The Means Justify the Ends: Ilúvatar’s Reverse Pragmatism

In the story “Of Aulë and Yavanna,” when Aulë’s ill-formed dwarves are graciously given “a life of their own” by Ilúvatar, Aulë asks Ilúvatar at that point to “bless [his] work and amend it.” Ilúvatar, however, does not do so, and his response accords, I think, with an actualist theology according to which what is possible depends on what is already actual, and in which “means” are more than the mere instrument to their respective “ends.”

But Ilúvatar spoke again and said: ‘Even as I gave being to the thoughts of the Ainur at the beginning of the World, so now I have taken up thy desire and given to it a place therein; but in no other other way will I amend thy handiwork, and as thou hast made it, so shall it be.

Aulë’s request, in other words, is that Ilúvatar should correct his sub-creations by effectively turning his Dwarves back into Elves or Men, the “Children of Ilúvatar,” thereby undoing his own sub-creative alterations and aberrations and restoring the original pristine plan of Ilúvatar. Remarkably, Ilúvatar declines to answer this request, and in general seems shockingly far less concerned for the dignity of his own “original” purposes than Aulë is. Far from requiring that Aulë’s “handiwork” be suppressed for the sake of his own original design, it is Ilúvatar who insists that it is his own design that must now be “altered” to accommodate Aulë’s sub-creative additions, including all their short-comings. As Ilúvatar puts it, he has “taken up [Aulë’s] desire and given to it a place” in his own, newly revised plan.

Of course, the sovereignty of Ilúvatar in The Silmarillion is such that there can’t be any real question about any of this taking Ilúvatar by surprise, or that this whole scene isn’t in some sense from the very beginning the outworking of an even greater, “master plan,” as we call it. As I was explaining to a friend recently, the fact that God sometimes has to resort to “plan B” in departure from plan A, is itself part of a more ultimate plan (call it “plan A-prime”). Yet far from this master plan involving a fatalistic achievement of a predestined end irrespective of the means, we see that the true master plan is one that achieves its end precisely in and through and therefore with its specific means, means which themselves might nevertheless involve a departure or corruption from a prior plan. Or put differently, the true master plan is one where the means themselves–of how a thing is achieved–is itself elevated virtually to the level of an end. Pragmatism is the philosophy that “the end justifies the means.” In Iluvatar we get a kind of reverse pragmatism, in which it is also the means that justifies the end, for some means are no mere instrument to a given end, but are the very meaning and exclusive possibility of certain ends.

Advertisements

Does a Phoenix Have an Essence?

In a well-known passage from his little metaphysical treatise On Being and Essence, Aquinas illustrates his famous essence-existence distinction with the example of a fictional creature, the phoenix: 

For all that does not belong to the concept of the essence or quiddity, is coming to it from the outside and makes a composition with the essence, because no essence can be understood without those things which are the parts of the essence. But every essence or quiddity can be understood without something being understood about its being; for I can understand what a man is or a phoenix, and still not know whether it has being in reality. Therefore, it is manifest that being is something different from essence or quiddity.

In short, I can know what a phoenix is (i.e., its essence) without knowing whether or that a phoenix is (i.e., its actual existence).

This argument has bothered me for a couple of years, and for a couple of distinct but related reasons. The first has to do with Aquinas’s own thought, and the second having to do with Tolkien. First, Aquinas’s argument about the phoenix has never struck me as consistent with Aquinas’s otherwise metaphysical realism and existentialism (with its adherence to the primacy of the real and the actual), but seems to have more in common with the essentialism of Avicenna. To say that I can know the essence of something in isolation from the question of its actual existence is to insinuate that I somehow have an access to the nature of things that bypasses their existence and my experience of that existence. In brief, it makes the intellectual apprehension or understanding of a thing’s essence to be “existence-optional” (which is on its way to making the essences of the things themselves to be “existence-optional”).

A second concern is a Tolkienian one, which is that the parity of man and phoenix in Aquinas’s above illustration overlooks the obvious fact that one of these is an essence created by God whereas the other is a fictional “essence” sub-created by man. And if its “essence” is of a sub-created being, then it stands to reason that its existence can only be a sub-creative existence.

Elvish modal metaphysics: no possible worlds?

