Nihil ex Creatione: On the Invention of Darkness out of Light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë

In Tolkien’s Middle-earth creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, there is a scene in which the angelic Ainur are treated to a glorious, light-filled Vision of the future history of the world. After the Vision is taken away, it is said of the Ainur “that in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought.” Rather than Darkness being the prior condition and possibility of Light, in other words, it is Light that it is the prior condition and possibility of Darkness as its negation. One might wonder, what implications might this have for thinking about the doctrine of creation ex nihilo?

Heidegger claimed that the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” was the metaphysical question. Given the doctrine of creation ex nihilo, Christians would seem to have good prima facie grounds for agreeing. First there was nothing, then there was something: surely it is the something that bears the metaphysical “burden of proof,” that it is something rather than nothing that needs to explain itself.

While there is a sense in which this is obviously true, there may be another sense in which it is the something which (paradoxically) brings into being with itself the possibility of nothing; that until you have a something, there is not anything, not even nothing. Conor Cunningham hints at something like this when he says that “Before the opposition of being and nothing there is the difference of the Trinity” (Genealogy of Nihilism 199). I’m accustomed to thinking of the difference within the Trinity as the archetype for the distinction that exists between God and what God makes: no intra-Trinitarian difference, no Creator-creature difference. If Cunningham is right, however, the difference amongst the persons of the Godhead is so profound that it is what provides us even with the basis for the difference between the being that God creates and the non-being “from” which he makes it. The difference between something and nothing, in other words, is a Trinitarian difference. What this further suggests is that this difference between something and nothing is not something that is a given for God, but is itself a gift of God (to use yet another of Cunningham’s distinctions). God creates, in other words, not only something, but in creating something, he brings along with it into being the very opposition (i.e., antithetical difference) between something and nothing. There would seem to be a valid sense, then, in which creation is not just from nothing, but that nothing is also from the something that is creation–not just creatio ex nihilo, but nihil ex creatione. In terms of our above point about darkness and light in Tolkien’s Ainulindalë, nothing is not the antecedent condition and possibility of something, but it is a created something that is the antecedent condition and possibility of their being nothing. 

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Heidegger and Tolkien on Technology

I’ve been posting of late on the Ring’s symbolism of the domination of reality through “the Machine,” a discussion that invites comparison with the most influential philosophical essay on the subject, Martin Heidegger’s “The Question Concerning Technology.” (For a more general comparison of Tolkien and Heidegger, see Simon Malpas’s article, “Home”.) In his essay Heidegger calls into question the adequacy of the instrumental definition of technology in terms of a system of means and ends, of causes and effects (note, for example, Tolkien’s characterization of the Machine as an instrument for “making the will more effective”). The problem with the instrumental, means-and-ends, cause-and-effect analysis of technology, according to Heidegger, is that the system of causality is already part of the technological perspective and problem, and thus altogether fails to get at technology’s true essence. The instrumental definition of technology, in other words, defines technology technologically, which is to say, in the only terms it knows how.

Included in Heidegger’s critique of the insufficiency of the instrumental definition of technology is any attempt (such as Tolkien’s, I would argue) to understand technology theologically or metaphysically. Heidegger’s challenge, for example, to Tolkien’s view of technology primarily as a means of domination, and domination (as I have been interpreting it) in turn as ultimately a desire for God’s own power of creation, is that this views God himself in terms of “causality and making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality,” and so loses “all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of [God’s] distance” (The Question Concerning Technology, 26). In representing Ilúvatar as the wielder of the “Secret Fire”–by which he makes his and the wills of others “effective” in the world–Heidegger might ask whether Tolkien’s fictional theology doesn’t already problematically presuppose a proto-industrial view, not only of man and the world, but of the Creator himself. And if so, is it any wonder that Melkor, the greatest of Ilúvatar’s creatures and therefore the one most presumably like him, should, in evident imitation of his maker, venture into the Void looking for the “technology” of the “Imperishable Flame” whereby he “bring into Being things of his own”?

Tolkien, of course, would see things quite differently, arguing perhaps that it is precisely in its lust for the Creator’s own power of creation that domination, manifesting itself in technology, denies the exaltedness, holiness, and mysteriousness of divine distance. It’s interesting that even Heidegger, his critique notwithstanding, largely resigns himself to the inevitability of technology and defends it as a valid even if limited mode in which being “reveals” itself to human beings, a mode in which things present themselves in terms of an orderable or controllable “standing-reserve” for human use, as energy that can be extracted and stored, unlocked and transformed, regulated and secured, ready-at-hand to be called on when needed (14-17). The real problem, in Heidegger’s view, arises when this inevitable mode of revealing comes to exclude other modes of revealing. As in Tolkien’s discussion of the effects of the domination motive, for Heidegger the revealing of technology is one in which “the object disappears into the objectlessness of standing-reserve” (19). Heidegger points out, however, that this becomes even more problematic when “man in the midst of objectlessness” becomes “nothing but the orderer” of a now objectless, standing-reserve, and so “comes to the very brink of a precipitous fall; that is, he comes to the point where he himself will have to be taken as standing-reserve” (27).

