The Aesthete vs the Ascetic: What St. Augustine Would Have Thought of Tolkien’s Middle-earth

In his classic study The Great Chain of Being, Arthur O. Lovejoy gives a brief summary of Augustine’s aesthetic treatise De pulchritudine simulacrorum, which contains a wonderful criterion for evaluating the sub-creative achievement of Tolkien’s Middle-earth legendarium, but also what would have been Augustine’s deep ambivalence and suspicion towards it as well. Lovejoy writes how for Augustine

“the supreme art of God” is manifested in the variety of the things that it has fashioned out of nothing, while the inferiority of human art is shown in its limited ability to reproduce this diversity, or numerositas, of natural objects, for example of human bodies. Augustine, then, seems on the point of deriving a species of aesthetic theory from the principle of plenitude; the function of art, he suggests, is to imitate or parallel this diversity of the created world as nearly exhaustively as possible; and this, the argument manifestly implies, is truly an imitatio dei, and therefore par excellence a religious exercise. (Lovejoy 85)

Only a couple of years before Lovejoy wrote the above, Tolkien, in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” similarly described how the art of fairy-story lay precisely in the human “sub-creator,” made in God’s image, being able to fashion a “secondary world” that evinced the kind of creaturely diversity, complexity, and “inner consistency” of God’s primary world. Alison Milbank describes well Tolkien’s own success in achieving a kind of literary “principle of plentitude” in his fiction when she writes:

Aquinas, according to Chesterton, teaches ‘the reality of things, the mutability of things, the diversity of things’… [T]his is a philosophy that can be found at every level of Tolkien’s fictional project… The world Tolkien invents is, of course, fictional, but it is famously realistic in its density and completeness of realization… To invent a world at all, as fantasy writers continue to do, is to commit to metaphysics… For the fantasy writer not only mimics the divine act of creation but he or she, by creating a self-consistent, independent world also witnesses to the existence of an Is: to Ens. (Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 17-18)

Yet as remarkable as such an achievement may be, for Augustine, it is in fact not to be attempted. Summarizing the Bishop’s reservations, Lovejoy continues:

But here the saint checks himself and reverts violently to the ascetic and otherworldly side of his doctrine: “Not that those who fashion such works [of art] are to be highly esteemed, nor those who take delight in them; for when the soul is thus intent upon the lesser things—things corporeal which it makes by corporeal means—it is the less fixed upon that supreme Wisdom from which it derives these very powers.” Thus Augustine is involved in the incongruous conclusion that God as creator is not to be imitated, that certain divine powers in which men in a measure participate are not to be employed by them, and that the creation in which alone the divine attribute of “goodness” is manifested is not to be enjoyed. (85-6)

As with other creational goods, the double liability of human sin and human finitude means that, for Augustine, the impetus towards a sub-creative imitatio dei is one that is safer suppressed than cultivated, lest it distract us from our primary duty of the worship and meditation of God.

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Augustine’s “linguistic turn”

A while back I argued that Anselm’s doctrine of the divine locutio (“utterance,” “expression”) helped resolve an ambiguity at the heart of Augustine’s doctrine of the divine Verbum, namely his ambivalence between a more verbal or linguistic model for understanding the second person of the Trinity on the one hand and a more visual and hence intellectual model on the other. Related to this is another ambiguity in Augustine’s thought, this time within his philosophy of language itself. To develop, for the time being, just one side of that tension, John Milbank has argued that there are significant elements in Augustine’s theology of language which push against the kind of “linguistic rationalism” that dominated much ancient, patristic, and medieval reflection on the subject. Milbank draws particular attention to the Aristotelian and Stoic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent, which he criticizes as implying an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[2] Yet it was also the Stoics who first “decisively modified” the semantic triangle “by interpreting the meaning-content (semainomenon) [of words] not as eternal “Idea,” nor as psychological “thought,” but rather as a lekton, a position within a system of signification.” One of virtues of this revised understanding of the relationship between words and their meaning, on Milbank’s view, was its insight into the irreducibly linguistic character of the act of signification, such that “the lekton, as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… The ‘incorporeal’ character of these lekta does not indicate any Platonic, eternal status, but rather a ‘temporally indefinite’ character.”[3] Put in modal terms, in the place of Aristotle and Plato’s “semantic possibilism” (as we might deem it), according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought and eternal ideas that provides the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic doctrine of lekta substituted a “semantic actualism” according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence may be connoted within the dynamic “continuum” of a given “system of signification.” They are traces of this Stoic modification of the semantic triangle, finally, that Milbank finds evidence of in Augustine when, for example, and following the Stoics, he “speaks of a verbum cordis or verbum mentis, rather than just ‘a thought’,” or when “Augustine is so aware of the sign-character of words, and the indispensability of the artificial system of language for thought, that in De Magistro he declares that one can give the meaning of a word only by another word, or else by a gesture which is still a sort of sign.”[4] Elaborating on Augustine’s doctrine of the “inner word” in particular, Milbank finds here that Augustine “construes thought as ‘intentional’, or as having a sign-character (the Stoic lekton) which, especially in the De Trinitate, promotes a non-substantive, relational ontology…”[5]  (This move is paralleled, as we shall see later, in his commentary on Genesis, where he likewise shifts the source of creaturely possibility from the Platonic divine ideas to the less substantive, more relational and immanent ontology of the Stoic rationes seminales or “rational seeds.”) Indeed, Milbank suggests that

