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.

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.

God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities

A theology of the possible, part 2

One major source in my re-examination of the question of divine power and possibility, especially in relation to Tolkien’s work on the nature of sub-creation, has been the fascinating but difficult work of the late philosopher of religion James Ross (†2010). In his provocative 1986 article, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities: Requiescant universalia ante res,”[1] Ross calls into question the standard, Augustinian-Thomistic doctrine that the archetypes or exemplars of creation are themselves uncreated “divine ideas” existing eternally in the mind of God and determined, not by his will, but by his nature or essence. As Ross characterizes such Christianized Neoplatonism, “God’s prismatic self-knowledge ‘refracts’ a universal domain, the divine ideas of all the kinds of things there might be and of all the things of those kinds there might be” (315). In other words, in knowing himself God knows all the ways in which his essence may be imitated and so participated by his possible creatures.

According to Ross, this traditional, “exemplarist” view of divine knowledge and power is beset by a number of logical, metaphysical, and theological difficulties, and in its stead he proposes to posit a “voluntarist” alternative that takes its inspiration not, ironically, from William of Ockham and his nominalist school (who are themselves “exemplarists,” as Ross defines the term), but from a revisionist reading of the metaphysical theology of St. Thomas Aquinas. Similar to Ockham, for example, Ross is concerned with the way in which the exemplarist view seems to limit divine omnipotence (“God’s power is more awesome,” as Ross exclaims at one point), but unlike Ockham Ross does not resort to a bare logical possibility conceived outside of or extrinsic to the mind and essence of God. Instead, Ross suggests that the possibilities open or available to God in the act of creation are something that God himself creates, albeit not arbitrarily. Hence he says that the domain of God’s power “is realized with its exercise. What is possible ad extra is a result of what God does.”

[1] Rationality, Religious Belief, and Moral Commitment, eds. Robert Audi and William J. Wainwright (Cornell University Press, 1986), 315.

“Day Shall Come Again!”: The Book of Samuel in “The Silmarillion”

One of my interests is in the presence not just of general Christian and theological themes in Tolkien’s fiction, but of specifically biblical types and patterns in particular. As I am fond of saying to Christians who have enjoyed The Lord of the Rings but not yet discovered (or at least not yet been able to appreciate) the riches of The Silmarillion, if you think of the former as Tolkien’s “New Testament,” the latter is his “Old Testament”: while you can certainly profit knowing the one without the other, you won’t be able to fully understand it.

I’m reading through the Book of Samuel at the moment and I’m reminded of one such incidental parallel that I’ve observed for a while but whose relevance (if any) has escaped me. When Jonathan is killed along with his father, King Saul, in battle with the Philistines, David composes a lament for his slain friend, the so-called “Song of the Bow” (2 Sam. 1:17-27). In like manner, and in one of the most tragically poignant scenes in The Silmarillion, after mistakenly killing his friend Beleg Strongbow, Túrin Turumbar composes in his honor and memory the Laer Cú Beleg, the “Song of the Great Bow.”

The value of this comparison, I suspect, lies in the other connections between The Silmarillion and the Book of Samuel it may lead us to. Although Jonathan is not killed by David as Beleg is by Túrin, earlier in the story Jonathan is nearly killed by his father on David’s behalf when he foils Saul’s plot to assassinate David (1 Sam. 20). And when Jonathan finally is killed, it is by the Philistines with whom David had earlier entered into an alliance (1 Sam. 27, 29), and with whom David had also purposed to join in their war against Israel.

Related to this is the parallel irony involved in the swords that Túrin and David both wield. Doubtlessly the most famous sword in the Bible is the one that David took from Goliath when he cut off the Philistine Giant’s head. When he later requests of the priests of Nob a sword and they offer him Goliath’s for his own use (and for which assistance they are afterward killed by Saul), David responds by saying that “There is none like that; give it me” (1 Sam. 21:9). Again, David doesn’t kill Jonathan, but in bearing a Philistine sword, there is a sense in which the same sword that kills Jonathan is also the one that David wields. In similar manner, when King Thingol offers Beleg any sword of his choosing to help him in his service to and protection of Túrin, Beleg asks for Anglachel, “a sword of great worth because it was made of iron that fell from heaven as a blazing star; it would cleave all earth-delved iron,” and later described as a weapon that “was heavy and strong and had a great power” and “a strange blade, and unlike any that [has been] seen in Middle-earth.” Yet as Melian warns Beleg, it is also a weapon with both a dubious history and an uncertain future: ” ‘There is malice in this sword. The dark heart of the smith still dwells in it. It will not love the hand it serves; neither will it abide with you long.’ ‘Nonetheless I will wield it while I may,’ said Beleg.” Even after Melian’s prophecy proves true and the sword betrays its owner to his death, Túrin is unwilling to cast aside the accursed, black blade, using it later to slay (as no other sword could) the dragon Glaurung, and at last to take even his own troubled life.

