Stoicism’s linguistic metaphysics

In a post from a month or so ago on “Augustine’s linguistic turn,” I wrote about the positive influence Stoicism exerted on Augustine’s philosophy of language. This and a follow-up post are an attempt to develop further, first, some relevant features of Stoic metaphysics and ontology and, following that, how their metaphysics was mirrored in their philosophy of language.

As an interpretation of the Augustinian Verbum, the Anselmian locutio represents a somewhat radical and revisionist take on this otherwise traditional creed. For in stressing the specifically linguistic side of the Augustinian Verbum, Anselm’s locutio helped resolve yet another deficiency in Augustine’s intellectual legacy, namely what John Milbank has identified as a certain “linguistic rationalism” inherited by Augustine from his classical philosophical sources and which he then bequeathed to his medieval successors. At the heart of this linguistic rationalism was the classic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent—words reflect ideas and ideas reflect reality—and which Milbank faults for its promotion of an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[1] Among ancient and medieval thinkers, only the Stoics saw fit to significantly revise the semantic triangle, and while Augustine derived many of his views on language from the Stoics, some of their more important contributions to the subject were insufficiently adopted and appreciated by him. The differences between their respective approaches, as we shall see, will provide us with yet another instructive perspective for evaluating the theological innovations of Anselm’s divine locutio. The first thing to note about the Stoics’ philosophy of language is its close parallel to their more general philosophy of being. According to Marcia Colish, the primary concern of Stoic metaphysics was “to overcome the dualism between mind and matter taught by other Greek philosophical schools. The Stoics achieve this goal by identifying mind and matter with each other and with God… [E]verything that acts is a body. There is a continuum between mind and body. They are completely translatable into each other; they are simply two ways of viewing the content within the continuum.”[2] What this means for the Stoics’ ontology is that they are not the transcendent, abstract, extrinsic, and ideal entities of Plato’s ideas which determine the being of things, but consistent with their doctrine of a wholly immanent and animating divine logos, “bodies themselves possess their own inner rationale for their existence, extension, and activity. It is their inner tonos [tension] which accounts for their operations…”[3] Of particular importance here is the famous Stoic doctrine of the logoi spermatikoi, or “seminal reasons,” according to which the divine logos does not govern things at a distance, but has been sewn into the material “soil” of existing things, encoding all the possibilities of not only normal processes of genesis and growth, but also exceptional and otherwise inexplicable departures from the usual course of nature as well.[4] “All things,” as Colish puts it, “are thus related to the cosmic pneuma and to each other,”[5] making for a less substantivist and possibilist, and more relational and actualist ontology according to which the possibility of what things can be and can do is determined not by an abstract ideal realm that is otherwise indifferent to its material imitations, but rather by a providential orchestration and synchronization of each particular thing with everything else that co-exists with it.


[1] Milbank, Word Made Strange, 84.

[2] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 23.

[3] Ibid., 26. See also Milbank, Word Made Strange, 89.

[4] Colish, Stoic Tradition, 32.

[5] Ibid., 27.

Augustine’s “linguistic turn”

