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.