Why January 1 is not the beginning of the new year

Martin of Braga (A.D. 510/520-579, Spanish bishop and saint, on why January 1 is not the beginning of the new year:

Likewise this error holds ignorant and rustic men, that they think that January 1 is the beginning of the year. This is altogether most false. For, as Sacred Scripture says, the beginning of the year was established on March 25 at the time of the equinox. For thus is it written: and God divided the light from the darkness (Genesis 1:4). For all right division has equality, as on March 25 the day has the same length of hours as the night. And therefore it is false that the beginning of the year is on January 1. (De correctione rusticorum, trans. D. Herlihy, in Medieval Culture and Society)

March 25, of course, is also Annunciation Day, the day on which the angel Gabriel allegedly announced to Mary that she was pregnant with the Savior, exactly nine months before the traditional date of his birth on December 25. As readers of Tolkien are also aware, March 25 is (not coincidentally) the date on which the Ring was destroyed in Mount Doom, marking the end of the Third and beginning of the Fourth Age (the previous December 25, by comparison, is the date on which the Fellowship set out from Rivendell).

Gandalf on not voting for the “lesser of two evils”

“[I]t is not our part here to take thought only for a season, or for a few lives of Men, or for a passing age of the world. We should seek a final end of this menace, even if we do not hope to make one.”

                                       –Gandalf, “The Council of Elrond,” The Fellowship of the Ring

Lewis’s Baconian reading of Bacon

In his Novum OrganumFrancis Bacon sought to establish modern natural science on an altogether new, experimental foundation and method of discovery. In doing so, however, Bacon deemed it necessary that science be once and for all freed from any interferences, limits, or distractions coming from the direction of theology. To this end, Bacon found himself reinterpreting Scripture in a way that would marginalize theology’s authority and guidance where the study of the natural world was concerned, and argued that this allegedly modest and humble position was the authentic teaching of the Bible itself. For Bacon, in short, the Bible’s own teaching was (effectively) that the Bible was irrelevant to a proper understanding of the natural world.

It is one of those tasty ironies, accordingly, that C.S. Lewis, in his Miraclesshould be found reading Bacon by means of Bacon’s own, dubious hermeneutic. After arguing for Reason’s distinction from, and even transcendence over, the world of Nature, in his chapter on “Nature and Supernature” Lewis makes the case for Nature’s resulting openness to the transforming agency of Reason. Anticipating an objection, Lewis suggests that the repugnance many moderns (among whom–in another Baconian sleight of hand–Lewis says that he numbers himself) feel toward such a picture of Nature’s vulnerability stems less from reason than it does from a certain emotional or aesthetic preference. As Lewis continues, “I know that the hankering for a universe which is all of a piece, and in which everything is the same sort of thing as everything else–a continuity, a seamless web, a democratic universe–is very deep-seated in the modern heart: in mine, no less than in yours.” Now, this democratic, anti-hierarchical view of reality is precisely one of Bacon’s great legacies to modern thought, as Lewis was well aware. Yet who should Lewis invoke in his effort to topple this modern, Baconian naïveté concerning the uniformity and inalterability of nature?

But have we any real assurance that things are like that? Are we mistaking for an intrinsic probability what is really a human desire for tidiness and harmony? Bacon warned us long ago that “the human understanding is of its own nature prone to suppose the existence of more order and regularity in the world than it finds. And though there be many things which are singular and unmatched, yet it devises for them parallels and conjugates and relatives which do not exist. Hence the fiction that all celestial bodies move in perfect circles” (Novum Organum, I, 45). I think Bacon was right. 

Against the naturalist’s Baconian assumption of an unalterable uniformity of nature, Lewis wryly pits Bacon’s own caution against the human penchant for finding more “order and regularity” than we really have evidence for.

