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.”

Tom Shippey’s dualistic reading of Tolkien

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 7

The preceding post in this series noted a couple of early observations by Tolkien’s readers as to his Augustinian conviction that evil is a privation of being and is therefore in itself nothing. According to Tom Shippey, however, it is precisely its reduction of evil to a sheer nothingness and therefore (in his view) to an almost illusory status that makes the Augustinian theory of evil ultimately inadequate as an account of everything Tolkien has to say on the subject. Thus, despite Tolkien’s clear disavowal of the existence of an “absolute evil,” Shippey has forcefully argued that Tolkien also presents in his fiction an ambiguous, even contradictory vision of evil, one that holds in deliberate tension, on the one hand, an Augustinian or “Boethian” monism, wherein evil is reduced to a form of relative non-being, and on the other hand a “Manichaean” dualism, according to which evil is more than non-being, but a positive, ontological force in its own right, coequal and equipotent with the good. Shippey argues that this complex portrayal of evil was the fruit of Tolkien’s attempt, like that of many of his fellow authors of the twentieth century,

to explain something at once deeply felt and rationally inexplicable, something furthermore felt to be entirely novel and not adequately answered by the moralities of earlier ages (keen medievalists though several of these authors were)…. [T]his “something” is connected with the distinctively twentieth-century experience of industrial war and impersonal, industrialized massacre… an unshakable conviction of something wrong, something irreducibly evil in the nature of humanity, but without any very satisfactory explanation for it. … Twentieth-century fantasy can be seen as above all a response to this gap, this inadequacy. One has to ask in what ways Tolkien’s images are original, individual, and in what ways typical, recognizable.[1]

According to Shippey, Tolkien achieves this balance of novelty and traditionalism by setting up a “running ambivalence” throughout his legendarium that is “at once orthodox and questioning to the whole problem of the existence and source of evil…”[2] As evidence of Tolkien’s more Boethian instincts, Shippey cites Frodo’s remark to Sam in The Two Towers that evil cannot create or even make “new things of its own,” and even more discerningly, the Orc Gorbag’s statement in the same chapter that abandoning one’s friends was a “regular elvish trick,” a statement implying the recognition of an absolute, overarching moral order.[3] On the other hand, Shippey sees a latent dualism or “Manichaeism” in certain aspects of Tolkien’s portrayal of evil. Whereas on the Boethian view, as Shippey interprets it, evil is primarily “internal, caused by human sin and weakness and alienation from God,” in his more Manichaean moments Tolkien represents evil as an objective, “external” force. Two examples Shippey notes are Tolkien’s depiction of, first, the Ring as a thing evil in and of itself, and second, those moments in the story when Frodo’s will feels the Ring beating down upon him as a force coming from without, as in the climactic Sammath Naur scene toward the end of The Return of the King. In representing evil as having a certain ontological independence, Shippey summarizes, Tolkien’s intention is not so much to flirt with heresy as it is to express an empirical fact about the universe and human experience, a fact Shippey believes to be unaccounted for in a one-sidedly Boethian perspective on evil.[4]

[1] Shippey, J.R.R.Tolkien: Author of the Century, 120-1.

[2] Ibid., 130.

[3] Ibid., 131-3.

[4] Ibid., 141. Shippey’s argument concerning Tolkien’s ambivalence towards the traditional, Augustinian privation theory of evil parallels the more general critique a number of recent philosophers such as Slavoj Žižek and Jean Luc Nancy have made of the privation theory in light of the “radical evil” of the twentieth century. For an overview and response to this critique defending privation theory, see John Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence.”

