Can something good be the cause of evil? Aquinas on “per se” vs. “accidental” causality

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 11

The previous post suggested that viewing Tolkien’s fictional representation of evil from a specifically Thomistic perspective may put us in a position to appreciate (better, at least, than many scholars have been able to do) the simultaneous coherence of Tolkien’s portrayal of evil and its paradoxical complexity. I went on, however, to note those respects in which Thomas’s own metaphysics of evil is quite conventional or traditional in its basic Augustinian or Christian-Neoplatonic outlook.

Where Thomas does finally depart from or at least improvise upon the traditional Augustinian reckoning of evil, according to Carlos Steel his innovations are more Aristotelian (and therefore still Socratic and Greek, in Steel’s view) than they are distinctly Christian. To resolve the perplexity left open by Augustine and earlier Neoplatonists as to how evil actions are caused, Thomas in question 49 of the Summa applies the Aristotelian distinction between per se and accidental causality.[1] In contrast to classical Neoplatonism’s typical denial that evil has an efficient cause, Thomas begins the corpus of his first article with an emphatic affirmation that “every evil in some way has a cause” (ST 1.49.1).[2] As the “absence of the good which is natural and due to a thing,” there must be a cause to explain why anything should “fail” or be “drawn out” from its “natural and due disposition.”[3] Thomas nevertheless agrees with the Neoplatonic premise that “only good can be a cause, because nothing can be a cause except in so far as it is a being, and every being, as such, is good.”[4] The question, then, is how something good can cause evil. Thomas’s answer is that what is good is able to cause evil, not insofar as it is good in itself (per se causality), but only accidentally. An accidental cause of an effect is a cause that produces an effect not intentionally, but by producing some second, unintended effect with which the first, intended effect is somehow accidentally connected. As we will see in a future post, it is this Aristotelian distinction between per se and per accidens causality that Aquinas applies to the question of how the rational will is ever able to do or choose evil while intending something good.

[1] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?”, 259. Thomas finds the distinction, for example, implied in chapter two of book five of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and applies it to the problem of the causality of evil. Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle 5.3.781 and 789. (See also On Evil 1.3. Aristotle also distinguishes between per se and accidental causality in his discussion of chance in Physics 2.5.) Steel, however, implies that the application of Aristotle’s distinction between per se and accidental causality to the problem of the causality of evil was actually original with Aquinas, whereas Denis O’Brien points out that Plotinus also used the distinction to explain how the soul becomes evil through its contact with matter: “The soul becomes evil, when she does so, only ‘accidentally’, and, even then, only through the presence of matter.” O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 184, citing Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.12 and 14. As John Milbank also observes (“Evil: Silence and Darkness,” 21), preceding Aquinas in his notion of the accidental causality of evil is Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes that “evil exists as an accident. It is there by means of something else. Its source does not lie within itself. Hence something we do for the sake of the Good looks right and yet is not really so when we consider to be good what is actually not so.” Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names 4.32.

[2] “[O]mne malum aliqualiter causam habeat.”

[3] “Quod autem aliquid deficiat a sua naturali et debita dispositione, non potest provenire nisi ex aliqua causa trahente rem extra suam dispositionem…”

[4] “Esse autem causam non potest convenire nisi bono: quia nihil potest esse causa nisi inquantum est ens, omne autem ens, inquantum huiusmodi, bonum est.”

“Make me a present of the pains I have caused”: Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness

In a 1948 letter Tolkien apologizes to his friend C.S. Lewis for what he admits to have been some unduly caustic remarks he had made on a piece of Lewis’s work (Humphrey Carpenter speculates it to be his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century). More than a mere apology, however, Tolkien’s letter to Lewis contains a unique insight into the very human relationship between these two friends who would each become literary giants in their own right, into Tolkien’s views on himself as a writer and literary critic, and finally, into Tolkien’s at once peculiar and yet profound theology of grace in forgiveness.

The internal evidence of the letter suggests the following chain of events. Subsequent to the above incident, Tolkien had felt some remorse for responding to Lewis’s work in so acerbic a manner, and so sent him some verses and an initial (apparently unpreserved) letter of apology. Lewis replied to this letter, and the letter here in question is Tolkien’s response to that reply.

