Magic, domination, and the Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 38

If the aim of domination is the reduction of the being of another to the image or extension of one’s own being, the principal means for accomplishing this end is what Tolkien refers to as “Magic,” not in the sense of a generous “Enchantment,” but in its negative, occult, and manipulative sense, or, as its modern counterpart has it, “the Machine,” which leads to the third aspect of the Ring I wish to consider. Although Tolkien in general discourages his readers from allegorizing the Ring (the Ring as nuclear power or the atomic bomb, for example), in one letter he nevertheless says that the “primary symbolism of the Ring” is “the will to mere power, seeking to make itself objective by physical force and mechanism, and so inevitably by lies” (Letters160). (That Tolkien may have had Nietzsche’s notion of the will to power particularly in mind here is further implied in his statement, in the same passage, that one “moral” of The Lord of the Rings is, consistent with Nietzsche, “the obvious one that without the high and noble the simple and vulgar is utterly mean,” and yet, contrary to Nietzsche, “without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless.”) Note that Tolkien does not say that the Ring symbolizes technology or mechanization, but that it symbolizes the will or intent to dominate through the production and use of these means. Thus, if the Ring in Tolkien’s fiction should appear as a thing inherently evil, as Shipppey points out, I submit that it is less because Tolkien has momentarily lapsed into a Manichaean, evil-objectifying dualism, than it is a matter of the Ring embodying mythically an inherently problematic attitude towards reality. Also, as the mythical incarnation of Sauron’s corrupt will, the Ring possesses (ironically) a personal dimension or connection that sets it apart from ordinary inanimate objects. One reason the Ring cannot be used for any good whatsoever, therefore, is not because it is an objectified form of independently existing evil, but because the Ring represents and embodies a person, and even evil persons such as Sauron are (as Kant recognized) to be treated as ends and never as means only.

Even considered as a material object, however, Sauron’s Ring might be compared to what Thomas describes in his Summa, in an article on “Whether the adornment of women is devoid of mortal sin,” as a case of “art directed to the production of good which men cannot use without sin” (ST 2-2.169.2 ad 4), a passage Jacques Maritain refers to in his Art and Scholasticism (a work, as I have suggested previously, Tolkien may have been aware of). In such cases, Thomas argues, “it follows that the workmen sin in making such things, as directly affording others an occasion of sin; for instance, if a man were to make idols or anything pertaining to idolatrous worship.” In addition to it being the mythical embodiment of Sauron’s corrupted will, therefore, the Ring in and of itself is evil in the sense that it is was made for one purpose alone, namely the tyrannous domination of others, and therefore has this evil as its only “proper” use (for which it is indeed useful, and therefore in that sense “good”).

Another passage from St. Thomas, this time from the Summa’s discussion of evil proper, that might possibly inform a reading of Sauron’s Ring is found in his explanation, discussed earlier, as to how good can be the cause of evil (ST 1.49.1). When there is a “defect” or “ineptitude” in the instrument or matter of the agent, Thomas argues, then there will be a corresponding defect in the action or effect of the action. And this is the problem with the Ring: designed as a means for dominating others, in addition to it being the literal embodiment of a corrupt or defective will, the Ring has an inherent defect which must corrupt every action, no matter how well intended, in which it is used. (For a related discussion on how “Aquinas also has something to contribute to the problem of the Ring of Power,” see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 24.)

Possessiveness as a denial of creation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 30

The previous post examined a degree of convergence in Tolkien’s and Heidegger’s thought in their view of certain forms of mental or even aesthetic representation as tending toward a domineering act of mental “apprehension” or “possessiveness.” If Tolkien should begin to sound like an existentialist on this point, however, according to Josef Pieper this is because the existentialist critique of the modern reduction of life and reality to what is “fathomable, fully accessible to rational comprehension, and, above all, … permissible to change, transform, or even destroy,” is in an important respect already a Thomistic critique (Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 92). (For an introduction to some of the concerns shared by Tolkien and the modern existentialist movement, particularly as represented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger–though Heidegger himself rejected the label–see Robert Eaglestone’s article “Existentialism” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 179-80. Later I hope to touch on some of Heidegger’s and Tolkien’s shared concerns with regard to the problem of modern technology.) As Pieper points out, it is the doctrine of creation that, on the one hand, accounts for the inherent intelligibility of things (denied by atheistic existentialists but affirmed by Tolkien–see, for example, Letters 399) while at the same time guaranteeing the mind’s ultimate inability to completely “grasp” or comprehend them on the other:

This common root, to express it as briefly as possible, is the createdness of things, i.e., the truth that the designs, the archetypal patterns of things, dwell within the Divine Logos. Because things come forth from the eye of God, they partake wholly of the nature of the Logos, that is, they are lucid and limpid to their very depths. It is their origin in the Logos which makes them knowable to men. But because of this very origin in the Logos, they mirror an infinite light and can therefore not be wholly comprehended. It is not darkness or chaos which makes them unfathomable. If a man, therefore, in his philosophical inquiry, gropes after the essence of things, he finds himself, by the very act of approaching his object, in an unfathomable abyss, but it is an abyss of light. (Pieper 96)

Pieper’s discussion serves to remind us that, in an important sense, the kind of intellectual “appropriation” or “possessiveness” of reality cautioned against by Tolkien is at heart a denial of reality’s createdness, or, to state matters differently, it is to affirm it as one’s own creation. In a remote yet real, Melkorian manner, it is to make the power and light of the Flame Imperishable coextensive with the light of one’s own intellect.

A Theology of the Possible

A Theology of the Possible, part 1

This summer I’m hoping to continue work on my “theology of the possible” project, the goal being to formulate a more expressly sub-creative and Trinitarian theology of divine power (omnipotence) than I have heretofore been able to find. The bearing this theoretical issue has on Tolkien (or more precisely, the bearing that I think Tolkien has on this theoretical issue) is explained more fully in this and connected posts, but the idea is this. Tolkien viewed art–and specifically his preferred and privileged art form of fairy and fantasy story–in terms of his notion of “sub-creation”: as he puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” As may be seen, the Christian understanding of God as Creator and the world as his creation deeply influenced Tolkien’s understanding of what it means for man to be a maker: we make both as and because God makes. To understand our making, we must see it in light of God’s own making.

Yet inasmuch as it seeks (in good, pedagogical fashion) to explain the unknown in terms of the known, Tolkien’s thesis implies that the relevant structures or principles of creation are in some sense more intelligible, familiar, or accessible than their parallel, analogous, and derivative and dependent counterparts on the side of human making. It is to suggest, in other words, that creation is not only metaphysically and causallybut therefore also explanatorily and hence epistemologically, prior to our understanding of art as sub-creation.

