Creation as divine idleness, sanity

Metaphysics of the Music, part 23

Even when viewed as a finite, superfluous, and in that sense “inferior” reduplication of the divine being, the entirely voluntary, unnecessary, and gratuitous character of creation—in contrast, as we saw in the last chapter, to the impersonal necessity of Neoplatonic emanation of reality from the One—again has the tendency of rendering creation more comic than tragic. In Summa Theologiae 1.19.2, for example, Thomas reasons from the benevolent nature of voluntary agents in general to the conclusion that it belongs especially to God to will the existence of “things apart from himself” (alia a se), which serve no other purpose than to give him something to which he might communicate his own inherent goodness. It is not for his own sake, in other words, that God wills the existence of things other than himself, but for their sake, since God is already perfect and stands to gain nothing from his creative efforts. The result is a profound irony at the heart of Thomas’s account of creation, and one that at least one of his more rationalist commentators has sought to avoid, and yet without which creation loses its essential quality of playfulness and gratuitous excess: God creates, in short, to benefit that which would otherwise not even exist unless he first created it. As Thomas charmingly puts it in one passage, God “alone is the most perfectly free giver, because He does not act for His own profit…” (Et ideo ipse solus est maxime liberalis: quia non agit propter suam utiltatem…–ST 1.44.4). Chesterton captures well the basic difference between the kind of tragic rationalism and causalism of Neoplatonic emanationism reviewed earlier and the comic freedom of Christian creationism in the contrast he draws in Orthodoxy between the madman and the sane man: “The last thing that can be said of a lunatic is that his actions are causeless. If any human acts may loosely be called causeless, they are the minor acts of a healthy man; whistling as he walks; slashing the grass with a stick; kicking his heels or rubbing his hands. It is the happy man who does the useless things; the sick man is not strong enough to be idle.” The doctrine of creation, in short, represents a kind of metaphysical strength and health, for it teaches a God who creates and loves that which is “useless” or needless to himself. For Thomas, creation is not a metaphysical decadence: it is a divine extravagance.

Thomas’s “Comic” Metaphysics

Metaphysics of the Music, part 22

Related to Thomas’s existentialism is his concomitant doctrine of metaphysical realism, the stress Thomas lays on the irreducibly real, mind-independent, yet for that reason mind-obtruding and seducing character of things. I’ve posted before on Thomas’s and Tolkien’s shared doctrine of “theological truth,” captured in Tolkien’s emphatic claim that things “ARE, they would exist even if we did not” (Letters 399). What I particularly want to draw attention to here is the positive attitude towards the alterity or “otherness” of things entailed in Thomas’s doctrine. On the one hand, it is quite true for Thomas that “natural things… have being absolutely in the divine mind more truly than in themselves, because in that mind they have an uncreated being, but in themselves a created being” (ST1.18.4 ad 3).[1] In other words, things are more real in the divine mind than they are in their own created being. However, far from this implying a Neoplatonic, metaphysically tragic degradation of things, on the contrary, it is precisely the inferiority of created being in comparison to their divine origin that renders the act of creation for Thomas not metaphysically tragic, but comic. Even so, immediately following his above statement that, “absolutely” speaking, things more truly exist in the divine mind than in themselves, Thomas goes on to say that, nevertheless, “to be this particular being, a man, or a horse, for example, is realized more truly in its own nature than in the divine mind, because it belongs to the truth of man to be material, which, as existing in the divine mind, he is not.”[2] As Thomas further explains in a passage that will have an important application to Tolkien’s Music of the Ainur, “[e]ven so a house has nobler being in the architect’s mind than in matter; yet a material house is called a house more truly than the one which exists in the mind, since the former is a house in act, the latter only in potency” (ST1.18.4 ad 3).[3] Things, in short, have more truth, more being, more perfection or goodness, and therefore more actuality in God than they do in themselves. The point, however, is that in the divine mind, “things” enjoy this super-eminent truth, being, perfection, and actuality not as themselves, that is, not as created beings, but as certain aspects of God’s own, uncreated being. To have any kind of reality as themselves, of course, things must be given their own being as individual things, the kind of being, in other words, that they do not have in the divine mind, a point Thomas finds especially illustrated in the case of material beings. And if this is true of the divine mind, how much more must it be true with respect to finite human minds? Thus Thomas, writing of the purely “logical existence” that mathematical entities have in the mind and yet upon which, as we saw, music is based, says that they clearly “do not subsist as realities” otherwise “they would be in some sort good if they subsisted” (ST1.5.3 ad 4), and that an individual man, because he includes individual matter, therefore “has something in it” which the intelligible essence of man alone does not (ST1.3.3).[5] Thomas’s positive evaluation of matter as a created, intelligible, and objectifying force, combined with the role he reserves for the body in the sensual perception of beauty, mean that, as Michael Sweeney has put it in a passage in keeping with our theme, “[i]nstead of rendering philosophy tragic, the inescapable corporeality of human life makes philosophy comic because matter is no longer an irrational given contrary to intelligibility but the created principle to which all human thought must return.”[6]

[1] “Sed quia de ratione rerum naturalium est materia, dicendum quod res naturales verius esse habent simpliciter in mente divina habent esse increatum, in seipsis autem esse creatum.” See also De veritate 6.4.

[2] “Sed esse hoc, utpote homo vel equus, verius habent in propria natura quam in mente divina: quia ad veritatem hominis pertinet esse materiale, quod non habent in mente divina.”

[3] “Sicut domus nobilius esse habet in mente artificis, quam in materia: sed tamen verius dicitur domus quae est in materia, quam quae est in mente, quia haec est domus in actu, illa autem domus in potentia.”

[5] “[U]nde id quod est homo, habet in se aliquid quod non habet humanitas.”

[6] Sweeney, “Stat rosa pristine margine: Umberto Eco on the Role of the Margin in Medieval Hermeneutics and Thomas Aquinas as a Comic Philosopher,” 266.

