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).

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.”

A pagan conflict in a Christian key

Tolkien on the effect that Christianity had on the heroic-pagan outlook of the North (and as apt a description as any of the theology within Tolkien’s own fiction):

The monsters had been the foes of the gods, the captains of men and within Time the monsters would win. In the heroic siege and last defeat men and gods alike had been imagined in teh same host. Now the heroic figures, the men of old, hæleð under heofenum, remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world. The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and become inevitably the enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten, the eternal Captain of the new. Even so the vision of the war changes. For it begins to dissolve, even as the contest on the fields of Time thus takes on its largest aspect. The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important. It is no defeat, for the end of the world is part of the design of Metod, the Arbiter who is above the mortal world. Beyond there appears a possibility of eternal victory (or eternal defeat), and the real battle is between the soul and its adversaries. So the old monsters became images of the evil spirit or spirits, or rather the evil spirits entered into the monsters and took visible shape in the hideous bodies of the þyrsas and sigelhearwan of heathen imagination. (“Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics”)

Grendel and the “un-theologizing” of Ungoliant

I commented a couple of months ago on the “theologization” of Ungoliant that seems to take place between her first appearance in The Book of Lost Tales as “Wirilóme” the “Gloomweaver” and the final formation of her character in the published Silmarillion. Having just re-read Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf for a class, however, I want to retract or at least revise my earlier conclusion.

To briefly review: In her early form, Ungoliant’s origins are much more mysterious, mythical, and pagan, it being allowed that “[m]ayhap she was bred of mists and darkness on the confines of the Shadowy Seas, in that utter dark that came between the overthrow of the Lamps and the kindling of the Trees… but more like she has always been” (Lost Tales 152). In The Silmarillion, by contrast, while the Elves are said to have not know from “whence she came,” nevertheless some of them “have said that in ages long before she descended from the darkness that lies about Arda, when Melkor first looked down in envy upon the Kingdom of Manwë, and that in the beginning she was one of those that he corrupted to his service.” From this difference in presentation between the early and late Ungoliant, I concluded in my earlier post that “from her origin as a putatively timeless and authentically evil force, to her re-conception as a horribly fallen yet primevally created and therefore presumably good being, we witness the character of Ungoliant in Tolkien’s legendarium undergoing a development from Hesiodic mythos to Augustinian theo-logos.”

In a footnote to his essay “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” however, Tolkien makes a statement that may have some bearing on this issue. Commenting on the complex question of the Christianity of the poem, Tolkien writes:

It must be observed that there is a difference between the comments of the author and the things said in reported speech by his characters. The two chief of these, Hrothgar and Beowulf, are again differentiated. Thus, the only definitely Scriptural references, to Abel ([lines] 108) and to Cain (108, 1261), occur where the poet is speaking as commentator. The theory of Grendel’s origin is not known to the actors: Hrothgar denies all knowledge of the ancestry of Grendel (1355).

With this discussion of Grendel in mind, it seems that, if we are to be precise, the question of Ungoliant may be less an issue of Tolkien’s changing portrayal of Ungoliant and her origins (is or isn’t she a primordial force co-equal with the good, à la Hesiod and other pagan cosmogonies?), as it is an (admittedly much more recognizably Tolkienian) preoccupation with what the Elves may or may not have understood to be Ungoliant’s origins. Put differently, instead of saying that Tolkien brought Ungoliant as a character into increasing conformity with his own Augustinian creation-metaphysics as a Catholic author, we should perhaps rather understand that this ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s nature and origin has always been and continues to be there for the majority of the inhabitants of Tolkien’s fictional world, and that what has changed between versions of the story, therefore, is that Tolkien has merely become more explicit in allowing some of his characters (in this case, the wise among the Elves) a greater share or participation in his Augustinian insight into Ungoliant’s true provenance. So the mythical, pagan ambiguity surrounding Ungoliant’s origins in the early version may really need to remain as part of her identity or character, even if in the later version the “third-person omniscience” of the narrator is, first, made more explicit than it had been and, second, more of the characters themselves are allowed the benefit of sharing in this “omniscience.”