As I have also had occasion to argue before, to Tolkien’s mind this subordination of human to divine making had the effect not of degrading but of elevating and dignifying human creativity within the economy of creation. In Tolkien’s divine humanism (or “superhumanism,” as I like to call it), man is most fully human when (paradoxically) he is submissive and put in proper relation to that which infinitely transcends him. As Tolkien himself states this principle in his essay,

the presence of the greatest does not depress the small. Redeemed Man is still man… he may now perceive that all his bents and faculties have a purpose, which can be redeemed. So great is the bounty with which he has been treated that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

Without questioning, therefore, the basic validity of what we might dub the “Tolkienian inference” (i.e., his movement from creation to sub-creation), and indeed, presupposing it, the concern of the present project is how the insights of Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in their own turn may be used to challenge, critique, and refine the very traditional (i.e., Augustinian-Thomistic) theological understanding of creation that Tolkien otherwise largely took for granted. (Related to this is Tolkien’s own deeply ambivalent relationship to the traditional–and to my view, regrettable and erroneous–privileging of theoria over poiesis, of the comparatively passive act of human contemplation over the transformative act of human making.) I am interested, that is to say, in how Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation in important ways makes for a more robust paradigm for thinking about God’s own act of making than that typically allowed for in the conventional theological understanding from which he drew in developing that theory. If Tolkien’s great observation was that human making is far more like God’s own making than had perhaps hitherto been appreciated, the need of the hour, I contend, is to see how God’s making may be far more like ours than has thus far been recognized. The revolution, in a word, that Tolkien initiated by theologizing human poiesis stands to be completed by a more perfect poeticizing of theology.

A couple of objections may need to be answered at this point, the first of which is that this thesis may seem the equivalent of having water rise above its own level. How can Tolkien’s poetics (philosophy of making), which distinguishes itself in part by its drawing upon the conceptual resources of the Christian doctrine of creation, in turn be used to correct and improve that same doctrine? As paradoxical as it may seem, such a hypothesis is really nothing more than the theoretical application of Tolkien’s view of sub-creation. As we have just seen, sub-creation means that God has chosen to take up our art and actions by giving them a permanent place within–using them to perfect and complete–his own designs and purposes for being and history. What I am am suggesting is that, in an analogous fashion, how we as humans also think about sub-creation must no less be taken up into and perfect how we think about creation. In this manner our doctrine of sub-creation may, to paraphrase Tolkien, likewise actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of our doctrine of creation.”

A second concern might be that my claim that God’s act of making is far more like ours than often recognized, seems to run the danger of blurring the Creator-creature distinction. This is a valid concern, and my response to it is that, if I am right about the latent criticisms that Tolkien’s theory of sub-creation has in store for the standard view of God’s power and act of creation, it is because the standard account of creation has in important ways already compromised on the Creator-creature distinction. If so, a reconsideration of divine immanence within and likeness to creation (by re-conceiving the nature of the analogy between divine and human making) may in fact put us in a better position for understanding divine transcendence over and difference.from creation. The goal is not to domesticate the divine power, but on the contrary, precisely to free it (or at least our understanding of it) from some of the too-limiting concepts with which it has been burdened for the past millennium and a half.

Elvish Escapism

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 26

In The Lord of the Rings, it is the idealization of unchanging timelessness and preservation that characterizes the idyllic yet somewhat static Elvish enclaves of Rivendell and LothlorienFor all their elusive beauty, epitomizing the land of Faërie’s depiction in “On Fairy-Stories” as a wide realm of enchantment, peril, and longing, Tolkien nevertheless would not have us take their goodness entirely for granted. Indeed, through the theme of Elvish preservationism, it may be instructive to see Tolkien as revisiting with renewed seriousness and subtlety the problem of “escapism” (in the negative sense of that term) that he briefly acknowledges but otherwise dismisses in his essay. As he writes of the Elves in a 1956 letter,

Mere change as such is not represented as ‘evil’: it is the unfolding of the story and to refuse this is of course against the design of God. But the Elvish weakness is in these terms naturally to regret the past, and to become unwilling to face change: as if a man were to hate a very long book still going on, and wished to settle down in a favorite chapter. Hence they fell in a measure to Sauron’s deceits: they desired some “power” over things as they are (which is quite distinct from art), to make their particular will to preservation effective: to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair… (Letters 236)

Much as Tolkien, as I’ve suggested before, satirizes himself as author in characters such as Aulë and Niggle, through his Elves Tolkien similarly holds up what we might call a kind of “mirror for readers,” reflecting back to them their own temptations to “escape” into his and other like stories, to “appropriate,” “possess,” and so “preserve” his story in such a way as to inoculate themselves against living in the real world, instead of peculiarly equipping them for it.

Elvish Preservationism: The Correspondence of Sub-creative Intellect and Will

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 24

The species of being with whom the problematic motive of preservation is especially associated are the Elves, who, as exaggerated embodiments of otherwise human artistic and technical excellence, also find therein their peculiar temptation to go astray. Tolkien writes of the Elves in one place that their

“magic” is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence). And its object is Art not Power, sub-creation not domination and tyrannous re-forming of Creation. The “Elves” are “immortal,” at least as far as this world goes: and hence are concerned rather with the griefs and burdens of deathlessness in time and change, than with death. (Letters 146)

As I’ve suggested elsewhere, these two dimensions of the Elves—their artistic superiority and their immortality—are metaphysically and psychologically linked through Tolkien’s hylomorphic anthropology: the powerful Elvish soul, or fëa, that exerts so formative an influence over the Elvish body, or hröa, making it immortal or at least undying, is also what gives their art its heightened spiritual command over matter—in short, its “magic” (in the positive sense of “enchantment”). As with Tolkien’s incarnate angels, however, whose voluntary and extrinsic relation between spirit and body can tend towards a domineering stance in relation to physical reality in general, so also the Elvish relationship of soul and body is simultaneously its glory and its liability, its peculiar virtue when well-ordered and peculiar vice when not.

The reason this “unflawed correspondence” between “product and vision,” between the will executing the product and the intellect first envisioning it (elsewhere Tolkien refers to the sub-creative will as “the effective link between the indestructible mind and being and the realization of its imagination”–Letters 260), becomes a source of temptation for the Elves is that it can of course never approximate the absolute identity of will and intellect (and thus perfectartistic execution) enjoyed by the Creator by virtue of the divine will’s unrivaled capacity of giving being to things exactly as conceived in the divine mind. James Collins makes this point in a discussion of the inherent limitation on angelic causality that, mutatis mutandis, finds equal application to Tolkien’s Elves:

The limitation placed upon direct angelic causality is based ultimately on the finiteness of created separated substances. While they act through intellect and will, they can move other things only in a way proportioned to their natures. Unlike God, the angel is not its own will; it has will in a determinate nature, and the effect proceeds from this faculty according to the mode of the finite nature. Hence angelic power is subject to the conditions of categorical action and passion. As higher forms, separated substances possess supremely universal active powers to which the passive powers of lower substances are not sufficiently adapted to receive an actualization except through the mediation of natural agents. As pure act, God is determined neither in His being nor in His operation to any particular genus or species. His action is transcendental and His will can do indifferently anything that can be done by any created will or natural agent. Hence God requires no preliminary proportioning of His power to the receptive capacity of the material subject. Immediate formal transmutation or substantial change of material substances, then, is possible only for that immaterial substance Whose power is identical with His infinite act of being. (Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 314-15)

The temptation inherent in the greater correspondence between will and intellect enjoyed by the Elves (and even more so by Thomas’s angels) is the increased possibility that they will covet the absolute identity of will and intellect that belongs to the Creator alone. As Hayden Head aptly puts it in his Girardian interpretation of Tolkien,

the mighty, those who apparently possess more substance, more ‘being,’ than the rest of us, are those most susceptible to the temptation to rise against God,” to give way to the “primeval impulse to appropriate the prerogatives of God… Gazing into the pure ontology of God, the strong man discovers anew his own contingency, and his pride of strength dissolves in the cauldron of envious desire… The fall is that sudden recognition of the incommensurability between God and man. (Head, “Imitative Desire,” 140-1)

Again, the corruption of the sub-creative motive involves the implicit coveting of God’s own power to create.

