From Music to Vision, from Vision to Eä

Metaphysics of the Music, part 43

To review my argument thus far about the “metaphysics of the Music,” we have seen that, in contradiction with the metaphysically tragic reading of Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë outlines a much more positive and eschatological movement. As I have further argued, it is a movement intended to dramatize, in part, a progression between what Tolkien distinguishes in his essay, on the one hand, as the mere contented, dream-like disinterest in the possibility of a mind-independent reality, and on the other hand, the awakening of the fairy-desire for real, mind-independent existence. Yet while Tolkien in his essay is hesitant to insist that our “primal desire” for the existence of things other than ourselves is any necessary indication of the way things actually are, as the Aristotelian tradition of Aquinas would maintain, the arousal of this “primal desire” would nevertheless be in vain if there were no means or hope of its existence being realized or fulfilled. As Tolkien in a related fashion writes of the Elves in his commentary on the Athrabeth, they “insisted that ‘desires’, especially such fundamental desires as are here dealt with, were to be taken as indications of the true natures of the Incarnates, and of the direction in which their unmarred fulfillment must lie” (Morgoth’s Ring 343). Thus, even more fundamental to the logic of the Ainulindalë, I contend, than the contrast between the Music and the Vision is the even more basic distinction, also found, as we shall see, in Tolkien’s essay, that this story dramatizes between the world as it exists in mere thought and the real, extra-mental existence the world comes to enjoy as a gift from the Creator himself.

It is this dialectic of mental versus extra-mental existence, for example, that we meet already on the opening page of Tolkien’s entire legendarium, where it is anticipated that “after the end of days… the themes of Ilúvatar shall be 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” (Silmarillion 15-16, emphasis added). Behind and prior to the subversive music of Melkor, moreover, is his earlier idolatrous quest into the Void to find the “Flame Imperishable” of Ilúvatar whereby he might “bring into Being” the thoughts of his own mind (16). The antithesis between thought and reality receives further expression when Ilúvatar first informs the Ainur of his intention to create the world of Eä: “I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other” (20).[1] Ilúvatar even speaks somewhat diminishingly of both the Music and Vision together when he says how the Music had “been but the growth and flowering of thought in the Timeless Halls, and the Vision only a foreshowing,” whereas the task of the Valar, after the physical world has actually been created, is to “achieve it” (20, emphasis added). In the Athrabeth, finally—and almost in express contradiction of the claim reviewed earlier that there is an “unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion” beginning with the Great Music and ending with Men and Elves—Finrod clearly presupposes the physical world’s metaphysical superiority over the Music and Vision when he tells Andreth that the “errand of Men” in history is “to enlarge the Music and surpass the Vision of the World!” (Morgoth’s Ring 318, emphasis added).

[1] Later on in The Silmarillion Ilúvatar repeats this point, reminding the Ainur how he “gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World…” (S 44). And a few pages later the contrast between the Music and Vision on the one hand and the actual history of the world is drawn in these terms: “Thus it was that the Valar found at last, as it were by chance, those whom they had so long awaited. And Oromë looking upon the Elves was filled with wonder, as though they were beings sudden and marvelous and unforeseen; for so it shall ever be with the Valar. From without the World, though all things may be forethought in music or foreshown in vision from afar, to those who enter verily into Eä each in its time shall be met at unawares as something new and unforetold” (S 49).

How the Vision “Saves” the Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 42

Tolkien’s characterization in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” of the literary device of the Dream as a piece of “machinery” is also of some note. In Tolkien’s bestiary, of course, the Machine is typically a symbol of the tyrannical domination of nature. Yet the technological or instrumental mastery and manipulation of nature is not the only way in which one can exercise a kind of tyranny over things, for as Tolkien explains elsewhere in his essay, it is also possible to “appropriate” and “possess” things “mentally” or even artistically and aesthetically (Tolkien Reader 77). It is in this sense, I think, that the Dream “cheats” the primal desire for otherness: by deliberately suspending the question of the story’s reality or truthfulness, the Dream becomes a kind of instrument of intellectual domination, suppressing the objectifying otherness of the things and the world its story serves to relate. In this way, and as John Betz for example has argued in the case of Kant, “disinterest” in the aesthetic object’s mind-independent existence is really an indirect form of self-interest, and the refusal to recognize and enjoy the existence of an “other” becomes the occasion for a form of self-enjoyment.[1] One of the questions implicitly raised by the Ainur’s Music, consequently, is whether the temptation or at least possibility towards the “interested” and self-idolatrous quest of Melkor for the power to give being to his thoughts might already be latent within the kind of pure conceptual or mental mastery the Ainur enjoy and exercise in their Music. For as Betz again points out, in a passage evocative of  Melkor’s retreat to the Void to seek the Imperishable Flame, or his refusal later in the legendarium to leave the endless halls of his subterranean kingdom, Angband, “once beauty no longer inspires a sense of transcendence, a love for an other, it can only conduct one more deeply and despairingly into the chambers of the modern subject and its ‘horizons’, i.e., into the bad infinite of its ‘mirror halls’.”[2] At the risk of overstatement, there would seem to be a very limited yet important respect in which the Ainur’s Vision of the physical world in all its desirable otherness not only fulfills and surpasses the disinterested conceptuality of their Music, but in doing so possibly even saves them from it.