Despite his reservations, Heidegger may even be seen to approach the kind of theological critique implicit in Tolkien when he writes that, “Meanwhile man, precisely as the one so threatened, exalts himself to the posture of lord of the earth…. This illusion gives rise in turn to one final delusion: It seems as though man everywhere and always encounters only himself” (27). What, then, is the solution for Heidegger? Part of the answer is that, because of its inevitability, rather than demonizing it, technology is a reality we must resign ourselves to and whose essence we must simply seek to understand.

For Tolkien, by contrast, technology, if not exactly an evil per se (since nothing, insofar as it has being, is in itself evil), much of the motivation behind it, especially in modernity, is not just figuratively but literally, in Heidegger’s words, the “work of the devil” (that’s what Sauron is, after all). The second part of Heidegger’s solution, however, is to re-cultivate a “more primally granted revealing that could bring the saving power into its first shining forth in the midst of the danger,” and Heidegger finds this saving power in what the Greeks called poiesis and techne, or art, whereby they “brought the presence of the gods, brought the dialogue of divine and human destinings, to radiance” (34). What we need, then, is a “decisive confrontation” between technology and “a realm that is, on the one hand, akin to the essence of technology and, on the other, fundamentally different from it. Such a realm is art” (35).

For Tolkien, too, the relevant opposition is between art and the Machine, between Magic understood as “enchantment” and Magic understood as power and control, though he certainly draws the line of kinship between these two differently than Heidegger does. For Heidegger, art and technology are two species belonging to the same genus of poiesis; for Tolkien, the Machine is most often the result of the corruption of the artistic impulse, the desire not to bring creation to its God-ordained fulfillment, but to divert its natural use by imposing upon it one’s own, alien or heteronomous purposes and will. As to the particular task Heidegger suggests that art must assume, namely reinvigorating the world with a sense of divine “presence,” Tolkien I think would agree, as this is what his own art sets forth to do. Finally, even if Tolkien is less sanguine than Heidegger is as to the intrinsic validity or worth of technology, he could also agree with Heidegger’s conclusion to his essay, even if giving it a different interpretation than Heidegger himself intended, namely that “the more questioningly we ponder the essence of technology, the more mysterious the essence of art becomes” (35). As Tolkien might prefer to put it, it is in contrast to the darkness (and evil) of technology that the light (and goodness) of true art is made all the more manifest.

Possessiveness as a denial of creation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 30

The previous post examined a degree of convergence in Tolkien’s and Heidegger’s thought in their view of certain forms of mental or even aesthetic representation as tending toward a domineering act of mental “apprehension” or “possessiveness.” If Tolkien should begin to sound like an existentialist on this point, however, according to Josef Pieper this is because the existentialist critique of the modern reduction of life and reality to what is “fathomable, fully accessible to rational comprehension, and, above all, … permissible to change, transform, or even destroy,” is in an important respect already a Thomistic critique (Pieper, The Silence of St. Thomas, 92). (For an introduction to some of the concerns shared by Tolkien and the modern existentialist movement, particularly as represented by Jean-Paul Sartre and Martin Heidegger–though Heidegger himself rejected the label–see Robert Eaglestone’s article “Existentialism” in Drout, ed., J.R.R. Tolkien Encyclopedia, 179-80. Later I hope to touch on some of Heidegger’s and Tolkien’s shared concerns with regard to the problem of modern technology.) As Pieper points out, it is the doctrine of creation that, on the one hand, accounts for the inherent intelligibility of things (denied by atheistic existentialists but affirmed by Tolkien–see, for example, Letters 399) while at the same time guaranteeing the mind’s ultimate inability to completely “grasp” or comprehend them on the other:

This common root, to express it as briefly as possible, is the createdness of things, i.e., the truth that the designs, the archetypal patterns of things, dwell within the Divine Logos. Because things come forth from the eye of God, they partake wholly of the nature of the Logos, that is, they are lucid and limpid to their very depths. It is their origin in the Logos which makes them knowable to men. But because of this very origin in the Logos, they mirror an infinite light and can therefore not be wholly comprehended. It is not darkness or chaos which makes them unfathomable. If a man, therefore, in his philosophical inquiry, gropes after the essence of things, he finds himself, by the very act of approaching his object, in an unfathomable abyss, but it is an abyss of light. (Pieper 96)

Pieper’s discussion serves to remind us that, in an important sense, the kind of intellectual “appropriation” or “possessiveness” of reality cautioned against by Tolkien is at heart a denial of reality’s createdness, or, to state matters differently, it is to affirm it as one’s own creation. In a remote yet real, Melkorian manner, it is to make the power and light of the Flame Imperishable coextensive with the light of one’s own intellect.