Could God have willed that there be no evil while still leaving the human will to be free?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 21

In the previous post I made the claim that for Aquinas, God could have willed that there be no evil in the world while still leaving the human will to be free. This is a point, however, upon which not all Thomist scholars appear to agree. Jean Oesterle, for example, in her translation of Aquinas’s On Evil, writes:

a position often advanced by contemporary authors is that there was an option for God to effect the better possibility of making human beings who in choosing freely would always choose what is right and hence never sin, and that this is what an omnipotent and wholly good God would do. But such a position seems in fact to be inconsistent and even implicitly contradictory. For it is not naturally possible for God to create human beings having a rational nature and a free will who always choose what is right and never commit a fault or a sin. Indeed, Aquinas says in effect that no rational nature can always perform actions that never depart from what is good. This is possible only for a being in whom is found in a natural and immutable manner the universal and perfect nature of good. This is possible only for God Who alone has a free will which is naturally incapable of sin and confirmed in good, which is not possible for a creature. Human nature is naturally fallible. Although the ability to sin is not a necessary property of free will, still it does follow de facto upon free will as it exists in a created and finite nature. One is therefore inclined to say that to be what a human being is, is to be capable of committing sin, and at times to do so because of the finite, fallible nature man has; and this follows from the way free judgment and choice functions, given that nature. (Jean Oesterle, “Preface,” in Thomas Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Oesterle, xvii, emphasis added)

According to Oesterle, in short, in creating free, rational beings, not only is God unable to guarantee that none of them will sin, their freedom virtually ensures that they will in fact sin.

But here Oesterle seems to conflate two issues that are in fact distinct: the question of the intrinsic possibility of the human nature to sin and the question of God’s ability to ordain a world in which the always present possibility of sin nevertheless goes forever unrealized. According to Herbert McCabe, not only are these two issues distinct for St. Thomas, but keeping them distinct is essential to preserving a sense of the mystery of God’s purpose for allowing evil in the world, that is to say, his purpose for allowing something that is in fact not necessary for human beings to be free. As McCabe inquires,

must we not admit that although God did not, of course, bring about my failure he could, instead, have brought about my success? In fact it was the fact that God did not cause me freely to succeed that brought it about that I freely failed. There can be no doubt, then, that had he wished to do so God could always have prevented me from sinning—without, of course, in any way interfering with my freedom. For freedom does not mean independence of God. It means independence of other creatures. Thus although God does not cause me to fail of choosing the good, he could easily have caused me to choose the good… It remains of course, that I have not the faintest idea why God permits moral evil… This is an unfathomable mystery but it is not a contradiction. (McCabe, God Matters, 38)

McCabe’s student Brian Davies makes the same argument with respect to Aquinas over against the kind of free will theodicies advanced by contemporary philosophers of religion Richard Swinburne and John Hick (Davies, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Regan, 50-1). As for McCabe, while I agree with him that the question of why God allows evil is indeed ultimately an unfathomable mystery, as I suggested in the previous post (on God’s ability to bring a different–if not a “greater”–good out of evil), I do think Thomas and Tolkien have a little more than this to say on the subject.

Evil and a greater good

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 20

For St. Thomas, then, God is not in any way the cause of evil, yet he does permit and even “preserve” (Thomas’s word) or “guarantee” (Tolkien’s word) the actions of evil wills, much as the source of light preserves or guarantees the broken light emitted through a cracked prism or piece of glass, yet without becoming on that account morally or metaphysically responsible for or causative of the light’s brokenness. But the question still remains as to why God should choose to preserve or guarantee such broken wills and actions. One important answer for both Thomas and Tolkien is that the Creator desires that there should be such a thing as free will, even if what those free wills choose should turn out to be evil.

This, however, is only a partial explanation, for even the free choices of creatures fall under the providence of God as things in some sense willed, or better, “permitted” or “tolerated” by him, so that for Aquinas, at least, God could have willed that there be no evil in the world while still leaving the human will to be free (about which more anon). For both Thomas and Tolkien, a further explanation for God’s permission of evil concerns our next proposition in Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, which is that evil makes possible the realization of even greater good. Thomas makes this point in response to the objection that evil cannot reside in those things made by God because, just as “white unmixed with black is the most white,” as Aristotle says, so “the good unmixed with evil is the greater good. But God makes always what is best, much more than nature does” (ST 1.48.2 obj. 3).[1] While Thomas agrees that God, like nature, makes “what is best in the whole,” that is, in the “universe of creatures,” as with nature this does not necessarily mean that God makes “what is best in every single part” of the whole. According to Thomas, rather, the universe of creatures is in fact “better and more perfect if some things in it can fail and do sometimes fail, God not preventing this” (ST 1.48.2 ad 3).[2] The greater good of the universe, or at least of this particular universe as it has been divinely ordered, requires not only the possibility of evil, but even its actuality, suggesting that, for the sake of the greater perfection of the world as a whole, the emergence of evil in the world was in some sense inevitable. As Thomas concludes his response, quoting Augustine’s Enchiridion,

“God is so powerful that He can even make good out of evil.” Hence many good things would be taken away if God permitted no evil to exist; for fire would not be generated if air was not corrupted, nor would the life of a lion be preserved unless the ass were killed. Neither would avenging justice nor the patience of a sufferer be praised if there were no injustice. (ST 1.48.2 ad 3)[3]


[1] “[A]lbius est quod est nigro impermixtius… Ergo et melius est quod est malo impermixtius. Sed Deus facit semper quod melius est, multo magis quam natura.”

[2] “Ipsum autem totum quod est universitas creaturarum, melius et perfectius est, si in eo sint quaedam quae a bono deficere possunt, quae interdum deficient, Deo hoc non impediente.”

[3] “Deus est adeo potens, quod etiam potest bene facere de malis. Unde multa bona tolerentur, si Deus nullum malum permitteret esse. Non enim generaretur ignis, nisi corrumperetur aer; neque conservaretur vita leonis, nisi occideretur asinus; neque etiam lauderetur iustitia vindicans, et patientia sufferens, si non esset iniquitas.”

Divine “unshatterable” action and human “shatterable” activations

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 19

The previous post saw Tolkien’s raising the problem of God’s causality with respect to evil, and suggested that his depiction of the problem in his fiction, such as it is, is broadly consistent with St. Thomas’s solution. In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas explains that, in voluntary things, whenever there is an evil effect, it is always the result of some pre-existing evil in the agent, specifically, some pre-existing defect in the will of the agent, so that when the agent acts, “it does not actually subject itself to its proper rule” (ST 1.49.1 ad 3).[1] Thus, Thomas implicitly distinguishes two dimensions to every evil action: first, there is the action itself, caused by the will itself, both of which, taken by themselves, are good (as created, existing things); second, there is the specific defect in the action, which is the result of a corresponding defect in the will causing the action. Now God in no way, says Aquinas, is the cause of the defects in the will of voluntary agents, since God is altogether perfect and thus incapable of actively producing an imperfection in the will (ST 1.49.1). Having parsed out the evil action in this manner, Thomas is able similarly to parse out the responsibility for it: “whatever there is of being and action in a bad action is reduced to God as the cause, whereas whatever defect is in it is not caused by God, but by the deficient secondary cause” (ST 1.49.2 ad 2).[2] In an oft-cited illustration Thomas compares God’s creative power by which he gives being to an otherwise evil action with the “moving power” of a lame leg: while the moving power is the cause of the leg’s motion, it is not the cause of the leg’s motion being a limping motion. What causes the limp is not the leg’s native moving power but rather the defective curvature of the lame leg. In this illustration, the lameness of the leg is analogous to the “curvature” or defect of the sinning agent’s will. In a passage that could almost double as a commentary on Tolkien’s statement to Hastings that God “guarantees” even “sinful acts” with the “reality of Creation,” Leo Elders explains Thomas’s argument this way:

It is true that God is the cause of the content of being in any human act, just as all beings exist by participating in the First Being. But a human act is not God’s action and a human choice is not God’s choice. God gives only the entitative content and occurrence of an action without being the cause which does something through this action. Hence God is [in] no way, not even per accidens, the cause who commits this action and so he is in no way the cause of the moral evil. He permits sin to take place in that he grants his causal support to the will to enable it to perform an act, despite its deviation from the rule of reason. The person who performs the evil action is per accidens the cause of the privation of subordination to moral law. To clarify this St. Thomas gives an example: if a cripple walks, the cause of his crippled gait is not his power to move, but his leg which is too stiff or too short. Therefore all of the entity in an evil action goes back to God as to its First Cause whereas the privation which renders it evil, comes from the acting person who does not conform himself to moral law.[3]

Jacques Maritain explains this same argument, albeit in terms of a distinction between what e calls the “unshatterable divine action” of creation and the “shatterable activations” of the individual human will, a metaphor evocative of the images of kindling fire and splintering light at the heart of Tolkien’s mythology. According to Maritain, the creative “activations or motions” given by the First Cause to his individual free agents

contain within themselves, in advance, the permission or possibility of being rendered sterile if the free existent [agent] which receives them takes the first initiative of evading them, of not-acting and not-considering, or nihilating under their touch… [B]efore the unshatterable divine action, by which the will to good of creative Liberty infallibly produces its effect in the created will, the divine activations received by the free existent must first be shatterable activations.

            It depends solely upon ourselves to shatter them by making, upon our own deficient initiative, that thing called nothing (or by nihilating).[4]

The soul or will, in short, is like a window pane or, to use another image shared by Tolkien and Maritain, a “prism”: the light it receives is God’s creative, activating, “moving” power; the light it admits or which shines through the window is the actions of the soul. Should the light it admits become shattered (as distinguished, say, from its being beautifully refracted through the sub-creative act), it is the fault, not of the light it receives, but of the cracked or shattered soul or will that receives it.


[1] “Sed in rebus voluntariis defectus actionis a voluntate actu deficienti procedit, inquantum non subiicit se actu suae regulae.”

[2] “Et similiter quidquid est entitatis et actionis in actione mala, reducitur in Deum sicut in causam: sed quod est ibi defectus, non causatur a Deo, sed ex causa secunda deficient.”

[3] Elders, The Metaphysics of Being, 135.

[4] Maritain, Existence and the Existent, trans. Galantiere and Phelan, 100-1.

“To Bring into Being Things of His Own”: The Primal Sin of Satan and Melkor

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 16

As I suggested recently, an important departure Tolkien takes from the classical and medieval Neoplatonism of Plotinus, Avicenna, and Peter Lombard, is in his Thomistic conviction that only the Creator can create, that is, give or “emanate” being directly. In view of this distinction, it is surely not insignificant that the first instance of evil in Tolkien’s mythical history occurs when the Ainur Melkor presumes to be able to exercise for himself the exclusively divine power of creation. Despite having “been given the greatest gifts of power and knowledge” and having “a share in all the gifts of his brethren,” Melkor is reported to have “gone often alone into the void places seeking the Imperishable Flame; for desire grew hot within him to bring into Being things of his own…” (Silmarillion 16). In terms of at least the narrative sequence of Tolkien’s mythology, then, the very first thing we learn about evil is that it begins with the creaturely presumption of the Creator’s own power to create. As we shall see, there is a significant respect for Tolkien in which this is all that evil ever is.

In making the desire for creative power the primeval sin, Tolkien again strikes a familiar chord with St. Thomas, who argues in the Summa’s discussion of the angels that the latter fell by seeking in an “unnatural” way to be like God (Summa Theologiae 1.63.3). Although Thomas is cautious, in the absence of any clear teaching from Scripture on the topic, not to assert with certainty the exact circumstances of the angelic fall, the one example he gives of an “unnatural” angelic desire to be like God is the “desire to create heaven and earth, which is proper to God; in which desire there would be sin. It was in this way that the devil desired to be as God.”[1] In the conclusion to his argument in the Summa Contra Gentiles that the power of creation is proper to God alone, moreover, Thomas cites without censure or qualification John Damascene’s caustic remark that “[a]ll those who say that the angels are creators of any substance whatever have the devil as their father, for no creatures in existence are creators.”[2] For Thomas, it would seem, it is not only the desire for, but even the very doctrine that a creature can share in God’s own power to create, that is in a sense “demonic.” James Collins likewise observes that Thomas’s example of the unnatural desire to create is not without special significance: “to wish to create heaven and earth… The strategic import of this example must not be overlooked, since it neatly characterizes as encroachments upon God’s unique power all theories which in any way admit that the creative act can be shared by lesser agents.”[3] Clearly, the questions of the power of creation and the primal fall of the angels were closely linked in Thomas’s mind.

At the same time, unnatural though it may be for a finite being to desire the infinite Creator’s power of creation, taken by itself the power of creation is of course infinitely good. Moreover, the end for which Melkor desires this power, namely that there should exist things other than himself, is a desire noble in itself and very much a virtue according to Tolkien’s Thomistic realism. In these two examples from Tolkien’s Ainulindalë we have illustrated a recurring theme in Tolkien’s presentation of evil and an important principle in Thomas’s metaphysics of evil as well, which is that evil always involves the (misdirected) desire for some good. According to St. Thomas, because what we desire is by definition something desirable, and because what is desirable is, taken by itself, by definition good, it is impossible for the will to desire something evil because it is evil. Evil on this view, as we have seen, is nothing and therefore cannot in and of itself be the cause of anything, including desire. To return to Aquinas’s Aristotelian distinction introduced earlier, evil is sought after only “accidentally, so far as it accompanies a good.” The examples Thomas gives of this in the Summa are that of the lion who kills the stag, not because it desires to kill simply, but because it desires food, to which the killing of the stag is accidentally joined, and second, the example of the fornicator who sins not because he desires the sin per se, but because he desires the otherwise God-given sexual pleasure or enjoyment to which the sin of fornication is accidentally related (Summa Theologiae 1.19.9; see also 1.5.1). As for those aforementioned, diabolical cases of radical evil where the evil-doer would seem intent on acting wickedly for its own sake and in deliberate opposition to God, Frederick Copleston explains that even here “it is some apparent good, complete independence, for example, which is the object of the will: the evil defiance of God appears as a good and is willed sub specie boni. No will, therefore, can desire evil precisely as such.”[4] As we shall see, not even Melkor at his most nihilistic extreme completely succeeds in escaping this truth—indeed, one might almost say that it is precisely the inescapability of this truth that drives the reckless ressentiment of his nihilism.


[1] “Alio vero modo potest aliquis appetere similis esse Deo, quantum ad hoc in quo non natus est assimilari; sicut si quis appeteret creare caelum et terram, quod est proprium Dei; in quo appetitu esset peccatum. Et hoc modo diabolus appetiit esse ut Deus.” ST 1.63.3.

[2] Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles 2.21, trans. Anderson.

[3] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 261.

