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.

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.  

The divine utterance as the possibility of any possible creation

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 12

Yet another difference between Anselm’s divine utterance and Augustine’s divine ideas might be mentioned. Whereas Augustine firmly located the divine ideas in the mind of God, in keeping with the middle-Platonist tradition, Augustine failed to expressly identify the divine ideas with the divine essence itself. Anselm is not so remiss, as he does not hesitate to affirm that the“utterance of the supreme essence” by which God makes all things “is nothing other than the supreme essence.”[1] This unequivocal identification of the divine utterance with the divine essence, moreover, informs Anselm’s views on the question of the unity or plurality of the divine utterance. He reasons: “if this utterance is consubstantial with the supreme nature in such a way that they are not two, but one spirit, then of course that utterance is supremely simple, just as the supreme nature is. Therefore, it does not consist of several words; rather, it is one Word, through whom all things were made.”[2] Much as Augustine did in his De Trinitate, therefore, in the place of a plurality of Augustinian divine ideas, Anslem substitutes the unity of the divine Word as the principle by which God creates all that he does.

Even Anselm’s argument for why the divine utterance, more than being God’s utterance of creation, is first and foremost an utterance of himself, speaks to the question whether God has ideas of merely possible beings. Insofar as the only possible creation contained in the divine utterance is the creation that God actualy makes, if God were never to create, no possible creation would ever be uttered by him. This understandably leads Anselm to ask,

But then if nothing existed apart from him, what would he understand? Would he not understand himself? Indeed, how can it even be thought that the supreme wisdom at some time fails to understand himself…? Therefore, just as that supreme spirit is eternal, so too he eternally remembers and understands himself after the likeness of the rational mind… Now if he understands himself eternally, he utters himself eternally. And if he utters himself eternally, his Word exists with him eternally. Therefore, whether he is thought to exist without any other essence existing, or along with other things that exist, his Word, coeternal with him, must exist with him.[3]

For the Augustinian tradition of divine ideas, by comparison, even if God were never to create, he would always know himself, and in knowing himself, know all the purported ways in which his essence could be (even if it never were) imitated by his possible creatures. Significantly, Anselm does not take this obvious and available route, yet he seems quite aware that his refusal to include merely possible creatures within the divine utterance prompts the question as to what God would speak if he did not speak creation. His answer is that in such a case God would be speaking himself, his divine Word, and that’s all. In Anselm, in short, there is simply no notion of God knowing himself as imitable by his possible creatures. Prior to and apart from God’s actual determination to create, it is the divine Word and the divine Word alone that is the “possibility” of any possible creation.

[1] Monologion 12.

[2] Monologion 30.

[3] Monologion 32.

God only utters what he actually creates

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 5

For Anselm, God’s knowledge of his creation in its first instance is not a passive survey of what is merely possible, but an active verbalization or articulation of what he intends to create. Of the two aforementioned models of divine cognition found in Augustine’s De Trinitate, accordingly, it is possible to see Anselm’s doctrine of the divine utterance as interpreting Augustine in favor of the verbal over the visual model. Consistent with this, and unlike the Augustinian ideas (which are generally understood as accounting not only for God’s actual but for all of his allegedly possible creatures as well), Anselm makes God’s utterance encompass only those things he actually does make. This is hinted at in the passage cited earlier from the Monologion when Anselm implies that God’s utterance includes those things that “are yet to exist or already exist,” with no mention of those putative possible things that will never actually exist. Later in the Monologion Anselm is even more insistent on the actualist dimension of the divine utterance when he says that “there can be no word of something that neither existed, nor exists, nor will exist.”[1] Finally, and as we shall examine more fully later, in his unfinished Lambeth Fragments, Anselm explicitly denies the existence of purely possible beings, something that God could but in fact does not make. Coincident, then, with his shift from the Augustinian idea to the Anselmian utterance as the metaphor of choice for creation’s relationship to the divine mind is Anselm’s simultaneous contraction of the available objects of divine cognition to only those things God actually makes. Where Augustinian thinking or intellecting God purportedly has his mind full of those things he can but never will make, Anselm’s speaking or uttering God speaks and hence has knowledge of only those things he actually does make.

