Tolkien and Platonism

Of those studies addressing the philosophical antecedents of Tolkien’s work, interest has understandably gravitated towards the foundational philosophies of Platonism and Neoplatonism. There have been the inevitable comparisons of Tolkien’s invisibility-inducing ring with the famous Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic,[1] and Gergely Nagy and Frank Weinreich have each looked at the similar roles that myth serves in the thought of Tolkien and Plato.[2] I already alluded in an earlier post to the prominent role Plato (along with C.S. Lewis) serves in Kreeft’s The Philosophy of Tolkien, and Mary E. Zimmer has argued that behind Tolkien’s depiction of magic in his stories is what twentieth-century German philosopher Ernst Cassirer describes as “the assumption that the world of things and the world of names form a single undifferentiated chain of causality and hence a single reality,” an assumption that Zimmer correlates with what she describes as the “Christian-Neoplatonic belief that language first created that reality.”[3] Of particular note in connection with Tolkien’s alleged Platonism are a couple of essays written more than twenty years ago by Mary Carman Rose and Verlyn Flieger.[4] Rose’s article also shares its attention with C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams, so that her discussion of Tolkien is rather brief. In it, however, she identifies Tolkien as a Christian Platonist in general and his Ainulindalë in particular as a “Christian Platonist account of creation.”[5] The three specific Platonic elements she finds common to Lewis, Williams, and Tolkien are “the reality and availability of suprasensory aspects of creation; the modes of our coming to know these aspects of creation; and the ideal copresence of truth, beauty, and goodness in all aspects of creation.”[6] Although Rose recognizes that, as Christians, the Platonism of these three thinkers does differ in some notable ways from all forms of non-Christian Platonism, she nevertheless implies that the “psychophysical dualism” and “other-worldliness” she finds explicit in Lewis and Williams are also dimly present in Tolkien. Ralph Wood, on the other hand, has made the point that, in comparison with his friend Lewis, Tolkien was in fact “no sort of Platonist at all. He espoused what might be roughly called an Aristotelian metaphysics. For him, transcendent reality is to be found in the depths of this world rather than in some putative existence beyond it.”[7] While Wood’s emphatic denial of any Platonism in Tolkien is perhaps slightly overstated, he is certainly right that the latter’s metaphysical sympathies run in a decidedly more Aristotelian than directly Platonic direction.[8]

As for Flieger’s article on Tolkien’s Neoplatonic influence, she focuses on Tolkien’s identification of God, or “Eru,” as “the One” (Eru being the Elvish word for “the One”), pointing out that a “central idea, indeed a major element, in Neoplatonic thought is the concept of God as the One, the Monad beyond human knowing or naming.”[9] Of prime interest to Flieger, accordingly, is the “unsolvable problem” she finds common to Tolkien, Plotinus, and the Christian Neoplatonist Pseudo-Dionysius: “They are confined to the separable and limited vocabulary of human language to talk about inseparable, unlimited being. They must express the inexpressible.”[10] Approaching Tolkien in light of the Plotinian and Dionysian tradition of Neoplatonism, Flieger both here and in her recently revised study, Splintered Light, stresses the apophatic or negative dimension of Tolkien’s fictional theology at the expense of its more cataphatic or positive aspects, going so far as to represent Tolkien’s Eru as an almost deistic entity who has abdicated the real work of creation to the intermediate agency of the angelic Ainur.[11] Following in Flieger’s footsteps, while offering an even deeper analysis of the overlap between the themes of Tolkien and those of Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy, is John Cox’s thoughtful but similarly flawed “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy.”[12] As I have argued in contrast to both of these studies, Tolkien is in fact far more balanced, biblical, and Thomistic in his philosophies of God and creation than an one-sidedly Platonic and Neoplatonic interpretation of Tolkien would seem to allow.

[1] See Katz, “The Rings of Tolkien and Plato: Lessons in Power, Choice, and Morality”; De Armas, “Gyges’ Ring: Invisibility in Plato, Tolkien, and Lope de Vega”; Eaglestone, “Invisibility”; and Herbert, “Tolkien’s Tom Bombadil and the Platonic Ring of Gyges.”

[2] Nagy, “Saving the Myths: the Re-creation of Mythology in Plato and Tolkien” and Weinreich, “Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontology of ‘Mythopoeia’.”

[3] Zimmer, “Creating and Re-creating Worlds with Words: The Religion and Magic of Language in The Lord of the Rings,” 50, 52.

[4] Rose, “The Christian Platonism of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and Charles Williams,” and Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable: The Neoplatonic ‘One’ in Tolkien’s Silmarillion.”

[5] Rose, “Christian Platonism,” 205.

[6] Ibid., 206. Unfortunately Rose doesn’t apply any of these elements to Tolkien in much detail.

[7] Wood, “Conflict and Convergence,” 325.

[8] Contrary to Rose’s claim, as I may show in a future post, in the Athrabeth Tolkien explicitly rejects the psychophysical dualism of Plato in favor of the hylomorphic understanding of the soul’s relationship to the body advanced by Aristotle and St. Thomas.

[9] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable,” 127.

[10] Ibid., 128-9.

[11] “It is the Ainur, not Eru, who actually create Tolkien’s world. They sing its plan in the Great Music which they make from the themes Eru propounds to them, and from that plan fabricate the material world. The rest of Tolkien’s vast mythology is enacted without Eru, involving chiefly the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar. Father of All he may be, but he has no further role in the action… He remains throughout the Unknown God, unknowable and unreachable in his oneness, perceivable and approachable only to the extent by which the part can represent the whole.” Ibid., 132.

[12] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy.”


2 thoughts on “Tolkien and Platonism

  1. This is the problem I have with Flieger – her argument of Tolkien being an Neo-Platonist and coming to the conclusion that Eru takes a hands off approach to the continuing of creation. What I see in Tolkien’s Eru is a constantly moving, very active diety – but one that’s working in the background. Without the active song creation of Eru, there is would be nothing.

  2. Yeah, I really admire Flieger’s work, specifically her “Splintered Light,” but her overly Neoplatonic take on the theology of Tolkien’s fiction skews things quite a bit. I’ll be making some posts next week going into more depth on this issue.

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