“Folly it May Appear to Those Who Cling to False Hope”: Tolkien’s advice on how to vote

Tis an election year here in the USA, and for my American readers who seem to have missed it, I thought I’d take this moment to point out that, among other things, The Lord of the Rings is a 1000-page, devastating and conclusive refutation of the principle of voting for the lesser of two evils.

‘…That is the path of despair. Of folly I would say, if the long wisdom of Elrond did not forbid me.’
‘Despair, or folly?’ said Gandalf. `It is not despair, for despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt. We do not. It is wisdom to recognize necessity, when all other courses have been weighed, though as folly it may appear to those who cling to false hope. Well, let folly be our cloak…”

Cosmic Music in Plato and Plotinus

The metaphysics of the Music, part 4

Although Aristotle was somewhat dismissive of the idea of the music of the spheres, his teacher Plato’s attraction to the notion is evident in the Timaeus, a work that, as I have argued at some length previously, Tolkien certainly had in mind in the development of his creation-myth. In one of the more challenging passages of the dialogue, the eponymous Timaeus, himself a Pythagorean mathematician and philosopher, alludes to the notion of the music of the spheres when he suggests that an analogous structure was placed by the demiurge in the World Soul: “Now while the body of the heavens had come to be as a visible thing, the soul was invisible. But even so, because it shares in reason and harmony, the soul came to be as the most excellent of all the things begotten by him who is himself most excellent of all that is intelligible and eternal” (Plato, Timaeus 36e-37a, trans. Zeyl). In addition, the way in which the Ainur’s Music antedates and pre-contains the entire history of the world resembles Plato’s famous realm of the forms, in which the physical world of sensible things participates, or, as the Timaeus has it, the eternal model according to which the demiurge-creator has fashioned the material world. As Plato’s disciple Plotinus applied the master’s theory to music some six-hundred years later, “certainly all music, since the ideas which it has are concerned with rhythm and melody, would be of the same kind, just like the art which is concerned with intelligible number,” and thus like the other arts would have “its principles from the intelligible world…” (Plotinus, Enneads 5.9.11, trans. Armstrong).

Tolkien’s Pythagorean “inversion”: reality isn’t “like” music, it “is” music

The metaphysics of the Music, part 3

In addition to the foregoing passages pointing to a the presence of a kind of “cosmic music” in Scripture, several readers have discerned a resonance between the Music at the inception of Tolkien’s mythology and the Logos that is “in the beginning” of the Apostle John’s Gospel. Verlyn Flieger, though typically stressing the differences between Tolkien’s creation-account and that of the Bible’s, observes how the word logos “carried at one time far more meaning than it does today,” having the force of order, principle of organization, and harmony and thus

meant something very close to music in the Pythagorean sense. In Tolkien’s fictive world, the creative principles of Genesis and John are combined. Light and music are conjoined elements made manifest in the visible world sung as the Music of the Ainur. The Word ,which in Elvish means, “It is,” or “Let it Be,” is listed in the Index to The Silmarillion as “the word of Ilúvatar when the World began its existence.” It thus become the imperative form of the Great Music, the vision as both light and logos. (Flieger, Splintered Light, 59)

As for the relevant philosophical background behind the Ainur’s Music, the name of the fifth-century mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras has naturally received frequent mention in discussions of the subject, as the above quote from Flieger illustrates. (For other references to Pythagoras in the Tolkien literature, see also Grubbs, “The Maker’s Image: Tolkien, Fantasy & Magic”; Davis, “Ainulindalë: The Music of Creation”; and Collins, “Ainulindalë”: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology.”) It is to Pythagoras and his school, after all, that the popular idea of the “music of the spheres” has been traditionally ascribed. Aristotle, for example, writes of the Pythagoreans that “they took the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be harmony and number” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.5.986a., trans. Hope), and that according to them “the movement of the stars produces a harmony, i.e., that the sounds they make are concordant…” (Aristotle, On the Heavens, 2.9.290b12, trans. Stocks). Leo Spitzer has gone so far as to suggest that the Pythagorean concept of world or cosmic “harmony” was more than a mere metaphor derived from human vocal or instrumental harmonies, but was in fact conceived as the reality from which human music was ultimately derived. The Pythagoreans thus

inverted the order by admitting that the human lute (as imagined in the hands of the god Apollo) was an imitation of the music of the stars; human activities had to be patterned on godly activities, i.e., on the processes in nature: human art, especially, had to be an imitation of the gods, i.e., of reasonable nature. Thus we will witness [in Pythagoreanism] a continuous flow of metaphors from the human (and divine) sphere to nature and back again to human activities, which are considered as imitating the artistic orderliness and harmony of nature. (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 8-9)