Other, more tangential but still interesting connections include Beleg’s chancing upon and rescue of Gwindor, an escapee from Angband, while pursuing the Orcs who had taken Túrin captive, a scene somewhat reminiscent of David and company’s rescue of the Egyptian slave while pursuing the Amalekites who had taken their wives and children captive in their raid on Ziklag. Beleg, we might note here, is also a secondary character in the Beren-Luthien-Thingol saga, which involves a replay of the David-Michal-Saul episode from 1 Sam. 18: father despises daughter’s would-be-suitor and tries (unsuccessfully) to kill him by giving him a seemingly impossible and fatal mission as a bride-price.

Knowing something of the origin and prior history of Anglachel also serves to reinforce the David-Túrin connection. As alluded to in Melian’s warning, the sword had been forged by Eöl the dark Elf who had  captured and seduced Aredhel of Gondolin, and from which union Maeglin was begotten. When Maeglin and Aredhel finally escape from Eöl, Maeglin steals his father’s sword, taking it with them to Gondolin, whither Eöl also follows them and, like Saul (but compare also Denethor), after insulting his wife, tried to kill his own son. It is also while in Gondolin that Maeglin falls in love with his cousin Idril, but “without hope,” for, as it is told,

[t]he Eldar wedded not with kin so near, nor ever before had any desired to do so. And however that might be, Idril loved Maeglin not at all; and knowing his thought of her she loved him the less. For it seemed to her a thing strange and crooked in him, as indeed the Eldar ever since have deemed it: an evil fruit of the Kinslaying, whereby the shadow of the curse of Mandos fell upon the last hope of the Noldor. But as the years passed still Maeglin watched Idril, and waited, and his love turned to darkness in his heart. And he sought the more to have his will in other matters, shirking no toil or burden, if he might thereby have power.

It is due in part to his frustrated, incestuous, and in any case unrequited love for Idril that leads Maeglin to betray his uncle and adopted father Turgon in an attempt to usurp his throne.

Here it is possible and reasonable to see Tolkien interweaving or overlapping a number of episodes from the Book of Samuel. In particular I have in mind David’s seduction and impregnation of Bathsheba and conspiracy to kill her husband Uriah the Hittite, sins which bring the Lord’s curse that the sword would “never depart from thine house” (2 Sam. 10-11). This prophecy first begins to be filled in David’s son Amnon’s “crooked” love for and rape of his half-sister Tamar, his subsequent murder by his half-brother Absalom, and Absalom’s later usurpation of David’s throne. In the story of David, or so it would seem, we have an important biblical antecedent not only for the doom laid upon the Children of Húrin by Morgoth, but also of the Noldor’s slaying of their kin at Alqualondë: the curse laid upon the father will be visited upon his children.

Yet the story of David in the Bible is not ultimately about the curse as it is about Yahweh’s ability to bring about blessing and lasting faithfulness despite the curse and the unfaithfulness of his people. And perhaps it is here we might find some broader significance to the above parallels. David is told that the sword will not depart from his house, but he is also told that Yahweh himself will build David a house that will know no end. In like manner, as relentlessly tragic as Túrin’s story is, it is for all that a story contextualized by an overriding promise of hope. In the Fifth Battle between the Elves and Morgoth, the “Nirnaeth Arnoediad” or battle of “Unnumbered Tears,” when Turgon unexpectedly leads his army from Gondolin to join the forces against Morgoth, his brother Fingon shouts aloud, “Utúlie’n aurë! Aiya Eldalië ar Atanatári, utúlie’n aurë! The day has come!,” to which “all those who heard his great voice echo in the hills answered crying: ‘Auta i lómë! The night is passing!'” This particular hope, however, proves precipitous: betrayed by the Men of Uldor the Accursed, the allied forces of Men and Elves suffer a great defeat. Yet even as Turgon predicts in defeat that “Not long now can Gondolin be hidden, and being discovered it must fall,” the dying Huor is able to reply:

“Yet if it stands but a little while, then out of your house shall come the hope of Elves and Men. This I say to you, lord, with the eyes of death: though we part here for ever, and I shall not look on your white walls again, from you and from me a new star shall arise. Farewell!”