Creation: choosing the possible, or choosing from the possible?

David Burrell compares two different ways in which the doctrine of God’s free creation has historically been articulated in its response to the Neoplatonic doctrine of the world’s necessary emanation from “the One.” The first position is the more familiar, but also, to Burrell’s reckoning, the less adequate and more problematic of the two:

It is commonly presumed that the alternative to a necessary emanation of the universe from its source is a picture of the creator selecting which universe to create. This picture coheres with our commonly held presumption that choosing is the paradigm for the exercise of freedom…. [M]any who so construe creation do not think of the presence of such “worlds” as a prior constraint on God, since the worlds are rather conceived as products ofthe divine mind, one of which the divine will ‘actualizes.’ Indeed, nothing would seem to enhance the scope of the divine intellect so much as to think of God knowing in detail all possible configurations of all possible states of affairs, necessary and contingent, and selecting this one! (27-8)

In sum, God’s freedom in creation consists in his prerogative and capacity to choose from an infinitude of equally available “possible” worlds contained in the divine mind. Burrell doesn’t directly identify any representatives of this position by name, but his later remarks about the Muslim philosopher Avicenna indicate that Burrell might see him as a candidate. St. Augustine would be another.

The second, alternative viewpoint, and the one preferred and defended by Burrell and which he vaguely ties to Aquinas, holds over against the first view that

[t]here is no possibility preceeding God’s free origination, except by reference to the power of God. So there are no ‘possible worlds’ from which the creator selects this one, as though God’s action in creating were primarily a matter of will and indeed of choice… One may indeed speak about how things might have been, but as possibilities. They remain relative to the power of God to create them, and so say little more than that things could have been otherwise than the way in which they are. (28-9)

Unfortunately, Burrell has less to say about what model or paradigm of divine freedom seems to be operative in this second account of God’s freedom in creation. One way of expressing the difference might be to say that, instead of God choosing from an already divinely conceived and posited notion of possibility–a determinate albeit infinite array of possible worlds–as per the first view, this second view of divine freedom has God freely and inventively determining what creation’s possibility is in the first place. My hope in future work on this subject is to try to develop a more robust, Trinitarian, and even “sub-creative” articulation of what this free process seems to be like.

Theology and Treebeard’s Eyes

David Burrell (“Creation and ‘Actualism’: The Dialectical Dimension of Philosophical Philosophy”) makes a passing comment about how “theology operates far more historically than many philosophers are accustomed to proceed.” Having read a bit of contemporary analytic philosophy of late, this statement rings profoundly true for me. It reminds me, moreover, of Pippen’s reflections on the fathomless depths of Treebeard’s eyes in The Two Towers, an image Joseph Pearce (Tolkien: A Celebration) has interpreted in terms of G.K. Chesterton’s defense of traditionalism as the “philosophy of the tree.” As Pippen describes Treebeard’s eyes,

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”

I think that’s fantastic as a description, not only of the simultaneous stability and dynamism of tradition, but also–and to go back to Burrell’s comment–of the historical-rootedness of theology vis-a-vis the rootlessness of much contemporary philosophy: “filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present… considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”

Gandalf, O.S.A.

That’s “Order of Saint Augustine,” for my Protestant readers. I’ve commented before on the Augustinianism of Tolkien’s view of political authority (God has ordained it to humble our pride) and Gandalf’s view of torture (to be avoided if at all possible but may be necessary in dire circumstances). I’ve also noted (as doubtless others have as well) the apparent presence of Augustine’s opposition to capital punishment in the interest of mercy and repentance behind Gandalf’s reply to Frodo’s statement that Gollum “deserves death”:

“Deserves it! I daresay he does. 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. I have not much hope that Gollum can be cured before he dies, but there is a chance of it.”

