God of the Appearances: Does God possess sense-perception?

According to Augustine, the answer is “No,” but according to Anselm, the answer might just be “Yes.” In her study of The Neoplatonic Metaphysics and Epistemology of Anselm of Canterbury, Katherin Rogers argues that, his overwhelming debt and consistency with St. Augustine notwithstanding, Anselm actually seems to differ with the Bishop of Hippo in his theological understanding of sense-perception. For Augustine, Rogers writes,

man is not a true image of God when he is concerned with the senses… The mind is a true image of God only when it contemplates eternal things, and especially when it knows itself as being able to remember, understand, and love God. Augustine… thinks there is no real analogy between the human word born of the senses and the Divine Word.

Enter Anselm, who around 600 years later writes in ch. 6 of his Proslogion: “Therefore Lord, although You have no body, nevertheless You are, in a way, supremely capable of sensing, in that You know all things supremely, though not as an animal knows by its bodily senses.” As Rogers comments:

Anselm’s attitude towards sense knowledge seems rather different from Augustine’s… Anselm sees the ability to perceive sensible things as a perfection. Since it is a perfection God must have it. God does not see with eyes nor taste with a tongue, nonetheless, in knowing everything, He knows how sensible things look and taste. This is quite a remarkable assertion. Not only does it mark a deaprture from the earlier Neoplatonism which denigrates sense knowledge as “mere” appearance, but it suggests far-reaching epistemic implications. In Western philosophy, since ancient Greece, it has been almost a truism that sense data such as color, taste, sound etc. do not reflect truth or render knowledge. The Platonists say this because the world of sense is mutable and, in their eyes, only the unchanging can genuinely be known. The empiricists say it because they hold that the impression of the object perceived is produced as much by the perceiver as by the object. Thus Locke agrees with the ancient atomists that blue, for example, exists, qua blue, only in the mind of the perceiver. There is no blue “out there” in the blue objects. By holding that God has sense knowledge Anselm seems to give the sensible world an objective reality which most Western philosophers have denied to it. (Rogers 35)

We have sense-perception, in short, because in God there exists some perfection to which our powers of sense-perception are a real analogy or likeness. Rogers elaborates:

Surely the way individual things appear is part of the divine plan and so known by God from all eternity. It seems very odd to say that God has number the hairs on one’s head, but that He does not know what color they are. Augustine might say that knowledge of colors, tastes etc. is not really knowledge, that real knowledge must be of superior, non-sensible things. But this would put the sensible world outside of, or below, God’s plan. Augustine certainly thinks that the physical world was created and ordered according to God’s knowledge. Any other opinion is heresy. Thus it seems that the Christian philosopher ought to say that God eternally knows the appearances of things. (Rogers 35-6)

For Anselm, theology really does “save the appearances,” for God is the God of the appearances.

Tolkien’s Thomistic realism vs. modern idealism

Metaphysics of the Music, part 41

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

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

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

[2] Ibid., 77.

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

Ainur’s Music: Abstract Form and Kantian Indifference

Metaphysics of the Music, part 31

Behind each of these respects in which the Vision surpasses the Music, however, is the ultimately metaphysical consideration that the Vision simply implicates a greater degree of reality or being. In contrast to the Vision, as we shall see, the Ainur are represented as having enjoyed the Music for its own sake, not knowing “that it had any purpose beyond its own beauty.” Through the Ainur’s Music, accordingly, Tolkien dramatizes the kind of “perfect self-contained significance” and “inner consistency of reality” which he attributes in his essay to the true fairy-story, qualities I have already suggested to embody a literary application of Thomas’s aesthetic principle of the integrity or wholeness in the work of art. However, unlike the fairy-stories of his essay, one of whose functions (to be discussed later) is also to direct the individual’s attention back towards reality, to what exists, the Ainur’s Music does not suggest to them before the fact any existential claims or possibilities beyond itself (much less does it creatively or productively render those possibilities actual). (As Houghton observes, for example, of the Children of Ilúvatar, in the Music “the Ainur had had no hint of their existence until they saw the vision.” Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 178.) In one letter Tolkien instead describes the Ainur’s Music as a mere “abstract form” (Letters 284), a quality which may bring to mind Thomas’s analysis of music as an incidentally physical embodiment of otherwise ideal, mathematical harmonies or proportions. As with Thomas’s theory of music, moreover, the Ainur’s Music likewise seems to imply on their part a kind of Kantian “disinterest,” inasmuch as the Ainur are represented as having enjoyed their Music while it lasted purely on its own terms and in a kind of stoic oblivion to the possibility of their subordinating their Music to some ulterior, utilitarian “purpose beyond its own beauty”—a concern, moreover, amply justified in the exceedingly “interested” stance of Melkor, who, failing to enjoy the Music at a disinterested distance, sought rather to bring into being the thoughts of his imagination so that he might exercise dominion over them.

Imagination and Desire in Tolkien and Descartes

In yesterday’s post I contrasted Descartes and Tolkien in their respective views of tradition. Paralleling this is their differing attitudes towards the value and propriety of imagination in kindling human desire for things that aren’t in fact real. In his Discourse on Method, Descartes lists four maxims–his provisional ethic–that he resolved to live by while he undertook his program of tearing down his long-held beliefs and re-constructing a more secure edifice of certain knowledge. Descartes explains the goal of his third maxim this way:

always to try to conquer myself rather than fortune, and to change my desires rather than the order of the world, and generally to accustom myself to believing that there is nothing that is completely within our power except our thoughts, so that, after we have done our best regarding things external to us, everything that is lacking for us to succeed is, from our point of view, absolutely impossible. And this alone seemed to me sufficient to prevent me in the future from desiring anything but what I was to acquire, and thus to make me contended. For, our will tending by nature to desire only what our understanding represents to it as somehow possible, it is certain that, if we consider all the goods that are outside us as equally beyond our power, we will have no more regrets about lacking those that seem owed to us as our birthright when we are deprived of them through no fault of our own, than we have in not possessing the kingdoms of China or Mexico, and that, making a virtue of necessity, as they say, we shall no more desire to be healthy if we are sick, or to be free if we are in prison, than we now do to have a body made of a material as incorruptible as diamonds, or wings to fly like birds. But I admit that long exercise is needed as well as frequently repeated meditation, in order to become accustomed to looking at everything from this point of view… (AT 25-6)

The irony of Descartes’s posture of Stoic resignation to the way things are, of course, is that as he makes clear at the end of his Discourse, the goal of his philosophical and scientific project is the Baconian one of “mastering” nature. Descartes, in short, wants to change the world, but he recognizes that to accomplish this peculiarly modern goal he must first change the way he thinks about himself, and by writing and publishing his experience, change the way European man in general thinks about himself. Unlike the Stoicism of the ancient and medieval periods, which sought to bring about inner tranquility and a conviction of adiaphora by aligning one’s own wants and desires with the beautiful order of the cosmos as a whole, Descartes’s objective in disciplining his and humanity’s desire was actually to help prepare them to assert their own will-to-order on the world. Descartes’s injunction to chasten counterfactual speculation, accordingly, really belongs to the tradition of Machiavelli’s rejection in The Prince of all those political dreamers before him, from Plato to Dante, who constructed wonderful thought-castles in the mind but who substituted fanciful utopian ambitions for a sober reflection on the way things really work politically. To cultivate such realist men, Descartes recognized, they must habituate themselves into a new way of thinking about what is really possible, and hence feasible, in the saeculum of the here and now.

