25 February 2008

A Defense of Plato's Metaphysics

I keep forgetting about the old tradition on this blog of announcing what the current author is reading, listening to, and watching. I’ll reinstate it now, and readers are encouraged to do the same and to remind me to keep it up!
Reading: The Discarded Image by C.S. Lewis; Great Expectations by Charles Dickens; The Bridge of San Luis Ray by Thornton Wilder; and The Book that Nobody Read: Chasing the Revolutions of Nicholas Copernicus by Owen Gingerich
Listening to: “Slavonic Dances” by Antonin Dvorâk
Watching(over the course of several days, not all at once!): “Sense & Sensibility”; one of Ioan Gruffudd’s “Horatio Hornblower” episodes; Olivier’s Hamlet, and selections from “La Vita E Bella/Life is Beautiful.”

Now, the second installment in the discussion of Plato’s metaphysics and its attendant problems.

First, a digression. I’m rereading C.S. Lewis’s The Discarded Image, which is the posthumously published volume he developed from his lectures introducing Medieval and Renaissance Literature. I finally have enough background information and a well-developed mechanism of appreciation to be able to read and love this book. It is full of many thrills for me now that it did not have on a first reading years ago. I have been learning much from this book, and look forward to learning more—and to being pointed down many other, related, paths of knowledge. One interesting mental development The Discarded Image has set in motion has to do with Platonism. I always knew that my Christian Platonism came via Lewis; what I didn’t fully realize was how thoroughly his own came from the Medievals, not from Plato—though of course CSL was well read in Plato. But that’s part of the point: the Medievals were not well read in Plato, but only in brief little bits in translation and in the even longer [misinterpreting] commentaries on those bits. Thus the Christian neo-Platonism I hold so dear is really just that: Christian, neo-Platonism—not Platonism proper. By the time it reached me (classes in Classical philosophy notwithstanding; those came after my impressionable immersion in The Silver Chair, The Last Battle, and The Great Divorce), it was Lewis’s re-interpretation of the Medievals’ reinterpretation of Chalcidius’s (and others’) mis-interpretation of the ancient neo-Platonists explication of Plato’s recorded interpretation of Socrates’ doctrine of the Forms—which is only a small part of his totalizing system, by the way!!! —many removes from anything like an original. And I’ve done my fair share of reinterpreting it along the way, too. See this earlier discussion, and this, on a couple of ancient posts. So, I’ll end this long digression by saying that the Christian neo-Platonism I love is really some lovely perversion of pure Platonism, so perhaps my defense will tend more towards my own version, not Plato’s.

Let us now turn to that defense. Here is the assignment for my students, and my request to all other readers. Please read over the problems we raised in the previous metaphysical posting, and try to “solve” at least one. You may be able to do this by suggesting ways that Platonism has been misunderstood or reinterpreted—or by offering your own reinterpretations that better stand up to the sorts of criticism offered last time. Let us stand up and shout in favour of the World of Pure Forms!

1. Problem one: Whose Ideas are these? And if they are God’s Ideas, and if God is Pure Intellectual Immaterial Form, how is it possible for human beings to enjoy any union with Him?
My Christian answer is simply that the Ideas are God’s ideas, and that the Incarnation is an historical and spiritual reality that bridged the gap between immaterial and material, spiritual and mortal. However, there are some other aspects that are perhaps more philosophically pure that I would like to offer. First of all, most thinkers would admit that a human being must consist of something more than the sum of his/her physical parts. Reason/rationality is awfully close to something “spiritual” or at least extra-material. Thought cannot be completed explained by its constituent chemical processes. The truly materialist view that human beings have no soul, no non-material components, is at least as logically unsatisfactory as the view that they do have souls! So even without considering the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation, there is a logical basis for postulating some connection between human beings and any existing immaterial beings, since we ourselves have some extra-material part. Then, if an extra-natural or supernatural being is postulated to exist, and to exist in potential connection to His creatures, then why wouldn’t He have created those material beings and realities according to Ideas in His mind? Indeed, how else does a creator (or subcreator) create?