Gandalf’s speech is not exactly a verbatim quotation of Augustine, yet if Tolkien had any particular passage in mind in drafting the above, it would have to be the following from the Bishop of Hippo’s sermon “On the Feast of St. Lawrence.” Speaking of how “no one is allowed to strike [a condemned criminal] except the person who holds the appropriate office,” Augustine admonishes his congregation:

This office belongs to the public executioner; it’s his job to execute the condemned man. But suppose the judicial clerk puts him to death when he is already condemned and sentenced to death. Certainly the person he kills has been condemned. But still, the clerk will be found guilty of murder. True enough the man he killed was already condemned and sentenced to punishment; but it still counts as murder if someone is attacked against the regulations. Yet if it counts as murder to attack someone against the regulations, then please tell me what it counts as if you attack some crook who has not been given a hearing or been judged, and when you have no authority to attack him? I am not defending those who are bad, and I am not denying that they are bad. But leave the judges to account for this. Why do you want the difficult task of accounting for someone else’s death? The burden of authority isn’t yours to carry. God has given you the freedom of not being a judge. Why take over someone else’s position? You need to be giving an account of yourself. (Augustine: Political Writings, 114-5)

Philosophical vs. Natural Theology

David Burrell begins his “Creation and ‘Actualism’: The Dialectical Dimension of Philosophical Theology,” with a discussion of the difference between philosophical theology and natural theology. The expression “philosophical theology” has its origin in the title of a 1960s collection of essays (edited by Anthony Flew and Alisdair MacIntyre) “which meant to bring the tools of analytic philosophy to bear on topics long recognized to be theological in character.” Since its delineation as a distinct enterprise, accordingly, the purview of philosophical theology has not been limited to “the traditional ‘preambles to faith’ that had become the stock in trade of a discipline called ‘natural theology’: the existence of God, the possibility of divine revelation, and the capacity to discourse at all about such transcendent objects.” Natural theology as it is at least commonly conceived and practiced   involves the deployment of reason “to establish the truth of certain claims that were deemed to be presupposed to a reasonable assent of faith.  And since reason was supposed to function with evidence available to all, its deliverances were considered ‘natural,’ while those of faith were ‘supernatural,’ indicating that something more than evidence was at work in the assent of faith.” Philosophical theology, by way of contrast, has sought instead to “expand the range of theological topics available for philosophical inquiry,” and in doing so, “to intimate a new model for the relation of reason and faith. Rather than a stepwise pattern that suggested a foundational approach to matters of faith, we [practitioners of philosophical theology] preferred to direct our attention to the tradition of Christian theology, as one in which the community had availed itself of reason from the outset in the elaboration of its faith and its own self-understanding.”

In summary, then, whereas natural theology is actually a branch or sub-discipline of philosophy–a putatively pure (i.e., neutral, non-committal and hence unprejudicial) use of reason in the investigation of those claims thought to be presupposed by the Christian faith (e.g., the existence of God)–philosophical theology is in fact a sub-discipline of theology, inasmuch as it presupposes the truth of the faith in its effort not to prove but to provide a rationally cogent explication of its primary doctrines. As Burrell goes on to imply, however, although philosophical theology in some ways is a new enterprise, in another respect it represents merely the recovery of what natural theology originally was: “Moreover, there are convincing hermeneutic arguments that the medievals never considered the discussions involving the ‘preambles to faith’ to be foundational in character, but rather to be a retrospective inquiry into the presuppositions required for any consideration of the truth of the articles of faith.” Put differently, where “natural theology” is modern, “philosophical theology” is both pre- and postmodern.

Tolkien’s last voyage

A couple of passages, set in juxtaposition, and without comment (the reader is invited to provide his own meditation). The first is from the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings:

Then Frodo kissed Merry and Pippin, and last of all Sam, and went aboard; and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.

