The Ainur’s Music: From “Good” to “Very Good”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 26

When Ilúvatar first begins teaching the Ainur their Music, it is the case that, as the Platonic reading of the Ainulindalë might predict, they are unable to grasp completely the theme in its unity or wholeness: “[b]ut for a long while they sang only each alone, or but few together, while the rest hearkened; for each comprehended only that part of the mind of Ilúvatar from which he came, and in the understanding of their brethren they grew but slowly” (Silmarillion 15). As we have seen previously, however, the Ainur mature in their comprehension and skill over time, so that “as they listened they came to deeper understanding, and increased in unison and harmony,” and yet despite the Ainur’s challenges in learning the initial theme, Ilúvatar follows it with second, “mighty theme, unfolding to them things greater and more wonderful than he had yet revealed; and the glory of its beginning and the splendor of its end amazed the Ainur, so that they bowed before Ilúvatar and were silent” (emphasis added). Where Ilúvatar’s own music-making is concerned, therefore, it turns out to resemble less a Neoplatonic pattern of iterative decay than it does the gradual, eschatological progression described, for example, in the Book of Genesis, where creation’s initial status as merely “good” gradually gives way to its later consummation as “very good.” More remarkable still is that, despite the surpassing beauty of Ilúvatar’s second theme, this time the Ainur are not told to repeat (however unsuccessfully) its pattern, but as was just noted, are instead exhorted to “adorn” it: instead of imitating Ilúvatar’s theme, in other words, they are to interpret, improvise, and even improve upon it, much as the biblical Adam and Eve are told to complete the work that the Lord God, for all its initial goodness, had already begun. And while the resulting Music is said to have been so beautiful that not even the Ainur themselves have since “made any music like to this music,” in the same breath the narration anticipates a day when “a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days.” Even the discord, finally, introduced into the Music by Melkor ultimately serves not to lessen its overall beauty, but becomes yet another instrument and occasion whereby Ilúvatar is able to enter again into the Music and make it more beautiful still. Here we have yet another parallel to what David Bentley Hart observes in the Bible to be the Holy Spirit’s “power to redeem discordant lines” and “the promise of Christian faith that, eschatologically, the music of all creation will be restored…” (Beauty of the Infinite 281).

Why Ilúvatar Doesn’t Sing

In yesterday’s post I noted how the early, Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë, unlike the published Silmarillion account, has Ilúvatar
actually “singing” the Ainur “into being” before then instructing them to produce their own music in their turn. Michael Devaux attributes the omission to Ilúvatar’s singing in the later version to Tolkien’s alleged concern to distinguish Ilúvatar’s act of creation from the Ainur’s act of sub-creation:

The difference between a sung creation and a spoken creation of the Ainur by Ilúvatar is not negligible in its theological consequences. In fact, as Carla Giannone has shown, in the 1977 Ainulindale… Tolkien distinguishes two hierarchical levels, God and the gods (Eru Ilúvatar and the Ainur) as a function of this difference between speech and song. Strictly speaking, there is no music played by Eru. God’s prerogative (and his act of creation) resides in the Λογος (‘In the beginning was the Word,’ says the prologue to St. John’s Gospel), which is also thought.” (Devaux, “The Origins of the Ainulindalë: The Present State of Research,” 94)

As Devaux explains again a little later, “the difference between Ilúvatar and the Ainur” may be seen in the fact that, “[f]irst, as Tolkien says, strictly speaking the creation is the work of God while the making is given over to the Valar… Ilúvatar speaks and the Ainur sing…” (101).

The Ainur’s Music and the Trinity

Metaphysics of the Music, part 25

With the account I’ve given of Thomas’s views on music, beauty, and the realism of created being as background, I think we are in an ideal position to understand more precisely the metaphysical significance of the music imagery of Tolkien’s creation-myth. In light of the metaphysically tragic reading of the Ainulindalë surveyed earlier, perhaps the first point that stands to be made—as obvious as it is easy to overlook—is the fact that Tolkien places at the origins of his fictional cosmos an act of divine music, which is to say, an act of divine play. This point is made perhaps more clearly in the early edition of the Ainulindalë from The Book of Lost Tales, in which Ilúvatar is actually said to have “sang into being the Ainur…” (BLT 52). From its very inception, therefore, Tolkien’s narrative arguably sets a much more sanguine metaphysical course than the ontological ennui some of his commentators have credited it with.

It is also possible to connect further the Creator’s music-making at the outset of the Ainulindalë with what we saw in chapter one to be the proto-Trinitarianism of Tolkien’s mythical theology. As Tolkien’s puts it in his commentary on the Athrabeth, “the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru” is already to be glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, particularly in the Flame Imperishable which he identifies as being “in some sense distinct from or within” Eru (Morgoth’s Ring 335, 345). Linking the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity with the musical universalis tradition behind the Ainulindalë, David Bentley Hart has suggested that the “complexity or distinction” of the Christian godhead means that, behind the cosmic music played out in the world by the Creator is the prior divine music which is the Creator, constituting the Creator in his own being:

the image of cosmic music is an especially happy way of describing the analogy of creation to the Trinitarian life. Creation is not, that is, a music that explicates some prior and undifferentiated content within the divine, nor the composite order that is, of necessity, imposed upon some intractable substrate so as to bring it into imperfect conformity with an ideal harmony; it is simply another expression or inflection of the music that eternally belongs to God, to the dance and difference, address and response, of the Trinity. (The Beauty of the Infinite, 276)

In keeping with this point is Ilúvatar’s explanation to the Ainur that it is because they have been kindled with the Flame Imperishable that they are, as it were, to “kindle” their own music, “show[ing] forth [their] powers in adorning this theme, each with his own thoughts and devices, if he will” (Silmarillion 15). It’s possible, in other words, to see the overflowing harmony of divine persons making up the divine being as the basis and originating source for the harmonies produced by the Ainur. And while the finitude and creatureliness of the Ainur’s Music doubtlessly means it must pale in comparison to the “beauty of the infinite” and transcendent rhythms of which the divine godhead is composed, Tolkien’s narrative is less concerned with its status as an inferior redundancy of Ilúvatar’s original theme than it is, as we have also seen, with that respect in which their Music has instead been caught up within and made to share in the divine life and music of Ilúvatar himself. Nor is Ilúvatar in his absolute transcendence in any way oblivious to their Music (as the Neoplatonic One is and must be oblivious, for example, of his emanations), but is rather portrayed as a connoisseur of their Music, delighting in the new state of affairs their Music has brought about: “But I will sit and hearken, and be glad that through you great beauty has been wakened into song” (Silmarillion 15).

