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.

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