Tolkien and Heidegger on the possessiveness of representation

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 29

In criticizing the Elvish motive of preservation and possessiveness, one of Tolkien’s purposes is to draw attention to and comment on what for him is a very real human temptation. I have noted how, through the Elvish quality of loving things for their “otherness,” Tolkien positively displays the role of “recovery” that all fairy-stories have, the “regaining of a clear view,” as Tolkien puts it in his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” a “‘seeing things as we are (or were) meant to see them’—as things apart from ourselves” (Tolkien Reader 77). What we may also see is how the Elves, as “the artistic, aesthetic, and purely scientific aspects of the Humane nature raised to a higher level than is actually seen in Men” (Letters 236), at the same time represent some of the very human motives that these same fairy-stories are meant to deliver us from. For as Tolkien continues in the same passage from his essay,

We need, in any case, to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness. Of all faces those of our familiars are the ones both most difficult to play fantastic tricks with, and most difficult really to see with fresh attention, perceiving their likeness and unlikeness: that they are faces, and yet unique faces. This triteness is really the penalty of “appropriation”: the things that are trite, or (in a bad sense) familiar, are the things that we have appropriated, legally or mentally. We say we know them. They have become like the things which once attracted us by their glitter, or their colour, or their shape, and we laid hands on them, and then locked them in our hoard, acquired them, and acquiring ceased to look at them. (Tolkien Reader 77)

It is important to note that Tolkien is not yet critiquing here the kind of practical, technological mastery and “appropriation” of things that, as we shall see in later post, he warns us against elsewhere. His target in this passage, rather, is the much more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness that, left unchecked, can lead (and in modern times arguably has led) to the outright domination and tyranny of nature. Nevertheless, the two forms of “appropriation,” however dissimilar, are closely related in Tolkien’s mind, as when he refers in his essay to the dissimulating dream-device in fairy-stories as a “machine” that “cheats deliberately the primal desire at the heart of Faerie: the realization, independent of the conceiving mind, of imagined wonder” (42). In other words, the dream-device, not unlike the genre of allegory as a whole, for Tolkien, is a literary technique that effectively domesticates and so controls the narrative by denying it any actual or even possible real-world truth. Tolkien’s likening such intellectual and aesthetic appropriation to a matter of “locking” things up in some kind of mental “hoard,” moreover, is noteworthy for its resemblance to Martin Heidegger’s critique in Being and Time of the modern, Cartesian view of human perception:

the perceiving of what is known is not a process of returning with one’s booty to the “cabinet” of consciousness after one has gone out and grasped it; even in perceiving, retaining, and preserving, the Dasein which knows remains outside, and it does so as Dasein. If I “merely” know about some way in which the Being of entities is interconnected, if I “only” represent them, if I “do no more” than “think” about them, I am no less alongside the entities outside in the world than when I originally grasp them. (Heidegger, Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, 89-90, emphasis original)

For Tolkien as for Heidegger, we must avoid reducing the existence or being of things to that aspect which lends itself to conceptual or perceptual apprehension (this is why, incidentally, it is so important that in the Ainulindalë the Ainur must eventually move beyond the abstract formalism of the Music to a love for the existing reality of Eä itself). Instead, our task, in the language of Heidegger, is to remain “open” to things “disclosing” themselves to us in new and even unexpected ways. It is precisely such openness, finally, that Tolkien attempts to model for us through the Elvish love of nature and “things other,” while at the same time warning how the things we are open to and value today in their unfamiliarity can quickly become the things we possessively render familiar and trite tomorrow.

Sub-creative Omnipotence

In a recent post I made the case that, in essence, what the late medieval voluntarism of Ockham, et al, represented was theology abandoning its sub-creative task. Specifically, it ceased to properly contextualize its fantastical, counterfactual claims about the possibilities open to divine power, by not carefully crafting an imaginative, secondary world in which those possibilities could be seen as internally consistent or proportionate. Late medieval voluntarism, to use Tolkien’s expression, is “green sun” theology–less imaginative or creative than simply ugly and lazy. Theology forgot that God is no mere “possibility actualizer,” but a world-maker. Creation is not the mere realization of a bare logical possibility, but to borrow Heidegger’s apt phrase, involves instead the “worlding of a world.”