2. Problem two I think is really one of semantics: Why aren’t shadows “real”? They are real shadows, aren’t they?
Well, sure, shadows are real shadows. But readers must remember that the “Allegory of the Cave” is an allegory. Plato (or Socrates, depending on how exact the account is) had to think of experiences his audience had had, and use those as symbols in his story. It seemed natural for him to use a bonfire to symbolize the physical sun, since a bonfire gives out light and heat, as does the sun, and yet is chilly and dim compared to the “real” sun—which introduces a confusion that I an probably countless other teachers have tried to iron out for our students—which symbolizes the Form of the Good in the “world outside the cave,” the Intellectual World. So Plato clearly couldn’t think of something in our material world that is less than real (since every reality meets its own conditions for real existence as the thing it is), so he chose something that easily lends itself to use as a symbol of unreality. A shadow seems less real than the object that casts it. A man’s shadow seems far less real than the man himself. So it made a good literary symbol. I don’t think we need to get hung up on this problem as much as the next.

3. Problem three was sort of a problem of semantics, but I believe is something more. I’ll just restate part of it here. “In the allegory, the firelight (symbolizing the physical sun) is falling on objects, which cast shadows (symbolizing all physical objects you have ever seen) on the wall of the cave. What do the objects symbolize? If they symbolize manifestations of the forms, that messes up the allegory. If the symbolize some kind of secondary form of the form, that doesn’t work.”
This is a fundamental enough problem that I will let other readers chime in before I offer any thoughts of my own. So, please, tackle this one!

4. Historically, Platonism has tended to denigrate physicality: a mixture of Platonism and Christianity may have contributed to negative attitudes towards the body.
Yes, that’s true. This has happened. However, we must not toss out a theory or doctrine just because it has been abused. Every theory or doctrine has been abused! So the more important question is whether it’s really an abuse, or a natural outcome of the theory—or whether we can “baptize” the theory to avoid that abuse. I do believe that Plato’s full teaching does include denigration of the body; however I also believe that Christians can baptize it [have baptized it, through the chain I outlined in the digression above]. That is to say, Christians and really anybody can be neo-Platonists who affirm the worth of the body here and now, and look forward to a multi-dimensionsal, embodied, unimaginably physical and metaphysical and spiritual existence in the future. If food tastes good now, just wait for heaven! If a refreshing breeze and a bubble bath and a backrub and a kiss and a long workout feel good now, just imagine what they’ll feel like in our perfect Heavenly bodies! Wow. As Rosie pointed out: Jesus’ resurrection body ate food, but also walked through walls! I think that’s a pretty good hint of what our “pure form” bodies will be able to do, don’t you? So again: this is not pure Platonism, but I personally believe it’s better than the original: better, and more biblical.

5. The other side of problem #4 is the simple postponement of full existence into some afterlife. Christians are accused of this, too: we’re just waiting for Heaven so we don’t live fully now.
So take the above answer and flip it upside-down. Just because heaven will be better doesn’t mean we’re not living here now and can’t/won’t/shouldn’t live to the fullest. Just because I might be having a feast at a friend’s house on the weekend doesn’t mean I won’t eat all week! Just because my husband and I might go on a date on the weekend doesn’t mean I won’t hug him when he comes home every evening. Besides, it’s unclear to me just how much of this current physical existence will carry over into the afterlife, and/or just how they will be related. I remember a sermon I read in a literature textbook as a kid, called “What are they now doing in Heaven?” It was beautiful, and it speculated , in inspiring terms, that the people in heaven were doing just whatever they loved to do on earth, only so much more! Explorers were thrilled to find endless expanses and limitless labyrinths they could never exhaust, but could eternally explore. Musicians were singing, painters were painting with perfect materials and unsullied imaginations, and so on. It was beautiful! And I remember a conversation with my Dad, in which we speculated that in Heaven we would all “suffer” from a kind of exalted synesthesia, in which we would all see music and smell colors and taste textures and so on, and see the entire range of light beyond the currently visual spectrum, and maybe have X-ray vision, and on and on and on. So in that case, this life is just the first chapter of that life, but not a separate one.

6. In the broader context of The Republic and Plato’s other writings, the Allegory of the Cave had a classist, sexist, and racist application. It seems that only highly educated, privileged, and presumably Greek men are granted the leisure to live a life of contemplation and thus to rise to the highest level of existence.
Well, surely, this is the first element of Plato’s thought that we moderns just chuck out the window. But I’d like to hear your thoughts on it before I begin ranting.

And here are some other problems readers submitted.

