From imitability to producibility

In his discussion of the ideas of God, Ockham comments that “God has an infinite number of ideas, as there are infinitely many things which can be produced by him.” Although it’s tangential to the point Ockham is making, the quote puts me in mind that the whole shift in thinking about the nature of possibility which occurs between Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham could be reduced to this. It is a shift from the possible understood as a theologically rich and analogical divine imitability, to a theologically evacuated and banal divine producibility.

Tolkien’s Thomistic Metaphysics in Overview

Metaphysics of Fairie, Conclusion (part 1)

After something like a year-and-a-half of whittling away at it, I recently finished blogging through the five chapters of my doctoral dissertation. The following series of posts is from my conclusion.

The argument has been that, behind J.R.R. Tolkien’s vast and vastly popular mythology of Middle-earth–giving his world a philosophical cogency and sophistication not often recognized, and certainly not typically associated with the fantasy or science-fiction genre—lies the influential metaphysical thought of Tolkien’s great Catholic forbear, St. Thomas Aquinas. Structuring my discussion around Tolkien’s creation-myth, the Ainulindalë, I have attempted not simply to analyze Tolkien’s fiction in light of, but also to show how his fiction purposefully incarnates such important Thomistic themes as the relationship between faith and reason; the being, attributes, and persons of the divine Creator; the simultaneous realism or mind-independence and yet inherent intelligibility of all created being; the realization or fulfillment of intelligible form or essence in and through a thing’s real act of existence; the dependence of artistic sub- or “con”-creation on the Creator’s prior, exclusive act of creation; the anthropological significance of angels; and the metaphysics of evil.

At the same time, my purpose has also been to suggest that, far from Tolkien’s metaphysics being necessarily reducible to St. Thomas’s, the nature of Tolkien’s Thomism often lies as much in his creative departures from or innovations upon the thought of the angelic doctor as it does in his overt debt to it. Although Tolkien never mentions St. Thomas by name, the influence of St. Thomas on the Catholic culture, thought, and art of Tolkien’s generation was nigh inescapable, especially for someone attempting to sub-create an alternative world of the philosophical complexity and magnitude of Tolkien’s. The way in which I have conceived Thomas’s influence on Tolkien, accordingly, has been in terms of his providing the latter with an inherited, trustworthy, yet always tacitly assumed intellectual point of reference by which Tolkien might both the more effectively determine what was metaphysically necessary, and within those parameters the more keenly to discern what was metaphysically and therefore sub-creatively possible. Thus, I’ve argued how Tolkien’s otherwise Thomistic metaphysical theism was (paradoxically) what also allowed his mythology to be fundamentally “about God” even when it scarcely bothered to mention him. We saw further how Tolkien’s concept of eucatastrophe, while presupposing the traditional, orthodox view of divine presence and providence defended by St. Thomas, also requires for its full aesthetic and emotional effect a kind of provisional “forgetting” of the Creator and almost despairing of hope, conditions which set the stage for that special “miraculous” act of divine intervention whereby both the reader and the characters are powerfully reminded that, though God may be “never named,” he is also the one who is “never absent.” We saw how Tolkien similarly presupposes a Thomistic conception of divine and creational possibility to articulate a theory of sub-creative freedom or autonomy and creaturely contingency that is customarily associated with the theological voluntarism and counter-factual speculation of a William of Ockham rather than with the comparatively more reserved theology of Aquinas. We saw how Tolkien stresses the Thomistic insight as to the metaphysical primacy of the act of existence, not by putting the world in its created existence at the beginning of his creation-myth, but precisely by postponing the divine gift of being until the eschatological climax at the end. We have witnessed Tolkien at perhaps his metaphysical boldest in his postulation of reincarnating Elves and incarnate, “demiurgic” angels, again, entities which would seem to defy the comparative sobriety of St. Thomas’s hierarchy of being on the one hand and yet whose own structure, on the other hand, seems to presuppose the very logic of Thomas’s hierarchy. Finally, I argued that, more than simply favoring the traditional, Augustinian and Thomistic view of evil as relative form of non-being, Tolkien in fact utilizes his Thomistic metaphysics of creation not so much to contradict as to sublate the Manichaean insight into the (apparent) independence and radical power of evil. What we see in each of these cases, I think, is less an uncritical adoption of Thomistic ideas, but as one would expect of someone of Tolkien’s genius and originality, a creative appropriation and adaptation of Thomas’s thought for his own literary purposes.

(to be continued…)

Aquinas’s “Tin Ear” for the Music of the Spheres

Metaphysics of the Music, part 14

Against the metaphysically tragic interpretation of Tolkien’s creation-myth—according to which, first, it is the Ainur’s Music that creates the rest of the world and, second, the Music therefore represents an authentic form of being in comparison to which all later permutations of creation are so many disparagable accretions—my claim is that Tolkien’s music imagery both presupposes and self-consciously portrays the kind of Christian, creational, and consequently much more positive metaphysics he shares, for example, with St. Thomas Aquinas. To this end, there are three aspects of Thomas’s thought I want to develop in the posts to follow: the first is Thomas’s own occasional remarks on the nature of music; the second consists in select elements of Thomas’s theory of beauty or aesthetics in general; and the third concerns the broader metaphysical “existentialism” and realism involved in Thomas’s aesthetics. At each of these three levels, as I hope to show, Thomas has an important contribution to make where the proper interpretation of the metaphysics of Tolkien’s music imagery is concerned.

Unlike Tolkien, the music imagery of Augustine, Boethius, and the whole musica universalis tradition actually seems to have made very little impression on St. Thomas’s metaphysical imagination: fire and light we certainly find in his philosophy of being (examples of Pseudo-Dionysius’s influence), but there is very little music. Commenting on this lacuna, Leo Spitzer remarks how Thomas 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” (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 74). As we shall see, accordingly, Thomas’s ultimate significance for understanding the metaphysics of Tolkien’s musical imagery will lie in quite a different direction. Thomas’s personal interest in music, such as it was, was informed by his direct experience with sacred music as part of his religious devotion and duties as a priest, a subject he addresses in ST 2-2.91, “Of taking the divine name for the purpose of invoking by means of praise” (on this passage, see Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, 131-2). More than this, Thomas’s education and general cultural milieu would have required of him a particular familiarity with Boethius’s De Institutione and Augustine’s De Musica (Eco 131). His command of some of the more technical and mathematical details of the latter work in particular, for example, are on display in his commentary on Aristotle’s De anima (Bullough, “St. Thomas and Music,” 14, 19-21). (Thomas F. O’Meara, incidentally, has also made the observation in his study of Aquinas’s “cultural milieu” of thirteenth-century Paris that it was only the century prior that polyphony had been introduced and developed in Gothic music, whose “rhythmical motion of independent parts,” together with the Gothic illustrated window and the Scholastic Summa, constitutes a third example of the period’s “love of plurality ordered.” O’Meara, “Paris as a Cultural Milieu of Thomas Aquinas’s Thought,” 709.) And while Thomas does not seem to have had much use in his cosmology or metaphysics for the Pythagorean notion of a musical world harmony, as his treatment of divine power in the Summa indicates, neither was he completely insensible to the notion’s explanatory force. While expanding on how the universe cannot be improved given the order already bestowed upon it by God, Thomas gives the following argument strongly reminiscent of what I pointed out in Augustine earlier: “For if any one thing were bettered, the proportion of order would be destroyed, just as if one string were stretched more than it ought to be, the melody of the harp would be destroyed” (ST 1.25.6 ad 3).