In contrast to all this is Tolkien’s very different evaluation of the role of imagination in eliciting desire for seemingly impossible things. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories” he praises the “magic” of the Elves for its “power to play on the desires of his body and his heart.” He goes on to explain how this

magic of Faerie is not an end in itself, its virtue is in its operations: among these
are the satisfaction of certain primordial human desires. One of these desires is to survey the depths of space and time. Another is … to hold communion with other living things. A story may thus deal with the satisfaction of these desires, with or without the operation of either machine or magic, and in proportion as it succeeds it will approach the quality and have the flavour of fairy-story.

Man for Tolkien has a “primordial desire” that is only fulfilled in and through Fantasy, and accessed through imagination. This desire is not for a mastery of things, but the aesthetic, poetic appreciation and “surveillance” of them; not the control and conquest of nature, but a “communion” with it. It is on account of this primordial desire that Tolkien rejects the dream device as an appropriate technique in fantasy or fairy-story:

if a waking writer tells you that his tale is only a thing imagined in his sleep, he cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder….  It is at any rate essential to a genuine fairy-story, as distinct from the employment of this form for lesser or debased purposes, that it should be presented as “true.” … But since the fairy-story deals with “marvels,” it cannot tolerate any frame or machinery suggesting that the whole story in which they occur is a figment or illusion.

Whereas it was Descartes’s purpose to strongly differentiate the feasibly possible from the fancifully impossible, and to discourage the mind from indulging the latter and to limit itself to the former, the glory of fairy-story, for Tolkien, is the way it deliberately obfuscates the two (though he does claim later on that “creative Fantasy is founded upon the hard recognition that things are so in the world as it appears under the sun; on a recognition of fact, but not a slavery to it”). And here we perhaps get a unique perspective into the Cartesianism of the “machinery” of the dream device: by casting the would-be fantasy tale as a mere illusion, its content is thereby banished to the realm of the impossible, and hence the impractical and unachievable.

But let us conclude with that which Tolkien actually holds in common with Descartes: the world must be changed. Whereas Descartes, however, saw (or at least would see) the imagination of Faerie-land as a distraction and impediment to the kind of world-conquest he saw as imperative, for Tolkien, it is less through human science than it is through human sub-creation (a form of which is what science really should be), founded in human fancy and ignited by primal human desire, that the world at last becomes–and that by God’s ordination–what it ought to be. It is this theological and creational context, moreover, that reveals that the possibility of actually realizing our human imaginings are not so limited as we may have thought. “So great is the bounty with which he [man] has been treated,” as Tolkien finishes his essay,

that he may now, perhaps, fairly dare to guess that in Fantasy he may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation. All tales may come true; and yet, at the last, redeemed, they may be as like and as unlike the forms that we give them as Man, finally redeemed, will be like and unlike the fallen that we know.

To return to Descartes’s third maxim, he praises those philosophers “who in earlier times were able to free themselves from fortune’s domination and who, despite sorrows and poverty, could rival their gods in happiness.” For Tolkien, by contrast, it is only when man abandons his pretenses to divinity and is content with his role as a mere sub-creator that he surprisingly discovers that his own ambitions and desires for the world have in fact become (or rather always already were) God’s own goals.

Salt Lake City vs. Treebeard’s Eyes: Tolkien and Descartes on Tradition

J.R.R. Tolkien and René Descartes give us two powerful, yet as one might expect, contradictory images of tradition and its relevance for human wisdom. In his Discourse on Method, a work that could justly be characterized as the intellectual charter of the modern era, Descartes contrasts those human enterprises which have the benefit of the planning and oversight of a single, “master craftsman,” with those comparatively haphazard achievements which are the result of many different planners over the course of a long period of time. As Descartes writes,

it occurred to me to consider that there is often not so much perfection in works composed of many pieces and made by the hands of various master craftsmen as there is in those works on which but a single individual has worked. Thus one sees that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better ordered than those which many architects have tried to patch up by using old walls that had been built for other purposes. Thus those ancient cities that were once mere villages and in the course of time have become large towns are usually so poorly laid out, compared to those well-ordered places that an engineer traces out on a vacant plain as it suits his fancy… (Discourse on Method, AT 11)

In short: Paris vs. Salt Lake City.

What Descartes is contrasting in his image of these two different kinds of city (the centrally planned vs. the non-planned), of course, are two different and (for him) conflicting ways of looking at the world, one that is rooted (if not “cemented”) in custom, authority, received wisdom, in a word, tradition, and another that is critical, analytical, methodological, inquisitive, exploratory, enlightened, self-conscious, independent, autonomous, in a word, rational.

In opposition to this characterization of the alleged haphazardness and, to that extent, irrationality of “tradition” is Tolkien’s image of Treebeard’s eyes, something I’ve commented on before in connection with the historical character of theology in comparison with philosophy. As Pippen reflects on Treebeard’s eyes in The Two Towers,

“One felt as if there was an enormous well behind them, filled up with ages of memory and long, slow, steady thinking; but their surface was sparkling with the present: like sun shimmering on the outer leaves of a vast tree, or on the ripples of a very deep lake. I don’t know, but it felt as if something that grew in the ground – asleep, you might say, or just feeling itself as something between root-tip and leaf-tip, between deep earth and sky had suddenly waked up, and was considering you with the same slow care that it had given to its own inside affairs for endless years.”

Joseph Pearce has suggested that in this extended description of Treebeard’s eyes Tolkien is showing his agreement with Chesterton’s account of “traditionalism,” or what Chesterton described as the “philosophy of the Tree.” As G.K. wrote in one article,

I mean that a tree goes on growing, and therefore goes on changing; but always in the fringes surrounding something unchangeable. The innermost rings of the tree are still the same as when it was a sapling; they have ceased to be seen, but they have not ceased to be\central. When the tree grows a branch at the top, it does not break away from the roots at the bottom; on the contrary, it needs to hold more strongly by its roots the higher it rises with its branches. That is the true image of the vigorous and healthy progress of a man, a city, or a whole species. (Church Socialist Quarterly, January 1909, as quoted in Pearce, ed., Tolkien: A Celebration)

To bring the contradiction between Tolkien and Descartes to as sharp a point as possible, we might say that they both see tradition in semi-arborial terms: what Descartes sees as a bewildering, unintelligible, even idiotic network of subterranean (and hence sub-rational) influences and commitments, Tolkien sees as (potentially) a life-giving root system, reaching across time and space to provide society with much needed nourishment, strength, and stability.

More similarities between Aquinas and Kant

Metaphysics of the Music, part 17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[3] Ibid., 88.

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

Calvin on the medieval distinction of powers

In his chapter on “Calvin and the Absolute Power of God” (Calvin in Context) David Steimetz quotes the following passage from Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 23 in which he rejects out of hand the scholastic distinction between God’s absolute and ordained power:

That invention which the Schoolmen have introduced, about the absolute power of God, is shocking blasphemy. It is all one as if they said that God is a tyrant who resolves to do what he pleases, not by justice, but through caprice. Their schools are full of such blasphemies, and are not unlike the heathens, who said that God sports with human affairs.

Part of Calvin’s rejection of the scholastic distinction of powers, Steinmetz argues, is his rejection of any separation between God’s justice and God’s power, a point that corroborates Steinmetz’s over-arching thesis that, contrary to the interpretation of later Protestant scholastics such as Francis Turretin, Calvin was opposed not just to the scholastic abuse of the distinction of divine powers through undue speculation, but to the very distinction itself. As William Courtenay, for example, has shown, at the origins of the medieval distinction of divine power lies Augustine’s (highly problematic, in my view) admission that there are certain things God could do “according to his power, but not according to his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam) (Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29). If so, then Calvin’s rejection of the distinction of powers may be seen to involve far more than a mere correction of medieval and Renaissance scholasticism: it represents a fundamental critique of the theological tradition regarding divine power, dating back to and including Augustine himself. (On this point, one might say, Calvin is more Augustinian than Augustine himself.) This fact would also seem to qualify the extent of Calvin’s alleged debt to the “covenant theology” of late medieval nominalism, inasmuch as the latter involved not only the adoption but the radicalization of the very distinction of powers that Calvin would later reject.

