Why You Need C.S. Lewis's Historical Imagination

Though we tend to think of it as a single entity, C.S. Lewis had a more robust understanding of the functions of the imagination. He identified more than thirty embodiments or nuances. Similarly, the Eskimo or Innuit have 50 different ways to understand snow. Matsaaruti describes wet snow that can be used to ice a sleigh’s runners and pukak for the powdery snow that looks like salt. An understanding of sea ice is even richer, with 70 terms including utuqaq, ice that lasts year after year, siguliaksraq, a patchwork layer of crystals that forms as the sea begins to freeze or auniq, ice that is filled with holes.[1] We can imagine also that those living in desert areas might have a nuanced understanding of sand, or those flying planes might require different ways to describe air currents.

One of these distinctions is what Lewis termed the historical imagination. This use enables us to reawaken to or recover the essence of the art or literature of a particular historical period by imaginatively inserting ourselves into the experience of the time and inhabiting it as a native would, as if its worldviews and assumptions were true.

But problems arise as we begin to think about enacting this recovery. Our access to the past is restricted. Between the present and any near or far distant historical time stretches an unassailable chasm of worldviews, thought-patterns, philosophical, scientific and religious beliefs, socio-behavioral structures and more to which we no longer give credence. Our contemporary knowledge base renders much of the past understandings of the world obsolete de facto, or so we think. How do we truly inhabit the past without understanding all that separates us from it? To bridge the chasm, divesting ourselves of our modern understandings seems a foolhardy if not impossible task.

And yet, and yet . . . everything in the past has contributed to make us in some measure everything we currently are. Lewis writes that “humanity does not pass through phases as a train passes through stations: being alive, it has the privilege of always moving yet never leaving anything behind. Whatever we have been, in some sort we are still.”[1] He also presents us with the darkly intriguing thought that things don’t pass away “without leaving indelible traces on our minds.”[2] Even so, there is still that chasm between the past and us. Lewis offers a solution to bridge this gap.

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 feelwith his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism, and his gallantries. . . 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.[3]

Lewis admonishes us to plunge right in, “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.”[4] Though quoted in the context of Milton’s Paradise Lost, I believe Lewis would extend this understanding to any work of art or literature. It is the primary reason why he wrote A Preface to Paradise Lost, The Allegory of Love, and The Discarded Image. These works of the historical imagination enable us to plunge right in to Milton’s poem, the love poetry of the Middle ages or Spenser’s The Faerie Queene by giving us background on the historical period which each one details. This allows us to approach the works with understanding and sympathy, regardless of whether or not the science is accurate or the religious beliefs are pagan. It also begins the process of enabling us to approach works of art without imposing our current worldview on them. We might even think of these works as travel guidebooks. The point is never that in order to understand, we must agree with or embrace the ideas of a certain time.

I think the metaphor of travel can be usefully applied to further understand and define the historical imagination. We have already seen how humanity moves ever onward without leaving anything behind.  To this I would add two ways, outlined by Lewis, in which we can enjoy the past. Here is the first:

Firstly, consider an English gentleman who travels to another country, staying at hotels that are like English hotels, complaining of tea that doesn’t measure up to English standards, and gathering with other English tourists. So it is in literature, if a man brings his modernity to bear on everything he reads. He only looks and sees the bits that resemble his own time.[5]

The second way is likened to the sort of traveling where one drinks the local drinks and eats the local food and consorts with the natives, seeing what their life is like from their own point of view, and returning from a journey with altered opinions and feelings. So it would be with older literature. It would require you to immerse yourself in the era, studying other works that describe the period to shine light on the literature you are reading. But Lewis holds up a cautionary finger. What may happen if you adopt this approach is that you will come to understand that your first reading of a historical work was not really historically accurate, but was modern insofar as you constructed it yourself out of modern preconceptions that you brought to the work? [6]

Many, if not all of us, approach historical works of art this way. Unless we intentionally study to understand what those who live in these times really thought and believed, we will never achieve the type of travel that allows us to consort with the natives. It is difficult work. To attempt to understand these principles, I read Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost, followed immediately by Paradise Lost. Though Lewis’s knowledge was helpful in enabling me to understand the text from a different perspective than I would have brought without it, I felt no sense of immersion, nor much awareness of the medieval scholastic to be found in Mark Neal, to borrow from Lewis’s image. And yet Lewis feels that it is vital for us to make the effort through an intense and disciplined effort of our imaginations. He writes that “we want to know—therefore, as far as may be, we want to live through for ourselves—the experience of men long dead.”[7] We achieve this through the second mode of travel described earlier.

Why this strenuous effort of travel, of the historical imagination? And how can we achieve it? Lewis believes it is worth it simply for the enjoyment, but also because it leads us on to things that we could never meet in our own time, to “modes of feeling, flavours, atmospheres, nowhere accessible but by a mental journey into the real past.”[8] Elsewhere, Lewis suggests that his own eyes are not enough for him, that he would see what others have seen, what others have imagined, even how the world appears to the senses of animals such as a dog or bee.

Enjoyment or experience of past modes of thinking seems a bit of a thin compensation compared to the arduous labor we must undergo in order to access it. To those literarily or historically inclined, the reward might be worth the effort. But we are not all scholars. Notwithstanding, most of us already experience and use the historical imagination to varying degrees, though we are probably apt to label it ‘daydreaming,’ as we are probably apt to label all of imagination. I would suggest that this understanding runs parallel to and informs Lewis’s understanding.

