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.

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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.