But Lewis’s citation of this particular passage by Bacon in this particular context seems to be more audacious still. More than a mere invocation of something Bacon says in one place in order to undermine what he says in another, Lewis quotes Bacon to support a claim that is almost diametrically opposed to the one Bacon himself is trying to make. The target of Bacon’s remarks, after all, was the premodern and specifically scholastic tendency to anthropomorphize (as he interpreted it) nature by taking purposes or ends–which have their proper home in human thinking and action only–and projecting them onto what Bacon interpreted as an otherwise intrinsically non-teleological or purposeless Nature composed ultimately of nothing more than matter in motion. For its author, therefore, the above quote was originally intended as a statement calculated to relativize human reason, to chasten its confidence in the legitimacy of its own, every-day, common-sense modes of operation, and so to subordinate it to and discipline it under a conception of nature understood to operate according to the very different, even alien principles of materialism and mechanism. In Lewis’s hands, however, Bacon’s quote gets deployed in defense of the absolute character of human reason and the corresponding porosity or permeability of nature in the face of Reason, a relationship, moreover, that will turn out later to be a mere creaturely analogy to Nature’s much more profound, feminine vulnerability to the divine Reason of “Supernature.”

How, finally, might we interpret Lewis’s rather un-Baconian use of Bacon? Ineptitude? Doubtful. Disingenuous? Perhaps, but such a pietistic response, as I’ve already hinted, doesn’t reckon with the arguable duplicity involved in Bacon’s own use of Christian and biblical rhetoric to undermine the influence of the Bible and Christian doctrine on modern natural science. A third option suggests itself: in Lewis’s Miracles we see the premodern, “discarded image” tradition’s revenge on Bacon as it turns against him the very (and otherwise questionable) methods of persuasion by which Bacon and the moderns in general sought to subvert and replace that tradition.

The “humane” vs. the “political”: Frodo, Elrond, and Denethor

In The Return of the King, Gandalf contrasts Denethor’s mode of stewardship, which thinks of the good of “Gondor only,” with Gandalf’s own, much wider stewardship concerned with the preservation of anything that may “still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come,” and with “other men and other lives, and time still to come.” In a response he wrote to W.H. Auden’s review of the book, Tolkien articulated this antithesis in terms of the supremacy of the “humane” over the merely “political.” Objecting to Auden’s use of the word “political” to describe the central conflict of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote:

I dislike the use of ‘political’ in such a context; it seems to me false. It seems clear to me that  Frodo’s duty was ‘humane’ not political. He naturally thought first of the Shire, since his roots were there, but the quest had as its object not the preserving of this or that polity, such as the half republic half aristocracy of the Shire, but the liberation from an evil tyranny of all the ‘human’–including those …. that were still servants of the tyranny.

     Denethor was tainted with mere politics: hence his failure, and his mistrust of Faramir. It had become for him a prime motive to preserve the polity of Gondor, as it was, against another potentate, who had made himself stronger and was to be feared and opposed for that reason rather than because he was ruthless and wicked. Denethor despised lesser men, and one may be sure did not distinguish between orcs and the allies of Mordor. If he had survived as victor, even without use of the Ring, he would have taken a long stride towards becoming himself a tyrant, and the terms and treatment he accorded to the deluded peoples of east and south would have been cruel and vengeful. He had become a ‘political’ leader: sc. Gondor against the rest.

     But that was not the policy or duty set out by the Council of Elrond. Only after hearing the debate and realizing the nature of the quest did Frodo accept the burden of his mission. Indeed the Elves destroyed their own polity in pursuit of a ‘humane’ duty. This did not happen merely as an unfortunate damage of War; it was known by them to be an inevitable result of victory, which could in no way be advantageous to Elves. Elrond cannot be said to have a political duty or purpose. (Letters 240-1)

Related posts: Denethor’s Machiavellianism, Denethor’s Hegelianism, The Nihilism of Feänor and Denethor

No bodies, no art, no sacraments

Jacques Maritain makes the following comment as to the aesthetic and imaginative necessity of embodiment for the possibility of art or “sub-creation”:

Art being of man, how could it not depend on the pre-existing structures and inclinations of the subject in which it dwells? They remain extrinsic to art, but they influence it…. But art does not reside in an angelic mind; it resides in a soul which animates a living body, and which, by the natural necessity in which it finds itself of learning, and progressing little by little and with the assistance of others, makes the rational animal a naturally social animal. Art is therefore basically dependent upon everything which the human community, spiritual tradition and history transmit to the body and mind of man. By its human subject and its human roots, art belong to a time and a country.” (Art and Scholasticism, 74)

