Why Manichaeism doesn’t allow evil to be real enough

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil (Finale)

Saying, as I have, that for Tolkien evil derives its power from the very good that it corrupts, doesn’t yet quite get to the real heart and problem of the matter, for as we have already touched on, the real scandal and mystery is that the being in which evil resides has the infinite Creator himself as its source, as the one “guaranteeing” and “preserving” evil with its seemingly inexhaustible resource of being (the subliminal realization of which also drives Melkor mad in his nihilistic despair). The ultimate answer to the question of why evil seems so powerful, then, is that evil has, for the time being at least, been given a lease on God’s own creative power, for at the heart of created being, including corrupted created being, is nothing less than the Flame Imperishable, kindling all things in their very existence. While it may seem that this puts God at evil’s disposal, ultimately the truth of the matter is quite the reverse: it means that even evil has to be at God’s disposal, as Ilúvatar reminds Melkor in the Ainulindalë at the close of the Music: “And thou, Melkor, shalt see that no theme may be played that hath not its uttermost source in me, nor can any alter the music in my despite. For he that attempteth this shall prove but mine instrument in the devising of things more wonderful, which he himself hath not imagined” (Silmarillion 17). To be sure, evil is an enemy and a destroyer and its presence (by virtue of its enervating absence) and causality (by negating the causality of the good that is there) are mysteries, mysteries which, as a kind of “nothing,” are in that sense inexplicable even for God, “for ‘explanation’ can pertain only to existence, and here evil is not seen as something in existence” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 18). This means that, not having a being, nature, and logic of its own, evil must borrow itself, so to speak, from the good. To use St. Thomas’s distinction, it may not be “willed” by God, but it is certainly “permitted” by him, so that if evil should seem so radically powerful, it nevertheless must ultimately labor at its own expense (“in vain,” as Tolkien puts it), providing as it does the infinite and omnipotent God yet another “instrument” for bringing about his good purposes. Like St. Thomas, Tolkien too, in the words of Brian Davies cited in an earlier post, “seeks to understand [evil] as part of a world made by God.” Seen from this perspective, the real objection to Manichaean dualism is not that it makes evil real, but rather that it denies the existence of the omnipotent, transcendent Creator capable of making evil as real as it actually is, of giving evil, that is, the only reality to be had, the reality of the good. In summary, it is his Thomistic metaphysics of creation that enables Tolkien, through characters such as Ungoliant, Melkor, and Sauron, to take for granted the awesome and terrifying power of evil in the world—and thus allow the Manichaean insight into the radical power and being of evil, really for the first time, to come into its own—while at the same time reducing this same evil to nothing, and thereby holding out the hope of the ultimate futility and “vanity” of evil and hence its inevitable defeat. “Let that settle the Manichees,” one can hear Tolkien saying.

In review and conclusion, then, I have argued in this series of posts that, while Tom Shippey is quite correct that Tolkien’s fictional depiction of evil is far more complex and nuanced than perhaps a one-sidedly Augustinian account of evil has perhaps traditionally emphasized, the solution Tolkien arrives at is more sophisticated and coherent than the contradictory, “running ambivalence” that Shippey describes it as. Instead, I have argued that Tolkien’s ponerology involves a highly original application of St. Thomas’s metaphysics of creation and evil to uniquely modern forms of evil, forms of evil which the thirteenth-century Aquinas, for example, was largely unaware of, yet an application that reveals as much about Tolkien’s own dialectical and scholastic subtlety and inventiveness as it does about the profound explanatory power and adaptability of St. Thomas’s philosophy of being. At the same time, I have sought to explicate Tolkien’s remarkably cogent hierarchy and corresponding logic of evil, one that begins in a primordial, unnatural lust for the Flame Imperishable which gives being, before descending into the inordinate yet natural sub-creative impulse, first to produce and then to preserve the things of one’s own imagining, and at last devolving into the desire to dominate and then simply to annihilate the being of others. As I have further sought to show, while each of these forms of evil has its own peculiar identity and motives, at another level they are all variations of the same original sin of desiring what for both Tolkien and Aquinas is the Creator’s exclusive power to give created being.

