“Sub-creation”: the elevation or the degradation of human making?

For Tolkien, art and human making is fundamentally an act of “sub-creation,” and for Aquinas, human art does not so much create new forms as it at most “con-creates” them in and through God’s prior and exclusive act of creation, an act which the operation of art is said to “presuppose.” To the minds of those of a more humanist bent, this subordination of the human act of making to God’s own making seems to denigrate and marginalize the metaphysical significance of man’s works of artistry. For those Aquinas scholars who have reflected on the implications of his remarks for the enterprise of human making, his teaching on the matter has been seen to have quite the opposite tendency. For Armand Maurer, for example, the consequence of St. Thomas’s teaching on the con-creative dependence of art on God’s own act of creation is not the deprivation but the investment of the former with a great deal of ontological seriousness and dignity:

Having supplied mankind with intelligence, God left nature in his keeping, to guard it, cultivate it, make it fruitful and fill it with his offspring. The art of man was meant to serve nature, to make up what was lacking in it, and to continue its creative activity. Man, by his art, was intended to be a co-creator with God, continuing nature’s creative activity in the world.[1]

Peter Candler, moreover, in his article situating Tolkien at the “intersection of Aquinas and Nietzsche,” likewise suggests that in dealing with St. Thomas “one can speak of the human agent as ‘concreating’ with God in any human making. Any act of human poiesis, then, is a participation [in] the creative agency of God—an act which is nevertheless ‘creation’ by analogy…”[2] And Jacques Maritain, without using the language of con-creation directly, nevertheless evokes the image when he describes the artist as “an associate of God in the making of beautiful works… he create[s], so to speak, at a second remove… Artistic creation does not copy God’s creation, it continues it.”[3] Finally, Robert Miner has made the case that Thomas’s account of human making as participating in the divine making is precisely what preserves for art the ontological depth and significance of which it has been stripped in more modern, secularized accounts:

Because Aquinas does not imagine human making to occur within a desacralized, sheerly human territory, but understands it rather as a mode of participation in the divine, it may be said that human construction acquires a significance that is difficult for modern secular perspectives to appreciate. It becomes a privileged site where God speaks through the creature, the agent of divine providence.[4]

For both Tolkien and St. Thomas, then, our acts of sub-creation, far from being a matter of metaphysical irrelevance or indifference, exist precisely because they have received the Creator’s own immediate, validating blessing or “guarantee” of creation. They have, as it were, been paid the highest compliment, namely the dignity of gaining a purchase on or place within the Creator’s own creative activity. In our acts of sub-creation God has chosen to create through us, as it were, not in the sense that we are made the intermediate agents or instruments of his creation, but in the sense of our sub-creative activity becoming the locus at which God carries on or continues his own work of creation.


[1] Maurer, About Beauty: A Thomistic Interpretation, 84. Cf. also Delfino, “The Beauty of Wisdom: A Tribute to Armand Maurer,” 41.

[2] Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 10.

[3] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 60-1.

[4] Miner, Truth in the Making, 18.

Primary matter: “created” or “con-created”?

The foregoing post on the subject notwithstanding, it is not entirely clear to me that Aquinas is entirely consistent or systematic in his use of the terms creation and concreation. In ST 1.7.2 ad 3, for example, Thomas makes the same claim on behalf of primary matter as he does in ST 1.45.8 with regard to form, namely that because it “does not exist by itself in nature, since it is not being in act, but in potency only,” therefore “it is something concreated rather than created.” Yet in ST 1.44.2 Thomas argues, and without any comparable qualification, that “thus it is necessary to say that also primary matter,” which never exists apart from some form, “is created by the universal cause of being” (“Et sic oportet ponere etiam materiam primam creatam ab universali causa entium”). On Thomas’s own admission, however, prime matter (i.e., matter considered in abstraction from its form) cannot be created, but only concreated.

(For Dante’s own application of Thomas’s notion of con-creation, incidentally, see Paradiso 29.22-30, where Beatrice instructs the pilgrim poet how, when the world was first made, the three elements of form, matter, and their union were together “concreate.”)