In this opinion Maritain was joined by Catholic artist and poet David Jones, who applied Maritain’s point about art to the sacraments:

No wonder then that Theology regards the body as a unique good.  Without body: without sacrament.  Angels only: no sacrament.  Beasts only: no sacrament.  Man: sacrament at every turn and all levels of the ‘profane’ and ‘sacred’, in the trivial and in the profound, no escape from sacrament.” (Epoch and Artist, 167, also cited in Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 11)

Aquinas’s philosophy of sports

What’s the purpose of sports, according to Aquinas? Why, to help us philosophize better, of course:

“[We do not] find any action in human affairs, except speculative thought, that is not directed to some other end. Even sports activities, which appear to be carried on without any purpose, have a proper end, namely, so that after our minds have been somewhat relaxed through them we may be then better able to do serious jobs. Otherwise, if sport were an end in itself, the proper thing to do would be to play all the time, but that is not appropriate.” (Summa Contra Gentiles 3.25.9)

Gandalf and sacrifice

The theme of sacrificial angelic power is particularly associated in Tolkien’s letters with the Istari or “wizards,” of which Gandalf and Saruman are the most notable members. Of the Istari Tolkien writes: “At this point in the fabulous history the purpose was precisely to limit and hinder their exhibition of ‘power’ on the physical plane, and so that they should do what they were primarily sent for: train, advise, instruct, arouse the hearts and minds of those threatened by Sauron to a resistance with their own strengths; and not just to do the job for them” (L 202, emphasis added). Of Gandalf in particular Tolkien says that, even after his “death” and “resurrection” as “Gandalf the White,” he was “still under the obligation of concealing his power and of teaching rather than forcing or dominating wills, but where the physical powers of the Enemy are too great for the good will of the opposers to be effective he can act in emergency as an ‘angel’—no more violently than the release of St Peter from prison. He seldom does so, operating rather through others, but in one or two cases in the War … he does reveal a sudden power…” (L 202-3, emphasis added). Like the Valar in their sub-creative and governing capacity, as a counselor Gandalf is charged with limiting the use of the power that is his by nature. (For more on the theme of angelic sacrifice in Tolkien, see Hood, “Nature and Technology: Angelic and Sacrificial Strategies in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.”)

Embodiment, sacrifice, and sub-creation

Although naturally immaterial, spiritual beings, Tolkien makes the free and hence contingent embodiment of the Valar a necessary condition for the exercise of their sub-creative power and influence in the physical world. More striking still is Tolkien’s representation of this act of voluntary incarnation in terms of spiritual condescension and sacrifice. In the Ainulindalë we read:

Thus it came to pass that of the Ainur some abode still with Ilúvatar beyond the confines of the World; but others, and among them many of the greatest and most fair, took the leave of Ilúvatar and descended into it. But this condition Ilúvatar made, or it is the necessity of their love, that their power should thenceforward be contained and bounded in the World, to be within it for ever, until it is complete, so that they are its life and it is theirs. And therefore they are named the Valar, the Powers of the World. (S 20)

In order to enter the physical world which they love and to help fashion it for the future coming of the Children of Ilúvatar whom they adore, the Valar are required to sacrifice something of themselves by relinquishing the use of some of their natural potency. In order to carry out their sub-creative tasks, in other words, there must first be a certain reduction or focusing of the Valar’s power, making them adequate, adapted, or “proportionate,” as Thomas might say, to the new, material, environment they are to inhabit and govern.

Lewis on elves in medieval thought

For St. Thomas, according to Chesterton, the question of angels was, in part, the question of whether there could be creatures “between” men and God. As Peter Kreeft has observed, the question for Tolkien is the related one of, “Could there be creatures between men and angels, such as Elves?” (The Philosophy of Tolkien 78). As Kreeft also points out, Tolkien’s question was not original to him but was also of medieval origin. Kreeft cites a passage from The Discarded Image by Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis in which Lewis makes much the same point about the intermediary and cosmological-aesthetic function served by Elves (the Longaevi or “longlivers”) in medieval literature, as Chesterton and others have made on behalf of St. Thomas’s angels. As Lewis writes of the medieval conception of the Elves: “Herein lies their imaginative value. They soften the classic severity of the huge design…” (Lewis, The Discarded Image, 122). Kreeft goes further to suggest that “[t]he same philosophical arguments for the existence of angels” that Lewis makes in his treatise on Miracles “could also be used as probable arguments for the possible existence of Elves or other species between the human and the angelic” (Kreeft 80).

