Generous creation

“God brought things into being, not because He was in any way obliged to do so, but out of pure generosity” (Deus ex nullo debito, sed ex mera liberalitate res in esse produxit). Aquinas, SCG 2.44.15.

Tolkien’s Demiurges

In his conception of angelic beings with the power and freedom to fashion a world according to their choosing, Tolkien’s purpose was to capture, as he puts it, something of the “beauty, power, and majesty” of the gods of the ancient mythologies. One of these ancient myths he seems particularly to have had in mind is the creation-story of Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, a work that was tremendously influential in both early Jewish and Christian patristic and later medieval thought.[1] In a number of places, Tolkien describes the sub-creative work of the Valar as “demiurgic” (MR 330, 370, 387, and 401), an evident allusion to the divine demiurge of the Timaeus who fashions the changing, visible world by looking to the order, intelligibility, and beauty of the unchanging, invisible, yet eternal and “living model,” and reproducing as much as possible that order within the realm of a pre-existing yet hitherto unorganized matter.

Surprisingly, given the interest of Tolkien’s readers in his Platonic inheritance noted in the Introduction, the extent of the parallels—to say nothing yet of the equally remarkable differences—between the Ainulindalë and Plato’s Timaeus has yet to receive a thorough investigation. The most comprehensive comparison to date must be John Cox’s study mentioned in previous posts, which draws attention to the fact that, like Plato’s demiurge, “everything else [besides the Ainur] that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur,” a pattern Cox finds paralleled in the Timaeus’s account of the divine demiurge, “a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls ‘gods’ and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.”[2] Cox finds in both narratives, moreover, the same “progression from the Creator, to intermediate creating powers, to the visible creation.”[3] Both creation-myths, accordingly, present worlds of “stark contrasts” between the invisible, eternal, and unchanging divine realm of being on the one hand and the visible, temporal, and changeable realm of becoming on the other.[4] Cox further points to the resulting themes of emanation and imitation associated with these structures as they manifest themselves in both Plato and Tolkien.[5]

[1] Plato’s Timaeus, Meno, and Phaedo, for example, were the only three of his dialogues known throughout the medieval period. On early Jewish, Roman, and Christian readings of Plato’s Timaeus, see Jaroslav Pelikan, What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem? On the reception of Plato’s Timaeus in the later Middle Ages, particularly in the 12th century, see Dutton, “The Uncovering of the Glosae Super Platonem of Bernard of Chartres” and “Medieval Approaches to Calcidius”; Chenu, “The Platonisms of the Twelfth Century”; Gregory, “The Platonic Inheritance”; and Gibson, “The Study of the Timaeus in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries.” On Aquinas’s own knowledge of Plato’s Timaeus, see Hankey, “Aquinas and the Platonists.”

[2] Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57.

[3] Ibid., 57.

[4] Ibid., 58.

[5] Ibid., 58-9.

Serious play

“to labor for the sake of play seems foolish and too childish. But to play in order that one might be serious… seems to be right…” (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 10.6.1176b32-3)

The Humanism of Orthodoxy

In the second part of the Summa Contra Gentiles, devoted to the subject of creation, Thomas makes the point that the present consideration of creatures is necessary “not only for the building up of truth” (the constructive role of this work), “but also for the destruction of errors” (the polemical role). A couple of such errors that he mentions are that “angels are the creators of souls, that human souls are mortal, and generally … any similar views derogatory to the dignity of man.” For Thomas, man has a dignity, a dignity that the Christian faith preserves and from which heresy and other forms of error detract. We might call this Thomas’s “humanism of orthodoxy.”

In a volume titled “A Tolkien Compass,” this author has clearly lost his

* Scheps, Walter. “The Fairy-tale Morality of The Lord of the Rings.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. This article was nothing short of an interpretative travesty. Schep, to his credit, draws some useful observations about the moral realism of Tolkien’s fictional world, but unfortunately he is entirely unable to appreciate (or understand, for that matter) the moral outlook of that world: “If we attempt to transfer the moral values inherent in [The Lord of the Rings] to the ‘real world’, we find that they may be called paternalistic, reactionary, anti-intellectual, racist, fascistic and, perhaps worst of all in contemporary terms, irrelevant.” He concludes by claiming that “the moral system which governs [the hobbits’] world cannot, without serious consequences, be applied to our own.” On the contrary, Mr. Schep, “serious consequences” are exactly what we are getting precisely because we will not apply the moral outlook of The Lord of the Rings to our world.

The scope of Valaric sub-creation

Notwithstanding Tolkien’s and Thomas’s agreement where the doctrine of creation proper is concerned, on the subject of the creaturely power of mere making, particularly of angelic making, it has to be said that Tolkien departs boldly from the more conservative path tread by his great theological forbear. Whereas Tolkien in his fiction accords phenomenally vast sub-creative powers to the Valar, attributing to them the formation of such important and complex structures as the world’s geological formations, plant, and animal life, Thomas expressly denies, for example, that even the substantial forms of corporeal bodies are or can be communicated by angels (ST 1.65.4). Here, at least, Tolkien’s inspiration would indeed seem to have been more directly pre-Thomistic.

Although Eru is the one who first brings the world into being, the world he creates is, for the most part, entirely unformed, consisting of “wastes unmeasured and unexplored” (S 20). The primary responsibility Ilúvatar gives to the Valar, accordingly, is that they should labor to make the world inhabitable for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, whom Eru will create himself, and all in fulfillment of what the Valar had seen in the Vision. Thus, at the conclusion of the Ainulindalë it is said that the Valar delved valleys, carved mountains, and hollowed seas, indicating that much of the initial geography of the world is to be attributed to their handiwork. Even more remarkable is that the Valar are also made responsible for the introduction of plant and animal life in the world. It is Yavanna, for example, the spouse of Aulë, who

planted at last the seeds that she had long devised… and there arose a multitude of growing things great and small, mosses and grasses and great ferns, and trees whose tops were crowned with cloud as they were living mountains, but whose feet were wrapped in a green twilight. And beasts came forth and dwelt in the grassy plains, or in the rivers and the lakes, or walked in the shadows of the woods. As yet no flower had bloomed nor any bird had sung, for these things waited still their time in the bosom of Yavanna… (S 35)

The most renowned of Yavanna’s works are the Two Trees of Valinor, Telperion and Laurelin, from whose golden fruit and silver leaf the Valar later fashion the sun and the moon themselves.[1] As for the rest of the celestial bodies, many of the stars are also accounted as having been “wrought” by Varda, the “Lady of the Stars” and spouse of Manwë (S 26, 39).

It is the story of Aulë’s foolish and futile attempt at making the dwarves, however, that best illustrates both the tremendous magnitude of and the intrinsic limits imposed upon the Valar’s sub-creative power. The Silmarillion tells how Aulë, out of an otherwise noble desire for there to be “things other” than himself who might enjoy the beauty of the world, yet in his impatience for the coming of the Children of Ilúvatar, made the dwarves out of earth and stone. Rebuking Aulë afterwards for his presumption, Ilúvatar inquired of him:

Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority? For thou hast from me as a gift thy own being only, and no more; and therefore the creatures of thy hand and mind can live only by that being, moving when thou thinkest to move them, and if thy thought be elsewhere, standing idle. Is that thy desire? (S 43)

Although Eru alone can give being, Aulë is nevertheless able to turn the earth and stone which Eru had created into, if not free, rational beings, as Aulë had intended, then at least into living yet witless organisms. It is only as a supernatural gift from Ilúvatar, graciously bestowed in response to Aulë’s humble repentance, that the dwarves come to have “a life of their own, and speak with their own voices” (S 44). Thus, while in his letter to Hastings Tolkien wanted to leave open the possibility that the Orcs could have been “made” by the dark powers, he also denies the “making of souls or spirits, things of an equal order if not an equal power to the Valar, as a possible ‘delegation’…” (L 195).[2] Related to Aulë’s production of the dwarvish bodies is the idea, later entertained by Tolkien, that the spirits of deceased Elves, instead of becoming reincarnate through a second, physical rebirth, might have their new bodies prepared for them by the Valar (MR 339, 362, and 364).