Embodied Immortality in Tolkien and Anselm

Another similarity between Tolkien’s Athrabeth and Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo to add to the list: the identity of man as a unity of body and soul in their respective arguments concerning the destiny of humankind. In the preface of Cur Deus Homo, Anselm writes:

human nature was instituted with the specific aim that at some stage the whole human being should enjoy blessed immortality, ‘whole’ meaning ‘with both body and soul’…

As Anselm observes, man was created for “blessed immortality,” a state transcending and surpassing his mortal experience here on earth. At the same time, whatever this immortality was, it was not something had by the soul only apart from or at the expense of his body. “Blessed immortality” was and is to be an embodied immortality.

In the conversation of the Athrabeth, Tolkien similarly strives to strike a balance between the alleged other-worldly orientation of Man’s soul and the this-worldly orientation of his body. On the one hand is Finrod’s characterization of the difference between Elves and Men on this wise:

the Eldar say of Men that they look at no thing for itself; that if they study it, it is to discover something else; that if they love it, it is only (so it seems) because it reminds them of some other dearer thing? Yet with what is this comparison? Where are these other things? ‘We are both, Elves and Men, in Arda and of Arda; and such knowledge as Men have is derived from Arda (or so it would appear). Whence then comes this memory that ye have with you, even before ye begin to learn?

As Tolkien argues in “On Fairy-Stories,” they are the Fairies who are “natural,” whereas they are the Men who are, by comparison, “supernatural.” If Men are ordered away from Arda/Earth in this way, however, it raises a question as to the unity of the human person. Finrod asks:

‘But what then shall we think of the union in Man: of an Indweller, who is but a guest here in Arda and not here at home, with a House that is built of the matter of Arda and must therefore (one would suppose) here remain? ‘At least one would not hope for this House a life longer than Arda of which it is part. Yet you claim that the House too was immortal, do you not? I would rather believe that such a feä of its own nature would at some time of its own will have abandoned the house of its sojourn here, even though the sojourn might have been longer than is now permitted. Then “death” would (as I said) have sounded otherwise to you: as a release, or return, nay! as going home! But this you do not believe, it seems?’

Andreth’s response is emphatic and unequivocal:

‘Nay, I do not believe this,’ said Andreth. ‘For that would be contempt of the body, and is a thought of the Darkness unnatural in any of the Incarnate whose life uncorrupted is a union of mutual love. But the body is not an inn to keep a traveller warm for a night, ere he goes on his way, and then to receive another. It is a house made for one dweller only, indeed not only house but raiment also; and it is not clear to me that we should in this case speak only of the raiment being fitted to the wearer rather than of the wearer being fitted to the raiment.

‘I hold then that it is not to be thought that the severance of these two could be according to the true nature of Men. For were it “natural” for the body to be abandoned and die, but “natural” for the feä [soul, spirit] to live on, then there would indeed be a disharmony in Man, and his parts would not be united by love. His body would be a hindrance at best, or a chain. An imposition indeed, not a gift. But there is one who imposes, and who devises chains, and if such were our nature in the beginning, then we should derive it from him – but that you say should not be spoken.

‘… I hold that in this we are as ye are, truly Incarnates, and that we do not live in our right being and its fullness save in a union of love and peace between the House and the Dweller. Wherefore death, which divides them, is a disaster to both.’

So according to Finrod Men are spiritually ordered away from this world towards a reality they-know-not-what, and yet the equally belong to the bodies which are a part of this world. What’s the solution to this conundrum? The solution is what I’ve referred to earlier as Tolkien’s and Anselm’s shared “metaphysics of Mary” (something I hope to address more fully at a later date). Finrod responds:

‘Ever more you amaze my thought, Andreth,’ said Finrod. ‘For if your claim is true, then lo! a feä which is here but a traveller is wedded indissolubly to a hroa [body] of Arda; to divide them is a grievous hurt, and yet each must fulfil its right nature without tyranny of the other. Then this must surely follow: the feä when it departs must take with it the hroa. And what can this mean unless it be that the feä shall have the power to uplift the hroa, as its eternal spouse and companion, into an endurance everlasting beyond Ea, and beyond Time? Thus would Arda, or part thereof, be healed not only of the taint of Melkor, but released even from the limits that were set for it in the “Vision of Eru” of which the Valar speak.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien expressly refers to this conjectured process by which the human soul would have “taken with it” its soul as an act of “assumption,” a clear allusion to the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, according to which the Blessed Virgin, at the end of her earthly life, was taken up into heaven both body and soul into a state of glory. In Tolkien’s fictional eschatology, accordingly, the original fate of all Men was to have been that enjoyed by the Virgin Mary. Or to return to Anselm’s own argument for why God became a man, man’s destiny was and still remains that of an embodied immortality.