Through, not by

In a recent post I quoted the passage from The Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë in which Ilúvatar states that it is “through” Melkor and “not by him” that much good will be brought about as a consequence of his evil. This logic of “through, not by” is something of a motif in the opening books of Augustine’s Confessions as the Bishop of Hippo tries to understand God’s mysterious agency and working of grace in his pre-converted life. Thus, in book one, speaking of the nourishing milk he received from his nurses, observes that “the good which came to me from them was a good for them; yet it was not from them but through them” (bonum erat eis bonum meum ex eis, quod ex eis non sed per eas erat–1.6.7).

Democracy as humility “mechanized”

Tolkien in a letter:

“I am not a ‘democrat’ only because ‘humility’ and equality are spiritual principles corrupted by the attempt to mechanize and formalize them, with the result that we get not universal smallness and humility, but universal greatness and pride, till some Orc gets hold of a ring of power–and then we get and are getting slavery.” (Letters 246)

Incarnate, sub-creative angels

Does Thomas’s metaphysics of the angels preclude or leave open the possibility of Tolkien’s incarnate and sub-creative angels?

According to Thomas, influencing the heavenly bodies is not the only way in which angels can effect change in the natural order. He admits, for example, that angels can and sometimes do assume corporeal bodies, not because it is in their nature to do so (ST 1.51.1), but because in this manner they are able to be of greater service to men with whom they have “intellectual companionship” and whose salvation they help administer (ST 1.51.2). In such cases, however, the angel is not united to the body as its form, as in the case of the human soul and its body; instead, the angelic spirit acts merely as its body’s extrinsic mover (ST 1.51.2 ad 3).[1] A couple of significant remarks made by Thomas on this point are, first, his statement that when angels do appear to men, the bodies they assume are or can be nothing more than “condensed air” (ST 1.51.2 ad3).[2]

Secondly, although angels cannot produce a human body (the angels being themselves incorporeal), Thomas avers that they nevertheless “could act as ministers in the formation of the body of the first man, in the same way as they will do at the last resurrection, by collecting the dust” (ST 1.91.2 ad 1).[3] This would appear to be a particular instance of Thomas’s more general principle that, although angels cannot perform miracles, being themselves part of the natural order (ST 1.110.4), they can nevertheless predispose nature to the supernatural and miraculous working of God, their own knowledge of the powers of nature being so acute that they can perform wondrous albeit natural works. As Thomas writes in one place, “angels are better acquainted than men with the active and passive powers of the lower bodies, and are therefore able to employ them effectively with greater ease and expedition seeing that bodies move locally at their command. Hence again physicians produce more wonderful results in healing, because they are better acquainted with the powers of natural things” (On the Power of God 6.3). Thomas even goes so far as to refer to the existence of an ars angeli or “art of the angels.”[4]

According to Thomas, however, the angelic will cannot command corporeal matter directly, but moves it “in a more excellent way” by moving “corporeal agents themselves” (ST 1.110.2 ad 2).[5] As Collins summarizes, in this way corporeal forms may indeed derive from angelic intelligences, not through an immediate “creative influx” (or direct “emanation,” as Thomas puts it in ST 1.65.4) on the part of the angelic intelligence, but rather through an “eductive process” of “moving the bodies to their forms.”[6] Whatever might have been the case, however, Thomas reminds us that, at least as a matter of historical fact, in the original creation of corporeal creatures no such “transmutation from potency to act” by angelic means actually took place, as Scripture teaches that “the corporeal forms that bodies had when first produced came immediately from God, whose bidding alone matter obeys, as its proper cause” (ST 1.65.4).[7]

[1] “[C]orpus assumptum unitur angelo, non quidem ut formae, neque solum ut motori; sed sicut motori repraesentato per corpus mobile assumptum.”

