Tolkien’s Chestertonian Nominalism?

The previous post noted the similarity between Tolkien’s use of the law of non-contradiction as a limit on legitimate sub-creative possibility and the use of this same law by medieval schoolmen such as Aquinas and Ockham to help define God’s own creative possibility. A further, at least apparent similarity between Tolkien and Ockham in particular on this point is the seeming permissiveness of the limit of mere logical possibility in allowing for all manner of outrageous speculations as to how God, or the finite sub-creator, might make the world otherwise than it is.

In Tolkien’s account of sub-creative fantasy, for example, and similar to that given by his mentor in the ways of fairy-land, Chesterton, the theme of creaturely contingency is so exaggerated that one might almost be lead to wonder if it isn’t Ockham rather than Aquinas who exerted the more significant philosophical influence over Tolkien’s imagination. In his chapter from Orthodoxy on “The Ethics of Elfland,” a passage which made a deep impression on Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Chesterton gives us the following account of the philosophical import of fairy-stories which might sound more like a page lifted from Ockham’s Enlightenment counterpart, the nominalist David Hume, than it does from a man who would later write the world’s most famous biography of St. Thomas:

We have always in our fairy tales kept this sharp distinction between the science of mental relations, in which there really are laws, and the science of physical facts, in which there are no laws, but only weird repetitions… All the terms used in the science books, “law,” “necessity,” “order,” “tendency,” and so on, are really unintellectual, because they assume an inner synthesis, which we do not possess. The only words that ever satisfied me as describing Nature are the terms used in the fairy books, “charm,” “spell,” “enchantment.” They express the arbitrariness of the fact and its mystery. A tree grows fruit because it is a magic tree. Water runs downhill because it is bewitched. The sun shines because it is bewitched.[1]

Later on in the same chapter, Chesterton spells out explicitly the theology implicit in this philosophy of fairyland, a philosophy that, again, would seem to channel more the spirit of the “unconquerable doctor” (doctor invincibilis) than that of the angelic doctor:

the fairy-tale philosopher is glad that the leaf is green precisely because it might have been scarlet. He feels as if it had turned green an instant before he looked at it. He is pleased that snow is white on the strictly reasonable ground that it might have been black. Every color has in it a bold quality as of choice; the red of garden roses is not only decisive but also dramatic, like suddenly spilt blood. He feels that something has been done…. So one elephant having a trunk was odd; but all elephants having trunks looked like a plot…. But the repetition in Nature seemed sometimes to be an excited repetition, like that of an angry schoolmaster saying the same thing over and over again… But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them… I had always vaguely felt facts to be miracles in the sense that they are wonderful: now I began to think them miracles in the stricter sense that they were willful. I mean that they were, or might be, repeated exercises of some will. In short, I had always believed that the world involved magic: now I thought that perhaps it involved a magician…. There was something personal in the world, as in a work of art; whatever it meant it meant violently.[2]

While Tolkien’s approach to fairy-land is perhaps less exaggerated than Chesterton’s, his own fairy-tale speculations about the kind of metaphysical “magic” able to “make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey led into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water,” are similarly evocative of the brand of outlandish, counter-factual hypotheses about divine absolute power associated with Ockham. In the comparatively more sober, tidy, predictable, and reserved Aristotelian outlook of Aquinas, after all, where knowledge is primarily a matter of intellectually apprehending the immutable essences of things, one is much more disposed (as Aquinas is) to dwell on the naturalness, the fittingness, and in some sense even the necessity of created structures. In the fairyland of Tolkien, by contrast, a very different spirit seems to dwell, one in which knowledge of a thing is almost a knowledge of its contingency, of its lack of necessity. Finally, in his ability to produce “new form” by the mere command of his “will,” as he puts it in his essay, the Tolkienian sub-creator might seem to resemble in small-scale the voluntarist God of Ockham, that supremely free and powerful deity whose sovereign and unfettered will not only freely posits the created world itself, but also the very forms or divine ideas according to which the world is created. In a world so conceived, the forms or universals by which the human mind gains knowledge are in fact nothing real independent of the mind that conceives or “names” them, but are rather mere “fictions” of the mind, fictional in the etymological sense of things having been “made.”

These similarities notwithstanding, and as I hope to demonstrate in follow-up posts, not only is Tolkien not, in the final analysis, at least, an Ockhamist, but his reflections on the nature of sub-creation may in fact provide us with an altogether unique and powerful critique of Ockham’s theology of divine omnipotence which helped lay the foundation for the modern age.


[1] Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 56, 58. Chesterton’s distinction between the “science of mental relations” and the “science of physical facts” derives from Hume’s well-known distinction between “relations of ideas” and “matters of fact” as the two fundamental classes of human knowledge. Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 15. (Alison Milbank draws a similar comparison between Chesterton and Hume in Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 9.) In Chesterton’s claim, moreover, that in nature we do not find “laws” but “only weird repetitions,” we would also seem to have Hume’s occasionalist theory of causality, also anticipated by Ockham, according to which our experience of causality is never that of “necessary connection” but merely of “constant conjunction.” As Chesterton himself writes a couple of pages later, “[a] forlorn lover might be unable to dissociate the moon from lost love; so the materialist is unable to dissociate the moon from the tide. In both cases there is no connection, except that one has seen them together.” Chesterton, Orthodoxy, 58.

[2] Ibid., 64-70.

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