What Socrates really died of

What did Socrates really die of? Stockholm Syndrome:

“Are you [Crito] so wise that it has slipped your mind that the homeland is deserving of more honor and reverence and worship than your mother and father and all of your other ancestors? And is held in higher esteem both by the gods and by men of good sense? And that when she is angry you should show her more respect and compliance and obedience than your father, and either convince her or do what she commands, and suffer without complaining if she orders you to suffer something? And that whether it is to be beaten or imprisoned, or to be wounded or killed if she leads you into war, you must do it? And that justice is like this, and that you must not be daunted or withdraw or abandon your position, but at war and in the course and everywhere you must do what the city and the homeland order, or convince her by appealing to what is naturally just? And that it is not holy to use force against one’s mother or father, and it is so much worse to do so against one’s homeland?” (Plato, Crito 51a-b, trans. Woods and Pack)

Tolkien, Plato, and Derrida: A Différance that makes a Difference

For Derrida, John Milbank writes (The Word Made Strange), human writing is actually prior to human speech: “Speech, according to Derrida, tends to make us imagine that all meaning is fully ‘present’, in the manner that the speaking self and her or his interlocutor appears to to be. It is this phenomenon which encourages the further delusion that there are ideas or things present to us before and outside the signifying system.” (For an example of this “delusion” of the priority of idea over linguistic expression, see my recent post on Robert Kilwardby’s critique of St. Anselm.) For Derrida, this realization “ends the Platonic domination of Western culture in which the illusion of the fully present idea encourages the belief that we can grasp reality in its totality.” But while Derrida is therefore “anti-Platonic in the sense that he takes the signifying trace to be an absolutely original moment,” Milbank acutely observes that, in another sense, Derrida “secretly remains Platonic…” For Plato, after all, “any realization of the idea in the concrete sign is taken as a lapse from an original completeness.” For Derrida, however, the fact that there simply is no original idea, only an original sign whose meaning is itself mediated and so deferred by yet another sign, and so on, means that the same tragic “‘lapse’, involving deception and concealment” lamented by Plato in the concrete sign is held to no less infect the origin of meaning.

It was against this Platonic, but now also Derridaean tragic metaphysics that I pitted Tolkien’s own approach to myth and meaning in a post from some time back, which I repeat here. One significant point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). What thinks accounts overlook, however, is that for Plato, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine, and without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

To return, then, to the above discussion of Derrida and Plato, one might say that Tolkienian myth (not unlike the Anselmian locutio), through an understanding of the original donum that is God’s gift of creation ex nihilo, achieves a true “supplement at the origin,” and a différance that makes a difference.

Deism in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë?

Metaphysics of the Music, part 12

While there are a number of factors mitigating the inherently tragic nature of the linguistic, perceptual, and social change which Verlyn Flieger finds embodied in Tolkien’s splintered-light imagery, she does draw attention to an integral and well-recognized sense of loss that permeates Tolkien’s mythology and which, as a consequence, represents an important qualification to the very different metaphysical mood I will be attributing to Tolkien in the argument to follow. Where I think Flieger goes astray, however, is when she implies that this tragic sensibility, admittedly present in Tolkien’s mythical history, is also present in his creation-myth and metaphysics. Thus, on the one hand, Flieger quite rightly observes that the “whole concept [of the world] belongs to Eru alone,” and that therefore “[i]n fulfilling his purpose, the Valar are already at one remove from his wholeness, for they bring to the world not light but lights, a variety of lights of differing kinds…” (Splintered Light 60). Going beyond this, on the other hand, is Flieger’s point, made in the context of her own comparison of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë to Plato’s Timaeus, as to how the process of creation and sub-creation involves a progressive alienation between the Creator and his ever-more distant effects. The Valar, according to Flieger, are “dividing the world from Eru, assisting in a process of separation through which Eru and the world can contemplate each other” (55, emphasis original). The theological consequence of this for Flieger is the metaphysically and theologically tragic one in which the Creator emerges as “a strikingly remote and disengaged figure” who has “little or no direct interaction in his world” and who leaves it to his sub-created vassals “to concern themselves specifically with the earth and its inhabitants” (53-4).