[1] Betz, “Beyond the Sublime,” 379.

[2] Ibid.

Tolkien’s Thomistic realism vs. modern idealism

Metaphysics of the Music, part 41

In the previous post I compared Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s “metaphysics of the Dream.” Also of interest here is the way Tolkien develops in his essay the implicit realism of fairy-stories—as Chesterton does the metaphysical “vision” of St. Thomas—in juxtaposition with the idealism of modern philosophy, a passage that more than one commentator has related back to Tolkien’s own unspoken Thomism. In saying that fairy-stories accomplish a “regaining of a clear view” of things, Tolkien explains that he does not necessarily mean “‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). Commenting on this passage, Paul Kocher has suggested that the “philosophers” Tolkien probably has in mind are “those of the idealist school from Berkeley down to our modern phenomenologists who, each in his own way, echo Coleridge’s dejection, ‘…we receive but what we give / And in our life alone does Nature live.’”[1] As Kocher goes on to argue, his assumed posture of reticence notwithstanding, Tolkien of course cannot and ultimately has no intention to “escape metaphysics,” and what is more, that the metaphysics behind Tolkien’s philosophy of fairy-stories is “best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas…”[2] More recently, however, Alison Milbank has commented on this same passage from Tolkien’s essay, this time explicitly contrasting the realist metaphysics common to St. Thomas, Maritain, Chesterton, and Tolkien, with the idealism of Kant in particular, and in the process introducing a further dimension to the problem represented by idealist metaphysics and its corresponding aesthetics:

The “things in themselves” to which Tolkien alludes are those elements of phenomena to which Kant, a critical idealist, believes we have no access, and to which he gives the term, “noumena.” Despite his apologetic tone, Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them. Maritain states that Kant’s mistake was in believing “that the act of knowing consists in creating the other, not in becoming the other, he foolishly reversed the order of dependence between the object of knowledge and the human intellect and made the human intellect the measure and law of the object.”[3]

[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 76-7.

[2] Ibid., 77.

[3] Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 19.

Chesterton on the “Dream” vs. the “Vision”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 40

In the last few posts I have been developing a possible parallel between the differences between the Music and the Vision of the Ainur, and the opposition Tolkien constructs between the Dream and the Fairy-Story in his essay. Like the Dream, the Ainur’s Music possessed a kind of “perfectly self-contained significance,” but did not clearly point to any reality beyond itself. Instead, the Ainur “knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” The Ainur’s Vision, by contrast, is more redolent of Tolkien’s remarks about fairy-stories in their suggestion of and eliciting of a desire for realities, worlds, and realms outside or beyond oneself. I’ve noted, furthermore, this same opposition between the Dream and true Art in Tolkien’s fellow 20th century Thomists Jacques Maritain and, under his direct influence, American novelist Flannery O’Connor.

It is in another reader of Maritain, however, that the most suggestive reference to the dream-image for our consideration of Tolkien appears. In his biography of St. Thomas, Chesterton writes:

That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream.[1]