“How Awful Goodness Is”: Milton’s Satan and Tolkien’s Saruman

Saruman the Gollum, part 3

In a previous post I compared in passing Saruman’s mimetic rivalry with Radagast (and Gandalf) to Satan’s encounter with the angel Zephon in book four of Milton’s Paradise Lost. The passage, however, is too good not to republish in full here, as Zephon’s humble yet righteous put-down of Satan has got to be one of the best in the history of western literature. Apropos my comparison of Saruman to Gollum, it might also be worth noting that, in the following scene, Satan has just been caught, in the form of a toad, whispering into the ear of the sleeping Eve. (And Saruman, we may recall, will corrupt Theoden in the form, not of a toad exactly, but of a “Wormtongue,” whispering, as Gandalf later puts it, “poison … for Théoden’s ears.”) Even after he has been forcibly transformed back into his normal form, there is a great deal of irony and, I would submit, humor in Zephon’s continued difficulty in recognizing who Satan is.

Know ye not then said SATAN, filld with scorn,
Know ye not me? ye knew me once no mate
For you, there sitting where ye durst not soare;
Not to know mee argues your selves unknown,
The lowest of your throng; or if ye know,
Why ask ye, and superfluous begin
Your message, like to end as much in vain?
To whom thus ZEPHON, answering scorn with scorn.
Think not, revolted Spirit, thy shape the same,
Or undiminisht brightness, to be known
As when thou stoodst in Heav’n upright and pure;
That Glorie then, when thou no more wast good,
Departed from thee, and thou resembl’st now
Thy sin and place of doom obscure and foule.
But come, for thou, be sure, shalt give account
To him who sent us, whose charge is to keep
This place inviolable, and these from harm.

So spake the Cherube, and his grave rebuke
Severe in youthful beautie, added grace
Invincible: abasht the Devil stood,
And felt how awful goodness is, and saw
Vertue in her shape how lovly, saw, and pin’d
His loss; but chiefly to find here observd
His lustre visibly impar’d; yet seemd
Undaunted. If I must contend, said he,
Best with the best, the Sender not the sent,
Or all at once; more glorie will be wonn,
Or less be lost. Thy fear, said ZEPHON bold,
Will save us trial what the least can doe
Single against thee wicked, and thence weak.

I won’t develop these at any length, but the above scene calls to mind a number of related passages from Tolkien. The linking elements throughout the following episodes  are (1) an encounter or conflict between a hierarchically lower yet more virtuous being and a higher yet morally compromised being, (2) the rebuke of some formally great being and the latter’s resentful shame, (3) some commentary on the futility and self-dehumanization of the formally great being’s rebellion, or (4) some combination of the above. Without suggesting that Tolkien’s politics were those of Milton, so far as Paradise Lost itself is concerned, the following passages harmonize with Milton’s observations into the ultimately and tragically pathetic destiny of rebellion (however heroic, proud, and noble may be its beginnings) and, in contrast with it, the humble “awfulness” of an obedient goodness.

1. Iluvatar’s rebuke and Melkor’s humiliation after the contest of the Music in the Ainulindale:

Then Ilúvatar spoke, and he said: ‘Mighty are the Ainur, and mightiest among them is Melkor; but that he may know, and all the Ainur, that I am Ilúvatar, those things that ye have sung, I will show them forth, that ye may see what ye have done. And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined.’

    Then the Ainur were afraid, and they did not yet comprehend the words that were said to them; and Melkor was filled with shame, of which came secret anger. 

2.   Fëanor’s humiliating and contemptuous dismissal of Morgoth from Formenos:

he came to Formenos, and spoke with Fëanor before his doors. Friendship he feigned with cunning argument, urging him to his former thought of flight from the trammels of the Valar… Fëanor looked upon Melkor with eyes that burned through his fair semblance and pierced the cloaks of his mind, perceiving there his fierce lust for the Silmarils. Then hate overcame Fëanor’s fear, and he cursed Melkor and bade him be gone, saying: ‘Get thee gone from my gate, thou jail-crow of Mandos!’ And he shut the doors of his house in the face of the mightiest of all the dwellers in Eä.
    Then Melkor departed in shame, for he was himself in peril, and he saw not his time yet for revenge; but his heart was black with anger. (Silmarillion, “Of the Silmarils and the Unrest of the Noldor”) 

3. Merry and Aragorn’s discussion of Saruman’s former greatness in comparison to his later degradation:

‘They [the Ents] pushed, pulled, tore, shook, and hammered; and clang-bang, crash-crack, in five minutes they had these huge gates just lying in ruin; and some were already beginning to eat into the walls, like rabbits in a sand-pit. I don’t know what Saruman thought was happening; but anyway he did not know how to deal with it. His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Very different from old Gandalf. I wonder if his fame was not all along mainly due to his cleverness in settling at Isengard.’

            ‘No,’ said Aragorn. ‘Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvellously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. That power he certainly still keeps. There are not many in Middle-earth that I should say were safe, if they were left alone to talk with him, even now when he has suffered a defeat. Gandalf, Elrond, and Galadriel, perhaps, now that his wickedness has been laid bare, but very few others.’ (The Two Towers, “Flotsam and Jetsam”)

4.  Saruman’s attempt to parley with Theoden, Theoden’s remonstration, and Saruman’s response:

‘I say, Theoden King: shall we have peace and friendship, you and I? It is ours to command.’

      ‘We will have peace,’ said Theoden at last thickly and with an effort…. Yes, we will have peace,’ he said, now in a clear voice, ‘we will have peace, when you and all your works have perished – and the works of your dark master to whom you would deliver us. You are a liar, Saruman, and a corrupter of men’s hearts. You hold out your hand to me, and I perceive only a finger of the claw of Mordor. Cruel and cold! Even if your war on me was just as it was not, for were you ten times as wise you would have no right to rule me and mine for your own profit as you desired – even so, what will you say of your torches in Westfold and the children that lie dead there? And they hewed Hama’s body before the gates of the Hornburg, after he was dead. When you hang from a gibbet at your window for the sport of your own crows, I will have peace with you and Orthanc. So much for the House of Eorl. A lesser son of great sires am I, but I do not need to lick your fingers. Turn elsewhither. But I fear your voice has lost its charm.’

    The Riders gazed up at Theoden like men startled out of a dream. Harsh as an old raven’s their master’s voice sounded in their ears after the music of Saruman. But Saruman for a while was beside himself with wrath. He leaned over the rail as if he would smite the King with his staff. To some suddenly it seemed that they saw a snake coiling itself to strike.
     ‘Gibbets and crows!’ he hissed, and they shuddered at the hideous change. ‘Dotard! What is the house of Eorl but a thatched barn where brigands drink in the reek, and their brats roll on the floor among the dogs? Too long have they escaped the gibbet themselves. But the noose comes, slow in the drawing, tight and hard in the end. Hang if you will!’ Now his voice changed, as he slowly mastered himself. ‘I know not why I have had the patience to speak to you. For I need you not, nor your little band of gallopers, as swift to fly as to advance, Theoden Horsemaster. Long ago I offered you a state beyond your merit and your wit. I have offered it again, so that those whom you mislead may clearly see the choice of roads. You give me brag and abuse. So be it. Go back to your huts!

