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).

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