A big house for a small house

THE PHILOSOPHY OF TOLKIEN. By Peter J. Kreeft (Ignatius Press, 2515 McAllister Street, San Francisco, CA 94118, 2005), 237 pp. PB. $15.95.

This masterpiece of philosophy and literary criticism epitomizes liberal education at its best and illuminates C.S. Lewis’s statement that Alexander Pope’s famous line, “The proper study of mankind is man,” needs correction: “The proper study of mankind is everything.” Acknowledging that The Lord of the Rings belongs in the rank of a classic because it is “a book loved by humanity, by human nature, wherever it is found,” Dr. Kreeft interprets this great book as a work that encompasses “everything” from metaphysics to epistemology to political philosophy to aesthetics to ethics. Posing a simple but profound philosophical question in the manner of a Socrates—“How big is reality?”— Dr. Kreeft answers that only three possible logical answers can address this question. The first answer, the position that reflects the Catholic worldview and the vision of many great classics from Homer to Tolkien, depicts reality as rich, copious, and abundant: “there are more things on heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophies, Horatio,” as Hamlet states. This view embodies the perennial philosophy and the great tradition of Western literature that The Lord of the Rings embraces—“the philosophy of the poet and of the happy man, for whom nature is a fullness, a moreness, and therefore wonderful.”

This sense of reality and nature as a copious fullness depicts the essence of Tolkien’s “larger-than-life” world which Dr. Kreeft compares to a big house for a small child to explore with wonder. As Tolkien himself explained in his essay “On Fairy- Stories,” “The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things; all manner of birds and beasts are found there.” In this big house or abundant world, then, all physical and material things embody both literal truths (the sun is a heavenly body) and act as copies or images of higher realities and divine mysteries (the sun is an image of God). All of creation has “edges” which hint at a “beyond” or a “more” that transcends the immediate boundary or limit. All of creation is dynamically alive and wild with energy, God himself acting in human history by way of miracles and Divine Providence. In this teeming world God is not a vague life force or subjective God of beauty but “alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, king, husband.” This large world that Dr. Kreeft delineates with lucid, vivid detail and illuminates in his reading of The Lord of the Rings is the real world, man’s home which a great myth leads humans to recover and rediscover, even though modern thought has robbed him of this great legacy: “Tolkien’s greatest achievement is that he invites us to inhabit this world again.”

In contrast to the bigness of reality which the classics render, the two opposing views address the question “how big is reality?” with different answers. One response is, “There are fewer things in heaven and earth” than are imagined or believed—the philosophy of skepticism that rejects miracle, mystery, Divine Providence, luck, and the Bible. Dr. Kreeft defines this outlook as reductionism: love is lust, man is ape, charity is self-interest, truth is opinion. According to this one-dimensional, literal-minded view of reality as limited or impoverished, nothing material possesses spirituality, and the body does not radiate the soul. Thus elves, dwarves, hobbits, fairy tales, and imaginative literature do not represent a way of perceiving truth but an escape from reality. This modern view of reality as narrow and confining originates with Descartes who separated “matter and spirit, body and soul, physical and spiritual, as two “clear and distinct ideas that have nothing in common.”

A third possible answer to the question about the size of reality comes from the philosophy of rationalism. There is no more and no less in reality than a person knows or sees: “Everything in my thought is real, and everything real is in my thought,” as Dr. Kreeft explains—a rationalism also expressed by Hegel: “The real is the rational and the rational is the real.” In other words, all knowledge derives from the calculations of reason, the measure of mathematics, and the proofs of science with its tendency to explain and “explain away” all the wonders of beauty, goodness, and creation. Faith does not complement reason, and the knowledge of the heart which Pascal acknowledged (“The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of”) lacks credibility. Human intuition, the “third eye,” also lacks authority as a valid source of truth. Thus rationalism dissociates information from wisdom and divorces supernatural revelation from scientific knowledge, presuming that human intelligence alone knows all things, explains all things, and controls all things. The genius of fantasy and the greatness of Tolkien, then, lead the human mind—capax universi—to behold the superabundance and generosity of being with gratitude, humility, and joy.

If wonder is the beginning of philosophy and the first step toward knowledge, Dr. Kreeft is a teacher and writer who whets the intellectual appetite and provides a banquet for the mind that resembles the cornucopia of Tolkien’s great universe.

Mitchell Kalpakgian, Ph.D.
Saint Anselm College
Manchester, New Hampshire

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