The Aesthete vs the Ascetic: What St. Augustine Would Have Thought of Tolkien’s Middle-earth

In his classic study The Great Chain of Being, Arthur O. Lovejoy gives a brief summary of Augustine’s aesthetic treatise De pulchritudine simulacrorum, which contains a wonderful criterion for evaluating the sub-creative achievement of Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, but also what would have been Augustine’s deep ambivalence and suspicion towards it as well. Lovejoy writes how for Augustine

“the supreme art of God” is manifested in the variety of the things that it has fashioned out of nothing, while the inferiority of human art is shown in its limited ability to reproduce this diversity, or numerositas, of natural objects, for example of human bodies. Augustine, then, seems on the point of deriving a species of aesthetic theory from the principle of plenitude; the function of art, he suggests, is to imitate or parallel this diversity of the created world as nearly exhaustively as possible; and this, the argument manifestly implies, is truly an imitatio dei, and therefore par excellence a religious exercise. (Lovejoy 85)

Only a couple of years before Lovejoy wrote the above, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” similarly described how the art of fairy-story lay precisely in the human “sub-creator,” made in God’s image, being able to fashion a “secondary world” that evinced the kind of creaturely diversity, complexity, and “inner consistency” of God’s primary world. Alison Milbank describes well Tolkien’s own success in achieving a kind of literary “principle of plentitude” in his fiction when she writes:

Aquinas, according to Chesterton, teaches ‘the reality of things, the mutability of things, the diversity of things’… [T]his is a philosophy that can be found at every level of Tolkien’s fictional project… The world Tolkien invents is, of course, fictional, but it is famously realistic in its density and completeness of realization… To invent a world at all, as fantasy writers continue to do, is to commit to metaphysics… For the fantasy writer not only mimics the divine act of creation but he or she, by creating a self-consistent, independent world also witnesses to the existence of an Is: to Ens. (Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 17-18)

Yet as remarkable as such an achievement may be, for Augustine, it is in fact not to be attempted. Summarizing the Bishop’s reservations, Lovejoy continues:

But here the saint checks himself and reverts violently to the ascetic and otherworldly side of his doctrine: “Not that those who fashion such works [of art] are to be highly esteemed, nor those who take delight in them; for when the soul is thus intent upon the lesser things—things corporeal which it makes by corporeal means—it is the less fixed upon that supreme Wisdom from which it derives these very powers.” Thus Augustine is involved in the incongruous conclusion that God as creator is not to be imitated, that certain divine powers in which men in a measure participate are not to be employed by them, and that the creation in which alone the divine attribute of “goodness” is manifested is not to be enjoyed. (85-6)

As with other creational goods, the double liability of human sin and human finitude means that, for Augustine, the impetus towards a sub-creative imitatio dei is one that is safer suppressed than cultivated, lest it distract us from our primary duty of the worship and meditation of God.

Dorothy Sayers, Metaphysician

In the course of three paragraphs in her The Mind of the Maker, Dorothy Sayers manages to connect a number of these I’ve been thinking and posting about here recently: how sub-creation changes everything, the non-existence of non-existing possibles, and how non-being is not a correlate but the creation of Being:

What I want to suggest is that Being (simply by being) creates Not-Being… So that though, in the absence of Being, it would be meaningless to say that to say that Not-Being precedes Being; yet, in the presence of Being that proposition becomes both significant and true, because Being has made it so. Or, to use the most familiar of all metaphors, “before” light, there was neither light nor darkness; darkness is not darkness until light has made the concept of darkness possible. Darkness cannot say: “I precede the coming light,” but there is a sense in which light can say, “Darkness preceded me.”

Shakespeare writes Hamlet. That act of creation enriches the world with a new category of Being, namely: Hamlet. But simultaneously it enriches the world with a new category of Not-Being, namely: Not-Hamlet. Everything other than Hamlet, to the farthest bounds of the universe, acquires in addition to its former characteristics, the characteristic of being Not-Hamlet; the whole of the past immediately and automatically becomes Not-Hamlet.

