Boethius and Tolkien on providence vs. fate

What is the difference between “providence” and “fate,” according to Boethius? In a famous discussion he writes:

the whole progress of things subject to change and whatever moves in any way, receives their causes, their due order and their form from the unchanging mind of God. In the high citadel of its oneness, the mind of God has set up a plan for the multitude of events. When this plan is thought of as in the purity of God’s understanding, it is called Providence, and when it is thought of with reference to all things, whose motions and order it controls, it is called by the name the ancients gave it, Fate…. Providence is the divine reason itself… Fate, on the other hand, is the planned order inherent in things subject to change through the medium of which Providence binds everything in its own allotted place. Providence includes all things at the same time, however diverse or infinite, while Fate controls the motion of different individual things in different places and in different times. So this unfolding of the plan in time when brought together as a unified whole in the foresight of God’s mind is Providence; and the same unified whole when dissolved and unfolded in the course of time is Fate…. The order of Fate is derived from the simplicity of Providence. (Consolation of Philosophy 4.6, trans. Watts)

In summary, providence is God’s governing plan for creation as it exists in his own mind, whereas fate is God’s governing plan as it exists within creation; providence considers God’s plan from the perspective of the unity of the divine mind (providence is one), fate considers God’s plan from the perspective of the diversity of the physical world (fate is many); providence is general or universal, fate is specific or particular; providence is the divine plan, fate is the material outworking of that plan.

By comparison, in Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, we might say that providence is Ilúvatar’s own, original, and overarching “theme,” whereas “fate” is identified with the Ainur’s Music “interpreting” and “adorning” that theme (meaning that, in Tolkien’s myth, fate itself has become a delegated responsibility and an object of sub-creation). For more on Tolkien and Boethius, the interested reader is referred to Kathleen Dubs’s “Providence, Fate, and Chance: Boethian Philosophy in The Lord of the Rings” (Twentieth Century Literature 27, no. 1, Spring, 1981: 34-42), and John Houghton and Neal K. Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord Of The Rings” (Tolkien Studies 2, 2005: 131-159).

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Boethius on the “wraith-ing” of the wicked

“[A]nything which turns away from goodness ceases to exist, and thus … the wicked   cease to be what they once were. That they used to be human is shown by the human appearance of their body which still remains. So it was by falling into wickedness that they also lost their human nature…. [W]ickedness thrusts down to a level below mankind those whom it has dethroned from the condition of being human. The result is that you cannot think of anyone as human whom you see transformed by wickedness.” (Lady Philosophy in Boethius’s The Consolation of Philosophy 4.3, trans. Watts)

Angels as Negative Theologians

Do angels, free of many of our noetic limitations as humans, know more about God by nature than we do? According to St. Thomas, the strength of the angelic intellect in comparison to that of humans lies less in what it knows about God than it does in their much greater clarity and certainty in what it doesn’t know:

Now, separate substances know more things than we do, and things that are closer to God; consequently, in their understanding, they set apart from God more things, and more intimately related things, than we do. So, they approach more closely to a proper knowledge of Him than we do, although even these substances do not see the divine substance by means of their understanding of themselves. (SCG 3.49.10)

As Aquinas succinctly puts it in the following chapter, the angels “know that the divine substances is unknown to them.” The “theology of the angels,” in a word, is an apophatic theology, such that even angels, by their nature, fall short of the beatific vision of God in his essence. For that kind of knowledge, they are no less dependent on grace than we are.