If so, it is a similar kind of Pythagorean “inversion” that Tolkien undertakes by means of his own fictional “gods” when he writes of them in the Ainulindalë how “the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights…” (Silmarillion 15). As I have suggested previously in discussing Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable, the literary genre of myth or fairy-story allows for a reinvesting of metaphors and images such as fire and music with a degree of ancient, pre-Enlightenment literality, so that the Creator’s power of creation is not “like” fire, but simply is the Fire from which all fires originate; nor is the Ainur’s and Ilúvatar’s Music “like” the music we human beings play and experience, but simply is the Music to which all our music is a remote hearkening and response.

Scripture’s Music of Creation

The metaphysics of the Music, part 2

As I noted in the first post in this series, discussions of Tolkien’s cosmic-music imagery have frequently drawn attention to its classical antecedents. Thus, before we consider how Tolkien essentially synthesizes this tradition with his Thomistic metaphysics of creation, we may wish to review some of the more noteworthy of these classical sources, along with what his commentators have had to say about them. I have noted before the tendency, among some Tolkien readers, to draw contrasts between the Ainulindalë and the biblical creation-account, and Tolkien’s conceit of angelic beings helping to fashion the world through their celestial music—an idea foreign to Genesis—might seem to be a case in point. The idea itself, however, is not entirely without biblical precedent, as may be seen in the book of Job, for example, which describes the heavenly host accompanying the creation of the world with their singing: “Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:6-7). In the Book of Chronicles, moreover, King David enjoins the entirety of creation to lift up its praises to God: “Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation… Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice… Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof: let the fields rejoice, and all that is therein. Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the Lord…” (1 Chron. 17:23, 31-33; see also Ps. 96:11-12 and 98:4-8). The Book of Revelation, finally, depicts in similar fashion the angels singing and praising God in the company of his martyred saints (Rev. 5:8-12). As David Bentley Hart summarizes the scriptural data on the subject, “[t]here are abundant biblical reasons, quite apart from the influence of pagan philosophy, for Christians to speak of the harmonia mundi: in Scripture creation rejoices in God, proclaims his glory, sings before him; the pleasing conceits of pagan cosmology aside, theology has all the warrant it needs for speaking of creation as a divine composition, a magnificent music, whose measures and refrains rise up to the pleasure and the glory of God” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 275). In the sixth century, accordingly, Pope Gregory the Great, based on his reading of Scripture and Pseudo-Dionysius’s treatise on The Celestial Hierarchy, propounded the influential medieval idea that the redeemed human race, in the final consummation of all things, would constitute with the angels a tenth choir and so make up for the loss suffered from the rebellion of Satan and his company (Forty Homilies on the Gospels, Homily 34). Tolkien would seem to echo this idea in the opening page of the Ainulindalë,where it is already anticipated that “a greater [music] still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days” (Silmarillion 15).

Aragorn, King and Priest after the Order of Melchizedek

The story in Appendix A of Thorongil, Aragorn’s alias while in the service of Denethor’s father, Ecthelion II, adds a great deal to the christological typology surrounding Aragorn’s character. I quote the passage at length:

In much that he [Ecthelion II] did he had the aid and advice of a great captain whom he loved above all. Thorongil men called him in Gondor, the Eagle of the Star, for he was swift and keen-eyed, and wore a silver star upon his cloak; but no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born. He came to Ecthelion from Rohan, where he had served the King Thengel, but he was not one of the Rohirrim. He was a great leader of men, by land or by sea, but he departed into the shadows whence he came, before the days of Ecthelion were ended.

     Thorongil often counselled Ecthelion that the strength of the revels in Umbar was a great peril to Gondor, and a threat to the fiefs of the south that would prove deadly if Sauron moved to open war. At last he got leave of the Steward and gathered a small fleet, and he came to Umbar unlooked for by night, and there burned a great part of the ships of the Corsairs. He himself overthrew the Captain of the Haven in battle upon the quays, and then he withdrew his fleet with small loss. But when they came back to Pelargir, to men’s grief and wonder, he would not return to Minas Tirith, where great honour awaited him.

   He sent a message of farewell to Ecthelion, saying: “other tasks now call me, lord, and much time and many perils must pass, ere I come again to Gondor, if that be my fate.” Though none could guess what those tasks might be, nor what summons he had received, it was known whither he went. For he took boat and crossed over Anduin, and there he said farewell to his companions and went on alone; and when he was last seen his face was towards the Mountains of Shadow.