That Aquinas, for his part, retained a better sense of the sub-creative nature of speculation over divine power may perhaps be seen in this passage from SCG 2.23.3:

Now, there are many entities which do not exist in the realm of created things, but which, if they did so exist, would imply no contradiction; particularly obvious examples are the number, quantities, and distances of the stars and of other bodies, wherein, if the order of things were different, no contradiction would be implied.

Implicit in this passage is an awareness on Thomas’s part that, unless the order of things were made different, any change to just the number, quantities, and distances of the stars might in fact involve a contradiction, and so prove impossible. For Aquinas, logical possibility is deeply world- or “order”-relative.

Heidegger and Tolkien on Art vs. Technology

Yesterday’s post looked briefly at the presence of the Augustinian doctrine of divine exemplarism in Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë. According to the influential critique advanced in the last century by the German philosopher Martin Heidegger, such traditional and orthodox views of God and reality, ironically, far from avoiding the kind of technological approach to nature which Tolkien, for example, so deplored and from which he sought to provide some escape in his fiction, instead unwittingly enfranchised the technological outlook at the deepest metaphysical and theological level. In his famous essay “The Question Concerning Technology,” Heidegger makes the case that the commonplace definition of technology in terms of an instrumental alignment of causes and effects or means and ends—a definition implicit, perhaps, in Tolkien’s account of the modern “Machine” as an instrument designed for “making the will more quickly effective” (L 145)—fails to get at the essence of technology, inasmuch as causal thinking itself has presupposed since ancient Greek times the technological or instrumental paradigm of techne. And yet it is precisely in terms of this technological, causal framework, according to Heidegger, that theology has traditionally articulated God’s relation to creation, with the result that, as Heidegger puts it, “even God can, for representational thinking, lose all that is exalted and holy, the mysteriousness of his distance. In the light of causality, God can sink to the level of a cause, of causa efficiens. He then becomes, even in theology, the god of the philosophers, namely, of those who define the unconcealed and the concealed in terms of the causality of making, without ever considering the essential origin of this causality.”[1] While Heidegger in his essay is resigned to the inevitability of technological thinking, he hopes modern man might nonetheless find his “saving power” by “confronting” and “questioning” the technological paradigm through the cultivation of an alternative mode of thinking and “revealing,” namely that of poeisis or art.[2]

In other respects, of course, Tolkien’s analysis of the problem of modern technology is very much of apiece with Heidegger’s. Like Heidegger, for example, Tolkien links modern technological with representational thinking, and contrasts both of these with an alternative model of true, authentic art. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien argues that one of the purposes of such fantasy is the “recovery” of the strangeness or mystery of things from the “dreary” or “trite” “familiarity” into which they fall through our “appropriation” of them. By “appropriation,” Tolkien does not necessarily limit himself to the kind of practical or technological mastery or domination of things that he criticizes elsewhere, though it would certainly include this. Rather, “appropriation” would seem to include an even more subtle, intellectual, and even aesthetic and artistic form of possessiveness, the kind of thing, for example, Tolkien thematizes in his legendarium, most notably in the character of the Elves. On the one hand, while the Elves symbolize “a devoted love of the physical world, and a desire to observe and understand it for its own sake and as ‘other’,” as well as embody a “‘subcreational’ or artistic faculty of great excellence,” on the other hand Tolkien sees them as for that reason being peculiarly susceptible to what he refers to as the “will to preservation,” i.e., the desire “to arrest change, and keep things always fresh and fair…” (L 236). Thus, Tolkien too recognizes the ease and sometimes imperceptibility with which the true, selfless artistic impulse—which ideally seeks only communion with and knowledge of things through a sub-creative process that simultaneously brings things to their own completion or fulfillment—can slide into the self-interested imposition of one’s own purposes or plans; the ease, that is, one might say, with which “art” or “poetry” can devolve into mere “craft” or “technological making,” and hence the necessity for the one to be distinguished from the other. Here I submit we also gain a further perspective into Tolkien’s well-known preference of myth or fairy-story over allegory. In allegory’s “purposed domination of the author,” as Tolkien puts it in the foreword to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, we seem to have exactly the kind of “bad exemplarism” associated with the craft-model of making criticized by Heidegger, in which the act of making is preceded and almost wholly predetermined by a prior act of knowing. In contrast to the “domination” of allegory Tolkien juxtaposes the “discovery” and “applicability” of fairy-story and myth, a form of knowing, in other words, that takes place only in and through the act of making.


[1] Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology and Other Essays, trans. Lovitt, 26.

[2] Ibid., 34-5.