Boethian omnipotence: The Power to do the Good

Theology of the Possible

Apropos my post yesterday applying Aquinas’s Augustinian privation theory of evil to his theology of the possible is the following passage from William Courtenay discussing Boethius’s Neoplatonic conflation of divine power with divine goodness:

One further text undoubtedly influenced eleventh-century thinking about capacity and volition as well as the problem of God’s inability to do evil. In the fourth book of The Consolation of Philosophy, Boethius developed his own rationale for why “supreme goodness cannot do evil.” Admitting the seemingly larger range of action open to mankind, who can do both good and evil, in contrast to God, who can only do the good, Boethius made a virtue of necessity. Only the good is worth doing. The ability to do evil is the ability to do nothing, since evil is nonbeing and nothing. And since omnipotence is a divine attribute, its meaning is determined by the range of divine action, which is only toward the good. Consequently, omnipotence is defined as power to do the good, not the power to do anything. (Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 30-1)

The good as the efficacy of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 53

In the previous post on this subject I noted that Tolkien does not write in The Silmarillion that Ungoliant’s darkness “was not lack but a thing with being of its own,” but that it “seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own. The point of this observation, however, is not merely to demonstrate that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is consistently Augustinian or Boethian after all, but rather to raise the prospect that Tolkien is in fact doing something much more profound and interesting. Far from vacillating between the Augustinian and Manichaean theories of evil, as per Tom Shippey’s reading, what Tolkien’s fiction accomplishes is a confrontation of Manichaeism head-on, not by contradicting it outright, but more intriguingly, by conceding what even the pre-converted Augustine recognized as a certain superficial cogency to Manichaean dualism: evil at times at least seems to have its own independent power and being. As Tolkien’s friend C.S. Lewis put it in the context of his own rejection of Manichaeism in favor of the Augustinian privation theory, the Manichaean position does enjoy a certain “obvious prima facie plausibility…” (“Evil and God,” 22). I think the best way of understanding Tolkien, therefore, is to see him as conceding the appearance of Manichaean evil at the phenomenological level, all the while re-inscribing and accounting for this appearance in the only way it could be accounted for, namely in terms of an otherwise Augustinian and Thomistic metaphysics of creation. This “truth” of Manichaeism, moreover, is one that Thomas himself, after a fashion, defends in the Summa, when he argues that evil is no mere illusion, but has a real existence in things (ST 1.48.2), meaning that in an important respect evil is as real and present as the things in which it resides. This I also take to be the meaning behind Tolkien’s emphatic claim in his “Mythopoeia” poem that “Evil is,” for as the poem also assures us of the eye that will see Paradise,

Evil it will not see, for evil lies

not in God’s picture but in crooked eyes,

not in the source but in malicious choice,

and not in sound but in the tuneless voice. (Tree and Leaf 101)

As we have seen, for both Thomas and Tolkien, evil by itself is a “zero,” but therein lies the paradox: evil is never by itself. As Thomas puts it, “evil is the privation of good, and not pure negation” (malum privatio est boni, et non negatio pura, ST 1.48.5 ad 1). Evil, in other words, is not isolatable to that small segment of the thing which it negates, for its effects reverberate throughout and may even be said to be amplified by the being that remains. (Compare this with the devastation which follows from Melkor’s monstrous wolf, Carcharoth, swallowing the Silmaril jewel after he bit off the hand of Beren. Although the jewel, as a symbol of creative and sub-creative light and existence, is a thing beautiful and good in itself, inside the belly of Carcharoth, its powerful effect is only to magnify the madness, terror, and destruction of Carcharoth’s rampage: “Of all the terrors that came ever into Beleriand ere Angband’s fall the madness of Carcharoth was the most dreadful; for the power of the Silmaril was hidden within him.”)

As Mary Edwin DeCoursey aptly puts it in her 1948 dissertation on Thomas’s metaphysics of evil, the privation of evil “is more than simple non-being. It has definite, malevolent ties with reality; it is the absence that is conspicuous” (The Theory of Evil in the Metaphysics of St. Thomas and Its Contemporary Significance: A Dissertation, 34, also cited in Knight, Chesterton and Evil, 51). Herbert McCabe has also put the point well:
Now does this mean that badness is unreal? Certainly not. Things really are bad sometimes and this is because the absence of what is to be expected is just as real as a presence. If I have a hole in my sock, the hole is not anything at all, it is just an absence of wool or cotton or whatever, but it is a perfectly real hole in my sock. It would be absurd to say that holes in socks are unreal and illusory just because the hole isn’t made of anything and is purely an absence. Nothing in the wrong place can be just as real and just as important as something in the wrong place. If you inadvertently drive your car over a cliff you will have nothing to worry about; it is precisely the nothing that you will have to worry about. (God Matters, 29)
In this way, as John Milbank has put it, “it is possible for negativity to take a sublime quasi-heroic form” (“Evil: Darkness and Silence,” 21). Thus, it is not in spite of evil’s status as a privation that it seems to be so powerful, but precisely on account of it. To state it differently still, evil doesn’t need to be ontologically independent in order for it to be a potent force to reckon with, since it has the very potency of the goodness of being at its disposal. Evil’s status as a privation of being is not what mitigates its efficacy, therefore, but what establishes it: it is as a privation of being that evil is able to derive its power and potency from the being it labors to negate. Thomas explains that evil is never capable of “corrupting the whole good” (ST 1.48.4), yet this only means that evil always has some remaining good behind it, giving it its very ontological efficacy and metaphysical momentum.