   There was dismay in the City at the departure of Thorongil, and to all men it seemed a great loss, unless it were to Denethor, the son of Ecthelion, a man now ripe for the Stewardship. to which after four years he succeeded on the death of his father.

   Denethor II was a proud man, tall, valiant, and more kingly than any man that had appeared in Gondor for many lives of men; and he was wise also, and far-sighted, and learned in lore. Indeed he was as like to Thorongil as to one of nearest kin, and yet was ever placed second to the stranger in the hearts of men and the esteem of his father. At the time many thought that Thorongil had departed before his rival became his master; though indeed Thorongil had never himself vied with Denethor, nor held himself higher than the servant of his father. And in one matter only were their counsels to the Steward at variance: Thorongil often warned Ecthelion not to put trust in Saruman the White in Isengard, but to welcome rather Gandalf the Grey. But there was little love between Denethor and Gandalf; and after the days of Ecthelion there was less welcome for the Grey Pilgrim in Minas Tirith. Therefore later, when all was made clear, many believed that Denethor, who was subtle in mind and looked further and deeper than other men of his day, had discovered who this stranger Thorongil in truth was, and suspected that he and Mithrandir designed to supplant him.

My first comment is on the statement that of Thorongil “no one knew his true name nor in what land he was born.” A few Sciptural associations come to mind, the first being that the lack of known provenance or genealogy for Thorongil suggests a possible connection with the biblical Melchizedek, the king and priest who seems to come out of nowhere in Genesis 14 (“without father, without mother, without descent, having neither beginning of days, nor end of life; but made like unto the Son of God; abideth a priest continually”–Heb. 7:3), and whose name literally means “king of righteousness.” One of the unique qualities of the Numenorean kings was that they were both priests and kings, a coincidence of roles that Tolkien implies Aragorn resumed after assuming the throne of Gondor:

when the ‘Kings’ came to an end there was no equivalent to a ‘priesthood’: the two being identical in Númenórean ideas. So while God (Eru) was a datum of good* Númenórean philosophy, and a prime fact in their conception of history. He had at the time of the War of the Ring no worship and no hallowed place. And that kind of negative truth was characteristic of the West, and all the area under Numenorean influence… It later appears that there had been a ‘hallow’ on Mindolluin, only approachable by the King, where he had anciently offered thanks and praise on behalf of his people; but it had been forgotten. It was re-entered by Aragorn, and there he found a sapling of the White Tree, and replanted it in the Court of the Fountain. It is to be presumed that with the reemergence of the lineal priest kings (of whom Lúthien the Blessed Elf-maiden was a foremother) the worship of God would be renewed, and His Name (or title) be again more often heard. (Letters no. 156)

The uncertainty surrounding Thorongil’s identity and origin also calls to mind the same uncertainty that surrounds Jesus throughout the Gospels, an uncertainty, moreover, that Jesus himself identifies as the mark of one who is “born of the Spirit.” As Jesus explains to the uncomprehending Pharisee Nicodemus, “The wind bloweth where it listeth, and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh, and whither it goeth: so is every one that is born of the Spirit” (John 3:8). Normally this passage would more naturally apply to Gandalf, the self-described “servant of the Secret Fire” (i.e., the Holy Spirit), but then again, much of the above passage about Thorongil sounds more like Gandalf than the Aragorn we are used to, suggesting that Tolkien’s purpose is to establish these two characters as far more similar than we might otherwise have realized. As the above passage from Tolkien’s letter reveals, it is not just Gandalf, but also Aragorn who is a “servant of the Secret Fire.” Being “born of the Spirit,” he goes whither the Spirit blows him.

(To be continued….)

When Elves Flirt

Reading from Appendix A of The Return of the King this evening and was amused by what could be construed as Arwen’s not-so-subtle come-on line to Aragorn at their first meeting:

Then the maiden turned to him and smiled, and she said: “Who are you? And why do you call me by that name [Tinúviel]?”

And he answered: “Because I believed you to be indeed Lúthien Tinúviel, of whom I was singing. But if you are not she, then you walk in her likeness.”

   “So many have said,” she answered gravely. “Yet her name is not mine. Though maybe my doom will be not unlike hers. But who are you?” 