“they [the elves] hold that all Creation of any sort must be in Eä [the actual, existing universe], proceeding from Eru in the same way, and therefore being of the same Order. They do not believe in contemporaneous non-contiguous worlds except as an amusing fantasy of the mind. They are (say they) either altogether unknowable, even as to whether they are or are not, or else if there are any intersections (however rare) they are only provinces of one Eä” (Morgoth’s Ring 252)

Does this mean that there are no possible, alternate worlds at all, or just that there are no actual worlds that are not already “contiguous” with, and hence part of, this world? Compare this with St. Thomas:

The very order of things created by God shows the unity of the world. For this world is called one by the unity of order, whereby some things are ordered to others. But whatever things come from God, have relation of order to each other, and to God Himself, as shown above (Q[11], A[3]; Q[21], A[1]). Hence it must be that all things should belong to one world. Therefore those only can assert that many worlds exist who do not acknowledge any ordaining wisdom, but rather believe in chance, as Democritus, who said that this world, besides an infinite number of other worlds, was made from a casual concourse of atoms. (ST 1.47.3)

Tolkien: “Re-Mythologizing” Aquinas

Metaphysics of Faerie, Conclusion (finale)

The question I’ve posed is, “What, if anything, does J.R.R. Tolkien have to offer St. Thomas Aquinas?” Might Tolkien help us also recover the kind of metaphysical insight possessed by St. Thomas?

John Houghton, in his article on Augustine and Tolkien, has made the point that there are in fact “two moments in the task of theology.” On the one hand, the theologian must “de-mythologize,” and so render intelligible to his audience, the meaning of divine revelation or sacred scripture by explaining it in terms of what they already know.[1] It is this first task of theology with which St. Thomas was primarily involved, translating, as I’ve suggested before, the mythos of biblical revelation into the logos of Aristotle and the veritable vernacular of late medieval scholasticism. “On the other hand,” Houghton continues, “the theologian faces the task of recovery, of restoring the power of images and stories that have grown weak from cultural change or from mere familiarity. In this sense the theologian’s task is not demythologizing but mythopoesis as… ‘re-mythologizing’…”[2] As we have seen, it is this second task of the theologian to which Tolkien devoted himself and his work. What I am suggesting here is that the world Tolkien “re-mythologizes” is not simply the world of bare, ordinary experience, now become mundane or trite through our constant exposure to and consequent familiarity with it, but includes the specifically religious, theological, and philosophical world he had inherited from his own Catholic intellectual tradition, and yet which had also become truly quaint—when not outright despised—in the eyes of his modern audience. In short, where St. Thomas translated the biblical mythos into the logos of Aristotle, what Tolkien represents in part is an effort to retransplant the Thomistic logos back into its original, mythic soil from which it first took root. As Tolkien himself writes, “[n]aturally the stories come first.” St. Thomas himself, in the opening question of his Summa, points out the important role that the poetic structure of metaphor (the stuff of myth), for example, plays in the science of sacred theology: since it belongs to the nature of human knowledge to begin in the senses, it is “befitting” that spiritual truths should be communicated through sensible images such as metaphor, and this not for the benefit of the simple-minded only, inasmuch as the “very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds” as well (ST 1.1.9 corpus and ad 2).[3] Rational science, in other words, takes as its starting point, and thus is in a dependent relationship upon, the senses and therefore upon metaphor, much as Thomas’s own metaphysics had its roots in biblical mythology. As Louis Dupré has aptly generalized upon the relationship between religion, mythology, and poetry on the one hand and philosophy and metaphysics on the other,

Religious believers deepen their faith through metaphysics, while at the same time keeping the metaphysical flame alive…. Metaphysics has risen from mythology and religion. Without a religious sense of wonder the philosopher is rarely inclined to raise the question of Being in its totality, against the horizon of emptiness…. Today it is among poets, rather than philosophers, that we most commonly find the sense of wonder from which metaphysics springs.[4]

Dupré’s image of the religious and mythic sensibility as keeping the “flame” of metaphysical rationality alive is a felicitous one, for it is of course the same image of a kindling fire that Tolkien in the Ainulindalë uses to describe that unique and all-important event of the Creator, who is Being itself, giving the gift of being to his creatures, and from which this research project has accordingly taken its title. It is precisely the opacity—or rather, the super-luminosity—of such images that, in retaining the mythic and numinous character of reality, helps enliven the mind in the first place to that rational enterprise we call metaphysics, to inspire the mind, that is, to investigate the world insofar as it can be known. It takes a fascinating world, and an equally fascinating mind, to foment the kind of system of thought created by St. Thomas. But it must also be said that it takes an equally imaginative and ingenious mind to render that system of thought of enduring interest, accessibility, and relevance, especially to the modern mind which has grown impatient with such lofty and seemingly impractical matters. This is why, for example, introductions to St. Thomas such as Chesterton’s biography have proven so important for the study of St. Thomas, and why, finally, I would like to suggest Tolkien too could prove to be important for St. Thomas as well. Thomistic philosophy gives us a rational account of the biblical creation narrative, translating, as I have said, the biblical mythos into the language of philosophical logos. Tolkien offers an implicit validation of Thomas’s project by translating the creation metaphysics of Christian philosophy back into the mythic mode. By comparing Thomas and Tolkien, I hope to have shown indirectly that, through his concrete and mythic imagery, what Tolkien gives us is not one more dialectical treatise arguing that faith and philosophy have met and mythos and logos have kissed, but a radically fresh vision of the world in which we might see and experience how these things are so. In this manner, my hope in the end is to be able to commend not only the philosophical insights of St. Thomas, whether discovered or simply preserved by him, as a profoundly helpful guide in plumbing the depths of Tolkien’s metaphysical thought, but conversely to be able to commend Tolkien’s literary achievement, given its extraordinary popularity and influence, as an important and altogether unique landmark in the history of Thomism, offering us a creative and powerful contemporary interpretation and application of Thomistic metaphysics for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the myths and metaphors of Tolkien, in sum, we have the hidden truths of St. Thomas “useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.”

