Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Philosophy of Tolkien by Peter J. Kreeft

A Review

From the back of the book:

The popular and prolific philosopher and author Peter Kreeft presents what he calls a "second adventure of discovery".  While nothing can equal, or replace, the adventure in reading Tolkien's masterwork, The Lord of the Rings, Kreeft says that the journey into the underlying philosophy of Tolkien, or his "world-view", can be another exhilarating adventure.
Thus, Kreeft takes the reader on a voyage of discovery into the philosophical bones of Middle earth.  Like a good concordance, this book organizes the philosophical themes in The Lord of the Rings into 50 categories, accompanied by over 1,000 references to the text.
Since many of the great questions of philosophy are included in the 50-theme outline, this book can also be read as an engaging introduction to philosophy.  For each of the philosophical topics in The Lord of the Rings, Kreeft presents four tools by which they can be understood: an explanation of a key question; a key quotation showing Tolkien's answer; quotes from other writings of Tolkien to clarify the theme; and quotes from his close friend C.S. Lewis, which state the same philosophical points directly.

I got this book for Christmas and forced myself to put it off for awhile so I could reread LOTR...let me just say: the wait was worth it.

Below is an outline of the book and what philosophical themes are included:

  • Introduction
  • Metaphysics
    • How big is reality?
    • Is the supernatural real?
    • Are Platonic Ideas real?
  • Philosophical Theology
    • Does God exist?
    • Is life subject to divine providence?
    • Are we both fated and free?
    • Can we relate to God by "religion"?
  • Angelology
    • Are angels real?
    • Do we have guardian angels?
    • Could there be creatures between men and angels, such as Elves?
  • Cosmology
    • Is nature really beautiful?
    • Do things have personalities?
    • Is there real magic?
  • Anthropology
    • Is death good or bad?
    • Is romance more than thrilling sex?
    • Why do humans have identity crises?
    • What do we most deeply desire?
  • Epistemology
    • Is knowledge always good?
    • Is intuition a form of knowledge?
    • Is faith (trust) wisdom or ignorance?
    • What is truth?
  • Philosophy of History
    • Is history a story?
    • Is the past (tradition) a prison or a lighthouse?
    • Is history predictable?
    • Is there devolution as well as evolution?
    • Is human life a tragedy or a comedy?
  • Aesthetics
    • Why do we no longer love glory or splendor?
    • Is beauty always good?
  • Philosophy of Language
    • How can words be alive?
    • The metaphysics of words: Can words have real power?
    • Are there right and wrong words?
    • Is there an original, universal, natural language?
    • Why is music so powerful?
  • Political Philosophy
    • Is small beautiful?
    • Can war be noble?
  • Ethics: The War of Good and Evil
    • Is evil real?
    • How powerful is evil?
    • How weak is evil?
    • How does evil work?
  • Ethics: The "Hard Virtues"
    • Do principles or consequences make an act good?
    • Why must we be heroes?
    • Can one go on without hope?
    • Is authority oppressive and obedience demeaning?
    • Are promises sacred?
  • Ethics: The "Soft" Virtues
    • What is the power of friendship?
    • Is humility humiliating?
    • What should you give away?
    • Does mercy trump justice?
    • Is charity a waste?
  • Conclusion
    • Can any one man incarnate every truth and virtue?
  • Bibliography
  • Appendix: A Concordance
Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College and one of the most well-known Catholic authors today.  He has more than 30 best selling books.

He starts off by acknowledging that Tolkien was not a philosopher.  He also points out--very illustratively that:  "This book is not like surfing, but like oceanography."  It's not meant to supplant The Lord of the Rings, but to examine it.  He takes a look at the relationship between literature and philosophy next: "Because human thought is binocular, abstract philosophy and concrete literature naturally reinforce each other's vision.  Philosophy makes literature clear, literature makes philosophy real.  Philosophy shows essences, literature shows existence.  Philosophy shows meaning, literature shows life."

He does a good job working his way through each of the above questions and citing sources.  I had to slow down a bit to read this book--I'm used to reading through things very quickly, but this book really requires a thoughtful and slow read through; it is very dense and packed with information and quotable moments.

One of those moments came right away in the forward and I love the connection he draws there:  "'I will take the Ring, though I do not know the way' (LOTR, pg. 264).  It was a Marian moment. St. Luke showed us the same thing at the Annunciation.  "Mary's mission was strikingly similar to Frodo's: 'Let it be to me according to your word.' (Lk. 1:38)"

That's just a glimpse of the amazing work of Peter Kreeft, and I would encourage you to check out this book for yourself.


  1. Sounds like a great book! Never heard of that author before...
    I would just love to write books like that for a living, wouldn't you? Thanks for sharing! I guess it's time for some book hunting! :D

    1. Oh, Peter Kreeft is amazing! He's one of the best Catholic apologists of our time--you should really read some of his work! Yes, it would be awesome to write books for a living! I've always wanted to be a professor who publishes books on the side, both of academic work and fiction--huh, kind of like Tolkien...!

  2. That sounds really interesting. I've read a couple books by Peter Kreeft before but didn't realize that he was a Tolkien fan or a professor or actually anything else about him. I did really like the books he wrote though.

    1. It was great--what other books by Peter Kreeft have you read? This is the only one I've ever had.

    2. The Best Things in Life and The Unaborted Socrates. It's been a few years but I really enjoyed the apologetics and witty banter. :)

    3. Ooh, those sound interesting. I'll add them to my mile-long TBR list :)

  3. I read this book a while ago, so my memory isn't too clear. However, I do remember liking it, and I think Kreeft writes great books in general. Definitely worth checking out.

    1. I agree--he is definitely a gifted author. Thanks for commenting!