Rosie wrote:
1. I think [Platonism] undercuts the freedom and dignity God gives us in actually creating new things out of our own imaginations if we say that the "idea" for these things existed in some other realm (God's mind) prior to our thinking them up, and we are simply taking a stab at it in a poor attempt at copying the original.
2. It denies the uniqueness and individuality of species and instances of things….There is goodness in the particularity of things that exist in the created world. To idealize the "forms" of these things takes away from their realness and substantiality.
1. would we not be accusing God of making less than perfect creations, considering that only one model is a perfect form?
2. if in Gods mind is the perfect image of any form…. and he knows that no man is perfect and cannot reach perfection alone… then by giving us the knowledge of such a form, would he not be setting us up as failures, never being able to reach the perfect/complete destination of the product?
[Oh, and by the way, Darlin, Plato’s theory applies to concepts as well as concrete objects, but abstract concepts, in his thought, can come closer to the “real” forms, because the forms are Ideas (capital I), so ideas (small i) are less flawed, because they do not take a shape through matter.]

1. How did the guy get free? It said he “was set free”, but by who[m]? Or what? Knowledge? But wouldn’t that knowledge be flawed to[o], because we derive knowledge from observations, and those observations will be flawed because the things we observe are nothing more than imperfect forges of the original?
2. What make the “real” objects any more “real” than the shadows? They both exist, don’t they? Why do we assume that because we knew the shadow first and then saw the flower that the flower is more real? Who’s to say that maybe there isn’t some sort of double mirror effect going on, or something else that would make the shadows real, and the object just a copy?
3. What if there’s a more “real” world than the outside world? I mean, if we have lamps and the sun in this imperfect world, couldn’t there be levels similar to this in the “real world”?
[N.B. C.S. Lewis uses this concept in The Great Divorce, in which the entire action takes place only on the “Plain of Heaven,” not in Deep Heaven—suggesting that all of his amazingly real, hard, solid, colored objects would themselves be weak, fragile, and pale when compared to the things in “Real” Heaven, just as the things on earth are weak, etc., compared to those on the plain.]
4. Why would we believe in the “real world”? …finding out something is false will make some people believe that now they are truly seeing, and will make others believe that nothing can ever be known for sure, that everything is a lie. Some people once duped believe the very next version of the truth presented, while others disbelieve all truth once duped.
5. I think that besides the physical bodies we possess, we have minds that can think and process information, and a soul that can feel things. What if each of those things that make us a self (physical bodies, soul, and mind) is just an imperfect copy of each part of the trinity of God? By that, I mean, what if God is THE SELF, and each of us is an imperfect copy of Him, would our body, mind, and soul correlate to a different part of the trinity? …That would explain however why God says we are made in His image.


1. Who can be "enlightened"?
2. How did Plato know that he was fully enlightened? Doesn’t that defeat the logic; I mean the people inside the cave didn’t know they were missing anything, when the one man came out how did he know that he wasn’t missing anything?
3. [If Plato thought he was enlightened, why?] Was it because he was a male and a Greek philosopher? If it was then isn't "enlightenment" somewhat superficial and available for only a select few.
4. If I found out that everything I ever believed to be realities were, in fact, just shadows of realities I would certainly question these new and “real” realities. How would I know that there was not something even more “real” out there? How would I know if the realities I was seeing now weren’t just more detailed “shadows”?
5. Why was just one man “enlightened”?
6. It Plato's cave allegory, the man who broke free from the chains, did anyone help him? Or was it fate? If it was fate, then there is no need for knowledge…If no one helped him up from the bottom of the cave, if no one broke his chains for him then no one taught him. So in a way, Plato seems to be taking teaching out of knowledge.
7. If I showed you a shadow and said plate when the shadow came up on the back of the wall would you know what it was or what it was for? With only a dark outline and a mixture of sounds to create the word would you know what it was? If you had no former knowledge? Is Plato portraying some form of instinct that is above and beyond animal instinct?

So, I throw the field open to your discussions. Enjoy!

23 February 2008

Planet Narnia follow-up

In an earlier post, I reviewed Dr. Michael Ward’s new book, Planet Narnia. Since then, I have heard Michael speak twice and have enjoyed lively conversation with him about his astronomical discovery, both in person and via email. He was kind enough to take the time to respond to my review, so now I would like to summarize and answer his responses here. But please, dear reader, do not read this post without reading my previous one that praises this book, or else you’ll get the wrong impression! And there are detailed posts on the Oxford Inklings blog about each planet: here is the first of the series. And here is Dr. Ward's homepage. Also, keep an eye out from my review articles in Stillpoint, the alumni magazine of Gordon College, and in Sehnsucht, the new C. S. Lewis Journal edited by Grayson Carter. And above all, read the book!