Creation as Decay in the Music of the Ainur

Metaphysics of the Music, part 10

It is in similar, metaphysically tragic terms that Bradford Eden, in his Boethian interpretation of Tolkien, understands the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and the subsequent phases of creation. As we saw earlier, Boethius recognizes three specific kinds of music: cosmic, human or vocal, and instrumental. In Eden’s hands, however, Boethius’s threefold classification becomes also a Neoplatonic progression, or rather digression, from highest to lowest, and the pattern around which the entire subsequent history of Middle-earth is allegedly structured:

The gradations of music’s power in Middle-earth from its appearance in the first page of The Silmarillion all the way down to the Fourth Age in The Lord of the Rings reflects a Neoplatonic hierarchy of being, from the highest form of music, universal or comic [sic] music, down to human/vocal music, and then down to instrumental music. This chain of musical being also embodies the diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal, in the instruments of Man. (Eden, “The ‘Music of the Spheres’,” 192)

Again, according to Eden the pattern in Tolkien’s creation-story is a pattern of metaphysical corruption or dilution of being, a “diminution of cosmic love/harmony that ends with the most material and literal.” Pressing the point further, Eden writes:

There may be an unconscious decay of cosmological theory written into The Silmarillion that can only be detected by one who is knowledgeable about the entire mythological reality that is Middle-earth. Each theoretical step taken away from the “Great Music,” which set everything into motion, is a slow descent away from “the divine.” This is a strong thread throughout the writings of Plato and Aristotle, that each gradation and division of music away from the “pure” or “universal” results in a type of gradual descent downward in spirit and soul…. Elves and Men are farther away in both time and space from the “music of the spheres” and closer to the third and lower type of music in the Third Age. (190-1)

On this Platonic reading of Tolkien, each subsequent stage of his creation-account and subsequent mythical history involves a necessary “decay,” a “descent downward” or falling away from the “pure” and “divine” origins of the Music of the Ainur, so that physical reality itself finally emerges, as it does for Plotinus, as a veritable metaphysical catastrophe or accident, necessary yet regrettable.

Music of the Ainur as “Tragic Metaphysics”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 9

Related to the somewhat exaggerated interpretation of the role and power of the Music in creation is a correspondingly diminished view some of Tolkien’s readers, especially those interpreting him in a Platonic light, have had of the physical world of creation which follows after it. If the Music is assumed to be a truly creative source, after all, it is only natural to see every motion (either ontological or temporal) away from the primeval Music as metaphysically enfeebling. According to Plotinus, for example, the existing universe consists in a cascading hierarchy of “hypostases” or discrete orders of being, in which the supreme, transcendent, and ultimately unknowable first cause or principle of all things, “the One,” first “emanates” or “overflows” into the second hypostasis of Divine Mind, which in its turn engenders the third hypostasis of World Soul, which then overflows into the physical realm of temporal, sensible Nature. One of the further principles of Neoplatonic emanation theory is the idea that each successive stage of reality, as it moves further and further away from its original source in the One, involves a corresponding corruption or dilution of being, much as it gets darker and colder the further one moves from a source of light and heat. (Plotinus, for example, describes the Soul’s procession from Divine Intellect as a “father who brings to maturity a son whom he begat imperfect in comparison with himself.” Enneads 5.1.3). The result is what my colleague Peter Leithart describes as the “tragic metaphysics” of Neoplatonism in particular, insofar as “everything that derives from the One or the forms is necessarily decadent” (Leithart, Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literature, 46), and of ancient Greek thought generally insofar as it “treat[s] finitude, temporality, bodiliness, and limitation as philosophical and practical problems that must be either transcended or grudgingly accepted” (38, emphasis original).

