Making Things To Be What They are: Aristotle, Stoicism, and Tolkien

What do Aristotle’s theory of sense-perception, Stoic semiotics, and Tolkien’s views on fairy-stories all have in common? They each in their own way recognize the integral contribution that human beings make–whether in their acts of sense-perception, sign-making, or story-telling–in causing things to be what they are.

Our story begins with Aristotle, who explains the act of sense-perception this way:

The activity of the sensible object and that of the percipient sense is one and the same activity, and yet the distinction between their being remains. Take as illustration actual sound and actual hearing: a man may have hearing and yet not be hearing, and that which has a sound is not always sounding. But when that which can hear is actively hearing and which can sound is sounding, then the actual hearing and the actual sound are merged in one (these one might call respectively hearkening and sounding). (De anima 3.8)

According to Aristotle, for there to be an actual sound, you must have not only something “making” a sound, but you must also have an agent capable of “hearing” the sound. Without an perceiver to hear it, a sound is not a sound but merely a “potential” sound (so no, if a tree falls in the woods and there is no one to hear it, it does not make a sound–only a potential sound).

There is a related idea in the Stoic theory of signs. Umberto Eco, in his Semiotics and the Philosophy of Language, writes how, for the Stoics,

in order to grasp, from a series of sensory data, the form ‘smoke’, I must already be directed by the belief that smoke is relevant to the making of further inferences. Otherwise, the smoke provided for me by the sensation remains a potential perception which I have not yet ma[d]e pertinent as smoke, but as mist, miasma, or as any exhalation which is not caused by combustion. Only if I already know the general rule which makes for ‘if smoke, then fire’ am I able to render the sensory datum meaningful, by seeing it as that smoke which can reveal fire. (33)

According to the Stoics, in other words, the physical phenomenon of smoke, by itself, is not yet a sign of fire. For smoke to signify fire, there must be a rational agent present who first visually senses the physical event of smoke, and who then interprets (though the process may be instantaneous) and so implicitly classifies what he sees as an instance of a more general type, namely of that which, when present, implies also the presence of fire. By this means, the mere visual sensation of the physical phenomenon of smoke becomes finally a legitimate perception of “smoke,” i.e., “that which signifies fire.” The important thing to note here is that it is the perceiver who makes the sign to be a sign, to be significant. As Eco puts it, it is the perceiver who “makes pertinent” the physical phenomenon as smoke rather than a mere “mist,” and the one who “render[s] the sensory datum meaningful.” 

In stressing the contribution that the rational agent makes to the sign-character of things, however, the Stoics were no proto-Kantians or anticipating postmodernism. For the Stoics, according to Eco, in the absence of a person both capable of and actually interpreting an event as significant, the event itself is not a sign, but only a “potential” sign. Under this circumstance, it is not as though there would be no perceptual or signifying reality whatsoever, but rather that we would have a “potential perception,” and hence what we might call a “potential signification.” Absent an actual act of rational inference, there is still, in the physical event of smoke, all the objective ingredients for an act of signification to take place. All that is missing is the human mind, the essential catalyst necessary to ignite those objective elements, moving them from their state of being potentially significant to being actually significant.

It is a similar view, finally, that Tolkien entertains of the power of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,”

Fantasy is made out of the Primary World, but a good craftsman loves his material, and has a knowledge and feeling for clay, stone and wood which only the art of making can give. By the forging of Gram cold iron was revealed; by the making of Pegasus horses were ennobled; in the Trees of the Sun and Moon root and stock, flower and fruit are manifested in glory. (Tolkien Reader 78)

As Tolkien makes clear, sub-creation is just that–sub-creation, that is, an activity that human beings do under and in response to God’s prior act of creation. What is more, this existing reality created by God is no metaphysical wax nose, bendable at will, but has a determinate nature and order. As the above quote clearly implies, structures like iron, horses, trees, flowers, and fruit have a reality that is in one sense “independent” of what we make of them. However, much of the significance of these otherwise “independent” structures lies in their inchoate capacity to manifest themselves to us, not only in sense-perception and speech, as Aristotle and the Stoics recognized, but even more eminently for Tolkien, in our story-telling. There is a sense in which horses don’t achieve their actuality as horses for us until after at least some horses have had the chance to be a Pegasus. Nor does iron really become iron until after at least some iron has had a chance to be elevated and made into the substance of a mythical, heroic sword. Take away the human, story element, and things become mere elements. Or as Tolkien puts it in another passage, “When the fairy-tale ceased, there would be just thunder, which no human ear had yet heard” (51).

