Does a Phoenix Have an Essence?

In a well-known passage from his little metaphysical treatise On Being and Essence, Aquinas illustrates his famous essence-existence distinction with the example of a fictional creature, the phoenix: 

For all that does not belong to the concept of the essence or quiddity, is coming to it from the outside and makes a composition with the essence, because no essence can be understood without those things which are the parts of the essence. But every essence or quiddity can be understood without something being understood about its being; for I can understand what a man is or a phoenix, and still not know whether it has being in reality. Therefore, it is manifest that being is something different from essence or quiddity.

In short, I can know what a phoenix is (i.e., its essence) without knowing whether or that a phoenix is (i.e., its actual existence).

This argument has bothered me for a couple of years, and for a couple of distinct but related reasons. The first has to do with Aquinas’s own thought, and the second having to do with Tolkien. First, Aquinas’s argument about the phoenix has never struck me as consistent with Aquinas’s otherwise metaphysical realism and existentialism (with its adherence to the primacy of the real and the actual), but seems to have more in common with the essentialism of Avicenna. To say that I can know the essence of something in isolation from the question of its actual existence is to insinuate that I somehow have an access to the nature of things that bypasses their existence and my experience of that existence. In brief, it makes the intellectual apprehension or understanding of a thing’s essence to be “existence-optional” (which is on its way to making the essences of the things themselves to be “existence-optional”).

A second concern is a Tolkienian one, which is that the parity of man and phoenix in Aquinas’s above illustration overlooks the obvious fact that one of these is an essence created by God whereas the other is a fictional “essence” sub-created by man. And if its “essence” is of a sub-created being, then it stands to reason that its existence can only be a sub-creative existence.

From imitability to producibility

In his discussion of the ideas of God, Ockham comments that “God has an infinite number of ideas, as there are infinitely many things which can be produced by him.” Although it’s tangential to the point Ockham is making, the quote puts me in mind that the whole shift in thinking about the nature of possibility which occurs between Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham could be reduced to this. It is a shift from the possible understood as a theologically rich and analogical divine imitability, to a theologically evacuated and banal divine producibility.

Tolkien: “Re-Mythologizing” Aquinas

Metaphysics of Faerie, Conclusion (finale)

The question I’ve posed is, “What, if anything, does J.R.R. Tolkien have to offer St. Thomas Aquinas?” Might Tolkien help us also recover the kind of metaphysical insight possessed by St. Thomas?

John Houghton, in his article on Augustine and Tolkien, has made the point that there are in fact “two moments in the task of theology.” On the one hand, the theologian must “de-mythologize,” and so render intelligible to his audience, the meaning of divine revelation or sacred scripture by explaining it in terms of what they already know.[1] It is this first task of theology with which St. Thomas was primarily involved, translating, as I’ve suggested before, the mythos of biblical revelation into the logos of Aristotle and the veritable vernacular of late medieval scholasticism. “On the other hand,” Houghton continues, “the theologian faces the task of recovery, of restoring the power of images and stories that have grown weak from cultural change or from mere familiarity. In this sense the theologian’s task is not demythologizing but mythopoesis as… ‘re-mythologizing’…”[2] As we have seen, it is this second task of the theologian to which Tolkien devoted himself and his work. What I am suggesting here is that the world Tolkien “re-mythologizes” is not simply the world of bare, ordinary experience, now become mundane or trite through our constant exposure to and consequent familiarity with it, but includes the specifically religious, theological, and philosophical world he had inherited from his own Catholic intellectual tradition, and yet which had also become truly quaint—when not outright despised—in the eyes of his modern audience. In short, where St. Thomas translated the biblical mythos into the logos of Aristotle, what Tolkien represents in part is an effort to retransplant the Thomistic logos back into its original, mythic soil from which it first took root. As Tolkien himself writes, “[n]aturally the stories come first.” St. Thomas himself, in the opening question of his Summa, points out the important role that the poetic structure of metaphor (the stuff of myth), for example, plays in the science of sacred theology: since it belongs to the nature of human knowledge to begin in the senses, it is “befitting” that spiritual truths should be communicated through sensible images such as metaphor, and this not for the benefit of the simple-minded only, inasmuch as the “very hiding of truth in figures is useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds” as well (ST 1.1.9 corpus and ad 2).[3] Rational science, in other words, takes as its starting point, and thus is in a dependent relationship upon, the senses and therefore upon metaphor, much as Thomas’s own metaphysics had its roots in biblical mythology. As Louis Dupré has aptly generalized upon the relationship between religion, mythology, and poetry on the one hand and philosophy and metaphysics on the other,