Of Kings and Hobbits

Both Théoden and Denethor take hobbits as retainers, but their relationship to their respective hobbits differ from each other. Merry tells Théoden that he will be a “father” to him, but Denethor’s relationship is more pragmatic or utilitarian: although he is genuinely touched by Pippin’s gratitude for Boromir’s sacrifice and his offer of service, and as Gandalf himself generously recognizes, Denethor effectively uses Pippin to extract information from him about the Fellowship, as Gandalf also astutely perceives. Both men enter into a feudal relationship with their hobbits, a relationship that has mutual obligations, and yet both men, despite their being in the position of lords, default on their responsibilities to their vassals when they dismiss them from their service. Once you accept someone’s service, you cannot then refuse it at will. Merry is therefore in a sense entitled to accompany Théoden into battle, as Éowyn rightly recognizes. Unlike Denethor, of course, Théoden’s dismissal of Merry is at least partly solicitous: he naturally does not want Merry to come to harm. At the same time, it is also neglectful: Théoden is going into battle and (understandably) doesn’t want to be hindered by what he (wrongly, it turns out) perceives as unnecessary and encumbering “baggage.” The irony, of course, is that, in yet another exhibition of Tolkien’s gospel-logic, it is the small and seemingly insignificant Merry who will deal the all-important blow to the Witch King, giving Éowyn the crucial opportunity to destroy him altogether. Like King Lear’s Cordelia, in other words, they are precisely the two individuals most disenfranchised (or at least least enfranchased) by Théoden who render him the most faithful and effective service in the end. Théoden’s lapse in judgment here is to be contrasted with the gospel-logic exhibited, for example, by Elrond at the Council and Gandalf throughout the Third Age, the ingenious and paradoxical strategy of whom, beginning in The Hobbit, is the calculated enfranchisement of the hobbits, exposing them to and including them in the wider affairs of Middle-earth.

Denethor’s treatment of Pippin, however, is far worse. I have already mentioned his using Pippin to get extract information that Gandalf is loath to divulge, but he later disingenuously and hypocritically, even if indirectly, accuses Pippin of being a spy when he tells Gandalf that he has deliberately planted Pippin in his service for that purpose. It is disingenuous, because Denethor knows the genuineness of Pippin’s offer. If anything, Gandalf suffers Pippin to enter Denethor’s service against his own “better judgment,” and in part for Pippin’s own sake, knowing that he (Gandalf) has more to lose or risk than gain by having Pippin so attached and indebted to Denethor:

“I do not know what put it into your head, or your heart, to do that. But it was well done. I did not hinder it, for generous deed should not be checked by cold counsel. It touched his heart, as well (may I say it) as pleasing his humour. And at least you are free now to move about as you will in Minas Tirith – when you are not on duty. For there is another side to it. You are at his command; and he will not forget. Be wary still!”

In this we see something of Gandalf’s own “generosity” and self-sacrifice in allowing Pippin to serve Denethor despite the risk it may mean for Gandalf’s own purposes. So Denethor sees and recognizes the selflessness of Pippin’s offer, only to insult it later when he feigns to suspect it as a plot. And it is hypocritical in that, as has already been pointed out, it is Denethor himself who employs Pippin as an unwitting spy against Gandalf and the Fellowship.

Théoden and Denethor compared and contrasted

Gandalf describes Théoden to Pippen as “a kindly old man,” whereas “Denethor is of another sort, proud and subtle, a man of far greater lineage and power.” How are Théoden and Denethor similar and different? How does Denethor’s “far greater lineage and power” contribute to and characterize this difference?

Both are rulers of their people, but one is king, the other a mere steward. However, despite not being king, Denethor’s is “of far greater lineage and power.” Denethor’s ancestors have been stewards in Gondor for some 800 (?) years, longer than there has even been a Rohan.

