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Theistic Philosophy and Tolkien’s Hobbit, Part 2: Plot and God’s Truth: Descartes

Published Monday, August 10, 2020 By Anthony G. Cirilla

We saw in the last section that Boethius provides a philosophical means to understand character development in terms of how individuals define their identity based on what they call Good (and that, considered in itself, God is the summum bonum). Likewise, Descartes provides a means by which the demands of plot upon the character and the reader reveal an invisible faith in the truth of God which undergirds action.[1]

When the Dwarves sing, it produces an effect upon Bilbo’s imagination: “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire of the hearts of dwarves” (28). Boethius noted (through his character Lady Philosophy) that people do not fully understand their motivations towards temporal goods; Descartes offers insight into why this is by distinguishing between an imagination which is more bodily and one which is more to do with the soul. Soulful imagination, fundamentally, is the result of a motion of will “that causes the mind” to “imagine something that does not exist” (Principles of Philosophy, 204). But the bodily imagination can also be excited by objects of imagination to generate passion – that is to say, imagination can cause us to develop longings or desires without us willing to do so. These imaginative passions thus create in us an intention to seek fulfillment of desires for things which may not necessarily exist in our immediate empirical experience. This is akin, in fact, to Tolkien’s belief that the purpose of fairy stories is to fulfill desires of the heart. Of course, Descartes is disturbed by the notion that our imaginations (as well as our senses and reason) might mislead us, and so the purpose of his Meditation is to create an epistemic framework to defend against such deceptions.

Bilbo does not engage in so sustained a philosophical reflection as Descartes to determine whether the claim that going on an adventure is a good idea, and yet the “uncomfortable dreams” (39) he is left with by the Dwarf song puts him in a similar epistemic angst. Bilbo cannot discern whether the emotional impact of his dreams should in fact influence his actions in the waking world, a practical corollary to the Cartesian concern over whether we live in the world or in a waking dream: “How often has it happened to me that in the night I dreamt that I found myself in this particular place…whilst in reality I was lying undressed in bed!… it is almost capable of persuading me that I now dream” (60). As with Descartes’ consideration that he cannot be certain whether he is awake or asleep, Bilbo cannot be certain whether the Dwarf song-inspired dream is meaningful or not. In other words, the crucial plot point of Bilbo’s decision to accompany the dwarves is born of his desire to know whether the longings for adventure communicate something true about reality.

It may have come as some surprise that the famous Cartesian “cogito” was not used in this discussion to analyze Bilbo’s character development, for “I think, therefore I am” seems at first to be a philosophical proclamation of identity. Of course, there is truth to this supposition, and there is a kinship between the Boethian argument for identity residing properly only in God’s goodness and the Cartesian argument for certain truth residing properly only in God’s nature. But this seems to be interpreting Descartes in light of the developments of Cartesianism, and infusing “ego” with associations of Romanticism or psychology which did not, properly speaking, exist when he coined these words. Rather than a philosophical experience of self, I think it is more fitting the spirit of Descartes’ cogito to regard it as an event: the self comes to a moment where it realizes that deception and self-existence are mutually inclusive.

In his Discourse on the Method, Descartes emphasizes his philosophical system as more like a type of genre than a type of personality, a genre for actions which may or may not work for others: “But regarding this Treatise simply as a history, or, if you prefer it, a fable in which, amongst certain things which may be imitated, there are possibly others also which it would not be right to follow” (Discourse, 5). Furthermore, Descartes strips away all associations of self in his attempt to come to the undoubtable premise, and casts his discovery of the cogito as a moment in a story: “So that after having reflected well and carefully examined all things, we must come to the definite conclusion that this proposition: I am, I exist, is necessarily true” (64). This is not the self-congratulatory statement it is sometimes taken to be, for the next move Descartes makes is to acknowledge that because he is certain that he exists, he is even more certain of something else: that he is a being which makes mistakes in judgement (Meditations 70-75). This being the case, he realizes he cannot depend upon himself for truth. But if his own existence is a certain truth, then his acknowledgement of that truth cannot come from himself, an error-prone being: rather, it must stem from an infallible source of truth, for the discovery of self-existence, which must be true, cannot have its source in an uncertain being such as himself (Meditations 75-83). By facing the evil demon of doubt, Descartes argues, he has not proven his character, but followed a trajectory: he has discovered the philosophical plot undergirding the Scriptural truth that “the unbeliever has no excuse” for disbelieving in the invisible God.