Whether Tolkien ever read Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas is not known for sure, yet the antithesis Chesterton draws between the vision and the dream as metaphors for the opposition between the subjective idealism of much modern aesthetics and the metaphysical realism of Thomas’s aesthetics is certainly striking, and would seem to corroborate further my suggestion that behind the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and Vision is the Dream/fairy-story polarity of Tolkien’s essay.[2] In contrast to the Music, after all, the Ainur’s Vision illustrates Tolkien’s belief that fairy-stories tap into a “primal desire” inherent in human beings, namely that, whatever the reality might be, there at least should exist things other than ourselves. Where the question of desire is concerned, therefore, the Music would seem to be more akin to the Dream in the limited sense that in it the Ainur’s desire-for-the-other, if not exactly “cheated,” at least goes unrecognized, to say nothing of it being unrealized. The Music was certainly beautiful for its time, “unlocking strange powers” in the minds of the Ainur, yet the logic of the Ainulindalë is hard to mistake: had Ilúvatar followed the Vision, not with the creation of the actual, physical world, but instead with a repetition of the Music which had preceded it, the Ainur would have perceived its self-contained, disinterested beauty by comparison as a mere “figment or illusion,” i.e., as a dream.

[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 182-3.

[2] The sequencing of the publication of Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas in 1933, Tolkien’s Andrew Lang address “On Fairy-Stories” at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, and his revision of the Ainulindalë in the early 1950s to give the Vision (now named for the first time as such) a much more prominent place in the narrative (MR 24-6), is consistent at any rate with the possibility of Tolkien having read and been influenced by Chesterton’s biography.

Tolkienian Fairy-Story and Nietzschean Tragedy

Metaphysics of the Music, part 39

Tolkien’s critique of the dream-device in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” might be further compared with Nietzsche’s similar critique in The Birth of Tragedy of the dramatic prologue introduced by Euripides into ancient Greek tragedy. Similar to Tolkien’s remarks on the Dream, Nietzsche speaks of the Euripidean prologue as depriving man of the exercise of an human emotion or experience which he believes to be foundational to man’s being. For Nietzsche, of course, it is not the experience that Tolkien hungers for, namely the desire or hope that the imaginatively and marvelous worlds of Faërie should be made real, a hope that ends in joy in the metaphysical event of the Incarnation and Resurrection of Jesus. Rather, Nietzsche speaks of the tragic prologue as “interfering” with the audience’s pathos, passion, and “pleasurable absorption” in the tragic, Dionysian scenes being represented on the stage. With the introduction of the Euripidean prologue, “[s]o long as the spectator has to figure out the meaning of this or that person, or the presuppositions of this or that conflict of inclinations and purposes, he cannot become completely absorbed in the activities and sufferings of the chief characters or feel breathless pity and fear” (The Birth of Tragedy, trans. Kaufmann, 84). For both Tolkien and Nietzsche, the artistic experience is ultimately about man being reminded of and reconciled to the ultimate nature of things, of allowing ultimate reality, however conceived, to break into man’s routine existence and to revisit and revivify the ordinary with a sense of the extraordinary. It is this fundamental openness to a transcendent (in Tolkien’s case) or immanent/subterranean (in Nietzche’s) reality that the dream-device for Tolkien and the Euripidean prologue for Nietzsche work to impede.

Aquinas vs. Augustine on The Metaphysics of the Dream

Metaphysics of the Music, part 38

The previous post compared Tolkien’s rejection of the Dream as a legitimate framing device for the authentic fairy-story, with Jacques Maritain’s contrast between the lawlike character of genuine artistic inspiration and the dark unreason of dreams. Ironically, the negative associations of the dream-image for these two Thomists stands in opposition to the much more positive connotations it enjoys, for example, in the word’s first appearance in the Summa Theologiae. Using dream as an analogy for the redeemed human soul’s superior, post-mortem, disembodied, and hence abstract knowledge of God in his essence, Thomas writes:

the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and withdrawals from the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly. It is not possible, therefore, that the soul in this mortal life should be raised up to the uttermost of intelligible objects, that is, to the divine essence. (ST1.12.11)

For Augustine, however, and notwithstanding his own tendency to view the physical realm along the “tragic” lines he inherited from Neoplatonism, the dream was a metaphor for the diminished degree of reality things have in the mind in comparison to the reality they have in the real world: “everything that occurs in the spirit is not necessarily better than everything that occurs in the body. The true is better than the false. Thus a real tree is better than a tree in a dream, although a dream is in the mind” (De musica 6.7).