Tolkien’s “phenomenology of evil”

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 52

The previous post made the claim that, in portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien might seem to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Before concluding, however, as Tom Shippey does, that Tolkien’s presentation of evil is ambiguous, incoherent, or contradictory—the result of an effort to make sense of distinctly modern forms of evil by means of quaint and antiquated premodern theories of evil—we should consider whether Tolkien might not have had a deeper purpose in view here.

To begin, we may observe in this episode from The Silmarillion that Tolkien does not in fact say that the darkness introduced by Ungoliant was a thing with being in itself, but rather that it “seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own.” In the passage cited earlier recording the Ainur’s first experience of darkness, moreover, Tolkien writes not that they had “perceived a new thing,” but that “it seemed to them that in that moment they perceived a new thing” (S 19, emphasis added). In the case of Ungoliant, the explanation the narrative gives for this “seeming” ontological independence of darkness and evil is fully consistent with Tolkien’s creation metaphysics, “for it was made by malice out of Light,” and thus it had “power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will.” Ungoliant’s evil and darkness, in other words, are powerful precisely because they have as the source of their strength the goodness and light which they negate, and it is this borrowed strength that in turn provides evil and darkness with even its appearance of radical independence. Again, Tolkien aptly captures the very phenomenon John Milbank sees as being fully accounted for in the privation theory of evil as taught by St. Thomas, namely “an incremental piling up of small deficient preferences which gradually and ‘accidentally’ (as Aquinas argued) produce the monstrous” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 21).

The Logic and Economy of Light

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 51

In a comment on my previous post, my friend Matt Peterson suggests that “darkness is not evil, but is good, but is, like snow, something that evil uncovers.” To this I think I would answer (as Matt himself often does), “It depends.” As usual, I find Aquinas helpful here, whom I might paraphrase as saying that evil isn’t simply “non-being”; rather, evil is non-being where there is supposed to be being (where the “supposed” indicates, ultimately, divine intention, purpose, desire, etc.). Similarly, we might say that in Tolkien, darkness by itself isn’t necessarily a metaphor or image of evil. The darkness following the Ainur’s Vision in the Ainulindale is a good case in point, where it serves an aesthetic function of setting in relief both the light of the Vision preceding it and the light of Eä to follow.

Darkness where there is supposed to be light, however, does seem to be straightforwardly associated with evil, and this, of course, is what we have with Ungoliant. The darkness of the Ainulidale is progressive and eschatological, preceding but also anticipating a later, greater disclosure of light. Ungoliant’s darkness, by contrast, is regressive, a deliberate turning back the clock of creation, moving from being to non-being. Both “darknesses” involve a privation of light, yet the intentions behind each are radically at variance: one is a privation, the other a deprivation. They both involve an absence of light, and yet they both retain (paradoxically) an ordering toward the light that they make absent, one positively, the other negatively. As such, neither darkness is truly light’s “other” or opposite, inasmuch as they are both dependent upon light for their very (non)being, identity, and definition. Darkness, in other words, belongs to the economy of light, just as evil, according to St. Augustine, as “disordered love,” does not establish its own economy but falls within–or involves a falling off, as the case may be–the economy of the good. So both forms of darkness represent not just light’s absence, but also its memory, the one recollecting light nostalgically and expectantly, the other resentfully and rebelliously. Darkness, in short, is a very peculiar form of absence in that it makes light present by way of its absence. It is this respect in which darkness-as-evil never achieves its desired independence, but remains forever parasitic on the light that it hates and strives to negate, that ultimately underlies the comic and indeed eucatastrophic metaphysics of Tolkien. Darkness-as-evil strives to negate light, yet in the end must be negated by it, making light darkness’s own night.

“The Darkness was More than Loss of Light”: the Case of Ungoliant

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 50

Even more poignant an example of evil’s nihilistic bent than Melkor, and perhaps the closest Tolkien could be said to come to a Manichaean affirmation of evil as an ontologically independent force, is the horrifying specter of the spider-demon Ungoliant, the former servant of Melkor and ancestor to Shelob of The Lord of the Rings. (For an excellent analysis of Shelob, incidentally, see Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians, 71-80.)

Because the predominant imagery throughout the episode of Ungoliant is that of light and darkness, we should perhaps begin our analysis with the Ainulindalë’s account of how, after the Ainur’s Vision had been taken away, “in that moment they perceived a new thing, Darkness, which they had not known before, except in thought” (Silmarillion 19-20). Here at least,  we observe, Tolkien unequivocally identifies darkness’s status as a mere privation of light and hence its dependence upon the prior existence of light for its very potency. In this manner Tolkien aptly illustrates St. Thomas’s point in the Summa regarding the dependence of evil upon the good, not only for its “existence,” but also for its possibility of being known and experienced: as “darkness is known through light,” so evil “must be known from the notion of good” (unum oppositorum cognoscitur per alterum, sicut per lucem tenebra. Unde et quid sit malum, oportet ex ratione boni accipere, ST 1.48.1).