Now, in a sense, it is true to say that the past was Not-Hamlet before Hamlet was created or thought-of; it is true, but it is meaningless, since apart from Hamlet there is no meaning that we can possibly attach to the term Not-Hamlet. Doubtless there is an event, X, in the future, by reference to which we may say that we are at present in a category of Not-X, but until X occurs, the category of Not-X is without reality. Only X can give reality to Not-X; that is to say, Not-Being depends for its reality upon Being. In this way we may faintly see how the creation of Time may be said automatically to create a time when Time was not, and how the Being of God can be said to create a Not-Being that is not God. (The Mind of the Maker 101)

Stoicism’s Linguistic Turn

Yesterday I posted on the psycho-physical monism of the Stoics and the resulting, less substantive, more relational ontology it entailed.  It is this view of things as having their existence wholly determined by their divinely fated place within the causal nexus of the psycho-physical universe that is mirrored in the Stoics’ philosophy of language.[1] On the Stoics modified semantic triangle, what provides the meaning behind our words or statements are, again, not eternal “ideas” (as per Plato), nor even intellectual “thoughts” (as per Aristotle), but what the Stoics called lekta, a term whose meaning is difficult to ascertain, but which has been various described as the semantic content, the intellectual intention, or a mental linguistic utterance of the things that we verbally say or write. As such, the Stoics seems to have viewed the lekta as an intermediate or hybrid reality between words and pure thought and which as such do not properly “exist” so much as they “subsist” as intramental states of mind and what, because of their materialistic monism amounts to the same thing, “an operational modification by the human material body.”[2] On this “de-psychologized semantics,” as Umberto Eco has described it, the Stoic lekton represents not an ontologically distinct thought or idea, but an indefinite “position within a [semantic] system, the result of an abstract segmentation of the noetic field, a cultural unit…”[3] We rely upon other words, in other words, to largely determine the meaning of our words, a Stoic insight that Eco hails as an unprecedented discovery of “the provisional and unstable nature of the sign-function” and which Milbank commends as “a theory which tends to identify thought with language.”[4] Thus, just as the being and identity of things for the Stoics is a function of their ordained position and role within the divine pyscho-physical causal web that is the existing universe, so the meanings of words is a consequence of their position within the semantic web that is a given system of language.[5] This leads to a further consequence of the substitution of the Stoic lekton in the place of the Platonic and Aristotelian idea, namely a shift from viewing linguistic meaning in terms of a hierarchical and linear model of dictionary-like denotation and semantic “equivalence,” to a more indeterminate model of connotative association and semantic “inference.” As Milbank puts it, the Stoic lekton, “as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… the Stoic conception of meaning [is not one of] equivalence (of sense and object) but rather as a fated connotative or inferential ‘tension.’”[6] To bring this discussion at last to bear on the issues of primary concern in this book, the doctrine of the lekton helped the Stoics avoid the error Derrida, for example, attributes to the Platonic tradition, namely (in Milbank’s words) the “delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.”[7] Or in more modal terms, in contrast to the semantic possibilism (as we might term it) of the Platonic and Aristotelian semantic triangle, according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought or eternal ideas that supplies the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic lekton implies a semantic actualism according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence which are available to be connoted within a given linguistic or semantic system.


[1] Colish, Mirror of Language, 11, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[2] Ibid., 89.

[3] Eco, Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, 31.

[4] Ibid., 30, and Milbank, Word Made Strange, 90.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89. Milbanks remarks here follow those of Andreas Graeser, who writes how “the Stoics conceived the total sum of existence in terms of a moving continuum and thus were not likely to conceive of the denotations of meaningful expressions as natural classes of extra-linguistic entities.” Graeser, “The Stoic Theory of Meaning,” 80.

[7] Ibid., 60.