Music or Vision, Dream or Art

Metaphysics of the Music, part 37

This issue of desiring things for their otherness—conjured in the Vision but conspicuously absent, in retrospect, from the Music—may be further related to the literary distinction Tolkien draws in his essay between fairy-stories and what he calls the “Dream.” As Tolkien explains, the Dream and the fairy-story are alike in that in both “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” yet Tolkien says he would nevertheless strongly distinguish the two and “condemn” the Dream as

gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame… [I]f 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 Faërie: 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. (Tolkien Reader 41-2)

Tolkien’s argument concerning the dream-device is interesting on a number of levels, one of which is its link to other literary Thomists of his day for whom the dream symbolized the antithesis of true art. In Art and Scholasticism, Jacques Maritain had contrasted genuine artistic inspiration—defined along the Thomistic lines of “reason superelevated by an instinct of divine origin when it is a question of human works ruled according to a higher measure”—with the mere “seeking the law of the work… in dream and in the whole organic night below the level of reason…”[1] This concern, as we have just seen, Tolkien parallels in his point about how “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked” in dreams. Under the direct influence of Maritain, for American novelist and self-described “hill-billy Thomist” Flannery O’Connor, the dream-image was less a metaphor for a sub-rational and therefore illegitimate source of artistic inspiration, so much as a symbol of the artist’s temptation to impose his own alien purposes (whether rational or otherwise) onto the work of art, rather than letting the work’s own form come to the fore. As O’Connor explains to one correspondent to whom she had sent a copy of Art and Scholasticism: “Strangle that word dreams. You don’t dream up a form and put the truth in it. The truth creates its own form. Form is necessity in the work of art.”[2] Finally, John Milbank, in his essay-review of Rowan Williams’s Grace and Necessity, a study on Maritain’s influence on twentieth-century Catholic authors and writers such as O’Connor, has similarly touched on the specifically realist dimension of Tolkien’s fairy-story/dream antithesis when he comments on how “the metaphorical presence of one thing in another alien thing has to be related back to the distinctness of temporal and spatial finite realities if art is to exceed dream.”[3]

[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 183n101.

[2] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 218. In an earlier letter to the same correspondent, O’Connor had written: “The artist dreams no dreams. That is precisely what he does not do, as you very well know. Every dream is an obstruction to his work.” Ibid., 216.

[3] Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism and Modernity,” 656-7.

Trinitarian Neighbors, Neighborly Trinities

“our neighbor is an image of the Trinity, and, as an image of the Father, deserves our respect; as an image of the Son, our truthfulness; and as an image of the Holy Spirit, our love…” (Bonaventure, Breviloquium 5.9.5)

Ainur’s Vision: Desire for the Real

Metaphysics of the Music, part 36

The psychological consequence of the Vision’s implying a greater degree of being than the Music is that, more than merely calling the Ainur’s attention to an abstract or hypothetical possibility of the extra-mental, physical world it portrays, the Vision is also conspicuous in its eliciting in the Ainur the intense desire that this world should be made real, that it should be given the gift of its own independent act of existence. When the Vision is concluded, after all, the Ainur’s wish is not that the Vision–much less the Music–should be renewed, but rather that what they have seen in the Vision should be made real: “Then there was unrest among the Ainur; but Ilúvatar called to them, and said: ‘I know the desire of your minds that what ye have seen should verily be, not only in your thought, but even as ye yourselves are, and yet other…’” (Silmarillion 20). David Bentley Hart again captures rather precisely the tension between what I’m suggesting is the Kantian disinterest of the Music and the Thomistic desire for the real found in the Vision:

Beauty evokes desire… precedes and elicits desire, supplicates and commands it (often in vain), and gives shape to the will that receives it. Second, it is genuinely desire, and not some ideally disinterested and dispirited state of contemplation, that beauty both calls for and answers to: though not a coarse, impoverished desire to consume and dispose, but a desire made full at a distance, dwelling alongside what is loved and possessed in the intimacy of dispossession. Whereas for Kant, for instance, ‘interested’ desire figures as the negation of the aesthetic and the ethical alike, as incompatible with contemplative dispassion in the former case and with categorical obligation in the latter, for Christian thought desire—which includes interest—must be integral to both. It is the pleasingness of the other’s otherness, the goodness that God sees in creation, that wakes desire to what it must affirm and what it must not violate, and shows love the measure of charitable detachment that must temper its elations; it is only in desire that the beautiful is known and its invitation heard. Here Christian thought learns something, perhaps, of how the Trinitarian love of God—and the love God requires of creatures—is eros and agape at one: a desire for the other that delights in the distance of otherness. (The Beauty of the Infinite 19-20)

The Vision, in short, depicts a physical reality the realization or perfection of which necessarily requires that it be something more than a mere Vision. This means that, in their love for the things portrayed in the Vision, the Ainur necessarily have an interest or concern to see that the possibilities exhibited there should be given their full metaphysical due. The Ainur thus give expression to the same desire we find at play in St. Thomas’s metaphysics of beauty, namely that, as W. Norris Clarke has put it, “[w]hat we really desire when we desire a possible being is its actuality, not its possibility” (“What is Really Real?” 82).