Augustine actually goes further than the Stoics in one respect, by becoming the first person in history unequivocally to place the linguistic word itself in the category of sign: verbum est uniuscuiusque rei signum. For the Stoics the word itself still stood in a relationship of definitional equivalence to the lekta, if not to referential res (as for Aristotle). As Umberto Eco has pointed out, Augustine’s conflation was a potentially momentous innovation, because by bringing words under a category traditionally to do with ‘natural’ relationships of typical implication (as the sequence fire/smoke, considered generically) Augustine opened the way to seeing that word and ‘dictionary definition’ are never fully reciprocal. Quite to the contrary, words can only be explicated ‘intensionally’, through a process of semiotic inference which relates no longer (as for the Stoics) more or less readily to nature, but only to a particular cultural-linguistic ‘segmentation’ of reality.[6]

In each of these ways, in sum, Augustine dimly foreshadows the later Renaissance humanist view of thought as sign—a “Trinitarian redefinition of the ideas as ‘word’ or ‘art’”[7]—and beyond that, the eighteenth-century insight of such Christian philosophers as Berkeley, Hamann, Herder, and Vico into the “indispensability of language for thought,” the ultimate “impossibility of distinguishing ‘sign’ from ‘thing’,” and the recognition of “reality as constituted by signs and their endless ramifications”[8] that anticipate and hence which allow for a more “positive assessment of language.”[9]


[2] Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 84.

[3] Ibid., 89.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 89-90.

[7] Ibid., 93.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Ibid., 96.

Tolkien vs. Augustine on Difference of Sex

In book six of his De Genesi ad Litteram (Literal Commentary on Genesis) St. Augustine addresses the question of whether human souls might have been created simultaneously with the rest of the world at the beginning of creation, with their bodies being formed only later on. Augustine gives two arguments against this view:

first, because of that completion of God’s works, I do not see how these could be understood to be complete if anything was not there established in its causes which would later on be realized visibly; secondly, because the difference of sex between male and female can only be verified in bodies. (De Genesis 6.7.12)

According to Augustine’s second argument, sexual differences are not psyche-logical differences, but physio-logical differences.

Compare this now with Tolkien’s account of the Valar in the Ainulindale:

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.

For the Valar, “sexual” differences are more than–because prior–to bodily differences, being a mater of “difference of temper” that is then “bodied forth” afterward in the physical appearance the individual Valar choose for themselves.

From Augustine’s theological to Scotus’s logical possibility

The previous post ended with Simo Knuuttila’s observation that, for Augustine, divine possibility, rooted in the divine ideas, was therefore rooted in the divine being or nature in which the ideas resided, and that this was the theological modal paradigm that prevailed until Duns Scotus departed from it in the early thirteenth century, replacing the theological source of possibility with his notion of a bare “logical” possibility.[2] Be that as it may, one may well ask what role the possibilism latent in Augustine’s philosophical theology might have played in the eventual dissolution of his own theological synthesis. As Knuuttila himself observes, for Augustine,

