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.

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