[2] “Et sic angeli assumunt corpora ex aere, condensando ipsum virtute divina, quantum necesse est ad corporis assumnedi formationem.” Dante in the Divine Comedy suggests that the diaphanous bodies of the shades are the effect of the deceased soul giving form to the air surrounding it, making the soul visible as well as giving it organs of sense perception through which even the deceased souls are able to continue communicating with each other (Purgatorio 25.94-105). On the Thomistic origins of Dante’s idea of diaphanous bodies, see Philip Wicksteed, Dante and Aquinas, 223-225.

[3] “Potuit tamen fieri ut aliquod ministerium in formatione corporis primi hominis angeli exhiberent; sicut exhibebunt in ultima resurrectione, pulveres colligendo.”

[4] On the angelic knowledge of and consequent power over nature, see Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 315.

[5] “Et sic angelus excellentiori modo transmutat materiam corporalem quam agentia corporalia, scilicet movendo ipsa agentia corporalia, tanquam causa superior.”

[6] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 289.

[7] “In prima autem corporalis creaturae productione non consideratur aliqua transmutatio de potentia in actum. Et ideo formae corporales quas in prima productione corpora habuerunt, sunt immediate a Deo productae, cui soli ad nutum obedit materia, tanquam propriae causae.”

Bree-land, enclave of Libertarianism

A post on what might be described as the “libertarianism” of Tolkien’s Bree-landers. I have commented before on Aragorn’s “laissez-fair love of Bree.” Yet what first prompts Gandalf’s remark about the King of Gondor’s affection for Bree, it is worth noting, is Butterbur’s concern that the new monarch should at once restore order and yet “let Bree alone,” an anti-interventionist outlook that Barliman seems to share with many of his fellow Bree-landers. Much earlier in The Lord of the Rings, when Bree-land is first introduced, her men are described as “brown-haired, broad, and rather short, cheerful and independent: they belonged to nobody but themselves…” Upsetting the stereotype, this independent spirit, rather than making them especially isolationist, segregationist, and prejudiced, seems rather to have made them more, not less open and cordial to those different from themselves: “they were more friendly and familiar with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and other inhabitants of the world about them than was (or is) usual with Big People.” This libertarian tendency, moreover, seems to be connected with (interestingly enough) their pioneer, frontiersman origins:

According to their own tales they were the original inhabitants and were the descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world…. [W]hen the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Breemen still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass. In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire.

For most readers, of course, it is not the comparatively more commercial and cosmopolitan Bree, but the secluded, idyllic, rustic, bucolic, and semi-anarchic Shire (Tolkien describes it in one place as “half republic half aristocracy”), that stands out as the political ideal in The Lord of the Rings. Yet the Shire’s original founding as a colony of the hobbits of Bree-land implies that the latter may in part, if not in large, be responsible for whatever passion for limited-government and responsible self-rule that the Shire-folk inherited (similar, and perhaps not wholly unrelated to, their inheriting from the comparatively more innovative Bree-hobbits the noble practice of pipe-smoking). As the unique political situation of Bree-land is further described, “The Big Folk and the Little Folk (as they called one another) were on friendly terms, minding their own affairs in their own ways, but both rightly regarding themselves as necessary parts of the Bree-folk. Nowhere else in the world was this peculiar (but excellent) arrangement to be found.” Clearly, for the narrator, if not for Tolkien, in some ways it is the unique polity (such as it is) of Bree-land that represents a kind of political ideal, one from which the comparatively insular and isolated Shire-folk have to some extent unfortunately departed. More than mere accidental participants in this remarkable situation, moreover, this enlightened perspective seems to be essential to the identity of the Bree-hobbits in particular: “There was Bree-blood in the Brandybucks by all accounts.” It is thus with more than a hint of irony and understatement that we are told how the Shire-hobbits regard their distant relatives in Bree as “Outsiders,” “dull and uncouth,” when the latter were in fact “decent and prosperous, and no more rustic than most of their distant relatives Inside.”