While the carefully delineated and successive stages of Tolkien’s creation-myth may indeed suggest a likeness to the successively emanating hypostases of Neoplatonic cosmogonic theory, the problem lies in the suggestion that the Ainulindalë further shares in Neoplatonism’s tragic metaphysics. John Cox illustrates this confusion in his study comparing Tolkien’s legendarium with the philosophies of Platonism and Neoplatonism when he argues that, “while Tolkien follows the Timaeus… in creating the Ainur, he follows neo-platonic tradition, beginning with Plotinus, in depicting innumerable series of imitations that radiate outward from a point close to the greatest creative power through stages of gradual diminution (Cox, “Tolkien’s Platonic Fantasy,” 58-9). (Other, less metaphysical examples of the radiating and diminishing pattern of Neoplatonism that Cox sees at work in Tolkien’s mythology include a “series of six kingdoms, each an imitation of the other,” as well as a “series of trees, of holy mountains, of cities, of heroes, of heroines,” all “whose origin is almost certainly in Platonic tradition.” Cox 59.) According to Cox, the movement in the Ainulindalë from the Ainur’s Music to their Vision to the physical world itself, like the metaphysical trajectory outlined by Plotinus, involves a tragic, “gradual diminution” of being. In another passage imputing to Tolkien the metaphysically tragic view of finite, temporal, and physical existence as philosophically dubious or problematic, Cox compares the way the Ainur mediate between Ilúvatar and the physical world to the way the World Soul of Plato’s Timaeus functions as a protective “buffer” between the unsullied perfection of the demiurgic creator on the one hand and the “visible, changing, temporal, and only apparently real world” on the other (58, emphasis original).

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).

The Metaphysics of the Music of the Ainur

Tolkien’s Metaphysics of the Music, part 1

This post marks the beginning of a new series on Tolkien’s “metaphysics of the Music.” At the center of Tolkien’s creation-story, the Ainulindalë, is the eponymous “Music of the Ainur,” the beautiful, cosmic composition sung by the angelic host together with the Creator before the creation of the world, and the pattern according to which the history of the world later unfolds. In previous posts I’ve considered the Ainur’s Music as a dramatization of Tolkien’s Thomistic theology of sub-creative possibility, according to which the human art of sub-creation, no less than the divine art of creation, has as its dignified task the “interpretation” and “imitation” of the divine mind and essence. In this series of posts, by contrast, my interest is in the Music in its own right and in the significance this particular image holds for Tolkien’s general, Thomistic philosophy of being.

I will begin my argument, thus, with a survey of the musica universalis tradition of such eminent thinkers as Pythagoras, Plato, Augustine, and Boethius, to which many commentators have traced the historical origins of the music imagery in the Ainulindalë. Yet despite the attention it has received, the precise metaphysical meaning of the Ainur’s Music has often been missed, when it has not been outright misunderstood. For in addition to the prevalent interpretation of the Ainur and their Music as the true or at least proximate “creators” of the world (a position I have critiqued previously), there has been a marked tendency in the Tolkien literature to read his creation-drama and the Music of the Ainur in particular in terms of the emanationist logic of Neoplatonic philosophy. On this understanding, later stages of the creation-process and world-history are seen as metaphysically inferior to, and thus a “tragic” falling away from, the supposedly more authentic, divine, and pure reality represented by the primeval Music. In contrast to this metaphysically tragic reading of the Ainulindalë, I will give some attention to some of the salient themes of the comparatively “comic” metaphysics and aesthetics of creation articulated by St. Thomas Aquinas, and in light of which I will offer my own analysis and interpretation of, first, the Music of the Ainur, but second, its more often neglected yet equally important counterpart, the Vision of the Ainur. My ultimate purpose is to show that, through his combined images of the Music and Vision of the Ainur, Tolkien on the one hand provides the world with a beautiful yet mythical, ideal pattern that, on the other hand, and consistent with his Thomistic, existential realism, finds itself “eucatastrophically” surpassed when the world is finally blessed by the Creator with its own, mind-alluring because mind-independent being.