1. I said that “Ward claims that Lewis was intentionally keeping it secret, and would probably lie to you even if you drew the circle, kindled the blue fire, and called up his unquiet ghost.” Well, I should be more careful. Ward doesn’t claim that Lewis would lie. However, Ward does claim that Lewis was intentionally keeping the planetary secret, and purposefully steered conversations in another direction if they came dangerously close to discovering his hidden theme. For example, Lewis told his former student Charles Wrong that he “had to write three volumes, of course, or seven, or nine. These are the magic numbers.” (Ward 13, quoting Charles Wrong, “A Chance Meeting,” in James T. Como, ed, C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences. London: Collins, 1980. 113). Ward writes, “I suspect that Lewis was deflecting Wrong from asking questions about this [planetary] idea” (Ward 14). Roger Lancelyn Green, once Lewis’s student and then a life-long friend and literary companion, recounts that the two of them “planned a story of a trip to Mercury—but couldn’t get very far with it.” Ward interprets this to mean that Lewis “was anxious not to pursue the theme because it would have involved constant avoidance of his own recent attempt to write a story [The Horse and His Boy] which had the Mercurial characters as its hidden inner meaning” (Ward 152, quoting Green & Hooper’s biography, London: HarperCollins, 2002. 310). Ward cites other times when Jack either told lies or deliberately held back the truth; he lied to his father about his relationship with Mrs. Moore (before he became a Christian) and didn’t tell even some of his closest friends about his civil marriage to Joy. On page 14 Ward says that Lewis was “laying a false trail (or at any rate, a trail that was not completely dependable)” whenever he talked about his inspiration for or meanings in the Narniad. And I know there’s one other place in which Ward relates something Lewis wrote about Narnia, then discusses whether Lewis was mistaken or just telling “a little white lie.” But now I cannot find that place in the book!! If I find it, I’ll come back and add it.

And let me just say here that this really doesn’t matter! I’m not accusing Lewis of the sin of deception. He might very well find some clever way to steer any curious questioners away from the topic, as he did with Green and others. That’s part of his playful personality.

On the other hand, maybe Lewis would be thrilled that someone has at last discovered the secret and can explain all those hidden depths.

Or maybe there’s another reading altogether. My husband thinks that perhaps Lewis was not keeping a secret at all. Rather, Lewis could have been so deeply immersed in the Medieval Model of the Universe that he just couldn’t stop writing about it (he wrote about it with increasing subtlety in his scholarship, fiction, and poetry) and so just decided to try writing stories in which only he knew about the planetary idea. No so much that he was hiding this meaning, but that he was trying a literary experiment for his own sake, not for anyone else’s. Maybe he just wanted to see what would happen if he put himself into a “Jovial” frame of mind and wrote a story from that mental place—and wasn’t either keeping it a secret or hoping anybody would discover it. That’s a thought to consider, anyway!

2. I asserted that Ward’s argument was “totally unverifiable and …enjoys its own un-verifiability as a features of its intentional secrecy.” I also say that it employs “circular reasoning that results from almost exclusive reliance on Lewis’s own writing.” Well, I should now clarify, now that Michael and I have discussed this. He pointed out to me that there is good circularity and bad circularity. There’s reason that is fallaciously circular, such as, oh, I don’t know, such as dating the age of a rock based on what layer of sediment it’s found in, and dating the age of the sediment based on the types of rocks that are found in it. But then there’s reasoning that completes the circle. Ward’s reasoning completes the circle: Lewis loved the planets (which is verifiable in his scholarly work) and described them in a certain way, with certain characteristics. Now look at each of the Narnia chronicles; each one displays the set of characteristics that Lewis associated with one planet, so therefore he must have designed those books to match up to the planets. So that is not fallacious reasoning; it’s just complete. And Michael pointed out to me that whenever he can he breaks out of that kind of circularity and subjects the argument to other sorts of tests. For example, he reproduces a page of the unpublished typescript of The Silver Chair, in which Lewis called Father Time “the god Saturn.” Michael went on to say to me, “Because the typescript is not within the ring of Lewis's published works and he didn't know that it would ever become public, I think this counts as extra-circular.” I agree.