Thomas’s existential beauty

Metaphysics of the Music, part 21

We can see, then, that while Thomas is certainly keen, in the words of G.B. Phelan, to give “due consideration for the rôle of the perceiving subject in the apprehension of the beautiful,” going so far as to define “the beautiful as having a necessary reference to a subject,” there is nevertheless an “intransigent objectivism” to his account of beauty.[1] This leads us, finally, to a consideration of the existential realism lying beneath Thomas’s theory of being. Existentialism in this context refers to the insight—now widely regarded as one of if not the central principle of Thomas’s metaphysical thought—that the act of existence, signified by the Latin infinitive esse, is the “actuality of all acts and the perfection of all perfections.” As the existential Thomists of the twentieth century argued, in identifying a thing’s act of existence as the “act of acts,” Thomas inaugurated a veritable revolution in metaphysics and the theory of knowledge, at the heart of which was the realization that, contrary to the “essentialism” of much of the metaphysical tradition both before and after him, it is not a thing’s intelligible, contemplatable essence or form, but its actual, real, concrete existence in the world that, in the words of Armand Maurer,

holds the primary place in the order of being. While not neglecting other aspects of being, such as form and essence, St. Thomas offers a radically new interpretation of being by emphasizing its existential side. This was a decisive moment in the history of Western metaphysics, for St. Thomas was transforming previous Greek and mediaeval conceptions of being, which gave primary place to form.[2]

[1] Phelan, “The Concept of Beauty in St. Thomas Aquinas,” 162.

[2] Maurer, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Being and Essence, trans. Maurer, 10.

Can God cause a thing to not exist?

The answer, according to Aquinas, is “No.” As James F. Ross explains, for Aquinas

ceasing to cause existence in creatures would not be the same as giving them an active tendency toward nonbeing, because God does not cause nonexistence in them, but ceases to cause them to be, to “give them being.” (“Aquinas on Annihilation,” 181, citing De Potentia Dei 5.3 ad 1)

In other words, annihilation is not a “causing a thing not to be,” but is rather a “no longer causing a thing to be.” It matters where you put the “not.” Annihilation, in short, is not something God can do, but something that he can not do, namely continuing to create something once he has created it. Annihilation is God’s ability not to create.

The Three Properties of Thomistic Beauty

Metaphysics of the Music, part 20

As to what it is in the beautiful object that is responsible for eliciting the affective response in the individual, Thomas lists the three objective properties of beauty—integrity, proportion, and clarity—touched on at the end of the last chapter.[1] By integrity or perfection, Thomas means something close to what Tolkien has in mind in his requirement that sub-created, secondary world’s exhibit the “inner consistency of reality.” Integrity, in other words, refers to a thing’s completeness, wholeness, or togetherness, its having and displaying the structure and requisite parts proper to a thing of that particular essence or nature. The second aesthetic property of proportion, sometimes referred to as harmony or consonance, is of Pythagorean extraction and designates in Thomas’s usage a sense of qualitative proportion that he calls convenientia, or what Liberato Santoro-Brienza describes as an “intrinsic attunement” or “correspondence between inner and outer reality, appearance and essence, matter and form.”[2] It is the harmony of beauty, in other words, that is especially involved the aforementioned, pleasing correspondence obtaining both between the parts and metaphysical principles within the object and between the object and the sensory faculties of the perceiver.[3] Finally, there is the aesthetic criterion of clarity, or brightness or “splendor,” i.e., the shining forth of form or radiating of intelligible light from the beautiful object, an idea that Robert Wood suggests is further linked to the Greek word doxa or “glory”[4] and which Tolkien gives us an apt image of in the Ainulindalë when the Ainur first glimpse the world, newly created by the Flame Imperishable of Ilúvatar, as “a cloud with a living heart of flame” (S 20).

[1] For an analysis of these properties in light of their development in Western thought prior to Aquinas, see chapter four of Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquines, “The Formal Criteria of Beauty,”64-121.

[2] Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty,” 72.

[3] Robert Wood, Placing Aesthetics, 109.  

[4] Wood, Placing Aesthetics, 105.

Existential beauty

Metaphysics of the Music, part 18

For all its similarities with Kant’s idealistic aesthetics, there is nonetheless an intractable, objective or mind-independent character to Thomas’s conception of beauty. The more beauty a thing has the more existence or being will be implicated in that beauty. One aspect to this principle for St. Thomas is his definition of beauty as “that which pleases when seen” (ST1.5.4 ad 1).[1] In direct contrast to Kant, therefore, Thomas establishes as one of the defining features of beauty the pleasure or delight the object of beauty is able to bestow on its perceiver through the senses, which makes beauty at some level presuppose the existence of a perceiver-independent object capable of acting on the senses in this aesthetically pleasing manner. For Thomas, human sense faculties have as their proper activity and end the perception of sensible objects, especially beautiful sensible objects, and aesthetic pleasure or delight consists in this activity being brought to completion—that is to say, in the sensible properties of the object of beauty first stimulating and gratifying the senses, and in their turn effecting a corresponding intellectual apprehension of and satisfaction in the form or internal structure of the physical object. In this manner a harmonious, pleasing, and nature-fulfilling correspondence is established between the object and the perceiving subject and between the subject’s own perceptual and intellective faculties.[2]

