An impotent deity

In an early chapter of C. S. Lewis’s last book, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature, there is a curious passage where Lewis contrasts the medieval concept of “Nature” with earlier pagan deifications of “Nature” as a goddess. Here is the paragraph in full (pp. 38–39):

As long as the concept [of Nature] covers everything, the goddess (who personifies the concept) is necessarily a jejune and inactive deity; for everything is not a subject about which anything of much interest can be said. All her religious, and all her poetic, vitality depends on making her something less than everything. If she is at times the object of real religious feeling in Marcus Aurelius, that is because he contrasts or confronts her with the finite individual – with his own rebellious and recalcitrant self. If in Statius she has moments of poetic life, that is because she is opposed to something better than her self (Pietas) or something worse (the unnatural, such as incest and fratricide). Of course there are philosophical difficulties about this opposing to the goddess Nature things which the concept Nature must certainly include. We may leave Stoics and other Pantheists to get out of this scrape as best they can. The point is that the medieval poets were not in the scrape at all. They believed from the outset that Nature was not everything. She was created. She was not God’s highest, much less His only, creature. She had her proper place, below the Moon. She had her appointed duties as God’s vicegerent in that area. Her own lawful subjects, stimulated by rebel angels, might disobey her and become ‘unnatural’. There were things above her, and things below. It is precisely this limitation and subordination of Nature which sets her free for her triumphant poetical career. By surrendering the dull claim to be everything, she becomes somebody. Yet all the while she is, for the medievals, only a personification. A figurative being on these terms is apparently more potent than a deity really believed in who, by being all things, is almost nothing.

Viewed in this light, the modern concept of Nature appears as a regression to pre-medieval paganism. For the modern, Nature is all. Never mind that we don’t use the term “deity”: all that shows is that we’ve jettisoned the old pagan personification while retaining the pagan concept. Nature is everything, which means everything is Nature; this means we can contrast and confront Nature with nothing above or below her (nothing can be supernatural, or unnatural, if Nature is all and includes all). This, in turn, means Nature is invisible to all evaluation, there being nothing with which to compare her – she is, in short, “almost nothing.”

Of course, in practice it’s not quite so simple. On the modern view of things, human choice is the great rudder by which the ship of Nature shall be steered; one might even go so far as to say we’re Masters of the collective fate. If so, we’re better than anything we profess to believe: our modern creed offers no reason whatever to think of ourselves as anything more than a plank in the ship. Indeed, we can’t even distinguish sea from vessel – for again, the vessel is all, and all is the vessel.

Medieval might be an upgrade.

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