And in response to my claim that the theory is unverifiable, Ward pointed out to me that although (of course) we cannot simply ask Lewis if this is what he meant, we have the only and the best proof available: the texts themselves. If I, as a literary scholar, do not believe that I can prove or disprove a theory by looking at the evidence of the text itself, I’m not only in trouble as an English teacher and literary critic, but as a Christian. If we cannot know what a text means, then we cannot know what God has said to us in His written word.

Tangent: Which is the danger of nominalism and deconstructionism, neither of which I understand thoroughly enough to discuss further here, but whose effects I have felt personally in my secular literary studies. They also pose exciting challenges and interpretive adventures, but that’s another story.

So now I need to either retract or rephrase my objection. I choose (from sheer stubbornness or true conviction, or both) to rephrase it. I will now say that Ward’s theory is self-validating. It goes something like this: “Lewis wanted to keep this planetary theme a secret, so the very fact that there is no proof is itself proof, since that proves Lewis wanted to hide the theme.” Hum. Now, let me anticipate two quite valid objections to my assertion of self-validation. First, Ward tries to get out of that circle whenever he can, too. He cites two hints that Lewis dropped about a hidden meaning. One was to Charles Wrong, when Lewis said he “happened to have an idea he wanted to try out, and by now, having worked it out to the full [after 7 books], he did not plan to write any more” ((Ward 13, quoting Charles Wrong, “A Chance Meeting,” in James T. Como, ed, C.S. Lewis at the Breakfast Table and Other Reminiscences. London: Collins, 1980. 113). The other was to William Kinter, who had suggested that Lewis’s books could be arranged like a cathedral. Lewis thought this was an excellent metaphor, and wrote back, “I’d make Miracles and the other ‘treatises’ the cathedral school: my children’s stories are the real side-chapels, each with its own little altar” (Ward 236, quoting Letters vol. III, 28 March 1953). Ward takes these hints to mean, first, that Lewis’s secret idea needed seven books for full expression, and, second, that each is in service of its own god (as it were) and then those gods “serve” Christ by representing Him; if the entire series were just “about Christ” in some simple sense, why would there be seven separate altars?

So there again Ward breaks out of the self-validating circularity. And the second logical objection to my accusation that it’s a self-validating argument, you could say, “So what?” I’m no logician, but there doesn’t seem to be anything fallacious about a self-validating argument per se: I’m just suspicious of it. The skeptic in me says that if something is too tidy to be true, it probably isn’t true.

On this point, Michael wrote to me: “Lewis says… that we accept the Incarnation as the central passage of history because it explains so many things; even though it introduces certain new problems we still accept it as true because of its explanatory power in other areas. In short, it's a paradigm shift: it 'saves the appearances' better than the old explanation. The tidier it is, the more we would be likely to accept it.” Perhaps another way of looking at this is through Occam’s razor: If we know Lewis was a skillful writer (which we do), and we know that the Narnia books seem superficially disorganized or like a hodge-podge (which many have argued that they do), then the simplest explanation is that there is an underlying skillful organization that we’ve missed. And Ward’s theory is the most coherent reading in favor of coherence that has yet appeared—and it is simply to assume that Ward is right than to imagine that the 7 books accidentally happen to match up to the planets or (as somebody suggested to me in conversation) that God divinely ordered the books this way without Lewis’s conscious knowledge or participation!!!

If there’s no way to disprove an argument, because disproof is in itself a proof, I get kind of squirrelly and think there must be some sleight-of-hand going on that my slow eyes aren’t quick enough to catch.

But this probably says more about why I am not an apologist than it does about whether or not Ward’s theory is correct! And Ward doesn’t really use disproof as proof; he just points out that is it what one would expect (as he kindly pointed out to me in an email just now!) So let’s move on.

3. I said, “[Ward] boldly claims that the burden of proof now rests on those who would suggest his reading is wrong.” Well, he doesn’t exactly do that. On page 215 he says that his “interpretation seems to me to account for so many things that I would even dare to suggest that the burden of proof now rests with those who would dispute it.” So there’s still that rather endearing humility (dare to suggest). So that’s nice. And I don’t have any proof to offer that he could be wrong, and have no desire to do so, since I love this reading!