[1] Monologion ch. 32. As Visser and Williams have put it, for Anselm, “[i]f God were never to create, he would never utter any creature.” Visser and Williams, Anselm, 128.

Mental words are active, ideas merely passive

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 3

The extent of Anselm’s revision of Augustine doesn’t end with his substitution of a divine locutio for the Augustinian divine ideas. William Mann, for example, points out that Anselm’s particular choice of locutio to describe the Son through whom God conceives and makes all things

is initially curious; one might have expected verbum for logos. In fact, Anselm also uses verbum. But locutio conveys more clearly than does verbum an aspect of the Son that is important to Anselm. A locutio… is a speech act. But Anselm includes in the notion of a speech act something that may be surprising to modern sensibilities. Thinking is a kind of speaking, an inner speaking: concepts function as inner words in the language of thought.[1]

Like Augustine in his De Trinitate, Anselm saw creation’s pre-existence in God as occurring within the divine verbum, yet it seems it was specifically the spoken character of this verbum that Anselm particularly wanted to stress through his use of the term locutio. This may be seen in one of the earliest critics of Anselm’s theory of the divine utterance, the thirteenth-century theologian Robert Kilwardby. As Kilwardby points out in his commentary on Lombard’s Sentences, in which he alludes to an implicit contrast between the verbal and the visual model of cognition found within Augustine’s De Trinitate,

[t]o speak is to point to or refer to something, but understanding is a kind of vision. Making a comparison with seeing, speaking has to do with the thing already seen, and understanding with what is going on in the person doing the seeing…. [L]ike external speaking, inner speaking has the character of an action… Thus it seems that understanding and inner speaking are opposites by definition; and if they are, then Anselm is wrong to say that […] in the supreme Spirit, this kind of speaking is nothing but grasping by thinking (cogitando intueri)…[2]

According to Kilwardby, in short, there is a referentiality, intentionality, transitivity, and implied alterity to the act of speaking that is not (or at least not obviously) the case in the act of mere understanding. As Mary Sirridge has aptly put it in her analysis of Kilwardby’s critique of Anselm, “speaking is active and understanding passive.”[3] One reason for Kilwardby’s disagreement with Anselm, moreover, is his belief in the derivative nature of the speech-act in relation to understanding: speech presupposes a prior knowledge or vision of that which is spoken. In terms of our present thesis, for Kilwardby it is an act of (passive) divine visio that is the prior possibility of any subsequent divine locutio.

[1] Mann, “Anselm on the Trinity,” 264.

[2] Robert Kilwardby, 1 Sent., q. 36, 372-386, cited in Surridge, “Utrum idem sint dicere et intelligere,” 258.

[3] Surridge, “Utrum idem sint dicere et intelligere,” 253.

Anselm’s divine locutio

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 2

The previous post noted the absence of any explicit reference to or accommodation of Augustine’s doctrine of divine ideas in the writings of Anselm. Instead, in Monologion 10 Anselm develops an alternative that, while partly inspired by Augustine, is nevertheless uniquely his own, the Anselmian doctrine of the divine utterance (locutio):

Now what is that form of things that existed in his reason before the things to be created, other than an utterance of those things in his reason, just as, when a craftsman is going to make some work of his art, he first says it within himself by a conception of his mind? Now by an “utterance” of the mind or reason, I do not mean what happens when one thinks of the words that signify those things, but what happens when the things themselves (no matter whether they are yet to exist or already exist) are examined within the mind by the gaze of thought.[1]