Given the Shire’s later political misfortunes toward the end of The Lord of the Rings, we might wonder, in conclusion, what role (if any) the apparent failure of her hobbits to achieve the Bree-lander’s delicate balance–a synthesis between spirited independence and a cooperative symbiosis of heterogeneous groups–may have played in the Shire’s eventual vulnerability, first, to the capitalist aggrandizement of Lotho Baggins, followed in turn and replaced by the socialist tyrannies of Saruman-cum-Sharkey.

Other posts on Tolkien’s political/social philosophy.

Angels “do the locomotion”

What are some of the things angels can and can’t do in the created order? One thing Thomas is quite clear on in regards to angelic power is that they cannot create. Nor, for that matter, does Thomas believe that angels can even communicate substantial form to already created matter (i.e., they can no more sub-create new things than they can create them). The primary reason Thomas gives for this in the Summa is that, because “like is produced from like,” we are not to “look for the cause of corporeal forms in any immaterial form” (ST 1.65.4).[1] As immaterial and incorporeal entities, in other words, angels are not a “proportionate” and therefore fitting and capable cause of the forms of material and corporeal substances.[2] At the same time, Thomas is adamant that angelic intelligences, as the highest of created beings, are more not less powerful than lower beings, including even the human soul, which can directly move only the body it is united to and other bodies only through it; whereas angels, by contrast, can move bodies they are not naturally united to (ST 1.110.3 ad 3). One way of viewing Thomas’s concern, accordingly, is to see him as at once claiming on the angels’ behalf the most far-reaching power and influence among created beings, without at the same time compromising the integrity and natural operation of the sub-angelic, corporeal order.

Thus, whereas angels exert a greater and more universal power and influence over bodies than even bodies and human souls are able to do, this angelic power and influence is accomplished not by effecting substantial change in things, but rather through what Thomas (following Aristotle) regards as the most perfect form of motion or change, namely local motion. The local motion of bodies induced by angels, furthermore, is accomplished principally through their moving the celestial spheres, the regular alteration of which causes the cycles of generation and corruption in the sub-lunar sphere of Earth.[3] In this way the local motion of the heavenly bodies serves as a sort of cosmic, diffusing lens through which the otherwise expansive power of the angels is mediated, accommodated, and focused or concentrated to the kind of limited, passive potentialities proper to corporeal existence.

[1] “[C]um simile fiat a suo simili, non est quaerenda causa formarum corporalium aliqua forma immaterialis; sed aliquod compositum…”

[2] Collins, in a chapter devoted exclusively to the subject of angelic power, elaborates on this particular Thomistic limit: “While that which is potential in matter is present in a more noble way in separated substances [i.e., angels], yet corporeal matter is not a proportionate potentiality with respect to the act whereby spiritual substances are in act. This follows from the fact that it is the composite itself rather than its components that is properly and essentially generated. Because of this necessary disproportion, no created spiritual substance has the power to effect an immediate substantial change in matter. The intermediate agency of some natural cause is required for such a formal transmutation… As higher forms, separated substances possess supremely universal active powers to which the passive powers of lower substances are not sufficiently adapted to receive an actualization except through the mediation of natural agents.” Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 313-14.

[3] Thomas following Augustine leaves undecided the historic debate as to whether the angels are joined to the heavenly bodies as their animating forms, i.e., the thesis that the heavenly bodies are “ensouled” by angels—the position of Plato, Aristotle, Origen, and Jerome—or whether the angels are united to them merely as external movers—the view of Anaxagoras, Basil, and John Damascene. Thomas’s inclination, however, is towards the latter of the two positions. Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 306-10.

