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.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s