Tolkien begins by observing to Lewis that “you write largely on ‘offence’; though surely I amended ‘offended’ in my letter to ‘pained’? Pained we cannot help being by the painful” (Letters 125). The implied distinction here between paining someone and offending him is an interesting and I think pastorally helpful one. The difference, to Tolkien’s mind, seems to be that, whereas someone can take offence at something that is not (or need not be) offensive, someone is pained, by contrast, by something that is objectively painful. And that is what Tolkien here wants to insist his original criticism of Lewis’s work to have been–unnecessarily and unjustifiably painful–and so it was reasonable for Lewis to have been hurt accordingly by it. Tolkien continues by assuring Lewis, however, that he also “knew well enough” that the latter would not allow his pain to “grow into resentment,” but implies that he was nevertheless at fault for having provided the occasion or cause for such resentment: “Woe to him,” Tolkien writes, “by whom the temptations come.”

Tolkien goes on to explain the source of his remorse at being so harsh in his criticisms of Lewis’s piece of writing, namely the pain–inevitable and necessary, he acknowledges–he himself has had to suffer as a published author, followed by his awareness of having now perpetrated the same treatment on someone for whom he has “deep affection and sympathy.” The opening paragraph of the letter concludes with Tolkien also confessing that his remarks may have also been somewhat retaliatory, as he was bristling under a “half-patronizing half-mocking lash” Lewis himself had made previously to Tolkien’s original criticisms and which “the small things of my heart made the mere excuse for verbal butchery.” While one might be tempted to detect here a hint of blame-shifting or passive aggression in Tolkien’s mentioning here–in the context of his apology to Lewis–Lewis’s own provocation of Tolkien, yet given what we know generally about their personalities and the history of their relationship, it seems the case that Tolkien was in fact “pained” by Lewis far more often than the reverse. If so, this fact makes Tolkien’s counsel to Lewis on forgiveness in this letter, about which more anon, all the more fascinating in its irony.

(To be continued….)

Tolkien on evil: the Thomistic context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 10

My own thesis on Tolkien’s approach to evil, to be defended in the posts to follow, is that like Houghton and Keesee and over against Shippey, I see Tolkien as presenting a consistent metaphysics of evil, but with Shippey I do think Tolkien deliberately, provocatively, and paradoxically flirts with Manichaeism far more than the one-sidedly Christian-Neoplatonic interpretations of Tolkien have sometimes allowed. In short, my argument is that Tolkien’s theory of evil exhibits both a greater internal coherence and a greater dialectical subtlety than either of these two camps have recognized, a coherence and subtlety, moreover, that I think best accessed and elucidated in light of what I have argued in previous posts to be Tolkien’s profoundly Thomistic metaphysics of creation.


In many respects, of course, St. Thomas’s own ponerology is quite conventional in its Neoplatonism, a fact which seems to be behind Paul Kocher’s remark that “Thomas’s less specifically Christian propositions about the nature of evil seem highly congruent with those which Tolkien expresses or implies in laymen’s terms in The Lord of the Rings.”[1] Thomas’s discussion of evil in question 48 of the Summa, for example, begins familiarly enough with his denial in the first article that evil is a nature, since every nature has its attendant perfection and goodness, whereas “by the name of evil is signified a certain absence of good” (ST 1.48.1).[2] Thomas goes on to explain in the second and third articles how evil exists in those things that have been corrupted from or fail to attain their intended goodness: the “subject” of evil is some good thing of which the evil constitutes a privation or absence of form that the subject is supposed to have (ST 1.48.3).[3] In the fourth article, much as we saw Tolkien denying earlier that any “‘rational being’ is wholly evil,” Thomas argues that, because evil only exists in a subject that is otherwise good, no evil is or can be completely successful in corrupting the whole good (ST 1.48.4).[4]

[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth, 77.

[2] “Relinquitur ergo quod nomine mali significetur quaedam absentia boni.” See also On Evil 1.1.

[3] See also On Evil 1.2.

[4] Thomas does not make this same point explicitly in his On Evil, though it is implied in article 2 of question 1, “Whether Evil is Something.”

“I am the Servant of the Secret Fire”: On Gandalf’s Hobbit hobby

The following are some rough, underdeveloped notes attempting to connect some different aspects of Gandalf’s character, history, and peculiar mission and practice in Middle-earth. The first datum comes from Tolkien’s long letter to potential publisher Milton Waldman describing one of the central “motives” in The Lord of the Rings:

Here [in the story of Beren and Lúthien] we meet, among other things, the first example of the motive (to become dominant in Hobbits) that the great policies of world history, ‘the wheels of the world’, are often turned not by the Lords and Governors, even gods, but by the seemingly unknown and weak—owing to the secret life in creation, and the part unknowable to all wisdom but One, that resides in the intrusions of the Children of God into the Drama…” (Letters 149, emphasis mine)

So the first reference point for the present discussion is the central theme in Tolkien’s work of the small, the unknown, the unobtrusive, and the weak—animated by a “secret life in creation”—being responsible for accomplishing things not possible or anticipated by the strong, the noble, and the great.

