Augustine vs. Aquinas on the analogicity of theology

Returning to Augustine’s Confessions after a semester’s immersion in Aquinas’s Summa Contra Gentiles, I am struck by the obvious: these two men, for all their similarities, are very, very different. In the Confessions, Augustine revels in linguistic paradox: the ambiguities, subtleties, and sublimities of divine truth are by turns a spur to further intellectual labor, inquiry, and reflection, as well as a profound source of rest and comfort in which alone–when human language and thought are pushed beyond their limits–can there be any full assurance that a true confession of God’s praises (so far as is humanly possible) has been achieved.

Contrast this with the logical and linguistic rigor and precision sought after and achieved in medieval scholasticism: while certainly retaining something of the spiritual and doxological impetus inspiring Augustine and the monastic and mystical traditions, this energy is nevertheless almost wholly co-opted, channeled, and spent in what has been aptly termed scholasticism’s “will to order.” Thus, while an otherwise Augustinian thinker such as Thomas Aquinas will continue to affirm, at least in principle, that all our language about God, for example, is predicated of him “analogically” rather than “univocally,” and he will allow that it is appropriate that Scripture should use metaphors, in the theological science that is the Summa Theologiae neither analogical nor metaphorical speech—the stuff of Augustine’s Confessions—have much if any place.

In summary, in contrast with Augustine’s delightful revelry in and willing surrender to linguistic paradox, in the scholasticism of Aquinas we have a much greater optimism or confidence in the power of human reason and language to speak with unequivocal precision about divine truth.

Chesterton on Aquinas’s anthropology of the angels

In addition to Aquinas’s treatment of angels as metaphysical curiosities, Howard Kainz also speaks of an important anthropological dimension to Thomas’s angelology. Kainz begins by making the point (especially apropos to our interest in Tolkien) that it is “profitable for us to discuss the significance of the angels, in terms of their mythical content,” by which he means the “subjective relevance” of the angelic beings, first, as “projections” of an idealized human existence, secondly, as “external reflections” of a “hierarchy of spiritual values, and thirdly, as “models” for human political ideals such as equality. In other words, in addition to the theoretical significance of the question of their actual existence, reflection on angels was understood to provide important insights into human beings as their immediate yet subordinate neighbors in the hierarchy of being.

Consistent with this anthropological perspective on Thomas’s angelology is the following remark by one of Tolkien’s own mentors in the ways of fairy-land, G.K. Chesterton. In his biography of St. Thomas he writes:

St. Thomas really was rather specially interested in the nature of Angels, for the same reason that made him even more interested in the nature of Men. It was a part of that strong personal interest in things subordinate and semidependent, which runs through his whole system: a hierarchy of higher and lower liberties. He was interested in the problem of the Angel, as he was interested in the problem of the Man, because it was a problem; and especially because it was a problem of an intermediate creature. I do not pretend to deal here with this mysterious quality, as he conceives it to exist in that inscrutable intellectual being, who is less than God but more than Man. But it was this quality of a link in the chain, or a rung in the ladder, which mainly concerned the theologian, in developing his own particular theory of degrees. Above all, it is this which chiefly moves him, when he finds so fascinating the central mystery of Man. And for him the point is always that Man is not a balloon going up into the sky, nor a mole burrowing merely in the earth; but rather a thing like a tree, whose roots are fed from the earth, while its highest branches seem to rise almost to the stars.[1]

As I hope to show in some follow-up posts, it is to this same scholastic tradition of doing anthropology by proxy—that is, of studying man by studying that which is not man and yet nearest to him (man’s “other”)—that both Tolkien’s fictional angels and his Elves may instructively be seen to belong.


[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,164. David Keck gives a similar account of the anthropological motive involved not only in Thomas’s but in medieval speculation over angels generally when he writes: “Of all God’s creatures, human beings are nearest to the angels, and angelology thus promises to illuminate anthropology. In the modern world, the impulse to learn about human nature from closely related beings has shifted subjects from seraphim to simians. Whereas modern scientists study the origins of the apes to uncover clues about humanity, medieval theologians investigated angels.” Keck, Angels and Angelology in the Middle Ages, 16. Collins makes the same point in his study on Thomas’s angelology: “The unity of the source of all being and the analogical similarity of all things guarantee that a knowledge of each grade will shed some further light upon what is below and what is above it in the hierarchy of reality. For the better understanding of God and the creative process, we can turn to that order of being which provides the most intimate created similitude of the first intelligent and free Agent. On the other hand, while it is true (as Pascal observes) that man is neither brute nor angel, still the consideration of him from the perspective of the angel to whom he is inferior as well as of the brute which he surpasses does enable us to determine more accurately his proper stature. Both natural theology and philosophical anthropology may profit by a comparative use of the Thomistic theory of pure forms.” Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, xii-xiii.