[1] The sun and the moon are actually fashioned long after Ilúvatar’s creation of the Elves, a sequence of events Tolkien later came to regret. As he put it in one commentary, “you can make up stories of that kind when you live among people who have the same general background of imagination, when the Sun ‘really’ rises in the East and goes down in the West, etc. When however (no matter how little most people know or think about astronomy) it is the general belief that we live upon a ‘spherical’ island in ‘Space’ you cannot do this any more” (MR 370).

[2] Thus, as Tolkien himself concludes in his letter to Hastings, the question of whether the Orcs were “made” or not is a “different question” from whether or not the Orcs had “souls” or “spirits” (L 195).

The Dwarves, Tolkien’s Ishmael

In an interesting twist to the story, the Dwarves play not only the part of Ishmael, but briefly, the role of Isaac as well: “Then Aulë took up a great hammer to smite the Dwarves; and he wept. But Ilúvatar had compassion upon Aulë and his desire, because of his humility… And the voice of Ilúvatar said to Aulë: ‘Thy offer I accepted even as it was made…’” As Verlyn Flieger comments in her Splintered Light, “Aulë’s unquestioning acceptance of Eru’s chastisement and his willingness to destroy his creatures recalls the unquestioning obedience of biblical Abraham and his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at his God’s command.”[1] That it is only after Aulë has offered—and in a symbolic sense might be said even—to destroy the Dwarves that Ilúvatar accepts them as part of his plan, might be further compared to the institution of circumcision which Yahweh establishes with Abraham between the births of Ishmael and Isaac, an act in which some commentators have seen a form of ritual castration whereby Abraham was led to renounce in faith his own efforts at accomplishing God’s purposes by the works of the flesh. In the end, of course, Aulë no more literally destroys the Dwarves than Abraham literally cuts off or kills either of his two sons, yet Aulë does have to witness his Dwarves subjected to a kind of death when they are buried “in darkness and under stone,” all the while trusting in Ilúvatar’s promise of their future “resurrection,” much as Abraham is required to receive Isaac from the “deadness,” first, of the womb of Sarah (Rom. 4:19) and later, of the altar and “tomb” that was Mt. Moriah (Heb. 11:11-12).

After Ilúvatar’s acceptance of Aulë’s sacrifice and his granting the Dwarves the gift of life, freedom, and speech, the Dwarves revert to their status as the Ishmaelites of the story. Despite Ishmael being technically Abraham’s firstborn son, it is Isaac whom Yahweh elects as the son of promise and the one with whom he would establish his covenant. In like manner, Ilúvatar decrees that Aulë’s Dwarves, although the first to be brought into being, nevertheless must not “come before the Firstborn of my design… They shall sleep now in the darkness under stone and shall not come forth until the Firstborn have awakened upon Earth.” At the same time, Yahweh’s election of Isaac and his seed does not altogether exclude the possibility of blessing for Ishmael, as Yahweh also promises Hagar to “multiply thy seed exceedingly, that it shall not be numbered for multitude” (Gen. 16:10). This relationship finds its parallel in Ilúvatar’s statement to Aulë that, “Even as I gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World, so now I have taken up thy desire and given to it a place therein… But when the time comes I will awaken them, and they shall be to thee as children…” Yet in both cases this blessing also comes with a foreshadowing of future conflict. As Ilúvatar does with Aulë’s Dwarves, Yahweh will give Ishmael a “place” in his “design,” but Ishmael will still be a “wild man” whose “hand will be against every man, and every man’s hand against him” (Gen. 16:12). Similarly, Ilúvatar tells Aulë that, notwithstanding his accommodation of the Dwarves within his plan, “in no other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be.” Thus, because “they were to come in the days of the power of Melkor, Aulë made the Dwarves strong to endure. Therefore they are stone-hard, stubborn, fast in friendship and in enmity, and they suffer toil and hanger and hurt of body more hardily than all other speaking peoples…” More than this, Ilúvatar warns Aulë how “often strife shall arise between thine and mine, the children of my adoption and the children of my choice.”

[1] Verlyn Flieger, Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World, 100.

Aulë, Adam, and Abraham

Aulë’s defense of himself is similarly reminiscent of the Adam and Eve story, yet again with an apparently crucial difference. He admits to Ilúvatar that “the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father,” words which recall Adam and Eve’s shifting of blame from themselves to the Creator for making and arranging things the way that he did: “And the man said, The woman whom thou gavest to be with me, she gave me of the tree, and I did eat… And the woman said, The serpent beguiled me, and I did eat” (Gen. 3:12-13). Yet there is arguably a legitimacy and even plausibility to Aulë’s ambitions, misguided as they are, that seem to be absent in the self-justifications of Adam and Eve. His attempt to imitate Ilúvatar was born not out of a sense of jealousy, envy, or rivalry with his maker, but of a love for him and a desire that there should exist other beings who might, like him, enjoy the beauties of Ilúvatar’s world and give him due praise for it.

If Aulë’s transgression is in some ways like Adam’s, it is also like that of the other great patriarch of Genesis, Abraham. Much as Aulë knew by way of both promise (through the Vision) and natural desire that there should and would be “things other” than himself “to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä,” so Yahweh had promised to Abraham that his children would fill the earth as the stars do the sky (Gen. 15:5). And like Abraham and Sarah did in their bareness, Aulë grew “impatient,” as we have seen, with the world’s bareness: “For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb.” Moreover, just as Abraham sought to bring the promise about by his own means, conceiving Ishmael through his wife Sarah’s maidservant, Hagar, so Aulë tried to hasten the arrival of the Children of Ilúvatar, Elves and Men, through his fashioning of the Dwarves.

Aulë, Babel, and Pentecost

The previous post drew a comparison between Aulë’s fashioning of the dwarves and the building of the Tower of Babel on the plain of Shinar, while noting the dissimilarity between the failure and futility of Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves as free, independent, rational beings, and the comparative success (according to Yahweh) of the builders of the Tower of Babel in their purpose. Indeed, in some ways Aulë’s motivation is the mirror-opposite to that of the men in the plain of Shinar. It is commonplace to see the purpose behind the building of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11, namely the desire not to be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth,” as an act of rebellion against Yahweh’s dominion mandate in Genesis 1 that man should “be fruitful and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it” (1:28). In any event, Aulë’s purpose in fashioning the Dwarves seems broadly in keeping with Yahweh’s original dominion plan, as he explains his actions to Ilúvatar that “it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb.” Aulë, like Yahweh, is concerned to see that the world be filled.

Aulë’s allusion here to speech and language, or rather to their relative absence, is surely also significant in this context. Immediately after fashioning the Dwarves, Aulë “began to instruct the Dwarves in the speech that he had devised for them.” Aulë, in a word, is an inventor of languages, a role we see him carrying out in the previous chapter’s account of Aulë’s as-yet future (relative to his making of the Dwarves) relationship with the Noldorin Elves: “Aulë it is who is named the Friend of the Noldor, for of him they learned much in after days… [T]hey added much to his teaching, delighting in tongues and in scripts…” In his fondness for inventing languages, culminating in his attempt to fashion an entire species capable of speaking those languages, Aulë represents one of if not Tolkien’s most auto-biographical characters,[1] and hence a fascinating self-reflection and cautionary tale to himself on the potential excesses of such an obsession. What is presented as a positive source of great beauty and delight in its own right in The Silmarillion, however, namely the proliferation of speech and language, in Genesis is presented not so much as something good in of itself, as it is judgment or curse on man’s hubris and an impediment to further impious cooperation. As Yahweh declares, “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth” (11:7-9). As is well known, however, Tolkien’s own interpretation of this event was to see it as a felix peccatum (or “fortunate fall”), a veritable eucatastrophe, linguistically speaking, a point that would again commend the story of Aulë and the Dwarves as a sort of commentary on Tolkien’s part on the story of the Tower of Babel. It is perhaps some corroboration of Tolkien’s perspective that when the Holy Spirit was poured out upon the Christians at Pentecost in the Book of Acts, an event that, again, commentators have seen as hearkening back to and reversing the Babel incident, the result is not an undoing of the multiplicity and disparity of languages, but the gift of understanding and speaking them. Connected with this is Tolkien’s use of the iconic imagery of Pentecost in the closing lines of his poem “Mythopoeia” to capture his vision of the eschatological role that human sub-creators will play in the consumation of all things:

Be sure they still will make, not being dead,

and poets shall have flames upon their head,

and harps whereon their faultless fingers fall:

there each shall choose for ever from the All.

