“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.

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

  1. Pingback: Priming the pump; why the flag hats? | Don Your Flag Hats

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