The Divine Comedy of Metaphysical Otherness

Metaphysics of the Music, part 24

If God’s own goodness leads him to desire and to effect the existence of things other than himself, the same must invariably hold true for those rational beings whom he has made especially after his own image. As Thomas puts it in his Summa Contra Gentiles,

a thing approaches to God’s likeness the more perfectly as it resembles Him in more things. Now, goodness is in God, and the outpouring of goodness into other things. Hence, the creature approaches more perfectly to God’s likeness if it is not only good, but can also act for the good of other things, than if it were good only in itself; that which both shines and casts light is more like the sun than that which only shines. But no creature could act for the benefit of another creature unless plurality and inequality existed in created things. For the agent is distinct from the patient and superior to it. In order that there might be in created things a perfect representation of God, the existence of diverse grades among them was therefore necessary.[1]

God creates other things to communicate his own goodness, but part of that goodness which he gives to other things is precisely his own propensity for bestowing goodness on others. Thus, in order for creatures to receive God’s goodness, they themselves must have things other than themselves onto whom they in their turn, yet in imitation of God, might pass on this goodness. The fulfillment of the nature of created things, therefore, necessitates the existence of things other than themselves towards whom they might manifest their (and their Creator’s) benevolence. Again, and as Thomas’s great Florentine student Dante well recognized, creation constitutes not a metaphysical tragedy, but a veritable “divine comedy”:

the greater the proportion of our love,

the more eternal goodness we receive;

the more souls there above who are in love

the more there are worth loving; love grows more,

each soul a mirror mutually mirroring.[2]

[1] Summa Contra Gentiles 2.45, trans. Anderson. “Quanto aliquid in pluribus est Deo simile, tanto perfectius ad eius similitudinem accedit . In Deo autem est bonitas, et diffusio bonitatis in alia. Perfectius igitur accedit res creata ad Dei similitudinem si non solum bona est sed etiam ad bonitatem aliorum agere potest, quam si solum in se bona esset: sicut similius est soli quod lucet et illuminat quam quod lucet tantum. Non autem posset creatura ad bonitatem alterius creaturae agere nisi esset in rebus creatis pluralitas et inaequalitas: quia agens est aliud a patiente, et honorabilius eo. Oportuit igitur, ad hoc quod in creaturis esset perfecta Dei imitatio, quod diversi gradus in creaturis invenirentur.”

[2] Dante, The Divine Comedy: Purgatorio 15.71-5, trans. Musa.

The Quadriga: Bonaventure’s Hermeneutics of Humility

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 4

In his defense of the Quadriga or four-fold method of interpreting Scripture (literal, allegorical, tropoglocial, and anagogical), Bonaventure argues that this multiplicity of Scripture’s “mystical understandings” is “appropriate to the subject matter of Scripture, its hearer or student, its origin, and its end.” This one-in-many hermeneutic is fitted to the subject matter of Scripture insofar as Scripture gives us a Triune God who is one-in-many, a Christ through whom all things were first made and then re-made (a many-through-one), and a unified body of belief that nevertheless effectively communicates itself to the “differing states of believers” (a from-one-to-many).

As the final point indicates, Bonaventure also believes the Quadriga as a method of interpretation to be uniquely fitted to its hearer. As he explains:

For no one is a suitable hearer of Scripture without being humble, pure, faithful, and attentive. So, as a deterrent to pride, under the husk of the obvious literal meaning are hidden profound mystical understandings. This depth of meaning lying within the humble letter of the text abashes the arrogant, keeps out the unclean, drives away the deceitful, and arouses the idle to an understanding of the mysteries.

As Bonaventure would see it, an exclusively literal interpretation of Scripture lends itself to a certain pride, a confidence, that is, that the meaning of Scripture can be limited and so contained by the historical-grammatical intention of the text. Bonaventure’s concern is that, in the interest of chastening human speculation and fanciful readings of the text, such a narrow hermeneutic actually indulges in a different form of human arrogance, the assumption that the meaning and riches of the text are so much manna to be breezily gleaned from the ground, and little more. To Bonaventure’s mind, a recognition of the unfathomable allegorical, tropological, and anagogical depths of Scripture provides a check to such hermeneutical pride, and opens the text to a hermeneutical quest that must be as endless as the eternity  in which we will have to carry it out.

“The Hollow of His Hand”: Tolkien and Peter Damian’s Dialectic of Divine Presence

The issue of divine transcendence and immanence is an important one, I have argued before, for understanding appreciating the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. I’m fond of citing Tolkien’s claim, made in reply to W.H. Auden’s review of The Lord of the Rings, that the central conflict of the story is “about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183). How is it that a story–in which its author deliberately and studiously avoids ever explicitly or unequivocally referring to God–be basically “about God”? At least part of the answer, I contend, has to do with Tolkien’s assumed metaphysical theology of divine presence: God’s supreme transcendence over creation and creation history isn’t in tension with his immanence, but is precisely the basis for his profound and universal ubiquity. Tolkien’s story doesn’t need to refer to God because, after its own fashion, it is always referring to God. As Tolkien writes in another letter, quoting favorably from one of his agnostic readers, his achievement was to “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328).

It is in the above spirit that I want to list a few passages comparing Tolkien and the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) on the issue of divine presence. The first passage is from Manwë’s vision at the end of the chapter “Of Aulë and Yavanna” from The Silmarillion, in which Manwë sees “that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him [Manwë] in the hearts of the Ainur.” In this image, Ilúvatatar’s “hand” symbolizes both his transcendence over creation, sustaining it from without, as well as his immanence within creation, his ability, that is, to enter into it and miraculously, supernaturally intervene on its behalf.

A second, series of passages comes from the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth” from Morgoth’s Ring (vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth). In it the mortal woman Andreth reports a “rumour” among those men of the “old hope” that someday the Creator “will himself enter into Arda [the Earth], and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth doesn’t believe the rumour, however, asking the Elf-lord Finrod,

‘…How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
‘He is already in it, as well as outside,’ said Finrod. ‘But indeed the “in-dwelling” and the “out-living” are not in the same mode.’
‘Truly,’ said Andreth. ‘So may Eru in that mode be present in Ea that proceeded from Him. But they speak of Eru Himself entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different. How could He the greater do this? Would it not shatter Arda, or
indeed all Ea? ‘
‘Ask me not,’ said Finrod. ‘These things are beyond the compass of the wisdom of the Eldar, or of the Valar maybe. But I doubt that our words may mislead us, and that when you say “greater” you think of the dimensions of Arda, in which the greater vessel may not be contained in the less.
‘But such words may not be used of the Measureless. If Eru wished to do this, I do not doubt that He would find a way, though I cannot foresee it. For, as it seems to me, even if He in Himself were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien elaborates further:

Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even
though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.  

And finally, in his note on the above commentary, Tolkien writes how the above dialectic of divine transcendence and immanence is

actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’. This appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and
independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being.