Vision of the Ainur: From Form to Being

Metaphysics of the Music, part 35

To return to our discussion of the Ainur’s Vision, we see, then, that there is an orientation towards the other, an intentionality, in other words, that was absent in the Music but is present in the Vision. It is through this other-directedness of the Vision that the Ainur are pointed away from their own minds and the comparatively pure conceptuality of the Music and challenged with the prospect of a reality whose intractable physicality cannot be reduced to the formal properties of the aesthetic presentation alone.[1] Thus, if the Music in its comparative abstractness should resemble St. Thomas’s account of mathematics, to continue the analogy, we might compare the Vision—as Tolkien himself indirectly does in the figure of Bombadil—to natural science, whose intelligible forms, we recall, abstract from individual matter while retaining an intentional or notional reference to the kind of matter out of which natural substances are actually made. As Robert Collins has put it in an apt application of the Aristotelian terminology of Boethius and Aquinas, “[w]hereas the music had established an abstract pattern, the vision had indicated the nature of Ilúvatar’s translation of form to matter…”[2] This “translation of form to matter” anticipated in the Vision but not in the Music, moreover, far from involving a tragic “fall” of ideal form into matter, implies rather the future realization, perfection, or actualization of those forms in and through the material substances which they are the forms of.[3] Thus, in the Vision we see the comparative “disinterest” of the Music transcended by a new kind of form that is not indifferent to, but is intentionally oriented towards the real, mind-independent and material realization through which the actual existence of these realities must ultimately have its being. Much as the Music represents a state of potency with respect to its corresponding actuality in the Vision, so the later, physical world is the actuality with respect to which the Vision is merely the corresponding state of potency. In either case the Ainulindalë portrays not the tragic motion from a higher existence and actuality to a lower, but dramatizes in a temporal fashion the otherwise logical relationship of the comic and Thomistic trajectory from intelligible potency to existing actuality.

[1] Thus the Ainur’s Vision would seem to embody what Maritain argues on Thomistic grounds to be one of the essential elements of all imitative art: “art as ordered to beauty refuses—at least when its object permits it—to stop at forms or colors, or sounds or words grasped in themselves and as things (they must first be grasped in this manner—that is the first condition), but it grasps them also as making known something other than themselves, that is to say, as signs. … [T]he more the object of art is laden with signification…, the greater and richer and higher will be the possibility of delight and beauty. The beauty of a painting or a statue is thus incomparably richer than the beauty of a carpet, a Venetia glass, or an amphora. It is in this sense that Painting, Sculpture, Poetry, Music, and even the Dance, are imitative arts, that is, arts which effect the beauty of the work and procure the delight of the soul by making use of imitation, or by rendering, through certain sensible signs, something other than these signs spontaneously present to the spirit.” Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 55.

[2] Collins, “‘Ainulindalë’: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology,” 261.

[3] Or, as Flieger puts it using similarly scholastic terminology, “the Music is not the physical act of creation, but only its blueprint. It is the pattern for the world in potentia.” Flieger, Splintered Light, 58.

Bombadil contra Kant, Otherness vs. Disinterest

Metaphysics of the Music, part 34

The delight in the otherness of things which comes to the fore in the Vision of the Ainur is also identified as a defining feature of the Elves, the “Children of Ilúvatar,” as when Tolkien describes them in one place in terms of their “devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’—sc. as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform. They also possess a ‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence” (Letters 236). As in the case of the Ainur and their Music, here too Tolkien recognizes the importance of appreciating the beauty of a thing for its own sake and without reference to one’s own needs, “purposes,” or “use,” yet for Tolkien the freedom or autonomy of the aesthetic object is achieved in a way quite distinct from and even opposed to the aesthetic disinterest demanded by Kant. For Tolkien’s Elves, like the Ainur, their love for things other than themselves is not in spite of their intractable otherness, but precisely on account of it, “as a reality derived from God in the same degree as themselves—not as a material for use or as a power-platform.”[1] The affirmation of the existence of one’s other is not a threat to the “disinterested” appreciation of the object, but is rather the necessary condition for such an appreciation. This point receives particular emphasis in our final illustration of the Tolkienian theme of the love of otherness, the character of Tom Bombadil, who is described by Tolkien as “an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original). Bombadil is an “allegory” of “pure (real) natural science,” by which Tolkien evidently does not mean the modern, Baconian and Kantian instrument for the domination or mastery of nature, but something more akin to the Aristotelian theoretical science of Boethius and Aquinas—a contemplative rather than utilitarian knowledge of the natural world for its own sake and thus “entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge.”[2]