Rupert of Deutz: a monk’s critique of scholasticism

R. W. Southern. “Rupert of Deutz: A Voice of the Past.” Scholastic Humanism and the Unification of Europe, Vol. II: The Heroic Age

From its very inception the scholastic project had its antagonists, and one of the first and most vocal was the Belgian monk Rupert of Deutz (born ca. 1075). According to Southern, Rupert represented those concerned “men who had been brought up to believe that the pursuit of truth was essentially a religious enterprise, and that the monastic life provided the most suitable environment for those who aimed at understanding the mysteries of God and the universe. They thought that the mysterious operations of God were not suitable for analytical treatment, and that the secular atmosphere of the new schools … was totally inappropriate for the sacred area of the ways of God, which required long exercise of prayer and discipline in the religious–and that meant the monastic–life.” Rupert saw the cathedral school of Laon in particular (for Southern the effective birthplace of the scholastic movement) as a “threat to the ancient modes of learning and spirituality,” and attacked it and its master Anselm accordingly.

Rupert himself was no meager writer, his work on the Trinity having aimed at “nothing less than to described the works of the three Persons of the Trinity from the Creation to the end of the world,” and which Southern estimates to have probably been the “longest single work of the twelfth century.” The sheer volubility of the work Southern finds representative of the monastic milieu that produced it: “it was certainly not a work for itinerant students who needed to have materials which they could carry back to their own countries,” as would be necessitated by the nascent scholastic culture; rather, “it was a work for men who were irremovably settled in their monastic communities.”

Indeed, in Southern’s account Rupert becomes almost a parody of monastic literary practice: “if the old biblical commentaries were very long, his were gigantic.” And in opposition to the newfangled dialetical argumentation and distinctions of his scholastic counterparts, Rupert re-asserted, almost in exaggerated form, the traditional symbolic interpretation of not only biblical texts, but of the world in general, of the monastic liturgical routines, and even of the events of his own life in particular. Southern gives as nice a statement as any of the monastic evaluation of the significance and even superiority of its peculiar form of life: “in the monastic day, these symbolic activities brought an intense experience of the supreme world-embracing reality in which the monastic community lived. Every item in the daily routine of the monastery was a declaration of the presence of God and of the whole company of heaven: it was theology in action. To take part in these actions and rituals, and to handle the symbolic objects, was to live through the historical process of redemption; it was to in time, and yet to transcend time in a perpetual re-enactment of the greatest even between Creation and the End of the world: the redemption of mankind…. For Rupert… theology was not an intellectual study; it was a succession of daily experiences which brought every monk into physical contact with the eternal truths of Christianity.”

The rhetorical and hermeneutical implications of such a life lived in the presence of God was that Rupert, for example, felt “he could never find enough words to express all the richness and variety of the truths contained in the symbols of his daily life. To him logical ambiguities were an almost necessary part of our understanding the essential truths conveyed by symbols deeper than any words can fully express.” But where ambiguity might be tolerable in the safe confines of the monastery, the scholars of the schools “who had to deal with the doubts of the world and with the persistent questions of puzzled people, saw ambiguities as breeding grounds of error.” The irony was that it was precisely the imprecision and, as a consequence and in some instances, even borderline heterodoxy of the interpretative, allegorical excesses of a Rupert that partly drove the scholastic penchant for accuracy in analysis. “To men with a more modern outlook this kind of theology needed to be supplemented–some might say replaced–by a more rigorous intellectual system…. it was precisely such blemishes as the see that rigorous theological enquiry was designed to uncover and correct.”

Southern illustrates this general confrontation between monastic and scholastic ideals by means of Rupert’s critique of Master Anselm’s teaching concerning the divine will. In a formula that would become incontrovertible among the schoolmen, Anselm distinguished between the sense in which God is said to will the good (approbens) and the sense in which he is said to will evil (permittens). To Anselm, such distinctions were necessary to understand Scripture; to Rupert, they represented an intrusion of human logic into the divine mystery of the undivided will of God.

The resistance of traditionalist and conservatives like Rupert, of course, utterly failed to stem the rising tide of the scholastic movement, which would prove to be, in Southern’s estimation, “the greatest organizing force that western Europe had experienced since the death of Gregory the Great.” At the same time, Southern hints that the source of scholasticism’s strength would also be the source of its own dissolution: “the process of development led to over-elaboration and then to progressive abandonment after the mid fourteenth century,” a theme he promises to develop in his third volume of Scholastic Humanism, alas, never to be finished.