[4] Copleston, Medieval Philosophy, 91. Steel makes a similar observation of Augustine: “In this wish to do evil for no reason Augustine recognizes a perverted imitation of divine omnipotence, nothing but the freedom of a slave in the absence of his master.” Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause,” 268, citing Augustine, Confessions 2.13.

“Every Creature Must Have Some Weakness”: Tolkien’s Hierarchy of Evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 14

The first point of comparison I want to make between Tolkien’s and St. Thomas’s respective doctrines of evil, one that will furnish us with the organizing principle for much of the analysis to follow, has to do with the hierarchical nature of reality as a whole, a point that St. Thomas himself raises toward the beginning of his discussion of evil in the Summa. For St. Thomas the hierarchical structure of creation is necessitated by the fact that God’s only “motive” (so to speak) in creating is to communicate his own goodness, meaning that the created order, if it is at all to emulate adequately God’s goodness towards creation, must itself consist in a hierarchy of diverse and unequal beings. Only in this way can the divine drama of a higher reality ministering to and bringing to perfection a lower order of being be carried out on a finite scale. It is much this same drama that Tolkien illustrates through the Valar Aulë who, impatient with the relative emptiness and lack of diversity and inequality at that point in the world, attempts to make the Dwarves, and who justifies his action by saying that he merely desired beings upon whom he could exercise something of Ilúvatar’s own fatherly care. As I have also suggested recently, one way of viewing Tolkien’s invented races, the Elves and the Valar in particular, is to appreciate them as refinements upon or further iterations within an otherwise Thomistic hierarchy of being. Because the perfection of the universe requires that there should be, as Thomas puts it, “inequality in things, so that every grade of goodness may be realized,” and because one “grade of goodness” consists in things that can nevertheless fail to achieve the level of goodness intended for it, it follows for St. Thomas that the perfection of the universe “requires that there should be some which can fail in goodness, and thence it follows that sometimes they do fail” (ST 1.48. 2).[1] As Thomas goes on to conclude, it is in this failure of a thing to achieve its goodness that evil consists.

Because evil does not have its own nature (and thus no proper “place” in the hierarchy of being), but “exists” only as a privation of the perfection proper to those natures within the hierarchy, we might expect evil itself to reflect a kind of hierarchical structure corresponding to the hierarchy of goods which it corrupts. True to this expectation, Tolkien often depicts his characters as tending towards a form of evil unique to the nature of the particular species to which the character belongs, and therefore to the particular ways in which that species can fail to realize its true being. As Tolkien writes in one place, “[e]very finite creature must have some weakness: that is some inadequacy to deal with some situations. It is not sinful when not willed, and when the creature does his best (even if it is not what should be done) as he sees it—with the conscious intent of serving Eru” (Morgoth’s Ring 392n). Thus, the Ainur and Valar have their Melkor, the Maiar their Sauron, the Wizards their Saruman, the Elves their Orcs, Men their Wormtongues, Boromirs, and Denethors, the Ents their Old Man Willow, and the Hobbits their Gollum. The almost perfect symmetry with which Tolkien counterpoises each good being with its corresponding form of evil, far from suggesting a kind of Manichaean dualism and equipotency between good and evil, ought to remind us rather that evil owes even its otherwise extraordinary variety and subtlety to that authentic variety and subtlety that creation has by virtue of its participation in the “infinite variety” of the Creator.


[1] “[I]ta perfectio universi requirit ut sint quaedam quae a bonitate deficere possint; ad quod sequitur ea interdum deficere.”

Non-egalitarian Eden

Had it not been for the Fall, would all men have remained equal in the Garden of Eden? Thomas, in an article on “whether men were in the state of innocence” (Summa Theologiae 1.96.3, thinks not:

We must needs admit that in the primitive state there would have been some
inequality, at least as regards sex, because generation depends upon diversity of sex: and likewise as regards age; for some would have been born of others; nor would sexual union have been sterile.

Moreover, as regards the soul, there would have been inequality as to righteousness and knowledge. For man worked not of necessity, but of his own free-will, by virtue of which man can apply himself, more or less, to action, desire, or knowledge; hence some would have made a greater advance in virtue and knowledge than others.

There might also have been bodily disparity. For the human body was not entirely exempt from the laws of nature, so as not to receive from exterior sources more or less advantage and help: since indeed it was dependent on food wherewith to sustain life.

So we may say that, according to the climate, or the movement of the stars, some would have been born more robust in body than others, and also greater, and more beautiful, and all ways better disposed; so that, however, in those who were thus surpassed, there would have been no defect or fault either in soul or body.

In sum, men would have been dissimilar, and hence unequal, in sex, age, soul, body, and environment, yet all would have been without “defect or fault.” Thomas presses the point in the following article on “whether in the state of innocence man would have had dominion over man” (Summa Theologiae 1.96.4):

a man is the master of a free subject, by directing him either towards his proper welfare, or to the common good. Such a kind of mastership would have existed in the state of innocence between man and man, for two reasons. First, because man is naturally a social being, and so in the state of innocence he would have led a social life. Now a social life cannot exist among a number of people unless under the presidency of one to look after the common good; for many, as such, seek many things, whereas one attends only to one. Wherefore the Philosopher says, in the beginning of the Politics, that wherever many things are directed to one, we shall always find one at the head directing them. Secondly, if one man surpassed another in knowledge and virtue, this would not have been fitting unless these gifts conduced to the benefit of others, according to 1 Pet. 4:10, “As every man hath received grace, ministering the same one to another.” Wherefore Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xix, 14): “Just men command not by the love of domineering, but by the service of counsel”: and (De Civ. Dei xix, 15): “The natural order of things requires this; and thus did God make man.”

The inequality of men in the state of innocence leads to the dominion of some men over others even in a state of innocence.

“That will settle the Manichees!”: Thomas’s doctrine of evil in context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 13

The previous post in this series considered the claims of some that, in contrast to the allegedly more dualistic approach to evil found in either Scripture or Tolkien’s fiction, the tendency of St. Thomas’s metaphysical thought is to rationalize evil either by reducing it to a nullity (i.e., the Augustinian privation theory of evil) or by completely accounting for it within the “economy of the good” (i.e., by making evil a mere “accidental” effect of the good). Before I proceed with a more particular consideration of Tolkien’s own depiction of evil, accordingly, it is well that we consider for a moment the extent to which Thomas’s own theory of evil is in fact indebted to his Christian metaphysics of creation. According to Brian Davies, who has written at length on Thomas’s theory of evil,[1] Thomas’s Christianity is in fact of central importance to his ponerology. Thomas, it may be recalled here, was a deeply committed friar of the Dominican order which had been founded earlier in the thirteenth century partly in response to the Manichaeism of the Albigensian or Catharist heresy.[2] For his own part, Thomas’s preoccupation with the Manichaean error seems to have been both personal and profound, as famously and humorously illustrated in his legendary outburst at the banquet hall of King Louis of France. Apparently lost in his thoughts and oblivious to his surroundings (Thomas’s abstractio mentis is legendary), Thomas stunned his host and fellow guests when he brought his fist crashing down on the table and triumphantly shouted, “And that will settle the Manichees!”[3] Testifying to Thomas’s interest in the question of evil in particular, moreover, is the fact that he convened an entire disputatio on the subject and had its lengthy proceedings published under the succinct title De malo, “On Evil.” Commenting on the significance of this work, Bonnie Kent observes: “Later medieval thinkers, as a rule, did not write treatises or conduct disputations dedicated to a topic so diffuse as evil. There is, however, one notable exception: Aquinas’s disputed questions De Malo (On Evil)…”[4]

As for his general orientation regarding the question of evil, Davies writes how for St. Thomas

the world is created and governed by a perfectly good God who is also omnipotent and omniscient. And he writes about evil in the light of this belief. In the De malo he is not concerned with scientific descriptions and scientific accounts of the causes of particular instances of evil (though he has things to say about them). Rather, he is out to focus on badness or evil in general. And he seeks to understand it as part of a world made by God. Hence, for example, he asks if God can be thought of as causing evil. And his account of human wrongdoing treats it chiefly as sin and as fallings short with respect to God. Hence, too, he touches on specifically Christian notions such as the doctrine of original sin.

