day                                                                        Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make.” – Geoffrey Chaucer                 [“For this was on St. Valentine’s Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.”]

What you just read was the first recorded instance of associating Saint Valentine’s Day with romantic love! This came from Chaucer’s Parlement of Foules [Fools] in 1382. So Valentine’s Day and the medieval tradition are quite closely tied. So how did the medieval people think one should practice the art of love? There’s really no better place to turn than the allegorical love literature of the time.

(Listening to a great medieval love song while you read can’t hurt either!)

“The allegorical love poetry of the Middle Ages is apt to repel the modern reader both by its form and by its matter.”

So begins C.S. Lewis’s landmark The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition, which has been one of the most influential explorations of medieval literature ever written. The central idea of romance from the Middle Ages that has continued to leave an impression on the minds of the modern man is the concept of courtly love. Most have heard of this concept, but not many can pin down exactly what it is. Lewis defines it in The Allegory of Love as:

“The sentiment, of course, is love, but love of a highly specialized sort, whose characteristics may be enumerated as Humility, Courtesy, Adultery, and the Religion of Love.”

Everybody’s favourite medievalist!

If that sounds confusing to you, then you’re not the only one! How can you combine characteristics like adultery and the “religion” of love? What does that even mean? Fortunately for the curious there’s been plenty of literature said on this topic, with of course Lewis’s being a particulary fascinating work. What we’re examining here though is not any high-falutin academic theory on these works, instead we’re examining a primary medieval text with hermeneutics. In simpler terms, what does this medieval work have anything to do with me today? Can it help me with this Valentine’s Day coming up? Good question!

Due to Lewis’s work, I recently picked up a classic of medieval dream allegory called Roman de la Rose (The Romance of the Rose), which was a book both highly popular and controversial in its time. Modern readers would most likely find the implicit sexism of many of its characters to be repulsive, or think that the sections on theology are extraordinarily draining for no purpose. Despite these grievances, the book was entertaining in aspects and thoroughly thought-provoking in others.

Manuscript art from Roman de la Rose
Manuscript art from Roman de la Rose

In introducing the work, the first author Guillaume de Lorris (who died before completing his work, which was picked up thirty years later by Jean de Meun) states that within the Roman de la Rose “the whole art of love is contained.” That’s quite a hefty statement, but one could see in what Lorris was able to accomplish that this lofty claim wasn’t entirely unsubstantiated.
The section I would like to focus on is where the dreaming narrator is shot by the God of Love with five arrows representing separate attributes of love (the narrator says that the first arrow “entered my eye and penetrated my heart.” No comment on the anatomical accuracy here). After seeing that the five arrowheads are embedded in him and there’s no removing them, he becomes Love’s “liegeman” and begs Love to give him his commandments before departing. Love agrees that this is a reasonable request and proceeds to give him the “Ten Commandments of Love.” This list of commandments, as imagined in the mind of our mysterious medieval scholar, is what we’ll be discussing here.
As de Lorris’s narrator comments, “anyone who aspires to love should pay attention.”

Mr. Sleepy Author of the work is not taking the whole “pay attention” thing too seriously though.
  1. Abandon Baseness (Especially do not slander):                                       “‘First of all,’ said Love, ‘if you wish to avoid committing an offense against me, I desire and command that you abandon Baseness forever. I curse and excommunicate all those who love Baseness. [..] A base man is cruel and pitiless, and offers no service or friendship.’”Earlier in the book the allegorical representation of Baseness is described:
    “She seemed indeed an evil creature, wild and cruel, an immoderate and insolent scandalmonger. [..] She seemed to be full of abuse, a woman incapable of honouring others as she ought to.The necessity of moral virtue is not something prudent to discuss here, but it is a universal truth that base man will be without favor in the eyes of all those who do not share his lack of ethics. In seeking a woman who is truly virtuous, it only makes sense that oneself must be virtuous as well.
  2. Be Courteous and Approachable:
    He's got this approaching technique down to an exact science.
    He’s got this approaching technique down to an exact science.

    “Be courteous and approachable, speaking gently and reasonably to high and low alike, and when you go along the streets, be sure to make it your habit to be first to greet other people. And if anyone should greet you first, do not remain dumb, but take care to return the greeting at once without delay.”

    My occupation at the moment is being one of those sign twirling/dancing fellows that you see standing outside of stores when sales or holidays are going on. This has made it where I am greeting people on the street for hours every day, and I will have you know that the vast majority of people would rather not acknowledge you at all even if you smile and wave directly at them. It’s not like they have to buy something to wave back, so what’s the deal with the coldness? This commandment is quite relevant in the face of our de-socialized cultural milieu. Smile, wave, and visually confirm to people that it’s a pleasure to see them.

