Eucatastrophe and Ananke

Yet another difference between Tolkien and Plato I would point out concerns their respective concepts or uses of ananke (necessity or constraint). Similar to Plato’s Timaeus, Tolkien characterizes the operation of divine providence in his mythology in terms of a benevolent, “eucatastrophic” disruption of Necessity’s otherwise tragic course of “material cause and effect.” Unlike the Timaeus, however—according to which this material, causal determinism comprises an external limit on divine power, originating in an independently existing reality that is co-eternal with the demiurge—for Tolkien the “chain of death” which binds creation is not only a chain that the Creator shatters, but more paradoxically still, is a chain that he himself has forged. As I have argued previously, the seemingly impersonal inevitability of causal and historical necessity in Tolkien’s fiction is an artifice, a kind of divine subterfuge, used by an eminently personal God in order to escalate dramatically the impression of divine absence, only so that he might then destroy that impression through an even more radical disclosure of his unwavering, abiding, saving presence.[1] Thus, while it is true that, on the one hand, Tolkien ties his concept of eucatastrophe dialectically to Plato’s metaphysically tragic concept of ananke, on the other hand he makes it clear, as he puts it in his letter to Christopher, that this impression of the ananke behind the world is not so much real as it is “apparent,” that behind this apparent reality there is a greater reality still, namely the divine light which shines “through the very chinks of the universe about us.” In this way Tolkien may be seen as attempting to “save the appearances” of Plato’s concept of ananke, all the while sublating it within his otherwise Christian metaphysics of creation (much as St. Thomas, for example, does when in his own discussion of divine providence he does not so much disallow the existence of chance as he affirms it at its own proper level while subordinating it at a higher level to the divine governance[2]).

[1] As Stratford Caldecott aptly describes the basic conflict in Tolkien’s fiction, it is “a triumph of Providence over Fate.” Caldecott, “Over the Chasm of Fire,” 32.

[2] ST 1, 103, 5, ad 1. Thomas goes so far as to suggest that chance depends for its very possibility or efficacy on its subjection to divine government: “For unless corruptible things of this kind were governed by a higher being, they would tend to nothing definite, especially those which possess no kind of knowledge. So nothing in them would happen unintentionally, which constitutes the nature of chance.” In the closely related article of ST 1, 103, 7, “Whether anything can happen outside the order of the divine government?”, Thomas again writes: “Things are said to be fortuitous as regards some particular cause from the order of which they escape. But as to the order of Divine providence, ‘nothing in the world happens by chance,’ as Augustine declares.”

1 thought on “Eucatastrophe and Ananke

  1. Pingback: Morgoth’s Ring | The Flame Imperishable

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