Friday, May 2, 2014

Philosophically and Theologically Reconciling Sayers, St. Augustine, and Tolkien

In class on Wednesday, we pondered the importance of Sayers’ notion of language as metaphor/analogy in her work “Image of God” and how her point of view might be theologically important in man’s relationship to the Creator.  In addition, we also explored St. Augustine’s description of angels and their relationship to God in Creation.  Perhaps I am a fool, but while these points were discussed in class, it did not seem to me that we adequately tied Sayers, St. Augustine, and Tolkien together (hence the reason for the blog posts, obviously) on a philosophical and theological level concerning the Creator and creation. This post, therefore, will seek to further reconcile this open-ended discussion. And. Still. Leave. Questions. Why do we love academia?
Anyway, to begin Sayers argues, “outside our own experience of procreation and creation, we can form no notion of how anything comes into being (p.30),” which is a philosophically debatable claim as she seems to lead us down the road of empiricism, declaring that “man measures everything by his own experience; he has no other yardstick (p.23).”  So where the hell is the possibility of “a priori knowledge," right?  Well, I would like to propose Sayers could still provide room for it.   She states that “the language which had been merely pictorial is transmuted into experience and we then have immediate knowledge of the reality behind the picture (p.26).”  The question then is the following: can this language in its pictorial state somehow be innate? If so, then Sayers’ philosophical grounds may not be too one-sided.  In other words, more than just empiricists might find themselves agreeing with her concerning this point, AND, more importantly, this also allows our multifaceted Christian theology to fit just right in.  The philosophical and theological Thomistic concept of “revealed reason”, which can very broadly be defined as the ability to receive and know divine truth, can certainly be looked at within Sayers’ concept of empiricism i.e. the experience one has in his studies in addition to the level of grace in his relationship with God can lead to an understanding of how things “come into being” as Sayers calls it.  This concept of mystery and revelation is certainly consistent with Tolkien’s Legendarium, as he explicitly mentions in Letter 131 to Milton Waldman, stating “that ‘what God has purposed for Men is hidden’: a grief and envy to the immortal Elves (Letters, p. 147).”  Furthermore, Tolkien mentions that “experience…gave Frodo more insight (Letters, p. 191)”, all the more pointing to Sayers.  Right, I know: duh on this last point.
Sayers is also further consistent with Thomism when concerned with the concept of analogy and metaphor in language as noted on page 19 of her essay where Aquinas is quoted saying “those things which are said of God and other things are predicated neither univocally nor equivocally, but analogically” (she also quotes him again on this concept on pages 22 and 23).  Tolkien would most likely agree here, as he states that he believes that “legends and myths are largely made of ‘truth’, and indeed present aspects of it that can only be received in this mode (p. 147).”  This is clearly analogous (no pun intended) to Sayers who claims, “the experience of creative imagination in the common man or woman and in the artist is the only thing we have to go upon in entertaining and formulating the concept of creation (p. 29-30).”  In other words, analogy is the basis for understanding the Creator, as Sayers and Aquinas claim, and the artist’s creative imagination expressed through analogy is the only way of reaching such an understanding of the Creator.  For Tolkien, legends and myths (the manifestation of the creative imagination Sayers mentions) are this “mode” or means by which we come to understand the Creator or synonymously in Christian theology, "truth."  Sayers also said it would be ok in saying  “God created the world by imagination."  Take a wild guess what Tolkien character in the Silmarillion created the first beings “that were the offspring of his thought (p. 15).”  I prefer His first name, not the Elvish-tongued version. Must be the flow of the vowel sound.  On to St. Augustine.
In St. Augustine’s City of God he claims that “when we say that it was fault, or perversion, in the angelic creation not to adhere to God, it shows quite plainly that adherence to him belonged to their nature…thus the perversion of the evil angels in not adhering to God is a proof (since all perversion is contrary to nature) that God created their nature so good that it is harmful for it to be separated from him (p. 472).”  In Tolkien’s Letter 156 he states that “if you imagine people in such a mythical state, in which Evil is largely incarnate, and in which physical resistance to it is a major act of loyalty to God, I think you would have the ‘good people’ in just such a state: concentrated on the negative: the resistance to the false (p.207).” 

This sounds very similar to what St. Augustine is saying, as he further mentions “what justifies the condemnation of the perversion is that the prevision disgraces a nature which deserves honor (p.472).”  Thus we can see this similar theme of a tendency of the good to resist the bad in respect for the good in both St. Augustine and Tolkien.  BUT, we still have one little issue.  St. Augustine is referring to angels in this conversation and Tolkien to men.  Tolkien claims that his “Fall of Angels” in the Silmarillion is “quite different in form, of course, of that of Christian myth (Letters, p.147).”  Thanks for complicating things Johnny.  Thus I still haven’t figured out how to reconcile the St. Augustine reading and Tolkien concerning this aspect of the angels.  I’ll just blame the 1,000 words maximum instead of admitting my failure.   As mentioned in class, on the one hand Tolkien’s angels seem to be god-like and then on the other hand they seem to be like the angels in Job or finally like the angels described by St. Augustine.  Professor Fulton Brown asked: “do we need to pick one?” One student in class said we don’t.  Don’t listen to that guy (nothing personal, all in good fun).  Help me tie the two together.



  1. I think a first step here is to distinguish the way in which we come to knowledge--innately or by experience--from the way in which we are able to understand something outside of our experience, most notably God. We might have innate knowledge of God and still only be able to understand what we know analogically. My sense is this is what Sayers means when she says "we have no other yardstick." --RLFB

  2. I'm not so sure that Augustine would not see human sin as likewise disgracing "a nature which deserves honor." So, we should be careful drawing a distinction there. In general, I think it's helpful to think of Tolkien's (and indeed Augustine's) are in some sense composed of repeated patterns and images mirroring the divine pattern and image. This holds for both negative and positive things. Thus, the fall of Sauron mirrors Melkor, thus the reactions of the Valar to Melkor mirror the reactions of humans and elves to Sauron, thus Saruman runs his own petty version of Sauron's empire in the Shire. We might argue then that Augustine's understanding of the angels is reflecting in Tolkien's understanding of man's reaction to evil, simply on a lower level of the celestial hierarchy.