[1] Thomas Hibbs, incidentally, comes close to making the same point in a different context when contrasting Tolkien’s and Kant’s respective approaches to ethics: “For all his stress on freedom and duty, Tolkien does not operate with a Kantian dichotomy between autonomy and heteronomy; indeed, certain forms of autonomy signal the vice of pride. In place of Kant’s isolated individual will, which in order to be free must turn from God, nature, and society, Tolkien gives us characters who can only understand themselves and their duties by seeing themselves as parts of larger wholes, as members of nations and races, as participants in alliances and friendships for the good, and ultimately as part of a natural cosmos.” Hibbs, “Providence and the Dramatic Unity of The Lord of the Rings,” 173.

[2] Tolkien elaborates on the proximity of his childhood interest in fairy-stories on the one hand and nature on the other in the following endnote to his essay: “I was introduced to zoology and palaeontology (‘for children’) quite as early as to Faërie. I was keenly alive to the beauty of ‘Real’ things,’ but it seemed to me quibbling to confuse this with the wonder of ‘Other things.’ I was eager to study Nature, actually more eager than I was to read most fairy-stories; but I did not want to be quibbled into Science and cheated out of Faërie by people who seemed to assume that by some kind of original sin I should prefer fairy-tales, but according to some kind of new religion I ought to be induced to like science. Nature is no doubt a life-study, or a study for eternity (for those so gifted); but there is a part of man which is not ‘Nature,’ and which therefore is not obliged to study it, and is, in fact, wholly unsatisfied by it” (Tolkien Reader 94-5).

Otherness of the Vision

Metaphysics of the Music, part 33

Tolkien’s measured agreement with Kant notwithstanding, it is exactly this initial stance of existential disinterest or indifference found in the Ainur’s Music that finds itself radically transcended in the surpassing beauty of the Vision. While it is through their Music that the Ainur gradually come into greater contact and communion with each other, it is only in the Vision that they are for the first time confronted with the startling awareness of the possibility of things “other than themselves, strange and free” (Silmarillion 18). This theme of otherness, touched on previously, is another central theme in Tolkien’s writings and one that has its roots in the metaphysical realism of St. Thomas, as Alison Milbank, for example, has pointed out.[1] Nor are the Ainur by any means the only species in Tolkien’s mythical world to be defined in terms of this fundamental orientation towards things other. As I have argued previously, the theme of otherness is embodied at the very deepest and highest level of Tolkien’s fictional reality in the proto-Trinitarian theology of Middle-earth: the reason God creates things other than himself is because the Creator in a very real sense is already an other to himself. And as St. Thomas argues, because the Creator is a lover of otherness by his own nature, it follows that those who have been specially created after his image will be similarly marked by this heavenly desire for the existence of things other than oneself. This principle is perhaps brought home most dramatically in Tolkien’s fiction through the Valar Aulë, in whose desire to fashion the Dwarves (notwithstanding its folly and futility) there is an excellent expression of the aforementioned, Thomistic principle that creaturely likeness to divine goodness requires a “plurality and inequality” of creatures in which higher beings, in imitation of God, might communicate to others the goodness they have received from him. As Aulë repentantly explains to Ilúvatar his motive in trying to fashion the Dwarves,

I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou has caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. (S 43)

[1] “There is one further element in this metaphysics [of Chesterton and St. Thomas] that we need in order to understand Tolkien’s philosophy… [T]he element I would stress is the otherness or objectivity of things. Only through the reality of the world can the mind, according to Thomas, reach out to otherness and become the object. As Maritain writes, ‘it is in its totality reaching out towards the object, towards the other as other; it needs the dominating contact of the object, but only that it may be enriched by it… fertilized by being, rightly subjected to the real’. To sum up, Aquinas, according to Chesterton, teaches ‘the reality of things, the mutability of things, the diversity of things’… [T]his is a philosophy that can be found at every level of Tolkien’s fictional project… The world Tolkien invents is, of course, fictional, but it is famously realistic in its density and completeness of realization… To invent a world at all, as fantasy writers continue to do, is to commit to metaphysics… For the fantasy writer not only mimics the divine act of creation but he or she, by creating a self-consistent, independent world also witnesses to the existence of an Is: to Ens.” Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians: The Fantasy of the Real, 17-18.