To turn, finally, to Peter Damian, the similarities of note between the following discussion of divine omnipresence and the above passages by Tolkien are his image of the “divine hand” and his container-metaphor for describing God’s presence both within and without creation. Damian writes:

he remains immanent and transcendent in relation to the throne on which he presides, for, by measuring the heavens with a span and gathering the earth in the hollow of his hand he demonstrates that on every side he is external to all the things that he has created. Whatever, in fact, is enclosed inside remains external to the container; hence, relative to the throne on which he sits, he is considered to be within and above; by the hollow of the hand in which he is enclosed, however, it is indicated that he is external and beneath. And since he remains within all, external to all, above all, and beyond all things, he is superior through his power, inferior by reason of his support, external relative to his greatness, and internal because of his subtle penetration.” (Peter Damian: Letters 91-120, 358-9)

Bonaventure, Theologian of Time

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 3

Some semi-baked thoughts contrasting Bonaventure and Aquinas on time:

In Bonaventure’s discussion of the “length” of Scripture, we see his interest in developing a theology of time. More than Aquinas, Bonaventure is interested in the temporal aspect of creation. One area where this may be seen is in their respective positions on the question of the eternity of the world. In contrast to the radical Aristotelians founds in the Arts faculty at the University of Paris–according to whom creation had no beginning since, as Aristotle had so cogently argued in his Physics, it makes no sense to speak of a “beginning” in time that has no moment prior to it–both Bonaventure and Aquinas held to the orthodox position that creation had a distinct, precise moment of beginning. Unlike Bonaventure, however, Aquinas did believe that the world’s having a temporal beginning was an article of faith, something that was revealed by Scripture, and therefore was not subject to philosophical demonstration. As far as Aquinas was concerned, there was nothing inconceivable about God having created the world from all eternity. On such a hypothesis, the world would still be created, that is, it would depend upon God’s creative act for its being, but there needn’t be any point when God “began” creating. Thus, while Aquinas found Aristotle’s arguments for the eternality of the world to lack necessity, he did think Aristotle was successful in at least showing the possibility, even if not the factuality, of the world’s eternality.

In contrast to Aquinas’s fideism on this point (ironic given Bonaventure’s conservativism relative to Aquinas), Bonaventure held that the notion of an eternal creation was logically contradictory, inasmuch as the notion of beginningness was built-in to the very meaning of creation. For Bonaventure, the temporal beginning of creation was not merely an article of faith, but was something capable of philosophic demonstration (cp. also Aquinas and Bonaventure’s differing views on the demonstrability of the Trinity; even here, however, while seemingly more rationalistic than Aquinas, Bonaventure was actually simply following Anselm, whom Aquinas criticizes in the Summa).

There are a couple ways of looking at this disagreement. On the one hand, we might see Aquinas as preserving the necessity of Scripture for our knowledge about the origin of the world. On the other hand, implicit in his position is a kind of skepticism towards our ability to know the temporal beginningness of the world, and perhaps as a consequence, a degree of ambivalence towards its importance. Aquinas does say, to be fair, that the world’s temporal beginning better displays (than would its eternity) God’s power and creation’s dependence on God. Yet I don’t think it is accidental that Bonaventure’s fascination with and attention to time in his theology is comparatively absent from Aquinas. The greater influence of Aristotle on Aquinas, after all, means that time, in and of itself, is something more “natural” to him and therefore something, again, in and of itself, that is understandable by reason alone. Aquinas more than Bonaventure will tend to see time more as Aristotle the pagan saw it, as a comparatively desacralized, more theologically neutral space. For Bonaventure, by way of contrast, time can only be understood as created time, which is to say, as Genesis time,and therefore as time-with-a-beginning. Time has a sacramental character that is not as clear in Aquinas’s own philosophical treatment of the subject. (Cp. here, by the way, Thomas’s distinct, compartmentalized treatises in the Summa on “creation” on the one hand and “the work of six days” on the other. Again, where Bonaventure gives us a paradigm of faith seeking understanding, in Aquinas we have reason laying the philosophical foundation upon which the article of faith may later be added).

Related to all of this is Bonaventure’s statement that the length of Sacred Scripture “corresponds to God’s governance of the universe.” Aquinas is also very interested in the subject of divine governance, but for Aquinas the order of the universe is more static, unchanging, whereas Bonaventure’s correlation of divine governance with history reveals an eschatological metaphysics that doesn’t stand out to me as much in Aquinas.

Bonaventure and the Music of the Ainur

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 2

In my series of posts on the “Metaphysics of the Music,” I’ve been looking at some of the classical, medieval, and specifically Thomistic antecedents to the Music of the Ainur in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë. Interestingly, in his imaginative summary of his argument for the correspondence between the original seven days of creation and the seven ages of creation history, Bonaventure probably comes as close to anticipating Tolkien as anyone:

And so the whole course of this world is shown by Scripture to run in a most orderly fashion from beginning to end, like an artfully composed melody. In it, one can contemplate, by means of the succession of events, the diversity, multiplicity, and symmetry, the order, rectitude, and excellence, of the many judgments that proceed from the divine wisdom governing the universe. Just as  no one can appreciate the loveliness of a song unless one’s perspective embraces it as a whole, so none of us can see the beauty of the order and governance of the world without an integral view of its course. (Breviloquium, prolog., sect. 2)

Scripture as Cosmology, Psychology, Epistemology

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 1

We’ve begun reading Bonaventure’s delightful synopsis of the Christian faith, the Breviloquium, in my medieval thought class. According to St. Bonaventure, the “breadth, length, height, and depth” (Eph. 3:18) of Sacred Scripture refers to its exhaustive, universal scope. He writes: :

in language that is sometimes literal, sometimes symbolic, as in a kind of summa, it [Sacred Scripture] describes the contents of the entire universe, and so covers the breadth; it narrates the course of history, thus comprehending the length; it portrays the excellence of those who will ultimately be saved, thus manifesting the height; and it depicts the misery of those who will be damned, thus plumbing the depth, not only of the universe, but of the very judgments of God. In this way it describes the breadth and length and height and depth of the entire universe, insofar as it is expedient to have knowledge of it for salvation. (Brev. prologue.3)

According to Bonaventure, then, Scripture is nothing less than a divinely inspired cosmology, taking within its purview all of created existence. More than this, yet related to it, is how this “procedure” of Scripture, which is creation’s own procedure, corresponds to the human mind’s nature:

This manner of proceeding was demanded by the very nature of our human capacities, for our mind was made to grasp many and great things in a truly magnificent way. Like a certain noble mirror, it was designed to reflect the whole complex of created reality, not only naturally but also supernaturally. Thus, the procedure of Sacred Scripture may be considered as fully responding to the demands of our human faculties.