Cosmic Music in Plato and Plotinus

The metaphysics of the Music, part 4

Although Aristotle was somewhat dismissive of the idea of the music of the spheres, his teacher Plato’s attraction to the notion is evident in the Timaeus, a work that, as I have argued at some length previously, Tolkien certainly had in mind in the development of his creation-myth. In one of the more challenging passages of the dialogue, the eponymous Timaeus, himself a Pythagorean mathematician and philosopher, alludes to the notion of the music of the spheres when he suggests that an analogous structure was placed by the demiurge in the World Soul: “Now while the body of the heavens had come to be as a visible thing, the soul was invisible. But even so, because it shares in reason and harmony, the soul came to be as the most excellent of all the things begotten by him who is himself most excellent of all that is intelligible and eternal” (Plato, Timaeus 36e-37a, trans. Zeyl). In addition, the way in which the Ainur’s Music antedates and pre-contains the entire history of the world resembles Plato’s famous realm of the forms, in which the physical world of sensible things participates, or, as the Timaeus has it, the eternal model according to which the demiurge-creator has fashioned the material world. As Plato’s disciple Plotinus applied the master’s theory to music some six-hundred years later, “certainly all music, since the ideas which it has are concerned with rhythm and melody, would be of the same kind, just like the art which is concerned with intelligible number,” and thus like the other arts would have “its principles from the intelligible world…” (Plotinus, Enneads 5.9.11, trans. Armstrong).

Tolkien’s Pythagorean “inversion”: reality isn’t “like” music, it “is” music

The metaphysics of the Music, part 3

In addition to the foregoing passages pointing to a the presence of a kind of “cosmic music” in Scripture, several readers have discerned a resonance between the Music at the inception of Tolkien’s mythology and the Logos that is “in the beginning” of the Apostle John’s Gospel. Verlyn Flieger, though typically stressing the differences between Tolkien’s creation-account and that of the Bible’s, observes how the word logos “carried at one time far more meaning than it does today,” having the force of order, principle of organization, and harmony and thus

meant something very close to music in the Pythagorean sense. In Tolkien’s fictive world, the creative principles of Genesis and John are combined. Light and music are conjoined elements made manifest in the visible world sung as the Music of the Ainur. The Word ,which in Elvish means, “It is,” or “Let it Be,” is listed in the Index to The Silmarillion as “the word of Ilúvatar when the World began its existence.” It thus become the imperative form of the Great Music, the vision as both light and logos. (Flieger, Splintered Light, 59)

As for the relevant philosophical background behind the Ainur’s Music, the name of the fifth-century mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras has naturally received frequent mention in discussions of the subject, as the above quote from Flieger illustrates. (For other references to Pythagoras in the Tolkien literature, see also Grubbs, “The Maker’s Image: Tolkien, Fantasy & Magic”; Davis, “Ainulindalë: The Music of Creation”; and Collins, “Ainulindalë”: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology.”) It is to Pythagoras and his school, after all, that the popular idea of the “music of the spheres” has been traditionally ascribed. Aristotle, for example, writes of the Pythagoreans that “they took the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be harmony and number” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.5.986a., trans. Hope), and that according to them “the movement of the stars produces a harmony, i.e., that the sounds they make are concordant…” (Aristotle, On the Heavens, 2.9.290b12, trans. Stocks). Leo Spitzer has gone so far as to suggest that the Pythagorean concept of world or cosmic “harmony” was more than a mere metaphor derived from human vocal or instrumental harmonies, but was in fact conceived as the reality from which human music was ultimately derived. The Pythagoreans thus

inverted the order by admitting that the human lute (as imagined in the hands of the god Apollo) was an imitation of the music of the stars; human activities had to be patterned on godly activities, i.e., on the processes in nature: human art, especially, had to be an imitation of the gods, i.e., of reasonable nature. Thus we will witness [in Pythagoreanism] a continuous flow of metaphors from the human (and divine) sphere to nature and back again to human activities, which are considered as imitating the artistic orderliness and harmony of nature. (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 8-9)

If so, it is a similar kind of Pythagorean “inversion” that Tolkien undertakes by means of his own fictional “gods” when he writes of them in the Ainulindalë how “the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights…” (Silmarillion 15). As I have suggested previously in discussing Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable, the literary genre of myth or fairy-story allows for a reinvesting of metaphors and images such as fire and music with a degree of ancient, pre-Enlightenment literality, so that the Creator’s power of creation is not “like” fire, but simply is the Fire from which all fires originate; nor is the Ainur’s and Ilúvatar’s Music “like” the music we human beings play and experience, but simply is the Music to which all our music is a remote hearkening and response.

Can something good be the cause of evil? Aquinas on “per se” vs. “accidental” causality

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 11

The previous post suggested that viewing Tolkien’s fictional representation of evil from a specifically Thomistic perspective may put us in a position to appreciate (better, at least, than many scholars have been able to do) the simultaneous coherence of Tolkien’s portrayal of evil and its paradoxical complexity. I went on, however, to note those respects in which Thomas’s own metaphysics of evil is quite conventional or traditional in its basic Augustinian or Christian-Neoplatonic outlook.

