Tolkien on evil: the Manichean context

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 4

As has been noted, despite certain dualistic elements, the tendency in Neoplatonism was to reduce as much as possible the ontological status of evil to that of a mere privation of being or existence. Moving in the near opposite direction to this impetus, on the other hand, was Plotinus’s Persian contemporary Mani, who founded in the middle of the third century the Gnostic religion which came to bear his name. In contrast to both Neoplatonism and the Judeo-Christian monotheism its founder was brought up under, Manichaeism posited a radical dualism according to which good and evil were two equal and equipotent forces in the universe at war with each other:

To explain how the intermingling of good and evil took place before the creation of mankind, Mani developed an elaborate and polytheistic cosmogonic myth of a primeval invasion of the Kingdom of Light by the forces of Darkness. The former is ruled over by the Father of Greatness who is the epitome of all that is good, beautiful and honourable and his realm is completely insulated from the horrors of war and suffering… The latter is the dominion of the Prince of Darkness, who is depicted as a multiform monster and who infernal kingdom is characterized by concupiscence and strife. As the Kingdom of Light is not equipped for war, not even for its own self-defence, its ruler has to evoke other deities to fulfill this unaccustomed role. (Lieu, “Christianity and Manichaeism,” 282-3)

In the origin myth of Manichaeism, accordingly, the physical cosmos is at once the product and principal site of this cosmic strife between the Kingdoms of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, a conflict in which Light has been partially imprisoned by Matter in the physical universe but may become freed by those who, illumined by Mani’s gnosis, practice virtue and avoid those actions which contribute to Evil’s dominion over the Light (284).

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