In structuring Scripture in the way that he has (i.e., according to the above quadrad of breadth, length, height, and depth), God has accommodated Scripture to the structures of the human mind’s own manner of knowing. God has ordained an adequatio or mutual conforming, we might say, of Scripture and mind. If so, it stands to reason that to understand the human mind and its ways of knowing, we must understanding something of the structure of Scripture itself. Both Scripture and the mind, after all, are each a “mirroring” of reality, meaning that Scripture and the mind are and are to be mirrors of each other. The structure of Scripture is the structure of the mind. On the opening page of his Breviloquium Bonaventure comments how Scripture simply is theology. As it turns out, Scripture is also psychology. 

Tolkien’s “Athrabeth” and Anselm’s “Cur Deus Homo”

I’ve almost finished reading through Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, and here are some (rough) notes and questions that I’ve jotted down so far in connection with Tolkien’s Athrabeth. 

Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a philosophical argument for the necessity of the Incarnation, or “why God became man.” Tolkien’s Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth is a similarly philosophical dialogue between an Elf and a mortal woman addressing the Creator’s purpose in making these two distinct races of rational yet embodied beings, a purpose, we learn, which also has to do with God’s redemptive designs for the world of Middle-earth.

Some possible comparisons and related questions:

  1. Anselm’s and Tolkien’s respective arguments for the “necessity” of the Incarnation; how both Anselm and Tolkien construct (Anselm on behalf of the “real” world, Tolkien for his “fictional” world) a logic of God, creation, fall, and redemption that necessitate, in different yet related ways, the same conclusion, namely God becoming a man.
  2. According to Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” one of the primary functions of fairy-stories is that of “Recovery,” of using fantasy to regain a clear view of the primary world. If so, given their similarities, Tolkien’s Athrabeth might be seen to function as a “Recovery” of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo (much as Tolkien’s Ainulindalë is a “Recovery” of Genesis, and the Silmarillion of the Old Testament as a whole). But to what end? For what purpose? Part of the answer might be to see Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo, not merely as a quaint yet antiquated work of early medieval theology, but as itself a scholastic exercise of “Recovery,” that is, of uncovering in a fresh way truths that were becoming stale in Anselm’s day (just as Tolkien—through his fairy-story—was ostensibly trying to uncover the enduring relevance of the Incarnation in his own day). And if so, how might this “hermeneutic of Recovery” affect our reading of Anselm?
  3. At many points in his argument for the “necessity” of the Incarnation, Anselm makes an appeal to what is “fitting” and what is “beautiful,” and he likens his argument in places to that of a picture he is painting. All of this suggests that the “validity” of Anselm’s argument has as much to do with aesthetics and poiesis as it does with logic and demonstration. For Tolkien, art and poiesis are ultimately a matter of what he calls “sub-creation” whereby the artist or story-teller crafts a “secondary world” having the “inner consistency of reality.” Is there a meaningful sense in which Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo is a case of “theology as sub-creation,” of crafting a coherent world or intellectual framework into which one must “enter,” “suspend disbelief” (or rather exercise “secondary belief”), and accept on its own internally consistent terms? And if so, is the argument of Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo no less “fictional” than Tolkien’s Athrabeth, and Tolkien’s Athrabeth no less “real” than Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo?
  4. Related to the above is the shared concern for and awareness of the problem of “plausibility structures” within Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo and in Tolkien’s prefatory remarks to the Athrabeth. Both authors, in addition to presenting the arguments of their respective dialogues, in their own way touch on the issue of what is believable and why. How are their treatments similar and yet different?
  5. Tolkien’s Athrabeth focuses on the two species of Elves and Men; Anselm’s Cur Deus Homo on the two species of Men and Angels.
  6. Both works compare the world in its fallen (“marred” in the Athrabeth) to its restored (“unmarred”) state.
  7. Both works portray man as having a divinely assigned redemptive purpose for creation prior to the fall of man; in both works the secondary character (Anselm’s Boso and Tolkien’s Andreth) despair over man’s post-fall inability to carry out this redemptive purpose.
  8. Both works address the issue of human mortality.
  9. There is a “metaphysics of Mary” operative in both dialogues, explicitly in Anselm but implicit in Tolkien (note the references to bodily “assumption” in both the Athrabeth, Tolkien’s notes thereon, and in his Letters, and all references to the Virgin in Anselm).
  10. Something like Chalcedonian Christology is presupposed in both dialogues (hypostatic union: Christ being both God and man, in Tolkien, simultaneously transcendent and immanent).
  11. Similar argumentative structure in both Finrod and Anselm: both characters presuppose the purposefulness and non-vanity of God’s creative plans.

Hopefully I’ll get the chance to explore and develop these further at some point.

Imagination and Desire in Tolkien and Descartes

In yesterday’s post I contrasted Descartes and Tolkien in their respective views of tradition. Paralleling this is their differing attitudes towards the value and propriety of imagination in kindling human desire for things that aren’t in fact real. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes lists four maxims–his provisional ethic–that he resolved to live by while he undertook his program of tearing down his long-held beliefs and re-constructing a more secure edifice of certain knowledge. Descartes explains the goal of his third maxim this way:

always to try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible. And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent me in the future from desiring anything but what I was to acquire, and thus to make me contended. For, our will tending by nature to desire only what our understanding represents to it as somehow possible, it is certain that, if we consider all the goods that are outside us as equally beyond our power, we will have no more regrets about lacking those that seem owed to us as our birthright when we are deprived of them through no fault of our own, than we have in not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and that, making a virtue of necessity, as they say, we shall no more desire to be healthy if we are sick, or to be free if we are in prison, than we now do to have a body made of a material as incorruptible as diamonds, or wings to fly like birds. But I admit that long exercise is needed as well as frequently repeated meditation, in order to become accustomed to looking at everything from this point of view… (AT 25-6)