The Metaphysics of the Music of the Ainur

Tolkien’s Metaphysics of the Music, part 1

This post marks the beginning of a new series on Tolkien’s “metaphysics of the Music.” At the center of Tolkien’s creation-story, the Ainulindalë, is the eponymous “Music of the Ainur,” the beautiful, cosmic composition sung by the angelic host together with the Creator before the creation of the world, and the pattern according to which the history of the world later unfolds. In previous posts I’ve considered the Ainur’s Music as a dramatization of Tolkien’s Thomistic theology of sub-creative possibility, according to which the human art of sub-creation, no less than the divine art of creation, has as its dignified task the “interpretation” and “imitation” of the divine mind and essence. In this series of posts, by contrast, my interest is in the Music in its own right and in the significance this particular image holds for Tolkien’s general, Thomistic philosophy of being.

I will begin my argument, thus, with a survey of the musica universalis tradition of such eminent thinkers as Pythagoras, Plato, Augustine, and Boethius, to which many commentators have traced the historical origins of the music imagery in the Ainulindalë. Yet despite the attention it has received, the precise metaphysical meaning of the Ainur’s Music has often been missed, when it has not been outright misunderstood. For in addition to the prevalent interpretation of the Ainur and their Music as the true or at least proximate “creators” of the world (a position I have critiqued previously), there has been a marked tendency in the Tolkien literature to read his creation-drama and the Music of the Ainur in particular in terms of the emanationist logic of Neoplatonic philosophy. On this understanding, later stages of the creation-process and world-history are seen as metaphysically inferior to, and thus a “tragic” falling away from, the supposedly more authentic, divine, and pure reality represented by the primeval Music. In contrast to this metaphysically tragic reading of the Ainulindalë, I will give some attention to some of the salient themes of the comparatively “comic” metaphysics and aesthetics of creation articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, and in light of which I will offer my own analysis and interpretation of, first, the Music of the Ainur, but second, its more often neglected yet equally important counterpart, the Vision of the Ainur. My ultimate purpose is to show that, through his combined images of the Music and Vision of the Ainur, Tolkien on the one hand provides the world with a beautiful yet mythical, ideal pattern that, on the other hand, and consistent with his Thomistic, existential realism, finds itself “eucatastrophically” surpassed when the world is finally blessed by the Creator with its own, mind-alluring because mind-independent being.

Why Manichaeism doesn’t allow evil to be real enough

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil (Finale)

Saying, as I have, that for Tolkien evil derives its power from the very good that it corrupts, doesn’t yet quite get to the real heart and problem of the matter, for as we have already touched on, the real scandal and mystery is that the being in which evil resides has the infinite Creator himself as its source, as the one “guaranteeing” and “preserving” evil with its seemingly inexhaustible resource of being (the subliminal realization of which also drives Melkor mad in his nihilistic despair). The ultimate answer to the question of why evil seems so powerful, then, is that evil has, for the time being at least, been given a lease on God’s own creative power, for at the heart of created being, including corrupted created being, is nothing less than the Flame Imperishable, kindling all things in their very existence. While it may seem that this puts God at evil’s disposal, ultimately the truth of the matter is quite the reverse: it means that even evil has to be at God’s disposal, as Ilúvatar reminds Melkor in the Ainulindalë at the close of the Music: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (Silmarillion 17). To be sure, evil is an enemy and a destroyer and its presence (by virtue of its enervating absence) and causality (by negating the causality of the good that is there) are mysteries, mysteries which, as a kind of “nothing,” are in that sense inexplicable even for God, “for ‘explanation’ can pertain only to existence, and here evil is not seen as something in existence” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 18). This means that, not having a being, nature, and logic of its own, evil must borrow itself, so to speak, from the good. To use St. Thomas’s distinction, it may not be “willed” by God, but it is certainly “permitted” by him, so that if evil should seem so radically powerful, it nevertheless must ultimately labor at its own expense (“in vain,” as Tolkien puts it), providing as it does the infinite and omnipotent God yet another “instrument” for bringing about his good purposes. Like St. Thomas, Tolkien too, in the words of Brian Davies cited in an earlier post, “seeks to understand [evil] as part of a world made by God.” Seen from this perspective, the real objection to Manichaean dualism is not that it makes evil real, but rather that it denies the existence of the omnipotent, transcendent Creator capable of making evil as real as it actually is, of giving evil, that is, the only reality to be had, the reality of the good. In summary, it is his Thomistic metaphysics of creation that enables Tolkien, through characters such as Ungoliant, Melkor, and Sauron, to take for granted the awesome and terrifying power of evil in the world—and thus allow the Manichaean insight into the radical power and being of evil, really for the first time, to come into its own—while at the same time reducing this same evil to nothing, and thereby holding out the hope of the ultimate futility and “vanity” of evil and hence its inevitable defeat. “Let that settle the Manichees,” one can hear Tolkien saying.