A while back I argued that Anselm’s doctrine of the divine locutio (“utterance,” “expression”) helped resolve an ambiguity at the heart of Augustine’s doctrine of the divine Verbum, namely his ambivalence between a more verbal or linguistic model for understanding the second person of the Trinity on the one hand and a more visual and hence intellectual model on the other. Related to this is another ambiguity in Augustine’s thought, this time within his philosophy of language itself. To develop, for the time being, just one side of that tension, John Milbank has argued that there are significant elements in Augustine’s theology of language which push against the kind of “linguistic rationalism” that dominated much ancient, patristic, and medieval reflection on the subject. Milbank draws particular attention to the Aristotelian and Stoic “semantic triangle” of word-idea-referent, which he criticizes as implying an “instrumentalist view of the relation of language to thought, a strict distinction between ‘sign’ and ‘thing’, and a general denial of any sort of ‘essential’ relation between sign and thing signified.”[2] Yet it was also the Stoics who first “decisively modified” the semantic triangle “by interpreting the meaning-content (semainomenon) [of words] not as eternal “Idea,” nor as psychological “thought,” but rather as a lekton, a position within a system of signification.” One of virtues of this revised understanding of the relationship between words and their meaning, on Milbank’s view, was its insight into the irreducibly linguistic character of the act of signification, such that “the lekton, as an ‘incorporeal’ sign of something else, always connotes other elements in a moving continuum, rather than denotes extra-linguistic onta… The ‘incorporeal’ character of these lekta does not indicate any Platonic, eternal status, but rather a ‘temporally indefinite’ character.”[3] Put in modal terms, in the place of Aristotle and Plato’s “semantic possibilism” (as we might deem it), according to which it is a prior realm of fixed, abstract thought and eternal ideas that provides the possibility of the meaningfulness of words and things, the Stoic doctrine of lekta substituted a “semantic actualism” according to which the meaning of a word depends on all the other words there are and hence may be connoted within the dynamic “continuum” of a given “system of signification.” They are traces of this Stoic modification of the semantic triangle, finally, that Milbank finds evidence of in Augustine when, for example, and following the Stoics, he “speaks of a verbum cordis or verbum mentis, rather than just ‘a thought’,” or when “Augustine is so aware of the sign-character of words, and the indispensability of the artificial system of language for thought, that in De Magistro he declares that one can give the meaning of a word only by another word, or else by a gesture which is still a sort of sign.”[4] Elaborating on Augustine’s doctrine of the “inner word” in particular, Milbank finds here that Augustine “construes thought as ‘intentional’, or as having a sign-character (the Stoic lekton) which, especially in the De Trinitate, promotes a non-substantive, relational ontology…”[5]  (This move is paralleled, as we shall see later, in his commentary on Genesis, where he likewise shifts the source of creaturely possibility from the Platonic divine ideas to the less substantive, more relational and immanent ontology of the Stoic rationes seminales or “rational seeds.”) Indeed, Milbank suggests that

Augustine actually goes further than the Stoics in one respect, by becoming the first person in history unequivocally to place the linguistic word itself in the category of sign: verbum est uniuscuiusque rei signum. For the Stoics the word itself still stood in a relationship of definitional equivalence to the lekta, if not to referential res (as for Aristotle). As Umberto Eco has pointed out, Augustine’s conflation was a potentially momentous innovation, because by bringing words under a category traditionally to do with ‘natural’ relationships of typical implication (as the sequence fire/smoke, considered generically) Augustine opened the way to seeing that word and ‘dictionary definition’ are never fully reciprocal. Quite to the contrary, words can only be explicated ‘intensionally’, through a process of semiotic inference which relates no longer (as for the Stoics) more or less readily to nature, but only to a particular cultural-linguistic ‘segmentation’ of reality.[6]

In each of these ways, in sum, Augustine dimly foreshadows the later Renaissance humanist view of thought as sign—a “Trinitarian redefinition of the ideas as ‘word’ or ‘art’”[7]—and beyond that, the eighteenth-century insight of such Christian philosophers as Berkeley, Hamann, Herder, and Vico into the “indispensability of language for thought,” the ultimate “impossibility of distinguishing ‘sign’ from ‘thing’,” and the recognition of “reality as constituted by signs and their endless ramifications”[8] that anticipate and hence which allow for a more “positive assessment of language.”[9]


[2] Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 84.

[3] Ibid., 89.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 90.

[6] Ibid., 89-90.

[7] Ibid., 93.

[8] Ibid., 85.

[9] Ibid., 96.

Theology as Eucatastrophe

I posted yesterday on “theology as fantasy.” Related to this, there is also a respect in which theology as our discourse about God is also a kind of “eucatastrophe” of all our other discourses. Milbank writes:

while insisting that no human discourse has any ‘secular’ or ‘scientific’ autonomy in relation to theology, I seek to recognize equally that theology has no ‘proper’ subject matter, since God is not an object of our knowledge, and is not immediately accessible. Instead, theology must always speak ‘also’ about the creation, and therefore always ‘also’ in the tones of human discourses about being, nature, society, language and so forth. A ‘theological’ word only overlays these discourses…in a certain disruptive difference that is made to them. Here, also, there is a ‘making strange’. (Word Made Strange 3)

Milbank’s account of theology may be compared here to Tolkien’s The Lord of the Ringswhich Tolkien describes in one place as being “basically about God,” yet God is never actually mentioned in it. This is deliberate, however, since by not making God a character or “subject” within his narrative, Tolkien thereby frees God to more dramatically “disrupt” (to use Milbank’s term) the narrative with his acts of eucatastrophic intervention and deliverance. Here we have a metaphor for how Milbank sees theology working as a discourse: it talks about everything “except” God, and in that way equips us to always be talking about him. To adapt another statement by Tolkien, theology is that discourse that frees all our other discourses to have God be “that one ever-present Person who is never absent and never named” (Letters no. 192). Theology is the eucatastrophe, in other words, of every discourse.