Like David, Turgon’s “house” will fall, yet “out of [his] house shall come the hope of Elves and Men,” a hope that receives its most immediate fulfillment in the union of Huor’s son Tuor and Turgon’s daughter Idril and their son Eärendil, but more remotely in their distant descendant (and one Tolkien’s most christological and hence davidic characters), Aragorn. Thus, while it may have proved too soon for Fingon naively and definitively to declare that “Day has come,” and to be answered that “Night is passing,” it is Húrin’s (repeated) expression of indomitable hope in the face of imminent and certain defeat that is given the “last word,” as it were: “each time that he slew Húrin cried: ‘Aurë entuluva! Day shall come again!’ Seventy times he uttered that cry; but they took him at last alive…” (Thanks to this lecture by Corey “The Tolkien Professor” Olsen for drawing my attention to these passages).

To return to the story of Beleg and Túrin, although neither of them witness the dawn of the “Day” spoken of by Húrin, their friendship, as tragic as it may be, nevertheless foreshadows not only the prophesied union of Elf and Man through the line of Tuor and Idril, but another crucial dimension of Tolkien’s eschatology as well, namely the Elves’ eventual succession and supplanting by Men in the historical-redemptive purposes of Ilúvatar to restore all of Arda. In the noble Elf Beleg’s sacrificial service and loyalty to Túrin, after all, we have a type of Jonathan’s own great love, humility, and willing acquiescence as the crown-prince to his divinely destined replacement by David in the line to the throne (1 Sam. 23:17). Fittingly, it is Finrod–whose own profound service to Beren to the point of death may have helped inspire Beleg’s similar service to Túrin–that Tolkien gives the fullest expression of this biblical, Johannine philosophy of “He must increase, and I must decrease.” In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth–a dialogue which Tolkien describes in terms of “an attempt of a generous Elvish mind to fathom the relations of Elves and Men, and the part they were designed to play in what he would have called the Oienkarme Eruo (The One’s perpetual production), which might be rendered by ‘God’s management of the Drama’ “–the conversation reaches to its zenith when Finrod tells the mortal Andreth:

‘This then, I propound, was the errand of Men, not the followers, but the heirs and fulfillers of all: to heal the Marring of Arda, already foreshadowed before their devising; and to do more, as agents of the magnificence of Eru: to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!’… I beheld as a vision Arda Remade; and there the Eldar completed but not ended could abide in the present for ever, and there walk, maybe, with the Children of Men, their deliverers, and sing to them such songs as, even in the Bliss beyond bliss, should make the green valleys ring and the everlasting mountain-tops to throb like harps…. Yes, Wise-woman, maybe it was ordained that we Quendi, and ye Atani, ere the world grows old, should meet and bring news one to another, and so we should learn of the Hope from you: ordained, indeed, that thou and I, Andreth, should sit here and speak together, across the gulf that divides our kindreds, so that while the Shadow still broods in the North we should not be wholly afraid.’ (Morgoth’s Ring)

In conclusion, then, while nothing can or should take away the inherently tragic character of the tale of Túrin Turambar turun ambartanen, the “master of doom by doom mastered,” it’s apparent parallels with the biblical Book of Samuel may nonetheless remind us that it is not an instance of “tragedy for its own sake,” but rather of that kind of “dyscatastrophe” that Tolkien says is not so much denied as it is presupposed by the possibility of eucatastrophe. The latter, he says at the end of his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”  “does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” This, we might say, is the “Gospel according to Túrin.”

Tolkien’s “Manichaeism”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 37

In this series of posts I have been examining Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, the discussion surrounding which has been greatly influenced by Tom Shippey’s provocative and challenging claim that Tolkien’s fiction does not in fact contain a consistent or coherent presentation of evil, but involves rather a “running ambivalence,” tension, or contradiction between two ancient and antagonistic accounts of evil: the Augustinian privation theory of evil on the one hand, according to which everything that exists is good to the extent that it exists, meaning that evil is only an absence, lack, negation, and corruption of that existing good; and on the other hand, the Manichaean doctrine (once espoused by Augustine himself but later abandoned as he turned first to the Platonists and later to Christianity) that evil is a real force, presence, and power in its own right, equal to and equipotent with the good with which it is eternally at war. My purpose, by contrast, in this series of posts has been to show that Tolkien’s literary representation of evil is actually more coherent than Shippey allows, but that, contrary perhaps to some of Shippey’s critics, it is a coherence that is achieved not through an outright rejection of Manichaeism, but (paradoxically) through the deliberate inclusion of and even dalliance with Manichaean elements within his fiction. As I hope to show, Tolkien’s is not an Augustinianism in the face of Manichaeism (an opposition that itself inconsistently implies a kind of Manichaean dualism–Manichaeism as Augustinianism’s “outside,” its intractable, unassimilatable “other”), but an Augustinianism that at some level self-consciously recognizes and exposes the “falsehood” and “evil” of Manichaeism as itself a kind of “privation”–but for that reason also a (distorted) preservation and presupposition of–Augustinian truth.