4. I made a very clumsy and unintelligible attempt to communicate something that I’ll try to say with more clarity now. This refers back to the whole self-validating thing. Here goes. I’ll try to outline the steps as I go. First, Ward shows that Lewis conceived of the planets in a certain way (in his poems and scholarship, primarily). Each planet, for Lewis, had a certain personality. Then in the Narniad those characteristics show up rather neatly in the seven books, each where it should be. However (here’s the point I was trying to make), this does not prove that Lewis’s understand of the planets was really accurate to either the Classical or Medieval understanding. In the mythological-astrological system, for example, was Jove/Jupiter a king a rest, taking his leisure, serene? Wasn’t he a god of thunderbolts and irrational rages, the perpetrator of a chain of violent rapes? So is Lewis re-interpreting the deities for his own theological purposes, or did the Middle Ages already do that? In other words, in Planet Narnia almost all of the reader’s information about the planets comes from Lewis himself and not from his sources. But that would be beyond the book, and I also objected that Ward tries to do too many things in one book! I guess my only concern is for the theological integrity of the planetary reading. If Lewis appropriated only what he wanted to from the pre-Copernican system, as far as spiritual symbols, and left out or ignored the unharmonious elements, it seems that perhaps these omissions could damage the Kappa element he wanted to convey. If Lewis was creating a new closed system (he own reinterpretation of the Ptolemaic cosmology), well and good; if he’s trying to use the old system and failing to do so, that’s a problem. But Ward did not need to address this question of how accurately Lewis used the planets; that’s something I’ll gradually investigate on my own.

5. So then, I said that “that Planet Narnia would have been a better book had it been more focused. Ward [is]… trying to do too many things at once.” I suggested that the chapter on Elizabeth Anscombe (not Margaret, as I erroneously said earlier) could have been left out. Michael did not want to leave out that chapter, because members of his audience are constantly wondering how he can make his planetary claim when Lewis made clear that he only set out to write one Narnia book. The Anscombe chapter explains this. But I still think that Michael could have left out that chapter, published its contents as articles elsewhere, and shared its solution verbally in talks when asked. That’s just my opinion.

But I hate to leave this post with the flavour of objection in the mouth! This post is just an attempt to stimulate discussion and debate, not to criticize Ward or his beautiful theory. I’m reading The Discarded Image right now and beginning an investigation of the reception history of the heliocentric model, and these two related studies have convinced me more than ever. In my article for Stillpoint, I list five reasons that Planet Narnia is invaluable; I’ll summarize them here.

First, as Michael says in his last chapter, this reading gives Lewis scholars a new set of lenses for studying the chronicles.
Second, Ward’s reading, with its astrological aspect, might be fascinating to a whole new potential audience of non-Christians.
Third, if you’ve ever suspected that something profound was going on beneath the surface of the Narnia chronicles, Ward’s reading tells you you were right, and reveals what that “something profound” is! It’s very exciting; as thrilling to me as the first time I read the series (in published order) and found out where the wood for the wardrobe came from (which is one of the strongest moments of sehnsucht I remember from my childhood).
Fourth, kids love this reading. My students, ranging in age from 10 to 18, have had a lot of fun matching up planets with books.
Fifth, Planet Narnia came out at just the right time, culturally speaking. Young people and adults are addicted to fantasy stories and movies, and “The Golden Compass” with all its attendant conversational/worldview trappings has just been released as a film. “Prince Caspian” will be in the theatres in May. More Harry Potter, Inheritance, and The Dark is Rising movies are due out soon. So this reading is well-timed, and I hope will be long discussed, analyzed, and appreciated.

And I want to close on a personal note. I’ve been pondering what to do for any future literary studies, for years now. I always thought it would be “something with the Romantics,” but have not come up with an original line of research. I love the Romantics, but they’re a little too slippery for me. So I have a big question (actually a series of questions) that I’d like to answer, and Ward’s study has pretty much confirmed for me that this is the direction I will take in my future research, if possible. These are the questions that I would like to answer, in detail:
1. How long did it take Copernicus’s (and Kepler’s, and Galileo’s) “Revolution” to reach England?
2. How long before the common man accepted the heliocentric model of the universe?
3. How did the Anglican church respond? Did they consider this theory heresy? If so, how long before it became Orthodoxy?
Then, once I’ve discovered the answers to those question, I’d get down to the literary gritty:
4. How did English poets respond?
5. How long did it take before they wrote with certainty within the heliocentric model?
6. What did the new science do to them, imaginatively?
7. Did they feel relieved, now that they were freed from the “anxiety” of Dante’s “influence,” since he was arguably the greatest writer in the new model?
8. Or did they feel afraid, personally and poetically, of the great emptiness and asymmetry of the new model?

Those are my ideas! I’d love feedback.