Tolkien’s use of parataxis

Parataxis is the literary technique of using short, simple sentences joined by coordinating conjunctions (e.g., “and”) instead of more complex sentences using subordinate clauses and conjunctions. As John Garth observes, the technique “became a hallmark of Tolkien’s writing,” using it to achieve a sense of “breathless excitement” and “cranking up the tension and foreboding before the denouement” (Tolkien and the Great War, 271). Below are a couple of examples from The Return of the King. The first is from “The Ride of the Rohirrim” and involves Theoden:

Suddenly the king cried to Snowmane and the horse sprang away. Behind him his banner blew in the wind, white horse upon a field of green, but he outpaced it. After him thundered the knights of his hohuse, but he was ever before them. Éomer rode there, the white horsetail on his helm floating in his speed, and the front of the first éored roared like a breaker foaming to the shore, but Théoden could not be overtaken. Fey he seemed, or the battle-fury of his fathers ran like new tire in his veins, and he was borne up on Snowmane like a god of old, even as Orome the Great in the battle of the Valar when the world was young. His golden shield was uncovered, and lo! it shone like an image of the Sun, and the grass flamed into green about the white feet of his steed. For morning came, morning and a wind from the sea; and the darkness was removed, and the hosts of Mordor wailed, and terror took them, and they fled, and died, and the hoofs of wrath rode over them. And then all the host of Rohan burst into song, and they sang as they slew, for the joy of battle was on them, and the sound of their singing that was fair and terrible came even to the City.

The second example is from “The Battle of Pelennor Fields,” involving Éomer :

These staves he [Éomer] spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them. And then wonder took him, and a great joy; and he cast his sword up in the sunlight and sang as he caught it. And all eyes followed his gaze, and behold! upon the foremost ship a great standard broke, and the wind displayed it as she turned towards the Harlond. There flowered a White Tree, and that was for Gondor; but Seven Stars were about it, and a high crown above it, the signs of Elendil that no lord had borne for years beyond count. And the stars flamed in the sunlight, for they were wrought of gems by Arwen daughter of Elrond; and the crown was bright in the morning, for it was wrought of mithril and gold.”

Some early observations on Tolkien’s Augustinian doctrine of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 6

As John Houghton and Neal Keesee have documented, Tolkien’s readers realized early on that his portrayal of evil in The Lord of the Rings belongs to a wider and older philosophical tradition. Rose Zimbardo remarked in 1969, for example, that, “[a]s in St. Augustine’s, so in Tolkien’s vision, nothing is created evil. Evil is good that has been perverted,”[1] and Clyde Kilby’s made the observation in 1970 that, in regard to Tolkien’s work, “we can mention the inability of evil to create anything but only to mock… Philosophers and theologians have often noted the inessentiality of evil.”[2] To this early consensus concerning the Augustinianism of Tolkien’s ponerology we may also add the following testimony of Paul Kocher, who wrote in 1972:

Some of Thomas’ 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… Literally and figuratively, light is exchanged for darkness. Sauron’s every change is a deterioration from those good and healthy norms which he began. Aquinas would call them all losses of Being. Evil is not a thing in itself but a lessening of the Being inherent in the created order… [T]he losses cry out for ontological interpretation…. Over and over Tolkien’s own words connect Sauron and his servants with a nothingness that is the philosophical opposite of Being.[3]

For Tolkien as for Augustine, Boethius, and Thomas, evil is non-being, which is to say, it is nothing.

[1] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius: Platonist Views of Evil in The Lord of the Rings,” 131, citing Zimbardo, “Moral Vision in The Lord of the Rings,” 73.

[2] Houghton and Keesee, “Tolkien, King Alfred, and Boethius,” 151n1, citing John Warwick Montgomery, ed., Myth, Allegory and Gospel: An Interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton and Charles Williams (Minneapolis: Bethany Fellowship, 1974), 138.

[3] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 77-9.

The Role of the Objections in the Summa Theologiae

Every article in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae begins with a series of objections to the position ultimately to be defended by St. Thomas. Reading through these objections and Thomas’s replies to them can often seem a bit tedious, yet they do serve an important function. To begin, the objections do help focus the discussion, often helping (though not always) give the reader a sense of what precisely is at stake in the issue under discussion. Why is St. Thomas asking this question? Why might it be important? Who cares? These are questions to which the objections help provide some preliminary answers.

