Why every creature causes ex nihilo

In both his theory and his art, Tolkien probed the metaphysical and artistic possibilities–and also the limits–of finite, creaturely making. As I’ve noted here before, one traditional limit Tolkien took for granted, one that he shared, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas, is the fact that only God has the power to create ex nihilo. We can sub-create, but only God can create. While St. Anselm would doubtlessly concur with this tradition on the essentials, there is nevertheless a sense for him in which God’s rational creatures–and really every creaturely cause–is responsible for making “ex nihilo.” In his explanation of the meaning of God’s making things “from nothing,” Anselm argues by analogy from the way creatures themselves bring things into being “from nothing”:

when we observe a man of very meager means who has been elevated by a second man to great wealth or honor, we say “The second man made the first man from nothing,” or “The first man was made from nothing by the second man.” That is, the first man, who formerly was regarded as nothing, is now esteemed as truly something because of the making of the second man. (Monol. 8, Hopkins trans.)

When a benefactor brings a man from obscurity into a state of wealth or honor, he makes him to be something from nothing, not, to be sure, and as Aquinas might have put it, from nothing absolutely considered, but from a particular kind of nothing, from being nothing in a specific respect (namely with respect to wealth or status). And such is the case, we might say, with every cause: in bringing into being their effects, they cause to be those things which formerly were not. It is from these limited instances of making-from-nothing, finally, that Anselm reasons to the meaning of God’s own act of creating from nothing, in his case, not the limited nothings with which we are familiar, but from the absolute non-being that, admittedly, God alone has the power to overcome. (Aquinas, incidentally, reasons in a similar fashion for the conclusion that God creates ex nihilo in the Summa: every causal “emanation” presupposes the absence of that which is emanated; thus man is emanated from what is non-man, and something white can only emanate from that which was formerly non-white; as God’s act of creation involves the “emanation” of being itself, creation must be from its opposite, namely non-being or nothing–ST 1.45.1.) Instead of the binary logic of an intractable dualism, accordingly, in which divine making–which alone is from nothing–is defined in ontic opposition to creaturely making–which is always from something and never from nothing, what Anselm here indicates is an analogical relationship according to which God creates ex nihilo, and we to varying degrees participate in his creative activity by bringing about that which is from that which it formerly was not. God’s creating ex nihilo is not so much the othering limit to our own making as it is the possibility and source of our own making ex nihilo.

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