Because We Are Made
Aquinas and Tolkien on Creativity
The nature of the human person may be defined in various ways according to the qualities which differentiate it by species from other kinds of animals. From its highest and most significant attribute, namely its intellectual or spiritual soul, the rest of human nature finds its orientation and all its other actions and appearances are transformed by this relationship. The intellect becomes evident both through subjective, interior experiences of the individual, and exterior movements through the body which communicate itself to others; this sociality, as well as the intentionality of the will or intellectual appetite, are proofs or signs of the intellectual nature of the human person. Creativity, or more properly artistry or subcreativity, is also an essential expression of the human person which is intrinsic to its intellectual nature and fundamental to human life.
To explore this assertion, it is first necessary to define creativity in a human context. While in general it may be defined as the capacity for making something new, this is ultimately impossible for human beings, whose existence is derivative and participatory and whose power is limited, making us unable to create something utterly new. A more appropriate term can be either art, as it has traditionally been used, or more precisely, subcreation, a term coined by J.R.R. Tolkien. Both of these terms indicate creativity but specify that as humans our creativity is imitative rather than original.
Human art or subcreation exists in three distinct and incremental forms: art, artifice or craft, and fine art. According to Jacques Maritain, the medieval Scholastic understanding of art, which incorporated all three of these but focused primarily on the first two, begins with art as “[r]ecta ratio factibilium… the undeviating determination of work to be done.” Contrary to later utilitarian or romantic understandings of art, the Scholastics saw the object and matter of art as the thing being done itself, even apart from what potentially pragmatic or self-expressive ends it may also include, and with the form of the action being excellent work done through the operation of reason. From this view, art can be applied even when something is not being made exteriorly (although a new idea is still made in the mind) but to any action by which we intend to make something well, and so pursuits such as logic, athletics, rhetoric and warfare are often called “arts” even in modern times. These activities are properly distinguished from those which are done without excellence as an intention, or without the good of the object itself being the desired end, thus involving little artistic virtue, and can include daily chores such as bathing or eating but can also be applied to the highest levels of art whenever they are done for ends other than the good of the object and the excellence of the action. Art is thus an operative habitus or intellectual virtue which perfects the intellect by the focusing of its innate indeterminacy onto a definite object.
The two higher expressions of human art, namely craft and fine art, specifically involve the making of something new outside oneself, from the model for it conceived in the intellect and expressed through the sense impressions in the imagination. According to Aristotelian and Thomistic psychology, as the sense appetites of the soul receive impressions from the sensory organs of the body through the power of sensation, they store these impressions in the imagination which can then be used by the other internal senses. For humans, sense impressions or phantasms are also the source for intellectual knowledge, as the intellect abstracts the intelligible species from the phantasms and conceives them as words in the passive intellect; the accordance of these words with reality gives the intellect its knowledge of truth. The intellect thus depends upon the imagination for its knowledge, as well as the understanding of its knowledge by the use of metaphorical images by reason. Similarly, the will desires unity with what the intellect apprehends as good and so is drawn to it. Scholastics understood art as being based in the practical intellect, oriented toward excellent intellectual operation and the making of something new, while learning is based in the speculative intellect; art thus governs the practical act of Making, the operation of the intellect, while analogously prudence governs Action. The will, perfected through prudence, follows the rules of morality, but making, through art, adheres to the rules of achieving excellence in the thing being done, and so artistic success is distinct from morality. As Maritain explains, “The Man of Learning is an Intellectual demonstrating, the Artist is an Intellectual operating, the Prudent Man is an intelligent Man of Will acting well.”
As the intellect draws upon its knowledge and acts on the internal senses, it can use, as St. Thomas described (based on Avicenna), the imagination to conceive of things which are not only absent from immediate experience, but which are, in a limited way, new altogether. While the soul uses the common sense to recollect and distinguish sense impressions, the cogitative power to interpret and compare sense impressions as particular intentions (as the intellect compares universal intentions), and the reminiscence to store and collate these intentions to understand past experiences, the intellect gives man the ability to manipulate sense impressions and intentions and to recombine them into new things which it conceives and which did not previously exist, “combining nouns and redistributing adjectives”; Avicenna called this power “phantasy,” but St. Thomas assigned it to the imagination as used by the human intellect in a unique way. The example given by St. Thomas is the recollection of the imaginary forms “gold” and “mountain,” and the making from them of the image of a “gold mountain,” something never experienced and existing only in the mind. Tolkien reappropriated the term fantasy, after similarly assigning this creative power as a use of the imagination, to indicate the human ability to give our new conceptions “the inner consistency of reality,” a derivative independence which is essential to their expression in artistic form and which also gives them an inherent newness and strangeness which Tolkien calls “Enchantment.” These faculties may be used, and these attributes seen in the most fundamental level of art as described above, as when someone’s athletic or persuasive abilities provoke a sense of wonder in us which inspires us to call their skills art, but they are most properly found in the making of new things outside ourselves. Art is the “operative link” by the imagination and this new thing, or subcreation.