Stoicism’s linguistic metaphysics

In a post from a month or so ago on “Augustine’s linguistic turn,” I wrote about the positive influence Stoicism exerted on Augustine’s philosophy of language. This and a follow-up post are an attempt to develop further, first, some relevant features of Stoic metaphysics and ontology and, following that, how their metaphysics was mirrored in their philosophy of language.

As an interpretation of the Augustinian Verbum, the Anselmian locutio represents a somewhat radical and revisionist take on this otherwise traditional creed. For in stressing the specifically linguistic side of the Augustinian Verbum, Anselm’s locutio helped resolve yet another deficiency in Augustine’s intellectual legacy, namely what John Milbank has identified as a certain “linguistic rationalism” inherited by Augustine from his classical philosophical sources and which he then bequeathed to his medieval successors. At the heart of this linguistic rationalism was the classic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent—words reflect ideas and ideas reflect reality—and which Milbank faults for its promotion of an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[1] Among ancient and medieval thinkers, only the Stoics saw fit to significantly revise the semantic triangle, and while Augustine derived many of his views on language from the Stoics, some of their more important contributions to the subject were insufficiently adopted and appreciated by him. The differences between their respective approaches, as we shall see, will provide us with yet another instructive perspective for evaluating the theological innovations of Anselm’s divine locutio. The first thing to note about the Stoics’ philosophy of language is its close parallel to their more general philosophy of being. According to Marcia Colish, the primary concern of Stoic metaphysics was “to overcome the dualism between mind and matter taught by other Greek philosophical schools. The Stoics achieve this goal by identifying mind and matter with each other and with God… [E]verything that acts is a body. There is a continuum between mind and body. They are completely translatable into each other; they are simply two ways of viewing the content within the continuum.”[2] What this means for the Stoics’ ontology is that they are not the transcendent, abstract, extrinsic, and ideal entities of Plato’s ideas which determine the being of things, but consistent with their doctrine of a wholly immanent and animating divine logos, “bodies themselves possess their own inner rationale for their existence, extension, and activity. It is their inner tonos [tension] which accounts for their operations…”[3] Of particular importance here is the famous Stoic doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi, or “seminal reasons,” according to which the divine logos does not govern things at a distance, but has been sewn into the material “soil” of existing things, encoding all the possibilities of not only normal processes of genesis and growth, but also exceptional and otherwise inexplicable departures from the usual course of nature as well.[4] “All things,” as Colish puts it, “are thus related to the cosmic pneuma and to each other,”[5] making for a less substantivist and possibilist, and more relational and actualist ontology according to which the possibility of what things can be and can do is determined not by an abstract ideal realm that is otherwise indifferent to its material imitations, but rather by a providential orchestration and synchronization of each particular thing with everything else that co-exists with it.


[1] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 84.

[2] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 23.

[3] Ibid., 26. See also Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[4] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 32.

[5] Ibid., 27.

Anselm on the Divine Fancy

I’ve posted before on the similarities between Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation and Anselm’s theological method of fides quarens intellectum (“faith seeking understanding”). Anselmian theology strives to provide “necessary” proofs for the revealed articles of the faith, yet Anselm recognizes that, while necessary, his arguments nevertheless have a provisional character that inevitably falls short of the reality itself, always leaving more to be said. In Tolkienian terms, Anselmian theology provides arguments which are “secondary worlds” which have the “inner consistency of reality” and yet which at most approximate, and yet still elucidate and so “recover” the truth that is the primal reality of Christian belief. In doing theology this way, however, the theologian is truly sub-creative, achieving a remarkable parallel to what God himself does in the act of devising and creating the world. When God creates, he fashions a reality which, on the one hand, mirrors his own Triune “inner consistency of reality,” and yet which at the same time represents a genuinely novel, creative interpretation or improvisation of his own reality. The Anselmian theologian, in other words, is a true sub-creator because God was the first Anselmian theologian.