[1] Verlyn Flieger may, if memory serves, make this point in her Splintered Light: Language and Logos in Tolkien’s World. 

Of Aulë and Adam

           A number of interesting, and possibly even significant, parallels suggest themselves between Genesis and the story of the Valar Aulë’s attempt at fashioning the Dwarves in The Silmarillion. When the Creator, Ilúvatar, confronts Aulë, he asks him, “Why hast thou done this? Why dost thou attempt a thing which thou knowest is beyond thy power and thy authority?”, questions which may put us in mind of the inquiry Yahweh makes to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden: “Where art thou?… Hast thou eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldest not eat?” (Gen. 3:9, 11). Aulë, in short, is an Adam figure, a representative or covenant head whose transgression in this story will prove to be no ordinary peccadillo, but is nothing short of a “fall,” an original sin that will have consequences extending far beyond the initial offender himself. Part of that sin, moreover, and as we also see in the case of Adam and Eve, involves an illicit effort to become like the Creator himself. The serpent’s temptation to Eve, after all, was that God had forbidden the fruit of the tree in the middle of the garden because he knew that in eating of it “ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (3:5), and Aulë admits to Ilúvatar that his desire in fashioning the Dwarves was to achieve a certain likeness to the Creator himself, the very thing, it is worth noting, that also led to Melkor’s fall in the Ainulindalë. Consistent with Genesis, then, Tolkien portrays the origin of evil as a vain and idolatrous effort to attain something of God’s own power. As I would argue further, there is a very real sense in Tolkien’s world in which this is all that evil ever is.

I said a moment ago that the sins of both Aulë and Adam and Eve involved a “vain” effort to attain a certain likeness to God, but in the case of Adam and Eve, this is perhaps not strictly accurate. Like Aulë, Adam and Eve do attempt that which is clearly beyond their “authority,” but unlike Aulë, apparently not wholly beyond their “power.” In contrast to the situation with Aulë, who manages only in fashioning witless automata and not the free, living beings he had intended, Yahweh himself would seem to bear witness to the limited yet real success of Adam and Eve’s rebellion when he declares, “Behold, the man is become as one of us, to know good and evil…” (Gen. 3:22). In keeping with this achievement is the argument made by some commentators that because the knowledge of good and evil is elsewhere characterized in Scripture as a good and even kingly gift (see 1 Kings 3:10 and Heb. 5:14), Yahweh’s purpose may have been all along to allow Adam and Eve to eat of this fruit after they had passed a period of probation and the testing of their obedience. In this, however, we have yet another point of comparison with the story of Aulë, inasmuch as his sin, as with Melkor’s original fall, is further identified as one of “impatience,” of being too hasty to realize by his own efforts something that Ilúvatar had determined to bring about in his own good time. The ultimate impossibility and hence utter audacity of Aulë’s intentions, therefore, may seem to be more comparable to the building of the Tower of Babel, by means of which men sought to “reach unto heaven” lest they be “scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4) though here, too, it is interesting to find that Yahweh comments more on the potential success than on the apparent futility of their project: “And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do” (11:6).

Creatio Ex Nihilo in Tolkien’s Ainulindale

Yesterday’s post examined Tolkien’s response to correspondent Peter Hastings in which he defends a broadly Thomistic doctrine of creation as the exclusive and proper activity of God alone. Today I want to look at how Tolkien gives poetic expression to that doctrine in his own creation-myth, the Ainulindalë.

The first thing that might be said here is that it is Eru, while the angelic Ainur expectantly look on, who speaks the word of command, “Eä! Let these things Be!” that at last brings the world, previously only foreshadowed and longed for but not guaranteed in the Music and Vision, into being, thus giving it the “primary reality” and “fulfillment of Creation.”[1] Coinciding with Eru’s command, moreover, is his sending forth the Flame Imperishable to “be at the heart of the World,” causing the world simply to “Be.” In previous posts I’ve considered Tolkien’s identification of the Flame Imperishable with “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” (MR 345). This creative power was something sought for by Melkor but was not found by him because it was “with Ilúvatar” (S 16). As much in Tolkien’s secondary world as Thomas found it to be the case in the primary world, “it is manifest that creation is the proper act of God alone” (ST 1.45.5).[2]

In his image of the “Void,” moreover, the place where the Flame Imperishable is sent to kindle the existence of the created world, Tolkien also provides an apt depiction of the orthodox doctrine of creatio ex nihilo central to Thomas’s account of creation. The Void is an absence, a nothingness whose identifying—and for Melkor, most provoking—feature is its “emptiness.” In one commentary Tolkien describes the Void as “a conception of the state of Not-being, outside Creation or Eä,” which “the minds of Men (and even of the Elves) were inclined to confuse… with the conception of vast space within Ëa [sic], especially those conceived to lie all about the enisled ‘Kingdom of Arda’ (which we should probably call the Solar System)” (MR 403n).[3] For Tolkien, like St. Thomas, because creation is the gift of being itself, of being or “Reality” as such, it therefore presupposes the complete and total absence or negation of what it gives, namely non-being or nothing, which is to say, a void. This difference, moreover, between Ilúvatar’s creative “Fire” on the one hand, which is capable of kindling created existence itself out of literally nothing, and all forms of sub-creative making on the other, which are “guaranteed” by and hence presuppose an (ontologically) prior act of creation, is illustrated rather well in The Lord of the Rings in Gandalf’s terse reply to Legolas’s jest below Mount Caradhras that if the wizard “would go before us with a bright flame, he might melt a path” for the fellowship: “‘If Elves could fly over mountains, they might fetch the Sun to save us,’ answered Gandalf. ‘But I must have something to work on. I cannot burn snow’” (FOTR 305). As Thomas puts it in his argument for it “pertain[ing] to God alone to create,” without some already existing effect brought into being through the divine act of creation, the secondary instrumental cause “effects nothing according to what is proper to itself,” and is thus “used to no purpose…” (ST 1.45.5).[4]

To return to Tolkien’s account of the Void, however, in an earlier version of the Ainulindalë from The Lost Road, the Ainur’s first glimpse of the created world is described in these words: “Then the Ainur marveled seeing the world globed amid the Void, and it was sustained therein, but not of it” (LR 159, emphasis added). In his almost scholastic clarification that the world has its being in the Void without being of it, Tolkien echoes St. Thomas’s own clarification of the doctrine of creation ex nihilio: “when anything is said to be made from nothing, this preposition from (ex) does not designate the material cause, but only order; as when we say, ‘from morning comes midday’—that is, after morning is midday” (ST 1.45.1 ad 3).[5] For both Tolkien and Thomas, in other words, the Void or “Not-being” out of which creation has its existence is not to be conceived as a kind of matter or material cause which the being of creation is “made out of.” As for Thomas’s argument in ST 1.44.2 that the prime matter from which the world is made is itself created by God, Tolkien may be seen to credit a related belief to the Elves for whom he writes that “the physical universe, Eä, had a beginning” and that this included its “basic ‘matter’, which they called erma,” and that it was from this “basic matter” that all things else were “made” (MR 338).