  3. Never Use Rude Words or Coarse Expressions:

    Watch yo mouth sistah!
    Watch yo mouth sistah!

“Be sure never to use rude words or coarse expressions: your mouth should never be             opened to pronounce the name of anything base. I do not consider a man to be courteous if he names filthy, ugly things.”

There should be nothing quite as immediately repulsive to the woman of virtue than a man whose tongue is unclean. The words we use represent to others the thoughts in our head, and if we use foul language to convey our thoughts, than what should one assume is the nature of our thoughts?

4.  Serve and Honour All Women:

Brought you some medicine, baby.
Brought you some medicine, sugar pie honey bunch..

“Serve and honour all women, toil and labour in their service, and if you hear any slanderer speaking ill of women, reproach him and tell him to be quiet. If you can, do things to please ladies and maidens, so that they may hear good reports of you; in this way your reputation will be enhanced.”

This command may be surprising to those who hold firm to the belief that medieval men were misogynistic. Of course sexism was not exactly a non-issue at the time, but the view held of women by the courtly poets show an immensely deep respect for the fair sex.
The last sentence may make this command sound like something done simply to help get yourself in with women, but there’s clearly more to this than that. The last sentence is merely to attach a possible benefit to the right thing that you should be doing in the first place. As Christ said, you must treat others the same as you would have them treat you. The battle between the sexes is truly absurd, and as an honorable man it is imperative that one must treat women with the utmost respect, and refuse to allow misogynists to disparage them.

5.  Keep Yourself From Pride and Bear Yourself With Elegance:

“Keep yourself from pride, for he who has understanding and discernment knows that pride is foolish and sinful. A man tainted with pride is incapable of subduing his heart to serve and beg. The proud man does precisely the opposite of what the true lover should do. But he who wishes to toil in the service of love should bear himself with elegance. It is useless for a man who lacks elegance to aspire to love. Elegance is not pride, for the elegant man is all the more worthy for being free of pride and foolish presumption.”

Augustine of Hippo once said that it was pride who “changed angels into devils” and that humility “makes men as angels.” Pride, or conceit, might arguably be the greatest of all faults in man. Solomon says “Do you see a man who is wise in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.”
Love argues that elegance is desired in the lover and that it is easier to be free of pride in elegance. How is this so? Perhaps it is the simplicity typically associated with elegance. This is not simply elegance of dress, but elegance in manners. It would take a particularly disagreeable churl to refute the idea that manners are desirable in a romantic companion.

6. Dress to Impress and Stay Clean:

What? I thought red and blue was making a comeback!
What? I thought red and blue was making a comeback!

“Provide yourself, as far as your income will permit, with fine clothes and shoes, for fine clothes and garments improve a man wonderfully. Also, you should entrust your wardrobe to an experienced tailor who can make the stitches sit properly and the sleeves fit elegantly. [..] Do not allow any dirt upon your person; wash your hands and clean your teeth, and if any speck of black appears in your nails, do not let it stay there. Lace up your sleeves and comb your hair, but do not paint your face or wear make-up: only women do that.”

This is a piece of advice that Cary Grant certainly would not have disagreed with! Contrary to popular advice, most people tend to judge by appearances. For plenty of more literature on this topic I recommend the many articles on “The Art of Manliness” concerning it (such as this excellent one http://www.artofmanliness.com/2008/10/30/mens-fashion-well-dressed/).

7.  Be Joyful:
“You must always remember to be blithe. Prepare yourself for joy and pleasure, for Love cares nothing for gloomy men. [..] Lovers are sometimes joyful and sometimes in torment, and the pains of love sometimes seem sweet to them and sometimes bitter.”

This commandment would cause a problem for most of the courtly poets. As Lewis points out, “The [courtly] lover is always abject.” You’d have a difficult time finding moments of joy in courtly literature where the protagonist is removed from the object of his affections. For this lover there are only two states: joy in being with his lady, and misery without her. Interestingly enough, Love here does not command to be blithe whenever the desired woman is about, but to always be blithe. He does note that this is difficult, in saying that love pains can sometimes be sweet or bitter. Despite this nature of love, one should avoid gloom for self-evident purposes.

8.  Do What You Do Best:

He'll bend over backwards for his loved one!
He’ll really bend over backwards for his loved one!

“If you know how to do something entertaining that will bring pleasure to others, I order you to do it. Everyone must always do what he knows suits him best, for as a result he will be praised and esteemed and favoured.”
Love goes on to explain that everyone should learn how to play an instrument and how to dance, “for in this way he will will great advancement.”

