Tolkien on evil: the Platonic context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 2

“In my story,” Tolkien unequivocally writes in one letter, “I do not deal in Absolute Evil. I do not think there is such a thing, since that is Zero. I do not think that at any rate any ‘rational being’ is wholly evil” (Letters243). (Perhaps the closest Tolkien comes in his fiction per se to making this kind of claim is Elrond’s statement at the Great Council, in regard to Sauron, that “nothing is evil in the beginning” [FOTR 281].) Similarly, in his letter to Peter Hastings, Tolkien contradicts the latter’s claim that anything Sauron made “could not have a tendency to good, even a very small one,” countering instead that in the Creator’s “accepting or tolerating [Sauron’s] making—necessary to their actual existence—even Orcs would become part of the World, which is God’s and ultimately good” (Letters 195). In passages such as these, Tolkien clearly aligns himself with the classic Augustinian tradition according to which evil “exists” as a privation of being and consequently as a non-entity in and of itself. The Augustinian equation of evil with non-being has its roots in the thought of Plato, whose views on the subject were deeply ambiguous. In the Republic, for example, Socrates makes the claim that “the good is not the cause of everything; rather it is the cause of the things that are in a good way, while it is not responsible for the bad things” (Republic 379b, trans. Bloom), and in the Gorgias Plato almost seems to suggest that evil exists in its own right when he says that things can be either good, bad, or neutral (Gorgias 468c). Part of the difficulty in Plato’s theory of evil, as Leo J. Elders points out, is that while evil may be a privation of the good, “in the Platonic tradition privation is seen as something subsistent and is identified with matter,” though scholars have debated as to whether matter or the soul for Plato is the true cause of evil (The Metaphysics of Being of St. Thomas Aquinas in a Historical Perspective, 124). According to Carlos Steel, for example, although Plato’s explanation of evil has dualistic elements, his account is ultimately psychological, yet he leaves unresolved the problem which would occupy later Christian thinkers such as Augustine and Aquinas, namely how it is that an individual soul which (according to Socrates and Plato) only ever intends good and not evil should nevertheless commit evil out of ignorance or stupidity (Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause? Augustine’s Perplexity and Thomas’ Answer,” 252-4).


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