Tolkien’s Chestertonian Nominalism?

The previous post noted the similarity between Tolkien’s use of the law of non-contradiction as a limit on legitimate sub-creative possibility and the use of this same law by medieval schoolmen such as Aquinas and Ockham to help define God’s own creative possibility. A further, at least apparent similarity between Tolkien and Ockham in particular on this point is the seeming permissiveness of the limit of mere logical possibility in allowing for all manner of outrageous speculations as to how God, or the finite sub-creator, might make the world otherwise than it is.

In Tolkien’s account of sub-creative fantasy, for example, and similar to that given by his mentor in the ways of fairy-land, Chesterton, the theme of creaturely contingency is so exaggerated that one might almost be lead to wonder if it isn’t Ockham rather than Aquinas who exerted the more significant philosophical influence over Tolkien’s imagination. In his chapter from Orthodoxy on “The Ethics of Elfland,” a passage which made a deep impression on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton gives us the following account of the philosophical import of fairy-stories which might sound more like a page lifted from Ockham’s Enlightenment counterpart, the nominalist David Hume, than it does from a man who would later write the world’s most famous biography of St. Thomas:

We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions… All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.[1]

Later on in the same chapter, Chesterton spells out explicitly the theology implicit in this philosophy of fairyland, a philosophy that, again, would seem to channel more the spirit of the “unconquerable doctor” (doctor invincibilis) than that of the angelic doctor:

the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every color has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but also dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been done…. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot…. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again… But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them… I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician…. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.[2]

While Tolkien’s approach to fairy-land is perhaps less exaggerated than Chesterton’s, his own fairy-tale speculations about the kind of metaphysical “magic” able to “make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey led into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water,” are similarly evocative of the brand of outlandish, counter-factual hypotheses about divine absolute power associated with Ockham. In the comparatively more sober, tidy, predictable, and reserved Aristotelian outlook of Aquinas, after all, where knowledge is primarily a matter of intellectually apprehending the immutable essences of things, one is much more disposed (as Aquinas is) to dwell on the naturalness, the fittingness, and in some sense even the necessity of created structures. In the fairyland of Tolkien, by contrast, a very different spirit seems to dwell, one in which knowledge of a thing is almost a knowledge of its contingency, of its lack of necessity. Finally, in his ability to produce “new form” by the mere command of his “will,” as he puts it in his essay, the Tolkienian sub-creator might seem to resemble in small-scale the voluntarist God of Ockham, that supremely free and powerful deity whose sovereign and unfettered will not only freely posits the created world itself, but also the very forms or divine ideas according to which the world is created. In a world so conceived, the forms or universals by which the human mind gains knowledge are in fact nothing real independent of the mind that conceives or “names” them, but are rather mere “fictions” of the mind, fictional in the etymological sense of things having been “made.”

These similarities notwithstanding, and as I hope to demonstrate in follow-up posts, not only is Tolkien not, in the final analysis, at least, an Ockhamist, but his reflections on the nature of sub-creation may in fact provide us with an altogether unique and powerful critique of Ockham’s theology of divine omnipotence which helped lay the foundation for the modern age.


[1] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 56, 58. Chesterton’s distinction between the “science of mental relations” and the “science of physical facts” derives from Hume’s well-known distinction between “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact” as the two fundamental classes of human knowledge. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 15. (Alison Milbank draws a similar comparison between Chesterton and Hume in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 9.) In Chesterton’s claim, moreover, that in nature we do not find “laws” but “only weird repetitions,” we would also seem to have Hume’s occasionalist theory of causality, also anticipated by Ockham, according to which our experience of causality is never that of “necessary connection” but merely of “constant conjunction.” As Chesterton himself writes a couple of pages later, “[a] forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together.” Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 58.

[2] Ibid., 64-70.

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8 thoughts on “Tolkien’s Chestertonian Nominalism?

  1. Pingback: A sub-creative critique of Ockham and medieval theological voluntarism | The Flame Imperishable

  2. This is an uncharitable look of Chesterton and specially Tolkien. We can more reasonably that they are basing their contingency on the works of the Marian Doctor Duns Scotus who was, for a time, teacher of ockham.
    Another strong candidate is the “Thomism” from the 16th to late 19th century, which is reality Suarezianism under another name. The Jesuit Francisco Suarez (doctor eximius) also emphasized the freedom of god and contingency of creation

    • Hi William. This post is actually part of a series, all excerpted from my doctoral dissertation on Tolkien’s Thomistic metaphysics. So I’m taking myself a bit out of context here, you might say. My final evaluation (anticipated in my final paragraph above) is that Tolkien actually offers us the basis for a unique and profound critique of Ockham. As it is, my post is only “uncharitable” if you take the above parallels between Chesterton and Tolkien on the one hand and Ockham on the other as necessarily a bad thing, which is not at all my point here (and I say this as a great critic of Ockham). Hope that clears things up a bit.

      • Also, you may notice that I’m playing “devil’s advocate” in the above post. I’m not seriously contending that Tolkien (or Chesterton) are nominalists (note the question mark in the post title), but that the apparent similarities might lead one to that conclusion.

  3. I think it is more charitable to call Tolkien a Scotist or “Baroque Thomist” (Suarezian) than to conflate him with a bad Catholic like Ockham. I would hate to be called something like a humean thinker or disciple of Hume, though.

    • One of the admitted limitations of my work on Tolkien’s Thomism is that I do favor more contemporary readings of Thomas found in Chesterton, Gilson, Maritain, and, more recently, Milbank, Burrell, and te Velde. Not having yet studied Suarez in any detail myself, I’d love to hear any insights you might have into the possibility of a specifically Suarezian influence on Tolkien.

  4. Francisco Suarez was according the British philosopher Anthony Kennedy, “a devout and erudite man, and in terms of sheer intellectual power he has a strong claim to be the most formidable philosopher of the sixteenth century.” 1 He was the Doctor of the Jesuits until the last century. It is a well known fact that he had a strong influence in many thinkers like Descartes, Leibniz and wolffe. Descartes borrowed his modal distinction and radical freedom. Descartes probably had him in view when he ridiculed the notion of formal Causes. Leibniz read Suarez closely and bragged of reading his huge metaphysical disputation as a teenager without problems.

    Baroque Thomism is the term used to describe Suarez’ interpretation of Aquinas. “Paradoxically, much that was to pass for Thomism during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries was closer to Suarezian metaphysics than to the Summa Contra Gentiles.”2 his influence was still keenly felt in the early 20th century as Hans urs Von Balthasar mentions it in several places of “Jesuit scholasticicsm”, “baroque neo-thomism,” etc. Balthasar also complained of the “soul-draining” Baroque scholasticism inflicted to him in Jesuit school.

    Suarez had an influence in modern philosophy that is unacknowledged and it is possible that he influenced Tolkien. Besides, didn’t Tolkien have Jesuit friends? You might want to read the Frederick Coppleston’s (A jesuit himself) excellent history of philosophy to learn more about Suarez, Scotus, Bonaventure and review Aquinas again.

    It is nice to have a kindle, it automatically makes citations for me ;-)

    1Anthony Kenny. The Rise of Modern Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy, Volume 3: New History of Western Philosophy v. 3 (p. 19). Kindle Edition.
    2Anthony Kenny. The Rise of Modern Philosophy: A New History of Western Philosophy, Volume 3: New History of Western Philosophy v. 3 (p. 18). Kindle Edition.

  5. it is my pleasure to speak of underrated philosophers like Suarez and Scotus. they, in my opinion, are the greatest Catholic Theologians alongside Aquinas. I admit a bias and predilection towards Doctor Subtilis in my case, though.

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