Gandalf and Torture

Readers are familiar with the anti-capital punishment sentiment of The Lord of the Rings, most memorably stated in Gandalf’s iconic and programmatic statement to Frodo, “Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgement. For even the very wise cannot see all ends.” (Though it is worth noting that, in contrast to “sanctity of life” arguments, Gandalf doesn’t question the possibility of a person deserving capital punishment, only whether there is anyone really qualified to execute such a punishment.)  And Gandalf almost certainly would have been opposed to the use of torture. Yet in his account to Frodo of his encounter with Gollum in the chapter “Shadows of the Past,” Gandalf confesses to having resorted in his impatience to the threat of torture: “I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling.” How Gandalf was able to use the mere “fear of fire” to “wring the true story” out of Gollum, we are not told, and it is possible that what is involved here is a unique, fictional ability possessed by Gandalf and which does not exist in and is therefore not repeatable in the real world. Even so, Gandalf appears to regret his having to make recourse to such measures (compare Augustine’s discussion in City of God 19.6 of the “miserable necessity” with which a magistrate may, Augustine seems to allow, be compelled in some instances to use torture), and it is a remarkable thing that Gandalf should be found availing himself in the end to such methods-of-last-resort in a story that is ultimately about the renunciation of all such pragmatic compromises (viz., under no circumstances is the Ring to be used, even to defeat Sauron himself). Are we to see this, then, as a momentary moral lapse on Gandalf’s part (it wouldn’t be the only instance), or are we perhaps to see Gandalf’s threat of torture as somehow, in some way, morally distinct from the act of torture itself? If the latter, what would the basis of such a distinction be?

Bilbo Baggins, friend of the poor

Never really noticed it before, but one of the recurrent themes in the opening chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, “A Long Expected Party,” is that of Bilbo’s simultaneous wealth and generosity to the poor. A few passages:

[A]s Mr. Baggins was generous with his money, most people were willing to forgive him his oddities and his good fortune. He remained on visiting terms with his relatives (except, of course, the Sackville-Bagginses), and he had many devoted admirers among the hobbits of poor and unimportant families.

Even Bilbo’s cool relations with the Sackville-Bagginses implicitly corroborates the point: like Bilbo, they are comparatively wealthy; unlike Bilbo, however, they are greedy and covetous. Bilbo would rather spend his time and attention on the “poor and unimportant” than the rich and self-important. The enterprising Lotho Sackville-Baggins, of course, will be the one responsible for the Shire’s later enslavement to Saruman.

Another passage:

‘A very nice well-spoken gentlehobbit is Mr. Bilbo, as I’ve always said,’ the Gaffer declared. With perfect truth: for Bilbo was very polite to him, calling him ‘Master Hamfast’, and consulting him constantly upon the growing of vegetables…

A little later the Gaffer defends Bilbo as being “free with his money, and there seems no lack of it.” He further indicates that Bilbo is no less free with his time, condescending (as the Gaffer clearly views it) to tell his son Sam stories: ” ‘Elves and Dragons’  I says to him.’ Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters.’ ” And though the Gaffer is suspicious as to its value and long-term consequences, it’s with a hint of gratitude that he remarks that Bilbo has “learned [Sam] his letters.”

Finally, there is this passage indicating that, of those who were left gifts by Bilbo upon his sudden departure, the poor of Hobbiton received the best and most thoughtful attention:

Every one of the various parting gifts had labels, written out personally by Bilbo, and several had some point, or some joke. But, of course, most of the things were given where they would be wanted and welcome. The poorer hobbits, and especially those of Bagshot Row, did very well. Old Gaffer Gamgee got two sacks of potatoes, a new spade, a woollen waistcoat, and a bottle of ointment for creaking joints. Old Rory Brandybuck, in return for much hospitality, got a dozen bottles of Old Winyards: a strong red wine from the Southfarthing, and now quite mature, as it had been laid down by Bilbo’s father. Rory quite forgave Bilbo, and voted him a capital fellow after the first bottle.

Unsplintered Light

Tolkien scholar Verlyn Flieger has written incisively on the theme of “splintered light” in Tolkien’s work, which she interprets in terms of the occasional Inkling Owen Barfield’s thesis that language, meaning, and human perception change over time from a more authentic, mythic, unified state to a more fragmented, differentiated, and profuse state. As Tolkien himself writes in one letter, the Light of the Two Trees of Valinor, “derived from light before any fall,” symbolizes the “light of art undivorced from reason, that sees things both scientifically (or philosophically) and imaginatively (or subcreatively) and says that they are good–as beautiful” (L 148n). Part of Tolkien’s goal in his legendarium, as I’ve suggested previously, was to recover a lost vision of these now-divergent perspectives in their supposedly original, mythic unity.

