Eve on the (Non-)Possibility of Talking Serpents

Another project has me working on Aquinas’s “economics of Eden” at the moment, and I thought Aquinas’s brief discussion of what Eve must have thought about a talking serpent would be of interest here. In Summa Theologiae I.94.4, Aquinas raises the question of “Whether Man in His First State Could Be Deceived,” with his answer being in the negative. The second objection he raises against his position, however, comes from no less than Peter Lombard:

Obj. 2: Further, the Master says (Sent. ii, D, xxi) that, “the woman was not frightened at the serpent speaking, because she thought that he had received the faculty of speech from God.” But this was untrue. Therefore before sin the woman was deceived.

And Aquinas’s reply:

Reply Obj. 2: The woman thought that the serpent had received this faculty, not as acting in accordance with nature, but by virtue of some supernatural operation. We need not, however, follow the Master of the Sentences in this point.

In the previous article, ST I.94.3, Aquinas had argued that Adam would have had perfect natural knowledge of all things, and in the sed contra in particular he makes the point that “Man named the animals (Gen. 2:20). But names should be adapted to the nature of things. Therefore Adam knew the animals’ natures; and in like manner he was possessed of the knowledge of all other things.” Adam, therefore, knowing all creaturely natures by a direct act of divine illumination, would have known that serpents can’t talk. Whether Eve also possessed such comprehensive knowledge or not Aquinas doesn’t say–his unfortunate view of woman’s imperfection in comparison to man would suggest not. What he implies here, at least, is that she also would have known that serpents can’t talk by their natural power, and so would have surmised that the serpent was only able to speak “by virtue of some supernatural operation.” By “supernatural power,” it’s unclear whether Aquinas means any power above the serpent’s own, natural power–in which case Eve’s supposition would have been technically correct, on the supposition that the serpent was speaking by angelic power, and Lombard would have been mistaken–or whether he means, with Lombard, God’s own power–in which case Eve would have been mistaken, if not exactly deceived, but then it’s not clear what Aquinas’s disagreement with Lombard is. Either way, even if Eve had been born yesterday, for Aquinas, she seems to have known an impossibility when she saw one.

The Good of Evil: Manwë’s Un-Thomism

When, in the Silmarillion, the herald of Manwë reports to him the bold and brazen words of Fëanor, we are told that

Manwë wept and bowed his head. But at that last word of Fëanor: that at the least the Noldor should do deeds to live in song for ever, he raised his head, as one that hears a voice far off, and he said: ‘So shall it be! Dear-bought those songs shall be accounted, and yet shall be well-bought. For the price could be no other. Thus even as Eru spoke to us shall beauty not before conceived be brought into Eä, and evil yet be good to have been.’ (“Of the Sun and Moon and the Hiding of Valinor”)

St. Thomas, however, would seem to prefer not put things in quite this way. In his article on “whether God wills evils” (ST I.19.9), the first objection he entertains reads as follows:

It seems that God wills evils. For every good that exists, God wills. But it is a good that evil should exist. For Augustine says (Enchiridion 95): “Although evil in so far as it is evil is not a good, yet it is good that not only good things should exist, but also evil things.” Therefore God wills evil things.

To this objection Aquinas replies thus:

Some have said that although God does not will evil, yet He wills that evil should be or be done, because, although evil is not a good, yet it is good that evil should be or be done. This they said because things evil in themselves are ordered to some good end; and this order they thought was expressed in the words “that evil should be or be done.” This, however, is not correct; since evil is not of itself ordered to good, but accidentally. For it is beside the intention of the sinner, that any good should follow from his sin; as it was beside the intention of tyrants that the patience of the martyrs should shine forth from all their persecutions. It cannot therefore be said that such an ordering to good is implied in the statement that it is a good thing that evil should be or be done, since nothing is judged of by that which appertains to it accidentally, but by that which belongs to it essentially.