            In other words, the De malo is very much a work of Christian theology.[5]

Further indication of the fundamentally Christian and creational perspective of Thomas’s ponerology may be found in the less occasional, more systematic (if less comprehensive) treatment of evil Thomas provides in the Summa Theologiae, where he broaches the topic of evil within the context of his broader address on the subject of creation (ST 1.48-9). When approaching evil in the context of the system of Christian doctrine as a whole, in other words, Thomas views it first and foremost as a distinction within creation, reinforcing the point that the being of which evil is a privation is not some bland, theologically neutral concept of being, much less the necessary, mediated, and impersonal emanation of the Neoplatonic One who is “beyond being,” but the voluntary, personal, and immediate gift shared by the One who is Being himself.[6] Evil, in sum, is first and foremost a privation of created being, an insight that, as I plan to show in the posts to immediately follow, is crucial for understanding  some of the subtleties of Tolkien’s own depiction of evil.


[1] See, for example, Davies, The Reality of God and the Problem of Evil, which treats the problem of evil from a Thomistic perspective.

[2] Lambert, The Cathars, 1.

[3] Chesterton, St. Thomas Aquinas: “The Dumb Ox,” 100-1.

[4] Kent, “Evil in Later Medieval Philosophy,” 182.

[5] Davies, “Introduction,” in Aquinas, On Evil, trans. Regan, 14-15.

[6] Davies indicates a further Christian dimension to Thomas’s theory of evil, especially vis-à-vis the comparatively more Neoplatonic, Arabic, emanationist, and necessitarian views of some of his contemporary intellectual opponents. Explaining Thomas’s belabored attempt in the sixth question of De malo to show that people do in fact act freely and not from necessity, Davies speculates that the angelic doctor’s purpose here “might possibly have been designed as an attempt to defend the position adopted by Stephen Tempier, bishop of Paris, who in 1270 condemned a number of propositions thought to be assented to by certain Parisian Aristotelians. Tempier denied that people act of necessity, and most of De malo’s Question VI is devoted to arguing at length that people do, indeed, act freely and not from necessity.” Davies, “Introduction,” 13. As I have shown elsewhere, for both Thomas and Tolkien, the reason human beings can act freely (and by implication, can thus be guilty of committing evil or rewarded for resisting it) is ultimately owing to the fact that the Creator himself gives or “guarantees” being freely to the will of finite agents.

Rational vs. Radical Evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 12

Although Aristotle’s distinction between per se and accidental causality enabled Thomas to answer the question of how evil may be caused by the good, Thomas’s solution came with its own set of difficulties, the chief of which, as we shall see, has an important application to the question of Tolkien’s theory of evil. The problem, in short, is one of reconciling Thomas’s claim that evil “has no direct cause, but only an accidental cause” (ST 1.49.1 ad 4) with the reality of malicious or “radical” evil—instances, that is, when evil actions would appear to be deliberately perpetrated by their agent for evil’s own sake. A classic example of such deliberate evil is Augustine’s famous story of the pear-theft recounted in his Confessions. Initially Augustine attempts to attribute his desire to steal and destroy the pears (he had no desire to eat them) to the influence of his friends, friendship and community being themselves good and therefore a possible source of action, even wrong action. Later on, however, Augustine puzzlingly suggests that in stealing the pears the evilness of the action itself was the cause: “I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it… the self-destruction… my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself… I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.”[1] Although Thomas refers to this very passage in his only work devoted exclusively to the subject of evil, De malo 3.12, the fact that Augustine’s extreme remarks appear, at least to the modern reader, to challenge directly the basic premise of his philosophy of action—namely that evil cannot be desired or pursued for its own sake—does not seem to have occurred to him.[2] Steel accordingly concludes his study by drawing a contrast between Thomas’s Socratic optimism on the one hand, which Steel sees as ultimately rationalizing and reducing all evil to a matter of mere “hamartia, to miss the mark, to fail in one’s purpose, to go wrong, to make a mistake, to err, a shortcoming, a defect, a privation,” and on the other hand Søren Kierkegaard’s arguably more biblical and (in this respect, at least) more Augustinian thesis that evil involves an inexplicable yet deliberate, knowing intention and “positive choice” to do evil for evil’s own sake.[3] (On this, see Lee Oser’s related opposition between Aquinas’s “orthodox Augustinian teaching that positive evil does not exist” and Tolkien’s allegedly Kierkegaardian “strong intuition of positive evil, verging on dualism” [Oser, The Return of Christian Humanism, 118].)

The application of this antithesis to Tolkien’s portrayal of evil starts to come into focus in a related contrast recently drawn by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Against what he perceives to be the optimistic, totalizing, evil-is-necessary-for-the-greater-good theodicies common to both Reformed Protestant theology (e.g., Calvin) and Enlightenment rationalist philosophy (e.g., Leibniz), Hart posits what he finds in the New Testament to be “a kind of ‘provisional’ cosmic dualism,” according to which this “present evil world” is a realm

ruled by spiritual and terrestrial ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers’ (Col. 1:16; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8; Eph. 1:21; 3:10), by ‘the elements (stoicheia) of the world’ (Gal. 4:3), and by ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2), who—while they cannot ultimately separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38)—nevertheless contend against us…[4]

In some ways this is basically the two positions Shippey finds juxtaposed and ultimately unreconciled in Tolkien’s fiction: an optimistic monism reducing all evil to a form of relative non-being existing within an all-encompassing cosmic order on the one hand, and a dualism granting evil its own alien, irreducible ontological status on the other (though Hart sees this dualism as only “provisional” and therefore temporary and not absolute, a qualification that, as we shall see, likewise has important applications for understanding Tolkien). (John Seland, for example, discovers the same kind of “provisional dualism” of the New Testament discussed by Hart in both Dante and Tolkien: “Both of them also take with utmost seriousness the ideas expressed in Ephesians (6:12), 1 Peter 5:8, and the Book of Revelation (12:1-17) that evil is a cosmic power roaming the world to devour and destroy what is good. However, Tolkien stresses the power of this force much more than Dante…”[5]) While this tension is indeed present within Tolkien’s writings, as stated the problem fails to appreciate fully what I will argue to be Tolkien’s own profound scholastic subtlety in exploiting the conceptual possibilities within an otherwise Thomistic metaphysics of creation and evil to overcome this antithesis in an even more original synthesis.


[1] Augustine, Confessions 2.9, trans. Chadwick (emphasis added).

[2] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 268.

[3] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 267-73.