In review and conclusion, then, I have argued in this series of posts that, while Tom Shippey is quite correct that Tolkien’s fictional depiction of evil is far more complex and nuanced than perhaps a one-sidedly Augustinian account of evil has perhaps traditionally emphasized, the solution Tolkien arrives at is more sophisticated and coherent than the contradictory, “running ambivalence” that Shippey describes it as. Instead, I have argued that Tolkien’s ponerology involves a highly original application of St. Thomas’s metaphysics of creation and evil to uniquely modern forms of evil, forms of evil which the thirteenth-century Aquinas, for example, was largely unaware of, yet an application that reveals as much about Tolkien’s own dialectical and scholastic subtlety and inventiveness as it does about the profound explanatory power and adaptability of St. Thomas’s philosophy of being. At the same time, I have sought to explicate Tolkien’s remarkably cogent hierarchy and corresponding logic of evil, one that begins in a primordial, unnatural lust for the Flame Imperishable which gives being, before descending into the inordinate yet natural sub-creative impulse, first to produce and then to preserve the things of one’s own imagining, and at last devolving into the desire to dominate and then simply to annihilate the being of others. As I have further sought to show, while each of these forms of evil has its own peculiar identity and motives, at another level they are all variations of the same original sin of desiring what for both Tolkien and Aquinas is the Creator’s exclusive power to give created being.

Anselm on the non-possibility of evil

In my post of a few days ago I attempted to synthesize Thomas’s Augustinian privation theory of evil and his theology of the possible (the possible is what is able to imitate God) to say that evil is not a possibility but a kind of non-possibility, or a liability. Although I’m not aware of Aquinas explicitly drawing this conclusion, Anselm essentially does. William Courtenay (Capacity and Volition) writes:

The aspect of divine omniptence that concerned Anselm… was precisely God’s ability to do that which is evil, sinful, or unjust. Over against Damian’s list of undesirable things God cannot do, such as lie, perjure, and act unjustly, Anselm listed God’s inability to be corrupted, or to make false what is true. Under the last category of actions impossible for God Anselm included the ability to change the past, thus rejecting Damian’s principal thesis….

            Anselm was troubled by the fact that statements about God’s incapacity for wrongdoing were often phrased in language that appeared to limit or compromise divine omnipotence. Since the linguistic opposite of “inability” is “ability,” there would appear to be a whole range of things to which God’s “omnipotence” does not extend, things that fall within the power of every human creature, as Boethius had noted.

            Anselm first addressed the topic of god’s inability to do unGodlike things in his Proslogion (1077-78) and De casu diaboli (1085-90). He ignored Boethius’s Neoplatonic, metaphysical solution to the problem and substituted a linguistic approach. Using Boethius’s notion of antecedent capacity, Anselm distinguished within it expressions that describe an actual ability or power and imprecise expressions of common usage that appear to do the same but in actuality attribute to someone or something a liability or a power possessed and potentially exercised by another… Anselm reduced the problem to a syntax fallacy.

          On account of this impropriety of speaking, it happens that frequently we say “a thing can” not because it can, but because something else can; and [we say that] a thing which can, cannot, because some other thing cannot, just as if I say: “a book is able to be written by me,” when a book can do nothing, althouh I can write a book. And when we say: “this man cannot be conquered by that man,” we understand nothing other than: “that man cannot conquer this man.”

            Hence we say that God is not able to do anything contrary to himself or perverse, since he is so powerful in beatitude and justice (nay rather since beatitude and justice are not in him separate thing sbut rather one good, so that he is omnioptence in the simplest good), that nothing is able to harm the highest good. Therefore he is not able to be corrupted nor to lie.

            Power in the strict sense for Anselm, just like the freedom of the will, is the ability to do the good. The ability to do evil is not ability in the strict sense of the term but rather liability. Certain statements that seem to imply ability, such as “I can lie,” actually imply a liability. The same would apply to expressions such as “I can sin” or “I can do what is unjust.” Since liabilities do not belong ot the divine nature, it is nonsense to suggest that God’s freedom and omnipotence are limited by this type of inability. The problem is one of language, not of ontology or ethics. (Courtenay, Capacity, 31-2)

The Possible is the Good: Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas

In his Summa Contra Gentiles Aquinas quotes a passage from Pseudo-Dionysius’s Divine Names revealing the possibilism latent in their shared Platonism:

though anything is good in so far as it is a being… being is a term used absolutely, while good also includes a relation… provided it be ordered to the end, it may be called good because of this relation… It is apparent in this conclusion that good is, in a way, of wider scope than being. For this reason, Dionysius says, in the fourth chapter of On the Divine Names: “the good extends to existent beings and also to non-existent ones.” (SCG 3.20.5)

On the one hand, for Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius, there is clearly a sense in which the possible “extends” beyond the merely actual, inasmuch as there are beings, namely “non-existent ones,” that do not exist and yet which are good (i.e., they have an order towards an end, namely the Good). This is Aquinas’s and Pseudo-Dionysius’s “possibilism.” On the other hand, for them the possible is entirely determined and exhausted by the good: to be possible is to be a good, that is, to have an intrinsic order towards the good.