Jesus Christ, Natural Philosopher and Renaissance Man

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 9

The quest for and “re-birth” of ancient wisdom and learning during the Renaissance was driven by a desire for the kind of knowledge of and insight into the world that Adam was believed to have possessed prior to the Fall, but which he lost through his sin against God. The idea that Adam possessed a thorough scientific knowledge of the natural world, however, was of medieval origin, as may be seen, for example, in Bonaventure’s characterization of the knowledge had “according to an integral human nature, as Adam had [before the fall]; by virtue of this he knew all things related to the structure of the universe” (Breviloquium 4.6.1). For Bonaventure, however, the lost knowledge of Adam had already been recovered, in principle, in the Second Adam, the Lord Jesus Christ, who “understood everything that has to do with the organization of the material universe, much more fully than did Adam” (4.6.7). The Incarnation, in other words,was the Renaissance, the (re)birth of divine Wisdom itself.

Ainur’s Music: Abstract Form and Kantian Indifference

Metaphysics of the Music, part 31

Behind each of these respects in which the Vision surpasses the Music, however, is the ultimately metaphysical consideration that the Vision simply implicates a greater degree of reality or being. In contrast to the Vision, as we shall see, the Ainur are represented as having enjoyed the Music for its own sake, not knowing “that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” Through the Ainur’s Music, accordingly, Tolkien dramatizes the kind of “perfect self-contained significance” and “inner consistency of reality” which he attributes in his essay to the true fairy-story, qualities I have already suggested to embody a literary application of Thomas’s aesthetic principle of the integrity or wholeness in the work of art. However, unlike the fairy-stories of his essay, one of whose functions (to be discussed later) is also to direct the individual’s attention back towards reality, to what exists, the Ainur’s Music does not suggest to them before the fact any existential claims or possibilities beyond itself (much less does it creatively or productively render those possibilities actual). (As Houghton observes, for example, of the Children of Ilúvatar, in the Music “the Ainur had had no hint of their existence until they saw the vision.” Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 178.) In one letter Tolkien instead describes the Ainur’s Music as a mere “abstract form” (Letters 284), a quality which may bring to mind Thomas’s analysis of music as an incidentally physical embodiment of otherwise ideal, mathematical harmonies or proportions. As with Thomas’s theory of music, moreover, the Ainur’s Music likewise seems to imply on their part a kind of Kantian “disinterest,” inasmuch as the Ainur are represented as having enjoyed their Music while it lasted purely on its own terms and in a kind of stoic oblivion to the possibility of their subordinating their Music to some ulterior, utilitarian “purpose beyond its own beauty”—a concern, moreover, amply justified in the exceedingly “interested” stance of Melkor, who, failing to enjoy the Music at a disinterested distance, sought rather to bring into being the thoughts of his imagination so that he might exercise dominion over them.

What Does the Time of Night Smell Like?

“[Gollum] listened and sniffed, which seemed, as they had noticed before, his usual method of discovering the time of night.” (“Journey to the Cross-roads,” The Two Towers)

Vision of the Ainur: Integritas, Consonantia, Claritas

Metaphysics of the Music, part 30

Adding to the Vision’s theological and theodical superiority over the Music is its comparative aesthetic excellence, a point brought home in the Vision when Ilúvatar explains to Ulmo, the Ainur who later assumes dominion over the sea, that the “bitter cold immoderate” caused by Melkor has not in fact destroyed “the beauty of [Ulmo’s] fountains, nor of [his] clear pools,” but has instead managed only to contribute to “the height and glory of the clouds,” “the everchanging mists,” and “the fall of rain upon the Earth.” To this disclosure Ulmo responds with appropriate awe: “Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain” (Silmarillion 19, emphasis added). To frame the difference in the aesthetic categories of St. Thomas, the essential visual character of the Vision, “giving sight where before was only hearing,” means that to the integrity and proportionality or harmony of the Music, the Vision adds the further aesthetic property of clarity or splendor, the radiance of created form. (For an application, incidentally, of Thomas’s three qualities of beauty of integrity, proportion, and clarity to the art of the Elves, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 23-4.)