In each individual article, the origin and nature of the objections raised to the position ultimately defended by St. Thomas can vary in nature. Some of the objections may represent positions actually held and taught by theologians or philosophers who were contemporaries of St. Thomas, and therefore represent real, historic debates of the time. Other objections might represent positions held by past theologians or philosophers, whether Christian, pagan, Jewish, or Muslim. Many of the positions represented by the objections, on the other hand, have no historical instantiation at all, but were invented ad hoc, either by St. Thomas himself or by one of his students, in an effort to help further define the issue under discussion. Thus, the objections represent either ways in which thinkers have gotten a particular issue wrong, or ways in which they might get it wrong, even if no one ever has. The impression one receives is that the knowledge of a thing is always dialectical: to know a thing in the right way is also to know what it would mean to get it wrong. It is also worth noting that, while the objections will usually be conceptually unrelated to each other, one can nevertheless often detect a certain order or hierarchy to the way the objections proceed, as when a subsequent objection will in a way presuppose the truth of Thomas’s reply to the previous objection, all the while discovering a new and possibly even more subtle or nuanced way of getting the issue wrong. In such cases, the set of objections and replies have the effect of triangulating on or spiraling in on the resolution of the problem that Thomas finally lays out in the body of the article. In this way Thomas reminds us that a given position on a matter is rarely as simple a matter as being flat right or wrong, but often involves being right or wrong in varying degrees.

Tolkien on Evil: the Augustinian context

Tolkien’s Metaphysics of Evil, part 5

Prior to his conversion to Christianity, it was the dualistic account of evil that especially commended itself to Augustine, helping win him over to the sect of the Manichees.[1] Eventually, however, Augustine came to reject the Manichaean portrayal of God as limited and capable of suffering persecution by the Kingdom of Darkness, and through his readings in the “books of the Platonists” he was exposed to the privation theory of evil taught by Plotinus. As the Bishop of Hippo writes in his City of God, “[t]here is no such entity in nature as ‘evil’; ‘evil’ is merely a name for the privation of good.”[2] On account of his belief in the Christian doctrine of creation, moreover, according to which matter, too, is the deliberate creation and thus gift of an all-good and all-wise God, Augustine had additional reason to avoid the more dualistic tendencies of the Neoplatonic understanding of Evil.[3] Thus, Augustine, for example, was inspired to reduce much more effectively than, for example, Plato did, the question of evil to the psychological question of moral evil or sin in the individual soul.[4] In the process of solving Plato’s aporia, however, Augustine effectively introduced an altogether new mystery that would further preoccupy later thinkers such as Aquinas: if evil is nothing, it cannot have a cause, yet how can individual evil wills, which are themselves the cause of all evil, themselves be uncaused?[5]

[1] As Scott MacDonald summarizes the perspective of the pre-converted Augustine, “[g]ranted that evil exists, Christianity appears incoherent: either evil comes from the supremely good God (which is absurd) or it does not (in which case God is not the creator of all that exists). By contrast, as Augustine understood it, Manichaenism had a ready answer to the first question. There are two ultimate sources of things, a good God and a hostile power independent of the good God. Evil derives not from the former but from the latter, and is a consequence of the evil power’s success in its cosmic struggle against the good God.” MacDonald, “The Divine Nature,” 74.

[2] Augustine, City of God 11.23, trans. Bettenson. Boethius similarly writes: “evil is nothing, since God, who can do all things, cannot do evil.” Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy, trans. Watts, 72.

[3] Elders suggests that it may very well have been the influence of the comparatively positive view of matter in Christian thought that induced later pagan Neoplatonists such as Proclus to modify their position on evil to a more consistent monism, maintaining that evil was a true privation and that matter, as a form of emanation from the One, was therefore not yet evil in itself. Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 125-6.

[4] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 256.

[5] Ibid. On Augustine versus Aquinas on the causality of evil, see also John Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 21.