Boethian omnipotence: The Power to do the Good

Theology of the Possible

Apropos my post yesterday applying Aquinas’s Augustinian privation theory of evil to his theology of the possible is the following passage from William Courtenay discussing Boethius’s Neoplatonic conflation of divine power with divine goodness:

One further text undoubtedly influenced eleventh-century thinking about capacity and volition as well as the problem of God’s inability to do evil. In the fourth book of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius developed his own rationale for why “supreme goodness cannot do evil.” Admitting the seemingly larger range of action open to mankind, who can do both good and evil, in contrast to God, who can only do the good, Boethius made a virtue of necessity. Only the good is worth doing. The ability to do evil is the ability to do nothing, since evil is nonbeing and nothing. And since omnipotence is a divine attribute, its meaning is determined by the range of divine action, which is only toward the good. Consequently, omnipotence is defined as power to do the good, not the power to do anything. (Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 30-1)

On the “non-possibility” of evil (or “Evil as the ‘Cooling’ of Being”)

In his argument that, for Aquinas, it is divine power that make statements about possibility true, Brian Leftow (“Power, Possibilia, and Non-Contradiction,” The Modern Schoolman 82 [May 2005]) obliquely addresses a question that I have been pondering recently: is evil “possible”? The question is prompted by Aquinas’s theocentric theory of the possible: what determines the nature of possibility is the divine being itself, such that a thing is possible on account of its being capable of bearing some creaturely likeness to the divine essence. In short, possibility is divine imitability. To this understanding Leftow’s thesis adds the further, distinctive claim that because God’s essence is identical with his power, for Aquinas it is therefore the case that God’s power is what makes claims about possibility true. As I have argued elsewhere, because God’s power is also his justice and wisdom, divine attributes which Aquinas characterizes, in part, in such aesthetic terms as proportionality and order, there is also sense for Aquinas in which the possible is none other than the beautiful. (I think a consideration of divine goodness, justice, wisdom, and—finally—beauty gets one further in understanding the nature of possibility than a mere consideration of divine power allows, a limitation that Leftow’s discussion unwittingly testifies to.)

If the possible is determined by the divine essence, goodness, wisdom, and justice, however, this raises the question as to in what sense evil, as the contradiction of all of these attributes, is in any way “possible.” (Note that this is not to be confused with the question of whether evil is a mere “illusion,” to which I would answer that it obviously is not.) Put differently, if what God can do is the measure of what is possible, and yet God cannot cause evil (as Aquinas maintains, since God is goodness itself, and as such can only cause goodness, since only goodness has a cause), in what sense is evil a possibility? This is where Leftow is helpful. In the course of his argument that God’s nature is responsible for making even the principle of non-contradiction true, Leftow writes:

It is again a primitive fact about causation that necessarily, every agent makes something like itself, at least directly and immediately. So a hot thing makes heatable things hot. It does not directly and immediately make them cold: it does not directly and immediately produce the intrsinic opposite of heat… A fortiori it does not thus make things hot and cold at once.… God is unlimited … being, esse-ipsum. So His active power extends not to some particular sorts of being, e.g. heatable beings, but simply to beings. God can make only beings, and as a hot thing can heat whatever can receive heat, God can make to be anything that can receive being. God can bring it about that things be, but cannot directly, immediately and per se bring about what is intrinsically opposed to being. (He can bring about non-being per accidens: by making you wise, He makes you not be foolish.) So as a hot thing cannot directly, immediately make something be cold, God cannot bring about the being and non-being at once of any state of affairs, as this is intrsincially opposed to being as cold is to heat. So the making-true of contradictions does not lie within the power of esse-ipsum—because of its own nature… (Leftow, “Power, Possibilia, and Non-Contradiction,” 239-40)