This one is rather self-explanatory, to publicly participate in activities that best exemplify your talents is advantageous.

9.  Be Generous:
“It is fitting that lovers should give more generously than the simple, foolish, common folk. No man who did not like to give ever knew how to love. Anyone who wishes to toil in the service of Love should be careful to avoid avarice, for he who has given his whole heart for a look, or a sweet, untroubled laugh should, after so rich a gift, give freely of what he has.”

The concept that no men who “do not like to give ever knew how to love” is particularly thought-provoking. For what is love? One cannot love and fail to give, these concepts are necessarily bound to one another.

10. Give your Heart Entire: 

Sorry ladies.. Love commanded me to give my heart to one only...  *ladies swoon*
Sorry ladies.. Love commanded me to give my heart to one only…
*ladies swoon*

“In order that you might be a true lover, it is my wish and my command that your heart may be set in a single place, and that it should not be divided, but whole and entire, without deceit, for I do not like sharing. Whoever divides his heart between many places leaves a poor part of it everywhere, but I have no fear for him who sets his heart in one place, and I therefore wish you to do so. [..]

I was taught from the very beginning that multitasking is a delusion which invariably leads to lackluster or failed outcomes. This same concept applies to the art of love. How can one love well when one loves many?

“Take my hand, take my whole life too/For I can’t help falling in love with you.”- Elvis Presley

Slightly Stranger Pieces of Advice:

Not all of the romantic advice in Roman de la Rose is arguably still relevant and useful, however. There are some truly bizarre and laughable tactics encouraged by a few characters in the work. For instance:

1. Wail outside her door at night to show your anguish her.

Little did she know that that horrible howling outside wasn't her cat Boethius
Little did she know that the horrible howling outside wasn’t her cat Boethius

“Whether it is raining or freezing, you will go secretly to the house of your beloved, who will be sound asleep and scarcely thinking of you. One time you will go to the back door to see if it has been left open, and there you will perch outside, all alone in the wind and rain; next you will go to the front door, and you will find an opening–a window or a lock– you will apply your ear to it and listen to see if those inside are asleep. If your fair one alone is awake, I recommend and suggest to you that she should hear you weeping and lamenting, so that she knows that you are unable to rest in your bed for love of her. Unless she is very hard-hearted, a woman will certainly have pity on a man who endures such pain for her sake.”

I can’t claim to know whether this works or not from personal experience, but I would appreciate some field-testing reports on this tactic.

  1. Make it Look Like You’ve Been Weeping.
    Oh how the torment of love makes me weep... *wink wink* ;)
    Oh how the torment of love makes me weep… *wink wink* 😉

    “If you cannot weep, go secretly and without delay and take some of your saliva or squeeze the juice of onions or garlic or many other juices and anoint your eyelids with it; if you do this you will weep as often as you like.”

Most men really don’t want to look like they’ve been weeping, but if you’re really going for that pity tactic I suppose this ought to do it for you.

Other Thoughts on Romance From the Medieval Era:

“I do not recommend any man wait for a woman to ask for his love, for anyone who waits for a woman to ask him has too much confidence in his beauty.”
Roman de la Rose (Jean de Meun)

“A loyal partner, once discovered, should be served, loved, and obeyed.” – Marie de France

“Such is the nature of love that no one under its sway can retain command over reason.” Marie de France

I'm sorry Dante, I'm not seeing these faces in the heavens you refer to.. are you feeling ok?
I’m sorry Dante, I’m not seeing these faces in the heavens you refer to.. are you feeling ok?

“A number of conflicting thoughts began to contend and strive one with the other, all of them, it seemed, unanswerably. Among them were four which seemed most to disturb my peace of mind. One was this: ‘The domination of Love is a good thing because he guides the mind of his faithful follower away from all unworthiness.’ Another thought was this: ‘The domination of Love is not a good thing because the more faithfully a follower serves him, the more burdensome and grievous are the moments he must endure’; yet another thought was as follows: ‘The name of Love is so sweet that it seems impossible that it can be anything but sweet in its effect upon most things, for it is known that names are a consequence of the things which are named; the fourth thought was this: ‘The Lady for whom Love holds you so enthralled is not like other women whose hearts are easily moved.’ Every one of these thoughts so contended within me that I became like a person who does not know which road to take on his journey who wants to set out but does not know where to start.”                – Dante Alighieri, Vita Nuova

I hope that all of you readers have found these medieval thoughts on the romantic arts to be fascinating, informative, entertaining, and potentially useful. Please let me know more of what you think in the comments! Thank you!