Religious believers deepen their faith through metaphysics, while at the same time keeping the metaphysical flame alive…. Metaphysics has risen from mythology and religion. Without a religious sense of wonder the philosopher is rarely inclined to raise the question of Being in its totality, against the horizon of emptiness…. Today it is among poets, rather than philosophers, that we most commonly find the sense of wonder from which metaphysics springs.[4]

Dupré’s image of the religious and mythic sensibility as keeping the “flame” of metaphysical rationality alive is a felicitous one, for it is of course the same image of a kindling fire that Tolkien in the Ainulindalë uses to describe that unique and all-important event of the Creator, who is Being itself, giving the gift of being to his creatures, and from which this research project has accordingly taken its title. It is precisely the opacity—or rather, the super-luminosity—of such images that, in retaining the mythic and numinous character of reality, helps enliven the mind in the first place to that rational enterprise we call metaphysics, to inspire the mind, that is, to investigate the world insofar as it can be known. It takes a fascinating world, and an equally fascinating mind, to foment the kind of system of thought created by St. Thomas. But it must also be said that it takes an equally imaginative and ingenious mind to render that system of thought of enduring interest, accessibility, and relevance, especially to the modern mind which has grown impatient with such lofty and seemingly impractical matters. This is why, for example, introductions to St. Thomas such as Chesterton’s biography have proven so important for the study of St. Thomas, and why, finally, I would like to suggest Tolkien too could prove to be important for St. Thomas as well. Thomistic philosophy gives us a rational account of the biblical creation narrative, translating, as I have said, the biblical mythos into the language of philosophical logos. Tolkien offers an implicit validation of Thomas’s project by translating the creation metaphysics of Christian philosophy back into the mythic mode. By comparing Thomas and Tolkien, I hope to have shown indirectly that, through his concrete and mythic imagery, what Tolkien gives us is not one more dialectical treatise arguing that faith and philosophy have met and mythos and logos have kissed, but a radically fresh vision of the world in which we might see and experience how these things are so. In this manner, my hope in the end is to be able to commend not only the philosophical insights of St. Thomas, whether discovered or simply preserved by him, as a profoundly helpful guide in plumbing the depths of Tolkien’s metaphysical thought, but conversely to be able to commend Tolkien’s literary achievement, given its extraordinary popularity and influence, as an important and altogether unique landmark in the history of Thomism, offering us a creative and powerful contemporary interpretation and application of Thomistic metaphysics for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. In the myths and metaphors of Tolkien, in sum, we have the hidden truths of St. Thomas “useful for the exercise of thoughtful minds.”


[1] Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play: The Ainulindalë as Asterisk Cosmology,” 181.

[2] Ibid.

[3] As Owen Barfield, whose views on the interrelationship between language and reality were influential on Tolkien, comments on Aquinas, he “and others after him, emphasized the importance of using the humblest and most banal images, as symbols for purely spiritual truths or beings. For only in this way could a representation be safely polarized into symbol and symbolized, into literal and metaphorical.” Barfield, Saving the Appearances: A Study in Idolatry, 74.

[4] Louis Dupré, “Belief and Metaphysics,” 10.