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

Tolkien on evil: the Plotinian context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 3

The previous post in this series noted a certain aporia in Plato’s treatment of evil, a tension, that is, between a metaphysical account of evil on the one hand (evil as privation and/or rooted in matter) and a psychological account on the other (evil as a disorder in the soul). Plato’s own position aside, the line that some of his Neoplatonist followers would take was to interpret his theory of evil along dualistic lines, and this despite Neoplatonism’s general impetus to soften Plato’s being-becoming dualism within a more encompassing, monistic emanationism. Thus, on the one hand, Plotinus in his Enneads makes such familiar statements as “evil cannot be included in what really exists or in what is beyond existence; for these are good. So it remains that if evil exists, it must be among non-existent things, as a sort of form of non-existence…” (Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.3, trans. Armstrong). On the other hand is Plotinus’s tendency to attribute to matter, as the last emanation from the One barely above utter non-being, as the primary cause of evil. Souls, accordingly, which have their origin in a higher order of reality, become evil to the extent that they lose their focus on their heavenly, divine source in the Good and become distracted instead by the material conditions of contingent, bodily existence (5.1.1; see also O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 183-187). Once freed from the body, the soul will become free of evil (Enneads 1.8.3-5; see also Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 125). For Plotinus, consequently, the existence of unformed matter as an inherently evil entity is necessitated by the need for a cause of the evil found in an allegedly otherwise good soul: “For if evil occurs accidentally in something else, it must be something itself first, even if it is not a substance. Just as there is absolute good and good as a quality, so there must be absolute evil and the evil derived from it which inheres in something else” (Enneads 1.8.3).

In contrast with Tolkien, then, there is indeed for Plotinus an “absolute evil,” though he also wishes to avoid as much as possible saying that the absolute evil of matter truly exists or has being in any kind of positive sense (for an effort at reconciling this tension in Plotinus’s thought, see O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil”). Matter, rather, has at best only “non-being.” For Plotinus, accordingly (but here he sees himself as merely following Plato’s Theaetetus, which he quotes), the conflict between good and evil is eternal and thus basic to reality: “We must consider, too, what Plato means when he says ‘Evils can never be done away with,’ but exist ‘of necessity’; and that ‘they have no place among the gods, but haunt our mortal nature and this region for ever… [E]vil must exist of necessity, since the good must have its contrary’” (Enneads 1.8.6, citing Theaetetus 176a). Plotinus further links this understanding of evil with the tragic metaphysics of Plato’s Timaeus: “‘For the generation of this universe was a mixed result of the combination of intellect and necessity.’ What comes into it from God is good; the evil comes from the ‘ancient nature’ (Plato means the underlying matter, not yet set in order by some god)” (Enneads 1.8.7, citing Plato, Timaeus 47e5-48a1). Lacking being or existence in the proper sense of the term for Plato and Plotinus, the evil that is matter is nonetheless very much an uncreated and eternal causal principle in their accounts of the universe.

Tolkien on evil: the Platonic context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 2

“In my story,” Tolkien unequivocally writes in one letter, “I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil” (Letters243). (Perhaps the closest Tolkien comes in his fiction per se to making this kind of claim is Elrond’s statement at the Great Council, in regard to Sauron, that “nothing is evil in the beginning” [FOTR 281].) Similarly, in his letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien contradicts the latter’s claim that anything Sauron made “could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one,” countering instead that in the Creator’s “accepting or tolerating [Sauron’s] making—necessary to their actual existence—even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good” (Letters 195). In passages such as these, Tolkien clearly aligns himself with the classic Augustinian tradition according to which evil “exists” as a privation of being and consequently as a non-entity in and of itself. The Augustinian equation of evil with non-being has its roots in the thought of Plato, whose views on the subject were deeply ambiguous. In the Republic, for example, Socrates makes the claim that “the good is not the cause of everything; rather it is the cause of the things that are in a good way, while it is not responsible for the bad things” (Republic 379b, trans. Bloom), and in the Gorgias Plato almost seems to suggest that evil exists in its own right when he says that things can be either good, bad, or neutral (Gorgias 468c). Part of the difficulty in Plato’s theory of evil, as Leo J. Elders points out, is that while evil may be a privation of the good, “in the Platonic tradition privation is seen as something subsistent and is identified with matter,” though scholars have debated as to whether matter or the soul for Plato is the true cause of evil (The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas in a Historical Perspective, 124). According to Carlos Steel, for example, although Plato’s explanation of evil has dualistic elements, his account is ultimately psychological, yet he leaves unresolved the problem which would occupy later Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, namely how it is that an individual soul which (according to Socrates and Plato) only ever intends good and not evil should nevertheless commit evil out of ignorance or stupidity (Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause? Augustine’s Perplexity and Thomas’ Answer,” 252-4).

