Tolkien’s (small c) catholicism

A less doctrinal, more temperamental similarity between Tolkien and St. Thomas may be seen in the common catholicity or universality with which they approached their respective areas of expertise. Thomas and Tolkien were both men of tremendous powers of synthesis, for their shared religious convictions led them to believe that, because truth is truth and God is the Creator of all, the best that pagan learning and experience had to offer—whether it be in the sublime principles of Greek philosophy or in the sublime mysteries of heathen myths and fairy-tales—were not to be quailed at, but rather to be appropriated and sanctified for Christian (and in Tolkien’s case especially, even non-Christian) edification. Thomas writes, for example, in his commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle, whose thought he labored to harmonize with Christian revelation, that “[w]e should love both: those whose opinion we follow, and those whose opinion we reject. For both have applied themselves to the quest for the truth, and both have helped us in it.”[1] As for those distinctly philosophical conclusions which Thomas believed he was able to demonstrate by reason alone, as Étienne Gilson cogently argued in the last century, it was Thomas’s faith in divine revelation, providing him, as it were, with an “inside track,” that first prompted and so made possible many of these insights.[2]

In a similar spirit, yet working in the reverse direction to what Philipp Rosemann has aptly described as the medieval scholastic project of re-inscribing Greek logos within the Christian mythos,[3] Tolkien’s work draws upon not only the inherited mythology of the western world, but also upon its philosophical and theological resources as well, especially as digested by St. Thomas. In this manner he constructed an entirely new mythology that would at the same time resonate powerfully with Christian revelation, yet without (at least formally or explicitly) presupposing it. One place where this dynamic is expressed most clearly is Tolkien’s description of the Valar, his fictional angels who shape and govern the world of Middle-earth, as entities that were “meant to provide beings of the same order of beauty, power, and majesty as the ‘gods’ of higher mythology, which can yet be accepted—well, shall we say baldly, by a mind that believes in the Blessed Trinity” (L 146). In this scholastic synthesis, as it were, of the truth of Christian angelology and the “beauty, power, and majesty” of pagan polytheism, we have just one example of Tolkien’s goal of assimilating the good of pagan mythology within an otherwise Christian narrative. Much as the biblical creation “myth” provided Thomas with a crucial and founding datum in developing his unique metaphysical system, so likewise did the philosophia perennis represented by Thomas provide Tolkien with a tacit guide in the development of a rational mythology.

[1] Aquinas, Commentary on Aristotle’s Metaphysics 12.9, trans. Rowan.

[2] In his 1931 Gifford Lecture Gilson defended the existence of an authentic and intelligible “Christian philosophy” in the Middle Ages, a philosophy that operated on its own terms but which took for its inspiration and guiding light the truths of revelation, a philosophy, furthermore, that Gilson believed to be above all manifested in the thought of St. Thomas: “the Bible is full of ideas about God and His divine government which, although not properly philosophical in character, only needed to fall into the right soil to become fruitful of philosophic consequences. The fact that there is no philosophy in Scripture does not warrant the conclusion that Scripture could have exerted no influence on the evolution of philosophy… Why should we refuse to admit a priori that Christianity might have been able to change the course of the history of philosophy by opening up to human reason, by the mediation of faith, perspectives as yet undreamt of?” Gilson, The Spirit of Medieval Philosophy, 11-12.

[3] Rosemann, Understanding Scholastic Thought with Foucault, 50-54.


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