Tolkien on evil: the Manichean context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 4

As has been noted, despite certain dualistic elements, the tendency in Neoplatonism was to reduce as much as possible the ontological status of evil to that of a mere privation of being or existence. Moving in the near opposite direction to this impetus, on the other hand, was Plotinus’s Persian contemporary Mani, who founded in the middle of the third century the Gnostic religion which came to bear his name. In contrast to both Neoplatonism and the Judeo-Christian monotheism its founder was brought up under, Manichaeism posited a radical dualism according to which good and evil were two equal and equipotent forces in the universe at war with each other:

To explain how the intermingling of good and evil took place before the creation of mankind, Mani developed an elaborate and polytheistic cosmogonic myth of a primeval invasion of the Kingdom of Light by the forces of Darkness. The former is ruled over by the Father of Greatness who is the epitome of all that is good, beautiful and honourable and his realm is completely insulated from the horrors of war and suffering… The latter is the dominion of the Prince of Darkness, who is depicted as a multiform monster and who infernal kingdom is characterized by concupiscence and strife. As the Kingdom of Light is not equipped for war, not even for its own self-defence, its ruler has to evoke other deities to fulfill this unaccustomed role. (Lieu, “Christianity and Manichaeism,” 282-3)

In the origin myth of Manichaeism, accordingly, the physical cosmos is at once the product and principal site of this cosmic strife between the Kingdoms of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, a conflict in which Light has been partially imprisoned by Matter in the physical universe but may become freed by those who, illumined by Mani’s gnosis, practice virtue and avoid those actions which contribute to Evil’s dominion over the Light (284).

Society: a whole no greater than the sum of its parts?

According to Mises, society is a whole that is no greater than the sum of its parts:

The total complex of the mutual relations created by such concerted actions is called society…. But society is nothing but the combination of individuals for cooperative effort. It exists nowhere else than in the actions of individual men. It is a delusion to search for it outside the actions of individuals. To speak of a society’s autonomous and independent existence, of its life, its soul, and its actions is a metaphor which can easily lead to crass errors. (Human Action, 143)

A couple of responses. The first is that Mises seems to posit a false dichotomy between society being nothing more than the aggregation of “individuals for cooperative effort” on the one hand, and, on the other, the supposed alternative of society somehow existing elsewhere “than in the actions of individual men.” (I.e., I submit that there is no contradiction for society to be, contra Mises, more than the combination of individuals for cooperative effort, while at the same time, and consistent with Mises, “exist[ing] nowhere else than in the actions of individual men.”)

Second, is it not rather arbitrary for Mises so willingly to accept mind, reason and their correlate, human action, as “ultimate” givens that are irreducible to the mere material processes of nature (Mises’s “methodological dualism”), while insisting that society, by contrast, is nothing more than and is therefore reducible to the individuals of which it is composed? Mises is an unapologetic dualist in the one case and an incorrigible reductionist in the other. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, I say. Human sociality is every bit an irreducible “given” as human rationality.

Tolkien on evil: the Plotinian context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 3

The previous post in this series noted a certain aporia in Plato’s treatment of evil, a tension, that is, between a metaphysical account of evil on the one hand (evil as privation and/or rooted in matter) and a psychological account on the other (evil as a disorder in the soul). Plato’s own position aside, the line that some of his Neoplatonist followers would take was to interpret his theory of evil along dualistic lines, and this despite Neoplatonism’s general impetus to soften Plato’s being-becoming dualism within a more encompassing, monistic emanationism. Thus, on the one hand, Plotinus in his Enneads makes such familiar statements as “evil cannot be included in what really exists or in what is beyond existence; for these are good. So it remains that if evil exists, it must be among non-existent things, as a sort of form of non-existence…” (Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.3, trans. Armstrong). On the other hand is Plotinus’s tendency to attribute to matter, as the last emanation from the One barely above utter non-being, as the primary cause of evil. Souls, accordingly, which have their origin in a higher order of reality, become evil to the extent that they lose their focus on their heavenly, divine source in the Good and become distracted instead by the material conditions of contingent, bodily existence (5.1.1; see also O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 183-187). Once freed from the body, the soul will become free of evil (Enneads 1.8.3-5; see also Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 125). For Plotinus, consequently, the existence of unformed matter as an inherently evil entity is necessitated by the need for a cause of the evil found in an allegedly otherwise good soul: “For if evil occurs accidentally in something else, it must be something itself first, even if it is not a substance. Just as there is absolute good and good as a quality, so there must be absolute evil and the evil derived from it which inheres in something else” (Enneads 1.8.3).