[4] Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? 62-5. Oddly, Hart seems to view his own critique of the evil-as-necessary-for-the-greater-good defense as fully in line with the thought of St. Thomas, despite both what we have just seen of Thomas’s own Socratic rationalism and what I will show in later post to be Thomas’s own justification of evil for the sake of the greater good. I also have doubts about how successful Hart himself is in avoiding altogether this traditional kind of theodicy, as Hart no less seems to “legitimize” a place for evil in the world when he says, for example, that “one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God; or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it.” Ibid., 69.

[5]  Seland, “Dante and Tolkien: Their Ideas about Evil,” 150.

Can something good be the cause of evil? Aquinas on “per se” vs. “accidental” causality

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 11

The previous post suggested that viewing Tolkien’s fictional representation of evil from a specifically Thomistic perspective may put us in a position to appreciate (better, at least, than many scholars have been able to do) the simultaneous coherence of Tolkien’s portrayal of evil and its paradoxical complexity. I went on, however, to note those respects in which Thomas’s own metaphysics of evil is quite conventional or traditional in its basic Augustinian or Christian-Neoplatonic outlook.

Where Thomas does finally depart from or at least improvise upon the traditional Augustinian reckoning of evil, according to Carlos Steel his innovations are more Aristotelian (and therefore still Socratic and Greek, in Steel’s view) than they are distinctly Christian. To resolve the perplexity left open by Augustine and earlier Neoplatonists as to how evil actions are caused, Thomas in question 49 of the Summa applies the Aristotelian distinction between per se and accidental causality.[1] In contrast to classical Neoplatonism’s typical denial that evil has an efficient cause, Thomas begins the corpus of his first article with an emphatic affirmation that “every evil in some way has a cause” (ST 1.49.1).[2] As the “absence of the good which is natural and due to a thing,” there must be a cause to explain why anything should “fail” or be “drawn out” from its “natural and due disposition.”[3] Thomas nevertheless agrees with the Neoplatonic premise that “only good can be a cause, because nothing can be a cause except in so far as it is a being, and every being, as such, is good.”[4] The question, then, is how something good can cause evil. Thomas’s answer is that what is good is able to cause evil, not insofar as it is good in itself (per se causality), but only accidentally. An accidental cause of an effect is a cause that produces an effect not intentionally, but by producing some second, unintended effect with which the first, intended effect is somehow accidentally connected. As we will see in a future post, it is this Aristotelian distinction between per se and per accidens causality that Aquinas applies to the question of how the rational will is ever able to do or choose evil while intending something good.


[1] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?”, 259. Thomas finds the distinction, for example, implied in chapter two of book five of Aristotle’s Metaphysics and applies it to the problem of the causality of evil. Aquinas, Commentary on the Metaphysics of Aristotle 5.3.781 and 789. (See also On Evil 1.3. Aristotle also distinguishes between per se and accidental causality in his discussion of chance in Physics 2.5.) Steel, however, implies that the application of Aristotle’s distinction between per se and accidental causality to the problem of the causality of evil was actually original with Aquinas, whereas Denis O’Brien points out that Plotinus also used the distinction to explain how the soul becomes evil through its contact with matter: “The soul becomes evil, when she does so, only ‘accidentally’, and, even then, only through the presence of matter.” O’Brien, “Plotinus on Matter and Evil,” 184, citing Plotinus, Enneads 1.8.12 and 14. As John Milbank also observes (“Evil: Silence and Darkness,” 21), preceding Aquinas in his notion of the accidental causality of evil is Pseudo-Dionysius, who writes that “evil exists as an accident. It is there by means of something else. Its source does not lie within itself. Hence something we do for the sake of the Good looks right and yet is not really so when we consider to be good what is actually not so.” Pseudo-Dionysius, The Divine Names 4.32.

[2] “[O]mne malum aliqualiter causam habeat.”

[3] “Quod autem aliquid deficiat a sua naturali et debita dispositione, non potest provenire nisi ex aliqua causa trahente rem extra suam dispositionem…”

[4] “Esse autem causam non potest convenire nisi bono: quia nihil potest esse causa nisi inquantum est ens, omne autem ens, inquantum huiusmodi, bonum est.”

Tolkien on evil: the Thomistic context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 10

My own thesis on Tolkien’s approach to evil, to be defended in the posts to follow, is that like Houghton and Keesee and over against Shippey, I see Tolkien as presenting a consistent metaphysics of evil, but with Shippey I do think Tolkien deliberately, provocatively, and paradoxically flirts with Manichaeism far more than the one-sidedly Christian-Neoplatonic interpretations of Tolkien have sometimes allowed. In short, my argument is that Tolkien’s theory of evil exhibits both a greater internal coherence and a greater dialectical subtlety than either of these two camps have recognized, a coherence and subtlety, moreover, that I think best accessed and elucidated in light of what I have argued in previous posts to be Tolkien’s profoundly Thomistic metaphysics of creation.

 

In many respects, of course, St. Thomas’s own ponerology is quite conventional in its Neoplatonism, a fact which seems to be behind Paul Kocher’s remark that “Thomas’s less specifically Christian propositions about the nature of evil seem highly congruent with those which Tolkien expresses or implies in laymen’s terms in The Lord of the Rings.”[1] Thomas’s discussion of evil in question 48 of the Summa, for example, begins familiarly enough with his denial in the first article that evil is a nature, since every nature has its attendant perfection and goodness, whereas “by the name of evil is signified a certain absence of good” (ST 1.48.1).[2] Thomas goes on to explain in the second and third articles how evil exists in those things that have been corrupted from or fail to attain their intended goodness: the “subject” of evil is some good thing of which the evil constitutes a privation or absence of form that the subject is supposed to have (ST 1.48.3).[3] In the fourth article, much as we saw Tolkien denying earlier that any “‘rational being’ is wholly evil,” Thomas argues that, because evil only exists in a subject that is otherwise good, no evil is or can be completely successful in corrupting the whole good (ST 1.48.4).[4]


[1] Kocher, Master of Middle-earth, 77.

[2] “Relinquitur ergo quod nomine mali significetur quaedam absentia boni.” See also On Evil 1.1.

[3] See also On Evil 1.2.

[4] Thomas does not make this same point explicitly in his On Evil, though it is implied in article 2 of question 1, “Whether Evil is Something.”

“A Multitude of Servants”: Aquinas’s critique of communism

Thomas Aquinas was the youngest son of a wealthy, powerful, highly connected family and was sent as an oblate at the age of five or six to the influential Benedictine Abbey at Monte Casino (where his uncle was abbot, a position some speculate Thomas was destined for). Yet he decisively turned his back on a life of pomp and affluence when he decided (against his families opposition) to join the recently formed Dominicans, an order of mendicant friars committed, in part, to individual poverty. What did this man, who once said that he would willingly trade the city of Paris for Chrysostom’s homilies on the Gospel of Matthew, think about communism as a universal form for society? In Summa Theologiae 2-2.66.2, “Whether it is lawful for anyone to possess something as his own,” Thomas gives three reasons why it “is necessary to human life” that a man, in general, should indeed possess property:

First, because everyone is more diligent in procuring something for himself than something which is to belong to all or many; for each one, avoiding labour, would leave to someone else [the procuring of] that which was to belong to all in common, which is what happens where there is a multitude of servants. Second, because human affairs are conducted in a more orderly manner if each man is responsible for the care of something which is his own, whereas there would be confusion if everyone were responsible for everything in general. Third, because a more peaceful state of things is preserved for mankind if each is contented with his own. Hence we see that quarrels arise more frequently between those who hold property in common and where there is no division of the things possessed.

