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.

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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.

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.