In contrast with Tolkien, then, there is indeed for Plotinus an “absolute evil,” though he also wishes to avoid as much as possible saying that the absolute evil of matter truly exists or has being in any kind of positive sense (for an effort at reconciling this tension in Plotinus’s thought, see O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil”). Matter, rather, has at best only “non-being.” For Plotinus, accordingly (but here he sees himself as merely following Plato’s Theaetetus, which he quotes), the conflict between good and evil is eternal and thus basic to reality: “We must consider, too, what Plato means when he says ‘Evils can never be done away with,’ but exist ‘of necessity’; and that ‘they have no place among the gods, but haunt our mortal nature and this region for ever… [E]vil must exist of necessity, since the good must have its contrary’” (Enneads 1.8.6, citing Theaetetus 176a). Plotinus further links this understanding of evil with the tragic metaphysics of Plato’s Timaeus: “‘For the generation of this universe was a mixed result of the combination of intellect and necessity.’ What comes into it from God is good; the evil comes from the ‘ancient nature’ (Plato means the underlying matter, not yet set in order by some god)” (Enneads 1.8.7, citing Plato, Timaeus 47e5-48a1). Lacking being or existence in the proper sense of the term for Plato and Plotinus, the evil that is matter is nonetheless very much an uncreated and eternal causal principle in their accounts of the universe.

The Creative Genius: Mises’s “Christology”

Mises’s figure of the “creative genius” has a number of historical antecedents (Hegel’s world-historical figure and Nietzsche’s Dionysian übermensch, for example, come to mind), but I’m particularly intrigued by the (secularized) prophetic, christological, and soteriological (perhaps even apocalyptic) function he seems to serve in Mises’s economic theory:

Far above the millions that come and pass away tower the pioneers, the men whose deeds and ideas cut out new paths for mankind. For the pioneering genius to create is the essence of life. To live means for him to create.

The activities of these prodigious men cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is no leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about the result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation. The genius wants to accomplish what he considers his mission, even if he knows that he moves toward his own disaster.

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him…. Such agonies are phenomena which have nothing in common with the connotations generally attached to the notions of work and labor, production and success, breadwinning and enjoyment of life….

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact for praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term. (Human Action, 139-40)

In sum, in Mises’s “pioneering genius” we have a transcendent (at least relative to the science of human action and economics) “grace” intervening in the affairs and actions of men, taking the form of a self-emptying, “suffering servant,” a man “who for the joy set before him endures” tribulation, “despising the shame.”

Augustine contra Mises on “(dis)ordered loves”

Mises observes that “It is customary to say that acting man has a scale of wants or values in his mind when he arranges his actions. On the basis of such a scale he satisfies what is of higher value, i.e., his more urgent wants, and leaves unsatisfied what is of lower value, i.e., what is a less urgent want” (Human Action 94). And as a general principle of human behavior, I think the statement accurate enough. But Mises actually thinks the statement isn’t rigid enough, writing that

one must not forget that the scale of values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action. These scales have no independent existence apart from the actual behavior of individuals. The only source from which our knowledge concerning these scales is derived is the observation of a man’s actions. Every action is always in perfect agreement with the scale of values or wants because these scales are nothing but an instrument for the interpretation of a man’s acting. (95)

For Mises, in other words, it is no mere general principle, but an inexorable law admitting of no exceptions, that human action is arranged in a hierarchical scale in which the higher wants are satisfied in advance of lower ones.

A couple of responses, the first of which is that this conflation of human wants or values to actual human action (which Mises defines as “purposeful human behavior”) seems to be guilty of the very kind of reductionism that Mises faults the behaviorists (Skinner, et al.) for when they reduce human action to mere behavior, apart from the subjective, purposive, teleological, or goal-oriented aspect that Mises makes central to his analysis.