The irony of Descartes’s posture of Stoic resignation to the way things are, of course, is that as he makes clear at the end of his Discourse, the goal of his philosophical and scientific project is the Baconian one of “mastering” nature. Descartes, in short, wants to change the world, but he recognizes that to accomplish this peculiarly modern goal he must first change the way he thinks about himself, and by writing and publishing his experience, change the way European man in general thinks about himself. Unlike the Stoicism of the ancient and medieval periods, which sought to bring about inner tranquility and a conviction of adiaphora by aligning one’s own wants and desires with the beautiful order of the cosmos as a whole, Descartes’s objective in disciplining his and humanity’s desire was actually to help prepare them to assert their own will-to-order on the world. Descartes’s injunction to chasten counterfactual speculation, accordingly, really belongs to the tradition of Machiavelli’s rejection in The Prince of all those political dreamers before him, from Plato to Dante, who constructed wonderful thought-castles in the mind but who substituted fanciful utopian ambitions for a sober reflection on the way things really work politically. To cultivate such realist men, Descartes recognized, they must habituate themselves into a new way of thinking about what is really possible, and hence feasible, in the saeculum of the here and now.

In contrast to all this is Tolkien’s very different evaluation of the role of imagination in eliciting desire for seemingly impossible things. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” he praises the “magic” of the Elves for its “power to play on the desires of his body and his heart.” He goes on to explain how this

magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these
are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is … to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.

Man for Tolkien has a “primordial desire” that is only fulfilled in and through Fantasy, and accessed through imagination. This desire is not for a mastery of things, but the aesthetic, poetic appreciation and “surveillance” of them; not the control and conquest of nature, but a “communion” with it. It is on account of this primordial desire that Tolkien rejects the dream device as an appropriate technique in fantasy or fairy-story:

if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder….  It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as “true.” … But since the fairy-story deals with “marvels,” it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion.

Whereas it was Descartes’s purpose to strongly differentiate the feasibly possible from the fancifully impossible, and to discourage the mind from indulging the latter and to limit itself to the former, the glory of fairy-story, for Tolkien, is the way it deliberately obfuscates the two (though he does claim later on that “creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it”). And here we perhaps get a unique perspective into the Cartesianism of the “machinery” of the dream device: by casting the would-be fantasy tale as a mere illusion, its content is thereby banished to the realm of the impossible, and hence the impractical and unachievable.

But let us conclude with that which Tolkien actually holds in common with Descartes: the world must be changed. Whereas Descartes, however, saw (or at least would see) the imagination of Faerie-land as a distraction and impediment to the kind of world-conquest he saw as imperative, for Tolkien, it is less through human science than it is through human sub-creation (a form of which is what science really should be), founded in human fancy and ignited by primal human desire, that the world at last becomes–and that by God’s ordination–what it ought to be. It is this theological and creational context, moreover, that reveals that the possibility of actually realizing our human imaginings are not so limited as we may have thought. “So great is the bounty with which he [man] has been treated,” as Tolkien finishes his essay,

that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

To return to Descartes’s third maxim, he praises those philosophers “who in earlier times were able to free themselves from fortune’s domination and who, despite sorrows and poverty, could rival their gods in happiness.” For Tolkien, by contrast, it is only when man abandons his pretenses to divinity and is content with his role as a mere sub-creator that he surprisingly discovers that his own ambitions and desires for the world have in fact become (or rather always already were) God’s own goals.

Salt Lake City vs. Treebeard’s Eyes: Tolkien and Descartes on Tradition

J.R.R. Tolkien and René Descartes give us two powerful, yet as one might expect, contradictory images of tradition and its relevance for human wisdom. In his Discourse on Method, a work that could justly be characterized as the intellectual charter of the modern era, Descartes contrasts those human enterprises which have the benefit of the planning and oversight of a single, “master craftsman,” with those comparatively haphazard achievements which are the result of many different planners over the course of a long period of time. As Descartes writes,

it occurred to me to consider that there is often not so much perfection in works composed of many pieces and made by the hands of various master craftsmen as there is in those works on which but a single individual has worked. Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. Thus those ancient cities that were once mere villages and in the course of time have become large towns are usually so poorly laid out, compared to those well-ordered places that an engineer traces out on a vacant plain as it suits his fancy… (Discourse on Method, AT 11)

In short: Paris vs. Salt Lake City.

What Descartes is contrasting in his image of these two different kinds of city (the centrally planned vs. the non-planned), of course, are two different and (for him) conflicting ways of looking at the world, one that is rooted (if not “cemented”) in custom, authority, received wisdom, in a word, tradition, and another that is critical, analytical, methodological, inquisitive, exploratory, enlightened, self-conscious, independent, autonomous, in a word, rational.

In opposition to this characterization of the alleged haphazardness and, to that extent, irrationality of “tradition” is Tolkien’s image of Treebeard’s eyes, something I’ve commented on before in connection with the historical character of theology in comparison with philosophy. As Pippen reflects on Treebeard’s eyes in The Two Towers,

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”

Joseph Pearce has suggested that in this extended description of Treebeard’s eyes Tolkien is showing his agreement with Chesterton’s account of “traditionalism,” or what Chesterton described as the “philosophy of the Tree.” As G.K. wrote in one article,

I mean that a tree goes on growing, and therefore goes on changing; but always in the fringes surrounding something unchangeable. The innermost rings of the tree are still the same as when it was a sapling; they have ceased to be seen, but they have not ceased to be\central. When the tree grows a branch at the top, it does not break away from the roots at the bottom; on the contrary, it needs to hold more strongly by its roots the higher it rises with its branches. That is the true image of the vigorous and healthy progress of a man, a city, or a whole species. (Church Socialist Quarterly, January 1909, as quoted in Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration)

To bring the contradiction between Tolkien and Descartes to as sharp a point as possible, we might say that they both see tradition in semi-arborial terms: what Descartes sees as a bewildering, unintelligible, even idiotic network of subterranean (and hence sub-rational) influences and commitments, Tolkien sees as (potentially) a life-giving root system, reaching across time and space to provide society with much needed nourishment, strength, and stability.