The second passage is from the last of Tolkien’s published letters, written on August 29, 1973 to his daughter Priscilla, four days before his death at the age of eighty-one: “It is stuffy, sticky, and rainy here at present–but forecasts are more favourable.”

The Parmenideanism of Possible Worlds

Alexander Pruss (“The Actual and the Possible,” The Blackwell Guide to Metaphysics) provides an explanation of how possible-world semantics (or what I will here shorthand as PWS) works, an explanation that is at once immensely helpful and yet which, to my admittedly limited understanding, opens up a potentially important line of critique. Pruss writes: “Once possible worlds are introduced, one can say a proposition is possible if it is true at some world, necessary if true at all worlds, and contingent if true at some but not all, so that modal operators can be replaced by quantifiers. It is possible that there is a unicorn if and only if there is a possible world at which there are unicorns.” PWS, in other words, translates claims of the possibility of things or states of affairs into claims about hypothetical, possible worlds. Whenever you make a statement about something being possible, you are implicitly making a statement about some possible world.

The line of critique I have in mind originates in a suspicion that there is something deeply Parmenidean involved in PWS. The pre-socratic philosopher Parmenides, to review, argued in effect that, because all change involved a change in being, and because there can only be a change in being when something is either going into or out of being, and because non-being is unthinkable, change itself is therefore unthinkable and must be held to be impossible. It was Parmenides’s disciple Zeno who similarly formulated those famous paradoxes about the impossibility of motion (for an arrow to reach its target, it must first cross half the distance, but before it can do that, it must cross half of that distance, and so on, ad infinitum, making it impossible for the arrow to move at all).

Enter Aristotle, who using his famous act-potency distinction, sought to cut through the Parmenidean “Gordian knot” of change, arguing instead that change involves a relative and not an absolute form of non-being. Change is possible because a thing goes from having a given form or state in mere potentiality to then having that same form or state in actuality. So Parmenides was right that change from absolute being into absolute not-being, or absolute not-being into absolute being, was impossible (the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo, incidentally, is not a form of change, since literally nothing is being changed by the act of creation). Parmenides was wrong, however, in thinking that actual being was the only kind of being that there was.

On to my suspicion, which is that PWS commits a related (if not ultimately the same) error to that of Parmenides, in that it overlooks the respect in which possibility, which is to say potentiality, is a form of being within things, things that actually do exist. Possibility, after all, is a kind of being, a way of being, in which real things actually are. PWS, however, seems to implicitly deny that possibility is in things by interpreting all modal statements as statements about some world other than this one. PWS is Parmenidean because it evacuates this world of possibility in the same way that Parmenides failed to recognize potentiality for change as a real feature of this world. The possible worlds of PWS, accordingly, are each their own little Parmenidean monads, and which collectively comprise one great Parmenidean monad. Possible worlds are Parmenidean worlds, worlds of static existence within which all real modal work is being continually outsourced to some other possible, Parmenidean world. PWS, accordingly, would seem to make true change within any given world technically impossible, and in much the same way Parmenides did, inasmuch as change by its very nature involves the realization of something that was, prior to the act of change, a mere possibility, and hence (according to PWS) something inhabiting a different (possible) world altogether. In other words, it’s not just unicorns, as unrealized possibilities, that must be banished to an alternative, possible world, but any and all currently unrealized possibilities, including whatever currently unrealized possibility I will be doing five minutes from now. To get to that possible, future world, I will have to leave behind this currently present and actual but soon to be past and then only possible world. Change in this present world is therefore quite impossible, as Parmenides long ago explained. If I want a change of scene, I will have to travel to some other currently and, relative to me, only possible world (but then is the transition from our current, actual world to some possible world not itself an act of change?). For Aristotle, by contrast, possibility, or potentiality, is not a possibility or potentiality of worlds, but of things. Things change because things have possibilities besides or in addition to (or precisely on account of) their present actualities, their present mode, that is, of actual existence. In antiquity, moreover, it was this “common sense” approach to the world of Aristotle that won the day, in which case the possible-world semantics of much contemporary analytic philosophy begins to look something like Parmenides’s revenge.