As Aquinas would see it, accordingly, while it is true that not only good, but a unique form of good that otherwise would not have been possible, is brought about as a consequence of Fëanor’s rebellion, it does not follow from this, as Manwë implies, that it was therefore good for Fëanor’s “evil to have been” (indeed, for Aquinas, as for Tolkien generally, since evil has no being of itself but is a privation of being, it makes no sense to speak, literally, of evil “having been”). Manwë’s error, in other words, might be seen to involve the fallacy of division, of assuming, that is, that what is true of the whole (in this case, the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil-leading-to-good) must therefore also be true of its parts (the goodness of Fëanor’s-evil).

The Hobbits’ not-very-Thomistic view of treasure-finding

I happen to be teaching classes on both The Lord of the Rings and Aquinas’s economic theory at the moment, so you’ll understand why this stuff is on my mind.

In my recent post on the hobbits’ not-so-positive attitude towards possessions, I noted the passage in which Frodo had a “tussle with young Sancho Proudfoot (old Odo Proudfoot’s grandson), who had begun an excavation in the larger pantry, where he thought there was an echo. The legend of Bilbo’s gold excited both curiosity and hope; for legendary gold (mysteriously obtained, if not positively ill-gotten) is, as every one knows, any one’s for the finding–unless the search is interrupted.”

Contrary to Tolkien’s narrator, however, it’s not quite true that “every one knows” that legendary gold is free for the finding and taking. According to Aquinas, for example,

With regard to treasure-trove a distinction must be made. For some there are that were never in anyone’s possession, for instance precious stones and jewels, found on the seashore, and such the finder is allowed to keep [*Dig. I, viii, De divis. rerum: Inst. II, i, De rerum divis.]. The same applies to treasure hidden underground long since and belonging to no man, except that according to civil law the finder is bound to give half to the owner of the land, if the treasure trove be in the land of another person [*Inst. II, i, 39: Cod. X, xv, De Thesauris]. Hence in the parable of the Gospel (Matt. 13:44) it is said of the finder of the treasure hidden in a field that he bought the field, as though he purposed thus to acquire the right of possessing the whole treasure. On the other Land the treasure-trove may be nearly in someone’s possession: and then if anyone take it with the intention, not of keeping it but of returning it to the owner who does not look upon such things as unappropriated, he is not guilty of theft. In like manner if the thing found appears to be unappropriated, and if the finder believes it to be so, although he keep it, he does not commit a theft [*Inst. II, i, 47]. In any other case the sin of theft is committed [*Dig. XLI, i, De acquirend. rerum dominio, 9: Inst. II, i, 48]: wherefore Augustine says in a homily (Serm. clxxviii; De Verb. Apost.): “If thou hast found a thing and not returned it, thou hast stolen it” (Dig. xiv, 5, can. Si quid invenisti). (ST II-II.66.5, ad 2)

So there you go: even if young Sancho had found some treasure hidden in Frodo’s larger pantry, according to Aquinas, it would not have been his “for the finding,” but theft (but then you already knew that, didn’t you?).

Aquinas vs. Augustine on The Metaphysics of the Dream

Metaphysics of the Music, part 38

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

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

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

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 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.

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.)

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.

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.”

“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.

“Yearn for your bodies”: Tolkien and Thomas’s rejection of Platonic dualism

Like Thomas, Tolkien in his mythology expressly rejects Platonic dualism in favor of a view of the soul as “indwelling,” “cohering with” (Morgoth’s Ring 218), and generally “desiring to inhabit” its body (243). In the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, in response to Finrod’s suggestion that perhaps it is part of Man’s original nature that their soul (fëa) should eventually leave behind its body (hröa), the human (mortal) woman Andreth emphatically denies that for Men the body is a mere “inn” for the soul to temporarily dwell in, as such a position would involve a “contempt of the body.” And while she does, in somewhat Platonic fashion, refer to the body as a “raiment,” she says that we should speak not only of the “raiment being fitted to the wearer,” but also “of the wearer being fitted to the raiment” (Morgoth’s Ring 317). St. Thomas, by comparison, criticizes Plato for his view that man was merely an anima utens corpora, a “soul making use of a body” (Summa Theologiae 1.75.4). On the soul’s “desire to inhabit” its body, we also have the testimony of the “Doom” pronounced on the Noldor Elves in The Silmarillion:

“For though Eru appointed to you to die not in Eä, and no sickness may assail you, yet slain ye may be, and slain ye shall be: by weapon and by torment and by grief; and; and your houseless spirits shall come then to Mandos. There long shall ye abide and yearn for your bodies, and find little pity though all whom ye have slain should entreat for you.” (Silmarillion 88, emphasis added)

For Tolkien and St. Thomas, human beings are naturally embodied creatures, such that even in death the soul, though continuing to exist, retains its fundamental orientation towards and even desire for its body.