[1] “[P]ulchra enim dicuntur quae visa placent.” Although Thomas’s definition emphasizes visual beauty, Santoro-Brienza makes the point that “visio is further qualified as apprehensio. Sight stands for all perception in general, but particularly for the perception of sight and hearing, and not for taste, touch, and smell, if reference is to beauty.” Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty,” 69. As for Thomas’s above definition of beauty in terms of “that which pleases when seen,” there has been some discussion whether or not Thomas is here to be understood as stating his own personal view on the matter. Eco, in a lengthy note in the bibliography of his Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, takes Maritain in his Art and Scholasticism to task, lamenting that “[e]xpressions such as pulchrum est id quod placet are accepted as authentic Thomistic formulae by people who do not care, or perhaps are not aware, that this is a definition devised by Maritain himself. What Aquinas actually wrote was pulchrum dicuntur quae visa placent. The difference is considerable. Maritain’s proposition is a dogmatic attempt to define once and for all the ontological character of beauty. Aquinas’s is more like a sociological finding. It means, ‘Things which give pleasure when they are perceived are called beautiful’, and this is to introduce the problem, not solve it.” Eco, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, 128. Murphy, however, has taken Eco to task in his turn: “A grammatical point can be made in defence of Maritain’s interpretation: how does St Thomas use the phrase dicuntur elsewhere? Each of his arguments for the existence of God concludes with a similar phrase, e.g., ‘one is bound to arrive at some first cause… and this is what everybody understands by God.’ Whilst distinguishing finite being from the self-subsistent being of God, St Thomas says: ‘the first cause is above being insofar as it is infinite being; ‘being’ (ens), however is called that which participates in being in a finite way, and this being is proportionate to our intellect.’… One would hesitate to conclude that this is the product of a sociological survey. Eco hangs too much on the use of the present passive plural. St Thomas uses the present passive singular and the gerundive, (dicitur, dicendum) more often. This is because, in the scholastic Quaestio, the master’s reply to the ‘problem’ set quaeritur, ‘it is asked’) usually commences with dicendum, ‘it ought to be said’. But the meaning of the verb appears to be interchangeable. Thus, St Thomas writes elsewhere: ‘let that be called beauty, the very perception of which pleases.’ (‘pulchrum autem dicitur id cuius ipsa apprehensio placet.’ [ST1-2.27.1 ad 3]).” Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty, 209. G.B. Phelan has also defended the formula “pulchrum est quod visum placet” as a valid though not complete interpretation of Aquinas’s own definition “pulchra dicuntur quae visa placet.” Phelan, “The Concept of Beauty in St. Thomas Aquinas,” 174.  

[2] Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty,” 70.

More similarities between Aquinas and Kant

Metaphysics of the Music, part 17

Although Thomas’s metaphysical realism represents one of the historic antitheses to Kant’s idealism, as was noted in the previous post, at least a couple of scholars have discerned a limited congruity between Thomas’s and Kant’s approach to the question of aesthetic beauty. Umberto Eco, for example, in The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, observes how the “intellectualism” and “purely contemplative attitude” found in the angelic doctor’s account of music “gives a justification to the disinterested contemplation of music independent of music’s effects or its function.”[1] For Thomas, Eco claims,

it is not essential [for beauty] that form should assume a materially concrete existence—and if it did, its beauty would still be like that of a word which is thought or an act which is intended. What is essential to form is rather that it determines organic wholeness in things… [F]orm in its simplest and, it would seem, most worthy aspects is pure organic structure.[2]

This formalism, however, represents only one half of an aporia that Eco locates at the heart of Thomas’s aesthetics, for if the bare “essence” of beauty can indeed be reduced to its mere form, it follows that

[e]verything other than this essential beauty is an extra richness—items arranged proportionately and constituents of the empirical fact of beauty… [I]n the last analysis these extra items increase the beauty and even determine how suitable it is for human experience… This distinction between beauty as a principle and beauty as a fact is found throughout Aquinas and is never completely resolved.[3]

An important consequence of this apparent tension in Thomas’s aesthetics is the debate that has waged over whether Thomas’s aesthetics ultimately stresses the subjective or the objective side of beauty, along with the related debate over whether or not beauty for Thomas technically qualifies as a true, transcendental property of being.[4]

[1] Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 134 (emphasis added). See also Ibid., 87. In related fashion, Robert Wood has suggested that, in “Aquinas’s view that sight is the most ‘spiritual’ of the sense because it is filled with the object [ST 1.78.3]… [v]ision thus provides a kind of anticipation of the objectivity of intellect and points in the direction taken by Kant’s emphasis on the ‘disinterested satisfaction’ involved in aesthetic perception.” Wood, Placing Aesthetics, 108.

[2] Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 87.

[3] Ibid., 88.

[4] On the question of the subjectivity versus the objectivity of Thomas’s aesthetics, Robert Delfino writes that the issue is “whether or not the perception of beauty is constitutive of beauty: Is beauty objective or subjective? Some scholars, Eco mentions Marc de Munnynck, have opted for the subjective interpretation. Eco and [Armand] Maurer answer that beauty is objective.” Delfino, “The Beauty of Wisdom: A Tribute to Armand Maurer,” 42. Liberato Santoro-Brienza points out that Thomas in fact defines beauty in both ways: when Thomas says in ST1.5.4 ad 1 that “beautiful things are those which please when seen,” “[t]his is an objective definition of beauty. The subject of the sentence is ‘the things’ that give pleasure when seen. The second definition is, in contrast, of a subjective character, focusing on the experiential side of the equation. ‘Let that be called beauty, the very apprehension of which pleases’ [ST1-2.27.1 ad 3]. Here, ‘apprehension’ is the subject of the sentence and is the cause of delight. If we seek the central ingredients of the mentioned definitions, we find that these are sight or vision (visio) and pleasure or delight (complacentia) in the first definition, and apprehension or sense perception (apprehension) and again pleasure or delight (complacentia), in the second definition.” Santoro-Brienza, “Art and Beauty in Antiquity and the Middle Ages,” 69. Rowan Williams, it may also be noted, has identified the same tension in Maritain’s interpretation of Aquinas’s aesthetics. Williams, Grace and Necessity: Reflections on Art and Love, 12-13.

