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.

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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.

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).

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.

Philosophy is literal, Theology allegorical

Aquinas writes in Summa Contra Gentiles 2.4.1 that “the Christian faith deals with creatures so far as they reflect a certain likeness of God,” whereas “human philosophy considers them as they are…. The Christian faith, however, does not consider them as such; thus, it regards fire not as fire, but as representing the sublimity of God.” As Thomas continues in the following paragraph (2.4.2),

For this reason, also, the philosopher and the believer consider different matters about creatures. The philosopher considers such things as belong to them by nature–the upward tendency of fire, for example; the believer, only such things as belong to them according as they are related to God–the fact, for instance, that they are created by God, are subject to Him, and so on.

In hermeneutical terms, philosophy interprets things literally, theology allegorically. (In more historical categories, philosophy is Aristotelian, theology Platonic.)

Some thoughts in response. First, even on Aquinas’s own terms this division of labor seems to involve a bit of an equivocation on the meaning of philosophy. As Thomas explains elsewhere, philosophy itself is nothing other than the knowledge of God, nor is he always careful to limit philosophy’s knowledge of God to that which reason alone can know apart from faith (which is exactly how he characterizes philosophy in the opening question of the Summa Theologiae). As Thomas explains in the prologue to the Summa Contra Gentiles, for example, ultimate wisdom or sophia, which philosophy is the love (philos) of (and which Aquinas identifies as the subject matter of the present work) includes both those truths which are within the grasp of reason and those truths which surpass reason’s reach. The pursuit of wisdom, in other words, must inevitably come to include both the rational and the supra-rational, and hence both a natural and a revealed theology. For Aquinas, by reason man knows that God exists, by reason he knows that the knowledge of God is man’s end, and yet by reason man knows reason’s own incapacity for knowing God as he is in himself, which means that by reason man knows his own need for revelation if he is to reach his end (and we haven’t even factored in the pervasiveness and perversity of sin yet). All of this is to say that there is a very real sense for St. Thomas in which philosophy, rightly understood and properly exercised (which he virtually admits it almost never is) demonstrates to itself man’s need for, and hence philosophy’s own openness to, revelation. On either of these two understandings of philosophy–i.e., philosophy in the etymological sense of the “love of wisdom” and which encompasses both natural and revealed theology, and philosophy in the narrower sense of a natural or rational theology as distinguished from revealed theology–then, Thomas’s above, immanentized and secularized definition of philosophy as a knowledge, not of God, but of things as they are in themselves and in their own nature, seems strangely limited.

By philosophy, therefore, Thomas in the setting of SCG 2 would seem to mean something like natural philosophy, including physics and biology. And while this would seem to be in keeping with the subject matter of SCG 2 as a whole, which is creation and created things, it does raise the question as to what kind of treatment Thomas is proposing to give of creatures in SCG 2: is it a “theological” (i.e., God-centered treatment) or is it going to be a “philosophical” (i.e., scientific, thing-centered) treatment, one that effectively brackets the creature’s otherwise inherent orientation towards God? The answer, given the subject matter and purpose of SCG 2, is clearly the former: Thomas is here interested in creatures only so far as they relate to God. Yet the irony is that the treatment Thomas will give of creatures in SCG 2 is, at the same time, purely philosophical in the sense that his methodology is an exclusively rational one (i.e., he will demonstrate all of his conclusions about creation philosophically), and at no point is his argument formally dependent upon revelation for any of his premises or conclusions (though Thomas will certainly invoke Scripture and other authorities to corroborate his conclusions). Yet if what Thomas in fact offers in SCG 2 is a (rational) theological account of creation, instead of a (natural/scientific) philosophical account of creation, why does he he introduce his discussion by talking about how the “Christian faith deals with creatures so far as they reflect a certain likeness of God”? And why does he go on to contrast how “the philosopher and the believer consider different matters about creatures”? On Thomas’s own terms, the juxtaposition here ought not be between the believer and the philosopher, but between the philosophical theologian and the natural scientist.

And this leads me to my final thought, which is that even if we take Thomas’s juxtaposition here to be between the believer and the philosopher (which I have just shown not to make any sense in light of his own project), I’m not sure that we should agree with his conclusion. I am comfortable with a division within rational philosophy between a philosophical theology on the one hand and a philosophy of nature on the other: there is a difference, for example, between the way in which the Christian scientist, qua scientist, looks at creation in his laboratory and the way in which the Christian philosophical theologian, qua philosophical theologian, looks at creation from his armchair. So long as they are both doing what they are doing to the glory of God, I don’t that we need to insist that they are therefore doing the same thing to the glory of God. And if this is all that Thomas means (or means to mean), then I don’t see a problem. However, if Thomas means, in his references, for example, to the “Christian faith” and to the “believer,” to suggest that the Christian qua Christian looks at creatures differently than does the natural scientist qua natural scientist, then I think we need to beg to differ. (For one thing, “Christian” has no real counterpart except “non-Christian,” or “believer” except “non-believer,” so the contrast between “believer” and “philosopher” by itself doesn’t make any sense.) In question 1 of the Summa Theologiae, Aquinas argues that sacred doctrine (revealed theology) was made necessary “for man’s salvation” (though as we have seen, Thomas indicates a sense in which it would have also been necessary apart from the fall, namely in wisdom’s pursuit of those truths about God which surpass the grasp of his reason), but there is an alarming tendency in Aquinas, I find, to view this need for salvation as something that primarily pertains to man’s future life (in this sense Aquinas is already on his way to Descartes, who in his Discourse on Method limits theology’s usefulness to that of “teach[ing] one how to reach heaven”). But if man needs salvation, then this is a need that touches on every aspect of his life: if man as man (and not just “eschatological man”) needs redeeming, then so does man as philosopher, as scientist, as car-mechanic, as anything. This means that man as Christian or believer, which is to say, man as redeemed, will have the same interest in created things as any other office he might hold, including that of the philosopher or scientist. It is for this reason, and as Cornelius van Til memorably put it, that the Bible is authoritative in all that it speaks to, and it speaks to everything. And as Augustine observes in De doctrina Christiana, because Scripture speaks of the natural world, some knowledge of the natural world will be necessary to adequately understand Scripture. This is to suggest that even man as bible-reader will not necessarily have a lesser interest in or curiosity about things as they exist in themselves or in their own nature than that possessed by man as scientist. Indeed, it may very well guarantee that his interest and curiosity is all the greater.