Manwë’s Thomism After All?

I posted last week on the un-Thomism of Manwë’s statement that, because of the great beauty in song that will result from the Noldor’s rebellion, “evil [will] yet be good to have been.” After revisiting another passage from Aquinas today, however, I’m prepared to acknowledge that Manwë’s statement may have been more Thomistic than I realized, and that, if so, this fact might reflect well on neither Manwë’s Thomism nor St. Thomas’s.

To review, I had juxtaposed the above statement by Manwë with Aquinas’s argument, in Summa Theologiae I.19.9 ad 1, that, whatever the good that may come of evil, it is nevertheless “not correct” to say that “it is good that evil should be or be done.” Aquinas gives as an example the good of the patience of the martyrs brought about through the persecution of tyrants: because “it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions,” he argues, “It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.” For Aquinas, in other words, even if good is brought out of evil, even good that otherwise would not have existed were it not occasioned by the evil, one cannot rightly say of any given instance of evil that it was “good” for it to happen, since there is no essential, but only at best an accidental relationship between the evil that occurred and the good that was brought about as a result or in response. The Noldor’s rebellion may have brought about beauty that otherwise would not have existed (which is not to say that there would have been any less beauty–but only a different beauty–had they not rebelled), but it does not follow that it was therefore “good” that they rebelled.

Only a few questions later, however, in Summa Theologiae I.22.2 ad 2, Aquinas would seem to reverse his above argument in a way that sounds, well, awfully Manwë-ish. First is the following objection that Aquinas raises to his thesis that “everything is subject to the providence of God,” which reads:

a wise provider excludes any defect or evil, as far as he can, from those over whom he has a care. But we see many evils existing. Either, then, God cannot hinder these, and thus is not omnipotent; or else He does not have care for everything. (ST I.22.2 obj. 2)

In his reply, Aquinas counters that, on the contrary,

It is otherwise with one who has care of a particular thing, and one whose providence is universal, because a particular provider excludes all defects from what is subject to his care as far as he can; whereas, one who provides universally allows some little defect to remain, lest the good of the whole should be hindered. Hence, corruption and defects in natural things are said to be contrary to some particular nature; yet they are in keeping with the plan of universal nature; inasmuch as the defect in one thing yields to the good of another, or even to the universal good: for the corruption of one is the generation of another, and through this it is that a species is kept in existence. Since God, then, provides universally for all being, it belongs to His providence to permit certain defects in particular effects, that the perfect good of the universe may not be hindered, for if all evil were prevented, much good would be absent from the universe. A lion would cease to live, if there were no slaying of animals; and there would be no patience of martyrs if there were no tyrannical persecution. Thus Augustine says (Enchiridion 2): “Almighty God would in no wise permit evil to exist in His works, unless He were so almighty and so good as to produce good even from evil.” It would appear that it was on account of these two arguments to which we have just replied, that some were persuaded to consider corruptible things—e.g. casual and evil things—as removed from the care of divine providence.

What is interesting is that Aquinas uses the exact same illustration of the tyrant and the martyr, only this time to argue the almost opposite conclusion. Here Aquinas’s point is that there are some goods proper to the created order which are not possible except in the event of real (moral) evil. As Aquinas clearly implies here, there is a kind of good that would be “hindered” if God were not to allow its corresponding, occasioning evil, such that (we might presume) the total level of good in the universe would be less, and what is more, the good of creation would go unrealized, if God were not to allow for it. This, I submit, is not only a different claim, but an even contrary one to what he had argued in question 19, cited above. Based on this version of Aquinas, in other words, Manwë could indeed claim that it was “good for evil to have been.” But I still maintain that in saying this, neither Manwë nor Aquinas are being properly Thomistic.

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The Good of Evil: Manwë’s Un-Thomism

When, in the Silmarillion, the herald of Manwë reports to him the bold and brazen words of Fëanor, we are told that

Manwë wept and bowed his head. But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’ (“Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor”)

St. Thomas, however, would seem to prefer not put things in quite this way. In his article on “whether God wills evils” (ST I.19.9), the first objection he entertains reads as follows:

It seems that God wills evils. For every good that exists, God wills. But it is a good that evil should exist. For Augustine says (Enchiridion 95): “Although evil in so far as it is evil is not a good, yet it is good that not only good things should exist, but also evil things.” Therefore God wills evil things.

To this objection Aquinas replies thus:

Some have said that although God does not will evil, yet He wills that evil should be or be done, because, although evil is not a good, yet it is good that evil should be or be done. This they said because things evil in themselves are ordered to some good end; and this order they thought was expressed in the words “that evil should be or be done.” This, however, is not correct; since evil is not of itself ordered to good, but accidentally. For it is beside the intention of the sinner, that any good should follow from his sin; as it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions. It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.

As Aquinas would see it, accordingly, while it is true that not only good, but a unique form of good that otherwise would not have been possible, is brought about as a consequence of Fëanor’s rebellion, it does not follow from this, as Manwë implies, that it was therefore good for Fëanor’s “evil to have been” (indeed, for Aquinas, as for Tolkien generally, since evil has no being of itself but is a privation of being, it makes no sense to speak, literally, of evil “having been”). Manwë’s error, in other words, might be seen to involve the fallacy of division, of assuming, that is, that what is true of the whole (in this case, the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil-leading-to-good) must therefore also be true of its parts (the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil).

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.

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…)