Aquinas’s Kantian Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 16

One of the implications of the abstract formalism of Thomas’s theory of music, and a point that will also have an important application to the Ainur’s Music of Tolkien’s creation-myth, concerns what some scholars have suggested is a kind of proto-Kantian, metaphysical “disinterest” involved in Thomas’s view of music in particular and his aesthetics in general. The concept of disinterest is a central tenet in the idealist aesthetics of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in epistemology, since we can never know things as they exist in themselves and apart from us (the noumena), but only as they appear to us (the phenomena), if true objectivity in knowledge is to be possible, it is to be found not in the mind’s conformity to the objects of its knowledge but in the known object’s conformity to the mind’s particular ways of knowing. Kant was led to a similarly extreme and idealistic theory of beauty, according to which the “pure” aesthetic experience is one that is entirely “disinterested” in the question of the object’s mind-independent existence, which can’t really be known and which therefore must be held to be irrelevant to the question of beauty. In detaching pure aesthetic pleasure from the question of the object’s existence in this way, Kant’s goal was to allow the object’s beauty to be enjoyed for its own sake and without threat of being subsumed within and exploited by what Kant held to be the alien, heteronomous needs or ulterior purposes of the perceiving subject. An example of such an “impure” aesthetic experience for Kant was what he called the “agreeable,” defined as anything that pleases the senses. By referencing the aesthetic experience to the senses, the agreeable causes the subject to take an “interest” in the thing’s existence, inasmuch as a thing must exist for it to have an effect on the senses. The consequence of such interest, however, is that in referencing it to one’s own self via the senses, the aesthetic experience ceases or fails to be something truly universal, autonomous, free, and rational, and becomes instead something narrowly human, subjective, heteronomous, and constrained. In such cases, the aesthetic object is treated not as an end to be contemplated, but as a means to be subordinated to dictates of the human subject’s sub-rational inclinations, with the result being that the independence of the aesthetic object is negated. For Kant, the pure aesthetic experience, by contrast, is one that is concerned only with the sheer structural or formal qualities of the object’s appearances and the state of cognitive free-play or balance these appearances help establish between the mind’s faculties of imagination and understanding.[1] Such objects or appearances are said to be truly “beautiful.” Over against the simply beautiful, however, Kant also distinguished an even more ineffable aesthetic experience which he labeled the “sublime,” in which the imagination is entirely, even violently overwhelmed by the immensity of the aesthetic object, or more accurately, by the immensity of the mind’s capacity to present an appearance in this concept-defying and awe-inspiring way.[2] In both the sublime and the beautiful, therefore, and consistent with Kant’s broader idealist epistemology, yet arguably revealing what we shall see for Tolkien is the metaphysically tragic motive latent within it, pure aesthetic pleasure is a function of the mind alone rather than of any supposed, extraneous and (aesthetically speaking) unnecessary relationship between the mind and an externally existing, mind-independent reality.

[1] On Kant’s aesthetics, see Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition, 117-151. As Kant himself explains his concept of disinterest: “But if the question is whether something is beautiful, what we want to know is not whether we or anyone cares, or so much as might care, in any way, about the thing’s existence, but rather how we judge it in our mere contemplation of it (intuition or reflection)…. All he [i.e., the inquirer into things concerning beauty] wants to know is whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking, no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation. We can easily see that, in order for me to say that an object is beautiful, and to prove that I have taste, what matters is what I do with this presentation within myself, and not the [respect] in which I depend on the object’s existence. Everyone has to admit that if a judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste. In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence but must be wholly indifferent about it.” Kant, The Critique of Judgment,45-6.

[2] “When we speak of the sublime in nature we speak improperly; properly speaking, sublimity can be attributed merely to our way of thinking, or, rather, to the foundation this has in human nature. What happens is merely that the apprehension of an otherwise formless and unpurposive object prompts us to become conscious of that foundation, so that what is subjectively purposive is the use we make of the object, and it is not the object itself that is judged to be purposive on account of its form.” Ibid., 142.

Thomas’s Mathematical Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 15

The previous post noted the comparatively spare use Aquinas, unlike earlier theologians such as Augustine or Boethius, made of musical imagery as a metaphor for cosmic harmony. As we shall see, rather, the relevance of Thomas’s views on music for understanding Tolkien, ironically, have more to do with his view of music as exhibiting an exceedingly abstract, almost mathematical kind of existence. In his commentary on Boethius’s De Trinitate, Thomas closely associates music with mathematics on account of the way music derives its first principles from arithmetic and applies these principles to natural things: “In another way, one science is contained under another as subalternated to it. This occurs when in a higher science there is given the reason for what a lower science knows only as a fact. This is how music is contained under arithmetic.” (Commentary on Boethius’s De Trinitate 5.1 ad 5, trans. Maurer). For Aquinas, music represents an “intermediate” between mathematics and natural science, yet he says it bears “a closer affinity to mathematics” since music is more “formal” and thus more separated from matter and motion than is the case in natural science: “music considers sounds, not inasmuch as they are sounds, but inasmuch as they are proportionable according to numbers” (5.3). Behind Thomas’s argument here is his teaching that, although concepts of both mathematics and natural objects involve an act of mental abstraction separating their intelligible principles from the physical, sensible substances in which these principles are actually experienced, mathematics and natural science nevertheless differ in their respective degrees of abstraction (5.1-2). In the case of a mathematical object such as a circle, there is no reference in the concept of a circle to the kind of matter that real (i.e., non-mental) circles are actually made of, since circles can be made out of virtually anything. The case is otherwise with concepts of natural substances such as man, for which the kind of matter the thing is made out of comprises an integral part of the substance’s essence or form. Thus, while the concept of man, like the concept of a circle, is produced by the mind’s abstracting it from the determinate or “signate” matter out of which individual men or circles are actually made, the concept of man nevertheless retains a notional reference to the kind of matter out of which real men are made, namely flesh and bones. To return to the question of music, then, for Thomas, while music as we experience it is of course an inherently physical, sensible, and sensuous phenomenon, in terms of the formal qualities which constitute its sounds as musical sounds, the comparative indifference of music to the particular, material environment, circumstances, or conditions under which it is played makes it similar, in Thomas’s mind, to the heightened degree of mental abstraction involved in mathematics. For Thomas, in short, music is a highly abstract reality that is ultimately concerned with sound, not as sound (i.e., an inherently physical phenomenon), but as a peculiarly mathematical and proportionate kind of sound.

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).

