Towards the end of his life, C. S. Lewis drew together material from several lectures on the pre-Copernican view of the universe given during his time at Oxford, which were published after his death as The Discarded Image. This book, and the lectures it was based on, were written by Lewis as an introduction to medieval and renaissance literature, and the main thrust of this work was to help the audience/reader appreciate this ‘image’ of the universe in order that they might better understand the literature produced in that period.
Lewis’ position is that the worldview held by people at any given time is so influential in shaping their thought, that a proper understanding of it is necessary for understanding their ideas in general; and that especially with respect to this period, which underwent such a great change in cosmological perspective, otherwise many references and modes of thought will pass us by in reading its literature. Furthermore, he also counsels that people in that period, although deeply influenced by the imagery of the pre-Copernican model, were more aware of the provisionality of scientific theory, and less likely than we are today to wed ourselves irrevocably to existing understandings of things. He suggests for example that:
‘The real reason why Copernicus raised no ripple and Gallileo raised a storm, may well be that whereas the one offered a new supposal about celestial motions, the other insisted on treating this supposal as fact. If so, the real revolution consisted not in a new theory of the heavens, but in “a new theory of the nature of theory”.’
The Discarded Image (1979), p.16, Cambridge University Press.
I would also suggest that the storm raised by Gallileo had a good deal to do with his prideful and irascible nature as well, but that is another story! The main point Lewis makes in this book though is that it is the imaginative effect of worldviews that is important – what people believe about the world around them has a profound influence on how they think. The medieval/early renaissance model of the universe was not only highly intricate and ordered, but also elegant and deeply beautiful, and the harmony perceived in the universe was reflected in the way people saw life in general:
‘Poets and other artists depicted these things because their minds loved to dwell on them. Other ages have not had a Model so universally accepted as theirs, so imaginable, and so satisfying to the imagination. Marcus Aurelius wished that men would love the universe as a man can love his own city. I believe that something like this was really possible in the period I am discussing. At least, fairly like it. The medieval and Renaissance delight in the universe was, I think, more spontaneous and aesthetic, less laden with conscience and resignation, than anything the Stoical emperor had in mind.’
The precise architecture of the Ptolemaic universe I shall not dwell upon, but simply outline briefly. It had Earth at its centre, which was surrounded by a series of transparent globes or ‘spheres’ moving outwards concentrically, each containing a luminous body – the Moon, Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, then Saturn, respectively. Beyond Saturn was the Stellatum (a region of fixed stars), and beyond this the Primum Mobile or ‘First Movable’, from which all the other spheres received their momentum. Beyond this it what is really significant, and what is the source for the ‘music’ of the spheres that is the real focus of this post:
‘And beyond the Primum Mobile what? The answer to this unavoidable question had been given, in its first form, by Aristotle. “Outside the heaven there is neither place nor void nor time. Hence whatever is there is of such a kind as not to occupy space, nor does time affect it.”…
…What is one sense “outside the heaven” is now, in another sense, “the very Heaven”, caelum ipsum, and full of God, as Bernard says. So when Dante passes that last frontier he is told, “We have got outside the largest corporeal thing (del maggior corpo) into that Heaven which is pure light, intellectual light, full of love.’
This pure intellectual light, beyond space and time, is of course God, and His love (or rather the love of the celestial bodies for God) was seen as the force that provided the spheres (starting with the Primum Mobile) with their motion and harmony – they moved out of love for their source and maker. The medieval universe was therefore not a cavernous emptiness, cold and dark as we see it now, but, although still immense in its size, filled with order and beauty:
‘…to look out on the night sky with modern eyes is like looking out over a sea that fades away into mist, or looking about one in a trackless forest – trees forever and no horizon. To look up at the towering medieval universe is much more like looking at a great building. The “space” of modern astronomy may arouse terror, or bewilderment or vague reverie; the spheres of the old present us with an object in which the mind can rest, overwhelming in its greatness but satisfying in its harmony.’