Although art itself is uniquely human and intrinsic to our intellectual nature, the art of making new things is by definition a higher activity and is truly one of the noblest expressions of the human person. The reason for this is that subcreation, the result of both craft and fine art, is analogous, according to our intellectual nature, to the creativity of God. According to St. Thomas, God is subsistent Being and pure intellect, constituting his own wisdom, knowledge and goodness by knowing and loving himself; from the knowledge of all ways by which his infinite being may be participated, his intellect contains, in a sense, the exemplars of all possible things which he can create and give derivative being outside, but not wholly independent of, himself. As St. Thomas teaches, “God is the cause of things by His intellect and will, just as the craftsman is cause of the things made by his craft.” Thus, creativity is essential not only to human nature but to God who, even without having created anything, would know all that he can and will create, and so is Creator by the very fact of being himself. However, this is also the reason for Tolkien’s use of the term subcreation, since God, the source of all being, can create out of nothing, while our creations are only “sub” or beneath his own in derivation. Human creativity is, nevertheless, analogous to his, and properly applies, as it does in God, to our conception of new things in our mind prior to their external, physical expression, and so even humble crafts were acknowledged by the Scholastics to result in the intellectual and spiritual perfection of the craftsmen.
Human creativity is capable of making, through artifice or craft, new things which are done artistically, with excellence and quality for intended ends, but are still inferior to fine art. These include carpentry, masonry, and other crafts when they are used to make things that, while their own excellence is one goal in their making, are ultimately meant for some other use. According to the distinctions given by Aristotle and St. Thomas, this instrumentality of craft makes it essentially inferior, since those goods which are only done to achieve some other good are inferior to goods done for their own sake; while crafts are higher than things which are of entirely instrumental good, such as currency, and so can be said to have their own goodness too, particularly by their perfecting the intellect as art, they remain inferior by definition, since the end is the highest cause and thus the determiner of value. Fine art, on the other hand, is, in its authentic form, done for its own sake, as a good in itself, and so is the highest form of art. It is also most analogous to the creativity of God, who makes without any need in himself, being entirely subsistent and self-sufficient, but only for the good of Creation itself. Beauty, understood as a superabundance of goodness delighting the senses (both internal and external), is naturally one of the primary goals and qualifications of fine art, as the achievement of excellence to a supreme and evident degree, both in the creativity of God and in human subcreation, and as a love of the artist for their work.
The intellect, according to Aristotle and St. Thomas, is the highest faculty of man and that which distinguishes us as human. It is also what makes us most like God, and St. Thomas, by his Catholic faith, interprets the biblical teaching that humans are “made in the image and likeness… of God” (Gn 1:26-27 DRV) to consist in this analogous similitude between the human and divine intellects. Tolkien shared this view and connected it directly to our creativity, writing that “we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” By the very nature of the intellect, art, as a virtue perfecting the intellect, is not only one accidental or spurious aspect of human nature but is fundamental to the meaning of the human person. As we are made in the image of God, so we are inspired toward art; all people, even those who lack artistic skills, share in this inspiration, delighting in the participation of art and ultimately feeling dissatisfied without it. Art is thus a means by which we share in the creativity of God, and through artistic expressions, whether in their making or participation, we are able to know God more fully, using both our intellect and bodily senses. As Tolkien explains, through subcreation we “may actually assist in the effoliation and multiple enrichment of creation” and make a secondary world (while Creation is the primary world of God’s art) into which others may enter for their enrichment. Thus, creativity is essential to human nature both in our intellectual and social natures, providing both practical and higher goodness for us, and leading to a greater knowledge of God, which is our true source of happiness. From this it can be seen that art is indeed intrinsic to human nature.
 J.R.R. Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine Books, 1966), 68.
 Jacques Maritain, Art & Scholasticism (Tacoma, WA: Cluny Media, 2016), 9.
 Maritain, Art, 12.
 Maritain, Art, 21.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae, I, q. 78, a. 4, at New Advent, www.newadvent.org.
 ST, I, q. 78, a. 4.
 Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” 74.
 ST, I, q. 78, a. 4.
 Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” 68.
 Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” 73.
 Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” 68.
 ST, I, q. 45, a. 6.
 Maritain, Art, 21.
 ST I, q. 5, a. 6.
 Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” 75.
 Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” 89.
 Tolkien, “Tree and Leaf,” 73.