Heidegger and Tolkien on Technology

I’ve been posting of late on the Ring’s symbolism of the domination of reality through “the Machine,” a discussion that invites comparison with the most influential philosophical essay on the subject, Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” (For a more general comparison of Tolkien and Heidegger, see Simon Malpas’s article, “Home”.) In his essay Heidegger calls into question the adequacy of the instrumental definition of technology in terms of a system of means and ends, of causes and effects (note, for example, Tolkien’s characterization of the Machine as an instrument for “making the will more effective”). The problem with the instrumental, means-and-ends, cause-and-effect analysis of technology, according to Heidegger, is that the system of causality is already part of the technological perspective and problem, and thus altogether fails to get at technology’s true essence. The instrumental definition of technology, in other words, defines technology technologically, which is to say, in the only terms it knows how.

Included in Heidegger’s critique of the insufficiency of the instrumental definition of technology is any attempt (such as Tolkien’s, I would argue) to understand technology theologically or metaphysically. Heidegger’s challenge, for example, to Tolkien’s view of technology primarily as a means of domination, and domination (as I have been interpreting it) in turn as ultimately a desire for God’s own power of creation, is that this views God himself in terms of “causality and making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality,” and so loses “all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of [God’s] distance” (The Question Concerning Technology, 26). In representing Ilúvatar as the wielder of the “Secret Fire”–by which he makes his and the wills of others “effective” in the world–Heidegger might ask whether Tolkien’s fictional theology doesn’t already problematically presuppose a proto-industrial view, not only of man and the world, but of the Creator himself. And if so, is it any wonder that Melkor, the greatest of Ilúvatar’s creatures and therefore the one most presumably like him, should, in evident imitation of his maker, venture into the Void looking for the “technology” of the “Imperishable Flame” whereby he “bring into Being things of his own”?

Tolkien, of course, would see things quite differently, arguing perhaps that it is precisely in its lust for the Creator’s own power of creation that domination, manifesting itself in technology, denies the exaltedness, holiness, and mysteriousness of divine distance. It’s interesting that even Heidegger, his critique notwithstanding, largely resigns himself to the inevitability of technology and defends it as a valid even if limited mode in which being “reveals” itself to human beings, a mode in which things present themselves in terms of an orderable or controllable “standing-reserve” for human use, as energy that can be extracted and stored, unlocked and transformed, regulated and secured, ready-at-hand to be called on when needed (14-17). The real problem, in Heidegger’s view, arises when this inevitable mode of revealing comes to exclude other modes of revealing. As in Tolkien’s discussion of the effects of the domination motive, for Heidegger the revealing of technology is one in which “the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve” (19). Heidegger points out, however, that this becomes even more problematic when “man in the midst of objectlessness” becomes “nothing but the orderer” of a now objectless, standing-reserve, and so “comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve” (27).

Despite his reservations, Heidegger may even be seen to approach the kind of theological critique implicit in Tolkien when he writes that, “Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth…. This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” (27). What, then, is the solution for Heidegger? Part of the answer is that, because of its inevitability, rather than demonizing it, technology is a reality we must resign ourselves to and whose essence we must simply seek to understand.

For Tolkien, by contrast, technology, if not exactly an evil per se (since nothing, insofar as it has being, is in itself evil), much of the motivation behind it, especially in modernity, is not just figuratively but literally, in Heidegger’s words, the “work of the devil” (that’s what Sauron is, after all). The second part of Heidegger’s solution, however, is to re-cultivate a “more primally granted revealing that could bring the saving power into its first shining forth in the midst of the danger,” and Heidegger finds this saving power in what the Greeks called poiesis and techne, or art, whereby they “brought the presence of the gods, brought the dialogue of divine and human destinings, to radiance” (34). What we need, then, is a “decisive confrontation” between technology and “a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art” (35).