Theology as Fantasy

According to Tolkien, one of the primary tasks of fairy-story is that of “Fantasy,” of presenting an alternate, secondary world characterized by an “arresting strangeness” and element of “unreality,” by means of which the sub-creator achieves a second goal of fairy-story, that of “Recovery,” the “regaining of a clear view” of reality, a vision freed from the possessiveness and appropriation of triteness and familiarity. In The Word Made Strange, however, John Milbank argues that this task which Tolkien assigns to fairy-story and sub-creation in our time peculiarly belongs to to theology: “In the past, practice already ‘made strange’, already felt again the authentic shock of the divine word by performing it anew, with variation…. Yet today it can feel as if it is the theologian alone (as in another cultural sphere the artist, or the poet) who must perform this task of redeeming estrangement…” (1). In rendering the world fantastical and so recovering it in its original, created authenticity, however, the theologian does not do anything that God himself does not do, preeminently in the Incarnation: it is “the theologian alone who must perpetuate that original making strange which was the divine assumption of human flesh, not to confirm it as it was, but to show it again as it surprisingly is.” The theologian, like the Tolkienian sub-creator, “makes strange,” for they do so in the image of the God who not only makes things strange, but in doing so makes and recovers himself as strange.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9)

(Tomorrow’s post: Theology as Eucatastrophe.)

A Problem with Divine “Self-Limitation”

It is somewhat commonplace for philosophical theologians to speak of God’s action in terms of a divine “self-limitation.” Irven Michael Resnick does so, for example, when characterizing Peter Damian’s views on divine power:

Again, paradoxically, it seems that self-limitation is a mark of omnipotence just as earlier [in the history of Christian teaching] the incarnation—the self-emptying or self-limitation of the second person of the Trinity (cf. Phil. 2:5-7)—represented a mark of supreme power. For the early Church, for Peter Damian, and for some Scholastic philosophers, the divine nature possesses unlimited power. But it is a nature which wills, and by willing knows, its own limitations. Unconstrained and unchecked, its creative power would surpass our understanding in a brilliant radiance which, uncloaked, would consume our world, or overflow to create an infinite number of others. God’s actualized power, as it is perceived from the standpoint of this creation, appears as a sort of accomodation [sic] to human weakness. It is a power which takes on human form and appearance, yet transcends these in its essential nature. (Resnick, Divine Power, 30-1)

Simo Knuuttila speaks in a similar vein:

It is clear that the temporal results of the actual choice exclude a choice with incompatible temporal results and that God’s possibilities (opportunies) to use his power to realize another choice are restricted by the actual choice. (Knuuttila, Modalities, 66-7).

I’ve suspected for a while that the rhetoric of divine self-limitation and restriction is metaphysically tragic, Neoplatonic, and possibilistic (Resnick, for example, makes it sound like God might blow himself up, or at least blow us up, if he isn’t careful). Reading John Milbank’s The Word Made Strange today has helped confirm this suspicion. Summarizing Giambattista Vico’s correlation between the theory of language and the theory of world origins in pagan and ancient Hebraic cultures, respectively, Milbank writes how for the pagans

‘meaning’, or the sign-relation, is always construed as ‘inhibition of chaos’. Logos is a counter-violence that ‘stays’ an always more primordial violence…. every act of signification, every sign given, is a kind of ‘victory’, a binding or ‘containment’ of the signified, then meaning is fundamentally an obscuring, a suppression…. By contrast, Vico suggests that the Hebrew grammar was always dominated by the ‘more sublime’ and more analogical trope of metaphor. For this grammar, meaning is not a capturing and a containment in the present, but rather a dialectic of presence and absence…. signification is not restriction… (Milbank, The Word Made Strange, 108-9)