Where Thomas does finally depart from or at least improvise upon the traditional Augustinian reckoning of evil, according to Carlos Steel his innovations are more Aristotelian (and therefore still Socratic and Greek, in Steel’s view) than they are distinctly Christian. To resolve the perplexity left open by Augustine and earlier Neoplatonists as to how evil actions are caused, Thomas in question 49 of the Summa applies the Aristotelian distinction between per se and accidental causality.[1] In contrast to classical Neoplatonism’s typical denial that evil has an efficient cause, Thomas begins the corpus of his first article with an emphatic affirmation that “every evil in some way has a cause” (ST 1.49.1).[2] As the “absence of the good which is natural and due to a thing,” there must be a cause to explain why anything should “fail” or be “drawn out” from its “natural and due disposition.”[3] Thomas nevertheless agrees with the Neoplatonic premise that “only good can be a cause, because nothing can be a cause except in so far as it is a being, and every being, as such, is good.”[4] The question, then, is how something good can cause evil. Thomas’s answer is that what is good is able to cause evil, not insofar as it is good in itself (per se causality), but only accidentally. An accidental cause of an effect is a cause that produces an effect not intentionally, but by producing some second, unintended effect with which the first, intended effect is somehow accidentally connected. As we will see in a future post, it is this Aristotelian distinction between per se and per accidens causality that Aquinas applies to the question of how the rational will is ever able to do or choose evil while intending something good.


[1] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?”, 259. Thomas finds the distinction, for example, implied in chapter two of book five of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and applies it to the problem of the causality of evil. Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle 5.3.781 and 789. (See also On Evil 1.3. Aristotle also distinguishes between per se and accidental causality in his discussion of chance in Physics 2.5.) Steel, however, implies that the application of Aristotle’s distinction between per se and accidental causality to the problem of the causality of evil was actually original with Aquinas, whereas Denis O’Brien points out that Plotinus also used the distinction to explain how the soul becomes evil through its contact with matter: “The soul becomes evil, when she does so, only ‘accidentally’, and, even then, only through the presence of matter.” O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 184, citing Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.12 and 14. As John Milbank also observes (“Evil: Silence and Darkness,” 21), preceding Aquinas in his notion of the accidental causality of evil is Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes that “evil exists as an accident. It is there by means of something else. Its source does not lie within itself. Hence something we do for the sake of the Good looks right and yet is not really so when we consider to be good what is actually not so.” Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names 4.32.

[2] “[O]mne malum aliqualiter causam habeat.”

[3] “Quod autem aliquid deficiat a sua naturali et debita dispositione, non potest provenire nisi ex aliqua causa trahente rem extra suam dispositionem…”

[4] “Esse autem causam non potest convenire nisi bono: quia nihil potest esse causa nisi inquantum est ens, omne autem ens, inquantum huiusmodi, bonum est.”

The body as the “art” of the soul

In addition to its role in first preserving and later reconstructing the body, and like the Valar, whose sub-creative capacity is a function of their peculiar regard for and relationship with physical reality, another consequence of the greater command of the Elvish soul over its body is the superior artistic control and execution Elves enjoy in comparison with Men: “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence)” (Letters 146). Tolkien further indicates a relationship between Elvish immortality and artistry when he writes that “[t]he Elvish fëa was above all designed to make things in co-operation with its hröa” (Morgoth’s Ring 332). Both Elvish art and biological longevity, in short, are co-effects of a common cause, namely the soul-as-form’s dominion over matter. In the figure of his Elves, accordingly, Tolkien treats us to a rather creative depiction of the analogy St. Thomas, for example, observes in Aristotle when he writes that “the soul is compared to the body as art to the thing made by art” (Summa Theologiae 3.80.1). Through his semi-scholastic, Aristotelian anthropology, in summary, Tolkien not only attempts to return his readers to and so help us to “recover” a proper understanding of human nature as a true union and mutual belongingness of body and soul, but he also imaginatively links two of the central themes of his mythology—the question of creaturely sub-creation on the one hand, and the perplexing question of human mortality on the other—and reveals them to be at one level one and the same problem.