A second point is that this “secret life in creation” by which “the One” unexpectedly and eucatastrophically intrudes himself and his purposes into the world sounds a lot like the Secret Fire or Flame Imperishable which Ilúvatar in the Ainulindalë, to the surprise and joy of the Ainur, sends into the Void to burn at the heart of the world, “kindling” it into its very existence. And though the Secret Fire is not mentioned by name, I think we see something of its distinctive agency in the vision Manwë is treated to in the chapter “On Aulë and Yavanna”:

Then Manwë sat silent, and the thought of Yavanna that she had put into his heart grew and unfolded; and it was beheld by Ilúvatar. Then it seemed to Manwë that the Song rose once more about him, and he heeded now many things therein that though he had heard them he had not heeded before. And at last the Vision was renewed, but it was not now remote, for he was himself within it, and yet he saw that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him in the hearts of the Ainur. (Emphasis mine)

This characterization of the Secret Fire, taken together with the first point, suggests that the above theme of the weak doing great things on behalf of the great is something of a signature or trade-mark activity of the Secret Fire. Beyond merely bringing the world into being (or rather, precisely on account of it), this is the kind of “business” that the Secret Fire is in, the kind of work that the Secret Fire does.

A third point is that, as is well known, it is this same Secret Fire whose servant Gandalf identifies himself as when facing down the Balrog on the Bridge of Khazad-dum. Assuming for the moment the principle of “like master, like servant,” we are led to the conclusion that it is this same line of work that Gandalf also specializes in, the paradoxical business of accomplishing mighty deeds through comparatively weak, insignificant, or overlooked means. (Tolkien’s indication in an interview with Clyde Kilby and elsewhere that the Secret Fire is the Holy Spirit would seem to further identify Gandalf as something of a Pentecostal, but I digress.) It is also interesting to note in this context Tolkien’s particular choice of words in one letter to explain why it is that Gandalf ultimately never has to personally fight and overcome the Lord of the Nazgûl: “so powerful is the whole train of human resistance, that he [Gandalf] himself has kindled and organized, that in fact no battle between the two occurs: it passes to other mortal hands” (Letters no. 156, emphasis added). As the protégé of the Secret Fire, Gandalf’s apostolic ministry (something I comment on elsewhere) involves him in going about and “kindling” fires among the Children of Ilúvatar, the unexpected but necessary consequence of which is that it is a mere shieldmaden of Rohan and her Hobbit-thain who together slay the Witch King whom no man is said to be able to kill.

Fourth and lastly, knowing this about Gandalf helps explain in part his attachment to and involvement with Hobbits, in whom Tolkien says above that the theme of the “great policies of world history” being accomplished by the “seemingly unknown and weak” comes to be particularly manifest. Enfranchising and fellowshipping with Hobbits, in short, is “Secret Fire” work, something that helps round out Gandalf’s already christological typology: if you’ve seen Gandalf, you’ve seen the Secret Fire who sends him.

Rejoinders to Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 9

While many readers have been convinced by Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien, others have not found his thesis persuasive. Theologian Colin Gunton, for example, writes that he finds “somewhat more consistent a theology of evil in The Lord of the Rings than does Shippey,” whom Gunton faults for making “the mistake of drawing too absolute a distinction between ‘inner’ and ‘objective evil.”[1] Scott Davison has similarly repudiated Shippey’s thesis in favor of a consistently anti-Manichaean and Augustinian reading of Tolkienian evil according to which, in Davison’s words, “the more evil something is, the more nearly it approaches nothingness.”[2] John Houghton and Neal Keesee have taken a slightly different approach, arguing that the alleged tensions and ambiguities identified by Shippey in Tolkien’s account of evil are in fact already present in Neoplatonism, thus rendering Shippey’s Manichaean thesis otiose. Although Houghton and Keesee do not discuss the aforementioned, almost Gnostic dualism of Plato’s and Plotinus’s views of matter as an eternal and even necessary source of evil, they do note that the Platonic tradition recognizes that evil

can nonetheless be both internal temptation and real external threat, leaving the evildoer both dead and alive, corrupted to the point of intangibility and yet truly dangerous, something to be both pitied for what it has lost and fought for what it is…. From Plato on, those who defend the position that Evil is nothing make consciously paradoxical, openly counter-intuitive, statements… The Neo-Platonic tradition, then, would teach us to see evil synoptically, if paradoxically…[3]