Gimli on not beginning “in media res””

“‘Now, now!’ said Gimli. ‘We are beginning the story in the middle. I should like a tale in the right order…” (“Flotsam and Jetsam,” The Two Towers)

Is it possible to be human without being a descendant of Adam?

According to Anselm, the answer might be “No.” In Cur Deus Homo (“On Why God Became Man”) 2.8, having just argued for why man’s restoration from sin could only be accomplished by a God-Man, Anselm explains why it was further necessary that the human nature assumed by God in the Incarnation should be descended from Adam.

But if he creates a new man who is not from the race of Adam, this new man will not belong to the human race which is descended from Adam. Consequently, he will not have an obligation to give recompense on behalf of this race, because he will not be from it. For, just as it is right that it should be a human being who should pay recompense for the guilt of humanity, it is likewise necessary that the person paying recompense should be identical with the sinner, or a member of the same race.

For Anselm, Adam’s race can only be redeemed by “one of its own,” and so for the atonement to be effective, it must be accomplished by God becoming incarnate in someone actually born of Adam’s race. Anselm’s argument, however, is fascinating as much for what it might say about the possibility of being human as it is for what it says about the possibility of the atonement. Anselm denies that any “new man” who is not a biological descendant of Adam can be of the “same race” of Adam. It’s possible that by “race” (genus) Anselm simply means Adam’s genealogical line, and not the species of humanity itself. If, however, we take “race” to mean the human race, the philosophical and theological implications are nothing short of explosive.

If being either Adam or a descendant of Adam is necessary for being of the same species as Adam, it means that the only way to be human is to be related to Adam. Being a genealogical descendant of Adam is the very possibility of being human. If so, then the problem with Anselm’s hypothetical “new man” is that, by not being a member of Adam’s race, he is not really a man at all, but an alien, something other than man, a kind of “non man,” whatever his biological similarities to man might be. (This, incidentally, might give us another perspective on why, according to Aquinas’s later argument, every angel is its own, distinct species: not being individuated by matter, angels must belong to different species in order to be differentiated from each other. If we take our cue from Anselm, not just material embodiment, but also genealogical kinship, is necessary for two things to belong to a common species.) According to Hellenistic metaphysics, a thing’s genealogical pedigree was accidental to its being, to its whatness. In Anselm we see the possibility of a more Hebraic metaphysics, one in which genealogy is not accidental, but essential. Much as you being the son or daughter of your specific parents is necessary for you to have been at all (there is no “possible” you, even for God, except as the child of your parents), so it might turn out that there is not any possibility (even for God) of being human except as a descendant of Adam. This wouldn’t be because of some kind of limitation, necessity, or constraint on God, but rather because this would be simply what God himself had determined what it means to be human (just as he determined that what it means to be you is to be a specific child of your parents). For God, there is no such thing as being human without being either Adam, his wife, or one of their progeny. (Here we also seem to have part of the metaphysical significance of Eve being taken from Adam’s side, so that she also might be a “member of the same race.” Adam is the possibility of Eve–no Eve except as the one taken from Adam’s side–and Adam and Eve together are the possibility of every subsequent human being.) What this would further mean is that there is no absolute, abstract, Augustinian “divine idea” of man-as-such for God, or if there is, Adam himself is that idea: God doesn’t know or determine “man” as a possibility except as a member of the race of Adam. Adam, therefore, is not just the father of the human race, he is the very archetype of the human race. When he fell, the very possibility of being human fell along with him. This is the modal metaphysics (or at least part of it) behind original sin, but also behind our salvation. For the human race to be restored, it would need to receive a new archetype, one who was at once a member of the “old” human race and the very possibility of a new one. It turns out, consequently, that when we say that Jesus is the “new humanity,” we are actually being as literal as one can possibly be. As the Second Adam, Jesus, not figuratively, but literally and metaphysically iwhat it now means to be human.

Only Trinitarianism Preserves Divine Voluntarism

I mentioned in the previous post that some of Thomas’s more rationalist commentators have sought to avoid the profound irony at the heart of his account of creation, namely the utter freedom of and hence lack of compelling behind God’s act of creation. Norman Kretzmann, for example, takes issue with the voluntarism of St. Thomas’s doctrine of creation in both his The Metaphysics of Theism (220-225) and The Metaphysics of Creation (101-3, 120-6, and 134). In The Metaphysics of Creation, Kretzmann explains that there are “two divergent lines” along which one can answer the question of why God creates:

The response ‘Because producing things other than himself is a necessary consequence of God’s nature’ begins what I call the necessitarian line of explanation. The second rudimentary response, ‘Because God chooses to produce things other than himself and could equally well have chosen to produce nothing at all,’ is the starting-point of the non-necessitarian line. (102)

While recognizing that Thomas ultimately favors the non-necessitarian answer, Kretzmann argues that

Aquinas’s own presentation of God’s willing of other things, particularly in Book I [of SCG], and his acceptance of the Dionysian principle (‘Goodness is by its very nature diffusive of itself and [thereby] of being’) commit him to a necessitarian explanation of God’s willing things other than himself. I favour such an explanation, which sees God’s creating as his (freely) acting through the necessity of his nature (considered as perfect goodness), and which confines the creator’s free choice among alternatives to the selection of which ones to actualize for purposes of manifesting the goodness that is identical with his being. (126)

While it is not my purpose to defend Thomas over against Kretzmann, it does seem significant to me that one important consideration that is missing from Kretzmann’s discussion, probably because, in contrast to the Summa Theologiae, it is absent from Thomas’s own treatment of God proper in the passages of the Summa Contra Gentiles which Kretzmann is expositing, is the doctrine of the Trinity, which Kretzmann presumably feels safe to ignore as a matter of theology or revealed dogma and therefore as not properly philosophical. Without the doctrine of the Trinity, however, I would submit that Kretzmann ends up conflating the issue of divine productivity with the issue of divine creativity when he further defines the “necessitarian line” of explaining creation as showing “that an absolutely perfect being must be essentially productive” (102). But for Thomas the doctrine of the Trinity enables him to keep these two issues distinct, such that it is precisely because God is essentially and therefore necessarily productive, or at least generative, in the Triune Godhead that God needn’t but can be productive through creation. (David Burrell makes the same argument in response to Kretzmann in “Creation and ‘Actualism,’” 39-40. For a brief discussion of Kretzmann’s reading of Thomas in light of the history of Timaeus interpretation, see Anthony Kenny’s “Seven Concepts of Creation” in his and Sarah Broadie’s two-part series “The Creation of the World,” 91-92.)