My second response is related to the first but is inspired by Augustine, which is that this seems like an awfully naive and overly optimistic understanding of man, in that it assumes an unrealistic degree of self-transparency involved in human wants or desires (or what Augustine would call “loves”). Is it really the case, after all, that what we really want or love is always so obvious or clear to us, such that there is, in Mises’s words, a “perfect agreement” between our scale of values on the one hand and our actions on the other? This seems highly unlikely, if not manifestly false. For Augustine, who was deeply impressed by the effects of sin, both original and otherwise, on human reasoning, believed that the human soul was a virtual rats’ nest of affections, proclivities, aversions, motives, prejudices, biases, and so forth, a web of lusts, in short, so complicated that only God had the wisdom to possibly sort it all out. What is more, Augustine believed that, for all his fallenness, man’s deepest desire remains the desire for communion with the God in whose image he has been made: “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” This is all to say that, in an important sense, apart from the redemption had in Christ, in and through whom alone our disordered  loves may become rightly ordered ones, man never acts so as to satisfy what is of “highest value” first.

Tolkien on evil: the Platonic context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 2

“In my story,” Tolkien unequivocally writes in one letter, “I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil” (Letters243). (Perhaps the closest Tolkien comes in his fiction per se to making this kind of claim is Elrond’s statement at the Great Council, in regard to Sauron, that “nothing is evil in the beginning” [FOTR 281].) Similarly, in his letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien contradicts the latter’s claim that anything Sauron made “could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one,” countering instead that in the Creator’s “accepting or tolerating [Sauron’s] making—necessary to their actual existence—even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good” (Letters 195). In passages such as these, Tolkien clearly aligns himself with the classic Augustinian tradition according to which evil “exists” as a privation of being and consequently as a non-entity in and of itself. The Augustinian equation of evil with non-being has its roots in the thought of Plato, whose views on the subject were deeply ambiguous. In the Republic, for example, Socrates makes the claim that “the good is not the cause of everything; rather it is the cause of the things that are in a good way, while it is not responsible for the bad things” (Republic 379b, trans. Bloom), and in the Gorgias Plato almost seems to suggest that evil exists in its own right when he says that things can be either good, bad, or neutral (Gorgias 468c). Part of the difficulty in Plato’s theory of evil, as Leo J. Elders points out, is that while evil may be a privation of the good, “in the Platonic tradition privation is seen as something subsistent and is identified with matter,” though scholars have debated as to whether matter or the soul for Plato is the true cause of evil (The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas in a Historical Perspective, 124). According to Carlos Steel, for example, although Plato’s explanation of evil has dualistic elements, his account is ultimately psychological, yet he leaves unresolved the problem which would occupy later Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, namely how it is that an individual soul which (according to Socrates and Plato) only ever intends good and not evil should nevertheless commit evil out of ignorance or stupidity (Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause? Augustine’s Perplexity and Thomas’ Answer,” 252-4).

Atheism in Middle-earth: “The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.”

“The Sea has no shore. There is no Light in the West.” These are the words spoken by one of Melkor’s spies, disguised as Amlach, son of Imlach, at the council of Men convened in the First Age to decide what to do about the perils facing them in Middle-earth (Silmarillion, “Of the Coming of Men into the West,” 145). The literal significance of these words, of course, is their denial of Valinor, of the Valar, of their light, by implication, a denial of Ilúvatar himself, and therefore also a denial of Men’s own dignified status as the Children of Ilúvatar.

More symbolically, pseudo-Amlach’s words are an expression of philosophical atheism: they constitute a rejection of transcendence, of a future hope and resurrection, of a reconciliation of the world to God and the restoration of all things, of a final judgment upon evil and the righting of all wrongs. In exchange for these things, pseudo-Amlach’s words offer (again, symbolically) a worldview that is reductionistic, wholly immanentized, materialistic, anti-supernatural, and hence anti-humane and therefore anti-humanistic. It is the counsel of despair under the guise of an urbane but (in reality) enervating cynicism.

Against such philosophical reductionism, accordingly, Tolkien’s entire legendarium sounds a clarion reminder that the seemingly endless Sea does have a shore, and that however dark things may seem, there is indeed a “Light in the West.” (This is The Lord of the Rings as counter-atheism.) A couple of familiar passages reinforce the point. The first is from Frodo’s peculiar dream while at Crick-Hollow:

Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.

