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).

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One thought on “Music of the Ainur as “Tragic Metaphysics”

  1. Pingback: Creation as Decay in the Music of the Ainur | The Flame Imperishable

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