Body and soul: Tolkien and Thomas’s hylomorphic anthropology

If Tolkien’s hypothesis of non-naturally but voluntarily incarnate angelic beings captures something of the “freedom” but also the problematic character of modern mind-body dualism, his fictional anthropology of Elves and Men, by contrast, seems to channel the hylomorphic (matter-form) theory of body and soul propounded by Aristotle and Aquinas.[1] According to this tradition, the human soul is not extrinsically related to the body, as per the soul-body dualism of Plato and Descartes, but is the formal, final, and efficient cause of the human body, the form and actuality through which, by which, and for which the body has its very being as a body (Summa Theologiae 1.76.1).[2] It follows from this, for both Thomas and Tolkien, that, on the one hance, the soul (or what the Elves call “fëa”), is incorporeal and incorruptible and thus capable of existing from the body (see, for example, Summa Theologiae 1.75.2 and Morgoth’s Ring 223, 245, and 330). (Although Tolkien says in one note that hröa and fëa are “roughly but not exactly equivalent to ‘body’ and ‘soul’” [Morgoth’s Ring 330], he does not specify how they are in fact different, and elsewhere he simply asserts that fëa “corresponds, more or less, to ‘soul’; and to ‘mind’” in its immaterial aspects [349].)

On the other hand, we find both Thomas and Tolkien eager to maintain that the soul, its ability to exist apart from the body notwithstanding, nevertheless does not constitute the whole of man. Thomas argues this position in Summa Theologiae 1.75.2, and we find Tolkien in basic agreement when he writes, for example, that when a man receives an injury it is not merely the soul-principle, the “Indweller,” that suffers the wound, but “Man, the whole: house, life, and master” (Morgoth’s Ring 353). As Tolkien explains elsewhere, the soul is indeed the principle or source of “identity” (227), being both “conscious” and “self-aware,” and yet he also adamantly affirms the body to constitute an integral and necessary part of the “self” of the person (349). St. Thomas also argues that, however much the soul may be able to go on existing apart from its body, it still remains greatly dependent on its body in order to carry out its own proper acts of knowing, as this requires the operation of the bodily powers of sensation and imagination (Summa Theologiae 1.84.7). Tolkien may be seen to echo this point when he says that, although it is the soul that has “the impulse and power to think: enquire and reflect,” its mental processes, like Thomas’s incarnate soul, are nevertheless “conditioned and limited by the co-operation of the physical organs” of the body (Morgoth’s Ring 349).

[1] For an alternative (and somewhat underdeveloped) reflection on Tolkien’s anthropology in light of St. Thomas’s philosophy of man to the one I am offering here, see Nimmo, “Tolkien and Thomism: Middle-earth and the States of Nature.” As the title of Nimmo’s article suggests, the author takes up the five states of nature distinguished by Aquinas, namely the “hypothetical” states of (1) pure nature and (2) integral nature, and the “historical” states of (3) innocence or original justice, (4) fallen nature, and (5) restored or repaired nature, and attempts to correlate these with the different species of rational beings and their respected states found in Tolkien’s mythology.

[2] For Aristotle’s hylomorphic doctrine of the soul, see book two of his On the Soul. For an explanation and defense of Thomas’s hylomorphic anthropology in light of some of its contemporary criticisms, see Klima, “Man = Body + Soul: Aquinas’s Arithmetic of Human Nature.”

Incarnate, sub-creative angels

Does Thomas’s metaphysics of the angels preclude or leave open the possibility of Tolkien’s incarnate and sub-creative angels?

