C. S. Lewis, from The Discarded Image:
If the reader will suspend his disbelief and exercise his imagination upon it even for a few minutes, I think he will become aware of the vast re-adjustment involved in a perceptive reading of the old poets. He will find his whole attitude to the universe inverted. In modern, that is, in evolutionary, thought Man stands at the top of a stair whose foot is lost in obscurity; in this, he stands at the bottom of a stair whose top is invisible with light.
You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology. Remember that you now have an absolute Up and Down. The Earth is really the centre, really the lowest place; movement to it from whatever direction is downward movement. As a modern, you located the stars at a great distance. For distance you must now substitute that very special, and far less abstract, sort of distance which we call height; height, which speaks immediately to our muscles and nerves. The Medieval Model is vertiginous.
Historically as well as cosmically, medieval man stood at the foot of a stairway; looking up, he felt delight. The backward, like the upward, glance exhilarated him with a majestic spectacle, and humility was rewarded with the pleasures of admiration…. There were friends, ancestors, patrons in every age. One had one’s place, however modest, in a great succession; one need be neither proud nor lonely.
Let’s set aside the question of whether “medieval man” really existed in the way that Lewis suggests — whether this vision was as widely shared as he seems to have thought. Certainly it was the aspiration of many of the greatest thinkers and poets of that era to ground our experience in this sense of the cosmos as a harmonious and coherent structure — one in which (let me stress the point) none of us never need be lonely.
Now I want to move from from that vision through some commonplaces of intellectual history, commonplaces that tend to be used in crassly general ways but remain useful. So: the collapse of this Medieval Model left many people disoriented – “New philosophy calls all in doubt,” as John Donne famously wrote — and that in turn led to a variety of attempts to to tether us to some firmament with cords strong enough to prevent us from floating away and becoming lost in the cosmos. Perhaps we are grounded by our faith in God, or by our belief that we are among God’s Elect; or perhaps we seek a humbler grounding in our understanding that like other human beings we are rational and sociable and can on the basis of those traits construct a modern moral order. But when all of these projects to one degree or another founder, when they fail to gain complete assent, we find ourselves at the outset of what we now call the the Romantic period with a sense of lostness and loneliness.
What I want to emphasize here is the radically divergent ways in which the dominant figures of the Romantic era sought to address that lostness, that loneliness. On the one hand, we have intensely material visions — for instance, the “stately pleasure dome” of Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, “girdled round” with great walls and towers, within which lay “gardens bright with sinuous rills, / Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree.” On the other hand, we also have visions like that of Hegel, in which the material world gives way to Spirit, perfect in its Absolute abstraction. Here, this dome, this tree; there, the universal This. Rival visions of how we might flourish. We need not wander lonely as a cloud because we are grounded, tethered, connected — but connected to what? Aye, that is the question.
I am now describing Adam Roberts’s new novel The This, which, as is usual with Adam, is positively fizzing with ideas, in such a way and to such a degree that any description of it cannot convey its hyper-associative wovenness. So when I say that the contrast I have just described is what the novel is fundamentally about, that is both true and untrue. It’s a novel and not a treatise, a story and not an argument. But still, one important thing the book says to me is that our current mixture of Feels about social media — our excitement at being connected with others and our dread of being absorbed into the Borg — our desire for solidarity and our fear of being coerced into some lockstep collective — our imagining of some near-future Singularity as somehow at once a consummation and an annihilation — all this is an extension of the rival visions of our ancestors of 200 years ago. We are all Romantics now. Still.
And while I think that is correct, I also want to note that Plato saw all this coming a long, long time ago. It is indeed what one of his most famous dialogues is all about. Nobody shows this more vividly than Martha Nussbaum, in her brilliant reading of the Symposium (originally a journal article, reprinted as the sixth chapter of The Fragility of Goodness). Here is how she summarizes the contrast between the (proto-Hegelian) views of Socrates and the earthier Romanticism of Alcibiades:
Socratic knowledge of the good, attained through pure intellect operating apart from the senses, yields universal truths and, in practical choice, universal rules. If we have apprehended the form, we will be in possession of a general account of beauty, an account that not only holds true of all and only instances of beauty, but also explains why they are correctly called instances of beauty, and grouped together. Such understanding, once attained, would take priority over our vague, mixed impressions of particular beautifuls. It would tell us how to see.
The lover’s understanding, attained through the supple interaction of sense, emotion, and intellect … yields particular truths and particular judgments. It insists that those particular intuitive judgments are prior to any universal rules we may be using to guide us. A lover decides how to respond to his or her lover not on the basis of definitions or general prescriptions, but on the basis of an intuitive sense of the person and the situation, which, although guided by general theories, is not subservient to them. This does not mean that their judgments and responses are not rational. Indeed, Alcibiades would claim that a Socratic adherence to rule and refusal to see and feel the particular as such is what is irrational. To have seen that, and how, how, Socrates is like nobody else, to respond to him as such and to act accordingly, is the rational way to behave towards another individual. Nor does it mean that this love neglects the repeatable general features in which Socrates is interested: for Alcibiades sees Socrates’ virtues and is moved by them. But his knowledge sees more, and differently; it is an integrated response to the person as unique a whole.
I think Adam is right to suggest, in The This, that the particular ways we experience this divergence of ideals are highly indebted to (or are simply a continuation of) the Romantic era; but its roots go much deeper. Also, I think Adam and I take the same side in this apparently eternal debate, though with certain differences that I won’t get into here because SPOILERS.
There’s so much more to say about this wonderful book! But I have to stop there. I enjoy all of Adam’s novels, but this is one I’ll be returning to — perhaps on this very blog. Do please read it!