It functions through experiences that occur when certain landscapes or natural phenomena react powerfully on our minds and imaginations. G.K. Chesterton calls it being the “heir of the ages.” A useful term might be liminal space, a space where we feel as if we are on a threshold, an actual encounter with a particular place in which we access a certain receptivity that taps into our memory repositories and all of the images we have stored there to alter our immediate perception of reality. Particularly, the images of our imaginative experience gleaned through books or other media. This alteration of perception is an experience of the past, of the ages, in an almost tangible way. We feel, in some sense, as if we have crossed over. This all sounds very mystical, but in fact it isn’t.  Chesterton describes it in terms of being sympathetic to beliefs in which one doesn’t put any credence –

Nevertheless, there are some of us who do hold that the metaphor of inheritance from human history is a true metaphor, and that any man who is cut off from the past, and content with the future, is a man most unjustly disinherited; and all the more unjustly if he is happy in his lot, and is not permitted even to know what he has lost. And I, for one, believe that the mind of man is at its largest, and especially at its broadest, when it feels the brotherhood of humanity linking it up with remote and primitive and even barbaric things.[9]

He goes on to describe four stages in the spiritual story of humanity as discovered by historian Christopher Dawson. At each stage, he disavows belief in that particular stage, but is nevertheless sympathetic towards it in his imagination. For example, the first stage is that of the medicine man, one who could release the mysterious forces of nature. Now Chesterton says he cannot be content with this magic, but also that he cannot countenance, and indeed would not consider large-minded or imaginative those who have no sympathy with it. “It is quite natural to me,” he writes, “walking in the woods, to wonder fancifully whether whistling back the note of a certain bird, or tasting the juice of a certain berry, would release a glamour or give back a fairyland.” This, he writes, is being the heir of the ages.

I have had this experience myself, many times. Once, hiking along the edge of a forest in a sunken lane, my perception of the characteristics of the surrounding environment called forth a deeply imaginative response in which I felt as if I had just stumbled from the modern world into the remote past. And not just a historically remote past, but almost an apotheosis of a remote, deeply feltimagined past, where just about anything could happen. It was almost a tangible feeling of entering something utterly foreign. I want to suggest that when we experience this, we are using the historical imagination.

This is not a unique experience. I believe most of us experience it to varying degrees. Author Robert Macfarlane, who wrote about path walking in his book entitled The Old Ways, tells of a similar experience and indeed attempts to categorize this experience. He describes walking the Broomway, one of Britain’s deadliest paths. A map of the Essex coastline shows this footpath running straight out to sea. It has claimed the lives of more than one hundred people, because out on the Broomway, disorientation is likely due to weather: mist, rain, fog. The tide comes in quickly, faster than a man can run. Macfarlane describes the disorientation he experienced as he ventured far out on this path and all of the familiar landmarks vanished in the distance. The similarity in feature and color of sky and sea eradicated perceptual cues that led to disequilibrium. The author describes it this way:

My brain was beginning to move unusually, worked upon and changed by the mind-altering substances of this offshore world, and by the elation that arose from the counter-intuition of walking securely on water. Out there, nothing could be only itself. The eye fed on false colour-values. Similes and metaphors bred and budded. Mirages of scale occurred, and tricks of depth. Gull-eagles dipped and glided in the outer reaches of the mist. The sand served as the water’s ‘tain’, from the French for ‘tin’, being the lusterless backing of a mirror that makes reflection possible but limits the onward gaze, disallowing the view of a concept beyond that point.[10]

Macfarlane attempts to find a term to describe these kinds of experiences where we transition from a known world to a seemingly unknown. “They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within counties.”[11]

Again, many of us would dismiss experiences like this, but that is partly because we have never had a nuanced understanding of the imagination. I maintain that these experiences, if we embrace them, are ways of using the historical imagination to be the heir of all the ages. They are not random daydreams. The argument could be made that we need not ascribe the category of history to these experiences, but I think we experience them as historical events, because we experience them in time. There is a dissociative power present that is akin to what we might term ‘time travel.’ And with these experiences, we feel a greater depth and texture to life and a greater sense of mystery. Now I would maintain that these experiences, while valuable, are a more undisciplined way to use the historical imagination.

This brings us back to Lewis’s notion of the historical imagination allowing us to experience modes of thinking and feeling we otherwise would not access. In those experiences described previously, we could be said to inhabit a time with a set of feelings commensurate to it. We are acting and thinking as if it were true. This is what Lewis would ultimately like us to achieve with the historical imagination, to act as if what we are experiencing is true, even if by reason alone, we know better. And the discipline is how we apply this apprehension to actual historical works of art and literature. The goal is to develop this perception, to be able to use the imagination to experience the world “as if,” not to dismiss it as fanciful.

Lewis offers us an additional incentive, perhaps the most important one, to use the historical imagination: “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.”[12] It would appear that Lewis does not believe we can enjoy our full humanity without using the historical imagination. This is a strong statement. But it does not seem that Lewis expects everyone to achieve this with the same degree of success. He makes this clear by the phrase “so far as in you lies.” If history is not lost, as Lewis maintains, if indeed our present worldviews are built on the past, then an understanding of that past would logically enlarge our understanding of our own humanity as well as that of others. Thus we approach a closer approximation of truth which is the ultimate goal, not only of the historical imagination, but of any imaginative endeavor.

This is a blog repost graciously provided by Mark Neal, VP of digital marketing for C. Grant & Company in Chicago, IL. In 2015, Mark coauthored The Surprising Imagination of C.S. Lewis with Jerry Root. Learn about the book and read more from Mark on his blog.


[1] Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love. p. 1
[2] Ibid
[3] Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. p. 62-63
[4] Ibid. p.64
[5] Lewis, C.S. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. p. 2
[6] Ibid. p.3
[7] Ibid. p.2
[8] Ibid. p.3
[9] Chesterton, G.K. Avowals and Denials. p. 82
[10] Macfarlane, Robert. The Old Ways.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Lewis, C.S. A Preface to Paradise Lost. p. 62