It should be said, however, that part of Tolkien’s subtle and subversive sublation of Manichaeism is his overt representation of it as evil within his fiction. Thus, in the last post we considered some of the dualistic elements implicit in Sauron’s Ring. Shippey himself takes the Ring’s characterization as something inherently evil and incapable of any proper use as evidence of Tolkien-as-author’s more Manichaean moments, a point I hope to come back to later. Yet as we saw previously, perhaps more significant than the Manichaean metaphysics the Ring allegedly and unwittingly embodies is the Manichaean reality the Ring deliberately and malevolently seeks to enact, particularly by suppressing its wearer’s materiality and physicality by rendering him invisible. It is not Tolkien, in other words, but Sauron who is the Manichee. Consistent with this is the fact that, as Birzer points out, it is something like a Manichaean Gnosticism that Sauron converts the Númenorians to in their worship of Morgoth as the prince of darkness. More significant still is what we learn in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, namely that it was just this seduction into a Manichaean deification of darkness that comprised the Original Sin of Men as a whole. As Andreth reports to Finrod, “still many Men perceive the world only as a war between Light and Dark equipotent. But you will say: nay, that is Manwë and Melkor; Eru is above them…” (Morgoth’s Ring 321). The Elves are the Augustinians, and corrupted Men are the Manichees.

Thus, it would seem that Shippey is more correct than he realizes when he discovers a certain Manichaeism in Tolkien’s representation of evil, for it is not an implicit but an explicit Manichaeism that Tolkien embodies in his fiction. Yet surely it weighs heavily against Shippey’s claim that Tolkien’s own views on evil were Manichaean when the principal representatives of the Manichaean outlook within his fiction are themselves the greatest agents of evil, as well as the ones standing to gain the most from the proliferation of its doctrine. Instead, and as we shall see more fully later, Tolkien’s purpose seems rather to have been to illustrate the point John Milbank makes in his account of the privation theory of St. Thomas and Augustine: “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy and invoke some good, yet it would like to forget this: evil as positive is evil’s own fondest illusion” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 22). And so, while Tolkien was indeed expressly interested in the question of Manichaeism, what we see here is that much of his concern seems to have been the genealogical, etiological, psychological, and ultimately critical one of giving to Manichaeism a mythic and even demonic origin behind its teaching. If so, moreover, it’s possible to see here Tolkien as undertaking a reversal and subversion of what Peter Candler observes to have been Nietzsche’s own “implicit suggestion” in Thus Spake Zarathustra, namely that “Judaism and Christianity are themselves corruptions of an originally pure [pre-Christian and proto-Gnostic] Zoroastrianism which can be redeemed by more forcefully saying ‘yes’ to that particular past, while negating its false images…” (Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 27). As we will see later, then, Tolkien was deeply interested, as Shippey rightly observes, in the seeming independence and autonomy of evil recognized by the Manichees, yet in a way that (as I shall argue) led him to give this seeming independence and autonomy of evil a very different and arguably even more powerful source than what ancient Manichaeism was able to account for.

Sauron the Manichee

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 36

The connection between modern mind-body dualism and the Platonic and Tolkienian theme of invisibility drawn by Levinas and Eaglestone brings us to the second point I wish to make about Sauron’s Ring, which is that it is precisely one’s material or physical appearance which is suppressed in wearing the Ring, a point leading Alison Milbank to suggest a certain Manichaeism behind the domination of Sauron and Melkor. They are Manichaean “not just because they wish to claim equal if not superior power for evil, but because they denigrate the material and physical world and ‘save’ their subjects from it. The Nazgûl, for example, have lost bodily form as a result of their subjection to the power of Sauron, while he himself is reduced to a single eye” (Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, 80). On the other hand, Milbank also notes a tendency in Tolkien to attribute physical imperfections to his evil characters, something she sees, however, as the result not of a Manichaean but of a peculiarly Thomistic influence: “It is because Tolkien has an Augustinian attitude to evil as a privation—and not a positive force in itself—and a Thomist understanding of evil is a deficiency in being, which he shares with Chesterton, that he presents his evil human characters as physically warped and grotesque in the manner of medieval devils, who were represented in ugly and hybrid forms with bestial characteristics. Since human embodiment is a positive thing in itself, evil must be a warping of that nature” (71).