Bilbo’s dark cave is not one of such finely tuned metaphysical doubts, but instead one of dark forests, caverns, and castles filled with monsters. The most Cartesian elements of the plot emerge in Bilbo’s encounter with the Gollum and his possession of the One Ring. In the cavern where Gollum dwells, we are told by Tolkien, “When Bilbo opened his eyes, he wondered if he had; for it was just as dark as with them shut” (76). Bilbo has entered into a place, as with Descartes, where he can no longer trust his senses. Similar in emotional impact to how Descartes portrays himself carefully exploring the mental darkness of a world plunged into doubt, Bilbo slowly “got up and groped about on all fours till he touched the wall of the tunnel” (76). Groping through metaphysical riddles in the dark, Descartes encountered the disturbing idea that reality itself might be an illusion from a deceptive being: “some evil genius not less powerful than deceitful has employed his whole energies in deceiving me… I may at least do what is in my power and with firm purpose avoid giving credence to any thing… imposed upon by this arch deceiver” (62).

Finding himself in the disquieting presence of the Gollum, Bilbo must trade riddles in the dark with an evil demon cut down to Hobbit-size, questioning not whether he can know any truth for certain but testing nonetheless whether he can see through deceptively worded descriptions and see the truth which lies behind them. Bilbo does not actually figure out the last riddle, the answer to which is “Time,” but only happens to ask for more of it, thus accidentally tricking Gollum into thinking he had solved the riddle. Descartes stole from the evil Demon’s deception the certain truth that he exists, even if his whole body is a mystery to him; this insight becomes the magic talisman, so to speak, by which Descartes enters back into the certain light of God’s truth. Likewise, Bilbo steals from Gollum the deceptively powerful One Ring that causes his sensible body to disappear, empowering Bilbo not only to escape the clutches of his demonic counterpart but to find his way back to the Dwarves and Gandalf.

Having restored security in his place in the world, Bilbo is able to then return to fulfill his social obligations. In a parallel sense, once one recovers belief in the God who created the world, and in loving him, we are thus equipped to meet the demands of the second greatest commandment. It is not until undergoing the transformative experience of meeting his own evil demon that Bilbo is equipped, like Descartes, to believe in a more essential self than meets the eye of his companions. Just as character development depends upon the events of the plot, Descartes’ certainty about judgments in the world depends upon the event of discovering that God’s truth confronts him in the working of his own mind. And as Bilbo discovers in the riddle game with Gollum, truth is more complicated than it may seem to one’s initial perceptions, and a narrow road of contemplation must be followed to find the next stage in the journey.[2]

The third and final segment of this piece will consider The Hobbit’s setting via George Berkeley’s philosophy, and wrap up a discussion of the overall insights theistic philosophy can provide for the novel.

Anthony G. Cirilla is an assistant professor of English at College of the Ozarks in Branson, MO, where he lives with his beloved wife, Camarie. He writes articles about theistic philosophy in medieval literature, modern fantasy, and videogames.

[1] Thomas Pavel has explored aspects of the Cartesian legacy in literary history, as well as pointing out that Descartes’ own philosophical project is marked by an archetypal plot, the chivalric romance. “Literature and the Arts,” in Discourse on the Method and Meditations on First Philosophy, ed. David Weissman, pp. 349-370. I take a somewhat more amiable view of Descartes’ legacy than that of Stephen Toulmin, who sympathizes with Descartes’ aims but regards him in his quest for certainty as departing from the epistemology of the Middle Ages (Toulmin, Cosmopolis 36). Scholars have shown Descartes’ indebtedness to Augustine and Anselm. Even as Descartes vows to avoid the “extravagances of the knights-errant of Romance” (Discourse, 6), Descartes portrays himself as a heroic quester for truth not unlike knights pre-Quixote.

[2] The hero’s journey, a concept discussed in great detail by figures such as Joseph Campbell, Lord Raglan, Otto Rank, Maureen Murdock, and many others, is applicable here, and helpful because the framework of the monomyth recognizes archetypal parallels of cognitive progression that work across both philosophical and narratological lines. There is not sufficient space, unfortunately, to unpack the associations here.

  • Anthony G. Cirilla