Ainulindalë and the philosophy of history

In the Ainulindalë the reader is treated to what might be described as two simultaneous, but not independent perspectives on history:

it seemed [emphasis mine] at last that there were two musics progressing at one time before the seat of Ilúvatar, and they were utterly at variance. The one was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came. The other had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes. And it essayed to drown the other music by the violence of its voice, but it seemed that its most triumphant notes were taken by the other and woven into its own solemn pattern. (17)

On one level this passage is of course talking about the basic conflict between good and evil: good does one thing, evil does another, and if possible, even the opposite. But more particularly, I think it also provides a helpful perspective on the history, but also the historiography, if you will, of this conflict. What we have here, after all, is not merely two sides of the conflict, the “City of God” and the “Earthly City,” as Augustine would have it, disagreeing with each other in substance but at least agreeing with each other, after a fashion, in viewing their respective histories as taking place on parallel or even divergent paths. But what the above passage helps illustrate, I think, is the way in which the conflict between good and evil runs all the way down, to include even their respective interpretations of the history of that conflict. Thus, Melkor, more than merely establishing his own music, seeks to drown out or subdue the music of the other Ainur. He wants to make his music not just an alternative music, but the primary music: other music is allowed only if it is derivative of his. Melkor is the first secularist (secularism being defined here as an order sought to be had independent of theology), and his music the first secular interpretation of history. This is not to say that, as secular, his take on history is completely meaningless. As Tolkien concedes, it has a certain “unity of its own.” The significance of his music, however, is a parasitic significance: it derives its meaning and its modicum of order from the music of the Ainur that it nonetheless seeks to negate. Cut off from the true source of beauty, his music, and its corresponding take on history, is likewise cut off from the true source of all ingenuity and novelty: “it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamourous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes.” Embodied in Melkor’s music is a competing interpretation of history, one that aspire to a true objectivity and independence, but as John Milbank has aptly observed in one place, “evil as independent is evil’s own fondest illusion.” The true history of the world will be the one told in the Ainur’s music, a music in which Melkor’s own music, to the extent that it has any reality at all, must inevitably take its (subordinate) place. And his contribution, despite himself, is to make the Ainur’s music more beautiful. Thus the history of the City of God and the history of the Earthly City are not two independent even if at various points intersecting histories, for this dualistic myth belongs to the Earthly City’s own self-narrative. Rather, the history of the Earthly City, the City of Man, the City of Babylon, is one chapter, or if you will, sub-theme (and a cacophonous one at that) of the City of God’s own history, its own “music,” its own score and story.

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