Why Manichaeism doesn’t allow evil to be real enough

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil (Finale)

Saying, as I have, that for Tolkien evil derives its power from the very good that it corrupts, doesn’t yet quite get to the real heart and problem of the matter, for as we have already touched on, the real scandal and mystery is that the being in which evil resides has the infinite Creator himself as its source, as the one “guaranteeing” and “preserving” evil with its seemingly inexhaustible resource of being (the subliminal realization of which also drives Melkor mad in his nihilistic despair). The ultimate answer to the question of why evil seems so powerful, then, is that evil has, for the time being at least, been given a lease on God’s own creative power, for at the heart of created being, including corrupted created being, is nothing less than the Flame Imperishable, kindling all things in their very existence. While it may seem that this puts God at evil’s disposal, ultimately the truth of the matter is quite the reverse: it means that even evil has to be at God’s disposal, as Ilúvatar reminds Melkor in the Ainulindalë at the close of the Music: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (Silmarillion 17). To be sure, evil is an enemy and a destroyer and its presence (by virtue of its enervating absence) and causality (by negating the causality of the good that is there) are mysteries, mysteries which, as a kind of “nothing,” are in that sense inexplicable even for God, “for ‘explanation’ can pertain only to existence, and here evil is not seen as something in existence” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 18). This means that, not having a being, nature, and logic of its own, evil must borrow itself, so to speak, from the good. To use St. Thomas’s distinction, it may not be “willed” by God, but it is certainly “permitted” by him, so that if evil should seem so radically powerful, it nevertheless must ultimately labor at its own expense (“in vain,” as Tolkien puts it), providing as it does the infinite and omnipotent God yet another “instrument” for bringing about his good purposes. Like St. Thomas, Tolkien too, in the words of Brian Davies cited in an earlier post, “seeks to understand [evil] as part of a world made by God.” Seen from this perspective, the real objection to Manichaean dualism is not that it makes evil real, but rather that it denies the existence of the omnipotent, transcendent Creator capable of making evil as real as it actually is, of giving evil, that is, the only reality to be had, the reality of the good. In summary, it is his Thomistic metaphysics of creation that enables Tolkien, through characters such as Ungoliant, Melkor, and Sauron, to take for granted the awesome and terrifying power of evil in the world—and thus allow the Manichaean insight into the radical power and being of evil, really for the first time, to come into its own—while at the same time reducing this same evil to nothing, and thereby holding out the hope of the ultimate futility and “vanity” of evil and hence its inevitable defeat. “Let that settle the Manichees,” one can hear Tolkien saying.

In review and conclusion, then, I have argued in this series of posts that, while Tom Shippey is quite correct that Tolkien’s fictional depiction of evil is far more complex and nuanced than perhaps a one-sidedly Augustinian account of evil has perhaps traditionally emphasized, the solution Tolkien arrives at is more sophisticated and coherent than the contradictory, “running ambivalence” that Shippey describes it as. Instead, I have argued that Tolkien’s ponerology involves a highly original application of St. Thomas’s metaphysics of creation and evil to uniquely modern forms of evil, forms of evil which the thirteenth-century Aquinas, for example, was largely unaware of, yet an application that reveals as much about Tolkien’s own dialectical and scholastic subtlety and inventiveness as it does about the profound explanatory power and adaptability of St. Thomas’s philosophy of being. At the same time, I have sought to explicate Tolkien’s remarkably cogent hierarchy and corresponding logic of evil, one that begins in a primordial, unnatural lust for the Flame Imperishable which gives being, before descending into the inordinate yet natural sub-creative impulse, first to produce and then to preserve the things of one’s own imagining, and at last devolving into the desire to dominate and then simply to annihilate the being of others. As I have further sought to show, while each of these forms of evil has its own peculiar identity and motives, at another level they are all variations of the same original sin of desiring what for both Tolkien and Aquinas is the Creator’s exclusive power to give created being.

The Possible is the Good: Pseudo-Dionysius and Aquinas

In his Summa Contra Gentiles Aquinas quotes a passage from Pseudo-Dionysius’s Divine Names revealing the possibilism latent in their shared Platonism:

though anything is good in so far as it is a being… being is a term used absolutely, while good also includes a relation… provided it be ordered to the end, it may be called good because of this relation… It is apparent in this conclusion that good is, in a way, of wider scope than being. For this reason, Dionysius says, in the fourth chapter of On the Divine Names: “the good extends to existent beings and also to non-existent ones.” (SCG 3.20.5)

On the one hand, for Aquinas and Pseudo-Dionysius, there is clearly a sense in which the possible “extends” beyond the merely actual, inasmuch as there are beings, namely “non-existent ones,” that do not exist and yet which are good (i.e., they have an order towards an end, namely the Good). This is Aquinas’s and Pseudo-Dionysius’s “possibilism.” On the other hand, for them the possible is entirely determined and exhausted by the good: to be possible is to be a good, that is, to have an intrinsic order towards the good.

On the “non-possibility” of evil (or “Evil as the ‘Cooling’ of Being”)

In his argument that, for Aquinas, it is divine power that make statements about possibility true, Brian Leftow (“Power, Possibilia, and Non-Contradiction,” The Modern Schoolman 82 [May 2005]) obliquely addresses a question that I have been pondering recently: is evil “possible”? The question is prompted by Aquinas’s theocentric theory of the possible: what determines the nature of possibility is the divine being itself, such that a thing is possible on account of its being capable of bearing some creaturely likeness to the divine essence. In short, possibility is divine imitability. To this understanding Leftow’s thesis adds the further, distinctive claim that because God’s essence is identical with his power, for Aquinas it is therefore the case that God’s power is what makes claims about possibility true. As I have argued elsewhere, because God’s power is also his justice and wisdom, divine attributes which Aquinas characterizes, in part, in such aesthetic terms as proportionality and order, there is also sense for Aquinas in which the possible is none other than the beautiful. (I think a consideration of divine goodness, justice, wisdom, and—finally—beauty gets one further in understanding the nature of possibility than a mere consideration of divine power allows, a limitation that Leftow’s discussion unwittingly testifies to.)