Where the doctrine of creation proper is concerned, in summary, careful scrutiny reveals Tolkien’s mythology to be in remarkable agreement with St. Thomas’s teaching that God and God alone creates, an activity both men understand in the precise, metaphysical sense of a “giving,” “sending,” “sustaining,” or “emanating” of the very being, existence, or reality of a thing. What is more, Tolkien’s Thomism on this point, far from being of incidental significance, is in fact essential for rightly understanding the Ainulindalë, inasmuch as it is precisely through Melkor’s mistaken presumption that a creature such as himself can wield the creative power of Ilúvatar, the Flame Imperishable, that evil was first introduced into the world, a point I hope to develop in a future series of posts on Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil. Finally, as we have further seen, there is a level at which, for Tolkien, the account of creation presented in the Ainulindalë is not “not casual, but fundamental” to the meaning of his mythology as a whole, inasmuch as “from beginning to end [it] is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation” (L 188).

[1] Michaël Devaux makes the observation that in the first version of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales “there is no Eä! This equivalent of the fiat is actually subsequent… Eru’s words ‘Let these things Be’ date only from 1948.” Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 93. Though Devaux doesn’t make the point here, these changes in the Ainulindalë would appear to be part of what Devaux, following the studies of Nils Ivar Agøy and Kaj André Apeland, maintains to have been Tolkien’s increasing “theologisation” of his mythology from 1937 onwards. Ibid., 81.

[2] “Unde manifestum est quod creation est proria actio ipsius Dei.”

[3] David Harvey would thus appear to misinterpret the Void when he describes it as “the Chaos, which is formless and in disorder” into which “are brought the Ainur.” Harvey, The Song of Middle-earth: J.R.R. Tolkien’s Themes, Symbols, and Myths, 26.

[4] “Si igitur nihil ibi ageret secundum illud quod est sibi proprium, frustra adhiberetur ad agendum…”

[5] “[C]um dicitur aliquid ex nihilo fieri, haec praepositio ex non designat causam materialem, sed ordinem tantum; sicu cum dicitur, ex mane fit meridies, idest, post mane fit meridies.”

Tolkien’s response to Hastings: only God can create

Yesterday’s post looked at Tolkien’s correspondent Peter Hastings’s critique of Treebeard’s alleged claim that the Dark Lord had created the orcs. Here we’ll look at Tolkien’s response.

Far from being surprised by or dismissive of Hastings’s metaphysical concerns, Tolkien complacently responded that he had in fact “already considered all the points” raised by him, and pointed out that “[s]ince the whole matter from beginning to end is mainly concerned with the relation of Creation to making and sub-creation…, it must be clear that references to these things are not casual, but fundamental…” (L 188). As for the doctrine of creation presupposed in his mythology, Tolkien explains:

I think I agree about the “creation by evil.” But you are more free with the word “creation” than I am. Treebeard does not say that the Dark Lord “created” Trolls and Orcs. He says he “made” them in counterfeit of certain creatures pre-existing. There is, to me, a wide gulf between the two statements, so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true. It is not true actually of the Orcs—who are fundamentally a race of “rational incarnate” creatures, though horribly corrupted, if no more so than many Men to be met today. (L 190)

With Hastings, in other words, Tolkien agrees that evil is incapable of creating anything, but unlike Hastings his conviction stems from the much more basic, Thomistic conviction that no finite created being, whether evil or otherwise, can exercise the power of creation. As he informs Hastings, it is the latter who is too “free with the word ‘creation’.” At this point Tolkien adds in an explanatory footnote perhaps his most precise definition of creation: “Inside this mythical history (as its metaphysic is, not necessarily as a metaphysic of the real World) Creation, the act of Will of Eru the One that gives Reality to conceptions, is distinguished from Making, which is permissive” (L 190n). Creation, in short, is an act of the Creator alone, a point Tolkien reiterates in another letter similarly distinguishing the divine act of creation from the creaturely act of mere making: “they [the Valar] shared in [the World’s] ‘making’—but only on the same terms as we ‘make’ a work of art or story. The realization of it, the gift to it of a created reality of the same grade as their own, was the act of the One God” (L 235n). Again, Eru creates, the Valar make (or what is the same, sub-create), the same distinction that the early church Fathers made between God’s act of creation and the world-fashioning activity attributed to the gods of the pagan mythologies. What is more, Tolkien indicates in this passage that the demiurgic activity of the Valar is in fact something far closer ontologically to our own storytelling than it is to God’s act of creating. As Tolkien explains to Hastings, there is a “wide gulf” between the two actions of making and creating, “so wide that Treebeard’s statement could (in my world) have possibly been true” (L 190). In other words, while Tolkien holds it to have been metaphysically possible (even if in fact was not the case) that the Dark Lord had “made” the orcs, under no circumstances could it have been true that the Dark Lord had “created” the orcs, since creation involves the gift of being, existence, or “Reality” which the Creator alone can bestow. The power to create, Tolkien holds with Aquinas, is the exclusive prerogative of the Creator alone.

In tomorrow’s post I’ll look at how this conviction of Tolkien’s plays out in his own creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. 

Peter Hastings’s critique of Tolkien on creation

Contrary to the predominant interpretation of many scholars and readers, the term creation actually held for Tolkien much the same specific meaning as an exclusively divine activity given it by St. Thomas, and what is more, far from this point being of mere semantic significance, according to Tolkien at least, a right understanding of this matter struck at the very heart of the meaning of his entire mythology.

Tolkien’s most in-depth discussion of the issue comes in the same reply to Peter Hastings I’ve cited previously. One of Hastings’s additional objections to Tolkien’s mythology concerned Treebeard’s statement in The Two Towers that the “Dark Lord” had, in Hastings’s words, “created the Trolls and the Orcs” (L 187, emphasis added). According to Humphrey Carpenter, editor of Tolkien’s published Letters, “Hastings suggested that evil was incapable of creating anything, and argued that even if it could create, its creatures ‘could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one’; whereas, he argued, one of the Trolls in The Hobbit, William, does have a feeling of pity for Bilbo” (L 187). On Hastings’s assumption, evil cannot create because creation means the production of something good, whereas evil can only produce something like itself, namely evil. It is even possible that Hastings—he was the manager of the Catholic bookshop in Oxford—had Thomas’s well-known discussion of divine goodness at the beginning of the Summa Theologiae somewhere in mind. As Thomas argues there, “everything seeks after its own perfection; and the perfection and form of an effect consist in a certain likeness to the agent, since every agent makes its like; and hence the agent itself is desirable and has the nature of good” (ST 1.6.1).[1] Every effect is like its cause, so that whatever is good in the effect must preexist in its cause. But if a cause is wholly evil, as Hastings seems to have assumed to be the case with Sauron and Melkor, then it stands to reason that any effects they might produce, as Hastings put it, “could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one.”

On purely Thomistic grounds, of course, Hastings’s starting premise is problematic, since for Thomas no existing thing, including Sauron or Melkor, can in fact be wholly or entirely evil, inasmuch as existence itself remains a work of God and hence a “good,” a point that Tolkien himself implies toward the end of his letter to Hastings.[2] In any event, Hastings adds the qualification that, even if an evil being were allowed the ability to create, whatever it created must, like itself, be evil. Thus, notwithstanding his objections to Tolkien, Hastings actually leaves open the possibility of, first, good yet finite creatures being able to create, and secondly, of even evil finite beings such as Sauron and Melkor being able to create provided that their creations exhibit the same constitutional tendency towards evil as themselves.

In a follow-up post, we’ll look at Tolkien’s reply to Hastings’s critique.

[1] “Unumquodque autem appetit suam perfectionem. Perfectio autem et forma effectus est quaedam similtudo agentis: cum omne agens agat sibi simile. Unde ipsum agens est appetibile, et habet rationem boni…”

[2] “Because by [God’s] accepting or tolerating their making—necessary to their actual existence—even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good” (L 195).

Sub-creative Omnipotence

In a recent post I made the case that, in essence, what the late medieval voluntarism of Ockham, et al, represented was theology abandoning its sub-creative task. Specifically, it ceased to properly contextualize its fantastical, counterfactual claims about the possibilities open to divine power, by not carefully crafting an imaginative, secondary world in which those possibilities could be seen as internally consistent or proportionate. Late medieval voluntarism, to use Tolkien’s expression, is “green sun” theology–less imaginative or creative than simply ugly and lazy. Theology forgot that God is no mere “possibility actualizer,” but a world-maker. Creation is not the mere realization of a bare logical possibility, but to borrow Heidegger’s apt phrase, involves instead the “worlding of a world.”

