A sub-creative critique of Ockham and medieval theological voluntarism

In previous posts I have, on the one hand, noted some parallels between Tolkien’s approach to Fantasy and the apparent Humeanism, Ockhamism, and general nominalism of Chesterton’s discussion of fairy-stories in Orthodoxy (see his chapter on “The Ethics of Elfland”); on the other hand, I have argued that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creative possibility holds much in common with the general aesthetics and metaphysical theology of St. Thomas Aquinas, including the latter’s teaching on divine power. Here at last I want to develop what I think would be Tolkien’s own, uniquely sub-creative critique of the otherwise theological position of Ockham and the late medieval voluntarist position on divine power.

From a Tolkienian perspective, in short, the whole tradition of later medieval theological speculation over what God can do or make fundamentally boils down to the question of sub-creative imagination. As a number of intellectual historians have suggested, moreover, it was precisely this new kind of theological imagination practiced by voluntarists such as Ockham—with their emphasis on the utter contingency of the world—that helped prepare the way for the scientific revolution in the modern era.[1] As has also been noted, however, even comparatively conservative theologians like Aquinas entertained such possibilities as the Father or the Spirit having become incarnate instead of the Son, that God could have become incarnate in any creature he wished to, including an angel or a woman, and that the head of a man could have been made lower on his body and his feet higher, though as Lawrence Moonan points out, Aquinas was in general not one to “encourage unsatisfiable expectations.”[2]

Similarly, for Tolkien, while God is truly all-powerful, and the world correspondingly radically contingent, and while speculation about how the world might have been differently constituted is not only a legitimate, but at some level an essential human activity—indeed, one that has been divinely sanctioned as a means for bringing to completion this world—not every imaginable creature or world is equally valid. Successful sub-creation, as Tolkien puts it in his essay, requires “labour and thought, and will certainly demand special skill, a kind of elvish craft” (TR 70). When achieved, however, the result is something almost godlike: “narrative art, story-making in its primary and most potent mode.” Tolkien goes on to caution that such Fantasy “is a thing best left to words, to true literature,” rather than to other art forms such as painting where “the visible presentation of the fantastic image is technically too easy; the hand tends to outrun the mind, even to overthrow it. Silliness or morbidity are frequent results.”

Yet the problem with much medieval counterfactual speculation, from a Tolkienian perspective, involves more than an arguably “silly” or “morbid” failure of the sub-creative imagination, a failure, that is, to contextualize sufficiently speculations about what God could do or make de potentia absoluta within a secondary world capable of exhibiting that action as something good, wise, or just for God to perform. What is ultimately at issue here, after all, is the whole question of the theology of possibility, of whether the perfections and possibilities contained within the divine essence, in other words, are in fact exhaustive of the possible, or if divine power and possibility extend “beyond” even these. For Ockham, the possible is the logically possible, a determination vacuous and permissive enough in itself to suggest to Ockham the possibility, for example, that God could, de potentia absoluta, just as easily reverse the moral order by endorsing instead of prohibiting blasphemy, murder, theft, and adultery.[3] If Aragorn’s well-known statement to Éomer might be applied here, however, Ockham’s hypothesis is one that Tolkien would be unwilling to countenance in any possible world: “Good and ill have not changed since yesteryear; nor are they one thing among Elves and Dwarves and another among Men. It is a man’s part to discern them, as much in the Golden Wood as in his own house” (TT 41).[4] Thus, for Tolkien every sub-created world should doubtless have the same goal he set for himself in constructing his mythology, namely “the elucidation of truth, and the encouragement of good morals in this real world, by the ancient device of exemplifying them in unfamiliar embodiments, that may tend to ‘bring them home’” (L 194). Ockham by contrast, in divorcing the question of a thing’s intrinsic, logical possibility from a consideration of its possibility with reference to other created entities, to the created order as a whole, and above all, to the nature of the Creator himself, effectively places both human art and science—by placing the domain of sub-creative possibility upon which these human enterprises depend—in an amoral and ultimately atheological sphere.

For Tolkien following Aquinas, of course, no such sphere does or can exist. There are only two options: either one will take inspiration for one’s sub-creative imagining from the Flame Imperishable by which the existence of all creation has been kindled (as the faithful Ainur do), or one will attempt (after the fashion of Melkor) to seek out one’s own personal “secret fire” in the Void. The two possible sources for the possible, in short, are the God who is being or the non-being that is nothing. It is a dilemma already somewhat anticipated by Ockham, and one which Umberto Eco captures well in his novel The Name of the Rose when the Ockhamist William of Baskerville is asked by his novice Adso of Melk whether affirming God’s absolute omnipotence and freedom, even with respect to his own essence, isn’t “tantamount to demonstrating that God does not exist?”[5] The lesson of the Ainulindalë, however, is that sub-creative possibility is not even to be discovered in the Void, and that the only “alternative” to the humble, sub-creative “interpretation” of the “mind of the One” and the themes of his creation is the violent “alteration” and distinctly unimaginative negation of those themes, achieving a sort of “possibilism on the cheap.” For Tolkien, in conclusion, our human making will either involve an enabling and ennobling “Enchantment” of creation through its imitation of the Creator, an account of human making which St. Thomas, for example, provides for, or will involve rather the tyranny of “Magic” that “is not an art but a technique” and whose “desire is power in this world, domination of things and wills” (TR 73).


[1] See, for example, Funkenstein, Theology and the Scientific Imagination from the Middle Ages to the Seventeenth Century, 117-201.

[2] Moonan, Divine Power, 292-3.

[3] Ockham, Commentary on the Sentences 2.19, in Tourney, Ockham: Studies and Selections, 180-1.

[4] Similarly, Tolkien writes elsewhere: “Evil is not one thing among Elves and another among Men” (MR 224).

[5] Eco, The Name of the Rose, 493. William’s reply is intended to be unsatisfying: “How could a learned man go on communicating his learning if he answered yes to your question?” On the alleged, Thomistic philosophical sub-text behind Eco’s novel, see Sweeney, “Stat rosa pristine margine: Umberto Eco on the Role of the Margin in Medieval Hermeneutics and Thomas Aquinas as a Comic Philosopher,” 255-69.

2 thoughts on “A sub-creative critique of Ockham and medieval theological voluntarism

  1. Pingback: Sub-creative Omnipotence | The Flame Imperishable

  2. Pingback: A Theology of the Possible | The Flame Imperishable

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