5. Saruman’s attempt to parley with Gandalf, and Gandalf’s mockery and control over Saruman (note once again Saruman’s Gollum-speak–“so condescending, and so very kind”–as well as Gandalf’s description of Saruman’s Gollum-like condition–“But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots”):  

‘But you, Gandalf! For you at least I am grieved, feeling for your shame. How comes it that you can endure such company? For you are proud, Gandalf – and not without reason, having a noble mind and eyes that look both deep and far. Even now will you not listen to my counsel?’… Are we not both members of a high and ancient order, most excellent in Middle-earth? Our friendship would profit us both alike. Much we could still accomplish together, to heal the disorders of the world. Let us understand one another, and dismiss from thought these lesser folk! Let them wait on our decisions! For the common good I am willing to redress the past, and to receive you. Will you not consult with me? Will you not come up?’

       ….Then Gandalf laughed. The fantasy vanished like a puff of smoke. ‘Saruman, Saruman!’ said Gandalf still laughing. ‘Saruman, you missed your path in life. You should have been the king’s jester and earned your bread, and stripes too, by mimicking his counsellors. Ah me!’ he paused, getting the better of his mirth. ‘Understand one another? I fear I am beyond your comprehension. But you, Saruman, I understand now too well…. Nay, I do not think I will come up. But listen, Saruman, for the last time! Will you not come down? Isengard has proved less strong than your hope and fancy made it. So may other things in which you still have trust. Would it not be well to leave it for a while? To turn to new things, perhaps? Think well, Saruman! Will you not come down?’

        A shadow passed over Saruman’s face; then it went deathly white. Before he could conceal it, they saw through the mask the anguish of a mind in doubt, loathing to stay and dreading to leave its refuge. For a second he hesitated, and no one breathed. Then he spoke, and his voice was shrill and cold. Pride and hate were conquering him.

        ‘Will I come down?’ he mocked. ‘Does an unarmed man come down to speak with robbers out of doors? I can hear you well enough here. I am no fool, and I do not trust you, Gandalf. They do not stand openly on my stairs, but I know where the wild wood-demons are lurking, at your command.’

         ‘The treacherous are ever distrustful,’ answered Gandalf wearily. ‘But you need not fear for your skin. I do not wish to kill you, or hurt you, as you would know, if you really understood me. And I have the power to protect you. I am giving you a last chance. You can leave Orthanc, free – if you choose.’

      ‘That sounds well,’ sneered Saruman. ‘Very much in the manner of Gandalf the Grey: so condescending, and so very kind…. But why should I wish to leave?…’

      ‘Reasons for leaving you can see from your windows,’ answered Gandalf. ‘…But you will first surrender to me the Key of Orthanc, and your staff. They shall be pledges of your conduct, to be returned later, if you merit them.’

       Saruman’s face grew livid, twisted with rage, and a red light was kindled in his eyes. He laughed wildly. ‘Later!’ he cried, and his voice rose to a scream. ‘Later! Yes, when you also have the Keys of Barad-dur itself, I suppose; and the crowns of seven kings, and the rods of the Five Wizards, and have purchased yourself a pair of boots many sizes larger than those that you wear now. A modest plan. Hardly one in which my help is needed! I have other things to do. Do not be a fool. If you wish to treat with me, while you have a chance, go away, and come back when you are sober! And leave behind these cut-throats and small rag-tag that dangle at your tail! Good day!’ He turned and left the balcony.

      ‘Come back, Saruman!’ said Gandalf in a commanding voice. To the amazement of the others, Saruman turned again, and as if dragged against his will, he came slowly back to the iron rail, leaning on it, breathing hard. His face was lined and shrunken. His hand clutched his heavy black staff like a claw. ‘I did not give you leave to go,’ said Gandalf sternly. ‘I have not finished. You have become a fool, Saruman, and yet pitiable. You might still have turned away from folly and evil, and have been of service. But you choose to stay and gnaw the ends of your old plots…. Saruman!’ he cried, and his voice grew in power and authority. ‘Behold, I am not Gandalf the Grey, whom you betrayed. I am Gandalf the White, who has returned from death. You have no colour now, and I cast you from the order and from the Council.’ He raised his hand, and spoke slowly in a clear cold voice. ‘Saruman, your staff is broken.’ There was a crack, and the staff split asunder in Saruman’s hand, and the head of it fell down at Gandalf’s feet. ‘Go!’ said Gandalf. With a cry Saruman fell back and crawled away. (The Two Towers, “The Voice of Saruman”) 

6. The Fellowship’s encounter with Saruman while returning to Rivendell:

As they came out again into the open country at sundown they overtook an old man leaning on a staff, and he was clothed in rags of grey or dirty white, and at his heels went another beggar, slouching and whining. ‘Well Saruman!’ said Gandalf. ‘Where are you going?’

          ‘What is that to you?’ he answered. ‘Will you still order my goings, and are you not content with my ruin?’

         ‘You know the answers,’ said Gandalf, ‘no and no. But in any case the time of my labours now draws to an end. The King has taken on the burden. If you had waited at Orthanc, you would have seen him, and he would have shown you wisdom and mercy.’

     ‘Then all the more reason to have left sooner,’ said Saruman, ‘for I desire neither of him. Indeed if you wish for an answer to your first question, I am seeking a way out of his realm.’

       ‘Then once more you are going the wrong way,’ said Gandalf, ‘and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you.’

      ‘To me?’ said Saruman. ‘Nay, pray do not smile at me! I prefer your frowns. And as for the Lady here, I do not trust her: she always hated me, and schemed for your part. I do not doubt that she has brought you this way to have the pleasure of gloating over my poverty. Had I been warned of your pursuit, I would have denied you the pleasure.’

      ‘Saruman,’ said Galadriel, ‘we have other errands and other cares that seem to us more urgent than hunting for you. Say rather that you are overtaken by good fortune; for now you have a last chance.’

       ‘If it be truly the last, I am glad,’ said Saruman, ‘for I shall be spared the trouble of refusing it again. All my hopes are ruined, but I would not share yours. If you have any.’

     For a moment his eyes kindled. ‘Go!’ he said. ‘I did not spend long study on these matters for naught. You have doomed yourselves, and you know it. And it will afford me some comfort as I wander to think that you pulled down your own house when you destroyed mine. And now, what ship will bear you back across so wide a sea?’ he mocked. ‘It will be a grey ship, and full of ghosts.’ He laughed, but his voice was cracked and hideous…. As the wretched pair passed by the company they came to the hobbits, and Saruman stopped and stared at them; but they looked at him with pity.

        ‘So you have come to gloat too, have you, my urchins?’ he said. ‘You don’t care what a beggar lacks, do you? For you have all you want, food and fine clothes, and the best weed for your pipes. Oh yes, I know! I know where it comes from. You would not give a pipeful to a beggar, would you?’

      ‘I would, if I had any,’ said Frodo.

      ‘You can have what I have got left,’ said Merry, ‘if you will wait a moment.’ He got down and searched in the bag at his saddle. Then he handed to Saruman a leather pouch. ‘Take what there is,’ he said. ‘You are welcome to it; it came from the flotsam of Isengard.’

       ‘Mine, mine, yes and dearly bought!’ cried Saruman, clutching at the pouch. ‘This is only a repayment in token; for you took more, I’ll be bound. Still, a beggar must be grateful, if a thief returns him even a morsel of his own. Well, it will serve you right when you come home, if you find things less good in the Southfarthing than you would like. Long may your land be short of leaf!’