Why are books taller than they are wide?

The answer is because animals are longer than they are wide:

“[M]edieval manuscripts, like modern printed books, are usually taller than they are wide. This is inevitable if one begins by folding an animal skin which is naturally oblong. When paper was introduced for making pages of books, the makers tended to follow the same custom, though it was no longer essential. Books are still taller than wide: this is because, more than six hundred years ago, their ancestors were made by folding natural vellum.”   (Christopher de Hamel, A History of Illuminated Manuscripts, 89)

Angelic bodies as “machines”

In Tolkien’s fictional world, despite the attachment of the angelic spirits to the physical world, their relationship to their bodies, and thus to the physical world as a whole, still remains a fundamentally dualistic one. Tolkien likens the relationship between the Valar and their bodies to that between human beings and their clothes, a metaphor Plato also used in his account of the human soul’s relationship to the body (see, for example, Phaedo 87b). For Tolkien, however, one interesting implication of the dualism of angelic incarnation is their apparent systemic temptation towards the domination of other beings. As Tolkien writes in one place:

But since in the view of this tale & mythology Power—when it dominates or seeks to dominate other wills and minds (except by the assent of their reason)—is evil, these “wizards” were incarnated in the life-forms of Middle-earth, and so suffered the pains both of mind and body. They were also, for the same reason, thus involved in the peril of the incarnate: the possibility of “fall,” of sin, if you will. The chief form this would take with them would be impatience, leading to the desire to force others to their own good ends, and so inevitably at last to mere desire to make their own wills effective by any means. To this evil Saruman succumbed. Gandalf did not. (Letters 237, emphasis added)

In another letter Tolkien writes of the wizards Saruman and Gandalf that, although angelic, spiritual beings in themselves, “being incarnate [they] were more likely to stray, or err,” and that it was because of his “far greater inner power” in comparison to his companions that Gandalf’s self-sacrifice on the Bridge of Kazad-dum was a true “humbling and abnegation” (Letters 202, emphasis added). A little later in the same letter Tolkien again writes of the “temptation” of Gandalf’s incarnate being:

But if it is ‘cheating’ to treat [Gandalf’s] ‘death’ as making no difference, embodiment must not be ignored. Gandalf may be enhanced in power (that is, under the forms of this fable, in sanctity), but if still embodied he must still suffer care and anxiety, and the needs of flesh. He has no more (if no less) certitudes, or freedoms, than say a living theologian. In any case none of my ‘angelic’ persons are represented as knowing the future completely, or indeed at all where other wills are concerned. Hence their constant temptation to do, or try to do, what is for them wrong (and disastrous): to force lesser wills by power: by awe if not by actual fear, or physical constraint. (Letters 203)

Similar to the physical matter which they do not and cannot control directly, other free rational beings are not—or at least ought not to be—subjected to the dominating will of the angelic spirit. Rather, the latter’s influence over others must involve the same kind of sub-creative patience that moves their subordinates to action, not by coercion but by persuasion, a responsibility they share with Thomas’s angels who are said not to be able to directly or violently move another creature’s will, but can nevertheless “incline the will to the love of the creature or of God, by way of persuasion” (ST 1.106.2). And of the Istari or Wizards Tolkien similarly writes that the mission they were “primarily sent for” was to “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” (Letters 202).