God’s free choice of the universe is conceptually preceded by knowledge about alternative possibilities… [H]is conception of divine possibilities contained an intuitive idea of alternative worlds of which only one is actualized. He thought that God could have made various worlds, and hence he saw God’s eternal decision as free and voluntary… [T]he conception of God as acting by choice between alternative universes… played an important role in the emergence of the intuitive idea of modality as referential multiplicity with respect to synchronic alternatives. This modal paradigm hardly occurred at all among ancient thinkers. It was introduced in early medieval discussions which were strongly influenced by Augustine’s philosophical theology.[3]

Thus, while Augustine viewed the divine ideas as located in, and hence as inherently revelatory of, the divine essence, if Knuuttila is right, Augustine’s possibilism nevertheless involved him at some level in viewing God’s creative activity in the proto-voluntarist terms of a divine will ranging over and electing possibilities that are simply there for God as given, brute facts of his existence. Insofar as we can only conceive of these hypothetical, unrealized possibilities by mentally abstracting from those concrete actualities and potentialities observed in the real world, however, it doesn’t seem that large of a step, however significant, from these already de-existentialized possibilities to the eventual de-theologized, logical possibilities postulated by Scotus. Not surprisingly, we see the beginnings of just such as disjoining of divine possibility from the divine being when Augustine, for example, says that God could do a thing “through his power, but not through his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam).[4]


[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.

[2] Conor Cunningham similarly sees the decisive shift in modal thinking as taking place with Scotus when “that which exists was taken outside the divine essence. Consequently, that which was expelled became nothing, a nothing that allowed the invention of a priori realms, and tales of things called logical possibilities (a Scotist fantasy).” Cunningham, Genealogy of Nihilism, 171.

[3] Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 109.

[4] Augustine, Contra Gaudentium 1.30.35, cited in Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29. In other, more circumspect moments Augustine conflates God’s power with his wisdom and hence, one may suppose, with his justice, as when he says that “God’s Word and Wisdom and Might are all one and the same reality.” Augustine, Literal Commentary on Genesis 6.12.22.

The Ideas are the Possibles

Augustine’s Theology of the Possible, part 2

In overview, then, the divine ideas are those principles which account for the rationality and hence wisdom and non-arbitrariness of God’s creative and providential activity: when God acts, being good and wise he necessarily acts according to a preconceived plan, and these plans are the divine ideas. Implicit in this view, accordingly, is the notion that what is possible for God to do or make is determined by his ideas: God can do or make anything for which he has a divine idea, making the ideas the origin or source of divine possibility. Inasmuch as the ideas are located nowhere else than in the divine mind and essence itself, it follows that God’s own being is ultimately the origin and source of divine power and possibility. As Simo Knuuttila has put it, for Augustine the ideas provide an index or register of

all finite beings which could serve as partial imitations of the highest being. The ideas are divine thoughts and refer to possible actualization in the domain of mutability. They define the finite modes of imitating the infinite divine being. In this sense the possibilities have an ontological foundation in God’s essence… This was the dominating conception of modal metaphysics until Duns Scotus departed from it.[1]


[1] Knuuttila, “Medieval Background,” 194. See also Knuuttila, “Time and Creation in Augustine,” 104 and Ross, “God, Creator of Kinds and Possibilities,” 320.