For Tolkien, too, the relevant opposition is between art and the Machine, between Magic understood as “enchantment” and Magic understood as power and control, though he certainly draws the line of kinship between these two differently than Heidegger does. For Heidegger, art and technology are two species belonging to the same genus of poiesis; for Tolkien, the Machine is most often the result of the corruption of the artistic impulse, the desire not to bring creation to its God-ordained fulfillment, but to divert its natural use by imposing upon it one’s own, alien or heteronomous purposes and will. As to the particular task Heidegger suggests that art must assume, namely reinvigorating the world with a sense of divine “presence,” Tolkien I think would agree, as this is what his own art sets forth to do. Finally, even if Tolkien is less sanguine than Heidegger is as to the intrinsic validity or worth of technology, he could also agree with Heidegger’s conclusion to his essay, even if giving it a different interpretation than Heidegger himself intended, namely that “the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes” (35). As Tolkien might prefer to put it, it is in contrast to the darkness (and evil) of technology that the light (and goodness) of true art is made all the more manifest.

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Sub-creative omnipotence

A theology of the possible, part 6

James Ross’s denial of the existence of a universal domain of possibles leads him to redefine what we mean by divine omnipotence, a redefinition that I want to argue makes for a much tighter and meaningful analogy between the creative power of God and the sub-creative power of man. For Ross, “omnipotence is FORMALLY not the power to make states of affairs obtain or to actualize the possible. It is the power to cause being ex nihilo” (emphasis original). The conclusion of this redefinition for Ross is that

God’s power is more awesome. Its domain is realized with its exercise. What is possible ad extra is a result of what God does. God’s power has no exemplar objects, only a perimeter (that is, finite being) plus a limit (that of internal consistency, compatibility with the divine being). God creates the kinds, the natures of things, along with things. And he settles what-might-have-been insofar as it is a consequence of what exists… In sum, God creates the possibility, impossibility, and counter-factuality that has content (real situations) involving being other than God. (318-19)

            For Tolkien I think there is a related sense in which the “domain” of the human sub-creator’s activity is not some pre-existing, speculatively discoverable given, but is rather determined and “realized with its exercise.” As self-identified “hill-billy Thomist” Flannery O’Connor, under the influence of Jacques Maritain’s work on Art and Scholasticism, advised one of her acquaintances about the sub-creative process, “Strangle that word dreams. You don’t dream up a form and put the truth in it. The truth creates its own form. Form is necessity in the work of art.”[1] (Replace “the truth” with “God” in the preceding quote and you have almost exactly what I take to be Ross’s antithesis between theological exemplarism and his variety of divine voluntarism.) The artistic possibilities open to the sub-creator, in other words, are less a matter of isolated, abstracted “logical compatibilities” of the imagined forms themselves (O’Connor’s “dreams,” as it were), as they are a matter of the inchoate potentialities of his images to suggest, coalesce, and so produce a coherent “secondary world,” one possessing the “inner consistency of reality,” and in which those forms might then live and move and have their being. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” Tolkien gives the example of a “green sun,” which he says is relatively easy to picture mentally, but suggests that its sub-creative propriety lies elsewhere, namely in the sub-creator’s ability to fashion a world in which such strange and unfamiliar structures may nonetheless be seen to fit.[2] In Tolkien’s poetics, the faculty of Imagination includes not only the “mental power of image-making” (and in fantasy or fairy-story, of making images especially marked by an element of “strangeness” or “unreality”), but beyond that, the ability to “perceive,” “grasp,” and “control” the “implications” of the image. To this power of Imagination he adds a further faculty responsible for the “achievement of the expression [of the image], which gives (or seems to give) ‘the inner consistency of reality,’” a faculty that Tolkien calls “Art, the operative link between Imagination and the final result, Sub-creation.” For the human sub-creator as for Ross’s divine creator, what is possible for the maker is the result of what the maker does.


[1] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 218.

[2] We might characterize this as Tolkien’s way of admitting something that Ross argues elsewhere, namely that “imaginability does not imply (in this case, sub-creative) possibility.” See Ross, Thought and World. 

The Theology of Sauron’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 39

As to the “physical force and mechanism” whereby the will to domination makes itself “objective,” Tolkien explains that what he means by this is

all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents—or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognized. (Letters 145-6)

The difference between true art and the tyranny of domination is that the one seeks to shepherd things as they are, cultivating and adorning those properties already inherent in them by virtue of their createdness, whereas the other imposes upon things one’s own godlike order and purposes. This is where the necessity of Magic or the Machine comes in, for by their instrumentality the natural limitations of both agent and things may be transcended: “enhanc[ing] the natural powers of a possessor” (152) and thus “making the will more quickly effective” in the world (145), Magic and Machines, by reducing “to a minimum (or vanishing point) of the gap between the idea or desire and the result or effect” (200), help the creature approximate the kind of absolute power and efficacy of will possessed by the Creator.