Tolkien’s “Recovery” of St. Thomas

Metaphysics of Faerie, Conclusion (part 2)

The previous post ended with the statement that what we find in Tolkien is less an uncritical adoption of Thomistic ideas, but as one would expect of someone of Tolkien’s genius and originality, a creative appropriation and adaptation of Thomas’s thought for his own literary purposes. I want to suggest, however, that even here there would seem to be something remotely Thomistic in Tolkien’s creative departures from St. Thomas, for the latter’s own thought was nothing if not a profoundly creative appropriation and application of the metaphysics of his forbears. It was the infallible insight afforded by Christian revelation, after all, that arguably allowed St. Thomas to discern and exploit hitherto unrealized potentialities in the thought of his predecessors, as when he used Aristotle’s act-potency distinction, for example, to transcend Aristotle by means of his own essence-existence distinction; or when he utilized Aristotelian arguments to prove the arguably un-Aristotelian conclusion that the soul is both a form and a subsistent being capable of existing independently of the body of which it is the form; or when, in a clever application of the Neoplatonic logic of emanation, he argued the distinctly anti-Neoplatonic conclusion that the Creator alone can create. These are just a few examples of Thomas’s own metaphysical innovation and the kind of thing Chesterton may have had in mind when he said that St. Thomas had “the imagination without the imagery.”[1]

In Tolkien, by contrast, I submit that we meet with a metaphysician who had both the imagination and the imagery, which brings us to the point I wish to end with here. The primary objective of my work on Tolkien and Aquinas has been to enlist the metaphysical thought of St. Thomas in an effort to better understand an important yet hitherto largely unexamined dimension of Tolkien’s literary project. In short, it has been occupied with the question, “What does St. Thomas Aquinas have to offer our understanding of J.R.R. Tolkien?” But Tolkien’s own project was the self-conscious one of “recovery,” that is, the “regaining of a clear view” of the world, the same world that St. Thomas labored assiduously to explain, and yet whose explanation has become largely lost and to a large extent even unintelligible to the modern world. If so, to the extent to which Tolkien’s own project of “recovery” has been successful, and to the extent that his project has been informed and guided by the metaphysical sensibility of St. Thomas, an appropriate question to ask would seem to be this: “What, if anything, does J.R.R. Tolkien have to offer St. Thomas Aquinas?” Might Tolkien, in other words, help us also recover the kind of metaphysical insight possessed by St. Thomas?

(to be continued….)

[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox, 152-3.

Tolkien’s Thomistic Metaphysics in Overview

Metaphysics of Fairie, Conclusion (part 1)

After something like a year-and-a-half of whittling away at it, I recently finished blogging through the five chapters of my doctoral dissertation. The following series of posts is from my conclusion.

The argument has been that, behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast and vastly popular mythology of Middle-earth–giving his world a philosophical cogency and sophistication not often recognized, and certainly not typically associated with the fantasy or science-fiction genre—lies the influential metaphysical thought of Tolkien’s great Catholic forbear, St. Thomas Aquinas. Structuring my discussion around Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, I have attempted not simply to analyze Tolkien’s fiction in light of, but also to show how his fiction purposefully incarnates such important Thomistic themes as the relationship between faith and reason; the being, attributes, and persons of the divine Creator; the simultaneous realism or mind-independence and yet inherent intelligibility of all created being; the realization or fulfillment of intelligible form or essence in and through a thing’s real act of existence; the dependence of artistic sub- or “con”-creation on the Creator’s prior, exclusive act of creation; the anthropological significance of angels; and the metaphysics of evil.