According to Anselm, prior to their making, creatures were nothing on the one hand and yet existed in the reason of God in the form of a divine “utterance” on the other. As Sandra Visser and Thomas Williams observe, given their similar function, “[i]t seems natural at first to suppose that what Anselm calls God’s utterance of creation is more or less the same as what Augustine calls divine ideas,” but Anselm in fact “develops the account in ways that modify the standard doctrine of divine ideas beyond recognition.”[2] As we shall see, for Anselm this divine locutio through which God utters his creation will turn out to be none other than the divine verbum, the eternal Word and Son of God whom Augustine, in his less abstract and more theological moments, as we saw previously, identified as the one true divine likeness of all creation. Given his expression of debt particularly to Augustine’s De Trinitate in the prologue to the Monologion, accordingly, it is perhaps unsurprising that Anselm’s own account of divine exemplarity should be found bypassing Augustine’s more Platonic reckoning of the divine archetype of creation in favor of the latter’s more Trinitarian and Christological formulation.

[1] Monologion 10.

[2] Visser and Williams, Anselm, 124.

Aquinas vs. Augustine on The Metaphysics of the Dream

Metaphysics of the Music, part 38

The previous post compared Tolkien’s rejection of the Dream as a legitimate framing device for the authentic fairy-story, with Jacques Maritain’s contrast between the lawlike character of genuine artistic inspiration and the dark unreason of dreams. Ironically, the negative associations of the dream-image for these two Thomists stands in opposition to the much more positive connotations it enjoys, for example, in the word’s first appearance in the Summa Theologiae. Using dream as an analogy for the redeemed human soul’s superior, post-mortem, disembodied, and hence abstract knowledge of God in his essence, Thomas writes:

the more our soul is abstracted from corporeal things, the more it is capable of receiving abstract intelligible things. Hence in dreams and withdrawals from the bodily senses divine revelations and foresight of future events are perceived the more clearly. It is not possible, therefore, that the soul in this mortal life should be raised up to the uttermost of intelligible objects, that is, to the divine essence. (ST1.12.11)

For Augustine, however, and notwithstanding his own tendency to view the physical realm along the “tragic” lines he inherited from Neoplatonism, the dream was a metaphor for the diminished degree of reality things have in the mind in comparison to the reality they have in the real world: “everything that occurs in the spirit is not necessarily better than everything that occurs in the body. The true is better than the false. Thus a real tree is better than a tree in a dream, although a dream is in the mind” (De musica 6.7).

Augustine’s “Sin of Angelism”

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 8

The twentieth-century Thomist Jacques Maritain famously accused Descartes of being guilty of the “sin of angelism”: in thinking that man was essentially a thinking thing that needed no body to exist or to carry out its activity of thought, Descartes mistook the specifically angelic psychology for the human one.

Maritain, however, wasn’t the first to indict someone of angelism: Bonaventure beat him to the punch, and his target was Augustine. Having made his case why it was fitting that God should have created the world over six days, namely to display his Trinitarian attributes of divine power, wisdom, and benevolence, Bonaventure says that,

if from another point of view, it is said that all things were made at once, this is simply considering the work of the seven days from the perspective of the angels. At any rate, the first manner of speaking (i.e., creation over six days) is more in keeping with the Scripture and with the authority of the saints, both those before and after Saint Augustine. (Breviloquium 2.2.5)

In privileging a non-successive, instantaneous creation over one accomplished over the Scriptural six days, Augustine was assuming an angelic rather than a properly human perspective on creation.

Hexameral Omnipotence: Augustine vs. Bonaventure

Bonaventure’s Breviloquium, part 6

Augustine, based on a bad Latin translation of a (compared to Genesis) sub-authoritative text (Ecclesiasticus 18:1), taught not only that God created all things simultaneously, but that this manner of creation was in fact more in keeping with divine power. As he writes in his Literal Commentary on Genesis (4.33), “For this power of Divine Wisdom does not reach by stages or arrive by steps.”

For Bonaventure, by contrast, it is rather God’s act of creating over six days that better displays his power, because in doing so, he also displays his wisdom and goodness. He writes:

Now God could have done all of these things simultaneously, but preferred to accomplish them over a succession of times. First of all, this would serve as a clear and distinct manifestation of God’s power, wisdom, and goodness.