The birth of medieval scholasticism

In his second of what was originally projected to be a three-volume series on “Scholastic Humanism,” R.W. Southern characterizes the period from about 1080 to 1160 as the “heroic age” of medieval scholasticism, the “period of essential innovation … when the main principles of … scholastic humanism were formulated.” Although he characterizes scholasticism in typical fashion in terms of its “method of absorbing, elaborating, Christianizing and systematizing the whole intellectual deposit of the Greco-Roman past to produce a complete body of doctrine about both the natural and supernatural worlds,” and as an effort “to embrace all knowledge and every kind of activity in a single world-view,” of particular interest to Southern is the influence scholasticism exerted on the governance and structure of medieval society.

In Southern’s narrative, scholasticism’s proximate origins are properly to be traced to the school of (the other) Anselm, of Laon, in the final decades of the eleventh century, before shifting its center to the schools of Paris at the beginning of the twelfth century. While the more familiar names of Albert, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Scotus, and Ockham belong to those who “gave the scholastic enterprise its fullest expression,” they were the masters of the two generations prior to 1160 that first set the project on its course. Of particular importance to Southern’s telling of the story is the unprecedented and, for the trajectory of subsequent European history, pregnant and promising union that was forged between the schools and the governing institutions (namely church and state) of medieval society, the effects of which we are still experiencing today: “the period of scholastic history from about 1090 to 1200 changed the whole future of Europe, partly by the work of the masters in the schools and even more by bringing into existence a new class of scholastically educated men who inserted themselves in the middle ranges of government.” By contrast, Southern avers, the “intellectual refinements” after this formative period, while perhaps significant in their own right, had “only marginal and often conspicuously deleterious effects on the conduct of government.”

Aquinas on art as “con-creation”

The eighth and final article of question 45 of Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae, on the nature of creation as the “emanation of all being from the universal cause,” inquires into the relationship between creating and making, and asks “whether creation is mingled with works of nature and art” (utum creatio admiscetur in operibus naturae et artis). One of the concerns Thomas gives expression to in his set of objections is that if creation is defined as the bringing into being something from nothing, then art and nature—inasmuch as they produce new forms in things, forms which, taken by themselves, are not made from any previously existing material—would seem to involve a kind of “creation.” In his response Thomas draws upon a number of the arguments he made earlier in the course of question 45. Forms, not being subsisting, existing things in themselves (contra Plato), cannot therefore be the proper objects of creation (ST 1.45.4). Instead, the proper objects of creation are individual substances which are composed of both form and matter (excepting angels, of course, which according to Thomas have no matter). Citing Aristotle’s argument from book seven of the Metaphysics that forms, not being subsistent, do not so much exist (in the proper sense of the term) as co-exist in the substances they inform, Thomas argues in an analogous fashion that neither should it be said that forms are created, but are rather “con-created” (Sicut igitur accidentia et formae, et huiusmodi, quae non subsistent, magis sunt coexistentia quam entia; ita magis debent dici concreata quam creata). The forms produced by art and nature, therefore, are not a creation, but a con-creation, a designation that points to the radical contingency and dependence of art and nature upon the divine act of creation, inasmuch as their forms cannot exist by themselves but only in substances, the absolute being of which is directly caused by the Creator alone. The conclusion of the matter in ST 1.45.8 is that creation is therefore not “mingled with” art and nature but is rather “presupposed” by them.

The Provincialism of Relativism

“Where in fact do we find, outside certain circles of present-day Western society, any value position which does not rest on theoretical premises of one kind or another–premises which claim to be simply, absolutely, universally true, and which as such are legitimately exposed to rational criticism? I fear that the field within which relativists can practice sympathetic understanding is restricted to the community of relativists who understand each other with great sympathy because they are united by identically the same fundamental commitment, or rather by identically the same rational insight into the truth of relativism. What claims to be the final triumph over provincialism reveals itself as the most amazing manifestation of provincialism.” — Leo Struass, “Social Science and Humanism”

The self-contradiction of relativism

“[Relativism’s] so-called sympathetic understanding necessarily and legitimately ends when rational criticism reveals the untruth of the position which we are attempting to understand sympathetically; and the possibility of such rational criticism is necessarily admitted by relativism, since it claims to reject absolutism on rational grounds.” –Leo Strauss, “Social Science and Humanism”