If the possible is determined by the divine essence, goodness, wisdom, and justice, however, this raises the question as to in what sense evil, as the contradiction of all of these attributes, is in any way “possible.” (Note that this is not to be confused with the question of whether evil is a mere “illusion,” to which I would answer that it obviously is not.) Put differently, if what God can do is the measure of what is possible, and yet God cannot cause evil (as Aquinas maintains, since God is goodness itself, and as such can only cause goodness, since only goodness has a cause), in what sense is evil a possibility? This is where Leftow is helpful. In the course of his argument that God’s nature is responsible for making even the principle of non-contradiction true, Leftow writes:

It is again a primitive fact about causation that necessarily, every agent makes something like itself, at least directly and immediately. So a hot thing makes heatable things hot. It does not directly and immediately make them cold: it does not directly and immediately produce the intrsinic opposite of heat… A fortiori it does not thus make things hot and cold at once.… God is unlimited … being, esse-ipsum. So His active power extends not to some particular sorts of being, e.g. heatable beings, but simply to beings. God can make only beings, and as a hot thing can heat whatever can receive heat, God can make to be anything that can receive being. God can bring it about that things be, but cannot directly, immediately and per se bring about what is intrinsically opposed to being. (He can bring about non-being per accidens: by making you wise, He makes you not be foolish.) So as a hot thing cannot directly, immediately make something be cold, God cannot bring about the being and non-being at once of any state of affairs, as this is intrsincially opposed to being as cold is to heat. So the making-true of contradictions does not lie within the power of esse-ipsum—because of its own nature… (Leftow, “Power, Possibilia, and Non-Contradiction,” 239-40)

Evil is no more a “possibility” for God (and therefore, I would add, a possibility at all) than cold is a possible effect of heat. Possibility has to do with capacity, and capacity has to do with a thing’s nature or essence. For Aquinas, however, evil can have no nature or essence. Evil is not a thing, but a privation and failure of a thing. Possibility, therefore, is a function of the positive created order, an indicator of the way in which God has made things to be. Possibility is a modality of existence, of which evil is a privation. Evil, accordingly, is not a modality of existence, but a kind of anti-modality, a failure of a thing’s proper mode of being. Possibility is the possibility of being, which is to say, of the good. Evil therefore is not a partaking of the economy of possibility, but is a certain failure to partake of it. Evil is not a form of power, and therefore is not a form of possibility, but a form of weakness and inability. It’s not that evil is impossible, but a “non-possible,” or an “anti-possible.” Possibility has to do with the “doors” God opens or leaves open for a creature; evil is when the creatures slams those doors shut. Leftow’s example of heating and cooling is also felicitous: if one thinks of possibility as an avenue in which created beings can “heat” reality, evil as an anti-possibility represents not a “heating,” but a “cooling” of being. So Parmenides was right after a fashion: only being is possible. Non-being, including the non-being of evil, is not a possibility, but a liability. 

A final, historical comment. It is the misunderstanding of evil as a distinct possibility, as partaking of the logic and economy of possibility, that led to such erroneous counterfactual speculations as William Ockham’s claim that God could have created man such that it was meritorious for man to hate God, or the Calvinistic doctrine of double-predestination, which implies that the reprobate are supernaturally (or infernally) ordered toward damnation in the same way that the elect are supernaturally ordered towards their salvation. Both are examples of what Conor Cunningham (The Genealogy of Nihilism) identifies as the nihilistic logic of trying to have nothing (in this case, the nothing of evil) as something.

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.

The Logic and Economy of Light

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 51

In a comment on my previous post, my friend Matt Peterson suggests that “darkness is not evil, but is good, but is, like snow, something that evil uncovers.” To this I think I would answer (as Matt himself often does), “It depends.” As usual, I find Aquinas helpful here, whom I might paraphrase as saying that evil isn’t simply “non-being”; rather, evil is non-being where there is supposed to be being (where the “supposed” indicates, ultimately, divine intention, purpose, desire, etc.). Similarly, we might say that in Tolkien, darkness by itself isn’t necessarily a metaphor or image of evil. The darkness following the Ainur’s Vision in the Ainulindale is a good case in point, where it serves an aesthetic function of setting in relief both the light of the Vision preceding it and the light of Eä to follow.

Darkness where there is supposed to be light, however, does seem to be straightforwardly associated with evil, and this, of course, is what we have with Ungoliant. The darkness of the Ainulidale is progressive and eschatological, preceding but also anticipating a later, greater disclosure of light. Ungoliant’s darkness, by contrast, is regressive, a deliberate turning back the clock of creation, moving from being to non-being. Both “darknesses” involve a privation of light, yet the intentions behind each are radically at variance: one is a privation, the other a deprivation. They both involve an absence of light, and yet they both retain (paradoxically) an ordering toward the light that they make absent, one positively, the other negatively. As such, neither darkness is truly light’s “other” or opposite, inasmuch as they are both dependent upon light for their very (non)being, identity, and definition. Darkness, in other words, belongs to the economy of light, just as evil, according to St. Augustine, as “disordered love,” does not establish its own economy but falls within–or involves a falling off, as the case may be–the economy of the good. So both forms of darkness represent not just light’s absence, but also its memory, the one recollecting light nostalgically and expectantly, the other resentfully and rebelliously. Darkness, in short, is a very peculiar form of absence in that it makes light present by way of its absence. It is this respect in which darkness-as-evil never achieves its desired independence, but remains forever parasitic on the light that it hates and strives to negate, that ultimately underlies the comic and indeed eucatastrophic metaphysics of Tolkien. Darkness-as-evil strives to negate light, yet in the end must be negated by it, making light darkness’s own night.

The Suicide of Self-Deification

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 48

In the previous two posts we saw how suicide in Tolkien’s fiction enacts a kind of world annihilation. To return our attention to the Ainulindalë and the question of creation, the suicidal division between self-and-self and self-and-God may already be observed in Melkor’s hubristic desire for the Flame Imperishable. In his discussion of how the devil first “sinned by seeking to be as God,” Aquinas carefully qualifies his meaning to avoid the suggestion that, in doing so, the devil sought to be “equal” with God. According to Thomas, the angels sought to be “as God” not by equality, but rather by likeness, the basis for this distinction being that, first, the angels would have known equality with God to be intrinsically impossible for any creature, and second, that even if such equality were possible (or at least thought to be possible), in desiring it the angels would have been desiring a nature or essence other than their own, and thus would have been effectively desiring the abolition of their own being, a desire contrary to every nature (ST 1.63.3). (See also On Evil 16.3, “Whether the Devil Sinned by Desiring Equality with God.” As Thomas puts it in his article in the Summa on why evil is not or has no nature, “good is everything desirable; and thus, since every nature desires its own being and its own perfection, it must be said also that the being and the perfection of any nature has the character of goodness” (ST 1.48.1).) “Consequently,” Thomas summarizes, “no thing of a lower order can ever desire the grade of a higher nature, just as an ass does not desire to be a horse; for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself.” For Thomas, in short, the desire that the devil may have had for God’s own power to create nevertheless could not have involved a desire to be equal with God, inasmuch as he would have known such an eventuality to have entailed his own non-existence. The creaturely desire to be God–or any other creature, for that matter–is a form of suicide.