01 February 2008

Planet Narnia Review

You are invited to meet the author of Planet Narnia and to hear him discuss his hermetic reading! Read this earlier post for details. If you’re interested, you can also read my previous short review. There are detailed posts on the Oxford Inklings blog about each planet: here is the first of the series. And here is Dr. Ward's homepage.

“The Heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” Psalm 19:1-4a.

Building on the premise that the Heavenly bodies do indeed speak eloquently of God’s glory, and that C. S. Lewis quite brilliantly coded that speech into fantasy in The Chronicles of Narnia, Dr. Ward piles brick on brick of intuition, quotation, association, and application to persuade the skeptics of the accuracy of his new reading. I first heard Dr. Ward speak back in the summer of 2006, and I was instantly both a fan and a skeptic. His theory about the reason for seven Chronicles of Narnia is fascinating, beautiful, and—so I thought—implausible. But since Dr. Ward was a very compelling speaker, I bought the book.

So now I have finished reading Planet Narnia, and would like to offer some responses and evaluative thoughts. I’m just about convinced. I’m not 100% convinced, for reasons discussed below, but I’m probably 95% convinced. And I agree with Alan Jacob’s comment on the back of the book, that if Dr. Ward is wrong, it doesn’t even matter, because his reading is completely lovely, plausible, useful, scholarly, and thorough. He seems to write from inside of C. S. Lewis’s head, thinking Lewis's thoughts after him, quoting from all Lewis’s works easily and naturally, tying together apparently unrelated elements. His memory is enormous, his scholarship admirable, his writing clear and organized, his theory fresh and compelling.
While researching for a doctoral dissertation on Lewis, Ward began to suspect that each of the seven Narnia books matched up to one of the seven planets (according to pre-Copernican astronomy). After four years of studying all of Lewis’s works, he decided that Lewis had intentionally structured his children’s fiction that way. Planet Narnia, then, is an interesting mixture of careful scholarship and exciting mystery tale. Each chapter describes the character of one of the planets according to how it appears in Lewis’s professional writings, poetry, and the “Space” trilogy. Then he goes on to explain how one of the Narnia books matches up to that planet. And, not to keep you in suspense, here’s a list:
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe—Jupiter/Jove
Prince Caspian—Mars
The Voyage of the Dawn Treader—the Sun/Sol
The Silver Chair—the Moon/Luna
The Horse and His Boy—Mercury
The Magician’s Nephew—Venus
The Last Battle—Saturn
Besides just presenting the personality of the planets in these seven books, Ward claims, Lewis also used each planet as an emblem of certain aspects of Jesus Christ, and shaped Aslan’s appearances in each book to emphasize the different roles Jesus has played in history and in the lives of Christians by means of planetary metaphors.

If Ward is right, and I think he probably is, he has just proven that the Narnia Chronicles are even more complex and well-crafted than anybody ever suspected. He has revealed new depths to Lewis’s imagination and new associations in his theology. Perhaps most importantly, he has shown that the realm of Narnia is a consistent, self-containing, theologically profound, ideologically ingenious world worthy to stand as Philip Pullman’s valid rival. Indeed, if Ward is right (and I hope he is!), then all of Pullman’s criticisms of Narnia are wrong, and Lewis’s own writing escapes from all of the narrative and polemic faults that plague His Dark Materials. But we suspected that all along, yes?

I hope that you are intrigued and fascinated, and that you rush out to buy this book right away! It’s available on amazon, and you can even get it used.

But let me just give you a heads-up: if this book persuades you that Narnia, as a subcreated work of genius, is without flaws, well, Planet Narnia is not. There are a few pretty serious problems with the logic that underpins this book.

First of all, there’s what we literary critics like to call the “intentional fallacy.” Granted, not all critics agree that’s it fallacious to make a claim about authorial intention, but lots see that it’s tendentious at best, completely un-provable at worst. We can’t go and ask Lewis if this theory is right, because he’s dead. And Ward claims that Lewis was intentionally keeping it secret, and would probably lie to you even if you drew the circle, kindled the blue fire, and called up his unquiet ghost! Which I definitely do not recommend. Anyhow, it’s a little coy to make up a theory that’s totally unverifiable and that kinds of enjoys its own un-verifiability as a features of its intentional secrecy. But Ward is absolutely convinced himself that this is not a theory, it’s manifestly the work of Lewis, and his proofs are so well organized and so many that it’s hard to disagree. Plus, he has a rather endearing humility throughout the book about being the lucky fellow who stumbled about this reading—until the end, when he boldly claims that the burden of proof now rests on those who would suggest his reading is wrong. Another self-supporting, unverifiable claim, perhaps?

