Tolkien’s angels and Descartes’s “angelism”

I concluded the post of a couple of weeks ago on the “machine” like quality of the bodies of Tolkien’s fictional, voluntarily incarnate angel beings, by saying that one of the endemic dangers or temptations of such a being is to want to exercise the same kind of domination over other creatures that the angelic spirit exercises over its material body. If so, in this oblique manner Tolkien may be seen to touch on what his contemporary, the Thomist Jacques Maritain, had criticized as the “angelism” of Cartesian mind-body dualism, the modern subject-object split that helped lay the philosophical foundations for modern scientism, industrialism, and technocracy—the very developments, in other words, which Tolkien so deplored and from whose evils his fiction was meant to provide some measure of “escape.” As Fergus Kerr summarizes Maritain’s critique,

The ‘sin’ of Descartes is a ‘sin of angelism.’ By this Maritain means that Descartes conceived human thought on the model of angelic thought: thought was now regarded as intuitive, and thus freed from the burden of discursive reasoning; innate, as to its origins, and thus independent of material things. What this ‘angelist psychology’ introduces is nothing less than a revolution in the very idea of mind, and thus of intelligibility, scientific understanding and explanation… (Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, 24)

In his effort to advance human mastery over nature, in other words, Descartes had to drastically re-conceive the relationship between the human mind and body, construing these two phenomena as two completely distinct and isolatable substances corresponding to two completely distinct, irreducible, and independent realities. As Descartes famously expressed this dualism in his Discourse on Method, “I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which was merely to think, and which, in order to exist, needed no place and depended on no material thing” (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Cress, 18).  In freeing the mind from its involvement or rootedness in the world, thereby allowing it to see its own body as a kind of machine at its disposal, Descartes is plausibly credited by many with having uniquely situated the modern subject to assert itself in an unprecedented manner, both theoretically and practically, over the natural world. As Maritain’s charge of “angelism” is meant to suggest, however, from a Thomistic standpoint what Descartes did, of course, was effectively to substitute a properly angelic psychology and epistemology, which do not require a body, for the properly human one, which does.


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