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.

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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.