This, I submit, is the relevant mythological, theological, and metaphysical context for Tolkien’s whole polemic against modern industrialization: its lust for “devices” and “apparatuses” for the more efficient control of nature is nothing less than a continuation of what for both Tolkien and St. Thomas was the primeval and diabolical quest for the creational power of God whereby one might “bring into Being things of his own.” As Tolkien puts it in another letter, in contrast to “art which is content to create a new secondary world in the mind,” the Machine “attempts to actualize desire, and so to create power in this World; and that cannot really be done with any real satisfaction” (88). This theological subtext to Sauron’s Ring, which is in its own turn a symbol of all forms of tyrannous technology, also helps make further sense of Tolkien’s claim that the central conflict in The Lord of the Rings, a book that never mentions the Creator, is nevertheless “about God, and His sole right to divine honour” (243). The question posed by the Ring, in essence, is the question of who among creatures has the right to “play God,” to which the entire quest of the Fellowship to destroy the Ring is the implicit answer that only God has the right to play God.

Possibilism: possibility as prior to actuality

A theology of the possible, part 5

The second metaphysical error committed by the hypothesis of God creating the world from a pre-given, universal domain of exemplars, according to Ross, is what some have referred to as “possibilism,” the view that possibility or possible existence is metaphysically prior to and hence determinative of actuality or actual existence, making real existence a mere accident or property of some prior possibility.[1] As Ross characterizes this view of contemporary “modal actualists” (whom he elsewhere also refers to as “Modal Neoplatonists”)—so called because they “postulate universal domains of essences, propositions, states of affairs, and even divine ideas… insist[ing] on the exhaustive panorama of possibles”—they

write as if a property, ACTUALITY, were added to or conferred pon a possible world. But actuality would then accrue to a world accidentally, as something inhering in a subject already in being. Possible worlds cannot be subjects of inherence; for instance, they cannot BECOME actual… Further, the being of things cannot be INHERENT, either accidental to them or to the world ‘they inhabit,’ for similar reasons. If ‘actuality’ is not a predicable accident, a constitutive relation, or a real mode of being, then what is it? Calling it a ‘property’ is just an eyepatch for missing insight. One thing is certain: actual being is not a property and is not even predicable of anything. Those who think ‘Socrates exists’ is like ‘Socrates is tall’ simply do not understand…. (318)[2]

On the possibilist assumption, accordingly, God’s act of creation would reduce to his “adding actuality” to an (in a sense) already “existing” “possible world.” On this view, although God may not create the world from any pre-existing physical matter or potentiality, it is not clear that it doesn’t involve him in creating the world from a pre-exiting intelligible matter or potentiality.


[1] Christopher Menzel defines “classical possibilism” as being “rooted in the idea that there is a significant ontological distinction to be drawn between being, on the one hand, and existence, or actuality, on the other. Being is the broader of the two notions, encompassing absolutely everything there is in any sense. For the classical possibilist, every existing thing is, but not everything there is exists.” Menzel, “Classical Possibilism and Lewisian Possibilism,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/actualism/possibilism.html  (accessed 5/24/2012).

[2] Immanuel Kant famously made the same critique of the so-called “ontological” argument for God’s existence of Anselm and Descartes, namely that it fallaciously treated existence as a perfect-being-making property, without which God would fail, ex hypothesi, to be “that which nothing greater can be thought.” Whether Kant’s critique represents a fair portrayal of Anselm’s argument in the Proslogion, however, is another matter. For a more sophisticated interpretation that may avoid Kant’s objections, see Thomas Williams, Anselm. 

