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).

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.