Metaphysics of the angels

Although there is certainly nothing quite like Tolkien’s sub-creative, demiurgic Valar to be found in the otherwise extensive and speculative angelological reflections of St. Thomas Aquinas (the “angelic doctor”), there is, I think, a very interesting and suggestive similarity in the metaphysical and anthropological functions that these spiritual beings play in the respective philosophies of these two thinkers. For St. Thomas, according to Howard Kainz (Active and Passive Potency in Thomistic Angelology), speculation over the angelic nature had real value both in terms of its theoretical truth and its anthropological implications. In terms of Thomas’s overall theory of being, for example, Kainz makes the case that

a philosophy of the angels is of prime importance for throwing light on the “nature of contingent being.” When we try to apply the categories of essence/existence, act/potency, substance/accident, etc., to the complexities of composite creatures, our discussion often becomes impeded because of the introduction of multiple contingent factors. But if it is within our power to discuss the same categories in relationship to a state of “pure” creaturehood beyond space and time, we should be able to get more easily beyond obfuscating tangents to grapple with the problem of the truly necessary relationship between essence, substance and accident, etc.

As simultaneously created and hence contingent yet immaterial beings, in other words, what angels represented for St. Thomas are an extraordinarily unique instance of the creaturely act/potency and essence/existence distinction, unique because it occurred apart from or without any corresponding form/matter distinction. Put plainer still, angels represented a distinct metaphysical possibility (indeed, reality) that was at once explicable in Aristotelian terms and yet were a possibility and reality of which Aristotle himself seems to have been entirely unaware.

Sovereignty and evil in the Ainulindale

The Ainulindalë contains what is undoubtedly one of the best literary treatments of the relationship of divine sovereignty, providence, or predestination on the one hand, and creaturely freedom and the so-called “problem of evil” on the other (indeed, even measured as a philosophical statement of these issues, the Ainulindalë doesn’t fare too badly). In the early version from The Book of Lost Tales, the Creator Ilúvatar’s explanation to the diabolus Melko(r) concerning the former’s supremacy and purpose over all that transpires is even more explicit and expanded (even if somewhat less poetical). In addition to the logos and pathos of the passage, it is remarkable also to bear in mind it’s author’s ethos. The following was penned sometime between 1918 and 1920 (during Tolkien’s stint working on the Oxford English Dictionary), and hence within a couple of years of when Tolkien had directly experienced the horrors of the Great War and in which, as he himself would later observe, all but one of his closest friends had been killed:

“Thou Melko shalt see that no theme can be played save it come in the end of Ilúvatar’s self, nor can any alter the music in Ilúvatar’s despite. He that attempts this finds himself in the end but aiding me in devising a thing of still greater grandeur and more complex wonder: –for lo! through Melko have terror as fire, and sorrow like dark waters, wrath like thunder, and evil as far from my light as the depths of the uttermost of the dark places, come into the design that I laid before you. Through him has pain and misery been made in the clash of overwhleming musics; and with confusion of sound have cruelty, and ravening, and darkness, loathly mire and all putrescence of thought or thing, foul mists and violent flame, cold without mercy, been born, and death without hope. Yet is this through him and not by him; and he shall see, and ye all likewise, and even shall those beings, who must now dwell among his evil and endure through Melko misery and sorrow, terror and wickedness, declare in the end that it redoundeth only to my great glory, and doth but make the theme more worth the hearing, Life more worth the living, and the World so much the more wonderful and marvellous, that of all the deeds of Ilúvatar it shall be called his mightiest and his loveliest.” (LT 55, emphasis added)

Sam Gamgee as The Silmarillion’s ideal reader

In a 1963 letter Tolkien confessed that he was “doubtful” about his undertaking to write The Silmarillion. What did he mean by this? According to his son Christopher in the foreword to The Book of Lost Tales, his father was “emphatically not” referring to any doubts he had about the intrinsic merits of the work itself: “what was in question for him …was its presentation, in a publication, after the appearance of The Lord of the Rings…” As Tolkien himself wrote, the earlier legends were in dire need of “some progressive shape,” and yet, to his mind, “[n]o simple device, like a journey and a quest, is available.” As noted in the previous post, in The Lord of the Rings the device Tolkien employed to remarkable effect was the “the impression of depth… created by songs and digressions,” by which was achieved (in Christopher’s words) a “backward movement in imagined time to dimly apprehended events, whose attraction lies in their very dimness…” What would be similarly needed in The Silmarillion, accordingly, was “a point of vantage, in the imagined time from which to look back, the extreme oldness of the extremely old can be made apparent and made to be felt continuously.” Christopher confesses that at the time of preparing The Silmarillion for its posthumous publication in 1977, however, he unfortunately “attached no importance to this doubt” of his father’s regarding his legends ability to stand on their own. Tolkien himself had allowed his own initial forays into providing a framework to his legendarium to drop-out (namely the Eriol/Aelfwine saga), presumably on account of some perceived literary inadequacy. The result was that Christopher published The Silmarillion without any such framework that might explain what The Silmarillion is and “how (within the imagined world) it came to be,” an editorial lacuna Christopher now “think[s] to have been an error.” In the absence of said framework, Christopher office the reader this advice: “To read The Silmarillion one must place oneself imaginatively at the time of the ending of the Third Age—within Middle-earth, looking back: at the temporal point of Sam Gamgee’s ‘I Like that!’—adding, ‘I should like to know more about it’.” There it is: Sam Gamgee as The Silmarillion’s ideal reader.