As for the climactic Sammath Naur scene at the end of The Return of the King discussed by Shippey, Houghton and Keesee show how Tolkien’s own interpretation of the scene in light of the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer (“lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”) belongs squarely within the tradition of Christian-Neoplatonic exegesis of this passage represented by St. Augustine and St. Thomas.[4] Houghton and Keesee conclude their study by affirming with Shippey that Tolkien does indeed offer “a complex and nuanced assessment of the nature of evil,” yet they object that “this view is not a departure from Boethius; it is consistently paradoxical rather than ambiguous or contradictory. Rooted firmly in the Neo-Platonic tradition, Tolkien… perceives evil’s true nature: nothing, yet paradoxically powerful.”[5]

[1] Gunton, “A Far-Off Gleam of the Gospel: Salvation in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings,” 140n6.

[2] Davison, “Tolkien and the Nature of Evil,” 102.

[3] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius,” 134-138.

[4] “On Shippey’s analysis, the [Sammath Naur] scene showcases the contradiction between evil as internal temptation (and so ‘Boethian’) and evil as external force (and so ‘Manichaean’)…. In this context, [Shippey] reports, from a 1955 letter to Douglas Masson, Tolkien’s connection of Frodo at the Sammath Naur with the sixth and seventh petitions of the Lord’s Prayer … [C]onceding that the petitions might merely reinforce each other, [Shippey] proposes that they are more likely to frame a contrast, ‘the first asking God to keep us safe from ourselves (the Boethian source of sin), the second asking for protection from outside (the source of evil in a Manichaean universe)’. But would Tolkien have understood temptation in quite this way, or had precisely this contrast in mind?… Neo-Platonist theologians of the sort we might think Tolkien likely to have followed put forward other interpretations. Augustine, for example, discusses these two petitions in several places, while Aquinas… follows Augustine when he discusses the Lord’s Prayer in the Summa. These doctors do not see temptation as interiorized, for on their understanding temptation can come from God or from Satan: if the interior conflict were all that counted, there would be no point in insisting on the distinction between the exterior elements. In Sermon 57, Augustine tells those who are about to be baptized that even after they have been baptized, they will face an internal struggle, a battle against their own lusts; if those lusts are conquered, the Tempter will find no opportunity for his evil work. Thus far, Augustine supports interiorization; but he sandwiches this statement between two comments that the individual capacity to resist depends upon God’s aid, and that without that exterior support, Satan ‘finds in [the individual] no resistance against his power, but forthwith presents himself to him as his possessor.’ Thus without God’s support the individual seems to be in the ‘Manichaean’ situation, one where the active force of evil needs no internal echo in order to overpower the person. This idea of being abandoned by God is not merely hypothetical. Following St. Paul’s assertion in 1 Cor. 10:13 that God does allow us to be tempted, Augustine and Aquinas insist that ‘lead us not into temptation’ does not mean merely ‘do not tempt us,’ but rather ‘do not allow us to meet with temptations we cannot bear,’ ‘do not abandon us to temptation’, interpretations which assume that God could abandon us… Rather than a complementary division between God’s interior (in saving us from our own weaknesses) and exterior (in defending us from evil forces) work, Augustine and Aquinas see instead the contrast between God’s not abandoning us in the future to evil forces and his liberating us now from the results of the past…. Frodo, at the Sammath Naur, is in fact at precisely the position Augustine and Aquinas describe: tempted to the very point of abandonment, and surrounded by present evil… On this reading, the Sammath Naur episode fits squarely within the Neo-Platonic tradition of biblical exegesis.” Ibid., 148-151.

[5] Ibid., 151. 

More dualistic readings of Tolkien on evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 8

Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien on evil has met both criticism and approval from Tolkien’s readers. Hayden Head, for example, in his Girardian interpretation of Tolkien’s ponerology, cites sympathetically Shippey’s claim that “evil for Tolkien is both an absence and a presence; theologically speaking, evil is both Boethian and Manichaean.”[1] Lee Oser likewise follows in Shippey’s train when he pits Tolkien’s allegedly dualistic account of evil against the Augustinianism of St. Thomas:

There are grounds to suggest that Tolkien, like C.S. Lewis, had a strong intuition of positive evil, verging on dualism. Lewis found evidence for dualism in the New Testament. He recognized the danger of Manichaenism and, while stopping short of heresy, conceded ambiguity. The same kind of metaphysical problem exists in The Lord of the Rings… What is peculiarly modern in Tolkien’s intuition of evil is how he differs from Aquinas with regard to the orthodox Augustinian teaching that positive evil does not exist. He is closer to Kierkegaard, to Nietzsche, and to Yeats, all of whom recognize a creative element in the conflict of psychological drives or, as Nietzsche called them, “inspiring spirits.”[2]

Similarly, Verlyn Flieger, although not dealing directly with Shippey’s Manichaean-Boethian thesis, nevertheless agrees with Tolkien’s biographer Humphrey Carpenter that Tolkien was a “man of antitheses.” Whereas Shippey, however, contextualizes Tolkien’s complex account of evil in terms of his attempt to represent the ambiguities of modern forms of evil, Flieger traces it to significant aspects and events in Tolkien’s own personality and experience, especially the death of his mother when he was still a young boy. Speaking of the tension “between belief and doubt” she finds in Tolkien’s writings, Flieger writes:

They are emblematic of the poles of his emotional life. Even more, they are the boundary markers of his worlds—both the world he perceived around him and the world he created in his fiction. No careful reader of Tolkien’s fiction can fail to be aware of the polarities that give it form and tension. His work is built on contrasts—between hope and despair, between good and evil, between enlightenment and ignorance—and these contrasts are embodied in the polarities of light and dark that are the creative outgrowth of his contrary moods, the “antitheses” of his nature. Carpenter describes him as a man of extreme contrasts, one who was “never moderate: love, intellectual enthusiasm, distaste, anger, self-doubt, guilt, laughter, each was in his mind exclusively and in full force when he experienced it.”[3]

One place where Flieger particularly finds the “extreme contrast” of Tolkien’s temperament on display is in the conflicting pessimism and optimism of his two famous essays, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” and “On Fairy-Stories,” the one representing the tragic spirit of “dyscatastrophe” at one end of Tolkien’s emotional spectrum, the other a spirit of hope and joy or “eucatastrophe” at the other end. Together the two essays are “devoted to exploration of dark and light, and to affirmation of both.”[4]

[1] Head, “Imitative Desire,” 145.

[2] Oser, “Enter Reason and Nature,” 118-19.

[3] Flieger, Splintered Light: Logos and Language in Tolkien’s World, 129.

[4] “Although one speaks movingly of man’s defeat by ‘the offspring of the dark’ and the other celebrates ‘the joy of deliverance,’ each essay acknowledges that both light and dark are elements held in interdependent tension. The darkness that is the focus of the first passage needs the ‘little circle of light’ to give it meaning; the ‘Joy’ of the second passage is consoling only in light of the possibility of sorrow…. In the Beowulf essay dark heavily outweighs light; heroes go from the circle of light into the surrounding dark and down to final defeat. In the fairy-story essay, light is victorious and joy triumphs over sorrow.” Ibid., 12-13.

“A Multitude of Servants”: Aquinas’s critique of communism

Thomas Aquinas was the youngest son of a wealthy, powerful, highly connected family and was sent as an oblate at the age of five or six to the influential Benedictine Abbey at Monte Casino (where his uncle was abbot, a position some speculate Thomas was destined for). Yet he decisively turned his back on a life of pomp and affluence when he decided (against his families opposition) to join the recently formed Dominicans, an order of mendicant friars committed, in part, to individual poverty. What did this man, who once said that he would willingly trade the city of Paris for Chrysostom’s homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, think about communism as a universal form for society? In Summa Theologiae 2-2.66.2, “Whether it is lawful for anyone to possess something as his own,” Thomas gives three reasons why it “is necessary to human life” that a man, in general, should indeed possess property:

First, because everyone is more diligent in procuring something for himself than something which is to belong to all or many; for each one, avoiding labour, would leave to someone else [the procuring of] that which was to belong to all in common, which is what happens where there is a multitude of servants. Second, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly manner if each man is responsible for the care of something which is his own, whereas there would be confusion if everyone were responsible for everything in general. Third, because a more peaceful state of things is preserved for mankind if each is contented with his own. Hence we see that quarrels arise more frequently between those who hold property in common and where there is no division of the things possessed.

Indolence, confusion, and quarrelsomeness–Thomas’s threefold indictment of communism. His illustration of a property-less community is also telling–“a multitude of servants.” When it comes, however, to the question, not of the possession of property, but as to its use, Thomas, citing 1 Timothy 6:17 (“Charge them that are rich in this world that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate”), says that a “man ought to hold external things not as his own, but as common: that is, in such a way that he is ready to share them with others in the event of need.”