Yet Thomas does not seem to have been consistent himself in his claim that no being can desire the realization of circumstances that would entail its own destruction. As it is, Thomas goes on in the same passage to recognize that there are moments (not applicable to the angels, given their incorporeality) when the “imagination plays us false,” leading a man to believe that by acquiring a “higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature, to which he could not attain without ceasing to be.” Toward the beginning of the Summa, however, in his discussion of “whether good is prior in idea to being,” Thomas entertains the objection that good must be prior to being because it is more universal, a point illustrated with the case of Judas, of whom Scripture says that it would have been better for him not to have been born. To this objection Thomas replies that it is not the non-being of a thing itself that is ever desired; rather, its non-being is desired for the sake of the removal of some other evil in something else, which is to say, for the sake of the being of something else, and so “even non-being can be spoken of as relatively good” (ST 1.5.2 ad 3). Thus, it would seem consistent with Thomas’s own principles to say that the devil, in desiring to create, desired to be equal with God, and thus in a sense desired his own non-being, not for its own sake, but as a perceived condition for his gaining something good in itself.

Tolkien and Aquinas on the divine power of annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 45

Given my earlier point about evil always involving the desire for some good, it may well be wondered how the Melkorish will to annihilation is even psychologically possible. How can someone will nothing, that is, find the utter absence of anything desirable, given that the proper object of the will is always some real or perceived good, and that what is good is always something that has being? Nothing, in short, cannot be a cause, even of desire. (As Umberto Eco has remarked in the different but not unrelated case of the modern affirmation of non-being or nothingness over being or existence as the simpler or primary metaphysical explanation of things, “if we aspire to nothingness, by this act of aspiration we are already in being.” Eco, “On Being,” 16.)

To answer this question, we may recall how the Sauronic desire to suppress the alterity of things is in fact a desire for something of the aseity of God, and even the express desire to rebel against God is a desire for an apparent good, namely independence. In the same way, the desire to annihilate, like the desire to create, is a desire for a power that God alone has, and therefore, taken by itself, is something good. Indeed, the power to create is identical with the power to annihilate, the power to give existence being one with the power also to take it away. In his discussion of divine government in the Summa, in an article on “whether God can annihilate anything,” Thomas explains that just as God is free to create and preserve things in their being in the first place, “so after they have been made, He is free not to give them being, and thus they would cease to exist; and this would be to annihilate them” (ST 1.104.3). (Were God in fact to annihilate things in this way, of course, Thomas argues that God wouldn’t exactly be “causing” it to cease to exist, inasmuch as “[n]on-being has no cause per se,” and God as pure being can only cause something like himself, namely being. Rather, by virtue of their being created from nothing, creatures already have a constitutional “tendency” toward non-being, so that if they were annihilated, it would not be because God actively “caused” it to be,  but “by withdrawing His [creative] action from them” [ST 1.104.3 ad 1]. As Thomas explains further, “[i]f God were to annihilate anything, this would not imply an action on God’s part, but a mere cessation of His action” [ST 1.104.3 ad 3].) And although Thomas does not make the point expressly, because things exist as a result of God immediately and “continually pouring out being into them” (ST 1.104.3), it stands to reason that nothing but God could ever bring it about that they altogether cease to exist (ST 1.104.4). (Even so, as Thomas argues in this same article, God in fact does not and will not annihilate anything, for in the order of nature things may become corrupted, but then the matter out of which things are made would still exist. Nor does annihilation occur according to the supernatural order of the “manifestation of grace, since rather the power and goodness of God are manifested by the preservation of things in being. Therefore we must conclude by denying absolutely that anything at all will be annihilated.”)

It is to this same realization that Melkor is forcibly brought, for as Tolkien further explains in his “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion,” for all his efforts at obliterating the being of things, Melkor “was aware, at any rate originally when still capable of rational thought, that he could not ‘annihilate’ them: that is, destroy their being… Melkor could not, of course, ‘annihilate’ anything of matter, he could only ruin or destroy or corrupt the forms given to matter by other minds in their sub-creative activities” (Morgoth’s Ring 395 and note). Continuing on, Tolkien writes that Melkor nevertheless “became so far advanced in Lying that he lied even to himself, and pretended that he could destroy them and rid Arda of them altogether. Hence his endeavour always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object…” (396). Thus, even in Melkor’s rage to level all “into a formless chaos” Tolkien suggests there is a glimmer of hope, for “even so he would have been defeated, because it [i.e., the world] would still have ‘existed’, independent of his own mind, and a world in potential.” As to the reason why the ultimate “destruction and reduction to nil” must be impossible, the closest Tolkien comes to explaining this directly is his statement that it was “a world in which [Melkor] had only a share” (397), a reference that may remind us of Ilúvatar’s speech to the Ainur in the Book of Lost Tales version of the Ainulindalë that he has made all things to “share in the reality of Ilúvatar myself” (Book of Lost Tales 55). That the will to annihilate is ultimately in rivalry with God may be further seen in Tolkien’s equivalence, quoted earlier, between Melkor’s “lust for destruction” on the one hand and “his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism)” on the other (Morgoth’s Ring 397). Things have their being by participating in God, by having God, as Thomas puts it, “continually pouring out being into them.” Creaturely existence is a font that, having the divine being and power itself as its infinite reservoir, only God can “turn off.” The same power to “send forth” the Flame Imperishable that Melkor seeks at the beginning of creation is also one with the power to withdraw it, so that Melkor can no more prevent the Creator from communicating being to his creatures through annihilation than Melkor could successfully replace the Creator as the source of their being through their domination. Again we find that evil in Tolkien’s fictional world not only begins with but also returns to and climaxes in a futile defiance of the kind of theological metaphysics of creation articulated by St. Thomas.

