Material Necessity in Tolkien and Plato

The concluding point of the previous post observed that neither Tolkien’s Valar nor Plato’s demiurge create ex nihilo, but produce things from already existing matter which in both cases is further analyzed in terms of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water. This leads to yet another fascinating parallel between Tolkien and Plato, which is that although both their creation-accounts attempt to attribute as much causality in the world as possible to the agency of their respective demiurges (what Plato represents under the principle of divine “Mind” or nous), both mythologies also recognize the existence and role of a counter-principle, one that both Plato and, as we shall see, Tolkien after him represent under the concept of ananke or “necessity.” In the Timaeus, because matter is not created by, but is co-existent with the demiurge, it has its own intrinsic and even erratic properties which the demiurge is not responsible for and which present an inherent constraint on or obstacle to his world-making activity. The result, as Donald Zeyl has put it, is that there are moments when divine Mind or Intellect “must make concessions to Necessity [ananke].”[1]

For Tolkien’s “demiurges”, too, the matter out of which they make the world is not indefinitely malleable but, as we will see later, has its own inherent potentialities which the Valar do not themselves make but instead labor to harness and actualize. As for Plato’s notion of ananke or Necessity, while it does not appear in the Ainulindalë, Tolkien does make a reference to this concept in a letter to his son Christopher explaining his literary device of eucatastrophe. As Tolkien defines it, eucatastrophe involves

a sudden glimpse of Truth, your whole nature chained in material cause and effect, the chain of death, feels a sudden relief as if a major limb out of joint had suddenly snapped back… So that in the Primary Miracle (the Resurrection) and the lesser Christian miracles too though less, you have not only that sudden glimpse of the truth behind the apparent Anankê of our world, but a glimpse that is actually a ray of light through the very chinks of the universe about us. (Letters 100-1)

According to Tolkien, part of what makes the rescued joy of eucatastrophe so poignant is the prior sense of the tragic inevitability of an event, the assumption, that is, that the course of nature is locked in an inalterable chain of “material cause and effect, the chain of death,” which the Creator must somehow overcome if his purposes are to be realized in the world. As I will argue in a follow-up post, Tolkien’s account of ananke does differ significantly from Plato’s, yet the point to be appreciated here is that, for Tolkien, the thrill of eucatastrophe, whether in fairy-stories or in real-life miracles, is expressible and experience-able in terms of the Platonic dialectic of a victory of divine benevolence, wisdom, or “Mind” over an (apparently) competing, impersonal force of brute, causal necessity.


[1] Zeyl, “Introduction,” in Plato, Timaeus, xxxiv. According to Eric Voeglin, the notion of ananke in the Timaeus, along with the idea of peitho or “persuasion” by which the demiurge manipulates ananke, were themes Plato derived from “the other great spiritual thinker of Hellas,” the tragedian Aeschylus: “The theme of the Oresteia is the yoke of Ananke and its breaking through the wisdom that has come by suffering. The generations of the gods follow one another, each doing penance for the violence of its rule by falling a victim to the successor, until Zeus breaks the chain through his personal rise to a just rule of constraint and wisdom. Likewise the mortals, as Agamemnon, bow to Ananke and commit misdeeds, to be followed by avenging in misdeeds in horrible succession until the chain of vengeance is broken, in the Eumenides, by Athena who persuades the Erinyes to accept the acquittal of their victim and to change their own nature from vengeance to beneficence…. The parallels between Plato and Aeschylus are so close that they hardly can be accidental. The Zeus agoraios, the Zeus of persuasion over the assembly of the people, is next of kin to the Demiurge and the Royal Ruler. The victory of Nous over Ananke in the Timaeus must be seen against the Aeschylean background of the victory of the new wisdom over the older mythical forces…” Voeglin, Plato, 204. On Aeschylus’s significance for Plato’s Timaeus, see also Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 361-4.

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