Tolkien and Aquinas on the divine power of annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 45

Given my earlier point about evil always involving the desire for some good, it may well be wondered how the Melkorish will to annihilation is even psychologically possible. How can someone will nothing, that is, find the utter absence of anything desirable, given that the proper object of the will is always some real or perceived good, and that what is good is always something that has being? Nothing, in short, cannot be a cause, even of desire. (As Umberto Eco has remarked in the different but not unrelated case of the modern affirmation of non-being or nothingness over being or existence as the simpler or primary metaphysical explanation of things, “if we aspire to nothingness, by this act of aspiration we are already in being.” Eco, “On Being,” 16.)

To answer this question, we may recall how the Sauronic desire to suppress the alterity of things is in fact a desire for something of the aseity of God, and even the express desire to rebel against God is a desire for an apparent good, namely independence. In the same way, the desire to annihilate, like the desire to create, is a desire for a power that God alone has, and therefore, taken by itself, is something good. Indeed, the power to create is identical with the power to annihilate, the power to give existence being one with the power also to take it away. In his discussion of divine government in the Summa, in an article on “whether God can annihilate anything,” Thomas explains that just as God is free to create and preserve things in their being in the first place, “so after they have been made, He is free not to give them being, and thus they would cease to exist; and this would be to annihilate them” (ST 1.104.3). (Were God in fact to annihilate things in this way, of course, Thomas argues that God wouldn’t exactly be “causing” it to cease to exist, inasmuch as “[n]on-being has no cause per se,” and God as pure being can only cause something like himself, namely being. Rather, by virtue of their being created from nothing, creatures already have a constitutional “tendency” toward non-being, so that if they were annihilated, it would not be because God actively “caused” it to be,  but “by withdrawing His [creative] action from them” [ST 1.104.3 ad 1]. As Thomas explains further, “[i]f God were to annihilate anything, this would not imply an action on God’s part, but a mere cessation of His action” [ST 1.104.3 ad 3].) And although Thomas does not make the point expressly, because things exist as a result of God immediately and “continually pouring out being into them” (ST 1.104.3), it stands to reason that nothing but God could ever bring it about that they altogether cease to exist (ST 1.104.4). (Even so, as Thomas argues in this same article, God in fact does not and will not annihilate anything, for in the order of nature things may become corrupted, but then the matter out of which things are made would still exist. Nor does annihilation occur according to the supernatural order of the “manifestation of grace, since rather the power and goodness of God are manifested by the preservation of things in being. Therefore we must conclude by denying absolutely that anything at all will be annihilated.”)

It is to this same realization that Melkor is forcibly brought, for as Tolkien further explains in his “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion,” for all his efforts at obliterating the being of things, Melkor “was aware, at any rate originally when still capable of rational thought, that he could not ‘annihilate’ them: that is, destroy their being… Melkor could not, of course, ‘annihilate’ anything of matter, he could only ruin or destroy or corrupt the forms given to matter by other minds in their sub-creative activities” (Morgoth’s Ring 395 and note). Continuing on, Tolkien writes that Melkor nevertheless “became so far advanced in Lying that he lied even to himself, and pretended that he could destroy them and rid Arda of them altogether. Hence his endeavour always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object…” (396). Thus, even in Melkor’s rage to level all “into a formless chaos” Tolkien suggests there is a glimmer of hope, for “even so he would have been defeated, because it [i.e., the world] would still have ‘existed’, independent of his own mind, and a world in potential.” As to the reason why the ultimate “destruction and reduction to nil” must be impossible, the closest Tolkien comes to explaining this directly is his statement that it was “a world in which [Melkor] had only a share” (397), a reference that may remind us of Ilúvatar’s speech to the Ainur in the Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë that he has made all things to “share in the reality of Ilúvatar myself” (Book of Lost Tales 55). That the will to annihilate is ultimately in rivalry with God may be further seen in Tolkien’s equivalence, quoted earlier, between Melkor’s “lust for destruction” on the one hand and “his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism)” on the other (Morgoth’s Ring 397). Things have their being by participating in God, by having God, as Thomas puts it, “continually pouring out being into them.” Creaturely existence is a font that, having the divine being and power itself as its infinite reservoir, only God can “turn off.” The same power to “send forth” the Flame Imperishable that Melkor seeks at the beginning of creation is also one with the power to withdraw it, so that Melkor can no more prevent the Creator from communicating being to his creatures through annihilation than Melkor could successfully replace the Creator as the source of their being through their domination. Again we find that evil in Tolkien’s fictional world not only begins with but also returns to and climaxes in a futile defiance of the kind of theological metaphysics of creation articulated by St. Thomas.
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