It is also possible that Tolkien himself meant to allude to the presence of a kind of Manichaean impulse behind the Rings of Power when he describes their power as a capacity to render “invisible the material body, and making things of the invisible world visible” (Letters 152). As Milbank further observes, although The Lord of the Rings is almost entirely devoid of religious practice, in the tragic history of the Númenóreans recorded in the Silmarillion we see the Manichaeism of Sauron and Melkor actually established as a formal religion (Milbank 80). Brad Birzer has similarly observed that it is a “Gnostic interpretation and reading of what was left of traditional Númenórean theology” that Sauron gives when he seduces the Númenóreans into worshipping Melkor instead of Eru:

Ilúvatar was the false god, the “God of Darkness,” said the dark prophet and priest Sauron. Melkor was the true god, the “Giver of Freedom” to men. “The wretched soul has strayed into a labyrinth of torment and wanders without a way out,” ancient Gnostic writings teach, “it seeks to escape from the bitter chaos, but knows not how to get out.” In Tolkien’s mythology, Sauron presents himself as the Gnostic savior, urging the Númenóreans away from the labyrinth of Ilúvatar’s time and space and toward the “true god” Melkor. (Birzer, Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, 98)

Whether or not Sauron was able to convince himself of this great delusion, the salient point is that he found–or at least believed–the promulgation of this false doctrine to be an effective means for corrupting Elves and Men. Thus Tolkien writes in one commentary of Sauron and his master Melkor how their “cunning motive is probably best expressed thus. To wean one of the God-fearing from their allegiance it is best to propound another unseen object of allegiance and another hope of benefits; propound to him a Lord who will sanction what he desires and not forbid it” (Morgoth’s Ring 398).

More on the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 35

In the previous post I made the point that the Ring, by making its wearer invisible to all others while they remain visible to him, effectively makes the being of others an extension of the wearer’s own self. In a related remark Stratford Caldecott has observed that the Ring’s

gift of invisibility symbolizes this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity, to become untouchable by light. The person who places himself within the golden circle of the Ring seeks not to be seen, and thereby to have power over others… Its circular shape is an image of the will closed in upon itself. Its empty center suggests the void into which we thrust ourselves by using the Ring. Once there, unseen by others, we are cut off from human contact, removed from the reach of friendship or companionship, anonymous and isolated… In that world of evil there is no room for two wills: the wearer is either absorbed and destroyed, or he defeats Sauron and becomes another Dark Lord himself. (Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind “The Lord of the Rings,” 57-8)

Peter Kreeft gives a slightly more theological analysis of the problem of invisibility:

Invisibility also means isolation. God alone can endure this (and only because He is a Trinity of persons, a society in Himself). He is God alone; there is no other. Yet He is other in Himself and never alone. God is a community. That is why He needs no community, as we do. The Ring cuts us off from community, and contact. We are alone with the Eye. There is no room for an Other in the One Ring. This is why the Ring surrounds emptiness. If We-ness, or Relationship, or Love, or Trinity is the name of ultimate reality, then the Ring makes us unreal by isolating us. It plunges us into its own emptiness, like a Black Hole. Its circular shape is an image of that emptiness: it encloses nothingness with its all-encompassing circle of power. (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 181)

Finally, Jane Chance has approached the visibility-invisibility issue raised by Tolkien in light of Michel Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon,

a ring-shaped building enclosing a tower that oversees cells that might contain a convict—or a lunatic, a patient, a worker, or a student. It is the same model used by Tolkien to locate the nature of Sauron’s power… Visibility—the searching Eye of Sauron—is necessary to ensure access to all individuals; it is this same visibility that insists on a rigorous and universal power. (Chance, “The Lord of the Rings”: The Mythology of Power, 21)

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

Melkor: Tolkien’s critique of Nietzsche’s aesthetic

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 33

I’ve written before on Feänor as a kind of implied critique on Tolkien’s part of Nietzsche’s Dionysianism (see here and here). Another character, however, in whom one might see Tolkien toying with and ultimately subverting the aesthetic ideals of his fellow philologist is Melkor. In the preceding post in this series, I cited a passage from the Ainulindalë describing what I characterized as Melkor’s domineering “will to sameness.” In contrast to the complex and diverse themes of Ilúvatar and the faithful Ainur, the music of Melkor is said to have “achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes,” in contrast to the music of Ilúvatar which “was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (Silmarillion 16-17). Although he doesn’t seem to have had Tolkien’s Ainulindalë in mind, the entire conflict between the music of Melkor and Ilúvatar almost perfectly symbolizes what theologian David Bentley Hart has described as the permanent antagonism between the Dionysian aesthetic of Nietzsche and his disciple Gilles Deleuze on the one hand, and the competing aesthetic offered within Christian theology on the other. As Hart writes,