At the same time, my purpose has also been to suggest that, far from Tolkien’s metaphysics being necessarily reducible to St. Thomas’s, the nature of Tolkien’s Thomism often lies as much in his creative departures from or innovations upon the thought of the angelic doctor as it does in his overt debt to it. Although Tolkien never mentions St. Thomas by name, the influence of St. Thomas on the Catholic culture, thought, and art of Tolkien’s generation was nigh inescapable, especially for someone attempting to sub-create an alternative world of the philosophical complexity and magnitude of Tolkien’s. The way in which I have conceived Thomas’s influence on Tolkien, accordingly, has been in terms of his providing the latter with an inherited, trustworthy, yet always tacitly assumed intellectual point of reference by which Tolkien might both the more effectively determine what was metaphysically necessary, and within those parameters the more keenly to discern what was metaphysically and therefore sub-creatively possible. Thus, I’ve argued how Tolkien’s otherwise Thomistic metaphysical theism was (paradoxically) what also allowed his mythology to be fundamentally “about God” even when it scarcely bothered to mention him. We saw further how Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, while presupposing the traditional, orthodox view of divine presence and providence defended by St. Thomas, also requires for its full aesthetic and emotional effect a kind of provisional “forgetting” of the Creator and almost despairing of hope, conditions which set the stage for that special “miraculous” act of divine intervention whereby both the reader and the characters are powerfully reminded that, though God may be “never named,” he is also the one who is “never absent.” We saw how Tolkien similarly presupposes a Thomistic conception of divine and creational possibility to articulate a theory of sub-creative freedom or autonomy and creaturely contingency that is customarily associated with the theological voluntarism and counter-factual speculation of a William of Ockham rather than with the comparatively more reserved theology of Aquinas. We saw how Tolkien stresses the Thomistic insight as to the metaphysical primacy of the act of existence, not by putting the world in its created existence at the beginning of his creation-myth, but precisely by postponing the divine gift of being until the eschatological climax at the end. We have witnessed Tolkien at perhaps his metaphysical boldest in his postulation of reincarnating Elves and incarnate, “demiurgic” angels, again, entities which would seem to defy the comparative sobriety of St. Thomas’s hierarchy of being on the one hand and yet whose own structure, on the other hand, seems to presuppose the very logic of Thomas’s hierarchy. Finally, I argued that, more than simply favoring the traditional, Augustinian and Thomistic view of evil as relative form of non-being, Tolkien in fact utilizes his Thomistic metaphysics of creation not so much to contradict as to sublate the Manichaean insight into the (apparent) independence and radical power of evil. What we see in each of these cases, I think, is less an uncritical adoption of Thomistic ideas, but as one would expect of someone of Tolkien’s genius and originality, a creative appropriation and adaptation of Thomas’s thought for his own literary purposes.

(to be continued…)

Tolkien’s Thomistic realism vs. modern idealism

Metaphysics of the Music, part 41

In the previous post I compared Tolkien’s and Chesterton’s “metaphysics of the Dream.” Also of interest here is the way Tolkien develops in his essay the implicit realism of fairy-stories—as Chesterton does the metaphysical “vision” of St. Thomas—in juxtaposition with the idealism of modern philosophy, a passage that more than one commentator has related back to Tolkien’s own unspoken Thomism. In saying that fairy-stories accomplish a “regaining of a clear view” of things, Tolkien explains that he does not necessarily mean “‘seeing things as they are’ and involve myself with the philosophers, though I might venture to say ‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). Commenting on this passage, Paul Kocher has suggested that the “philosophers” Tolkien probably has in mind are “those of the idealist school from Berkeley down to our modern phenomenologists who, each in his own way, echo Coleridge’s dejection, ‘…we receive but what we give / And in our life alone does Nature live.’”[1] As Kocher goes on to argue, his assumed posture of reticence notwithstanding, Tolkien of course cannot and ultimately has no intention to “escape metaphysics,” and what is more, that the metaphysics behind Tolkien’s philosophy of fairy-stories is “best understood when viewed in the context of the natural theology of Thomas Aquinas…”[2] More recently, however, Alison Milbank has commented on this same passage from Tolkien’s essay, this time explicitly contrasting the realist metaphysics common to St. Thomas, Maritain, Chesterton, and Tolkien, with the idealism of Kant in particular, and in the process introducing a further dimension to the problem represented by idealist metaphysics and its corresponding aesthetics:

The “things in themselves” to which Tolkien alludes are those elements of phenomena to which Kant, a critical idealist, believes we have no access, and to which he gives the term, “noumena.” Despite his apologetic tone, Tolkien is actually saying something quite radical: that fiction in the form of fantastic recreation of the world can give us access to the real by freeing the world of objects from our appropriation of them. Maritain states that Kant’s mistake was in believing “that the act of knowing consists in creating the other, not in becoming the other, he foolishly reversed the order of dependence between the object of knowledge and the human intellect and made the human intellect the measure and law of the object.”[3]

[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: the Fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien, 76-7.