One similarity is that they are rulers who are both weighed down by the cares of ruling and who eventually “fall” and are corrupted. Théoden, of course, is retrieved and redeemed from his fall and Denethor is not. But before that, the way in which they fall is also very different. Saruman is able to subdue Théoden directly by means of Théoden’s counselor and confidant, Wormtongue. Denethor, by contrast, is not able to be cowed even by Sauron himself—in this he proves himself even more resilient and in that sense even greater than Saruman the White Wizard. Thus, where there is a chain of corruption running from Sauron through Saruman to Wormtongue to Théoden, Denethor succeeds in resisting Sauron’s overt efforts to dominate him. Suaron’s influence over Denethor, accordingly, is limited to the more indirect means of leaking misleading information. Denethor does not believe Sauron’s lies, but in the process allows himself to be swayed by Sauron’s “truths.” Two examples of this are when Denethor is allowed to see that Frodo (whom Denethor knows to have the Ring) has been captured and when he is shown the fleet of Corsairs sailing up the Great River (but under the command, it turns out, of Aragorn—thus bringing to pass Gandalf’s prediction to Pippin that Aragorn may make his “return” under a guise that no one, not even Denethor, expects). Part of Denethor’s resistance to Sauron lies in his independence: unlike Saruman, who, as Treebeard observes, wants to become a “power,” Denethor is already a great lord of “lineage and power,” and unlike Théoden who, though a king, seems overly dependent on his ministers or counselors (as he says in Helm’s Deep, speaking not only of Gandalf but also of the now exposed and disgraced Wormtongue, “I miss now both my counsellors, the old and the new”), Denethor’s superiority means that in an important respect he needs no counselor (can you imagine Denethor having a Wormtongue-counterpart?) This, I think, is part of the significance of the conspicuous emptiness of Denethor’s hall: when Gandalf and Pippin first enter Denethor’s halls, they see no one except Denethor himself (they don’t even see who it is—if anyone—responsible for opening the doors to the hall, and it is not until Denethor rings the bell, that Pippen even notices that servants are present). This is very strange for a lord’s court, which is usually filled with, well, courtiers, advisees and dependents of the court. The emptiness of Denethor’s hall, however, is indicative of his independence and autonomy, qualities that exhibit both his remarkable greatness but also that weakness which will prove his greatest tragedy undoing. Denethor greater than Boromir in that, whereas Boromir at the Council of Elrond sees the Ring as a “gift” for the enemies of Sauron, Denethor realizes that the Ring cannot be used but ought to have been brought to Minas Tirith to be kept safe. Denethor reveals his own Boromirism, however, when he admits that the Ring was only to be used in utmost emergency. In this Faramir distinguishes himself, however, as greater still, in that he says he would not take up the Ring even if he found it by the side of the road.

Faramir’s commentary on Beowulf

Yesterday I posted on Tolkien’s admiration for the pagan “martial heroism as its own end” of Beowulf, yet which he immediately follows with his Christian caution towards the same: “But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.” In The Lord of the Rings, it is this same perspective that we found put in the mouth of Faramir, that most Christian and Tolkien-like of characters. Comparing and contrasting the Anglo-Saxon Rohirrim to his own people, the Gondorians, who are of a much higher and mightier lineage, Faramir says to Frodo:

‘Yet now, if the Rohirrim are grown in some ways more like to us, enhanced in arts and gentleness, we too have become more like to them, and can scarce claim any longer the title High. We are become Middle Men, of the Twilight, but with memory of other things. For as the Rohirrim do, we now love war and valour as things good in themselves, both a sport and an end; and though we still hold that a warrior should have more skills and knowledge than only the craft of weapons and slaying, we esteem a warrior, nonetheless, above men of other crafts. Such is the need of our days. So even was my brother, Boromir: a man of prowess, and for that he was accounted the best man in Gondor. And very valiant indeed he was: no heir of Minas Tirith has for long years been so hardy in toil, so onward into battle, or blown a mightier note on the Great Horn.’ Faramir sighed and fell silent for a while.

Much of the significance of Faramir’s courtship of Eowyn, it might be said, lies in his “converting”–indeed, healing and saving–this courageous but fey “shieldmaiden” of Rohan from her noble but pagan (and so ultimately enervating and no less nihilistic) martial obsession.

‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ she said; ‘and behold the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren.’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.

     Then Faramir laughed merrily. ‘That is well,’ he said, ‘for I am not a king. Yet I will wed with the White Lady of Rohan, if it be her will. And if she will, then let us cross the River and in happier days let us dwell in fair Ithilien and there make a garden. All things will grow with joy there, if the White Lady comes.’

     ‘Then must I leave my own people, man of Gondor?’ she said. ‘And would you have your proud folk say of you: “There goes a lord who tamed a wild shieldmaiden of the North! Was there no woman of the race of Númenor to choose?”‘

     ‘I would,’ said Faramir.

Therein, I submit, lies much of Tolkien’s Christian response to Nietzsche: it is not ultimately the agonistic will-to-power, but the pastoral will-to-garden, that is the cure for modern nihilism.