Throughout this order, the love of God permeated the universe, saturating it with intention and pulsing through it with divine vitality, filling the heavens with light and music – the music of the spheres, which emerged from the harmonic relationship of love between all the celestial bodies, and whose dominant note was the love of God Himself:
‘The “silence” which frightened Pascal was, according to the Model, wholly illusory; and the sky looks black only because we are seeing it through the dark glass of our own shadow. You must conceive yourself looking up at a world lighted, warmed, and resonant with music…
…if you accepted the Medieval Model you would feel like one looking in. The Earth is “outside the city wall”. When the sun is up he dazzles us and we cannot see inside. Darkness, our own darkness, draws the veil, and we catch a glimpse of the high pomps within; the vast, lighted concavity filled with music and life. And, looking in, we do not see, like Meredith’s Lucifer, “the army of unalterable law”, but rather the revelry of insatiable love.’
ibid, pp.112, 119.
The ‘darkness’ that ‘draws the veil’ between us on Earth and the music and light enjoyed by the other spheres was seen to be due to a great frontier that was drawn between the Moon and the Earth, so that in the ‘sub-lunar’ realm we experience doubt, mutability and corruptibility, and are cut off from the great dance of the heavens beyond. The reason therefore, that we do not hear the music of the spheres, is that we are in disharmony – we are out of sync with the rest of the universe. Naturally, although the relationship between medieval cosmology and theology was not actually as close as one might think, this sublunary divide acted as a perfect imaginative sign of our earthly fallenness.
It is in this respect that we may be able to appropriate some of the imagery of this earlier model of the universe for ourselves today. For it is undeniable that the model is a beautiful one – a universe filled with divine intention, light and music created by an interplay of love between the Creator and His creation – and, imaginatively speaking, has much to recommend itself as a means of contemplation. Whilst we may not be able to recover the strict, physical sense of an ordered and harmonic universe, we can still appreciate the sense in which we, due to our fallen natures, are cut off from the fullness of God’s presence in the world.
If we consider ourselves as ‘sublunary’ in that sense, we may be able to see that, whatever model of the universe we have (and they are all provisional, awaiting further clarification or even wholly new theories in the future), there is always more to it than we will be able to perceive, and the Love that fills the universe with life is a fact that can be made more real to us when we affirm God’s vital presence in every element of his creation, despite what our modern inclinations tell us when looking up at the night sky. As Lewis suggests in his book, when walking out under the stars, it is a worthwhile experiment to recognise the limitations that our inevitable separation from the fullness of God places on us, and try to see the universe as medieval people did – filled with light and life, music and love.
In fact, there is a connection between this idea of the spheres filling the heavens with music, and traditional sources of contemplation in Christianity. John Milton, following on from earlier writers, thought of the music of the spheres as the singing of the angels, constantly praising God and echoing their hymns throughout the universe. In Paradise Lost he writes:
Celestial voices to the midnight air
Sole, or responsive to each other’s note
Singing their great creator: oft in bands
While they keep watch, or nightly rounding walk
With heavenly touch of instrumental sounds
In full harmonic number joined, their songs
Divide the night, and lift our thoughts to heaven.
Book IV, 682-688.
Also following an earlier tradition, in his Ode on the Nativity, he envisages the angels’ song to the shepherds (c.f.; Luke 2: ) as a lifting of the veil between us and the rest of the heavens, so that at the birth of Christ, the shepherds were made privy to the music that goes on unheard throughout all creation:
Nature, that heard such sound
Beneath the hollow round
Of Cynthia’s seat the airy region thrilling,
Now was almost won
To think her part was done,
And that her reign had here its last fulfilling;
She knew such harmony alone
Could hold all heaven and earth in happier union.
Furthermore, his At A Solemn Music describes even more precisely the identification of the angelic choir with celestial music, and sin as the cause of our inability to hear it. The point here is that Milton was drawing on an ancient tradition that saw the coming of Christ (and its heralding by the angels) as a breaking through of heavenly harmony into our fallen world, and that this is something we can add to our contemplation today. When we consider the mysteries of Jesus (either joyful or sorrowful) we can meditate on that breaking in of beauty, goodness and truth that we are largely separated from, but which has entered into the world through the Incarnation, and opened a door for us into God’s way of being.
Through Jesus Christ our Lord, we can still hear the music of the spheres, the melody of eternal love, and we have in Him a window onto the ongoing song of praise that, though we may be separated from due to our fallen natures, we may still know with faith continues evermore. One day, God willing, we may hear it too.