As I’ve also noted before, however, there is a tendency in some readers to interpret such Tolkienian images in terms of a Neoplatonic, tragic metaphysics of emanation, according to which reality and meaning become more and more diminished or diluted the further they get from their originating source. In this context, accordingly, it is interesting to note that the light of the Two Trees, which Tolkien identifies as an authentic, unified, “undivorced” light of scientific or philosophical reason and sub-creative imagination, is in another sense not a primordial unity at all, but is itself the result of a sub-creative “blending” of two different light sources (in this case, the golden rain of Laurelin and the silver dew of Telperion). Put differently, the Light of Valinor is not just an authentically pre-splintered light, but already an unsplintering (if you will) of post-splintered light. The blended light of the Two Trees, in other words, is a symbol not of an original or natural–but of a sub-created (and in that sense “artificial”) and achieved–unity.

When we realize this, we may fairly see that in his image Tolkien treats us to a wonderful metaphor for understanding the import of his own legendarium, namely the harmonious and complementary synthesis of myth and fantasy on the one hand and analytical, scholastic reasoning on the other. If so, more than merely dramatizing Barfield’s  thesis about the tendency of human thought to self-differentiate and fragment over time, the aim of Tolkien’s own fiction is to help heal this modern perceptual breach by re-envisioning the world in a way that satisfies at once the human powers of both imagination and reason. Tolkien’s entire legendarium, in short, simply is the Light of Valinor, the powerfully fruitful and mutually fructifying mingling of the twin lights of reason and imagination.

As Tolkien well knew, such light can be and in fact has been “splintered,” “fractured,” and hence diminished and lost. When Saruman boasts that “white light can be broken,” Gandalf doesn’t contest the achievement so much as he questions its prudence and desirability: “In which case it is no longer white… And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.” But as a Christian Tolkien also believed that there was a way of changing the original light of God’s creation–and that by God’s own design and ordination–that resulted in more, not less, light. In his poem “Mythopoeia” he puts it in terms that, at first glance, may seem curiously Sarumanian: “Man, Sub-creator, the refracted light / through whom is splintered from a single White / to many hues, and endlessly combined / in living shapes that move from mind to mind.” Man the Sub-creator does indeed “refract” and “splinter” God’s “White light” of creation, but he does so (properly) only in order that he might then re-“combine” that light into even more “living shapes” that may “move from mind to mind.” Tolkien gives us a profound, positive, even comic image, finally, of this paradoxical, anti-entropic tendency of sub-creative light to escalate and multiply itself in an early account of the Two Trees of Valinor, in which it said that “of their growth and being did they ever make light in great abundance still over and beyond that which their roots sucked in…” This cross-pollination of sub-creative light is hardly a Neoplatonic outlook of a tragic, ever-diminishing reality, truth, and meaning–the metaphysical and semantic equivalent of Bilbo’s “butter scraped over too much bread”–but is more akin to the prophet Ezekiel’s eucatastrophic vision of the Gospel as a living stream flowing from the Temple: the further it gets from its source, the wider and deeper the water becomes.

Sacred scripture vs. sacred doctrine: Aquinas on metaphor

My previous post contrasting Augustine and Aquinas got me noticing how, in the preface to question one of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas says that he will address the question of whether sacred doctrine “rightly employs metaphors and similes,” whereas the question he actually answers in article nine is whether sacred scripture “should use metaphors.” In Aquinas’s Franciscan counterpart and contemporary, St. Bonaventure, “sacred doctrine” still means something like “sacred scripture,” the study of holy writ not yet being fully distinguished from the holy writ itself. In Aquinas, by comparison, these two realities receive more of their own identity, something I think is implicit in this opening passage of the Summa Theologiae (elsewhere in question one Aquinas will formally distinguish between the two by explaining how sacred scripture provides sacred doctrine with its first principles or axioms)In this small inconsistency between Aquinas’s promise to find a place for metaphor and simile in sacred doctrine, and his actual argument defending a place for metaphor and simile in sacred scripture, we perhaps have the signs of a growing crack between the ever-new wine of Scriptural content, and the what will prove to be an increasingly brittle wine-skin of the form of Scholastic logic and its conceptual apparatus. For Aquinas, scripture may be allowed to “rightly employ metaphors and similes,” but his own practice of sacred doctrine, significantly enough, almost never will.