Nevertheless, because their embodiment is not natural but voluntary and therefore provisional or conditional, requiring that they lay aside some of their own native powers, Tolkien seems to implicitly recognize that their relationship to their bodies will be, as a consequence, much more artificial, extrinsic and utilitarian or pragmatic than is the case for Men and Elves. In short, the angelic body is, for the angelic spirits, ultimately a kind of “machine,” a form of technology and therefore a mere tool to be used rather than part of their fundamental nature and identity. We perhaps see something of the artificial nature of angelic incarnation, incidentally, in the immediate degeneration of the “angel” Saruman’s body after he is “killed” at the end of The Return of the King. As Tom Shippey writes, “[t]he body that is left once the ‘mist’ and the ‘smoke’ have departed seems in fact to have died many years before, becoming only ‘rags of skin upon a hideous skull’” (Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, 127). With the departure of Saruman’s spirit, in other words, his body is revealed for the tool or instrument that it was and had become.

In conclusion, as the demiurgic sub-creators and masters of their own bodies to which they do not belong by nature, the temptation for the Valar and Maiar, Tolkien almost seems to suggest, will be for them to adopt the same attitude of mastery and domination towards others and towards the physical world they are supposed to shepherd.

Gandalf’s apostolic ministry to Middle-earth

In 2 Corinthians 1:24, the Apostle Paul tells the Corinthian Church: “Not for that we have dominion over your faith, but are helpers of your joy: for by faith ye stand.” The apostolic office, he explains, is not about dominion, but about encouragement and joy. What does the fruit of genuine apostolic labor look like? Not a cowed subservience, but believers being given a hand up to stand on their own two feet.

This, I submit, is as good a description of Gandalf’s ministry in Middle-earth as may be found. There’s far more to be said on this subject than I’m able to say here (for another reflection on the same subject, see here), but here are a few pertinent passages. The first is Gandalf’s statement to Denethor that, although the “rule of no realm” is his, he too, like Denethor, is nonetheless a “steward”: “all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part, I shall not wholly fail of my task, though Gondor should perish, if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair or bear fruit and flower again in days to come.” Gandalf’s stewardship, in other words, is an apostolic stewardship, a ministry not of ruling over others, but of seeing to it that there remain living beings free to rule over themselves.

A second passage is from Tolkien’s infamously long letter to Milton Waldman, in which he describes the ministry of the Istari or “Wizards,” again in explicitly angelic, but by extension, also recognizably apostolic terms:

they were as one might say the near equivalent in the mode of these tales of Angels, guardian Angels. Their powers are directed primarily to the encouragement of the enemies of evil, to cause them to use their own wits and valour, to unite and endure. They appear always as old men and sages, and though (sent by the powers of the True West) in the world they suffer themselves, their age and grey hairs increase only slowly. Gandalf whose function is especially to watch human affairs (Men and Hobbits) goes on through all the tales. (Letters no. 131)

A third and final passage is Gandalf’s statement to the Hobbits toward the end of The Return of the King:

‘I am with you at present,’ said Gandalf, ‘but soon I shall not be. I am not coming to the Shire. You must settle its affairs yourselves; that is what you have been trained for. Do you not yet understand? My time is over: it is no longer my task to set things to rights, nor to help folk to do so. And as for you, my dear friends, you will need no help. You are grown up now. Grown indeed very high; among the great you are, and I have no longer any fear at all for any of you.’

As apostle to the Hobbits, Gandalf’s task has not been to take care of the Hobbits so much as it has been to “train” them, through word and deed, to take care of themselves and their people. The success of this training is implicit in Frodo’s words to Sam later on in the book that his objective was to “save the shire, and it has been saved.” This, incidentally, is also why the “scouring of the Shire” is so important as a conclusion to the whole saga, for in it we see the fruit of all Gandalf’s great labor, and in it the reader himself is, in a sense, asked whether he, by undergoing this journey as well, has not been similarly equipped and charged with scouring his own “Shire,” wherever or whatever that may be.

Gandalf’s speech here to the Hobbits is interesting for another, related reason, which is that it recollects the speech of that great “apostle of apostles” before departing from his Hobbit-disciples and leaving them to accomplish their great task which was nothing less than to “scour” the world through their message of God’s triumph over sin and death. I conclude with a string of verses from John chapters 14-17:

“Verily, verly, I say unto you, He that believeth on me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do; because I go unto my Father….” (14:12) “Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you.” (15:15-16) “”Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” (16:7).  “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (16:33).