A Dionysian rhythm… embraced within the incessant drumbeat of being’s unica vox as it repeats itself endlessly, from whose beat difference erupts as a perpetual divergence; and even if Dionysus allows the odd irenic caesura in his dance—the occasional beautiful sequence—it constitutes only a slackening of a tempo, a momentary paralysis of his limbs, a reflective interval that still never arrests the underlying beat of difference. Theology, though, starting from the Christian narrative of creation out of nothingness, effected by the power and love of the God who is Trinity, might well inquire whether rhythm could not be the prior truth of things, and chaos only an illusion, the effect of a certain convulsive or discordant beat, the repetition of a sinful series. (The Beauty of the Infinite, 276-7)

Domination as “the will to sameness”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 32

The primary difference between preservation and domination is that whereas the sub-creative, artistic impulse of Elvish preservation seeks to establish, protect, and set things free in their divinely-given “otherness” and independence—even if to the sometimes counterproductive point of wrongfully denying them their natural tendency for change and decay—the evil of domination lies in its deliberate suppression of otherness, in its attempted reduction of otherness, as it were, to sameness, to a complete univocity of subjective intention and objective existence.

In the Ainulindalë, this will to sameness manifests itself, first, in the unvarying and highly repetitive music of Melkor which “had now achieved a unity of its own; but it was loud, and vain, and endlessly repeated; and it had little harmony, but rather a clamorous unison as of many trumpets braying upon a few notes,” in contrast to the music of Ilúvatar which “was deep and wide and beautiful, but slow and blended with an immeasurable sorrow, from which its beauty chiefly came” (Silmarillion 16-17). After the world has actually been created, Melkor similarly focuses his efforts on undoing the diversity and distinction of being introduced into the world by the other Valar: “they built lands and Melkor destroyed them; valleys they delved and Melkor raised them up; mountains they carved and Melkor threw them down; seas they hollowed and Melkor spilled them; and naught might have peace or come to lasting growth, for as surely as the Valar began a labour so would Melkor undo it or corrupt it” (22).

Here again I find it instructive to relate Tolkien’s portrayal of evil to his Thomistic metaphysics of creation. As I have discussed previously, creation involves the communication of divine goodness, which necessitates on the part of the finite created order a plurality of unequal beings. Failing to achieve the creative power whereby he might bring into being things other than himself, Melkor resorts to a kind of anti-creation, to reducing the otherness of those things already created to the sameness of his own, increasingly empty self. In creation, in other words, the Creator in his generosity gives real, distinct, albeit participatory being to things that were not there before, whereas the envy of domination works in the reverse direction by reducing the independence of things into a state of dependence upon oneself. At the same time, and in keeping with our earlier point about evil always involving some good, domination reveals itself as a parody of creation, for in an important sense the Creator has no true otherness or “outside” where creation can exist, inasmuch as he already embodies within himself the infinite source and plenitude of all actuality or perfection.


Masticating Angels

In a chapter on images for representing angels, Pseudo-Dionysius makes the case that “each of the many parts of the human body can provide us with images which are quite appropriate to the powers of heaven.” One such bodily image is that of teeth, which he allegorizes as as “hav[ing] to do with the skill which produces divisions in the intake of nourishing perfection, for it is a fact that every intelligent being, having received from one which is more divine the gift of a unified conception, proceeds to divide it and to make provision for its diffusion in order that an inferior may be lifted up as far as possible” (The Celestial Hierarchy, ch. 15, trans. Luibheid). In other words, the higher angels “chew” up more difficult, unified knowledge (the “bread of angels”), making it more digestible for the lower. While it’s not technically an example of mastication, thanks to Pseudo-D, here’s my new mental image for one angel “instructing” another:

From Elvish preservation to Sauronic domination

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 31

I ended the previous post by suggesting that latent within the Elvish motive of preservation is a subliminal, Melkorish desire for the Flame Imperishable by which one the more perfectly bring reality into accord with the thoughts of one’s own intellect. This, of course, is to state matters rather strongly, for however misguided and defective it may be or become, the Elvish and Valaric “will to preservation” is, for Tolkien, not yet necessarily evil in itself, inasmuch as it still has the good of another in view. Their peculiar tendency towards preservationism notwithstanding, Tolkien says in one place that the Elvish race, taken as a whole and in contrast with Men, is “unfallen” (Morgoth’s Ring 334). We begin to see preservation corrode into full-fledged evil when it devolves further into domination, when the plan or program one has for the good of the other ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end and good in itself, even at the eventual expense of the object the plan was originally intended to benefit. The foremost representative of this next stage of evil is Sauron, “the Enemy” who

in successive forms is always “naturally” concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others—speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans—is a recurrent motive. (Letters 146)

In another place, Tolkien writes of Sauron’s originally good intentions this way: he had “gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit” (Letters 243). Similar to the Elvish motive of preservation, then, the Sauronic motive of domination has its origin in the desire for an otherwise good end, and like preservation, domination involves the desire to control other beings, to make their being more directly conformable to the desires of one’s own will. In this respect domination emerges as simply a more extreme form of coveting God’s own absolute unity of will and intellect that is his by virtue of his status as Creator.