Homer vs. Beowulf: Tolkien and Nietzsche on the necessity of Monsters

There is much in Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf that bears comparison with Nietzsche’s Birth of Tragedy, one instance of which is the role of foil that Homer’s epics play in their respective arguments. Tolkien quotes at length this passage from another scholar’s essay titled “Beowulf and the Heroic Age”:

In the epoch of Beowulf a Heroic Age more wild and primitive than that of Greece is brought into touch with Christendom, with the Sermon on the Mount, with Catholic theology and ideas of Heaven and Hell. We see the difference, if we compare the wilder things–the folk-tale element–in Beowulf with the wilder things of Homer. Take for example the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops–the No-man trick. Odysseus is struggling with a monstrous and wicked foe, but he is not exactly thought of as struggling with the powers of darkness. Polyphemus, by devouring his guests, acts in a way which is hateful to Zeus and hte other gods: yet the Cyclops is himself god-begotten and under divine protection, and the fact that Odysseus has maimed him is a wrong which Poseidon is slow to forgive. But the gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God. Grendel and the dragon are constantly referred to in language which is meant to recall the powers of darkness with which Christian men felt themselves to be encompaeed. They are hte ‘inmates of Hell’, ‘adversaries of God’, ‘offspring of Cain’, ‘enemies of mankind’. Consequently, the matter of hte main story of Beowulf, monstrous as it is, is not so removed from common mediaeval experience as it seems to us to be from our own…. Grendel hardly differs from the fiends of the pit who were always in ambush to waylay a righteous man. And so Beowulf, for all that he moves in the world of the primitive Heroic Age of the Germans, nevertheless is almost a Christian knight.

(Tolkien qualifies that last line, saying “I should prefer to say that [Beowulf] moves in a northern heroic age imagined by a Christian.”) Later in his essay Tolkien is found expressing much the same sentiment in his own words, when he contrasts Homer’s (“southern”) theology with the mythology (and more specifically, the bestiary) of Beowulf:

the southern gods are more godlike–more lofty, dread, and inscrutable. They are timeless and do not fear death. Such a mythology may hold the promise of a profounder thought. In any case it was a virtue of the southern mythology that it could not stop where it was. It must go forward to philosophy or relapse into anarchy. For in a sense it had shirked the problem precisely by not having the monsters in the centre-as they are in Beowulf… But such horrors cannot be left permanently unexplained, lurking on the outer edges… It is the strength of the norther mythological imagination that it faced this problem, put the monsters in the centre, gave them victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage… So potent is it, that while the older southern imagination has faded for ever into literary ornament, the northern has power, as it were, to revive its spirit even in our own times. It can work … without gods: martial heroism as its own end. But we may remember that the poet of Beowulf saw clearly: the wages of heroism is death.

One similarity, then, is between Tolkien’s evaluation of Beowulf‘s continuing capacity to fire the spirit of indomitable will and courage down to “our own times,” and Nietzsche’s parallel argument in The Birth of Tragedy concerning the prophetic potency and promise of the spirit of music, formerly found in Attic tragedy, to revitalize contemporary German culture. Both authors, in other words, are deeply interested in the power of these premodern texts to help rescue the modern world from its intellectual malaise and so replace the prevailing will-to-nothingness with a healthy even if pagan will-to-life. And like Nietzsche before him, who saw the dark and chaotic Dionysian element of Attic tragedy as a necessary corrective to the already too Apollonian (Olympian) world of Homer–what with its clearly drawn deities and intelligible (because all too human) motives and action–Tolkien, too, treats the “southern gods” dialectically as already on their way towards one of two extremes, either the social instability of anarchy or the transcendent repose of philosophy. And similar to Nietzsche’s view of the significance of the Dionysian chorus within Attic tragedy, for Tolkien it is the way in which the Beowulf poet puts the monstrous at the center of things that is particularly deserving of commendation and wonder. Yet one obvious difference is that where Nietzsche the self-appointed “Anti-Christ” saw Attic tragedy’s synthesis of the Apollonian and Dionysian impulses as achieving a truly constructive cultural balance, Tolkien, as Christian, does not allow his admiration for the “martial heroism” of Beowulf to blind him to its limitations, as he sides with the poet himself in testifying that “the wages of heroism is death.”