      ‘Thank you!’ said Merry. ‘In that case I will have my pouch back, which is not yours and has journeyed far with me. Wrap the weed in a rag of your own.’ ‘One thief deserves another,’ said Saruman, and turned his back on Merry, and kicked Wormtongue, and went away towards the wood. (The Return of the King, “Many Partings” 

7. Finally, Frodo’s encounter with Saruman-cum-Sharkey in the Shire:

‘[A]nd so I am able to welcome you home.’ There standing at the door was Saruman himself, looking well-fed and well-pleased; his eyes gleamed with malice and amusement.

         A sudden light broke on Frodo. ‘Sharkey!’ he cried.

        Saruman laughed. ‘So you have heard the name, have you? All my people used to call me that in Isengard, I believe. A sign of affection, possibly. But evidently you did not expect to see me here.’

      ‘I did not,’ said Frodo. ‘But I might have guessed. A little mischief in a mean way: Gandalf warned me that you were still capable of it.

        ‘Quite capable,’ said Saruman, ‘and more than a little. You made me laugh, you hobbit-lordlings, riding along with all those great people so secure and so pleased with your little selves. You thought you had done very well out of it all, and could now just amble back and have a nice quiet time in the country. Saruman’s home could be all wrecked, and he could be turned out, but no one could touch yours. Oh no! Gandalf would look after your affairs.’

       Saruman laughed again. ‘Not he! When his tools have done their task he drops them. But you must go dangling after him, dawdling and talking, and riding round twice as far as you needed. “Well,” thought I, “if they’re such fools, I will get ahead of them and teach them a lesson. One ill turn deserves another.” It would have been a sharper lesson, if only you had given me a little more time and more Men. Still I have already done much that you will find it hard to mend or undo in your lives. And it will be pleasant to think of that and set it against my injuries.’

         ‘Well, if that is what you find pleasure in,’ said Frodo, ‘I pity you. It will be a pleasure of memory only, I fear. Go at once and never return!’

       The hobbits of the villages had seen Saruman come out of one of the huts, and at once they came crowding up to the door of Bag End. When they heard Frodo’s command, they murmured angrily:

        ‘Don’t let him go! Kill him! He’s a villain and a murderer. Kill him!’

        Saruman looked round at their hostile faces and smiled. ‘Kill him!’ he mocked. ‘Kill him, if you think there are enough of you, my brave hobbits!’ He drew himself up and stared at them darkly with his black eyes. ‘But do not think that when I lost all my goods I lost all my power! Whoever strikes me shall be accursed. And if my blood stains the Shire, it shall wither and never again be healed.’

       The hobbits recoiled. But Frodo said: ‘Do not believe him! He has lost all power, save his voice that can still daunt you and deceive you, if you let it. But I will not have him slain. It is useless to meet revenge with revenge: it will heal nothing. Go, Saruman, by the speediest way!’…..

        Saruman turned to go, and Wormtongue shuffled after him. But even as Saruman passed close to Frodo a knife flashed in his hand, and he stabbed swiftly. The blade turned on the hidden mail-coat and snapped. A dozen hobbits, led by Sam, leaped forward with a cry and flung the villain to the ground. Sam drew his sword.

        ‘No, Sam!’ said Frodo. ‘Do not kill him even now. For he has not hurt me. And in any case I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare to raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.’

        Saruman rose to his feet, and stared at Frodo. There was a strange look in his eyes of mingled wonder and respect and hatred. ‘You have grown, Halfling,’ he said. ‘Yes, you have grown very much. You are wise, and cruel. You have robbed my revenge of sweetness, and now I must go hence in bitterness, in debt to your mercy. I hate it and you!….’ (Return of the King, “The Scouring of the Shire”)  

Saruman’s mimetic desire

Saruman the Gollum, part 2

For all his sophistication, a further indication of the corruption of Saruman’s mind and soul is the self-incriminating hypocrisy of his description of Gandalf as “wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not,” for as Treebeard tells Merry and Pippen, “minding the affairs of Men and Elves” was precisely what the wizards were sent to Middle-earth to do, a task to which Gandalf remained faithful but which Saruman abandoned, instead “tak[ing] up with foul folk, with the Orcs,” creatures with whom he certainly ought to have had no “business.” Treebeard outlines the diminishment of Saruman in these further, incriminating words:

“There was a time when he was always walking about my woods. He was polite in those days, always asking my leave (at least when he met me); and always eager to listen. I told him many things that he would never have found out by himself; but he never repaid me in like kind. I cannot remember that he ever told me anything. And he got more and more like that; his face, as I remember it – I have not seen it for many a day – became like windows in a stone wall: windows with shutters inside.”

Saruman began as a “wizard,” which is to say, one of the “Wise,” but in his play to become a “Power,” we see him having to stoop to the level of a disgraceful liar. Saruman has become a Gollum.

Other comparisons between Saruman and Gollum might be made. I have already mentioned Saruman’s “scoffing” reference to Gandalf “the Grey,” and when Gandalf mentions Radagast, Saruman “no longer concealed his scorn”: ” ‘Radagast the Brown!’ laughed Saruman… ‘Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool!'” This pointless, unprovoked, and out-of-all-proportion litany of insults is telling. On the one hand, through the powerful and learned Saruman’s derision of the wandering, poverty- and nature-loving Franciscan, Radagast, Tolkien might be seen unmasking the feigned, pragmatic, “beyond-good-and-evil” indifference of the technocratic, industrialist will-to-dominate, as something much more abject, namely a subliminal envy and resentment in the face of an aesthetically arresting and morally indicting created goodness. Like Milton’s Satan when confronted by the hierarchically subordinate yet unfallen cherub, Zephon (Paradise Lost, bk. 4), Saruman’s posture of superiority is really a front for a secretly and perhaps only half-consciously realized moral–and to that extent, metaphysical–inferiority.

Hegel, Marx, and Sauron’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 41

I have been examining Tolkien’s characterization of domination in terms of the attempted reduction or assimilation, by means of Magic or Machinery, of the being of others to the being of oneself. As Tolkien’s stories also aim to illustrate, and as a number of his commentators have noted, one of the great ironies of modern industrialization, technology, and its related consumerism is the way in which they have rendered human beings so helplessly dependent upon the very things that were supposed to set them free. This is certainly the case with Sauron, the objectification of whose power in the One Ring makes him simultaneously able to conquer Middle-earth and that much more vulnerable to eventual defeat. As Tolkien puts it:

The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to “philosophize” this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert “power” must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them. (Letters 279)

Tolkien’s reasoning here calls to mind Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, according to which it is the master who, in his dependence upon the slave, is in fact the slave to the slave. As Kreeft observes, if today we do not have slaves it is only

because we have substitutes for them: machines. The Industrial Revolution made slavery inefficient and unnecessary. But our addiction is the same whether the slaves are made of flesh, metal, or plastic. We have done exactly what Sauron did in forging the Ring. We have put our power into things in order to increase our power. And the result is, as everyone knows but no one admits, that we are now weak little wimps, Shelob’s slaves, unable to survive a blow to the great spider of our technological network. We tremble before a nationwide electrical blackout or a global computer virus… In our drive for power we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we have become more powerful when all the time we have been becoming less. We are miserable little Nietzsches dreaming we are supermen. For in gaining the world we have lost our selves. (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 187-8; for a similar analysis, see Caldecott, The Power of the Ring, 43-5)

Approaching Tolkien’s Ring from a related direction, Alison Milbank has compared Tolkien’s insight into the estrangement between agent and artifact with Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism (based in its turn on Hegel’s master-slave analysis). According to Marx, capitalist economies alienate the worker from his labor by treating the commodities he produces as having an independent life or existence of their own (Milbank, “‘My Precious’: Tolkien’s Fetishized Ring,” 36-7), a relationship which, at any rate, certainly obtains between Sauron and his Ring wherein we see the Manichaean aspirations of evil as the will-to-dominate seeking to make itself “objective” and so independent.