[2] Ibid., 77.

[3] Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 19.

Chesterton on the “Dream” vs. the “Vision”

Metaphysics of the Music, part 40

In the last few posts I have been developing a possible parallel between the differences between the Music and the Vision of the Ainur, and the opposition Tolkien constructs between the Dream and the Fairy-Story in his essay. Like the Dream, the Ainur’s Music possessed a kind of “perfectly self-contained significance,” but did not clearly point to any reality beyond itself. Instead, the Ainur “knew not that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” The Ainur’s Vision, by contrast, is more redolent of Tolkien’s remarks about fairy-stories in their suggestion of and eliciting of a desire for realities, worlds, and realms outside or beyond oneself. I’ve noted, furthermore, this same opposition between the Dream and true Art in Tolkien’s fellow 20th century Thomists Jacques Maritain and, under his direct influence, American novelist Flannery O’Connor.

It is in another reader of Maritain, however, that the most suggestive reference to the dream-image for our consideration of Tolkien appears. In his biography of St. Thomas, Chesterton writes:

That strangeness of things, which is the light in all poetry, and indeed in all art, is really connected with their otherness; or what is called their objectivity. What is subjective must be stale; it is exactly what is objective that is in this imaginative manner strange. In this the great contemplative is the complete contrast of the false contemplative, the mystic who looks only into his own soul, the selfish artist who shrinks from the world and lives only in his own mind. According to St. Thomas, the mind acts freely of itself, but its freedom exactly consists in finding a way out to liberty and the light of day; to reality and the land of the living. In the subjectivist, the pressure of the world forces the imagination inwards. In the Thomist, the energy of the mind forces the imagination outwards, but because the images it seeks are real things. All their romance and glamour, so to speak, lies in the fact that they are real things; things not to be found by staring inwards at the mind. The flower is a vision because it is not only a vision. Or, if you will, it is a vision because it is not a dream.[1]

Whether Tolkien ever read Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas is not known for sure, yet the antithesis Chesterton draws between the vision and the dream as metaphors for the opposition between the subjective idealism of much modern aesthetics and the metaphysical realism of Thomas’s aesthetics is certainly striking, and would seem to corroborate further my suggestion that behind the relationship between the Ainur’s Music and Vision is the Dream/fairy-story polarity of Tolkien’s essay.[2] In contrast to the Music, after all, the Ainur’s Vision illustrates Tolkien’s belief that fairy-stories tap into a “primal desire” inherent in human beings, namely that, whatever the reality might be, there at least should exist things other than ourselves. Where the question of desire is concerned, therefore, the Music would seem to be more akin to the Dream in the limited sense that in it the Ainur’s desire-for-the-other, if not exactly “cheated,” at least goes unrecognized, to say nothing of it being unrealized. The Music was certainly beautiful for its time, “unlocking strange powers” in the minds of the Ainur, yet the logic of the Ainulindalë is hard to mistake: had Ilúvatar followed the Vision, not with the creation of the actual, physical world, but instead with a repetition of the Music which had preceded it, the Ainur would have perceived its self-contained, disinterested beauty by comparison as a mere “figment or illusion,” i.e., as a dream.

[1] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 182-3.

[2] The sequencing of the publication of Chesterton’s biography of St. Thomas in 1933, Tolkien’s Andrew Lang address “On Fairy-Stories” at the University of St. Andrews in 1939, and his revision of the Ainulindalë in the early 1950s to give the Vision (now named for the first time as such) a much more prominent place in the narrative (MR 24-6), is consistent at any rate with the possibility of Tolkien having read and been influenced by Chesterton’s biography.