“Yearn for your bodies”: Tolkien and Thomas’s rejection of Platonic dualism

Like Thomas, Tolkien in his mythology expressly rejects Platonic dualism in favor of a view of the soul as “indwelling,” “cohering with” (Morgoth’s Ring 218), and generally “desiring to inhabit” its body (243). In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, in response to Finrod’s suggestion that perhaps it is part of Man’s original nature that their soul (fëa) should eventually leave behind its body (hröa), the human (mortal) woman Andreth emphatically denies that for Men the body is a mere “inn” for the soul to temporarily dwell in, as such a position would involve a “contempt of the body.” And while she does, in somewhat Platonic fashion, refer to the body as a “raiment,” she says that we should speak not only of the “raiment being fitted to the wearer,” but also “of the wearer being fitted to the raiment” (Morgoth’s Ring 317). St. Thomas, by comparison, criticizes Plato for his view that man was merely an anima utens corpora, a “soul making use of a body” (Summa Theologiae 1.75.4). On the soul’s “desire to inhabit” its body, we also have the testimony of the “Doom” pronounced on the Noldor Elves in The Silmarillion:

“For though Eru appointed to you to die not in Eä, and no sickness may assail you, yet slain ye may be, and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief; and; and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos. There long shall ye abide and yearn for your bodies, and find little pity though all whom ye have slain should entreat for you.” (Silmarillion 88, emphasis added)

For Tolkien and St. Thomas, human beings are naturally embodied creatures, such that even in death the soul, though continuing to exist, retains its fundamental orientation towards and even desire for its body.

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.”

The truth of myth

Another point of contrast between Plato and Tolkien concerns the conflicting evaluations of the truth-capacity of myth implied in their respective metaphysics.  Gergely Nagy has observed that “Plato, like Tolkien, draws heavily on traditional myths, also including his own ‘myths’ (nowhere else attested and probably written by him) in his dialogues,” and says that this parallels Tolkien’s “mythopoeic enterprise” in its ultimate aim of “show[ing] ‘truth,’ in Plato always expressed in mythic scenes and language…” (“Plato,” in Drout, ed.,J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 513). Similarly, Frank Weinreich emphasizes Tolkien’s debt to Plato for his “metaphysics of myth” when he writes how the “quintessence of Tolkien’s ontology” behind his theory of myth is “at the core a Platonic one” (“Metaphysics of Myth: The Platonic Ontololgy of ‘Mythopoeia’,” 325). For Plato, however, the philosopher uses myths not out of choice, but of necessity. As the principle is stated in the Timaeus, “the accounts we give of things have the same character as the subjects they set forth” (29b), meaning that just as the world (on account of the ananke or constraint of its pre-existing matter) only ever achieves a tragically partial and thus never fully-realized participation in the divine, so the “likely story” (eikos mythos) that Timaeus has to tell about the origins of the cosmos achieves at best a tragic likeness to the ideal logos or rational account that the philosopher would prefer.

In Tolkien’s creation-myth, by contrast, and following the Christian doctrine of creation, while the world’s participation in the divine is limited by its finitude, because creation is nevertheless from nothing, the world—including its matter—has its entire existence through a participation in and likeness of the divine without remainder. For Tolkien, in short, the world in its entirety is a story about the divine, a metaphysical reality that at least in principle allows the stories or myths we tell about the world a much greater participation in the truth that remains to be told about that world. As Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” myth is no mere “disease of language” (TR 48), but given the inherent and irreducibly storied structure of reality itself, is a uniquely privileged way of communicating the truth of that reality. Indeed, for Tolkien it is through such myth-telling that reality for the first time comes into its own, accomplishing by God’s own ordination the “effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” (TR 89).