The problem with creation and the divine persons as real relations

A Theology of the possible, part 4

Related to James Ross’s critique of the exemplarist dogma that there are external real relations of participation or exemplification which are responsible for making the things that exist to be the kinds of things that they are, are two further discussions that I hope to address in the future. The first concerns St. Thomas’s teaching in, for example, ST 1.45, that creation itself is nothing but an external relation of metaphysical dependence of the creature on the Creator. Using much the same line of reasoning as Ross, Frederick Wilhelmsen in “Creation as Relation in St. Thomas Aquinas” (Being and Knowing) shows that, as a relation, a thing’s created status must in some sense be posterior to or consequent upon the thing itself. One unwelcome and, indeed, highly un-Rossian consequence of Wilhelmsen’s interpretation of Aquinas’s doctrine of creation-as-relation, however, is his highly secularized or at least a-theological an univocist interpretation of Thomistic essences: because creation is a mere relation inhering in a thing, and are not therefore contained in the essence by which the thing is constituted, the abstracted essences of things, according to Wilhelmsen, tell us nothing in and of themselves about the created status of the things they are the essences of. For Ross, by contrast, as we shall see, created essences, while the product of divine will, are nevertheless reflective of the divine nature and would not be what they are had God not determined them to have the formal features that they do. No essence, in other words, is theologically neutral.

A second discussion which I would like to correlate at some point with Ross’s critique of the external relation of participation or exemplification is Russell Friedman’s study of Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham. In the high to late Middle Ages, a significant debate was waged over the question of which “personal properties” are responsible for constituting the three persons of the Trinity, simultaneously accounting for their unity of essence and diversity of personhood. The position favored by the Dominicans was the “relational account”–the persons are constituted first and foremost as relations—whereas the Franciscans favored an “emanationist account”—the persons are constituted by the way they emanate from the others (or in the case of the Father, the way he doesn’t emanate from anything else). In their criticisms of each other, both positions, again, invoked arguments similar to that made by Ross. For the Franciscans, for example, the question was how the persons of the Trinity could be constituted by their relations to each other unless the relata of those relations were not already constituted, say, in terms of their emanation (or non-emanation) from each other. My suspicion, or at least question at this point, is whether the corollary to Ross’s position in this debate isn’t that of the twelfth-century monk Praepositinus, who rejected any attempt to account for the distinction of the persons of the Trinity in terms of a putatively more basic “personal property.” For Praepositinus, the persons are constitutive of themselves and of each other, and that’s all.

Magic, domination, and the Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 38

If the aim of domination is the reduction of the being of another to the image or extension of one’s own being, the principal means for accomplishing this end is what Tolkien refers to as “Magic,” not in the sense of a generous “Enchantment,” but in its negative, occult, and manipulative sense, or, as its modern counterpart has it, “the Machine,” which leads to the third aspect of the Ring I wish to consider. Although Tolkien in general discourages his readers from allegorizing the Ring (the Ring as nuclear power or the atomic bomb, for example), in one letter he nevertheless says that the “primary symbolism of the Ring” is “the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so inevitably by lies” (Letters160). (That Tolkien may have had Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power particularly in mind here is further implied in his statement, in the same passage, that one “moral” of The Lord of the Rings is, consistent with Nietzsche, “the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean,” and yet, contrary to Nietzsche, “without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.”) Note that Tolkien does not say that the Ring symbolizes technology or mechanization, but that it symbolizes the will or intent to dominate through the production and use of these means. Thus, if the Ring in Tolkien’s fiction should appear as a thing inherently evil, as Shipppey points out, I submit that it is less because Tolkien has momentarily lapsed into a Manichaean, evil-objectifying dualism, than it is a matter of the Ring embodying mythically an inherently problematic attitude towards reality. Also, as the mythical incarnation of Sauron’s corrupt will, the Ring possesses (ironically) a personal dimension or connection that sets it apart from ordinary inanimate objects. One reason the Ring cannot be used for any good whatsoever, therefore, is not because it is an objectified form of independently existing evil, but because the Ring represents and embodies a person, and even evil persons such as Sauron are (as Kant recognized) to be treated as ends and never as means only.

Even considered as a material object, however, Sauron’s Ring might be compared to what Thomas describes in his Summa, in an article on “Whether the adornment of women is devoid of mortal sin,” as a case of “art directed to the production of good which men cannot use without sin” (ST 2-2.169.2 ad 4), a passage Jacques Maritain refers to in his Art and Scholasticism (a work, as I have suggested previously, Tolkien may have been aware of). In such cases, Thomas argues, “it follows that the workmen sin in making such things, as directly affording others an occasion of sin; for instance, if a man were to make idols or anything pertaining to idolatrous worship.” In addition to it being the mythical embodiment of Sauron’s corrupted will, therefore, the Ring in and of itself is evil in the sense that it is was made for one purpose alone, namely the tyrannous domination of others, and therefore has this evil as its only “proper” use (for which it is indeed useful, and therefore in that sense “good”).