Sauron’s Ring and the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 34

Central to Tolkien’s representation of the evil of domination is the eponymous Ring of Sauron itself, about which there are three main points I would like to make in regard to its general symbolism of Tolkien’s metaphysics of domination.

The first point concerns the Ring’s mythic power to render its wearer invisible, a property Robert Eaglestone has analyzed in light of Emmanuel Levinas’s application of the Ring of Gyges from Plato’s Republic to the problem of the modern self. As Eaglestone points out, Levinas sees “in the gesture of seeing without being seen, both the phenomena of evil and one of the defining and unavoidable features of modernity” (Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” 75). For Levinas, Eaglestone explains, “our thought and daily lives are first in a relationship to the others that populate the world. Everything else is built on this fundamental relationship to the other, which ‘happens’ to us before we choose it.” This fundamental, mutual participation in the life of others “involves giving up one’s rights and acknowledging both the rights of the other and one’s own responsibility to them over and above yourself.” In modernity, however, Levinas argues a decidedly new attitude emerged, especially in Descartes’s methodical doubt which posited a radical theoretical distance between the thinking subject and the world , thus rendering the subject “invisible” to it. As Eaglestone summarizes Levinas’s argument, the modern isolation of the subject

creates the illusion that one’s subjectivity is, like Gyges, not derived from one’s relation with others but rather existing independently without society or recognition from others. Levinas continues and argues that the “myth of Gyges is the very myth of the I” which stands alone. “Seeing without being seen” is at the same time an illusion of radical separation and uprootedness from others, and the grounds of the possibility of “inner life”… Invisibility seems to turn the world into a world of spectacle, in which the observer is disengaged and free from bounds or restraint…(76)

As Eaglestone continues, in this illusion of separation at the heart of modernity, “others are turned from people into objects” (81). Like the modern conception of the subject, Sauron’s Ring, in making its wearer invisible to others and thus detaching him from his rootedness and participation in the world, in principle denies the claim that other beings have on him by virtue of their otherness. Invisible to all others while all others remain visible to him, the Ring-wearer assumes a quasi-transcendence in which their being effectively becomes an extension of his own.

In this Sauron’s Ring may be said to reverse the pattern of the Ainur’s Vision, the joyous eucatastrophe of which consists in its giving the appearance of “things other” that do not yet exist, the reality of which is later granted as a divine gift. The tragedy or dyscatastrophe of Sauron’s Ring, by contrast, is that it takes the reality of an already existing thing and belies that reality by denying its appearances. However, because things are what they are on account of their otherness, to deny a thing its appearance and its consequent relationship with those beings to whom it appears, is also to deny its reality, as we see in the case of the Ring-wraiths and all those who possess Sauron’s Ring for too long. As Gandalf explains to Frodo, if one “often uses the Ring to make himself invisible, he fades: he becomes in the end invisible permanently, and walks in the twilight under the eye of the dark power that rules the Rings… Yes, sooner or later… the dark power will devour him” (FOTR 56). Related to this, of course, is Bilbo’s complaint to Gandalf in which he unwitting reveals the effect the Ring has had on him: “I am old Gandalf. I don’t look it, but I am beginning to feel it in my heart of hearts. Well-preserved indeed!’ he snorted. ‘Why, I feel all thing, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something” (41).

The only person over whom the Ring seems to have no power, even to render him invisible, is Tom Bombadil, one of the earthiest characters in Tolkien’s fiction and one whose whole identity is most tied to his love of and devotion to things other.  As Tolkien writes of Tom in one letter, “he is an ‘allegory’, or an exemplar, a particular embodying of pure (real) natural science: the spirit that desires knowledge of other things, their history and nature, because they are ‘other’ and wholly independent of the enquiring mind, a spirit coeval with the rational mind, and entirely unconcerned with ‘doing’ anything with the knowledge” (Letters 192, emphasis original).

“You Read Too Much”: Tolkien to Lewis on the Critic vs. the Writer

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 3 (part 1) (part 2)

Before getting to his fullest expression of his peculiar theory of forgiveness, Tolkien first seeks to explain to Lewis and put into context his caustic remarks on the latter’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Lewis had, in his reply to Tolkien’s initial letter of apology, referred to him as a “critic,” a title that Tolkien is adamant to disclaim: “I am not a critic. I do not want to be one. I am capable on occasion (after long pondering) of ‘criticism’, but I am not naturally a critical man” (Letters 126, emphasis Tolkien’s). In a note on this passage, Tolkien elaborates further on his view that formal literary criticism actually “get[s] in the way of a writer who has anything personal to say,” and compares the critic-qua-writer to a tightrope walker whose in-the-act theorizing about equilibrium may cost him his grace, if not his balance. He goes on hesitatingly to suggest that this is in fact one of Lewis’s shortcomings—that he is too much the critic and that it “gets in your way, as a writer. You read too much, and too much of that analytically. But then you are also a born critic. I am not. You are also a born reader.”

In contrast (and in part due) to Lewis’s native analytic and critical bent, Tolkien says of himself that he has “been partly and in a sense unnaturally galvanized into it by the strongly ‘critical’ tendency of the brotherhood” (i.e., the Inklings). He again denies that he is “really ‘hyper-critical’” (presumably another term Lewis had used in his letter to describe him); instead, he writes,

I am usually only trying to express ‘liking’ not universally valid criticism. As a result I am in fact merely lost in a chartless alien sea. I need food of particular kinds, not exercise for my analytical wits (which are normally employed in other fields). For I have something that I deeply desire to make, and which it is the (largely frustrated) bent of my nature to make.

For Tolkien, his judgments are no mere academic exercise of the trained literary critic, but the stomach-rumbling (as it were) of a peculiar, even idiosyncratic literary taste and need for a certain kind of aesthetic and intellectual nourishment. Critics have palates that want teasing and pleasing; Tolkien, by contrast, admits simply to an intense spiritual hunger in need of satiation.

As he implies in the above passage, it is partly his failing to find adequate sustenance elsewhere, and partly his own artistic compulsion, that has fueled his own literary expression. His statement, moreover, that he has “something I deeply desire to make” should particularly call to mind the Vala Aulë from The Silmarillion, who, after Niggle, is perhaps Tolkien’s most autobiographical and self-parodying character (for more on Aulë, see here). Much like the author of the present letter, for example, in both Aulë and Niggle we have sub-creators whose preoccupation with the works of their own hands lead them (even if unintentionally) to neglect their duties toward, and to fall short in their love for, their nearest neighbors and friends. As for Aulë in particular, when caught by Ilúvatar in his misguided and hubristic attempt to make the Dwarves, he is asked if what he seeks is a lifeless corpse to dominate and manipulate at will—a perhaps not wholly inaccurate representation, it occurs to me, of Tolkien’s above views on the literary critic. In response to this chastisement Aulë humbly, penitently, yet boldly and not without some justification informs and reminds Ilúvatar that “I did not desire such lordship. I desired things other than I am… Yet the making of things is in my heart from my own making by thee.” For Tolkien as much as for Aristotle and St. Thomas, nature (because ultimately the Creator) does nothing in vain, meaning in this case that the compulsory (because ultimately divine) call of the sub-creative must be answered.

(To be continued….)