As yesterday’s post pointed out, these attributes of power, wisdom, and goodness are “appropriated” by the three persons of the Trinity. This overstates matters, but there is a sense in which, from a Bonaventurean point of view, the Augustinian doctrine of simultaneous creation is monistic: it is all power without wisdom and goodness, all Father without Son and Spirit.

Did Aquinas have an Aesthetic?

In the previous post I cited Leo Spitzer’s comment that Aquinas does not seem to have had “the Augustinian ear for world harmony, ascribing to music a holy character only insofar as it was an element of the liturgy; as an Aristotelian he ‘reflects’ the world as it is, rather than attempting to re-create it by forging it together into a unit.” If so, the alleged tone-deafness of St. Thomas in matters of metaphysics might be related to the general absence of an explicit aesthetics in Thomas’s thought. John Milbank, for example, observes on the one hand that “[j]ust because there was no aesthetics in Aquinas’s theological philosophy, the aesthetic is therein everywhere present,” while on the other hand suggesting that “the latency of fundamental beauty in Aquinas meant that it was also for him a blind spot: one could even say that Aquinas probably supposed his own theology to have more to do with abstract reason than was really the case. This blindness invited a later rationalistic reduction by nominalism and neo-scholasticism of the Patristic legacy in which he stood, and to resist this one indeed requires a more explicit aesthetics, conjoined to a more explicit poetics…” (Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism, and Modernity,” 670). Related to this is Francesca Aran Murphy’s observation that, unlike Franciscans such as St. Bonaventure, none of the Dominican scholastics, including Albert the Great and St. Thomas, ever explicitly listed beauty as a transcendental and therefore convertible property of being. On the other hand, Murphy points out that, “whilst both Albert and Thomas say little of beauty in the main body of their writings, they both succumb to its lure in their respective Commentaries on The Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysus. In these texts, each of these writers speaks of the universal extent of beauty, and names God as its first cause. In The Divine Names, Dionysius defines the beautiful as one of the sources of being” (Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty: A Study in Theology and Literature, 213). Also, as Milbank is concerned to show, Thomas’s aesthetic vision, however blurred by his intellectualism, was to his credit at least sufficiently clear to inspire, through the work of Jacques Maritain, the “more explicit poetics” of twentieth-century Catholic artists and writers such as David Jones, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

Aquinas’s “Tin Ear” for the Music of the Spheres

Metaphysics of the Music, part 14

Against the metaphysically tragic interpretation of Tolkien’s creation-myth—according to which, first, it is the Ainur’s Music that creates the rest of the world and, second, the Music therefore represents an authentic form of being in comparison to which all later permutations of creation are so many disparagable accretions—my claim is that Tolkien’s music imagery both presupposes and self-consciously portrays the kind of Christian, creational, and consequently much more positive metaphysics he shares, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas. To this end, there are three aspects of Thomas’s thought I want to develop in the posts to follow: the first is Thomas’s own occasional remarks on the nature of music; the second consists in select elements of Thomas’s theory of beauty or aesthetics in general; and the third concerns the broader metaphysical “existentialism” and realism involved in Thomas’s aesthetics. At each of these three levels, as I hope to show, Thomas has an important contribution to make where the proper interpretation of the metaphysics of Tolkien’s music imagery is concerned.