Another passage from St. Thomas, this time from the Summa’s discussion of evil proper, that might possibly inform a reading of Sauron’s Ring is found in his explanation, discussed earlier, as to how good can be the cause of evil (ST 1.49.1). When there is a “defect” or “ineptitude” in the instrument or matter of the agent, Thomas argues, then there will be a corresponding defect in the action or effect of the action. And this is the problem with the Ring: designed as a means for dominating others, in addition to it being the literal embodiment of a corrupt or defective will, the Ring has an inherent defect which must corrupt every action, no matter how well intended, in which it is used. (For a related discussion on how “Aquinas also has something to contribute to the problem of the Ring of Power,” see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 24.)

Against external real relations of participation

A theology of the possible, part 3

Ross sets forth to establish five major claims in “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” the first three of which are in refutation of the traditional, theological exemplarism, and the final two in defense of his voluntaristic alternative. His first, anti-exemplarist claim is that “[t]here is not a universal domain of kinds and universal domain of things of the kinds (or a universal domain of exemplar ideas) determined by God’s nature, from which God must choose what to create, nor are there exemplars for empty kind and things” (319). As Ross explains, “[t]he usual explanation of how God comes to have universal exemplars is that God knows, exhaustively, every way in which the divine being can be finitely imitated and finitely participated. these intensional objects form a universal domain of exemplars” (320). The strength of this notion, mistaken though it may be, is that its denial would seem to imply the existence or possibility of “some finite imitation of God that God does not represent to himself, even though it is possible only if he knows it—a contradiction.” For Ross, however, it simply doesn’t make any sense to speak of there being an “every way infinite being can be finitely imitated,” and though he doesn’t himself develop the point further, he says that “[w]e have to deny that God’s self-knowledge is by finite REPRESENTATION to himself” (emphasis original). (Ross’s claim here might be augmented by the phenomenological critique of representationalism of Husserl and Heidegger.)

Instead, Ross focuses on the incoherence of there being “every way infinite being can be finitely imitated,” which he associates with the “ancient idea that the perfection of God can be exhaustively participated by an extensional multitude or even exhaustively represented to God in that way.” Ross quickly traces this idea from Plato forward through Augustine to Leibniz and Spinoza, citing Aquinas as the only “notable exception” to this tradition, notwithstanding the prevalent interpretation of Aquinas to the contrary. Ross gives three distinct reasons why he thinks exemplars, understood as “exhaustive and replete domains,” are incoherent. The first is that they are formally inconsistent, running afoul of certain prohibitions (which Ross doesn’t take the time to elaborate) established in set theory against the possibility of maximal sets (316), obstacles, moreover, that he claims that present-day modal actualists, with all their “universal domains of essences, propositions, states of affairs, and even divine ideas,” have yet to overcome (317).[1]

The second objection to there being a universal domain of divine exemplars lies in its defective understanding and explanation of being. Ross offers two distinct lines of argument here, the first of which is the inconsistency involved in making the “external real relation of participation or ‘exemplification’” responsible for “mak[ing] a thing to be of its kind or to be the individual that it is.” He gives the example of Socrates who, on the exemplarist account, is a human being by virtue of his relation of participation in or being exemplified by the form or divine idea of “being a human.” Yet this is to suggest that there is some initial, pre-human substance, a “bare particular,” that is the subject of this relation, in which the relation of “being a human” is said to inhere and by which relation that bare particular is able to be a human. But Socrates isn’t first a generic, bare particular who afterward gains its status of “being human” by participating in the exemplar “being a human.” If the particular entity that is Socrates were not human from the very beginning of its being, there would be no thing at all that could enter into the relation of “being a human.” Things, consequently, cannot be constituted as the things that they are by some supposed external relation of participation or exemplification to something else.


[1] For further investigation, however, Ross directs his reader to Loux, ed., The Possible and the Actual, 53, and Fraenkel, “Set Theory,” in Encyclopedia of Philosophy.