According to Thomas, influencing the heavenly bodies is not the only way in which angels can effect change in the natural order. He admits, for example, that angels can and sometimes do assume corporeal bodies, not because it is in their nature to do so (ST 1.51.1), but because in this manner they are able to be of greater service to men with whom they have “intellectual companionship” and whose salvation they help administer (ST 1.51.2). In such cases, however, the angel is not united to the body as its form, as in the case of the human soul and its body; instead, the angelic spirit acts merely as its body’s extrinsic mover (ST 1.51.2 ad 3).[1] A couple of significant remarks made by Thomas on this point are, first, his statement that when angels do appear to men, the bodies they assume are or can be nothing more than “condensed air” (ST 1.51.2 ad3).[2]

Secondly, although angels cannot produce a human body (the angels being themselves incorporeal), Thomas avers that they nevertheless “could act as ministers in the formation of the body of the first man, in the same way as they will do at the last resurrection, by collecting the dust” (ST 1.91.2 ad 1).[3] This would appear to be a particular instance of Thomas’s more general principle that, although angels cannot perform miracles, being themselves part of the natural order (ST 1.110.4), they can nevertheless predispose nature to the supernatural and miraculous working of God, their own knowledge of the powers of nature being so acute that they can perform wondrous albeit natural works. As Thomas writes in one place, “angels are better acquainted than men with the active and passive powers of the lower bodies, and are therefore able to employ them effectively with greater ease and expedition seeing that bodies move locally at their command. Hence again physicians produce more wonderful results in healing, because they are better acquainted with the powers of natural things” (On the Power of God 6.3). Thomas even goes so far as to refer to the existence of an ars angeli or “art of the angels.”[4]

According to Thomas, however, the angelic will cannot command corporeal matter directly, but moves it “in a more excellent way” by moving “corporeal agents themselves” (ST 1.110.2 ad 2).[5] As Collins summarizes, in this way corporeal forms may indeed derive from angelic intelligences, not through an immediate “creative influx” (or direct “emanation,” as Thomas puts it in ST 1.65.4) on the part of the angelic intelligence, but rather through an “eductive process” of “moving the bodies to their forms.”[6] Whatever might have been the case, however, Thomas reminds us that, at least as a matter of historical fact, in the original creation of corporeal creatures no such “transmutation from potency to act” by angelic means actually took place, as Scripture teaches that “the corporeal forms that bodies had when first produced came immediately from God, whose bidding alone matter obeys, as its proper cause” (ST 1.65.4).[7]

[1] “[C]orpus assumptum unitur angelo, non quidem ut formae, neque solum ut motori; sed sicut motori repraesentato per corpus mobile assumptum.”

[2] “Et sic angeli assumunt corpora ex aere, condensando ipsum virtute divina, quantum necesse est ad corporis assumnedi formationem.” Dante in the Divine Comedy suggests that the diaphanous bodies of the shades are the effect of the deceased soul giving form to the air surrounding it, making the soul visible as well as giving it organs of sense perception through which even the deceased souls are able to continue communicating with each other (Purgatorio 25.94-105). On the Thomistic origins of Dante’s idea of diaphanous bodies, see Philip Wicksteed, Dante and Aquinas, 223-225.

[3] “Potuit tamen fieri ut aliquod ministerium in formatione corporis primi hominis angeli exhiberent; sicut exhibebunt in ultima resurrectione, pulveres colligendo.”

[4] On the angelic knowledge of and consequent power over nature, see Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 315.

[5] “Et sic angelus excellentiori modo transmutat materiam corporalem quam agentia corporalia, scilicet movendo ipsa agentia corporalia, tanquam causa superior.”

[6] Collins, The Thomistic Philosophy of the Angels, 289.

[7] “In prima autem corporalis creaturae productione non consideratur aliqua transmutatio de potentia in actum. Et ideo formae corporales quas in prima productione corpora habuerunt, sunt immediate a Deo productae, cui soli ad nutum obedit materia, tanquam propriae causae.”