Corroborating this reading of Anselm is Hans urs von Balthasar’s characterization of the Anselmian corpus as “realiz[ing] in the purest form the concerns of theological aesthetics” (The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Vol. II Studies in Theological Styles: Clerical Styles, 213). In a passage addressing this issue of what we might call God’s own internal aesthetic, Balathasar writes how, for Anaselm, God’s creative

‘ideas’ are deduced not primarily from below, from the contingence and the degrees of worldly qualities, which are ascending degrees of perfection, indeed of reality, and which persuade (persuadet) of the existence of something most perfect and most real in their sphere, but rather from above: from the free self-expression of God, who plans and ‘imagines’ what he wills. (229)

To be precise, and as I’ve note elsewhere, Anselm does not in fact have an Augustinian doctrine of divine ideas, yet otherwise I see Balthasar as making a complementary point. The insistence, from Augustine to Aquinas, that there must exist in the divine, creative cause a real plurality of distinct ideas in order to account for the real plurality amongst God’s created effects, is, in Balthasar’s expression, to deduce the divine ideas “from below.” The irony is that, in its attempt to avoid divine demiurgy–God looking outside of himself for his creative archetypes–Augustine committed his own form of Christian ananke-ism: an inferior reality dictating the conditions on which God’s creative agency exists and operates. While retaining the language of “ideas” (which Anselm eschews), Balthasar nevertheless understands this so-called “second Augustine” (alter Augustinus) faithfully enough: God’s ideas, such as they are, are no mere secular, atheological givens, but are the result of an authentically theological process of divine free creativity, even “imagination.” God does not think his possibilities, in other words, but in Brian Leftow’s apt phrase (God and Necessity), God rather “thinks up” his possibilities. (Though using Balthasar’s spatial imagery, perhaps we should say that God thinks down his possibilities.) Balthasar continues:

And with that the category of expression (exprimere) is given its place, which will become so important for Bonaventure; and the ars divina will be less in facto esse, in the order of the universal, than in fieri, in the free discovery of essences, seen in the power of expression of the divine ‘fancy’ and located in the ‘place’ in God, where the power of generation within the divine itself is engaged in its trinitarian work.

For Balthasar’s Anselm, the process by which God knows creaturely forms is less an act of divine theoria or contemplation than it is an act of divine poiesis or making; a matter not of Augustine’s ideae divinae, but of Augustine’s ars divina. Balthasar’s reference to God’s “free discovery of essences” echoes Aquinas’s remark in De Veritatue (3.2 ad 6) that God “devises” (adinvenit) the divine ideas through his reflection on his own essence. Thus, instead of the historic vacillation between the two poles of divine intellect and will, Balthasar’s reading of Anselm allows us to see the latter as transcending and so escaping the tiresome intellectualism/voluntarism debate through the recognition of an altogether new theological category, that of the divine “fancy” or imagination. Rounding out his statement on Anselm’s significance vis-a-vis Augustine, Balthasar writes:

All this is certainly a continuation of Augustine’s trinitarian thought, but from the outset there is [in Anselm] an emphasis on God’s total freedom and therefore on the spontaneiety of his self-disclosure.

Why every creature causes ex nihilo

In both his theory and his art, Tolkien probed the metaphysical and artistic possibilities–and also the limits–of finite, creaturely making. As I’ve noted here before, one traditional limit Tolkien took for granted, one that he shared, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas, is the fact that only God has the power to create ex nihilo. We can sub-create, but only God can create. While St. Anselm would doubtlessly concur with this tradition on the essentials, there is nevertheless a sense for him in which God’s rational creatures–and really every creaturely cause–is responsible for making “ex nihilo.” In his explanation of the meaning of God’s making things “from nothing,” Anselm argues by analogy from the way creatures themselves bring things into being “from nothing”:

when we observe a man of very meager means who has been elevated by a second man to great wealth or honor, we say “The second man made the first man from nothing,” or “The first man was made from nothing by the second man.” That is, the first man, who formerly was regarded as nothing, is now esteemed as truly something because of the making of the second man. (Monol. 8, Hopkins trans.)