Unlike Tolkien, the music imagery of Augustine, Boethius, and the whole musica universalis tradition actually seems to have made very little impression on St. Thomas’s metaphysical imagination: fire and light we certainly find in his philosophy of being (examples of Pseudo-Dionysius’s influence), but there is very little music. Commenting on this lacuna, Leo Spitzer remarks how Thomas does not seem to have had “the Augustinian ear for world harmony, ascribing to music a holy character only insofar as it was an element of the liturgy; as an Aristotelian he ‘reflects’ the world as it is, rather than attempting to re-create it by forging it together into a unit” (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 74). As we shall see, accordingly, Thomas’s ultimate significance for understanding the metaphysics of Tolkien’s musical imagery will lie in quite a different direction. Thomas’s personal interest in music, such as it was, was informed by his direct experience with sacred music as part of his religious devotion and duties as a priest, a subject he addresses in ST 2-2.91, “Of taking the divine name for the purpose of invoking by means of praise” (on this passage, see Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 131-2). More than this, Thomas’s education and general cultural milieu would have required of him a particular familiarity with Boethius’s De Institutione and Augustine’s De Musica (Eco 131). His command of some of the more technical and mathematical details of the latter work in particular, for example, are on display in his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima (Bullough, “St. Thomas and Music,” 14, 19-21). (Thomas F. O’Meara, incidentally, has also made the observation in his study of Aquinas’s “cultural milieu” of thirteenth-century Paris that it was only the century prior that polyphony had been introduced and developed in Gothic music, whose “rhythmical motion of independent parts,” together with the Gothic illustrated window and the Scholastic Summa, constitutes a third example of the period’s “love of plurality ordered.” O’Meara, “Paris as a Cultural Milieu of Thomas Aquinas’s Thought,” 709.) And while Thomas does not seem to have had much use in his cosmology or metaphysics for the Pythagorean notion of a musical world harmony, as his treatment of divine power in the Summa indicates, neither was he completely insensible to the notion’s explanatory force. While expanding on how the universe cannot be improved given the order already bestowed upon it by God, Thomas gives the following argument strongly reminiscent of what I pointed out in Augustine earlier: “For if any one thing were bettered, the proportion of order would be destroyed, just as if one string were stretched more than it ought to be, the melody of the harp would be destroyed” (ST 1.25.6 ad 3).

Augustine’s metaphysics of music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 5

It was principally through the works of Plotinus that the thought of Plato was mediated to St. Augustine, whose treatise De musica was the first Christian work to shape significantly the way music was studied in the Latin West. Although the bulk of Augustine’s De musica is devoted to matters of musical theory, the sixth and final book of his treatise addresses some of the more psychic and cosmic implications of music. As the title of book six has it, Augustine discusses the Neoplatonic “ascent from rhythm in sense to the immortal rhythm which is in truth” (Augustine, De musica, trans. Knight). In the course of his discussion Augustine enumerates five different kinds of rhythm, the highest and most “immortal” of which he calls “Judicial Rhythm” (iudiciales numeri), a form of rhythm that, “if not entirely without limitation by durations of time,” is nevertheless in some sense “eternal,” and resides “in the soul,” enabling it “to judge what is presented, approving the rhythmic and condemning the irregular…” (6.7.17-18). The Judicial Rhythm within the soul enabling it to judge the presence or absence of rhythm outside of the soul, however, is also a property of the cosmos as a whole:

Every living thing in its own kind, and in its due relation to the whole, proportione uniuersitatis, has been endowed with a sense of magnitude in space and time, so that as its body is in a certain proportion to the universal body of which it is a part, so its permitted life-time, aetas, is proportional to the whole duration of the universe, universi saeculi, of which it is a part… It is by such an organization of parts according to scale that our world achieves its vast size, sic habendo omnia magnus est hic mundus: the world which in the Scriptures is called “heaven and earth”…(6.7.19)

In book 11 of his Confessions, Augustine’s idea of “Judicial Rhythm” in the cosmos, similar to the Ainur’s Music, is represented as the creature through which the Creator’s own act of creation is somehow mediated. As Augustine inquires of God:

But how did you speak [in creation]?… [T]he utterance came through the movement of some created thing, serving your eternal will but itself temporal. And these your words, made for temporal succession, were reported by the external ear to the judicious mind whose internal ear is disposed to hear your eternal word. But that mind would compare these words, sounding in time, with your eternal word in silence…(Augustine, Confessions 11.6, trans. Chadwick)

