“Philosophy” means “the love of wisdom”. It should be what it means. The fact that it has largely ceased to be that in modern “philosophy departments” does not mean that its essence has changed, but that its disciples have. Similarly, the fact that most Christians in North America are not martyrs or saints like the early Christians does not mean that the meaning of Christianity has changed, only that Christians have.
Metaphysics is the most important, most foundational, part of philosophy. It is rational, not irrational; it is a “science” in the broad, ancient sense of the word: a body of knowledge ordered through explanations and causes. Like the rest of philosophy, it does not use the modern scientific method. (Neither does anything else except modern science!) But it is a science, and it should not be classified under “the occult”, as it is in some bookstores.
Unlike all other sciences, including other philosophical sciences, metaphysics explores reality as such, all of reality, not just some part or dimension of reality, such as living things, chemicals, human history, or morality. It seeks the truths, laws, and principles that are true of all being. (“Being” is the traditional term, but “reality” sounds more concrete and less occultic than “being”.)
Here are a few sample questions of metaphysics:
- Is all being one, true, good, and beautiful?
- Is evil real?
- Is matter real?
- Is spirit real?
- Is God real?
- Is chance real?
- Is causality real?
- Is time real?
- How can a being change, that is, be both the same being it was, and also different?
- What is the relation between a thing’s essence (what it is) and its existence (that it is)?
- Does language reflect reality? Are there in reality things (nouns), acts (verbs), qualities (adjectives), relations (prepositions and conjunctions), etc.?
- Are “universals” like justice, human nature, squareness, and redness real things, or real aspects of things, or only concepts, or only words?
The Lord of the Rings illuminates at least three important metaphysical questions:
- How big is reality? Is it larger or smaller than our thought?
- Does it include the supernatural?
- Does it include universals, “Platonic Ideas”, or “Jungian archetypes”?
We shall take up the first in this post and give you the other two later on.
How big is reality?
There are only three logically possible answers to this question.
- The first is that “there are more things in heaven and earth ( i.e., in reality) than are dreamed of in your philosophies (i.e., in thought).” That was Shakespeare’s philosophy, as expressed by Hamlet to Horatio, who found it hard to believe in ghosts. This is the philosophy of the poet and of the happy for whom nature is a fullness, a moreness, and therefore wonderful. It is the philosophy of all pre-modern cultures.
- The second possible answer is that there are fewer things in reality than in thought; that most of our thought is mere myth, error, convention, projection, fantasy, fallacy, folly, .dream, etc. This is the philosophy of the unhappy man, the cynic, the pessimist: “Trust nobody and nothing.” This philosophy is hardly ever found in any pre-modern culture, except in a small minority.
- The third possibility is that there are exactly the same number of things in reality and in thought, that is, that we “know it all”.
What difference does it make to your life which philosophy you believe?
It makes a total difference, a difference to absolutely every single thing in your life. It colors everything. For if you believe the first philosophy, as Shakespeare did, as Tolkien did, and as most pre-modern peoples did, then your fundamental attitude toward all reality is wonder and humility. You are like a small child in a large house. As Tolkien said in one of his letters, “You are inside a very great story.”
You expect mysteries, you expect moreness: terrors to stop your heart and joys to break it. Reality is big. I think of the simple, haunting line in Ingmar Bergman’s movie The Seventh Seal: “It is the Angel of Death that’s passing over us, Mia, it’s the Angel of Death, the Angel of Death. And he’s very big.” In this big world there may be not only things like dragons, but even heroes.
The larger-than-life world is the one our ancestors lived in. Our culture’s greatest sadness is that we no longer live in this world. Tolkien’s greatest achievement is that he invites us to inhabit this world again. He shows us that this world is our home. He even shows us heroism: he not only shows us heroes but he also shows us that we ourselves believe in heroes. For after we have read Tolkien’s unashamedly heroic epic, we do not say, “Well, that was a pleasant little escape from reality”, but, “Hey! That was real!”
If you believe the second philosophy, that there are fewer things in Heaven and earth than are dreamed of in our philosophies, then you are cynical, skeptical, suspicious, bored, jaded, detached, ironic, and definitely non-heroic. You are a reductionist: you reduce mystery to puzzle, love to lust, thought to cybernetics, reasoning to rationalizing, ideals to desires, man to ape, God to myth.
In other words, you are a typically modern or post-modern man. (Is there much of a difference?) You buy into the first step of the scientific method: “Doubt everything that is not proved; treat every thought as guilty until proved innocent, false until proved true.” The older philosophy treated thoughts as we treat people in court: innocent until proved guilty. (Compare Socrates’s method with Descartes’s on this score.)
The third philosophy is rationalism, in fact, arrogant rationalism: Everything in my thought is real, and everything real is in my thought. In ancient Greece Parmenides said, “What is thought and what is real is the same”, and in modern Germany Hegel said, “The real is the rational and the rational is the real;” but I think only those with a divinity complex can actually believe that. And even pantheists, who believe that the whole cosmos is only a thought or dream, believe it is not our dream but God’s, and therefore still “more”, or transcendent to our thought — unless there is some confusion between us (or me) and God, in which case a shrink or a smack will serve the soul better than a syllogism.
Thomas Howard calls good fantasy a “flight to reality” because, though its details are fictional, the nature of its world, its universal principles and values, are true. Tolkien shows us the nature of the real world by his fantasy. He is making a statement about reality, about being, about metaphysics when he says:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered.
J R. R. Tolkien, On Fairy-Stories
The fundamental reason for the popularity of The Lord of the Rings is that people sense it is real. No mere escape from reality can be voted “the greatest book of the century”.
And that is why Tolkien does not tell us half of what he knows about his world. You can tell everything about your fantasies, your dreams, or your thoughts, but not about anything real.
That is also why The Lord of the Rings bears endless rereading: it is heavy enough to bear the mind’s journeys into it, like our world. In fact, it is perhaps the most “heavy”, full, detailed, complex, real invented world in all of human literature.
Tolkien himself tells us that he felt, in creating it, as we feel in reading it: that it was discovered, not invented, that it had always been there, and it was as much a surprise to Tolkien to discover it as it is to us: “I had the sense of recording what was already `there,’ somewhere; not of `inventing.’ Great authors often say that about the experience of writing their masterpieces.
C. S. Lewis wrote from the same point of view:
We must not listen to [Alexander] Pope’s maxim about the proper study of mankind. “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan, The proper study of mankind is man.” The proper study of mankind is everything.
We should never ask of anything “Is it real?” For everything is real. The proper question is, “A real what?”