That Aquinas, for his part, retained a better sense of the sub-creative nature of speculation over divine power may perhaps be seen in this passage from SCG 2.23.3:

Now, there are many entities which do not exist in the realm of created things, but which, if they did so exist, would imply no contradiction; particularly obvious examples are the number, quantities, and distances of the stars and of other bodies, wherein, if the order of things were different, no contradiction would be implied.

Implicit in this passage is an awareness on Thomas’s part that, unless the order of things were made different, any change to just the number, quantities, and distances of the stars might in fact involve a contradiction, and so prove impossible. For Aquinas, logical possibility is deeply world- or “order”-relative.

Philosophy is literal, Theology allegorical

Aquinas writes in Summa Contra Gentiles 2.4.1 that “the Christian faith deals with creatures so far as they reflect a certain likeness of God,” whereas “human philosophy considers them as they are…. The Christian faith, however, does not consider them as such; thus, it regards fire not as fire, but as representing the sublimity of God.” As Thomas continues in the following paragraph (2.4.2),

For this reason, also, the philosopher and the believer consider different matters about creatures. The philosopher considers such things as belong to them by nature–the upward tendency of fire, for example; the believer, only such things as belong to them according as they are related to God–the fact, for instance, that they are created by God, are subject to Him, and so on.

In hermeneutical terms, philosophy interprets things literally, theology allegorically. (In more historical categories, philosophy is Aristotelian, theology Platonic.)

Some thoughts in response. First, even on Aquinas’s own terms this division of labor seems to involve a bit of an equivocation on the meaning of philosophy. As Thomas explains elsewhere, philosophy itself is nothing other than the knowledge of God, nor is he always careful to limit philosophy’s knowledge of God to that which reason alone can know apart from faith (which is exactly how he characterizes philosophy in the opening question of the Summa Theologiae). As Thomas explains in the prologue to the Summa Contra Gentiles, for example, ultimate wisdom or sophia, which philosophy is the love (philos) of (and which Aquinas identifies as the subject matter of the present work) includes both those truths which are within the grasp of reason and those truths which surpass reason’s reach. The pursuit of wisdom, in other words, must inevitably come to include both the rational and the supra-rational, and hence both a natural and a revealed theology. For Aquinas, by reason man knows that God exists, by reason he knows that the knowledge of God is man’s end, and yet by reason man knows reason’s own incapacity for knowing God as he is in himself, which means that by reason man knows his own need for revelation if he is to reach his end (and we haven’t even factored in the pervasiveness and perversity of sin yet). All of this is to say that there is a very real sense for St. Thomas in which philosophy, rightly understood and properly exercised (which he virtually admits it almost never is) demonstrates to itself man’s need for, and hence philosophy’s own openness to, revelation. On either of these two understandings of philosophy–i.e., philosophy in the etymological sense of the “love of wisdom” and which encompasses both natural and revealed theology, and philosophy in the narrower sense of a natural or rational theology as distinguished from revealed theology–then, Thomas’s above, immanentized and secularized definition of philosophy as a knowledge, not of God, but of things as they are in themselves and in their own nature, seems strangely limited.

By philosophy, therefore, Thomas in the setting of SCG 2 would seem to mean something like natural philosophy, including physics and biology. And while this would seem to be in keeping with the subject matter of SCG 2 as a whole, which is creation and created things, it does raise the question as to what kind of treatment Thomas is proposing to give of creatures in SCG 2: is it a “theological” (i.e., God-centered treatment) or is it going to be a “philosophical” (i.e., scientific, thing-centered) treatment, one that effectively brackets the creature’s otherwise inherent orientation towards God? The answer, given the subject matter and purpose of SCG 2, is clearly the former: Thomas is here interested in creatures only so far as they relate to God. Yet the irony is that the treatment Thomas will give of creatures in SCG 2 is, at the same time, purely philosophical in the sense that his methodology is an exclusively rational one (i.e., he will demonstrate all of his conclusions about creation philosophically), and at no point is his argument formally dependent upon revelation for any of his premises or conclusions (though Thomas will certainly invoke Scripture and other authorities to corroborate his conclusions). Yet if what Thomas in fact offers in SCG 2 is a (rational) theological account of creation, instead of a (natural/scientific) philosophical account of creation, why does he he introduce his discussion by talking about how the “Christian faith deals with creatures so far as they reflect a certain likeness of God”? And why does he go on to contrast how “the philosopher and the believer consider different matters about creatures”? On Thomas’s own terms, the juxtaposition here ought not be between the believer and the philosopher, but between the philosophical theologian and the natural scientist.

And this leads me to my final thought, which is that even if we take Thomas’s juxtaposition here to be between the believer and the philosopher (which I have just shown not to make any sense in light of his own project), I’m not sure that we should agree with his conclusion. I am comfortable with a division within rational philosophy between a philosophical theology on the one hand and a philosophy of nature on the other: there is a difference, for example, between the way in which the Christian scientist, qua scientist, looks at creation in his laboratory and the way in which the Christian philosophical theologian, qua philosophical theologian, looks at creation from his armchair. So long as they are both doing what they are doing to the glory of God, I don’t that we need to insist that they are therefore doing the same thing to the glory of God. And if this is all that Thomas means (or means to mean), then I don’t see a problem. However, if Thomas means, in his references, for example, to the “Christian faith” and to the “believer,” to suggest that the Christian qua Christian looks at creatures differently than does the natural scientist qua natural scientist, then I think we need to beg to differ. (For one thing, “Christian” has no real counterpart except “non-Christian,” or “believer” except “non-believer,” so the contrast between “believer” and “philosopher” by itself doesn’t make any sense.) In question 1 of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that sacred doctrine (revealed theology) was made necessary “for man’s salvation” (though as we have seen, Thomas indicates a sense in which it would have also been necessary apart from the fall, namely in wisdom’s pursuit of those truths about God which surpass the grasp of his reason), but there is an alarming tendency in Aquinas, I find, to view this need for salvation as something that primarily pertains to man’s future life (in this sense Aquinas is already on his way to Descartes, who in his Discourse on Method limits theology’s usefulness to that of “teach[ing] one how to reach heaven”). But if man needs salvation, then this is a need that touches on every aspect of his life: if man as man (and not just “eschatological man”) needs redeeming, then so does man as philosopher, as scientist, as car-mechanic, as anything. This means that man as Christian or believer, which is to say, man as redeemed, will have the same interest in created things as any other office he might hold, including that of the philosopher or scientist. It is for this reason, and as Cornelius van Til memorably put it, that the Bible is authoritative in all that it speaks to, and it speaks to everything. And as Augustine observes in De doctrina Christiana, because Scripture speaks of the natural world, some knowledge of the natural world will be necessary to adequately understand Scripture. This is to suggest that even man as bible-reader will not necessarily have a lesser interest in or curiosity about things as they exist in themselves or in their own nature than that possessed by man as scientist. Indeed, it may very well guarantee that his interest and curiosity is all the greater.