Another well-known passage from Augustine dealing with music as a metaphor for cosmic order comes from a letter in which he compares the way a good song-writer “knows how to distribute the length of time allowed to each word so as to make the song flow and pass on in most beautiful adaptation to the ever-changing notes of the melody,” to the way that God in his wisdom ensures

that not one of the spaces of time allotted to natures that are born and die—spaces which are like the words and syllables of the successive epochs of the course of time—shall have, in what we may call the sublime psalm of the vicissitudes of this world, a duration either more brief or more protracted than the foreknown and predetermined harmony requires!… [E]very man’s life on earth continues for a time, which is neither longer nor shorter than God knows to be in harmony with the plan according to which He rules the universe. (Augustine, Letters of St. Augustine 166.5.13, trans. Cunningham, emphasis added. See also Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 178)

As these passages also illustrate, Augustine is significant in that his concept of creational music adds a linear or progressive element to the idea of cosmic music that we also find in the Ainulindalë but which is absent in the comparatively a-temporal and static “music of the spheres” tradition of the Pythagoreans and Platonists. (Leo Spitzer points to another important shift from the pagan to the Christian and especially Augustinian understanding of world harmony: “According to the Pythagoreans, it was cosmic order which was identifiable with music; according to the Christian philosophers, it was love. And in the ordo amoris of Augustine we have evidently a blend of the Pagan and the Christian themes: henceforth ‘order’ is love.” Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 19-20. See also Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 276.) Thus, in his commentary on the above letter of Augustine, whose application to Tolkien will be evident, Spitzer describes Augustine’s notion of a transcendent, cosmic pattern both behind and unfolding within creation as a “hymn scanned by God” and a “poem of the world” which, “like any poem, can only be understood in time by a soul which endeavors to understand the action of Providence, which itself unfolds in time… The God-Artist, creating in time, realizes his idea, his providential decisions, like a musician…” (ibid., 31).




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.

The good as the efficacy of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 53

In the previous post on this subject I noted that Tolkien does not write in The Silmarillion that Ungoliant’s darkness “was not lack but a thing with being of its own,” but that it “seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own. The point of this observation, however, is not merely to demonstrate that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is consistently Augustinian or Boethian after all, but rather to raise the prospect that Tolkien is in fact doing something much more profound and interesting. Far from vacillating between the Augustinian and Manichaean theories of evil, as per Tom Shippey’s reading, what Tolkien’s fiction accomplishes is a confrontation of Manichaeism head-on, not by contradicting it outright, but more intriguingly, by conceding what even the pre-converted Augustine recognized as a certain superficial cogency to Manichaean dualism: evil at times at least seems to have its own independent power and being. As Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis put it in the context of his own rejection of Manichaeism in favor of the Augustinian privation theory, the Manichaean position does enjoy a certain “obvious prima facie plausibility…” (“Evil and God,” 22). I think the best way of understanding Tolkien, therefore, is to see him as conceding the appearance of Manichaean evil at the phenomenological level, all the while re-inscribing and accounting for this appearance in the only way it could be accounted for, namely in terms of an otherwise Augustinian and Thomistic metaphysics of creation. This “truth” of Manichaeism, moreover, is one that Thomas himself, after a fashion, defends in the Summa, when he argues that evil is no mere illusion, but has a real existence in things (ST 1.48.2), meaning that in an important respect evil is as real and present as the things in which it resides. This I also take to be the meaning behind Tolkien’s emphatic claim in his “Mythopoeia” poem that “Evil is,” for as the poem also assures us of the eye that will see Paradise,

Evil it will not see, for evil lies

not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,

not in the source but in malicious choice,

and not in sound but in the tuneless voice. (Tree and Leaf 101)