From Demiurges to Angels: The Fading of Tolkien’s Valar

The more directly Tolkien’s angelic beings are involved in the affairs of Men and Elves, the more they seem to be attached to their bodies, so much so that they are susceptible to real fatigue and even to a sort of “death,” as is Gandalf’s fate in The Lord of the Rings (L 201). As Tolkien explains the implications of angelic embodiment, “[b]y ‘incarnate’ I mean they were embodied in physical bodies capable of pain, and weariness, and of afflicting the spirit with physical fear, and of being ‘killed’, though supported by the angelic spirit they might endure long, and only show slowly the wearing of care and labour” (L 202). In The Silmarillion, it is further told how the Maiar Melian, after falling in love with the Elf-lord Thingol, became so “bound by the chain and trammels of the flesh of Arda” that she bore him a daughter, Lúthien Tinúviel. At the same time, Melian’s greater association with the physical world also meant for her a greater “power over the substance of Arda” (S 234). The individual Valar who goes the furthest down the path of incarnating himself in the world is Melkor, whose attachment to physical matter is so complete as to make it “permanent,” a fact that makes his later removal from the world nothing less than a form of death or “execution” (MR 394-5 and 399-40). Tolkien’s conception of the Valar’s sub-creative power, therefore, is not simple and static, but complex and dynamic: the more they invest themselves into the material shaping and making of the world, the more power or influence they wield over it, and yet the less power they retain in and for themselves, and thus the more like the conventional, governing angels theorized about by St. Thomas they become. Thus, describing the state of the Valar in later days, Tolkien writes that they “are as we should say angelic powers, whose function is to exercise delegated authority in their spheres (of rule and government, not creation, making, or re-making)” (L 146, emphasis original), and elsewhere Tolkien writes: “The Valar ‘fade’ and become more impotent, precisely in proportion as the shape and constitution of things becomes more defined and settled” (MR 401). As Tolkien continues in the same place:

The longer the Past, the more nearly defined the Future, and the less room for important change (untrammeled action, on a physical plane, that is not destructive in purpose). The Past, once ‘achieved’, has become part of the ‘Music in being’. Only Eru may or can alter the ‘Music’…. The Valar were like architects working with a plan ‘passed’ by the Government. They became less and less important (structurally!) as the plan was more and more nearly achieved. Even in the First Age we see them after uncounted ages of work near the end of their time of work—not wisdom or counsel. (The wiser they became the less power they had to do anything—save by counsel). (MR 401-5)

Here we see a further dimension of the sacrifice involved in the Valar’s choice to enter the world and shape it and govern it for its own good. Perhaps the clearest expression of Tolkien’s view of the sub-creational task in sacrificial terms appears in the Valar Yavanna’s statement that “[e]ven for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only” (S 78).

In this Tolkien’s imagination would appear to be governed by yet another Thomistic metaphysical principle, which is that the more organization, actuality, determination, or form a given matter receives, the less potentiality there remains in it to become actualized in other ways (on this, see Pasnau and Shields, The Philosophy of Aquinas, 157). Like the Elves who over the course of Middle-earth’s history must fade and so make way for the age of Men, so Tolkien’s demiurgic Valar, who initially are equivalent to the gods of pagan mythology, likewise fade into the conventional angels familiar in and to the Christian era.

Aquinas’s “theology of motion”

Why do things move at all, according to St. Thomas? So that they can be like God: “any moved thing, inasmuch as it is moved, tends to the divine likeness so that it may be perfected in itself, and since a thing is perfect in so far as it is actualized, the intention of everything existing in potency must be to tend through motion toward actuality” (Summa Contra Gentiles 3.22.7). This is a truly universal theory of gravity: all things are attracted to God.