“Under Grace that Will Do Good”

Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness, part 2 (part 1)

As I summarized in the previous post, Tolkien had written a letter of apology to Lewis for his excessively critical review of Lewis’s English Literature in the Sixteenth Century, Lewis had replied to Tolkien’s letter apparently disclaiming having in fact been “offended,” and Tolkien had replied to Lewis reply noting that he had in fact changed “offended” to “pained,” explaining that “Pained we cannot help being by the painful.” Yet Tolkien’s implied distinction between taking offence and being pained is only the first of the advice and reminders he offers Lewis in putting into perspective not only Tolkien’s own, particular wrong-doing, but also the role of trials in our life more generally and the nature of forgiveness itself.

Tolkien concedes and assures Lewis that, indeed, “nothing in your speech or manner gave me any reason to suppose that you felt ‘offended’. Yet I could see that you felt–you would have been hardly human otherwise–and your letter shows how much.” In the previous post I said that Tolkien’s distinction between offence and pain seemed to be that whereas offence can be taken at something that is not necessarily intrinsically morally or personally offensive, one can be legitimately pained by anything that happens to be painful. Upon reflection, however, the above passage leads me to think that another, if not in fact differing, understanding is in view, one in which the feeling of offence is seen as a more particular, specified form of the more general feeling of pain. Lewis felt (i.e., pain), Tolkien insists, even if he didn’t feel offended specifically.

In admitting the harm he has done to Lewis in this manner, however, Tolkien’s purpose is not the kind of self-pity that takes perverse pleasure in wallowing in its own guilt–far from it, his confession has the air of a free man who knows he can presume on the good will and love of both his friend and of his God, before whose eyes all our moral failings–both in wronging and being wronged–take place. I have already noted Tolkien’s assurance to Lewis that he knew the latter would never grow resentful; bolder still is Tolkien’s matter-of-fact confidence when he remarks about the whole experience, “I daresay under grace that will do good rather than harm, but that is between you and God.” Tolkien regrets what he had said, has made his apologies, and leaves the rest to Lewis and his God.

(To be continued….)

“Make me a present of the pains I have caused”: Tolkien’s theology of forgiveness

In a 1948 letter Tolkien apologizes to his friend C.S. Lewis for what he admits to have been some unduly caustic remarks he had made on a piece of Lewis’s work (Humphrey Carpenter speculates it to be his English Literature in the Sixteenth Century). More than a mere apology, however, Tolkien’s letter to Lewis contains a unique insight into the very human relationship between these two friends who would each become literary giants in their own right, into Tolkien’s views on himself as a writer and literary critic, and finally, into Tolkien’s at once peculiar and yet profound theology of grace in forgiveness.

The internal evidence of the letter suggests the following chain of events. Subsequent to the above incident, Tolkien had felt some remorse for responding to Lewis’s work in so acerbic a manner, and so sent him some verses and an initial (apparently unpreserved) letter of apology. Lewis replied to this letter, and the letter here in question is Tolkien’s response to that reply.

Tolkien begins by observing to Lewis that “you write largely on ‘offence’; though surely I amended ‘offended’ in my letter to ‘pained’? Pained we cannot help being by the painful” (Letters 125). The implied distinction here between paining someone and offending him is an interesting and I think pastorally helpful one. The difference, to Tolkien’s mind, seems to be that, whereas someone can take offence at something that is not (or need not be) offensive, someone is pained, by contrast, by something that is objectively painful. And that is what Tolkien here wants to insist his original criticism of Lewis’s work to have been–unnecessarily and unjustifiably painful–and so it was reasonable for Lewis to have been hurt accordingly by it. Tolkien continues by assuring Lewis, however, that he also “knew well enough” that the latter would not allow his pain to “grow into resentment,” but implies that he was nevertheless at fault for having provided the occasion or cause for such resentment: “Woe to him,” Tolkien writes, “by whom the temptations come.”

Tolkien goes on to explain the source of his remorse at being so harsh in his criticisms of Lewis’s piece of writing, namely the pain–inevitable and necessary, he acknowledges–he himself has had to suffer as a published author, followed by his awareness of having now perpetrated the same treatment on someone for whom he has “deep affection and sympathy.” The opening paragraph of the letter concludes with Tolkien also confessing that his remarks may have also been somewhat retaliatory, as he was bristling under a “half-patronizing half-mocking lash” Lewis himself had made previously to Tolkien’s original criticisms and which “the small things of my heart made the mere excuse for verbal butchery.” While one might be tempted to detect here a hint of blame-shifting or passive aggression in Tolkien’s mentioning here–in the context of his apology to Lewis–Lewis’s own provocation of Tolkien, yet given what we know generally about their personalities and the history of their relationship, it seems the case that Tolkien was in fact “pained” by Lewis far more often than the reverse. If so, this fact makes Tolkien’s counsel to Lewis on forgiveness in this letter, about which more anon, all the more fascinating in its irony.

(To be continued….)

Society: a whole no greater than the sum of its parts?

According to Mises, society is a whole that is no greater than the sum of its parts:

The total complex of the mutual relations created by such concerted actions is called society…. But society is nothing but the combination of individuals for cooperative effort. It exists nowhere else than in the actions of individual men. It is a delusion to search for it outside the actions of individuals. To speak of a society’s autonomous and independent existence, of its life, its soul, and its actions is a metaphor which can easily lead to crass errors. (Human Action, 143)

A couple of responses. The first is that Mises seems to posit a false dichotomy between society being nothing more than the aggregation of “individuals for cooperative effort” on the one hand, and, on the other, the supposed alternative of society somehow existing elsewhere “than in the actions of individual men.” (I.e., I submit that there is no contradiction for society to be, contra Mises, more than the combination of individuals for cooperative effort, while at the same time, and consistent with Mises, “exist[ing] nowhere else than in the actions of individual men.”)

Second, is it not rather arbitrary for Mises so willingly to accept mind, reason and their correlate, human action, as “ultimate” givens that are irreducible to the mere material processes of nature (Mises’s “methodological dualism”), while insisting that society, by contrast, is nothing more than and is therefore reducible to the individuals of which it is composed? Mises is an unapologetic dualist in the one case and an incorrigible reductionist in the other. But sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, I say. Human sociality is every bit an irreducible “given” as human rationality.

The Creative Genius: Mises’s “Christology”

Mises’s figure of the “creative genius” has a number of historical antecedents (Hegel’s world-historical figure and Nietzsche’s Dionysian übermensch, for example, come to mind), but I’m particularly intrigued by the (secularized) prophetic, christological, and soteriological (perhaps even apocalyptic) function he seems to serve in Mises’s economic theory:

Far above the millions that come and pass away tower the pioneers, the men whose deeds and ideas cut out new paths for mankind. For the pioneering genius to create is the essence of life. To live means for him to create.

The activities of these prodigious men cannot be fully subsumed under the praxeological concept of labor. They are not labor because they are for the genius not means, but ends in themselves. He lives in creating and inventing. For him there is no leisure, only intermissions of temporary sterility and frustration. His incentive is not the desire to bring about the result, but the act of producing it. The accomplishment gratifies him neither mediately nor immediately. It does not gratify him mediately because his fellow men at best are unconcerned about it, more often even greet it with taunts, sneers, and persecution. Many a genius could have used his gifts to render his life agreeable and joyful; he did not even consider such a possibility and chose the thorny path without hesitation. The genius wants to accomplish what he considers his mission, even if he knows that he moves toward his own disaster.

