Rational vs. Radical Evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 12

Although Aristotle’s distinction between per se and accidental causality enabled Thomas to answer the question of how evil may be caused by the good, Thomas’s solution came with its own set of difficulties, the chief of which, as we shall see, has an important application to the question of Tolkien’s theory of evil. The problem, in short, is one of reconciling Thomas’s claim that evil “has no direct cause, but only an accidental cause” (ST 1.49.1 ad 4) with the reality of malicious or “radical” evil—instances, that is, when evil actions would appear to be deliberately perpetrated by their agent for evil’s own sake. A classic example of such deliberate evil is Augustine’s famous story of the pear-theft recounted in his Confessions. Initially Augustine attempts to attribute his desire to steal and destroy the pears (he had no desire to eat them) to the influence of his friends, friendship and community being themselves good and therefore a possible source of action, even wrong action. Later on, however, Augustine puzzlingly suggests that in stealing the pears the evilness of the action itself was the cause: “I became evil for no reason. I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it… the self-destruction… my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself… I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake.”[1] Although Thomas refers to this very passage in his only work devoted exclusively to the subject of evil, De malo 3.12, the fact that Augustine’s extreme remarks appear, at least to the modern reader, to challenge directly the basic premise of his philosophy of action—namely that evil cannot be desired or pursued for its own sake—does not seem to have occurred to him.[2] Steel accordingly concludes his study by drawing a contrast between Thomas’s Socratic optimism on the one hand, which Steel sees as ultimately rationalizing and reducing all evil to a matter of mere “hamartia, to miss the mark, to fail in one’s purpose, to go wrong, to make a mistake, to err, a shortcoming, a defect, a privation,” and on the other hand Søren Kierkegaard’s arguably more biblical and (in this respect, at least) more Augustinian thesis that evil involves an inexplicable yet deliberate, knowing intention and “positive choice” to do evil for evil’s own sake.[3] (On this, see Lee Oser’s related opposition between Aquinas’s “orthodox Augustinian teaching that positive evil does not exist” and Tolkien’s allegedly Kierkegaardian “strong intuition of positive evil, verging on dualism” [Oser, The Return of Christian Humanism, 118].)

The application of this antithesis to Tolkien’s portrayal of evil starts to come into focus in a related contrast recently drawn by Eastern Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart. Against what he perceives to be the optimistic, totalizing, evil-is-necessary-for-the-greater-good theodicies common to both Reformed Protestant theology (e.g., Calvin) and Enlightenment rationalist philosophy (e.g., Leibniz), Hart posits what he finds in the New Testament to be “a kind of ‘provisional’ cosmic dualism,” according to which this “present evil world” is a realm

ruled by spiritual and terrestrial ‘thrones, dominions, principalities, and powers’ (Col. 1:16; cf. 1 Cor. 2:8; Eph. 1:21; 3:10), by ‘the elements (stoicheia) of the world’ (Gal. 4:3), and by ‘the prince of the power of the air’ (Eph. 2:2), who—while they cannot ultimately separate us from God’s love (Rom. 8:38)—nevertheless contend against us…[4]

In some ways this is basically the two positions Shippey finds juxtaposed and ultimately unreconciled in Tolkien’s fiction: an optimistic monism reducing all evil to a form of relative non-being existing within an all-encompassing cosmic order on the one hand, and a dualism granting evil its own alien, irreducible ontological status on the other (though Hart sees this dualism as only “provisional” and therefore temporary and not absolute, a qualification that, as we shall see, likewise has important applications for understanding Tolkien). (John Seland, for example, discovers the same kind of “provisional dualism” of the New Testament discussed by Hart in both Dante and Tolkien: “Both of them also take with utmost seriousness the ideas expressed in Ephesians (6:12), 1 Peter 5:8, and the Book of Revelation (12:1-17) that evil is a cosmic power roaming the world to devour and destroy what is good. However, Tolkien stresses the power of this force much more than Dante…”[5]) While this tension is indeed present within Tolkien’s writings, as stated the problem fails to appreciate fully what I will argue to be Tolkien’s own profound scholastic subtlety in exploiting the conceptual possibilities within an otherwise Thomistic metaphysics of creation and evil to overcome this antithesis in an even more original synthesis.


[1] Augustine, Confessions 2.9, trans. Chadwick (emphasis added).

[2] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 268.

[3] Steel, “Does Evil Have a Cause?” 267-73.

[4] Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? 62-5. Oddly, Hart seems to view his own critique of the evil-as-necessary-for-the-greater-good defense as fully in line with the thought of St. Thomas, despite both what we have just seen of Thomas’s own Socratic rationalism and what I will show in later post to be Thomas’s own justification of evil for the sake of the greater good. I also have doubts about how successful Hart himself is in avoiding altogether this traditional kind of theodicy, as Hart no less seems to “legitimize” a place for evil in the world when he says, for example, that “one is confronted with only this bare choice: either one embraces the mystery of created freedom and accepts that the union of free spiritual creatures with the God of love is a thing so wonderful that the power of creation to enslave itself to death must be permitted by God; or one judges that not even such rational freedom is worth the risk of a cosmic fall and the terrible injustice of the consequences that follow from it.” Ibid., 69.

[5]  Seland, “Dante and Tolkien: Their Ideas about Evil,” 150.

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