THE END


[1] Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmology,” 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] As Owen Barfield, whose views on the interrelationship between language and reality were influential on Tolkien, comments on Aquinas, he “and others after him, emphasized the importance of using the humblest and most banal images, as symbols for purely spiritual truths or beings. For only in this way could a representation be safely polarized into symbol and symbolized, into literal and metaphorical.” Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, 74.

[4] Louis Dupré, “Belief and Metaphysics,” 10.

Tolkien’s Thomistic Metaphysics in Overview

Metaphysics of Fairie, Conclusion (part 1)

After something like a year-and-a-half of whittling away at it, I recently finished blogging through the five chapters of my doctoral dissertation. The following series of posts is from my conclusion.

The argument has been that, behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast and vastly popular mythology of Middle-earth–giving his world a philosophical cogency and sophistication not often recognized, and certainly not typically associated with the fantasy or science-fiction genre—lies the influential metaphysical thought of Tolkien’s great Catholic forbear, St. Thomas Aquinas. Structuring my discussion around Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, I have attempted not simply to analyze Tolkien’s fiction in light of, but also to show how his fiction purposefully incarnates such important Thomistic themes as the relationship between faith and reason; the being, attributes, and persons of the divine Creator; the simultaneous realism or mind-independence and yet inherent intelligibility of all created being; the realization or fulfillment of intelligible form or essence in and through a thing’s real act of existence; the dependence of artistic sub- or “con”-creation on the Creator’s prior, exclusive act of creation; the anthropological significance of angels; and the metaphysics of evil.

At the same time, my purpose has also been to suggest that, far from Tolkien’s metaphysics being necessarily reducible to St. Thomas’s, the nature of Tolkien’s Thomism often lies as much in his creative departures from or innovations upon the thought of the angelic doctor as it does in his overt debt to it. Although Tolkien never mentions St. Thomas by name, the influence of St. Thomas on the Catholic culture, thought, and art of Tolkien’s generation was nigh inescapable, especially for someone attempting to sub-create an alternative world of the philosophical complexity and magnitude of Tolkien’s. The way in which I have conceived Thomas’s influence on Tolkien, accordingly, has been in terms of his providing the latter with an inherited, trustworthy, yet always tacitly assumed intellectual point of reference by which Tolkien might both the more effectively determine what was metaphysically necessary, and within those parameters the more keenly to discern what was metaphysically and therefore sub-creatively possible. Thus, I’ve argued how Tolkien’s otherwise Thomistic metaphysical theism was (paradoxically) what also allowed his mythology to be fundamentally “about God” even when it scarcely bothered to mention him. We saw further how Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, while presupposing the traditional, orthodox view of divine presence and providence defended by St. Thomas, also requires for its full aesthetic and emotional effect a kind of provisional “forgetting” of the Creator and almost despairing of hope, conditions which set the stage for that special “miraculous” act of divine intervention whereby both the reader and the characters are powerfully reminded that, though God may be “never named,” he is also the one who is “never absent.” We saw how Tolkien similarly presupposes a Thomistic conception of divine and creational possibility to articulate a theory of sub-creative freedom or autonomy and creaturely contingency that is customarily associated with the theological voluntarism and counter-factual speculation of a William of Ockham rather than with the comparatively more reserved theology of Aquinas. We saw how Tolkien stresses the Thomistic insight as to the metaphysical primacy of the act of existence, not by putting the world in its created existence at the beginning of his creation-myth, but precisely by postponing the divine gift of being until the eschatological climax at the end. We have witnessed Tolkien at perhaps his metaphysical boldest in his postulation of reincarnating Elves and incarnate, “demiurgic” angels, again, entities which would seem to defy the comparative sobriety of St. Thomas’s hierarchy of being on the one hand and yet whose own structure, on the other hand, seems to presuppose the very logic of Thomas’s hierarchy. Finally, I argued that, more than simply favoring the traditional, Augustinian and Thomistic view of evil as relative form of non-being, Tolkien in fact utilizes his Thomistic metaphysics of creation not so much to contradict as to sublate the Manichaean insight into the (apparent) independence and radical power of evil. What we see in each of these cases, I think, is less an uncritical adoption of Thomistic ideas, but as one would expect of someone of Tolkien’s genius and originality, a creative appropriation and adaptation of Thomas’s thought for his own literary purposes.