To think of God’s activity in the negative terms of a “limitation,” “restriction,” or “contraction,” is not only possibilistic (a divinely voluntaristic “narrowing-in” on one’s options), but it is virtually agonistic and therefore quasi-pagan in its effective depiction of God as struggling against the dark, limitless forces of unreason (now construed as his own, infinite power and its “possibilities”). Creation, and divine action in general, becomes a victory God must achieve over himself. A less possibilist, more actualist understanding of creation, by contrast, should prove more peaceful, as it requires no competition of this world and its possibilities over all the other alleged worlds contending for the attention of divine creative election, or, on the flip-side, no divine suppression or “reprobation” of all the other worlds that “might have been.” Instead, God’s invention of this world, with all its possibilities (the only possibilities there are, because the only ones created by God), is free to occur in the repose that is God’s eternal self-understanding. Creation, consequently, is not the residue left over after God withdraws his presence (as per Milton, for example), like the debris left on shore after a receding tide, but is a truly de novo and ad hoc act of divine self-interpretation. God no more “limits” himself in his act of creation than an artist “limits” himself when he chooses to paint one painting rather than another, for there is no “other” painting that is going “unpainted.” Put differently, creation is not a sacrifice, not a loss–God must become man for that to happen–but is a gratuitous excess and bestowal of a world in which sacrifice can take place.

Is Word prior to Idea?

Anselm’s Theology of the Possible, part 4

Yesterday I posted on Anselm’s apparent preference of locutio over verbum as his term of choice for God’s knowledge of himself and creation, arguably on account of locutio‘s stronger, active linguistic tones in comparison to the more intellectualist and hence passive connotations of verbum. Tying in with this discussion is John Milbank’s argument for the priority of word over idea in contrast to the more Hellenistic tradition of Aristotle and Aquinas:

But in this reconception of analogy one has to say that the imitation of the divine power spoken of by Aquinas (an imitation which in the elusive yet concrete centre of the Christ-figura and in the eschatological prospect of the spirit is actually an identity with) must also include the creation of language itself, because language does not stand for ideas, as Aquinas thought, but constitutes ideas and ‘expresses’ things in their disclosure of truth for us. In this case language itself in its expressive relation to beings belongs to the analogatum. Language is also ‘like God’, and our linguistic expression mirrors the divine creative act which is immanently contained in the Ars Patris that is the Logos. ‘Analogy of being’ becomes ‘analogy of creation’ because our imitative power is a participation in the divine orginative-expressive capacity (this also accords with a more dialectical conception of the esse/essentia difference). Teleological constraint is here mediated through our sense of the ‘rightness’ of our emergent linguistic product. (Milbank, Word Made Strange, 29)

In a footnote, Milbank continues:

It is in fact with Thomas Aquinas, in relation to both the Trinity and the verbum mentis, that a certain conflation of the forma exemplaris with the imago expressa begins, so transforming the notion of an exemplary idea, such that the idea now only is in its constant ‘being imaged’. Taken further by Eckhart and Nicholas of Cusa, this development dynamizes our participation in the divine ideas and finally makes our creativity the reflection of the divine rationality. Yet at the same time, teleology remains fully in place, because our ‘art’ is always a ‘conjecture’ concerning the completion of the divine ‘art’.  (Milbank, Word Made Strange, 35n38)

This idea of human art as a ” ‘conjecture’ concerning the completion of the divine ‘art'” fits with my Tolkienian account of Anselm’s understanding of theology as “sub-creative,” that is, as a mere approximation–accurate but never complete–of the inherent logic or inner consistency of revelation and the Christian faith. At the same time, as Tolkien might put it, our theology is always “more” than a mere approximation, but a veritable “effoliation and multiple enrichment” of God’s own work of creation and redemption.