Indolence, confusion, and quarrelsomeness–Thomas’s threefold indictment of communism. His illustration of a property-less community is also telling–“a multitude of servants.” When it comes, however, to the question, not of the possession of property, but as to its use, Thomas, citing 1 Timothy 6:17 (“Charge them that are rich in this world that they be ready to distribute, willing to communicate”), says that a “man ought to hold external things not as his own, but as common: that is, in such a way that he is ready to share them with others in the event of need.”

The Role of the Objections in the Summa Theologiae

Every article in Aquinas’s Summa Theologiae begins with a series of objections to the position ultimately to be defended by St. Thomas. Reading through these objections and Thomas’s replies to them can often seem a bit tedious, yet they do serve an important function. To begin, the objections do help focus the discussion, often helping (though not always) give the reader a sense of what precisely is at stake in the issue under discussion. Why is St. Thomas asking this question? Why might it be important? Who cares? These are questions to which the objections help provide some preliminary answers.

In each individual article, the origin and nature of the objections raised to the position ultimately defended by St. Thomas can vary in nature. Some of the objections may represent positions actually held and taught by theologians or philosophers who were contemporaries of St. Thomas, and therefore represent real, historic debates of the time. Other objections might represent positions held by past theologians or philosophers, whether Christian, pagan, Jewish, or Muslim. Many of the positions represented by the objections, on the other hand, have no historical instantiation at all, but were invented ad hoc, either by St. Thomas himself or by one of his students, in an effort to help further define the issue under discussion. Thus, the objections represent either ways in which thinkers have gotten a particular issue wrong, or ways in which they might get it wrong, even if no one ever has. The impression one receives is that the knowledge of a thing is always dialectical: to know a thing in the right way is also to know what it would mean to get it wrong. It is also worth noting that, while the objections will usually be conceptually unrelated to each other, one can nevertheless often detect a certain order or hierarchy to the way the objections proceed, as when a subsequent objection will in a way presuppose the truth of Thomas’s reply to the previous objection, all the while discovering a new and possibly even more subtle or nuanced way of getting the issue wrong. In such cases, the set of objections and replies have the effect of triangulating on or spiraling in on the resolution of the problem that Thomas finally lays out in the body of the article. In this way Thomas reminds us that a given position on a matter is rarely as simple a matter as being flat right or wrong, but often involves being right or wrong in varying degrees.

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 1

Another topic central to the Tolkien’s fiction and St. Thomas’s philosophy of being is the topic of evil. Indeed, part of what gives evil both its prominent place and powerful plausibility in Tolkien’s work is not only his interest in such themes as creation, sub-creation, angelic governance, love of otherness, mortality, free will, and so forth, but his related concern to examine the myriad ways in which the motives behind these themes may become corrupted. Despite the importance of the subject in his writings, however, the exact nature of Tolkien’s representation of evil has been the subject of some dispute and not precisely understood. From the time of its first publication in the mid-1950s, many critics have faulted The Lord of the Rings’s portrayal of the conflict between good and evil as overly simplistic and even dangerously naïve, while other readers have found in Tolkien’s representation of evil plenty of food for thoughtful reflection and deserving of comparison with the ideas of such prominent recent thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, René Girard, and Michel Foucault.[1] Perhaps the most important philosophical debate concerning Tolkien’s depiction of evil, however, centers on his relationship not to recent but to very ancient theories of evil. Of particular note is the evident Christian Neoplatonism readers have found Tolkien to share with such eminent thinkers as St. Augustine, Boethius, and St. Thomas, according to whom everything is good to the extent that it exists, so that evil, as the privation of the good, is also the privation of being. On the other hand, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has argued that Tolkien’s philosophy of evil, as a consequence of his personal effort to come to grips with uniquely modern forms of evil, especially the threats of modern fascism and industrialized warfare, syncretistically combines Neoplatonic monism with its historically contrary position of Manichaean dualism, according to which evil is not a mere absence of being, but is an independently existing force in its own right.

In the series of posts to follow, it is chiefly with reference to these two positions that I propose to compare the respective ponerologies (the branch of theology dealing with evil, from the Greek word poneros, meaning evil) of Tolkien and St. Thomas. As I have argued before, Tolkien’s view of being (of which evil is a privation) is no generic metaphysics, but holds much in common with the specifically Christian and creational metaphysics developed by St. Thomas, according to whom being is not some necessary, impersonal, and highly mediated emanative surplus (as per classical and later Islamic Neoplatonism), but a voluntary gift immediately bestowed by an ever-personal God. As I hope to show, it is thisunique concept of being that, first, provides the logical structure or coherence to what I argue is for Tolkien a kind of hierarchy of evil, and second (and more paradoxically), which helps at the same time to underwrite rather than contradict the otherwise extreme power and seeming Manichaean independence of evil in Tolkien’s mythology, while at the same time allowing Tolkien to reduce this same evil to nothing.

[1] As Tolkien commented in 1954 on the response of some readers to The Lord of the Rings, “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps…” (L 197). On Tolkien and Foucault, see Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. On Tolkien and Levinas, see Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” and on Tolkien and Girard, see Head, “Imitative Desire in Tolkien’s Mythology: A Girardian Perspective,” both of which are discussed below. On Tolkien and Heidegger, see Malpas, “Home,” which considers Tolkien in light of Heidegger’s technology-essay and his famous lectures on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. For comparisons of Tolkien and Nietzsche, see Blount, “Überhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power” and Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism.”

The body as the “art” of the soul

In addition to its role in first preserving and later reconstructing the body, and like the Valar, whose sub-creative capacity is a function of their peculiar regard for and relationship with physical reality, another consequence of the greater command of the Elvish soul over its body is the superior artistic control and execution Elves enjoy in comparison with Men: “Their ‘magic’ is Art, delivered from many of its human limitations: more effortless, more quick, more complete (product, and vision in unflawed correspondence)” (Letters 146). Tolkien further indicates a relationship between Elvish immortality and artistry when he writes that “[t]he Elvish fëa was above all designed to make things in co-operation with its hröa” (Morgoth’s Ring 332). Both Elvish art and biological longevity, in short, are co-effects of a common cause, namely the soul-as-form’s dominion over matter. In the figure of his Elves, accordingly, Tolkien treats us to a rather creative depiction of the analogy St. Thomas, for example, observes in Aristotle when he writes that “the soul is compared to the body as art to the thing made by art” (Summa Theologiae 3.80.1). Through his semi-scholastic, Aristotelian anthropology, in summary, Tolkien not only attempts to return his readers to and so help us to “recover” a proper understanding of human nature as a true union and mutual belongingness of body and soul, but he also imaginatively links two of the central themes of his mythology—the question of creaturely sub-creation on the one hand, and the perplexing question of human mortality on the other—and reveals them to be at one level one and the same problem.

Aquinas on whether the resurrected body is a “recycled” body

According to St. Thomas, in order for the resurrected body to be the “same” body as it was previously, the same prime matter must be used. As Marie George points out, however, St. Thomas seems not to have been entirely consistent in his adherence to this principle, for in some places he

seems to say that any suitable matter to which the soul could be united would constitute the same body. He acknowledges that the matter constituting the body changes during one’s lifetime, and this without prejudice to one’s individuality [SCG IV, c. 81]. Thus it is puzzling that he would hold that one would need (some of) the matter that had actually constituted one’s body in order to have the same body, when new matter, so long as it is of the appropriate sort, would seem to do just as well. (George, “Aquinas on Reincarnation,” 43-4)