Some interpretations of Tolkien on Angelic Creation

Notwithstanding Thomas’s historic critique, for most of Tolkien’s commentators, the account of creation reflected in the Ainulindalë is the pre-Thomistic, classical and early medieval doctrine of angelic, mediated creation. Verlyn Flieger’s Neoplatonic reading of the theology of the Ainulindalë, for example, is in evidence when she writes:

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.[1]

In previous posts I’ve considered Flieger’s Neoplatonic interpretation of Eru’s remoteness or aloofness from the created world. Related to this, as the above passage illustrates, is Flieger’s similarly Neoplatonic interpretation of the doctrine of creation displayed in the Ainulindalë: as the supposed intermediate “creators” of the world, the Valar’s creative operation or agency is seen as introducing a causal space or distance between Eru and the created world, so that their agency comes only at the expense of his absence. Flieger again makes the alleged pagan philosophical context of Tolkien’s Valar explicit in her Splintered Light, in which she contrasts the biblical account of creation with what she argues to be the much more Platonic account given by Tolkien:

The adjective Tolkien used to describe the labors of the Valar in making the world is demiurgic. It recalls Plato’s use of “demiurge” to describe the deity who fashions the material world and, as well, the Gnostic use of the word for the same purpose. Tolkien’s Valar do, indeed, create the material world of Arda, action that puts them closer to the God of Genesis than to the angels. But Eru of The Silmarillion is not the God of Genesis, and the clear distinction between Eru and the Valar is essential to Tolkien’s design. There is only one Prime Mover—Eru, the One. The Ainur, and more particularly the Valar, are sub-creators. They participate in the physical making of the world but could not have done so had not Eru first given them the theme.[2]

According to Flieger, in summary, the Valar are the true creators in Tolkien’s tale.[3]

Nor is Flieger alone in her interpretation, as I’ve noted before. John Cox’s Platonic reading of Tolkien likewise stresses the Valar’s over Eru’s role in the act of creation. According to Cox, in the Ainulindalë

the pattern of creation is very different from that in the book of Genesis. Its pattern, in fact, is Platonic rather than Hebraic. Ilúvatar begins by creating what Tolkien calls the Ainur… Almost everything else that Ilúvatar makes, he makes by the agency of the Ainur. That is, the creative force always emanates from one source, Ilúvatar, but it operates by the intermediate actions of the first creatures it made, who therefore become “sub-creators” (the phrase is Tolkien’s) in their own right. This principle of intermediate creation—or “sub-creation”—is extremely important for Tolkien,… and while it has no Hebraic counterpart, it has a very close parallel in Plato’s account of creation in the Timaeus. Here, as in the Silmarillion, the creative impulse derives from one source, a benevolent and eternal maker, who first creates what Plato calls “gods” and then charges them with the task of carrying on the creation.[4]

Similarly, Protestant theologian and literary critic Ralph Wood, while refuting the kind of deistic reading of Tolkien exhibited in Flieger in favor of a more biblical interpretation, also uses creation-language to describe the Valar’s activity, as when he connects them with the pre-Nicea interpretation of Genesis’s “Let us make”:

Ilúvatar in fact creates his own special Children—men and elves, who are two members of the same species—directly and not by mediation. That Ilúvatar uses the angelic valar as lieutenants in his other creative acts puts him in full accord … with the declaration of Yahweh in Genesis: “Let us make.” The ancient Hebrew author of Genesis probably alluded to the heavenly court surrounding Yahweh, and it is such a notion that Tolkien perhaps has in mind.[5]

Even Thomist philosopher Peter Kreeft sees Tolkien’s Valar as hearkening back to the pre-Thomistic, Lombardian and patristic conception of angelic power when he writes: “in The Silmarillion [the Creator] then uses the angels as instruments in creating the material world. This idea, which is not part of the mainline Christian tradition, is not heretical. It is a theologoumenon (a possible theological opinion) that is found in some of the Church Fathers.”[6]

[1] Flieger, “Naming the Unnameable: The Neoplatonic ‘One’ in Tolkien’s Silmarillion,” 132.

[2] Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, 55.

[3] To be sure, Flieger does identify the Valar as “sub-creators,” but the context would seem to suggest that by this she means not that they do not create, but that their act of creation simply takes place after or in response to Eru’s first having created them. Flieger stresses this point later on in her book when she implies that, after giving the Ainur their initial theme in the second stage of the creation-drama, Eru had virtually no other contribution to make: “We must remember the differing relationships that Eru and the Valar have with the world. Having provided the theme, Eru knows and understands the Music; yet he takes no further action, leaving the fulfillment and orchestration of the theme to the Valar.” Ibid., 77. However, even within the context of the Ainur’s Music alone it is not true that Eru “takes no further action,” for as the Ainulindalë makes clear, Eru continually interjects new themes into the Music, contributions, moreover, that correspond to Eru’s later direct intervention within the history of the world itself (S 16).

[4] John Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 57. A few pages later Cox reiterates the point, referring to the Valar’s act of sub-creation as the “fictional means by which [Tolkien’s] cosmos comes into being” (ibid., 59, emphasis added) and again writes of Melkor in particular that he “was created with sufficient power to create a universe in his own turn…” (ibid., 62, emphasis added). (For a reading of Genesis, however, according to which God does in fact delegate the power of “creation” to his creatures, see Watson, “Language, God and Creation,” 142.)

[5] Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy: A Response to Berit Kjos.” Elsewhere Wood further writes that “Ilúvatar employs his valar as ancillaries in the act of creation.” Wood, The Gospel According to Tolkien: Visions of the Kingdom in Middle-earth, 12. Nevertheless, Wood does draw the following parallels with traditional theologians such as Aquinas: “Even in his pre-Christian world, Tolkien suggests that Ilúvatar is no autonomous monarch. Tolkien even hints at a trinitarian understanding of God in having Ilúvatar act communally rather than solitarily. Here again Tolkien is in accord with the central Christian tradition. Two of the church’s greatest theologians, Thomas Aquinas and Karl Barth, regarded angels as the invisible mediators of divine action in the world. Tolkien agrees. That he specifies the particular powers of all fifteen maiar is his way of helping us reverence God’s constant angelic sustenance of all the good gifts of creation – fresh water, clean air, hot baths, nourishing food, broad daylight, the night sky, plus all the wonders of human making.” Wood, “Tolkien’s Orthodoxy.”

[6] Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 72-3. Another author to have imputed a doctrine of mediated creation to Tolkien is Elizabeth A. Whittingham, who writes how, “[i]n giving the Ainur power to create, Ilúvatar has not reduced his own creative force; he has simply extended it, including their efforts within his own.” Whittingham, “The Mythology of the ‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Creation of Hope,” 216. Later, however, Whittingham comes very near to attributing to Tolkien the Thomistic doctrine of the exclusively divine activity of creation when she says that, in speaking the word Eä!, “[i]n this moment, Ilúvatar has done what no Ainur—neither Manwë nor even Melkor—could have done. Ilúvatar takes the Great Music, which he has revealed through the Vision, and gives it form, brings it into being…” Ibid., 17.

Aquinas: for then against Angelic Creation

It was over against the position of Peter Lombard that St. Thomas would in part stake out his own distinctive position on the question of angelic creation. According to James Collins in his study The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, St. Thomas’s response to the Neoplatonic supposition of mediated, angelic creation was largely determined by his Christian belief that creation is fundamentally an act of divine will and therefore not something God was compelled to do by any necessity imposed by the divine nature. If creation is a free act of God, then not only is God free to create or not to create in the first place, but he must also be free to create more than simply one single effect, meaning that God could be the direct and unmediated cause of the being of all things, contrary to the fundamental premise of much Neoplatonic philosophy.[1] Even after removing the machinery of Neoplatonic necessity, however, Thomas, in the early part of his career represented by his commentary on Lombard’s Book of Sentences, continued to allow that it was at least metaphysically possible for God to have used the help of angelic secondary agents in the act of creation, even if this was not how God did in fact choose to create.[2]

Later in his career, however, Thomas’s reflections on the nature of the creation act led him to the much narrower and exclusive conclusion that God not only does not but cannot use the help of secondary agents in the creative process;[3] that is to say, that it was within neither God’s absolute nor his ordained power to delegate the creative act to the intermediate agency of his creatures. Thus, in his treatment on creation in the Summa Theologiae, for example, Thomas already begins laying the foundation for this conclusion in his argument that God, as the most universal cause, must therefore be the source of the most universal effect, namely being, which means that God is the cause even of prime matter (ST 1.44.2). St. Thomas juxtaposes this view of creation with those “ancient philosophers” who took matter itself to be uncreated and the substantial forms of things to have been produced in matter by “certain universal causes, such as the oblique circle, according to Aristotle, or ideas, according to Plato.”[4] By acknowledging even matter to be created in this way, of course, Thomas at the same time allowed matter some dim participation in the intelligibility and goodness of God’s own being. As Robert Miner has put it, because God produces the creature in its whole being, including its matter, his knowledge “extends not only to forms, but also to matter,” meaning that “the knowledge of God must also extend to singular things. It cannot be confined to universals.”[5]