Possessiveness as a denial of creation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 30

The previous post examined a degree of convergence in Tolkien’s and Heidegger’s thought in their view of certain forms of mental or even aesthetic representation as tending toward a domineering act of mental “apprehension” or “possessiveness.” If Tolkien should begin to sound like an existentialist on this point, however, according to Josef Pieper this is because the existentialist critique of the modern reduction of life and reality to what is “fathomable, fully accessible to rational comprehension, and, above all, … permissible to change, transform, or even destroy,” is in an important respect already a Thomistic critique (Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 92). (For an introduction to some of the concerns shared by Tolkien and the modern existentialist movement, particularly as represented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger–though Heidegger himself rejected the label–see Robert Eaglestone’s article “Existentialism” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 179-80. Later I hope to touch on some of Heidegger’s and Tolkien’s shared concerns with regard to the problem of modern technology.) As Pieper points out, it is the doctrine of creation that, on the one hand, accounts for the inherent intelligibility of things (denied by atheistic existentialists but affirmed by Tolkien–see, for example, Letters 399) while at the same time guaranteeing the mind’s ultimate inability to completely “grasp” or comprehend them on the other:

This common root, to express it as briefly as possible, is the createdness of things, i.e., the truth that the designs, the archetypal patterns of things, dwell within the Divine Logos. Because things come forth from the eye of God, they partake wholly of the nature of the Logos, that is, they are lucid and limpid to their very depths. It is their origin in the Logos which makes them knowable to men. But because of this very origin in the Logos, they mirror an infinite light and can therefore not be wholly comprehended. It is not darkness or chaos which makes them unfathomable. If a man, therefore, in his philosophical inquiry, gropes after the essence of things, he finds himself, by the very act of approaching his object, in an unfathomable abyss, but it is an abyss of light. (Pieper 96)

Pieper’s discussion serves to remind us that, in an important sense, the kind of intellectual “appropriation” or “possessiveness” of reality cautioned against by Tolkien is at heart a denial of reality’s createdness, or, to state matters differently, it is to affirm it as one’s own creation. In a remote yet real, Melkorian manner, it is to make the power and light of the Flame Imperishable coextensive with the light of one’s own intellect.

A Theology of the Possible

A Theology of the Possible, part 1

This summer I’m hoping to continue work on my “theology of the possible” project, the goal being to formulate a more expressly sub-creative and Trinitarian theology of divine power (omnipotence) than I have heretofore been able to find. The bearing this theoretical issue has on Tolkien (or more precisely, the bearing that I think Tolkien has on this theoretical issue) is explained more fully in this and connected posts, but the idea is this. Tolkien viewed art–and specifically his preferred and privileged art form of fairy and fantasy story–in terms of his notion of “sub-creation”: as he puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” As may be seen, the Christian understanding of God as Creator and the world as his creation deeply influenced Tolkien’s understanding of what it means for man to be a maker: we make both as and because God makes. To understand our making, we must see it in light of God’s own making.

Yet inasmuch as it seeks (in good, pedagogical fashion) to explain the unknown in terms of the known, Tolkien’s thesis implies that the relevant structures or principles of creation are in some sense more intelligible, familiar, or accessible than their parallel, analogous, and derivative and dependent counterparts on the side of human making. It is to suggest, in other words, that creation is not only metaphysically and causallybut therefore also explanatorily and hence epistemologically, prior to our understanding of art as sub-creation.

As I have also had occasion to argue before, to Tolkien’s mind this subordination of human to divine making had the effect not of degrading but of elevating and dignifying human creativity within the economy of creation. In Tolkien’s divine humanism (or “superhumanism,” as I like to call it), man is most fully human when (paradoxically) he is submissive and put in proper relation to that which infinitely transcends him. As Tolkien himself states this principle in his essay,

the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man… he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Without questioning, therefore, the basic validity of what we might dub the “Tolkienian inference” (i.e., his movement from creation to sub-creation), and indeed, presupposing it, the concern of the present project is how the insights of Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in their own turn may be used to challenge, critique, and refine the very traditional (i.e., Augustinian-Thomistic) theological understanding of creation that Tolkien otherwise largely took for granted. (Related to this is Tolkien’s own deeply ambivalent relationship to the traditional–and to my view, regrettable and erroneous–privileging of theoria over poiesis, of the comparatively passive act of human contemplation over the transformative act of human making.) I am interested, that is to say, in how Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in important ways makes for a more robust paradigm for thinking about God’s own act of making than that typically allowed for in the conventional theological understanding from which he drew in developing that theory. If Tolkien’s great observation was that human making is far more like God’s own making than had perhaps hitherto been appreciated, the need of the hour, I contend, is to see how God’s making may be far more like ours than has thus far been recognized. The revolution, in a word, that Tolkien initiated by theologizing human poiesis stands to be completed by a more perfect poeticizing of theology.