As we have seen, for both Thomas and Tolkien, evil by itself is a “zero,” but therein lies the paradox: evil is never by itself. As Thomas puts it, “evil is the privation of good, and not pure negation” (malum privatio est boni, et non negatio pura, ST 1.48.5 ad 1). Evil, in other words, is not isolatable to that small segment of the thing which it negates, for its effects reverberate throughout and may even be said to be amplified by the being that remains. (Compare this with the devastation which follows from Melkor’s monstrous wolf, Carcharoth, swallowing the Silmaril jewel after he bit off the hand of Beren. Although the jewel, as a symbol of creative and sub-creative light and existence, is a thing beautiful and good in itself, inside the belly of Carcharoth, its powerful effect is only to magnify the madness, terror, and destruction of Carcharoth’s rampage: “Of all the terrors that came ever into Beleriand ere Angband’s fall the madness of Carcharoth was the most dreadful; for the power of the Silmaril was hidden within him.”)

As Mary Edwin DeCoursey aptly puts it in her 1948 dissertation on Thomas’s metaphysics of evil, the privation of evil “is more than simple non-being. It has definite, malevolent ties with reality; it is the absence that is conspicuous” (The Theory of Evil in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas and Its Contemporary Significance: A Dissertation, 34, also cited in Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Herbert McCabe has also put the point well:
Now does this mean that badness is unreal? Certainly not. Things really are bad sometimes and this is because the absence of what is to be expected is just as real as a presence. If I have a hole in my sock, the hole is not anything at all, it is just an absence of wool or cotton or whatever, but it is a perfectly real hole in my sock. It would be absurd to say that holes in socks are unreal and illusory just because the hole isn’t made of anything and is purely an absence. Nothing in the wrong place can be just as real and just as important as something in the wrong place. If you inadvertently drive your car over a cliff you will have nothing to worry about; it is precisely the nothing that you will have to worry about. (God Matters, 29)
In this way, as John Milbank has put it, “it is possible for negativity to take a sublime quasi-heroic form” (“Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 21). Thus, it is not in spite of evil’s status as a privation that it seems to be so powerful, but precisely on account of it. To state it differently still, evil doesn’t need to be ontologically independent in order for it to be a potent force to reckon with, since it has the very potency of the goodness of being at its disposal. Evil’s status as a privation of being is not what mitigates its efficacy, therefore, but what establishes it: it is as a privation of being that evil is able to derive its power and potency from the being it labors to negate. Thomas explains that evil is never capable of “corrupting the whole good” (ST 1.48.4), yet this only means that evil always has some remaining good behind it, giving it its very ontological efficacy and metaphysical momentum.

Calvin on the medieval distinction of powers

In his chapter on “Calvin and the Absolute Power of God” (Calvin in Context) David Steimetz quotes the following passage from Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 23 in which he rejects out of hand the scholastic distinction between God’s absolute and ordained power:

That invention which the Schoolmen have introduced, about the absolute power of God, is shocking blasphemy. It is all one as if they said that God is a tyrant who resolves to do what he pleases, not by justice, but through caprice. Their schools are full of such blasphemies, and are not unlike the heathens, who said that God sports with human affairs.

Part of Calvin’s rejection of the scholastic distinction of powers, Steinmetz argues, is his rejection of any separation between God’s justice and God’s power, a point that corroborates Steinmetz’s over-arching thesis that, contrary to the interpretation of later Protestant scholastics such as Francis Turretin, Calvin was opposed not just to the scholastic abuse of the distinction of divine powers through undue speculation, but to the very distinction itself. As William Courtenay, for example, has shown, at the origins of the medieval distinction of divine power lies Augustine’s (highly problematic, in my view) admission that there are certain things God could do “according to his power, but not according to his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam) (Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29). If so, then Calvin’s rejection of the distinction of powers may be seen to involve far more than a mere correction of medieval and Renaissance scholasticism: it represents a fundamental critique of the theological tradition regarding divine power, dating back to and including Augustine himself. (On this point, one might say, Calvin is more Augustinian than Augustine himself.) This fact would also seem to qualify the extent of Calvin’s alleged debt to the “covenant theology” of late medieval nominalism, inasmuch as the latter involved not only the adoption but the radicalization of the very distinction of powers that Calvin would later reject.