Neither does the genius derive immediate gratification from his creative activities. Creating is for him agony and torment, a ceaseless excruciating struggle against internal and external obstacles; it consumes and crushes him…. Such agonies are phenomena which have nothing in common with the connotations generally attached to the notions of work and labor, production and success, breadwinning and enjoyment of life….

The creative accomplishment of the genius is an ultimate fact for praxeology. It comes to pass in history as a free gift of destiny. It is by no means the result of production in the sense in which economics uses this term. (Human Action, 139-40)

In sum, in Mises’s “pioneering genius” we have a transcendent (at least relative to the science of human action and economics) “grace” intervening in the affairs and actions of men, taking the form of a self-emptying, “suffering servant,” a man “who for the joy set before him endures” tribulation, “despising the shame.”

Augustine contra Mises on “(dis)ordered loves”

Mises observes that “It is customary to say that acting man has a scale of wants or values in his mind when he arranges his actions. On the basis of such a scale he satisfies what is of higher value, i.e., his more urgent wants, and leaves unsatisfied what is of lower value, i.e., what is a less urgent want” (Human Action 94). And as a general principle of human behavior, I think the statement accurate enough. But Mises actually thinks the statement isn’t rigid enough, writing that

one must not forget that the scale of values or wants manifests itself only in the reality of action. These scales have no independent existence apart from the actual behavior of individuals. The only source from which our knowledge concerning these scales is derived is the observation of a man’s actions. Every action is always in perfect agreement with the scale of values or wants because these scales are nothing but an instrument for the interpretation of a man’s acting. (95)

For Mises, in other words, it is no mere general principle, but an inexorable law admitting of no exceptions, that human action is arranged in a hierarchical scale in which the higher wants are satisfied in advance of lower ones.

A couple of responses, the first of which is that this conflation of human wants or values to actual human action (which Mises defines as “purposeful human behavior”) seems to be guilty of the very kind of reductionism that Mises faults the behaviorists (Skinner, et al.) for when they reduce human action to mere behavior, apart from the subjective, purposive, teleological, or goal-oriented aspect that Mises makes central to his analysis.

My second response is related to the first but is inspired by Augustine, which is that this seems like an awfully naive and overly optimistic understanding of man, in that it assumes an unrealistic degree of self-transparency involved in human wants or desires (or what Augustine would call “loves”). Is it really the case, after all, that what we really want or love is always so obvious or clear to us, such that there is, in Mises’s words, a “perfect agreement” between our scale of values on the one hand and our actions on the other? This seems highly unlikely, if not manifestly false. For Augustine, who was deeply impressed by the effects of sin, both original and otherwise, on human reasoning, believed that the human soul was a virtual rats’ nest of affections, proclivities, aversions, motives, prejudices, biases, and so forth, a web of lusts, in short, so complicated that only God had the wisdom to possibly sort it all out. What is more, Augustine believed that, for all his fallenness, man’s deepest desire remains the desire for communion with the God in whose image he has been made: “our hearts are restless till they find their rest in Thee.” This is all to say that, in an important sense, apart from the redemption had in Christ, in and through whom alone our disordered  loves may become rightly ordered ones, man never acts so as to satisfy what is of “highest value” first.

Man as Plant: von Mises on Nihilism

In his magnum opusHuman Action, Ludwig von Mises analyzes the nihilism of “Indian philosophies, especially of Buddhism, and Schopenhaur,” in the following terms:

Some philosophies advise man to seek as the ultimate end of conduct the complete renunciation of any action. They look upon life as an absolute evil full of pain, suffering, and anguish, and apodictically deny that any purposeful human effort can render it tolerable. Happiness can be attained only by complete extinction of consciousness, volition, and life. The only way toward bliss and salvation is to become perfectly passive, indifferent, and inert like the plant. The sovereign good is the abandonment of thinking and acting.

Mises contrasts this nihilistic outlook with that of “praxeology,” or the study of human action, which

is not concerned with human beings who have succeeded in suppressing altogether everything that characterizes man as man: will, desire, thought, and the striving after ends. It deals with acting man, not with man transformed into a plant and reduced to a mere vegetative existence.

Acting man (homo agens) vs. “man as plant”–that’s an intriguing analysis of eastern and modern nihilism. In its exhortation to the renunciation of human will, the latter reduces man not so much to the level of an animal as it does to the level of a vegetable.

Which leads us to a somewhat unique biblical and historical perspective on nihilism. In Romans chapter one, the Apostle Paul famously criticizes the paganism of the ancient Gentiles in terms of God having “given them over” in their unbelief so that they “changed the glory of the uncorruptible God into an image made like to corruptible man, and to birds, and fourfooted beasts, and creeping things…. Who changed the truth of God into a lie, and worshipped and served the creature more than the Creator…” Given this basic framework, secular nihilism, as a post-Christian phenomenon and, relative to pre-Christian paganism, even more radical form of spiritual decadence, represents a reversion or retrograde to an even earlier day of the creation week, exchanging the glory of man, made on the sixth day in the image of an acting, creating God, for an image of that which had been prepared for man on the third day as a means for his dominion, namely the “herb yielding seed” and “the tree yielding fruit” (Gen. 1). This reminds me, finally, of Conor Cunningham’s thesis (Genealogy of Nihilism) that there is an authentic form of nihilism (defined broadly as any philosophical attempt to have “nothing as something”) latent within the Christian faith, since it teaches that God literally created everything that exists from nothing. If so, there is something symbolic about secular nihilism’s attempt to reduce man to a plant: it is figuratively attempting to renounce God’s own acts of will throughout the creation week.

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.”

Tolkien’s angels and Descartes’s “angelism”

I concluded the post of a couple of weeks ago on the “machine” like quality of the bodies of Tolkien’s fictional, voluntarily incarnate angel beings, by saying that one of the endemic dangers or temptations of such a being is to want to exercise the same kind of domination over other creatures that the angelic spirit exercises over its material body. If so, in this oblique manner Tolkien may be seen to touch on what his contemporary, the Thomist Jacques Maritain, had criticized as the “angelism” of Cartesian mind-body dualism, the modern subject-object split that helped lay the philosophical foundations for modern scientism, industrialism, and technocracy—the very developments, in other words, which Tolkien so deplored and from whose evils his fiction was meant to provide some measure of “escape.” As Fergus Kerr summarizes Maritain’s critique,

The ‘sin’ of Descartes is a ‘sin of angelism.’ By this Maritain means that Descartes conceived human thought on the model of angelic thought: thought was now regarded as intuitive, and thus freed from the burden of discursive reasoning; innate, as to its origins, and thus independent of material things. What this ‘angelist psychology’ introduces is nothing less than a revolution in the very idea of mind, and thus of intelligibility, scientific understanding and explanation… (Kerr, After Aquinas: Versions of Thomism, 24)

In his effort to advance human mastery over nature, in other words, Descartes had to drastically re-conceive the relationship between the human mind and body, construing these two phenomena as two completely distinct and isolatable substances corresponding to two completely distinct, irreducible, and independent realities. As Descartes famously expressed this dualism in his Discourse on Method, “I knew that I was a substance the whole essence or nature of which was merely to think, and which, in order to exist, needed no place and depended on no material thing” (Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, trans. Cress, 18).  In freeing the mind from its involvement or rootedness in the world, thereby allowing it to see its own body as a kind of machine at its disposal, Descartes is plausibly credited by many with having uniquely situated the modern subject to assert itself in an unprecedented manner, both theoretically and practically, over the natural world. As Maritain’s charge of “angelism” is meant to suggest, however, from a Thomistic standpoint what Descartes did, of course, was effectively to substitute a properly angelic psychology and epistemology, which do not require a body, for the properly human one, which does.