When a benefactor brings a man from obscurity into a state of wealth or honor, he makes him to be something from nothing, not, to be sure, and as Aquinas might have put it, from nothing absolutely considered, but from a particular kind of nothing, from being nothing in a specific respect (namely with respect to wealth or status). And such is the case, we might say, with every cause: in bringing into being their effects, they cause to be those things which formerly were not. It is from these limited instances of making-from-nothing, finally, that Anselm reasons to the meaning of God’s own act of creating from nothing, in his case, not the limited nothings with which we are familiar, but from the absolute non-being that, admittedly, God alone has the power to overcome. (Aquinas, incidentally, reasons in a similar fashion for the conclusion that God creates ex nihilo in the Summa: every causal “emanation” presupposes the absence of that which is emanated; thus man is emanated from what is non-man, and something white can only emanate from that which was formerly non-white; as God’s act of creation involves the “emanation” of being itself, creation must be from its opposite, namely non-being or nothing–ST 1.45.1.) Instead of the binary logic of an intractable dualism, accordingly, in which divine making–which alone is from nothing–is defined in ontic opposition to creaturely making–which is always from something and never from nothing, what Anselm here indicates is an analogical relationship according to which God creates ex nihilo, and we to varying degrees participate in his creative activity by bringing about that which is from that which it formerly was not. God’s creating ex nihilo is not so much the othering limit to our own making as it is the possibility and source of our own making ex nihilo.

Flame Imperishable as Incarnation

I’ve discussed before how Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable refers to God’s creative power over the world, by which he, first, gives existence ex nihilo to his creatures generally, and second, by which he bestows the power of free will and (sub-)creativity upon his rational creatures in particular. Upon review of his explanation of the Flame Imperishable in his commentary on the Athrabath Finrod ah Andreth (Morgoth’s Ring), however, I think the interconnection between these two effects (created being and free, creative will) is a deeper one than the mere genus-species relationship suggested above. As Tolkien explains, the Flame Imperishable

appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being. (Morgoth’s Ring 345)

As Tolkien makes clear, the act of Creation, in which Eru sends the Flame Imperishable into the heart of the world to cause it to be, is a distinct act from the act of Incarnation by which, as Finrod conjectures in the dialogue of the Athrabeth, Eru himself would personally enter into his creation in order to purge it of Melkor’s corruptions. That having been said, it is equally evident that Tolkien still very much conceives of Eru’s creative presence within his creation (and hence of the sub-creator’s presence within his art) in incarnational terms. Creation itself, according to Tolkien’s theology of the Flame Imperishable, involves the Creator being both “‘outside’ and independent of his work” as well as “‘indwell[ing]‘ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being…” In this manner, Tolkien may be seen to re-interpret God’s act of Creation as a type of proto-Incarnation.

A few observations. The first is the way this normalizes and naturalizes the idea of Incarnation: if Creation is a kind of Incarnation, it is little wonder that Finrod is able to infer (partly from what he knows of the Flame Imperishable) the possibility of Eru’s future condescension to enter into Arda. Eru will at some point and time enter into the world to give it new being because, in a very real sense, this is what Eru has always been doing. A second observation is how this logic complements but reverses the line of reasoning Tolkien uses in “On Fairy-Stories” in explaining how, in the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, God has given the fairy-story structure of eucatastrophe the reality of history and creation itself: “this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Incarnation, in other words, is God giving our fairy-stories the gift of created being, of sending the Flame Imperishable, as it were, into the heart of our own sub-creative imaginings (themselves the product of God’s creative inspiration), and causing them to become real. Thirdly, and as I’ve also pointed out before, the latter is of course precisely the same drama we find in the Ainulindale, when Iluvatar takes the “fairy-story” that is the Ainur’s Music and Vision and gives it the same being that they themselves enjoy, making the Ainulindale not only a retelling of the story of the world’s creation, but also an allegory for its re-creation in Christ.