Two Atlantis myths, two morality tales

Yet another dimension to Tolkien’s and Plato’s differing views on the relation between divine providence and Necessity. Although a number of Timaeus scholars have failed to see any intrinsic connection between Critias’s introductory speech about ancient Athens’s epic victory over Atlantis at the beginning of the dialogue, and the creation-myth Timaeus tells in the remainder of the dialogue (see, for example, Welliver,Character, Plot, and Thought in Plato’s “Timaeus-Critias,” 2-3; Taylor, Plato, 440; and Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology, 20), the two stories in an important respect are concerned with the same fundamental problem, namely the ineradicable limits the gods face in realizing their benevolent purposes in the physical realm of becoming. Thus, although in the defeat of the despotic power of Atlantis by the ideal, virtuous city of Athens we have an historic example of divine Nous triumphing over the chaos of Necessity, we see the limits of divine power in the fact that not even the patronage of Athena is able to save Athens from being destroyed by the same natural disasters that engulf Atlantis.

In Tolkien’s retelling of the story at the end of the Silmarillion, however, Atlantis is destroyed for a much different purpose, one in keeping with his metaphysical differences with Plato outlined earlier. In Tolkien’s tale, Atlantis is Númenor (Atalantë in the Elvish tongue of Quenya, from which the Greek name Atlantis is supposed to have derived), an island-kingdom inhabited by a noble but proud race of men who are eventually seduced by Sauron into outright Melkor-worship. When the Númenoreans in their rebellious quest for personal immortality break the ban laid upon them by the Valar and travel to the forbidden land of Valinor, Ilúvatar intervenes directly and destroys both their fleet and the island of Númenor with a flood.

Thus, whereas in the Timaeus Atlantis simultaneously symbolizes and is obliterated by an impersonal and indiscriminate Necessity that cannot be completely controlled by the gods because it is not created by them, Tolkien has Atlantis destroyed as an act of divine judgment by a personal, omnipotent God for its worship of Melkor, the one who first sought the power of creation for himself, and for its imitation of his presumption by seeking immortality on Man’s own terms.

Eucatastrophe and Ananke

Yet another difference between Tolkien and Plato I would point out concerns their respective concepts or uses of ananke (necessity or constraint). Similar to Plato’s Timaeus, Tolkien characterizes the operation of divine providence in his mythology in terms of a benevolent, “eucatastrophic” disruption of Necessity’s otherwise tragic course of “material cause and effect.” Unlike the Timaeus, however—according to which this material, causal determinism comprises an external limit on divine power, originating in an independently existing reality that is co-eternal with the demiurge—for Tolkien the “chain of death” which binds creation is not only a chain that the Creator shatters, but more paradoxically still, is a chain that he himself has forged. As I have argued previously, the seemingly impersonal inevitability of causal and historical necessity in Tolkien’s fiction is an artifice, a kind of divine subterfuge, used by an eminently personal God in order to escalate dramatically the impression of divine absence, only so that he might then destroy that impression through an even more radical disclosure of his unwavering, abiding, saving presence.[1] Thus, while it is true that, on the one hand, Tolkien ties his concept of eucatastrophe dialectically to Plato’s metaphysically tragic concept of ananke, on the other hand he makes it clear, as he puts it in his letter to Christopher, that this impression of the ananke behind the world is not so much real as it is “apparent,” that behind this apparent reality there is a greater reality still, namely the divine light which shines “through the very chinks of the universe about us.” In this way Tolkien may be seen as attempting to “save the appearances” of Plato’s concept of ananke, all the while sublating it within his otherwise Christian metaphysics of creation (much as St. Thomas, for example, does when in his own discussion of divine providence he does not so much disallow the existence of chance as he affirms it at its own proper level while subordinating it at a higher level to the divine governance[2]).

[1] As Stratford Caldecott aptly describes the basic conflict in Tolkien’s fiction, it is “a triumph of Providence over Fate.” Caldecott, “Over the Chasm of Fire,” 32.

[2] ST 1, 103, 5, ad 1. Thomas goes so far as to suggest that chance depends for its very possibility or efficacy on its subjection to divine government: “For unless corruptible things of this kind were governed by a higher being, they would tend to nothing definite, especially those which possess no kind of knowledge. So nothing in them would happen unintentionally, which constitutes the nature of chance.” In the closely related article of ST 1, 103, 7, “Whether anything can happen outside the order of the divine government?”, Thomas again writes: “Things are said to be fortuitous as regards some particular cause from the order of which they escape. But as to the order of Divine providence, ‘nothing in the world happens by chance,’ as Augustine declares.”