It is this understanding of creation as the universal cause of being as such that Thomas brings to bear on the question of “whether it pertains to God alone to create” (ST 1.45.5). Because being is the most universal effect, it must be brought about by the most universal cause, namely God, meaning that “creation is the proper act of God alone.”[6] Establishing that creation is the proper act of God is not to say, however, that it is an act exclusive to him, since something can act “instrumentally” by participating in the proper action of another.[7] Of those who applied this thinking to the act of creation, Thomas first cites Avicenna, who taught that God created a “first separate substance” through whose mediation the rest of creation was enacted, and secondly Peter Lombard who held that, whatever the fact of the matter may be, God at least “can communicate to a creature the power of creating, so that the latter can create ministerially, not by its own power.”[8] In the now mature view of Aquinas, however, the very nature of the creative act precludes this possibility. On Thomas’s Neoplatonic definition given in ST 1.45.1, creation is emanatio totius entis a causa universali quae est Deus, “the emanation of all being from the universal cause which is God.” Now in every “particular” emanation the thing emanated is not presupposed to the act of emanation.[9] Thomas gives the examples of how the “emanation” or generation of something white presupposes something that is first non-white, and the “emanation” of man presupposes what is first not man. Applying this same logic to creation, Thomas concludes that, as the emanation of the being of a thing in its entirety or universality, what creation presupposes is the opposite of what is emanated, namely non-being, which is to say, nothing.[10] Creation by definition, therefore, must be ex nihilo, “from nothing.”[11]

This is the context, finally, for Thomas’s critique of Avicenna’s and Lombard’s teaching concerning angelic creation in ST 1.45.5, where he contrasts the manner in which creation presupposes nothing with the manner in which secondary instrumental agents (including angels) always presuppose some already existing effect which the secondary cause then “works to dispose” towards the work of the primary cause.[12] Thomas gives the example of a saw, whose cutting action presupposes the existence of the wood it labors to “dispose” to receive the form of the bench communicated to it by the carpenter. Without the already existing wood, the saw’s activity as a secondary cause would have nothing to act upon, and hence would be otiose. Similarly, unless God first brought something into being in the first place through the act of creation, there would be no existing subject over or upon which any secondary instrumental cause, such as an angel, might extend its power. God’s own act of creation, therefore, must take place prior to, and is thus presupposed by, the agency of any secondary instrumental cause. In this way Thomas, beginning with his Neoplatonic definition of creation as the emanation of being from the universal first cause, arrives at a uniquely anti-Neoplatonic conclusion: the first cause, and the first cause alone, is the direct, unmediated Creator of all that is and all that can be.[13]

[1] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 262. According to Plotinus, by contrast, the One does not and cannot produce the entire lower orders of reality all at once, but is, in a sense, dependent upon the higher, intermediate orders to produce their respective lower orders: “If there is anything after the First, it must necessarily come from the First; it must either come from it directly or have its ascent back to it through the beings between, and there must be an order of seconds and thirds, the second going back to the first and the third to the second.” Plotinus, Enneads 5.4.1, trans. Armstrong. As for later Islamic Neoplatonists such as Avicenna and Al-Ghazali, Collins observes how they “were forced to assert that God created inferior beings by means of superior, because they believed that from the One only one being can proceed immediately, whereas a multitude must proceed from the One through the mediation of the first and subsequent effects.” Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 262.

[2] Baldner and Carroll, “An Analysis of Aquinas’ Writings on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book 2, Distinction 1, Question 1,” 46-7.

[3] Ibid. See also Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 268-9.

[4] “Ulterius vero procedentes, distinxerunt per intellectum inter formam substantialem et materiam, quam ponebant increatam; et perceperunt transmutationem fieri in corporibus secundum formas essentiales. Quarum transmutationum quasdam causas universaliores ponebant, ut obliquum circulum, secundum Aristotelem, vel ideas, secundum Platonem.” This passage has generated some debate amongst Thomist scholars as to whether Thomas here intended to deny that Aristotle and Plato ever taught a true doctrine of creation. In a much-discussed endnote in his Spirit of Medieval Philosophy (438-41n4), Étienne Gilson argued that in ST 1.44.2 Aquinas denies that Plato and Aristotle held to the doctrine of creation, a position Gilson was preceded in by Jacques Maritain and followed in by Anton Pegis (Pegis, “A Note on St. Thomas, Summa Theologica, I, 44, 1-2”) and more recently by Leo J. Elders (The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas in a Historical Perspective, 182). Mark Johnson, however, has challenged this interpretation, arguing that the “ancient philosophers” Thomas criticizes in ST 1.44.2 for their defective causal account of the origin of being do not include Plato and Aristotle per se, but that Thomas must have had in mind those philosophers who were influenced by Plato and Aristotle, and that Aquinas did indeed attribute a doctrine of creation to Aristotle and later even to Plato. Johnson, “Did St. Thomas Attribute a Doctrine of Creation to Aristotle?” and “Aquinas’s Changing Evaluation of Plato on Creation.” Following Johnson in his reading of Aquinas and his critique of Gilson and Pegis is Lawrence Dewan (“Thomas Aquinas, Creation, and Two Historians”), Wayne Hankey (“Aquinas and the Platonists”), and Rudi te Velde (Aquinas on God: the ‘Divine Science’ of the “Summa Theologiae,124 and 142n4). Although disagreeing with Gilson, Velde does make the point that even in regard to Aristotle and Plato, Thomas “will never use the word creation when discussing the views of pagan philosophers about the origin of all things.” Ibid., 124.

[5] Miner, Truth in the Making, 3. On the intelligibility of matter in St. Thomas and its historical significance, see also Maurer, “Form and Essence in the Philosophy of St. Thomas.” Related to this is Catherine Pickstock’s interpretation of De Veritate 2.5 when she says that for Aquinas “God is much more of a country bumpkin (rusticus) capable of a brutal direct unreflective intuition of cloddish earth, bleared and smeared with toil… Because he can make matter, so also he can know it.” Pickstock, “Truth and Correspondence,” 14. Laurence Paul Hemming, however, has countered that what Pickstock overlooks is that for Aquinas “God knows in the manner of both rusticus and the astronomer. He says that ‘God knows all singulars, not only in their universal causes but also each in its proper and singular nature.’ This is preparatory to his dismissal of both ‘views’ as inadequate properly to describe God’s knowledge; the better and more informative example, he says, is to understand God’s knowledge by comparing to the knowledge a craftsperson or artificer has of what he or she crafts.” Hemming, “Quod Impossibile Est! Aquinas and Radical Orthodoxy,” 79.

[6] “[C]reatio est propria actio ipsius Dei.”

[7] “Contingit autem quod aliquid participet actionem propriam alicuius alterius, non virtute propria, sed instrumentaliter, inquantum agit in virtute alterius…”

[8] “Et secundum hunc etiam modum Magister dicit… quod Deus potest creaturae communicare potentiam creandi, ut creet per ministerium, non propria auctoritate.”

[9] “Quod autem procedit secundum emanationem particularem, non praesupponitur emanationi…”

[10] “[I]ta creatio, quae est emanatio totius esse, est ex non ente quod est nihil.”

[11] On the history and influence of the doctrine of creation from nothing, see May, Creatio Ex Nihilo: The Doctrine of “Creation Out of Nothing” in Early Christian Thought and Gunton, The Triune Creator: A Historical and Systematic Study, 65-96.

[12] “Quia causa secunda instrumentalis non participat actionem causae superioris, nisi inquantum per aliquid sibi proprium dispositive operature ad effectum principalis agentis.”