Secondly, there’s a kind of circular reasoning that results from almost exclusive reliance on Lewis’s own writing. It goes like this: CSL says in The Discarded Image that such-and-such a planet had these characteristics, and in “The Planets” poem he uses these phrases, and in this Chronicle he uses those characteristics and those phrases or their associated images, so therefore he is modeling this Chronicle after that planet. Sure, this might prove that the planetary ideas were essential Lewis, and it might even prove that the Narnia chronicles were designed to follow the Medieval schema, but it doesn’t prove that they are modeled after the Medieval planets themselves. Of course, Ward didn’t set out to criticize how well Lewis presented the planets, just to convince us that he did. But I for one would have enjoyed a history of each planet: it’s original identification with a god or goddess, the development of its individual personality, its absorption into the Roman Catholic worldview as a perfectly acceptable astrological science, and so on. Maybe Ward will have to write seven more books, one on each of the planets!!

And third, I believe that Planet Narnia would have been a better book had it been more focused. Ward seems to suffer from the totalizing urge: trying to do too many things at once. It’s not enough to show that each book matches up to a planet: he has to go on and show how Aslan matches up in each book, and how the Chronicles as a whole were a response to Margaret Anscombe’s debate, and how all of those things really fit together into one extremely complex whole. Whew! It’s kind of exhausting. I think Ward should have left out the whole Anscombe idea and saved it for an article or another book.

But on the whole, this book is extremely valuable and interesting. It gives literary critics and rabid Lewis fans a new way to read the Chronicles. It adds another field of interest for non-Christians to appreciate Narnia (I wonder if I should send this book to my astrologist Aunt?). It a level of complexity that proves Narnia is not just for kids, but at the same time kids find it really fun to match up the planets. I’ve had my students do that; those in the 10-14 year old range enjoyed that matching game the best. And this study is quite relevant for current trends in literary criticism (studying works historically for their contexts and predecessors) and popular media (the Narnia movies). Indeed, I wish the media would listen up a bit and incorporate some of Ward’s idea on imagery into the movies. And I hope Philip Pullman reads Planet Narnia!

February Poem of the Month

A Barren Mind
In response to “Beachy Head” by Charlotte Smith

I have no rock sublime on which to stand
And ponder God’s creative act, no sky
High-flung for millions of miles above
My head, no stars in sacred orbitals,
Indeed, no nature anywhere. Instead,
An asphalt carpet alienates my feet
And cardboard, concrete dolls’ dilapidated
Warehouse hallways frame my bedlam blues.

Besides, had I a symphony of stone,
A full-voice choir—sixteen parts—of planets,
A landscape fit for painting in my head:
I would not sing an ex nihilo song.
Not I. Why ponder on beginnings, fiat,
When what’s made is burgeoning to bursting
In your brain, when you have spoken worlds
In words and lined the universe with rhyme?
No such stuff is in my thoughts. I think
About the other end: the end, finis,
When rocks and sky collide and stars confide
Their last lamentings to their empty space,
When cliffs invert and valleys leap, when views
Of vivid beauty say what they have meant,
When I am severed from my mortal me,
Released from urban’s smogged humanity.
What then? Why then, the terror closes in.
That’s when the finite opens up, that’s when
Both speed and distance multiply the dark.
There is a void. The endlessness is fear.
Like waves with curling wave-tips, without sand;
Like pebbles falling, never hitting ground;
Like echoes shouted, never coming back:
A soul untethered, ricochet, rebound,
A boomerang of self without a source.

Out there the longings turn to nakedness.
No images of white clouds, castled lands,
Auriferous streets, and music visible
Have any commerce with the horror there.
Picnickers ignore all haunted caves.
But caves are vortexes, and swallow sun,
Swallow themselves, swallow the swallowing,
Make dizzy my desires in a shriek.

The problem is a three-dimensioned mind.
Shapes devoid of sides can only leer
So what do I expect out there? Somewhere
Where words like where are points without a plane—
Or all is plane, and plain, and points the way—
There’s light. There must be light, because the dark
Is very dark indeed, so dark I cannot see
Beyond itself and therefore think it’s all.
It could be all. What I don’t believe
Could very well be just the thing I feel.

~ Admonit