As Verlyn Flieger comments in her fine analysis of this passage in Splintered Light, 

The episode invites comparison with the final line of the allegory in the Beowulf essay. In both instances, the effect comes less from the images of tower and sea than from the stated or implied desire to climb up and look outward to the immense unknown. Tolkien’s use of this idea in both the [Beowulf] essay and The Lord of the Rings suggests that for him it transcended allegory to express an indefinable but very real attribute of the human psyche: the desire to seek something without knowing what it is.” (Flieger, Splintered Light, 16)

As St. Thomas would put it, man seeks God as an end that surpasses the grasp of his reason. The second passage is one I cited recently (Tolkien’s last voyage), when Frodo himself finally comes to the shore and Light beyond the Sea:

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.

This scene answers to and is the fulfillment of Frodo’s earlier dream: no longer in a state of mere anticipation of that which he has most deeply longed for, he has come to that place where his desire can at last be satiated and his joy made full. For this reason the passage really stands as the climactic and consummating eucatastrophe of the entire Lord of the Rings, when the work is at its most theological–reminding us, as Augustine so memorably put it, that “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Thee”–as Frodo is ushered into a vision of divine light, not as an oblique “ray of light through the very chinks of the universe” (as Tolkien describes eucatastrophe in one place), but now (as St. Paul put it) “face to face.”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 1

Another topic central to the Tolkien’s fiction and St. Thomas’s philosophy of being is the topic of evil. Indeed, part of what gives evil both its prominent place and powerful plausibility in Tolkien’s work is not only his interest in such themes as creation, sub-creation, angelic governance, love of otherness, mortality, free will, and so forth, but his related concern to examine the myriad ways in which the motives behind these themes may become corrupted. Despite the importance of the subject in his writings, however, the exact nature of Tolkien’s representation of evil has been the subject of some dispute and not precisely understood. From the time of its first publication in the mid-1950s, many critics have faulted The Lord of the Rings’s portrayal of the conflict between good and evil as overly simplistic and even dangerously naïve, while other readers have found in Tolkien’s representation of evil plenty of food for thoughtful reflection and deserving of comparison with the ideas of such prominent recent thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, René Girard, and Michel Foucault.[1] Perhaps the most important philosophical debate concerning Tolkien’s depiction of evil, however, centers on his relationship not to recent but to very ancient theories of evil. Of particular note is the evident Christian Neoplatonism readers have found Tolkien to share with such eminent thinkers as St. Augustine, Boethius, and St. Thomas, according to whom everything is good to the extent that it exists, so that evil, as the privation of the good, is also the privation of being. On the other hand, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has argued that Tolkien’s philosophy of evil, as a consequence of his personal effort to come to grips with uniquely modern forms of evil, especially the threats of modern fascism and industrialized warfare, syncretistically combines Neoplatonic monism with its historically contrary position of Manichaean dualism, according to which evil is not a mere absence of being, but is an independently existing force in its own right.

In the series of posts to follow, it is chiefly with reference to these two positions that I propose to compare the respective ponerologies (the branch of theology dealing with evil, from the Greek word poneros, meaning evil) of Tolkien and St. Thomas. As I have argued before, Tolkien’s view of being (of which evil is a privation) is no generic metaphysics, but holds much in common with the specifically Christian and creational metaphysics developed by St. Thomas, according to whom being is not some necessary, impersonal, and highly mediated emanative surplus (as per classical and later Islamic Neoplatonism), but a voluntary gift immediately bestowed by an ever-personal God. As I hope to show, it is thisunique concept of being that, first, provides the logical structure or coherence to what I argue is for Tolkien a kind of hierarchy of evil, and second (and more paradoxically), which helps at the same time to underwrite rather than contradict the otherwise extreme power and seeming Manichaean independence of evil in Tolkien’s mythology, while at the same time allowing Tolkien to reduce this same evil to nothing.

[1] As Tolkien commented in 1954 on the response of some readers to The Lord of the Rings, “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps…” (L 197). On Tolkien and Foucault, see Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. On Tolkien and Levinas, see Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” and on Tolkien and Girard, see Head, “Imitative Desire in Tolkien’s Mythology: A Girardian Perspective,” both of which are discussed below. On Tolkien and Heidegger, see Malpas, “Home,” which considers Tolkien in light of Heidegger’s technology-essay and his famous lectures on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. For comparisons of Tolkien and Nietzsche, see Blount, “Überhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power” and Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism.”