Monday, 12 March 2018

Review of The Flame Imperishable by Jonathan S McIntosh

Jonathan S McIntosh. The Flame Imperishable: Tolkien, St Thomas and the metaphysics of Faerie. Angelico Press: Kettering, Ohio, USA. 2017. pp xv, 289.

For about a year, from late 2009 into 2010, about a year after I became a Christian - I was 'smitten' by the 'Thomist' philosophy of Saint Thomas Aquinas (and intending, probably, to become a Roman Catholic via the Anglican Ordinariate route).

I had already encountered 'Thomism', in the work of GK Chesterton, and EF Schumacher's Guide for the Perplexed - and most significantly in After Virtue by Alasdair MacIntyre who convinced me that the philosophy of Aquinas was the only rigorous, coherent, comprehensive system of metaphysically-rooted philosophy that had ever been devised. My Aquinas binge of 2009-10 confirmed that opinion from a mainstream Christian perspective...

Since that time I have travelled to an almost opposite extreme - first via the less-rigorous but more intuitively-satisfying Platonism of Eastern Orthodoxy; then to the almost-unknown, almost-totally unappreciated, and almost-opposite world of Mormon theology - where I have solidly set up residence for the past five-plus years (as a 'theoretical Mormon' - but not a member of the CJCLDS).

This, then, is my background with respect to Thomism: one of great respect, past enthusiasm and a partial knowledge (which never got so far as to read Aquinas himself in any quantity - just excerpts; but mostly books-about Aquinas).

In The Flame Imperishable, Jonathan McIntosh argues that JRR Tolkien's work was written from a background in Thomistic philosophy - which Tolkien absorbed during his childhood, especially; and furthermore that Tolkien's major work in the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion was written such as to be compatible-with the basic principles of Thomism.  

This, McIntosh proves! - at least to my satisfaction; although I was already inclined to assume this was true before I read his book.

The Flame Imperishable is uncompromisingly a scholarly monograph - closely modelled on a PhD thesis; with the characteristic virtues and limitations of such a form. That is, it is thorough, impartial (presenting many sides of each argument in some detail; its conclusions are expressed with due reservations; and its language and structure are subordinated to these formal imperatives.

Which means the text is dense, incremental, even-toned - and, in sum, not at all an easy read! On the other hand, its appeal goes somewhat beyond the interests of professional scholars. I can, for example, think of quite a large number of Roman Catholic bloggers and authors who have a great interest in Tolkien's work - and these would certainly find that The Flame Imperishable added depth of understanding to their engagement with Tolkien - and probably too with Aquinas.

For me, the book was hard to get-into because my own metaphysical assumptions are so very different from those of Thomism - so that after reading not many sentences I would often turn aside and write notes from my own contrasting assumptions. In other words; McIntosh is right about Tolkien - but not about me! - and therefore reading it took on aspects of a debate.

In the end, speaking personally as a person who is fascinated by metaphysics and thinks-about it every day, and thinks it is the most important single thing for the modern world! - I found this book was an education, a stimulus to clarify my own philosophical ideas; and yet also a confirmation that I personally was correct in rejecting Thomism; whose baseline assumptions seem to me (the more I dwell upon them) so unnatural, so counter-intuitive, and such as to lead to what I would regard as reductio ad absurdum in some very important places. 

But Thomism still is, and probably always will be, the most rigorous of comprehensive systematic philosophies - and if that is your priority, then you probably ought-to know more about it. So long as you are prepared to work through slowly, you could (I think) learn Thomism from The Flame Imperishable, via your existing interest in Tolkien*.

*Note: An alternative, or preliminary, would be Ed Feser's Aquinas of 2009; which well communicates the intellectual excitement of such a wide-ranging - indeed all-including - philosophical system. 


John Fitzgerald said...

Great review Bruce. Thanks very much. I've enjoyed Mr. McIntosh's blog, also called The Flame Impersihable, over the years but didn't know he'd written a book. I've always struggled with Thomism though if I'm honest. It's to head-based to me. Like yourself in your Orthodox phase I've always been drawn to more Platonic expressions of Christianity.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this - it leaves me eager to see the book! I'm not sure how I got interested in Aquinas - probably though love of things Mediaeval and good school history teaching - and probably with the biggest boost coming from reading Dorothy Sayers' translation of Dante's Inferno with its copious annotation - but working on Williams and encountering his interest - his delight in the 1920s in acquiring a three-volume selection from the Summa - the quotations he selected for The New Christian Year - the play with scholastic angelology of The Place of the Lion, among other things - got me (however inadequately) trying to get better acquainted, with many a delightful hour spent in the Radcliffe Camera where that whole wonderful edition of the Summa with Latin text and English translation on facing pages and lots of excellent cross-referencing was on the open shelves, allowing you to range about and follow topics from volume to volume with the greatest ease. Part of this was attending to St. Thomas's interaction with the Greek Church Fathers as he knew them - and, now, reading this review got me wondering about Aquinas and 'the reconciliation of Plato and Aristotle', which, with some searching brought me to this interesting essay!:

David Llewellyn Dodds