Aquinas’s “Tin Ear” for the Music of the Spheres

Metaphysics of the Music, part 14

Against the metaphysically tragic interpretation of Tolkien’s creation-myth—according to which, first, it is the Ainur’s Music that creates the rest of the world and, second, the Music therefore represents an authentic form of being in comparison to which all later permutations of creation are so many disparagable accretions—my claim is that Tolkien’s music imagery both presupposes and self-consciously portrays the kind of Christian, creational, and consequently much more positive metaphysics he shares, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas. To this end, there are three aspects of Thomas’s thought I want to develop in the posts to follow: the first is Thomas’s own occasional remarks on the nature of music; the second consists in select elements of Thomas’s theory of beauty or aesthetics in general; and the third concerns the broader metaphysical “existentialism” and realism involved in Thomas’s aesthetics. At each of these three levels, as I hope to show, Thomas has an important contribution to make where the proper interpretation of the metaphysics of Tolkien’s music imagery is concerned.

Unlike Tolkien, the music imagery of Augustine, Boethius, and the whole musica universalis tradition actually seems to have made very little impression on St. Thomas’s metaphysical imagination: fire and light we certainly find in his philosophy of being (examples of Pseudo-Dionysius’s influence), but there is very little music. Commenting on this lacuna, Leo Spitzer remarks how Thomas does not seem to have had “the Augustinian ear for world harmony, ascribing to music a holy character only insofar as it was an element of the liturgy; as an Aristotelian he ‘reflects’ the world as it is, rather than attempting to re-create it by forging it together into a unit” (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 74). As we shall see, accordingly, Thomas’s ultimate significance for understanding the metaphysics of Tolkien’s musical imagery will lie in quite a different direction. Thomas’s personal interest in music, such as it was, was informed by his direct experience with sacred music as part of his religious devotion and duties as a priest, a subject he addresses in ST 2-2.91, “Of taking the divine name for the purpose of invoking by means of praise” (on this passage, see Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 131-2). More than this, Thomas’s education and general cultural milieu would have required of him a particular familiarity with Boethius’s De Institutione and Augustine’s De Musica (Eco 131). His command of some of the more technical and mathematical details of the latter work in particular, for example, are on display in his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima (Bullough, “St. Thomas and Music,” 14, 19-21). (Thomas F. O’Meara, incidentally, has also made the observation in his study of Aquinas’s “cultural milieu” of thirteenth-century Paris that it was only the century prior that polyphony had been introduced and developed in Gothic music, whose “rhythmical motion of independent parts,” together with the Gothic illustrated window and the Scholastic Summa, constitutes a third example of the period’s “love of plurality ordered.” O’Meara, “Paris as a Cultural Milieu of Thomas Aquinas’s Thought,” 709.) And while Thomas does not seem to have had much use in his cosmology or metaphysics for the Pythagorean notion of a musical world harmony, as his treatment of divine power in the Summa indicates, neither was he completely insensible to the notion’s explanatory force. While expanding on how the universe cannot be improved given the order already bestowed upon it by God, Thomas gives the following argument strongly reminiscent of what I pointed out in Augustine earlier: “For if any one thing were bettered, the proportion of order would be destroyed, just as if one string were stretched more than it ought to be, the melody of the harp would be destroyed” (ST 1.25.6 ad 3).

Qualifying “Splintered Light”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 13

In the previous post I mentioned that there were some qualifications I would make to Verlyn Flieger’s characterization of the tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery. The qualifications I have in mind are these. First, the main cause behind the succession of lights in Middle-earth in the first place, of course, is not due to any tragic flaw within the light itself, but owing to the aberrant interference of the evil of Melkor. Second, to the extent that in Tolkien’s mythical history there is a regrettable loss of light each time the previous source of light is replaced, I submit that this has less to do with some kind of metaphysical entropy at work in Tolkien’s world than it does with the gratuitous and sacrificial nature of Tolkien’s metaphysics. When the Valar Yavanna, for example, laments her inability to remake the Two Trees after Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on them, she says that “[e]ven for those who are mightiest under Ilúvatar there is some work that they may accomplish once, and once only. The Light of the Trees I brought into being, and within Eä I can do so never again” (Silmarillion 78). However, as the later, parallel speech by Feänor, maker of the Silmarills, indicates, the reason for this inability has less to do with the tragic unrepeatability of certain deeds than it does with the inherent sacrifice and love that such deeds require of their agent. In sum, then, if there is a diminution of light in Middle-earth, the difficulty is not the tragic loss of being, but the self-sacrificing gift of being for which there is no assurance, at least in this lifetime, of it ever being received back again in full. Yet the promise is already given on the opening page of The Silmarillion that, however much our sub-creative desires or intentions may find themselves frustrated or unfulfilled in this life, at the glorious consummation of all things at “end of days,” the themes of all shall be once again “played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.” Finally, a third consideration is the felix culpa dimension to the splintering of light addressed by Tolkien and discussed by Flieger, for without the possibility of the splintering of the light of language and human perception, there would be no place for the kind of sub-creative “refracting” of light that Tolkien celebrates in his “Mythopoeia” poem and which he practices in his own mythology and language formation. “Splintered light,” in other words, isn’t so much tragic as it is eucatastrophic. 