Evil is no more a “possibility” for God (and therefore, I would add, a possibility at all) than cold is a possible effect of heat. Possibility has to do with capacity, and capacity has to do with a thing’s nature or essence. For Aquinas, however, evil can have no nature or essence. Evil is not a thing, but a privation and failure of a thing. Possibility, therefore, is a function of the positive created order, an indicator of the way in which God has made things to be. Possibility is a modality of existence, of which evil is a privation. Evil, accordingly, is not a modality of existence, but a kind of anti-modality, a failure of a thing’s proper mode of being. Possibility is the possibility of being, which is to say, of the good. Evil therefore is not a partaking of the economy of possibility, but is a certain failure to partake of it. Evil is not a form of power, and therefore is not a form of possibility, but a form of weakness and inability. It’s not that evil is impossible, but a “non-possible,” or an “anti-possible.” Possibility has to do with the “doors” God opens or leaves open for a creature; evil is when the creatures slams those doors shut. Leftow’s example of heating and cooling is also felicitous: if one thinks of possibility as an avenue in which created beings can “heat” reality, evil as an anti-possibility represents not a “heating,” but a “cooling” of being. So Parmenides was right after a fashion: only being is possible. Non-being, including the non-being of evil, is not a possibility, but a liability. 

A final, historical comment. It is the misunderstanding of evil as a distinct possibility, as partaking of the logic and economy of possibility, that led to such erroneous counterfactual speculations as William Ockham’s claim that God could have created man such that it was meritorious for man to hate God, or the Calvinistic doctrine of double-predestination, which implies that the reprobate are supernaturally (or infernally) ordered toward damnation in the same way that the elect are supernaturally ordered towards their salvation. Both are examples of what Conor Cunningham (The Genealogy of Nihilism) identifies as the nihilistic logic of trying to have nothing (in this case, the nothing of evil) as something.

The good as the efficacy of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 53

In the previous post on this subject I noted that Tolkien does not write in The Silmarillion that Ungoliant’s darkness “was not lack but a thing with being of its own,” but that it “seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own. The point of this observation, however, is not merely to demonstrate that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is consistently Augustinian or Boethian after all, but rather to raise the prospect that Tolkien is in fact doing something much more profound and interesting. Far from vacillating between the Augustinian and Manichaean theories of evil, as per Tom Shippey’s reading, what Tolkien’s fiction accomplishes is a confrontation of Manichaeism head-on, not by contradicting it outright, but more intriguingly, by conceding what even the pre-converted Augustine recognized as a certain superficial cogency to Manichaean dualism: evil at times at least seems to have its own independent power and being. As Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis put it in the context of his own rejection of Manichaeism in favor of the Augustinian privation theory, the Manichaean position does enjoy a certain “obvious prima facie plausibility…” (“Evil and God,” 22). I think the best way of understanding Tolkien, therefore, is to see him as conceding the appearance of Manichaean evil at the phenomenological level, all the while re-inscribing and accounting for this appearance in the only way it could be accounted for, namely in terms of an otherwise Augustinian and Thomistic metaphysics of creation. This “truth” of Manichaeism, moreover, is one that Thomas himself, after a fashion, defends in the Summa, when he argues that evil is no mere illusion, but has a real existence in things (ST 1.48.2), meaning that in an important respect evil is as real and present as the things in which it resides. This I also take to be the meaning behind Tolkien’s emphatic claim in his “Mythopoeia” poem that “Evil is,” for as the poem also assures us of the eye that will see Paradise,

Evil it will not see, for evil lies

not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,

not in the source but in malicious choice,

and not in sound but in the tuneless voice. (Tree and Leaf 101)

As we have seen, for both Thomas and Tolkien, evil by itself is a “zero,” but therein lies the paradox: evil is never by itself. As Thomas puts it, “evil is the privation of good, and not pure negation” (malum privatio est boni, et non negatio pura, ST 1.48.5 ad 1). Evil, in other words, is not isolatable to that small segment of the thing which it negates, for its effects reverberate throughout and may even be said to be amplified by the being that remains. (Compare this with the devastation which follows from Melkor’s monstrous wolf, Carcharoth, swallowing the Silmaril jewel after he bit off the hand of Beren. Although the jewel, as a symbol of creative and sub-creative light and existence, is a thing beautiful and good in itself, inside the belly of Carcharoth, its powerful effect is only to magnify the madness, terror, and destruction of Carcharoth’s rampage: “Of all the terrors that came ever into Beleriand ere Angband’s fall the madness of Carcharoth was the most dreadful; for the power of the Silmaril was hidden within him.”)