From Domination to Annihilation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 44

The fifth and final stage in Tolkien’s “lowerarchy” of evil, already anticipated in his account of domination and thus revealing the latent motive within it, is that of outright annihilation, the will not simply to control and subordinate the being of others, but to destroy them all together. In the Ainulindalë, accordingly, although Melkor is initially satisfied, when the Vision of the world is first given, with making himself the lord and master over it, when he fails (as he must) to achieve this, he falls into utter nihilism in his efforts simply to undo all the demiurgic work of the other Valar. In a commentary titled “Notes on motives in the Silmarillion” (a variant manuscript refers to it as “Some notes on the ‘philosophy‘ of the Silmarillion–Morgoth’s Ring 394), Tolkien distinguishes the domination of Sauron from the later annihilationism of Melkor in this way:

when Melkor was confronted by the existence of other inhabitants of Arda, with other wills and intelligences, he was enraged by the mere fact of their existence… Hence his endeavor always to break wills and subordinate them to or absorb them into his own will and being, before destroying their bodies. This was sheer nihilism, and negation its one ultimate object: Morgoth would no doubt, if he had been victorious, have ultimately destroyed even his own “creatures,” such as the Orcs, when they had served his sole purpose in using them: the destruction of Elves and Men… [L]eft alone, he could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos…

            Sauron had never reached this stage of nihilistic madness. He did not object to the existence of the world, so long as he could do what he liked with it. He still had the relics of positive purposes, that descended from the good of the nature in which he began: it had been his virtue (and therefore also the cause of his fall, and of his relapse) that he loved order and coordination, and disliked all confusion and wasteful friction…

            Morgoth had no “plan”: unless destruction and reduction to nil of a world in which he had only a share can be called a “plan.” But this is, of course, a simplification of the situation. Sauron had not served Morgoth, even in his last stages, without becoming infected by his lust for destruction, and his hatred of God (which must end in nihilism). (MR 395-7)

The will to dominate, as typified by Sauron, still at least admits the existence and therefore at some level the desirableness of other things, provided they can be made to enlarge oneself. This ambition, however, is never wholly achievable, inasmuch as the otherness of things is ultimately an irreducible, transcendental prerogative and gift of all being, and so the unwavering pursuit of absolute domination invariably devolves into annihilationism, the will to power, in other words, into the will to obliterate. In his suggestion that, following the success of his own domination, Melkor “could only have gone raging on till all was leveled again into a formless chaos,” Tolkien articulates the same logical progression of evil that he may have observed in Maritain’s Art and Scholasticism, wherein Maritain alludes to Thomas’s discussion in the Summa on the potentially infinite hunger of the concupiscible appetite (ST 1-2, 30, 4):

Material progress may contribute [to the production of art], to the extent that it allows man leisure of soul. But if such progress is employed only to serve the will to power and to gratify a cupidity which opens infinite jaws—concupiscentia est infinita—it leads the world back to chaos at an accelerated speed; that is its way of tending toward the principle. (Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 75)

In summary, in Melkor we see the misguided, primeval attempt at making things other than himself, after passing through the Sauronic desire to assimilate all other things to his own self, devolve finally into its complete antithesis in the desire to unmake those things other than himself, the feeling of one’s own being as threatened by and impinged upon by the mere fact of their existence. The contemporary application of this fact, finally, is a stinging indictment of where modern, industrial and mechanized culture is headed. The Sauronic “will to mere power” (Letters160), according to Tolkien (and in contrast to Nietzsche), is not the solution to, but the presaging of, the Melkorish will to nothingness.

The problem with creation and the divine persons as real relations

A Theology of the possible, part 4

Related to James Ross’s critique of the exemplarist dogma that there are external real relations of participation or exemplification which are responsible for making the things that exist to be the kinds of things that they are, are two further discussions that I hope to address in the future. The first concerns St. Thomas’s teaching in, for example, ST 1.45, that creation itself is nothing but an external relation of metaphysical dependence of the creature on the Creator. Using much the same line of reasoning as Ross, Frederick Wilhelmsen in “Creation as Relation in St. Thomas Aquinas” (Being and Knowing) shows that, as a relation, a thing’s created status must in some sense be posterior to or consequent upon the thing itself. One unwelcome and, indeed, highly un-Rossian consequence of Wilhelmsen’s interpretation of Aquinas’s doctrine of creation-as-relation, however, is his highly secularized or at least a-theological an univocist interpretation of Thomistic essences: because creation is a mere relation inhering in a thing, and are not therefore contained in the essence by which the thing is constituted, the abstracted essences of things, according to Wilhelmsen, tell us nothing in and of themselves about the created status of the things they are the essences of. For Ross, by contrast, as we shall see, created essences, while the product of divine will, are nevertheless reflective of the divine nature and would not be what they are had God not determined them to have the formal features that they do. No essence, in other words, is theologically neutral.

A second discussion which I would like to correlate at some point with Ross’s critique of the external relation of participation or exemplification is Russell Friedman’s study of Medieval Trinitarian Thought from Aquinas to Ockham. In the high to late Middle Ages, a significant debate was waged over the question of which “personal properties” are responsible for constituting the three persons of the Trinity, simultaneously accounting for their unity of essence and diversity of personhood. The position favored by the Dominicans was the “relational account”–the persons are constituted first and foremost as relations—whereas the Franciscans favored an “emanationist account”—the persons are constituted by the way they emanate from the others (or in the case of the Father, the way he doesn’t emanate from anything else). In their criticisms of each other, both positions, again, invoked arguments similar to that made by Ross. For the Franciscans, for example, the question was how the persons of the Trinity could be constituted by their relations to each other unless the relata of those relations were not already constituted, say, in terms of their emanation (or non-emanation) from each other. My suspicion, or at least question at this point, is whether the corollary to Ross’s position in this debate isn’t that of the twelfth-century monk Praepositinus, who rejected any attempt to account for the distinction of the persons of the Trinity in terms of a putatively more basic “personal property.” For Praepositinus, the persons are constitutive of themselves and of each other, and that’s all.