Creation as divine idleness, sanity

Metaphysics of the Music, part 23

Even when viewed as a finite, superfluous, and in that sense “inferior” reduplication of the divine being, the entirely voluntary, unnecessary, and gratuitous character of creation—in contrast, as we saw in the last chapter, to the impersonal necessity of Neoplatonic emanation of reality from the One—again has the tendency of rendering creation more comic than tragic. In Summa Theologiae 1.19.2, for example, Thomas reasons from the benevolent nature of voluntary agents in general to the conclusion that it belongs especially to God to will the existence of “things apart from himself” (alia a se), which serve no other purpose than to give him something to which he might communicate his own inherent goodness. It is not for his own sake, in other words, that God wills the existence of things other than himself, but for their sake, since God is already perfect and stands to gain nothing from his creative efforts. The result is a profound irony at the heart of Thomas’s account of creation, and one that at least one of his more rationalist commentators has sought to avoid, and yet without which creation loses its essential quality of playfulness and gratuitous excess: God creates, in short, to benefit that which would otherwise not even exist unless he first created it. As Thomas charmingly puts it in one passage, God “alone is the most perfectly free giver, because He does not act for His own profit…” (Et ideo ipse solus est maxime liberalis: quia non agit propter suam utiltatem…–ST 1.44.4). Chesterton captures well the basic difference between the kind of tragic rationalism and causalism of Neoplatonic emanationism reviewed earlier and the comic freedom of Christian creationism in the contrast he draws in Orthodoxy between the madman and the sane man: “The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle.” The doctrine of creation, in short, represents a kind of metaphysical strength and health, for it teaches a God who creates and loves that which is “useless” or needless to himself. For Thomas, creation is not a metaphysical decadence: it is a divine extravagance.

Thomas’s “Comic” Metaphysics

Metaphysics of the Music, part 22

Related to Thomas’s existentialism is his concomitant doctrine of metaphysical realism, the stress Thomas lays on the irreducibly real, mind-independent, yet for that reason mind-obtruding and seducing character of things. I’ve posted before on Thomas’s and Tolkien’s shared doctrine of “theological truth,” captured in Tolkien’s emphatic claim that things “ARE, they would exist even if we did not” (Letters 399). What I particularly want to draw attention to here is the positive attitude towards the alterity or “otherness” of things entailed in Thomas’s doctrine. On the one hand, it is quite true for Thomas that “natural things… have being absolutely in the divine mind more truly than in themselves, because in that mind they have an uncreated being, but in themselves a created being” (ST1.18.4 ad 3).[1] In other words, things are more real in the divine mind than they are in their own created being. However, far from this implying a Neoplatonic, metaphysically tragic degradation of things, on the contrary, it is precisely the inferiority of created being in comparison to their divine origin that renders the act of creation for Thomas not metaphysically tragic, but comic. Even so, immediately following his above statement that, “absolutely” speaking, things more truly exist in the divine mind than in themselves, Thomas goes on to say that, nevertheless, “to be this particular being, a man, or a horse, for example, is realized more truly in its own nature than in the divine mind, because it belongs to the truth of man to be material, which, as existing in the divine mind, he is not.”[2] As Thomas further explains in a passage that will have an important application to Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur, “[e]ven so a house has nobler being in the architect’s mind than in matter; yet a material house is called a house more truly than the one which exists in the mind, since the former is a house in act, the latter only in potency” (ST1.18.4 ad 3).[3] Things, in short, have more truth, more being, more perfection or goodness, and therefore more actuality in God than they do in themselves. The point, however, is that in the divine mind, “things” enjoy this super-eminent truth, being, perfection, and actuality not as themselves, that is, not as created beings, but as certain aspects of God’s own, uncreated being. To have any kind of reality as themselves, of course, things must be given their own being as individual things, the kind of being, in other words, that they do not have in the divine mind, a point Thomas finds especially illustrated in the case of material beings. And if this is true of the divine mind, how much more must it be true with respect to finite human minds? Thus Thomas, writing of the purely “logical existence” that mathematical entities have in the mind and yet upon which, as we saw, music is based, says that they clearly “do not subsist as realities” otherwise “they would be in some sort good if they subsisted” (ST1.5.3 ad 4), and that an individual man, because he includes individual matter, therefore “has something in it” which the intelligible essence of man alone does not (ST1.3.3).[5] Thomas’s positive evaluation of matter as a created, intelligible, and objectifying force, combined with the role he reserves for the body in the sensual perception of beauty, mean that, as Michael Sweeney has put it in a passage in keeping with our theme, “[i]nstead of rendering philosophy tragic, the inescapable corporeality of human life makes philosophy comic because matter is no longer an irrational given contrary to intelligibility but the created principle to which all human thought must return.”[6]

[1] “Sed quia de ratione rerum naturalium est materia, dicendum quod res naturales verius esse habent simpliciter in mente divina habent esse increatum, in seipsis autem esse creatum.” See also De veritate 6.4.

[2] “Sed esse hoc, utpote homo vel equus, verius habent in propria natura quam in mente divina: quia ad veritatem hominis pertinet esse materiale, quod non habent in mente divina.”

[3] “Sicut domus nobilius esse habet in mente artificis, quam in materia: sed tamen verius dicitur domus quae est in materia, quam quae est in mente, quia haec est domus in actu, illa autem domus in potentia.”

[5] “[U]nde id quod est homo, habet in se aliquid quod non habet humanitas.”

[6] Sweeney, “Stat rosa pristine margine: Umberto Eco on the Role of the Margin in Medieval Hermeneutics and Thomas Aquinas as a Comic Philosopher,” 266.