Augustine’s Doctrine of the Divine Ideas

Augustine’s Theology of the Possible, part 1

The person whose name has become almost synonymous with the tradition of theological exemplarism in the Christian west is, of course, the good Bishop of Hippo, St. Augustine (354-430). Perhaps the central doctrine where a theology of the possible is concerned is Augustine’s famous and influential teaching on the divine ideas which witnessed the effective Christianization of Plato’s theory of forms, placing them within the mind of God himself. Augustine’s fullest and most direct treatment of the subject, and the one that would serve as the chief patristic source on the topic throughout the subsequent Middle Ages, occurs in the forty-sixth of his Eighty Three Different Questions (De Diversis Quaestionibus LXXXIII).[1] His brief but formative discussion opens with Plato whom he identifies as the first to have used the name ideas, but not the first to have grasped the universal, divine reality signified by the term, something Augustine believes always and everywhere to have been understood by men deserving the title “wise.”[2] Augustine takes inventory of the some of the other names given to the ideas—“forms” (formae), “species” (species), and “reasons” (rationes)—using the latter in particular to characterize the ideas as the “original and principal forms of things, i.e., reasons, fixed and unchangeable, which are not themselves formed and, being thus eternal and existing always in the same state, […] contained in the Divine Intelligence.” Eternal and unchanging, it is through and by the ideas that “everything which does come into being and pass away is said to be formed…. It is by participation in these that whatever is exists in whatever manner it does exist.” After summarizing how the rational soul comes to know the ideas—namely through an act of divine illumination which he describes as a “certain inner and intelligible countenance” possible only after the soul has been made “holy and pure”—Augustine gives his influential argument for both the existence and the multiplicity of the divine ideas. No devout and religious person, he says, would deny that those things existing in their own, natural order, have God as their cause, or that God is the cause not only of the things themselves but also of their order and the laws of operation. Nor, having admitted this much, would anyone say that God has created these things and their order without any kind of rational plan. Having created all things according to such a plan, moreover, it is absurd to think that God created distinct individual things, such as a man and a horse, according to the same rational plan. Everything, Augustine concludes, must therefore have been created according to a rational plan, reason, or idea unique or proper to each thing. Having thus established the existence and plurality of the ideas, Augustine returns to the question of the location of the ideas, namely the divine mind of God, asserting that it would be “sacriligious” to suggest that God had to look to something outside himself to get the pattern for what he was going to create.[3]


[1] Boland, Ideas in God, 38-9, 47.

[2] Augustine, Eighty-Three Different Questions, trans. David L. Mosher (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1982), 79-81.

[3] It is tempting to assume that Augustine saw himself as critiquing Plato’s Timaeus here, which, as we have seen, mythically represents the demiurge as looking to a reality apparently distinct from himself, namely the “eternal model,” for the plan of creation. It is important to realize, however, that Augustine didn’t have first-hand knowledge of the Timaeus but knew him through the textbooks of later Platonists who, like Augustine, also placed the ideas in the mind of God. As Vivian Boland suggests, Augustine probably thought that the notion of the divine ideas in the mind of God was the authentic teaching of Plato himself. Boland, Ideas in God, 45-6.

Christ as Sermo, not Verbum, Speech, not Word

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 21

Another perspective on the significance of Anselm’s use of locutio might be to see the latter not just as a particularly linguistic interpretation of the Augustinian verbum, but as hearkening back to an even more ancient but long supresssed mode of translating the logos of John 1:1. As Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle has shown, the earliest and almost standard Latin translation of logos among the early church fathers until the fourth century was not verbum (which means a single word), but sermo, a word meaning an informal conversation or ordinary speech, and henc a more appropriate rendering of lovgoV, whose denotations include “speech: a continuous statement, narrative, oration; verbal expression or utterance; a particular utterance or saying; expression, utterance, speech regarded formally.”[1] Boyle speculates that the reason verbum came to be the preferred translation of lovgoV basically from Augustine onward (though Erasmus, Calvin, and Beza all made a return to using sermo) was owing to “a fusion or confusion of the doctrine of Christ as revelation (lovgoV) and as the only-begotten (monogenhvV) so that one Son has been conceptualized as one Word.”[2] Commenting on Augustine in particular, Boyle writes:

Concerned to distinguish God’s Persons against the Modalistic claims of Sabellius and others, Augustine’s argument lapsed into a prblematic computation which he inherited from his adversaries. Whereas he might have argued that the one Son is one Oration, he understood the Son as the Word, the Father’s single undivided utterance. Would oratio or sermo have compromised the only-begotten Son any more than the unity ofa discourse is compromised by its composition from many words? A brilliant rhetor, Augustine did not develop a theology of the Son as copious discourse (lovgoV), the Father’s full and eloquent oration.[3]


[1] Marjorie O’Rourke Boyle, “Sermo: Reopening the Conversation on Translationg JN 1,1,” Vigilae Christianae 31 (1977): 163-4.

[2] Boyle, 166.

[3] Boyle, 166. Boyle further cites the argument of Kenneth Burke, who “reads in Augustine’s conversion an attachment ot the singel Word in deliberate repudiation of his career as a rehtor, a salesman of many words, in The Rhetoric of Religion (Boston 1961) 114.” Boyle, 166n39.