The beauty of matter

In the Ainulindalë, the inherent order and beauty enjoyed by matter from its first creation makes for an altogether different motivation for Tolkien’s demiurges from what we see in Plato’s Timaeus. In the first place, the existence of the matter out of which the world is made, far from representing an externally imposed and metaphysically tragic constraint (as per the Timaeus), is instead graciously brought into being by Ilúvatar in response to the Ainur’s desire that the world they had seen in the Vision should be given its own, mind-independent existence. In fact, as Tolkien indicates in one letters, it is on account of their “love” for the physical world, not despite but precisely because of its materiality, that some of the Ainur choose, as a condition of their demiurgic power laid upon them by Ilúvatar, to become physically “incarnate” within the world (L 286). Later in the same letter Tolkien refers in particular to Aulë’s “great love of the materials of which the world is made” (L 287). In this Tolkien seems to have intended his Valar to embody yet another principle of his theory of fairy-stories. As he writes in his essay, “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…. It was in fairy-stories that I first divined the potency of the words, and the wonder of the things, such as stone, and wood, and iron; tree and grass; house and fire; bread and wine” (TR 78, emphasis added).

As for the character of the matter itself, whereas in the Timaeus it is indifferent at best and outright resistant at worst to the ordering activity of the divine mind, Tolkien’s tale, by contrast, stresses the beauty and order of matter from its very inception. As in the Timaeus, an at least rudimentary division of matter into the four basic elements appears to precede the sub-creative work of the Valar, but instead of seeing a chaos of conflicting elements calling for demiurgic intervention and harmonization, the Valar’s sub-creative work is inspired by an altogether different first impression:

But the other Ainur looked upon this habitation set within the vast spaces of the World, which the Elves call Arda, the Earth; and their hearts rejoiced in light, and their eyes beholding many colours were filled with gladness; but because of the roaring of the sea they felt a great unquiet. And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substances: but of all these water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in the Earth… (S 19)

When the Ainur first see the world in the Vision, accordingly, many of its basic elements appear already to be in place prior to their demiurgic labor. The three chief Valar—Ulmo, Manwë, and Aulë—come to be particularly linked with the three elements of water, air, and earth, respectively, not because they were responsible for bringing them into being, but because they were the ones who took a special interest in them:

Now to water had that Ainu whom the Elves call Ulmo turned his thought, and of all most deeply was he instructed by Ilúvatar in music. But of the airs and winds Manwë most had pondered, who is the noblest of the Ainur. Of the fabric of Earth had Aulë thought, to whom Ilúvatar had given skill and knowledge scarce less than to Melkor; but the delight and pride of Aulë is in the deed of making, and in the thing made and, either in possession nor in his own mastery; wherefore he gives and hoards not, and is free from care, passing ever on to some new work. (S 19)

So the world is not entirely formless and devoid of beauty when the Valar first enter it, but is from its beginning already marked by its own intrinsic being and corresponding beauty, a beauty which serves not as an obstacle or impediment (ananke), but a positive incentive or inducement to the Valar’s demiurgic labors. Tolkien thus embodies in his myth a much more Christian metaphysical attitude toward material reality as good and therefore desirable because created.

Plato’s primeval matter

I’ve noted a number of parallels between Tolkien’s and Plato’s respective creation-myths, and many more might doubtlessly be enumerated. At the same time, Tolkien’s creation-myth makes a number of significant departures from Plato’s, to the point that the Ainulindalë might be said to define itself over against Plato as much it borrows from him. Implied in Tolkien’s association of his Valar with Plato’s demiurge, after all, is the claim that the closest approximation to Plato’s world-craftsman in Christian theology is not the God of orthodox belief, but the created, finite angels with whom Tolkien also identifies the Valar. And while both Plato’s demiurge and Tolkien’s Valar fashion the world out of pre-existing matter, both the nature of this matter and, as a consequence, the motivation behind the world-making of their respective demiurges, differ in significant ways. In the Timaeus, because matter is entirely uncreated and hence eternal, it has no intrinsic, intelligible relation to either the divine mind or eternal model from which the order and beauty of the cosmos originates. On the contrary, the original state of the uncreated matter is one of disorder (Timaeus refers to it as the “straying cause”), and it is this external condition of primordial chaos that prompts–even necessitates–the demiurge’s benevolent program of communicating to the material world something of his own goodness and order, while at the same time ensuring that this process of beautification remains always partial and incomplete. As I’ve noted before and will explore more fully in a follow-up post, in the Aindulindalë Tolkien has a very different story to tell about primeval matter.