(to be continued…)

Ainulindale as (Proto)Evangelion

Metaphysics of the Music, part 46 (conclusion)

In summary, then, we see that the fundamental movement of the Ainulindalë from the world as it exists in the Ainur’s Music and Vision to the world as it exists in its own created right, is hardly the Neoplatonic, emanationist story of a gradual, metaphysical decay or demise, but is the same comic, or rather “eucatstrophic” pattern which Tolkien, following St. Thomas, saw as constituting the being of our own world. In its representation of the Ainur’s own “fairy-story” being gifted with the “fulfillment of Creation,” as well as its prophecy of a day when Ilúvatar will give the thoughts of his children the “secret fire” so that they shall “take Being in the moment of their utterance,” we realize that for Tolkien the Ainulindalë is as much a mythical retelling and foreshadowing of the Christian story of salvation, or re-creation, as it is a rehearsal of the original story of creation itself. In Tolkien’s hands the creation event itself has become a kind of protoevangelion: if the Music is a beautiful, yet abstract, metaphysically disinterested “Dream,” and the Vision a desire-inducing “fairy-story,” then the sublime, concept-defying joy of the Ainur in response to the creation of the actual world reveals the latter as nothing less than an image of the Gospel. With the angelic doctor and over against the essentialism and idealism of much Greek and modern thought, Tolkien shares the metaphysical insight that a thing in its act of existence enjoys a higher status in the order of being—and as the Ainur exemplify, a consequent higher status in the order of desirability—than what a thing’s essence, form, or concept alone provides, precisely because the act of existence is what completes or perfects that essence. The move from Music to Vision to Reality, from intelligible or conceived essence to existing, mind-independent reality, is metaphysically speaking not a tragedy, but a eucatastrophe, not a Fall, but a Fulfillment. Through his Thomistic creation-myth Tolkien thus portrays the real existence or being of things as a surpassing and gratuitous gift, anticipated in but never necessitated by their forms or essences alone, hoped for in the promising and received with joy in the giving, a gift freely given by a good, all-powerful, personal God who himself must transcend all conceptuality because he is Being itself.

From Fairy-Story to Evangelion

Metaphysics of the Music, part 45

As I think the passages cited in the previous post repeatedly demonstrate, the fundamental dialectic of Tolkien’s understanding of creation, at least as he depicts it in the Ainulindalë, consists in this progression from the mere mind-dependent, thought-existence the world enjoys in the Ainur’s Music and Vision, to the “realized” or “achieved” existence the world later receives in its own ontological right. In other words, through the Ainulindalë Tolkien dramatizes mythically much the same principle that some have identified as the heart of the existential realism of St. Thomas Aquinas. Because it is not the mere form, essence, or intelligibility of a thing, but its real-world existence that represents the “actuality of all acts and the perfection of all perfections,” there is a respect in which even for the divine mind things have something more in them and therefore exist “more truly” (esse verius habent) in themselves than they do in the mind alone.

As it turns out, however, this Thomistic, metaphysical dialectic at the center of the Ainulindalë is none other than the same tension Tolkien identifies in his essay “On Fairy-Stories” as being at play in our own world and history. I have commented at length before on Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, the “sudden joyous ‘turn’” and “miraculous grace” of the happy ending which he holds to be essential to all “true fairy-stories.” Yet as Tolkien explains in the epilogue to his essay, the ultimate significance of these eucatastrophic moments is not limited to the highly desirable emotional or psychological effect it has on the reader, but in the fact that in them we are treated to a “sudden glimpse of the underlying reality or truth” of the world:

But in the “eucatastrophe” we see in a brief vision that the answer may be greater—it may be a far-off gleam or echo of evangelium in the real world… God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature. The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy. (TR 88-9)

According to Tolkien, in the Christian Gospel of the Incarnation, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ, what has happened is that the Creator has taken up the “essence of fairy-stories” in their otherwise “perfect, self-contained significance,” these stories about hope and the unlooked-for “sudden joyous turn,” and he has made them real by giving them the reality of “History and the primary world,” raising them “to the fulfillment of Creation.” The Gospel, in other words, is not merely a real-life story containing a eucatastrophe or happy ending, but precisely in being real it constitutes for Tolkien the eucatastrophe or happy ending of all other fairy-stories, for in it all other fairy-stories have, in a sense, become true, have been graced with the special dispensation of real, historical, physical, created being.