A couple of objections may need to be answered at this point, the first of which is that this thesis may seem the equivalent of having water rise above its own level. How can Tolkien’s poetics (philosophy of making), which distinguishes itself in part by its drawing upon the conceptual resources of the Christian doctrine of creation, in turn be used to correct and improve that same doctrine? As paradoxical as it may seem, such a hypothesis is really nothing more than the theoretical application of Tolkien’s view of sub-creation. As we have just seen, sub-creation means that God has chosen to take up our art and actions by giving them a permanent place within–using them to perfect and complete–his own designs and purposes for being and history. What I am am suggesting is that, in an analogous fashion, how we as humans also think about sub-creation must no less be taken up into and perfect how we think about creation. In this manner our doctrine of sub-creation may, to paraphrase Tolkien, likewise actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of our doctrine of creation.”

A second concern might be that my claim that God’s act of making is far more like ours than often recognized, seems to run the danger of blurring the Creator-creature distinction. This is a valid concern, and my response to it is that, if I am right about the latent criticisms that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation has in store for the standard view of God’s power and act of creation, it is because the standard account of creation has in important ways already compromised on the Creator-creature distinction. If so, a reconsideration of divine immanence within and likeness to creation (by re-conceiving the nature of the analogy between divine and human making) may in fact put us in a better position for understanding divine transcendence over and difference.from creation. The goal is not to domesticate the divine power, but on the contrary, precisely to free it (or at least our understanding of it) from some of the too-limiting concepts with which it has been burdened for the past millennium and a half.

Tolkien and Heidegger on the possessiveness of representation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 29

In criticizing the Elvish motive of preservation and possessiveness, one of Tolkien’s purposes is to draw attention to and comment on what for him is a very real human temptation. I have noted how, through the Elvish quality of loving things for their “otherness,” Tolkien positively displays the role of “recovery” that all fairy-stories have, the “regaining of a clear view,” as Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” a “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). What we may also see is how the Elves, as “the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters 236), at the same time represent some of the very human motives that these same fairy-stories are meant to deliver us from. For as Tolkien continues in the same passage from his essay,

We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (Tolkien Reader 77)

It is important to note that Tolkien is not yet critiquing here the kind of practical, technological mastery and “appropriation” of things that, as we shall see in later post, he warns us against elsewhere. His target in this passage, rather, is the much more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness that, left unchecked, can lead (and in modern times arguably has led) to the outright domination and tyranny of nature. Nevertheless, the two forms of “appropriation,” however dissimilar, are closely related in Tolkien’s mind, as when he refers in his essay to the dissimulating dream-device in fairy-stories as a “machine” that “cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder” (42). In other words, the dream-device, not unlike the genre of allegory as a whole, for Tolkien, is a literary technique that effectively domesticates and so controls the narrative by denying it any actual or even possible real-world truth. Tolkien’s likening such intellectual and aesthetic appropriation to a matter of “locking” things up in some kind of mental “hoard,” moreover, is noteworthy for its resemblance to Martin Heidegger’s critique in Being and Time of the modern, Cartesian view of human perception:

the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one’s booty to the “cabinet” of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it; even in perceiving, retaining, and preserving, the Dasein which knows remains outside, and it does so as Dasein. If I “merely” know about some way in which the Being of entities is interconnected, if I “only” represent them, if I “do no more” than “think” about them, I am no less alongside the entities outside in the world than when I originally grasp them. (Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, 89-90, emphasis original)

For Tolkien as for Heidegger, we must avoid reducing the existence or being of things to that aspect which lends itself to conceptual or perceptual apprehension (this is why, incidentally, it is so important that in the Ainulindalë the Ainur must eventually move beyond the abstract formalism of the Music to a love for the existing reality of Eä itself). Instead, our task, in the language of Heidegger, is to remain “open” to things “disclosing” themselves to us in new and even unexpected ways. It is precisely such openness, finally, that Tolkien attempts to model for us through the Elvish love of nature and “things other,” while at the same time warning how the things we are open to and value today in their unfamiliarity can quickly become the things we possessively render familiar and trite tomorrow.