Elvish immortality: a matter of “mind over matter”

The profound differences between Tolkien’s Men and Elves may be no less accounted for in hylomorphic (matter-form) terms. What gives Elves their immortality or, more properly speaking, their “serial longevity” (the natural Elvish life being limited to the lifespan of Arda–Morgoth’s Ring 331), is the greater power or strength their souls exercise over their bodies. As a more powerful bodily form or forming principle, in other words, the Elvish soul exercises a greater degree of “command,” “control,” or “mastery,” as Tolkien variously puts it, over its matter, the body (211, 218, 233, 331, and 334). (In another passage Tolkien writes of the Elvish body being “modified by the indwelling fëar” or soul [337].) The consequence is that the Elvish soul is capable of keeping its body indefinitely alive (provided it is not catastrophically injured), strong, and in good health (427), not to mention “by nature continent and steadfast” (211-13). As Tolkien writes at some length of the Elvish physiognomy:

They were thus capable of far greater and longer physical exertions (in pursuit of some dominant purpose of their minds) without weariness; they were not subject to diseases; they healed rapidly and completely after injuries that would have proved fatal to Men; and they could endure great physical pain for long periods. Their bodies could not, however, survive vital injuries, or violent assaults upon their structure; nor replace missing members (such as a hand hewn off). On the reverse side: the Elves could die, and did die, by their will; as for example because of great grief or bereavement, or because of the frustration of their dominant desires and purposes. This willful death was not regarded as wicked, but it was a fault implying some defect or taint in the fëa, and those who came to Mandos by this means might be refused further incarnate life. (341)

In Tolkien’s Elves, it would seem, we get a fictional and dramatic exaggeration of the Aristotelian-Thomistic doctrine that it is through the formal principle of the soul that the material principle of the body has its being, its life, and its operations.

Body and soul: Tolkien and Thomas’s hylomorphic anthropology

If Tolkien’s hypothesis of non-naturally but voluntarily incarnate angelic beings captures something of the “freedom” but also the problematic character of modern mind-body dualism, his fictional anthropology of Elves and Men, by contrast, seems to channel the hylomorphic (matter-form) theory of body and soul propounded by Aristotle and Aquinas.[1] According to this tradition, the human soul is not extrinsically related to the body, as per the soul-body dualism of Plato and Descartes, but is the formal, final, and efficient cause of the human body, the form and actuality through which, by which, and for which the body has its very being as a body (Summa Theologiae 1.76.1).[2] It follows from this, for both Thomas and Tolkien, that, on the one hance, the soul (or what the Elves call “fëa”), is incorporeal and incorruptible and thus capable of existing from the body (see, for example, Summa Theologiae 1.75.2 and Morgoth’s Ring 223, 245, and 330). (Although Tolkien says in one note that hröa and fëa are “roughly but not exactly equivalent to ‘body’ and ‘soul’” [Morgoth’s Ring 330], he does not specify how they are in fact different, and elsewhere he simply asserts that fëa “corresponds, more or less, to ‘soul’; and to ‘mind’” in its immaterial aspects [349].)

On the other hand, we find both Thomas and Tolkien eager to maintain that the soul, its ability to exist apart from the body notwithstanding, nevertheless does not constitute the whole of man. Thomas argues this position in Summa Theologiae 1.75.2, and we find Tolkien in basic agreement when he writes, for example, that when a man receives an injury it is not merely the soul-principle, the “Indweller,” that suffers the wound, but “Man, the whole: house, life, and master” (Morgoth’s Ring 353). As Tolkien explains elsewhere, the soul is indeed the principle or source of “identity” (227), being both “conscious” and “self-aware,” and yet he also adamantly affirms the body to constitute an integral and necessary part of the “self” of the person (349). St. Thomas also argues that, however much the soul may be able to go on existing apart from its body, it still remains greatly dependent on its body in order to carry out its own proper acts of knowing, as this requires the operation of the bodily powers of sensation and imagination (Summa Theologiae 1.84.7). Tolkien may be seen to echo this point when he says that, although it is the soul that has “the impulse and power to think: enquire and reflect,” its mental processes, like Thomas’s incarnate soul, are nevertheless “conditioned and limited by the co-operation of the physical organs” of the body (Morgoth’s Ring 349).


[1] For an alternative (and somewhat underdeveloped) reflection on Tolkien’s anthropology in light of St. Thomas’s philosophy of man to the one I am offering here, see Nimmo, “Tolkien and Thomism: Middle-earth and the States of Nature.” As the title of Nimmo’s article suggests, the author takes up the five states of nature distinguished by Aquinas, namely the “hypothetical” states of (1) pure nature and (2) integral nature, and the “historical” states of (3) innocence or original justice, (4) fallen nature, and (5) restored or repaired nature, and attempts to correlate these with the different species of rational beings and their respected states found in Tolkien’s mythology.

[2] For Aristotle’s hylomorphic doctrine of the soul, see book two of his On the Soul. For an explanation and defense of Thomas’s hylomorphic anthropology in light of some of its contemporary criticisms, see Klima, “Man = Body + Soul: Aquinas’s Arithmetic of Human Nature.”