Deism in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë?

Metaphysics of the Music, part 12

While there are a number of factors mitigating the inherently tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change which Verlyn Flieger finds embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery, she does draw attention to an integral and well-recognized sense of loss that permeates Tolkien’s mythology and which, as a consequence, represents an important qualification to the very different metaphysical mood I will be attributing to Tolkien in the argument to follow. Where I think Flieger goes astray, however, is when she implies that this tragic sensibility, admittedly present in Tolkien’s mythical history, is also present in his creation-myth and metaphysics. Thus, on the one hand, Flieger quite rightly observes that the “whole concept [of the world] belongs to Eru alone,” and that therefore “[i]n fulfilling his purpose, the Valar are already at one remove from his wholeness, for they bring to the world not light but lights, a variety of lights of differing kinds…” (Splintered Light 60). Going beyond this, on the other hand, is Flieger’s point, made in the context of her own comparison of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë to Plato’s Timaeus, as to how the process of creation and sub-creation involves a progressive alienation between the Creator and his ever-more distant effects. The Valar, according to Flieger, are “dividing the world from Eru, assisting in a process of separation through which Eru and the world can contemplate each other” (55, emphasis original). The theological consequence of this for Flieger is the metaphysically and theologically tragic one in which the Creator emerges as “a strikingly remote and disengaged figure” who has “little or no direct interaction in his world” and who leaves it to his sub-created vassals “to concern themselves specifically with the earth and its inhabitants” (53-4).

Tragic Being, Splintered Light

Metaphysics of the Music, part 11

In this series of posts I have been examining (what I suggest to be) the somewhat exaggerated interpretation of the Music of the Ainur offered by some readers, and the resulting “tragic metaphysics” they have implicitly attribute to Tolkien’s creation-myth as a consequence. There is, to be sure, much tragedy present in Tolkien’s mythology, tragedy which may at times even seem to spill over into his mythology’s underlying philosophy of being. Verlyn Flieger touches on this in her study of Tolkien’s image of “splintered light,” a metaphor illustrating his and Owen Barfield’s theory (discussed here and here) of the fragmentation human language, stories, and perception inevitably undergo over time. Similar to Bradford Eden—who in addition to finding a Boethian pattern of cosmic, human, and instrumental music in the history of Middle-earth, also reads this sequence according to a Neoplatonic pattern of decay—Flieger likewise stresses the sense of tragic loss accompanying the phenomenon of splintering light present in Tolkien’s legendarium. Of the original source of illumination in the world, for example, the two Lamps established by the Valar on twin mountain-pillars of stone, Flieger observes that the light “is brilliant and constant,” but that when the “first light is quenched” by Melkor, it “cannot be renewed,” and so in the Two Trees of Valinor “new light is brought into being, but the quality is changed and the brightness is diminished… The differences between the Lamps and the Trees are multiple and striking and conform to the pattern of fragmentation and diminution that underlies the whole mythology… [T]he Trees give light in waxing and waning cycles of flower and fruit” (Splintered Light, 63). As Flieger interprets Tolkien’s imagery of light, “[f]rom ancient unity to the fragmentation and splintering of light, of perception, of society, and of self, Tolkien’s sub-created world mirrors our own. And through its people, their wars and turmoils, their triumphs and disasters, we come gradually to recognize our world, to see and hear it as Tolkien saw and heard it” (65).

Creation as Decay in the Music of the Ainur

Metaphysics of the Music, part 10

It is in similar, metaphysically tragic terms that Bradford Eden, in his Boethian interpretation of Tolkien, understands the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and the subsequent phases of creation. As we saw earlier, Boethius recognizes three specific kinds of music: cosmic, human or vocal, and instrumental. In Eden’s hands, however, Boethius’s threefold classification becomes also a Neoplatonic progression, or rather digression, from highest to lowest, and the pattern around which the entire subsequent history of Middle-earth is allegedly structured:

The gradations of music’s power in Middle-earth from its appearance in the first page of The Silmarillion all the way down to the Fourth Age in The Lord of the Rings reflects a Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, from the highest form of music, universal or comic [sic] music, down to human/vocal music, and then down to instrumental music. This chain of musical being also embodies the diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal, in the instruments of Man. (Eden, “The ‘Music of the Spheres’,” 192)

Again, according to Eden the pattern in Tolkien’s creation-story is a pattern of metaphysical corruption or dilution of being, a “diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal.” Pressing the point further, Eden writes:

There may be an unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion that can only be detected by one who is knowledgeable about the entire mythological reality that is Middle-earth. Each theoretical step taken away from the “Great Music,” which set everything into motion, is a slow descent away from “the divine.” This is a strong thread throughout the writings of Plato and Aristotle, that each gradation and division of music away from the “pure” or “universal” results in a type of gradual descent downward in spirit and soul…. Elves and Men are farther away in both time and space from the “music of the spheres” and closer to the third and lower type of music in the Third Age. (190-1)

On this Platonic reading of Tolkien, each subsequent stage of his creation-account and subsequent mythical history involves a necessary “decay,” a “descent downward” or falling away from the “pure” and “divine” origins of the Music of the Ainur, so that physical reality itself finally emerges, as it does for Plotinus, as a veritable metaphysical catastrophe or accident, necessary yet regrettable.

Music of the Ainur as “Tragic Metaphysics”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 9

Related to the somewhat exaggerated interpretation of the role and power of the Music in creation is a correspondingly diminished view some of Tolkien’s readers, especially those interpreting him in a Platonic light, have had of the physical world of creation which follows after it. If the Music is assumed to be a truly creative source, after all, it is only natural to see every motion (either ontological or temporal) away from the primeval Music as metaphysically enfeebling. According to Plotinus, for example, the existing universe consists in a cascading hierarchy of “hypostases” or discrete orders of being, in which the supreme, transcendent, and ultimately unknowable first cause or principle of all things, “the One,” first “emanates” or “overflows” into the second hypostasis of Divine Mind, which in its turn engenders the third hypostasis of World Soul, which then overflows into the physical realm of temporal, sensible Nature. One of the further principles of Neoplatonic emanation theory is the idea that each successive stage of reality, as it moves further and further away from its original source in the One, involves a corresponding corruption or dilution of being, much as it gets darker and colder the further one moves from a source of light and heat. (Plotinus, for example, describes the Soul’s procession from Divine Intellect as a “father who brings to maturity a son whom he begat imperfect in comparison with himself.” Enneads 5.1.3). The result is what my colleague Peter Leithart describes as the “tragic metaphysics” of Neoplatonism in particular, insofar as “everything that derives from the One or the forms is necessarily decadent” (Leithart, Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature, 46), and of ancient Greek thought generally insofar as it “treat[s] finitude, temporality, bodiliness, and limitation as philosophical and practical problems that must be either transcended or grudgingly accepted” (38, emphasis original).

While the carefully delineated and successive stages of Tolkien’s creation-myth may indeed suggest a likeness to the successively emanating hypostases of Neoplatonic cosmogonic theory, the problem lies in the suggestion that the Ainulindalë further shares in Neoplatonism’s tragic metaphysics. John Cox illustrates this confusion in his study comparing Tolkien’s legendarium with the philosophies of Platonism and Neoplatonism when he argues that, “while Tolkien follows the Timaeus… in creating the Ainur, he follows neo-platonic tradition, beginning with Plotinus, in depicting innumerable series of imitations that radiate outward from a point close to the greatest creative power through stages of gradual diminution (Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 58-9). (Other, less metaphysical examples of the radiating and diminishing pattern of Neoplatonism that Cox sees at work in Tolkien’s mythology include a “series of six kingdoms, each an imitation of the other,” as well as a “series of trees, of holy mountains, of cities, of heroes, of heroines,” all “whose origin is almost certainly in Platonic tradition.” Cox 59.) According to Cox, the movement in the Ainulindalë from the Ainur’s Music to their Vision to the physical world itself, like the metaphysical trajectory outlined by Plotinus, involves a tragic, “gradual diminution” of being. In another passage imputing to Tolkien the metaphysically tragic view of finite, temporal, and physical existence as philosophically dubious or problematic, Cox compares the way the Ainur mediate between Ilúvatar and the physical world to the way the World Soul of Plato’s Timaeus functions as a protective “buffer” between the unsullied perfection of the demiurgic creator on the one hand and the “visible, changing, temporal, and only apparently real world” on the other (58, emphasis original).

The Kenosis of Aragorn

Thorongil, alias Aragorn, part 6

In the Appendix A account of Thorongil/Aragorn, the statement that the latter was not “holding himself higher than the servant of his [Denethor’s] father” is evocative of the Apostle Paul’s discussion of the kenosis (“self-emptying”) of Christ in Philippians 2:5-11:

“Let this mind be be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus:Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name:That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth;And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

We’ve already noted Aragorn’s kenosis in The Lord of the Rings in his being the suffering servant, “despised and rejected” (Isaiah 53), in Bree, but we might also mention here his entering his kingdom (Gondor) through his own act of “obedience unto death” (following the Paths of the Dead), as well as his camping outside Minas Tirith as a stranger even after bringing victory and healing to the city (cp. Hebrews 13:12). Like Christ, Aragorn becomes a king only after first becoming an obedient and dying servant.