Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 1

Another topic central to the Tolkien’s fiction and St. Thomas’s philosophy of being is the topic of evil. Indeed, part of what gives evil both its prominent place and powerful plausibility in Tolkien’s work is not only his interest in such themes as creation, sub-creation, angelic governance, love of otherness, mortality, free will, and so forth, but his related concern to examine the myriad ways in which the motives behind these themes may become corrupted. Despite the importance of the subject in his writings, however, the exact nature of Tolkien’s representation of evil has been the subject of some dispute and not precisely understood. From the time of its first publication in the mid-1950s, many critics have faulted The Lord of the Rings’s portrayal of the conflict between good and evil as overly simplistic and even dangerously naïve, while other readers have found in Tolkien’s representation of evil plenty of food for thoughtful reflection and deserving of comparison with the ideas of such prominent recent thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, René Girard, and Michel Foucault.[1] Perhaps the most important philosophical debate concerning Tolkien’s depiction of evil, however, centers on his relationship not to recent but to very ancient theories of evil. Of particular note is the evident Christian Neoplatonism readers have found Tolkien to share with such eminent thinkers as St. Augustine, Boethius, and St. Thomas, according to whom everything is good to the extent that it exists, so that evil, as the privation of the good, is also the privation of being. On the other hand, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has argued that Tolkien’s philosophy of evil, as a consequence of his personal effort to come to grips with uniquely modern forms of evil, especially the threats of modern fascism and industrialized warfare, syncretistically combines Neoplatonic monism with its historically contrary position of Manichaean dualism, according to which evil is not a mere absence of being, but is an independently existing force in its own right.

In the series of posts to follow, it is chiefly with reference to these two positions that I propose to compare the respective ponerologies (the branch of theology dealing with evil, from the Greek word poneros, meaning evil) of Tolkien and St. Thomas. As I have argued before, Tolkien’s view of being (of which evil is a privation) is no generic metaphysics, but holds much in common with the specifically Christian and creational metaphysics developed by St. Thomas, according to whom being is not some necessary, impersonal, and highly mediated emanative surplus (as per classical and later Islamic Neoplatonism), but a voluntary gift immediately bestowed by an ever-personal God. As I hope to show, it is thisunique concept of being that, first, provides the logical structure or coherence to what I argue is for Tolkien a kind of hierarchy of evil, and second (and more paradoxically), which helps at the same time to underwrite rather than contradict the otherwise extreme power and seeming Manichaean independence of evil in Tolkien’s mythology, while at the same time allowing Tolkien to reduce this same evil to nothing.

[1] As Tolkien commented in 1954 on the response of some readers to The Lord of the Rings, “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps…” (L 197). On Tolkien and Foucault, see Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. On Tolkien and Levinas, see Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” and on Tolkien and Girard, see Head, “Imitative Desire in Tolkien’s Mythology: A Girardian Perspective,” both of which are discussed below. On Tolkien and Heidegger, see Malpas, “Home,” which considers Tolkien in light of Heidegger’s technology-essay and his famous lectures on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. For comparisons of Tolkien and Nietzsche, see Blount, “Überhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power” and Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism.”

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4 thoughts on “Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil

  1. “many critics have faulted The Lord of the Rings’s portrayal of the conflict between good and evil as overly simplistic and even dangerously naïve”

    Indeed they do – but they are just plain wrong!

    Tolkien’s portrayal of evil is simply *real* – all the good characters, without any exception (except perhaps Tom Bombadil, who is not really the same kind of being) display evil traits and temptations – just as in real life.

    And the evil characters of which we know anything also have good motivations mixed-in (the orcs clearly have an ethical code although are very readily deflected from it into short-term selfishness, Saruman was once good and still seeks ‘order’, Sauron was once beautiful, supremely skilled and charming enough to fool the Noldor and is not as wholly nihilistic as Morgoth had been, Gollum of course very nearly repents – and is probably stopped from doing so by perhaps the most naturally good character – Sam etc.

    So the criticism – while frequently made – is just about as wrong as it is possible to be!

    • Very true, and it occurs to me that, ironically, these same critics in some ways seem to commit the very crime they accuse Tolkien of, which is an unsympathetic and over-simplistic understanding of evil, in this case, of the evil portrayed within Tolkien’s fictional world. They say that good and evil is complex, and that Tolkien makes it simple, when Tolkien portrays evil in its complexity, and they call it simple.

  2. Thoughts:

    Similar to the medivial literature to which Tolkien’s world of “The Lord of the Rings” is ceaselessly compared to, the thematic motif of a thirst for power dominates the plot.

    Tolkien uses Sauron’s ring as an embodiment of the notion that “power corrupts.”

    Where can we see this lineage in literature that predates Tolkien?

    1. Plato’s Ring of Gyges … Examples?

    2. Obvious, but the Volsunga Saga

    3. Wagner

    Other thoughts? Elaborations?

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