Plato’s primeval matter

I’ve noted a number of parallels between Tolkien’s and Plato’s respective creation-myths, and many more might doubtlessly be enumerated. At the same time, Tolkien’s creation-myth makes a number of significant departures from Plato’s, to the point that the Ainulindalë might be said to define itself over against Plato as much it borrows from him. Implied in Tolkien’s association of his Valar with Plato’s demiurge, after all, is the claim that the closest approximation to Plato’s world-craftsman in Christian theology is not the God of orthodox belief, but the created, finite angels with whom Tolkien also identifies the Valar. And while both Plato’s demiurge and Tolkien’s Valar fashion the world out of pre-existing matter, both the nature of this matter and, as a consequence, the motivation behind the world-making of their respective demiurges, differ in significant ways. In the Timaeus, because matter is entirely uncreated and hence eternal, it has no intrinsic, intelligible relation to either the divine mind or eternal model from which the order and beauty of the cosmos originates. On the contrary, the original state of the uncreated matter is one of disorder (Timaeus refers to it as the “straying cause”), and it is this external condition of primordial chaos that prompts–even necessitates–the demiurge’s benevolent program of communicating to the material world something of his own goodness and order, while at the same time ensuring that this process of beautification remains always partial and incomplete. As I’ve noted before and will explore more fully in a follow-up post, in the Aindulindalë Tolkien has a very different story to tell about primeval matter.

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