Hobbits: non-mediating mediators

Christopher Tolkien opens The Book of Lost Tales: Part 1 with the well-known and intractable problem of The Silmarillion, namely what many readers have discovered to be its comparative impenetrability. To Tolkien’s credit, two of the main challenges with The Silmarillion noted by Christopher were ones already anticipated by his father. The first problem is, as Christopher puts it, that there “is in The Silmarillion no ‘mediation’ of the kind provided by the hobbits.” With no comic, familiar creatures to lighten the levity and seriousness of mood and theme, in other words, the “draught” of The Silmarillion is “pure and unmixed.” A second source of The Silmarillion’s comparative lack of appeal is that The Lord of the Rings, similar to the Beowulf poem (at least as Tolkien interprets it), gives us a profound “impression of depth” through its subtle allusions to a vast backcloth of “untold stories,” whereas The Silmarillion inevitably must spoil this effect or break the spell somewhat by telling the untold stories themselves, of making the implicit explicit. As Tolkien posed the problem in his own words,

Part of the attraction of The L.R. is, I think, due to the glimpses of a large history in the background: an attraction like that of viewing far off an unvisited island, or seeing the towers of a distant city gleaming in a sunlit mist. To go there is to destroy the magic, unless new unattainable vistas are again revealed. (L 333)

Although Christopher doesn’t make the point expressly, his discussion points to a sense in which these two “problems” with The Silmarillion are really one and the same problem. Just as the hobbits help “mediate” for the reader the epic, mythical, and faerie dimensions of Middle-earth at large, referencing them to the more familiar, prosaic framework of the Shire, so likewise does The Lord of the Rings as a whole, through its narrative immediacy, function as a kind of “hobbitization” of the remote yet expansive, mythical backcloth of Tolkien’s legendarium. We see the coincidence of these two themes, I think, in a passage which Christopher himself discusses. After Gimli’s song about Moria in The Fellowship of the Ring, Sam responds with “I like that! … I should like to learn it. In Moria, in Khazad-dûm. But it makes the darkness seem heavier, thinking of all those lamps.” Christopher comments that by means of “his enthusiastic ‘I like that!’ Sam not only ‘mediates’ (and engagingly ‘Gamgifies’) the ‘high’, the mighty kings of Nargothrond and Gondolin, Durin on his carven throne, but places them at once at an even remoter distance, a magical distance that it might well seem (at that moment) destructive to traverse.”

Part of the irony of the hobbits, accordingly, is that their “mediation” is in fact a kind of non-mediation: in providing the reader with a way of access into the remote (to us) realities they experience, the hobbits at the same time draw attention to and thus accentuate that very remoteness, and in that very process (paradoxically) serve to further displace or distance the reader from the world they are helping to mediate. Put more succinctly, in pulling the reader into the wide realm of Middle-earth, the hobbits also help ensure (to the great aesthetic satisfaction of the reader) that that realm never becomes entirely immanentized, realized, or experienced. (To adapt Wittgenstein’s famous distinction, the hobbits help “say” what Middle-earth is without ever really “showing” it.) In this way the hobbits serve to elicit in the reader a profound desire for the world into which they themselves have been thrust, and yet by always intervening between the reader and that world, they also help sustain that desire by ensuring that it remains perpetually unsatiated.

Smart bodies and the imago Dei

Aquinas wonders whether intellectual substances (human souls and angelic spirits) could possibly be united as a form to any other body besides the human (SCG 2.90). He answers in the negative. Why? Bodies are either “mixed” (a complex of parts of heterogeneous nature) or “simple” (a partless conglomeration of a single element). Intellectual substances couldn’t be united as a form to simple bodies, since their very simplicity would preclude the possibility of the conjoined intellectual substance being able to do anything by means of such a body (e.g., what would a human soul or angelic spirit joined to, say, a rock as its form do with such a rock?). What about mixed bodies, then? Intellectual substances, by their very superiority to corporeal reality, could only be joined to the best or “noblest” of such bodies. Such a body would have to “possess that harmonious quality in the highest degree.” But the “most evenly tempered body,” Aquinas avers, “is the human,” a fact confirmed by its exceeding “fine texture and keen sense of touch,” qualities which Aquinas takes as a sure, corporeal “sign” of an otherwise “mental acuteness.” Human bodies, in short, are smart bodies, indeed, the smartest bodies, and therefore no intellectual (“smart”) substance may be joined to any body other than the human.

This raises an intriguing possibility that, to my knowledge, Aquinas himself doesn’t anywhere explore, and that is the role that the human body (and not just the human powers of intellect and reason) may play in man’s being made in the image of God.