Later on in The Silmarillion, however, when the character of Ungoliant is first introduced, Tolkien almost seems to contradict this relationship of dependence. Her existence is described as one of “taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness” and of hiding in a cleft in the mountain where she “sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished” (Silmarillion 73). When solicited by Melkor to aid him in his assault on Valinor, home of the Valar, she veils the two of them in “a cloak of darkness” which was nothing less than “an Unlight, in which things seemed to be no more, and which eyes could not pierce, for it was void” (74). More perplexing still is Tolkien’s account of the aftermath of Melkor and Ungoliant’s attack on the Two Trees of Valinor, at that time the two primary sources of light in the world: “The Light failed; but the Darkness that followed was more than loss of light. In that hour was made a Darkness that seemed not lack but a thing with being of its own: for it was indeed made by malice out of Light, and it had power to pierce the eye, and to enter heart and mind, and strangle the very will” (76).

In portraying the darkness and evil of Ungoliant as “more” than a mere “loss” or negation of light, but as a “thing with being of its own,” Tolkien would appear to challenge deliberately the Augustinian doctrine of evil as mere non-being in favor of the more dualistic and Manichaean account of evil. Indeed, the whole scene, especially with its emphasis on the imagery of light and darkness, poignantly captures the basic metaphysical drama defined by the Manichees, who believed that evil “came from an invasion of the good—the ‘Kingdom of Light’—by a hostile force of evil, equal in power, eternal, totally separate—the ‘Kingdom of Darkness’” (Peter Brown, Augustine of Hippo, 47). As Tolkien, moreover, bracingly puts it in his “Mythopoeia” poem written to C.S. Lewis, “of Evil this / alone is deadly certain: Evil is” (Tree and Leaf 99).

(To be continued…….)

The Suicide of Self-Deification

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 48

In the previous two posts we saw how suicide in Tolkien’s fiction enacts a kind of world annihilation. To return our attention to the Ainulindalë and the question of creation, the suicidal division between self-and-self and self-and-God may already be observed in Melkor’s hubristic desire for the Flame Imperishable. In his discussion of how the devil first “sinned by seeking to be as God,” Aquinas carefully qualifies his meaning to avoid the suggestion that, in doing so, the devil sought to be “equal” with God. According to Thomas, the angels sought to be “as God” not by equality, but rather by likeness, the basis for this distinction being that, first, the angels would have known equality with God to be intrinsically impossible for any creature, and second, that even if such equality were possible (or at least thought to be possible), in desiring it the angels would have been desiring a nature or essence other than their own, and thus would have been effectively desiring the abolition of their own being, a desire contrary to every nature (ST 1.63.3). (See also On Evil 16.3, “Whether the Devil Sinned by Desiring Equality with God.” As Thomas puts it in his article in the Summa on why evil is not or has no nature, “good is everything desirable; and thus, since every nature desires its own being and its own perfection, it must be said also that the being and the perfection of any nature has the character of goodness” (ST 1.48.1).) “Consequently,” Thomas summarizes, “no thing of a lower order can ever desire the grade of a higher nature, just as an ass does not desire to be a horse; for were it to be so upraised, it would cease to be itself.” For Thomas, in short, the desire that the devil may have had for God’s own power to create nevertheless could not have involved a desire to be equal with God, inasmuch as he would have known such an eventuality to have entailed his own non-existence. The creaturely desire to be God–or any other creature, for that matter–is a form of suicide.

Yet Thomas does not seem to have been consistent himself in his claim that no being can desire the realization of circumstances that would entail its own destruction. As it is, Thomas goes on in the same passage to recognize that there are moments (not applicable to the angels, given their incorporeality) when the “imagination plays us false,” leading a man to believe that by acquiring a “higher grade as to accidentals, which can increase without the destruction of the subject, he can also seek a higher grade of nature, to which he could not attain without ceasing to be.” Toward the beginning of the Summa, however, in his discussion of “whether good is prior in idea to being,” Thomas entertains the objection that good must be prior to being because it is more universal, a point illustrated with the case of Judas, of whom Scripture says that it would have been better for him not to have been born. To this objection Thomas replies that it is not the non-being of a thing itself that is ever desired; rather, its non-being is desired for the sake of the removal of some other evil in something else, which is to say, for the sake of the being of something else, and so “even non-being can be spoken of as relatively good” (ST 1.5.2 ad 3). Thus, it would seem consistent with Thomas’s own principles to say that the devil, in desiring to create, desired to be equal with God, and thus in a sense desired his own non-being, not for its own sake, but as a perceived condition for his gaining something good in itself.