Augustine’s “Sin of Angelism”

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 8

The twentieth-century Thomist Jacques Maritain famously accused Descartes of being guilty of the “sin of angelism”: in thinking that man was essentially a thinking thing that needed no body to exist or to carry out its activity of thought, Descartes mistook the specifically angelic psychology for the human one.

Maritain, however, wasn’t the first to indict someone of angelism: Bonaventure beat him to the punch, and his target was Augustine. Having made his case why it was fitting that God should have created the world over six days, namely to display his Trinitarian attributes of divine power, wisdom, and benevolence, Bonaventure says that,

if from another point of view, it is said that all things were made at once, this is simply considering the work of the seven days from the perspective of the angels. At any rate, the first manner of speaking (i.e., creation over six days) is more in keeping with the Scripture and with the authority of the saints, both those before and after Saint Augustine. (Breviloquium 2.2.5)

In privileging a non-successive, instantaneous creation over one accomplished over the Scriptural six days, Augustine was assuming an angelic rather than a properly human perspective on creation.

Hexameral Omnipotence: Augustine vs. Bonaventure

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 6

Augustine, based on a bad Latin translation of a (compared to Genesis) sub-authoritative text (Ecclesiasticus 18:1), taught not only that God created all things simultaneously, but that this manner of creation was in fact more in keeping with divine power. As he writes in his Literal Commentary on Genesis (4.33), “For this power of Divine Wisdom does not reach by stages or arrive by steps.”

For Bonaventure, by contrast, it is rather God’s act of creating over six days that better displays his power, because in doing so, he also displays his wisdom and goodness. He writes:

Now God could have done all of these things simultaneously, but preferred to accomplish them over a succession of times. First of all, this would serve as a clear and distinct manifestation of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness.

As yesterday’s post pointed out, these attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness are “appropriated” by the three persons of the Trinity. This overstates matters, but there is a sense in which, from a Bonaventurean point of view, the Augustinian doctrine of simultaneous creation is monistic: it is all power without wisdom and goodness, all Father without Son and Spirit.

Bonaventure’s Trinitarian Hexameron

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 5

According to Bonaventure, why did God bring physical nature into existence over the course of six days? Because of the Trinity, of course. Here’s how he correlates the two:

Because all things flow from the first and most perfect Principle, who is omnipotent, all wise, and all-beneficent, it was most fitting that they should come into being in such a way that their very production might might reflect these same three attributes or perfections. Therefore, the divine operations that fashioned the world machine was three-fold: creation, particularly reflecting omnipotence; distinction, reflecting wisdom; and embellishment reflecting unbounded goodness. (Breviloquium 2.2.2)

God’s power, he goes on to explain, was exhibited in God’s bringing the world into being from nothing “before any day,” his wisdom in his work of distinction over the first three days, and his goodness in his work of embellishment or adornment in the second three days. As he had argued earlier, these three attributes of omnipotence, wisdom, and goodness are “appropriated” by the persons of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. So, in creating the world in six days, God displayed the Trinity.

Musical Theodicy

Metaphysics of the Music, part 29

We’ve been considering Tolkien’s image of the Music of the Ainur as a powerful perspective on the problem of evil. In a discussion that could almost be a direct commentary on Tolkien’s Ainulindale, David Bentley Hart develops the metaphor of music as it answers the question of theodicy:

For Christian thought… true distance is given in an event, a motion, that is transcendent… it even makes space for the possibilities of discord, while also always providing, out of its analogical bounty, ways of return, of unwinding the coils of sin, of healing the wounds of violence (the Holy Spirit is a supremely inventive composer)… Within such an infinite, the Spirit’s power to redeem discordant lines is one not of higher resolution but of reorientation, a restoration of each line’s scope of harmonic openness to every other line. It is the promise of Christian faith that, eschatologically, the music of all creation will be restored not as a totality in which all the discords of evil necessarily participated, but as an accomplished harmony from which all such discords, along with their false profundities, have been exorcised by way of innumerable ‘tonal’ (or pneumatological) reconciliations. This is the sense in which theology should continue to speak of the world in terms of a harmonia mundi, musica mundana, or the song of creation.” Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 280-1.