“To Bring into Being Things of His Own”: The Primal Sin of Satan and Melkor

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 16

As I suggested recently, an important departure Tolkien takes from the classical and medieval Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Avicenna, and Peter Lombard, is in his Thomistic conviction that only the Creator can create, that is, give or “emanate” being directly. In view of this distinction, it is surely not insignificant that the first instance of evil in Tolkien’s mythical history occurs when the Ainur Melkor presumes to be able to exercise for himself the exclusively divine power of creation. Despite having “been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge” and having “a share in all the gifts of his brethren,” Melkor is reported to have “gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own…” (Silmarillion 16). In terms of at least the narrative sequence of Tolkien’s mythology, then, the very first thing we learn about evil is that it begins with the creaturely presumption of the Creator’s own power to create. As we shall see, there is a significant respect for Tolkien in which this is all that evil ever is.

In making the desire for creative power the primeval sin, Tolkien again strikes a familiar chord with St. Thomas, who argues in the Summa’s discussion of the angels that the latter fell by seeking in an “unnatural” way to be like God (Summa Theologiae 1.63.3). Although Thomas is cautious, in the absence of any clear teaching from Scripture on the topic, not to assert with certainty the exact circumstances of the angelic fall, the one example he gives of an “unnatural” angelic desire to be like God is the “desire to create heaven and earth, which is proper to God; in which desire there would be sin. It was in this way that the devil desired to be as God.”[1] In the conclusion to his argument in the Summa Contra Gentiles that the power of creation is proper to God alone, moreover, Thomas cites without censure or qualification John Damascene’s caustic remark that “[a]ll those who say that the angels are creators of any substance whatever have the devil as their father, for no creatures in existence are creators.”[2] For Thomas, it would seem, it is not only the desire for, but even the very doctrine that a creature can share in God’s own power to create, that is in a sense “demonic.” James Collins likewise observes that Thomas’s example of the unnatural desire to create is not without special significance: “to wish to create heaven and earth… The strategic import of this example must not be overlooked, since it neatly characterizes as encroachments upon God’s unique power all theories which in any way admit that the creative act can be shared by lesser agents.”[3] Clearly, the questions of the power of creation and the primal fall of the angels were closely linked in Thomas’s mind.

At the same time, unnatural though it may be for a finite being to desire the infinite Creator’s power of creation, taken by itself the power of creation is of course infinitely good. Moreover, the end for which Melkor desires this power, namely that there should exist things other than himself, is a desire noble in itself and very much a virtue according to Tolkien’s Thomistic realism. In these two examples from Tolkien’s Ainulindalë we have illustrated a recurring theme in Tolkien’s presentation of evil and an important principle in Thomas’s metaphysics of evil as well, which is that evil always involves the (misdirected) desire for some good. According to St. Thomas, because what we desire is by definition something desirable, and because what is desirable is, taken by itself, by definition good, it is impossible for the will to desire something evil because it is evil. Evil on this view, as we have seen, is nothing and therefore cannot in and of itself be the cause of anything, including desire. To return to Aquinas’s Aristotelian distinction introduced earlier, evil is sought after only “accidentally, so far as it accompanies a good.” The examples Thomas gives of this in the Summa are that of the lion who kills the stag, not because it desires to kill simply, but because it desires food, to which the killing of the stag is accidentally joined, and second, the example of the fornicator who sins not because he desires the sin per se, but because he desires the otherwise God-given sexual pleasure or enjoyment to which the sin of fornication is accidentally related (Summa Theologiae 1.19.9; see also 1.5.1). As for those aforementioned, diabolical cases of radical evil where the evil-doer would seem intent on acting wickedly for its own sake and in deliberate opposition to God, Frederick Copleston explains that even here “it is some apparent good, complete independence, for example, which is the object of the will: the evil defiance of God appears as a good and is willed sub specie boni. No will, therefore, can desire evil precisely as such.”[4] As we shall see, not even Melkor at his most nihilistic extreme completely succeeds in escaping this truth—indeed, one might almost say that it is precisely the inescapability of this truth that drives the reckless ressentiment of his nihilism.

[1] “Alio vero modo potest aliquis appetere similis esse Deo, quantum ad hoc in quo non natus est assimilari; sicut si quis appeteret creare caelum et terram, quod est proprium Dei; in quo appetitu esset peccatum. Et hoc modo diabolus appetiit esse ut Deus.” ST 1.63.3.

[2] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 2.21, trans. Anderson.

[3] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 261.

[4] Copleston, Medieval Philosophy, 91. Steel makes a similar observation of Augustine: “In this wish to do evil for no reason Augustine recognizes a perverted imitation of divine omnipotence, nothing but the freedom of a slave in the absence of his master.” Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause,” 268, citing Augustine, Confessions 2.13.

3 thoughts on ““To Bring into Being Things of His Own”: The Primal Sin of Satan and Melkor

  1. I am following this series of posts with great interest, and I am truly grateful for the effort and knowledge that you put into them.

    In the context of your analysis above, I am curious as to how we should interpret Tolkien’s comment (in a footnote to the famous 1951 letter to Milton Waldman explaining his whole legendarium as it appeared then) where he says that in ‘the Beginner of Evil’ (Melkor the Morgoth) his evil did not arise from a desire to benefit the world and others, and goes on to say that ‘his was a sub-creative Fall’ (which then leads to the Elves being peculiarly his enemies – presumably as Men were peculiarly the enemies of Sauron).

    Incidentally he also, in the same footnote, notes that the Elves’ Fall ‘is into possessiveness and (to a less degree) into perversion of their art to power,’ which makes me think of Fëanor as probably a more typical example of the peculiar weakness of the Elves.

    • Good question. I touch on this a little bit in my follow-up post on Melkor’s “second fall” where I allow that Melkor’s “first fall” (in which he goes searching for the Flame Imperishable) needn’t be necessarily morally culpable–more the result of ignorance, at least at first, than outright rebellion. I also compare him here with Aule, who denies making the Dwarves out of a desire for domination, but for positive, even Eru-glorifying reasons. So I guess I agree that Melkor’s deviance doesn’t become obvious or “actionable” until it starts to affect his Music. Yet the idea seems supported from the text that there is some kind of causal connection between his self-imposed isolation (from his misguided search for the Flame Imperishable) and his eventual sub-creative deviations (we see this also with Aule and Feanor). Finally, I also find it significant that, in contrast to the other Ainur, who “knew not that the Music had any purpose beyond its own beauty” and did not anticipate the possibility of the real-world existence of their sub-creation until the Vision, there seems to be something already a little presumptuous and possibly even avaricious in Melkor’s anticipating, during the Music, the possibility of giving being or existence to the objects of his mind.

      • Oh, and you make a great point about Feanor and Elves as illustrative of the paradigmatic evil of “possessiveness.” I’ll have some posts on this soon.

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