From Creation to Atlantis

Another, more literary parallel between the Timaeus and the Ainulindalë: Like Plato’s Timaeus, which was to be followed by the Critias’s much fuller account (left unfinished at Plato’s death) of ancient Athens’s defeat of imperial Atlantis and the subsequent destruction of both nations through earthquake and flood—theAinulindalë forms with the rest of The Silmarillion an equally ambitious, all-encompassing mythology (also incomplete at Tolkien’s death) beginning with the creation of the world and climaxing in Tolkien’s own retelling of the fate of ancient Atlantis in the tragic history of Númenor.

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.

More parallels between Tolkien’s Ainulindalë and Plato’s Timaeus

In addition to those noted by John Cox, a number of further parallels between the cosmogonies of Tolkien’s Ainulindalë and Platos Timaeus may be observed. Plato’s demiurge and Tolkien’s Eru, to begin, are each identified as “father,” and while they both delegate to their respective sub-deities the responsibility of fashioning other living beings—representing the world as imperfect apart from the presence of a hierarchy of beings and thus instructing the sub-deities to produce things according to their ability[1]—in each case the supreme deity nevertheless retains for himself a direct role in fashioning rational, immortal souls.[2] Thus, in the Timaeus the demiurge tells his underling gods that the part of man which is “immortal” he himself will begin by “sowing that seed, and then hand it over to you. The rest of the task is yours. Weave what is mortal to what is immortal, fashion and beget living things. Give them food, cause them to grow, and when they perish, receive them back again.”[3] In a similar vein, although the Valar Aulë is chastised by Ilúvatar for his presumptuous and futile attempt at sub-creating the dwarves, he does manage to fashion their mortal bodies, bodies which Eru, in response to Aulë’s repentance, afterwards animates by uniting them with free, rational souls, something Aulë by himself could not do. Even in Aulë’s speech of repentance we find an eloquent and earnest expression of the principle articulated by Plato’s demiurge, namely that until it is properly populated by all manner of mortal beings, the world “will be incomplete, for it will still lack within it all the kinds of living things it must have if it is to be sufficiently complete.”[4] As Aulë defends himself,

I desired things other than I am, to love and to teach them, so that they too might perceive the beauty of Eä, which thou hast caused to be. For it seemed to me that there is great room in Arda for many things that might rejoice in it, yet it is for the most part empty still, and dumb. And in my impatience I have fallen into folly. Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee; and the child of little understanding that makes a play of the deeds of his father may do so without thought of mockery, but because he is the son of his father. (Silmarillion 43)

In both creation-myths, moreover, just as the presence of beauty and goodness in the world correspond to the establishment of a divine order, so evil is presented as a form of disorder.[5] And yet despite the possibility of evil, both Tolkien’s Ilúvatar and Plato’s demiurge remind their vassals that the order they have placed in the world cannot be ultimately undone or reversed except by their providential consent.[6] Neither the Valar nor the demiurge, furthermore, create ex nihilo, but produce things from already existing matter which in each writer’s account is further analyzed in terms of the four elements of earth, air, fire, and water.

[1] Timaeus 41c5, trans. Zeyl; Silmarillion 15.

[2] Timaeus 41b7-c4.

[3] Ibid., 41c8-d4.

[4] Ibid., 41b8-c2.

[5] As the demiurge informs his sub-deities, “Now while it is true that anything that is bound is liable to being undone, still, only one who is evil would consent to the undoing of what has been well fitted together and is in fine condition.” Ibid., 41b1-3.

[6] Plato’s demiurge declares, “O gods, works divine whose maker and father I am, whatever has come to be by my hands cannot be undone but by my consent” (Timaeus 41a8-10), a speech echoed in Ilúvatar’s pronouncement to the Ainur at the conclusion of the Great Music: “Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined’” (Silmarillion 17).