[13] As David Burrell has observed, Aquinas “insisted on employing the term ‘emanation’ for creation, even after removing and gutting the scheme of necessary emanation enthusiastically adopted by the Islamic thinkers al-Farabi and Ibn Sina…” Burrell, “Aquinas’s Appropriation of Liber de causis to Articulate the Creator as Cause-of-Being,” 76. This complexity in Thomas’s relationship to Neoplatonic emanationism has been missed by some of his critics. Colin Gunton, for example, whose criticisms of Aquinas Fergus Kerr describes as being “by no means unrepresentative” (Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, 40), faults Aquinas on the one hand for his Neoplatonic definition of creation in emanationist terms, while on the other hand finding a “disturbing symptom” of Thomas’s allegedly deficient doctrine of creation in the latter’s rejection of Peter Lombard’s “view that power to create can be delegated to a creature which works ministerially, in apparent neglect of the pattern displayed in Genesis 1, where God does precisely that—‘Let the earth bring forth’.” Gunton, Triune Creator, 100. Thus, the very thesis Aquinas defends in the interest of the Christian understanding of God as a personal, free Creator who brings the world into being from nothing, Gunton criticizes as being insufficiently Christian. As Kerr, however, states Thomas’ position vis-à-vis Lombard, “[t]he point Thomas makes, in rejecting the thesis that creating can be delegated, … is that, whatever Lombard says about creating as the action proper to God alone, he believed that this is perfectly compatible with the view that created causes might be able also to create as acting in the power of the First Cause. For Thomas, deeply imbued with Christian neo-Platonism as his theology obviously is, this is nevertheless an unacceptable form of hierarchically descending emanation ‘from above’. In the context of his time, he could only resist a doctrine of mediated creation which seemed inextricable from a picture of the cosmos as created by created intelligences (such as angels), delegated by, and suspiciously close to substituting for, the First Cause. Parting from Lombard’s view of the matter, Thomas wants to protect the singularity of divine creation: God alone creates in the proper sense.” Kerr, After Aquinas, 41. It is curious to note that when Gunton himself encounters what I will show in follow up posts to be the same Thomistic doctrine of unmediated creation present in Tolkien’s writings, he is unaccountably much more sympathetic. As Gunton observes in the case of Tolkien, “the artist is not so much creator as sub-creator. Such a distinction is essentially theological in content, for it suggests a belief that there is only one to whom we can ascribe the act of creation. The human artist can operate only at a secondary, lower level, by divine gift.” Gunton, “A Far-Off Gleam of the Gospel: Salvation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” 129-30.

Psychoanalyzing “The Hobbit”

* Matthews, Dorothy. “The Psychological Journey of Bilbo Baggins.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. A psychoanalytical approach to The Hobbit that accomplishes at least one thing to its credit: an (unwitting) exhibition of the intellectual and moral bankruptcy of the psychological theories of Freud and Jung. (These guys make medieval allegorical interpretation in its more, um, “creative” moments look like sober and sound exegesis.) Swords as phallic symbols (teehee) gets mentioned at least twice, and we are reminded with a straight face of the “Freudian sex symbols” of “keys, locks, caves, chalices, and cups,” items prevalent in “coming-into-manhood” stories such as The Hobbit. Here’s a choice morsel on Gollum: “The association of this adversary with water and the attention given to his long grasping fingers and voracious appetite suggest a similarity to Jung’s Devouring Mother archetype, that predatory monster which must be faced and slain by every individual in the depths of his unconscious if he is to develop a self-reliant individual.” Whatever. (But perhaps I’m being unfair, and am aggressively acting out my own repressed but otherwise well-adjusted childhood.) Matthews, to be sure, does make a number of insightful comments in the course of her article (for example, her answer to the question why it is not Bilbo whom Tolkien makes responsible for killing Smaug), but it is noteworthy that almost none of them have really anything to do with her psychoanalytical reading of the text.

Revisions in the character of Gollum and the Ring in “The Hobbit”

*** Christensen, Bonniejean. “Gollum’s Character Transformation in The Hobbit.” In A Tolkien Compass, ed. Jared Lobdell. Open Court, 2003. Originally published in 1975 (along with the other articles in this volume), this piece undertakes a side-by-side passage comparison of the first and second editions of The Hobbit, noting the changes that Tolkien’s work on The Lord of the Rings exerted retroactively on the character of Gollum and the Ring in The Hobbit. As Christensen summarizes her findings, “Tolkien’s chief alterations in ‘Riddles in the Dark’ change the stakes in the riddle-game, introduce the Ring as a ring of power—sentient, malevolent, addictive, and independent—define the opposing forces in the universe and convert Gollum from a simply lost creature to a totally depraved one…. The alterations clearly increase Gollum’s role and remove the story from the realm of the nursery tale… [T]he transformation of character indicate[s] that Tolkien attaches great importance to Gollum—more than is necessary or even suitable for his function in The Hobbit. But his prominence is appropriate to his expanded role in The Lord of the Rings.

A few (minor) criticisms. While Christensen does a good job of documenting the fact of the influence of The Lord of the Rings on The Hobbit, some further reflection on the significance of this influence, either for the works themselves, or for Tolkien’s craft as a writer, would be appreciated. Related to this, I was surprised Christiansen didn’t mention one item I would think pertinent to her discussion, namely the way Tolkien, in the preface to The Lord of the Rings, ingeniously faults Bilbo’s own initial dishonesty about how he came to acquire the Ring as the reason why there are two significantly differing versions of The Hobbit (clever when an author can blame his own characters for inconsistencies in his work). Finally, I found myself bristling a little at her claim that the imagery of Bilbo’s “leap in the dark” over Gollum’s head is an allusion “so explicitly Christian and so commonplace in theological discussion that again one is tempted to assume that Tolkien has employed common expressions without thought…. Faith: the leap in the dark that a man takes. Bilbo, a hobbit, takes it. The anticlimactic conclusion reinforces the Christian interpretation: man is a weak and insignificant creature who through faith and God’s help overcomes insurmountable obstacles.” Amen to the sentiment about man, but as an interpretation of the passage or its imagery, it seems to assume far too much affinity between Tolkien and Kierkegaardian Christian existentialism than is probably warranted (though to be perfectly fair to Kierkegaard, not even he described faith as a “leap in the dark,” a myth based on the mistaken assumption that the “author” of Fear and Trembling, one “Johannes de Silentio,” is a mere pseudonym for Kierkegaard himself and not the name of a character of his own invention).  These quibbles aside, a valid and worthwhile study of some important changes in The Hobbit. 

Angelic Creation in the High Middle Ages

The previous post noted the shift from first- and second-century Jewish and Christian commentators, according to whom the us in “let us make man in our image” referred to God and his putative angelic helpers in creation, to the later Patristic interpretation of this same passage in more Trinitarian terms. However, with the later medieval renewal of interest in Platonic and Neoplatonic origin myths, especially in the school of Chartres, along with the recovery of Aristotle’s cosmological writings in the West beginning in the twelfth century, the question of angelic creation and governance once again came to the fore.[1]

One especially important position articulated on the issue was the one formulated by Peter Lombard in his Book of Sentences, a work that became the standard theological textbook for the next several centuries, and thus the context in which subsequent thinkers such as Aquinas were introduced to the question of angelic creation.[2] In his treatment of the subject, Lombard cites as definitive Augustine’s opinion in his Literal Commentary on Genesis that neither good nor evil angels create but at most help in the “making” of things.[3] Curiously, however, in his later discussion of the power of baptism granted by God to his ministers, Lombard draws an analogy between the way in which God bestows the power to forgive sins to his ministers to the power of creation which God is supposedly able to communicate to his creatures.[4]

[1] Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages, 18-21. On late medieval angelology, see also Colish, “Early Scholastic Angelology.” On the medieval reception of Plato, see Gersh, ed., Platonic Tradition in the Middle Ages: A Doxographic Approach.

[2] On the history of Lombard’s Book of Sentences, see Rosemann, The Story of a Great Medieval Book: Peter Lombard’s “Sentences.

[3] Lombard, Sententiae in IV Libris Distinctae 2.7.8.

[4] Ibid. 4.5.3.