Sub-creation and Augustine’s “seminal reasons”

John Houghton has pointed out a number of similarities between Augustine’s account of creation in his commentaries on Genesis and Tolkien’s depiction of creation in the Ainulindalë. One of the comparisons Houghton draws in particular is between Augustine’s doctrine of “seminal reasons,” according to which God in the beginning enfolded within the initial, created reality the potentialities for all the kinds of beings and processes that would later be realized, with Tolkien’s representation of the structure and history of the world as the outworking of the primeval Music sung by the angelic Ainur and Ilúvatar the Creator. As Simo Knuuttila summarizes Augustine’s doctrine of seminal reasons:

Augustine was very fond of associating the conception of simultaneous creation with the doctrine of seminal reasons (rationes seminales or rationes causales) which was found in slightly different forms in Stoic and Platonic philosophy. He was not the first to regard this as a theologically significant conception, but he systematized it more than his predecessors. According to Augustine, the members of the natural kinds which unfolded later on their own were created in seminal form at the beginning, but the seminal reasons also involved the seeds of all miraculous deviations from the common course of nature. In this way God remained the ultimate creator of every new being (De Gen. ad litt. 6.10.17-11.19, .14.25-15.26; De Trin. 3.8.13-9.16). (Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” in The Cambridge Companion to Augustine, 104)

In addition to providing a powerful, fictional representation of the Augustinian theory of cosmic history as the providential unfolding of an original plan embedded in creation from the beginning, Tolkien’s purpose in the Ainulindalë was, of course, to dramatize on a mythic and cosmic scale the profound metaphysical contribution of the human act of sub-creation in the fulfillment of the being of creation. If so, then it is reasonable to see Augustine’s theory of seminal reasons as standing behind not only the Ainulindalë, but also behind the theory of sub-creation which it so beautifully illustrates. In particular, and with this in mind, it is difficult not to see Augustine somewhere in the background of Tolkien’s statement in “On Fairy-Stories” that

[s]o great is the bounty with which [man] 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.

To adapt the Apostle Paul’s statement in 1 Corinthians 3, God the Creator has planted, Man the Sub-creator has watered, and it is God the Redeemer who gives the increase.

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