Music or Vision, Dream or Art

Metaphysics of the Music, part 37

This issue of desiring things for their otherness—conjured in the Vision but conspicuously absent, in retrospect, from the Music—may be further related to the literary distinction Tolkien draws in his essay between fairy-stories and what he calls the “Dream.” As Tolkien explains, the Dream and the fairy-story are alike in that in both “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked,” yet Tolkien says he would nevertheless strongly distinguish the two and “condemn” the Dream as

gravely defective: like a good picture in a disfiguring frame… [I]f 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 Faërie: 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. (Tolkien Reader 41-2)

Tolkien’s argument concerning the dream-device is interesting on a number of levels, one of which is its link to other literary Thomists of his day for whom the dream symbolized the antithesis of true art. In Art and Scholasticism, Jacques Maritain had contrasted genuine artistic inspiration—defined along the Thomistic lines of “reason superelevated by an instinct of divine origin when it is a question of human works ruled according to a higher measure”—with the mere “seeking the law of the work… in dream and in the whole organic night below the level of reason…”[1] This concern, as we have just seen, Tolkien parallels in his point about how “strange powers of the mind may be unlocked” in dreams. Under the direct influence of Maritain, for American novelist and self-described “hill-billy Thomist” Flannery O’Connor, the dream-image was less a metaphor for a sub-rational and therefore illegitimate source of artistic inspiration, so much as a symbol of the artist’s temptation to impose his own alien purposes (whether rational or otherwise) onto the work of art, rather than letting the work’s own form come to the fore. As O’Connor explains to one correspondent to whom she had sent a copy of Art and Scholasticism: “Strangle that word dreams. You don’t dream up a form and put the truth in it. The truth creates its own form. Form is necessity in the work of art.”[2] Finally, John Milbank, in his essay-review of Rowan Williams’s Grace and Necessity, a study on Maritain’s influence on twentieth-century Catholic authors and writers such as O’Connor, has similarly touched on the specifically realist dimension of Tolkien’s fairy-story/dream antithesis when he comments on how “the metaphorical presence of one thing in another alien thing has to be related back to the distinctness of temporal and spatial finite realities if art is to exceed dream.”[3]


[1] Maritain, Art and Scholasticism, 183n101.

[2] O’Connor, The Habit of Being, 218. In an earlier letter to the same correspondent, O’Connor had written: “The artist dreams no dreams. That is precisely what he does not do, as you very well know. Every dream is an obstruction to his work.” Ibid., 216.

[3] Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism and Modernity,” 656-7.

Did Aquinas have an Aesthetic?

In the previous post I cited Leo Spitzer’s comment that Aquinas does not seem to have had “the Augustinian ear for world harmony, ascribing to music a holy character only insofar as it was an element of the liturgy; as an Aristotelian he ‘reflects’ the world as it is, rather than attempting to re-create it by forging it together into a unit.” If so, the alleged tone-deafness of St. Thomas in matters of metaphysics might be related to the general absence of an explicit aesthetics in Thomas’s thought. John Milbank, for example, observes on the one hand that “[j]ust because there was no aesthetics in Aquinas’s theological philosophy, the aesthetic is therein everywhere present,” while on the other hand suggesting that “the latency of fundamental beauty in Aquinas meant that it was also for him a blind spot: one could even say that Aquinas probably supposed his own theology to have more to do with abstract reason than was really the case. This blindness invited a later rationalistic reduction by nominalism and neo-scholasticism of the Patristic legacy in which he stood, and to resist this one indeed requires a more explicit aesthetics, conjoined to a more explicit poetics…” (Milbank, “Scholasticism, Modernism, and Modernity,” 670). Related to this is Francesca Aran Murphy’s observation that, unlike Franciscans such as St. Bonaventure, none of the Dominican scholastics, including Albert the Great and St. Thomas, ever explicitly listed beauty as a transcendental and therefore convertible property of being. On the other hand, Murphy points out that, “whilst both Albert and Thomas say little of beauty in the main body of their writings, they both succumb to its lure in their respective Commentaries on The Divine Names of Pseudo-Dionysus. In these texts, each of these writers speaks of the universal extent of beauty, and names God as its first cause. In The Divine Names, Dionysius defines the beautiful as one of the sources of being” (Murphy, Christ the Form of Beauty: A Study in Theology and Literature, 213). Also, as Milbank is concerned to show, Thomas’s aesthetic vision, however blurred by his intellectualism, was to his credit at least sufficiently clear to inspire, through the work of Jacques Maritain, the “more explicit poetics” of twentieth-century Catholic artists and writers such as David Jones, G.K. Chesterton, Flannery O’Connor, and J.R.R. Tolkien.

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.

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).