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.


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