As Mary Edwin DeCoursey aptly puts it in her 1948 dissertation on Thomas’s metaphysics of evil, the privation of evil “is more than simple non-being. It has definite, malevolent ties with reality; it is the absence that is conspicuous” (The Theory of Evil in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas and Its Contemporary Significance: A Dissertation, 34, also cited in Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Herbert McCabe has also put the point well:
Now does this mean that badness is unreal? Certainly not. Things really are bad sometimes and this is because the absence of what is to be expected is just as real as a presence. If I have a hole in my sock, the hole is not anything at all, it is just an absence of wool or cotton or whatever, but it is a perfectly real hole in my sock. It would be absurd to say that holes in socks are unreal and illusory just because the hole isn’t made of anything and is purely an absence. Nothing in the wrong place can be just as real and just as important as something in the wrong place. If you inadvertently drive your car over a cliff you will have nothing to worry about; it is precisely the nothing that you will have to worry about. (God Matters, 29)
In this way, as John Milbank has put it, “it is possible for negativity to take a sublime quasi-heroic form” (“Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 21). Thus, it is not in spite of evil’s status as a privation that it seems to be so powerful, but precisely on account of it. To state it differently still, evil doesn’t need to be ontologically independent in order for it to be a potent force to reckon with, since it has the very potency of the goodness of being at its disposal. Evil’s status as a privation of being is not what mitigates its efficacy, therefore, but what establishes it: it is as a privation of being that evil is able to derive its power and potency from the being it labors to negate. Thomas explains that evil is never capable of “corrupting the whole good” (ST 1.48.4), yet this only means that evil always has some remaining good behind it, giving it its very ontological efficacy and metaphysical momentum.

Calvin on the medieval distinction of powers

In his chapter on “Calvin and the Absolute Power of God” (Calvin in Context) David Steimetz quotes the following passage from Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 23 in which he rejects out of hand the scholastic distinction between God’s absolute and ordained power:

That invention which the Schoolmen have introduced, about the absolute power of God, is shocking blasphemy. It is all one as if they said that God is a tyrant who resolves to do what he pleases, not by justice, but through caprice. Their schools are full of such blasphemies, and are not unlike the heathens, who said that God sports with human affairs.

Part of Calvin’s rejection of the scholastic distinction of powers, Steinmetz argues, is his rejection of any separation between God’s justice and God’s power, a point that corroborates Steinmetz’s over-arching thesis that, contrary to the interpretation of later Protestant scholastics such as Francis Turretin, Calvin was opposed not just to the scholastic abuse of the distinction of divine powers through undue speculation, but to the very distinction itself. As William Courtenay, for example, has shown, at the origins of the medieval distinction of divine power lies Augustine’s (highly problematic, in my view) admission that there are certain things God could do “according to his power, but not according to his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam) (Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29). If so, then Calvin’s rejection of the distinction of powers may be seen to involve far more than a mere correction of medieval and Renaissance scholasticism: it represents a fundamental critique of the theological tradition regarding divine power, dating back to and including Augustine himself. (On this point, one might say, Calvin is more Augustinian than Augustine himself.) This fact would also seem to qualify the extent of Calvin’s alleged debt to the “covenant theology” of late medieval nominalism, inasmuch as the latter involved not only the adoption but the radicalization of the very distinction of powers that Calvin would later reject.

Tolkien’s “phenomenology of evil”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 52

The previous post made the claim that, in portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien might seem to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Before concluding, however, as Tom Shippey does, that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is ambiguous, incoherent, or contradictory—the result of an effort to make sense of distinctly modern forms of evil by means of quaint and antiquated premodern theories of evil—we should consider whether Tolkien might not have had a deeper purpose in view here.

To begin, we may observe in this episode from The Silmarillion that Tolkien does not in fact say that the darkness introduced by Ungoliant was a thing with being in itself, but rather that it “seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own.” In the passage cited earlier recording the Ainur’s first experience of darkness, moreover, Tolkien writes not that they had “perceived a new thing,” but that “it seemed to them that in that moment they perceived a new thing” (S 19, emphasis added). In the case of Ungoliant, the explanation the narrative gives for this “seeming” ontological independence of darkness and evil is fully consistent with Tolkien’s creation metaphysics, “for it was made by malice out of Light,” and thus it had “power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will.” Ungoliant’s evil and darkness, in other words, are powerful precisely because they have as the source of their strength the goodness and light which they negate, and it is this borrowed strength that in turn provides evil and darkness with even its appearance of radical independence. Again, Tolkien aptly captures the very phenomenon John Milbank sees as being fully accounted for in the privation theory of evil as taught by St. Thomas, namely “an incremental piling up of small deficient preferences which gradually and ‘accidentally’ (as Aquinas argued) produce the monstrous” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 21).