From Elvish preservation to Sauronic domination

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 31

I ended the previous post by suggesting that latent within the Elvish motive of preservation is a subliminal, Melkorish desire for the Flame Imperishable by which one the more perfectly bring reality into accord with the thoughts of one’s own intellect. This, of course, is to state matters rather strongly, for however misguided and defective it may be or become, the Elvish and Valaric “will to preservation” is, for Tolkien, not yet necessarily evil in itself, inasmuch as it still has the good of another in view. Their peculiar tendency towards preservationism notwithstanding, Tolkien says in one place that the Elvish race, taken as a whole and in contrast with Men, is “unfallen” (Morgoth’s Ring 334). We begin to see preservation corrode into full-fledged evil when it devolves further into domination, when the plan or program one has for the good of the other ceases to be a means to an end and becomes an end and good in itself, even at the eventual expense of the object the plan was originally intended to benefit. The foremost representative of this next stage of evil is Sauron, “the Enemy” who

in successive forms is always “naturally” concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines; but the problem: that this frightful evil can and does arise from an apparently good root, the desire to benefit the world and others—speedily and according to the benefactor’s own plans—is a recurrent motive. (Letters 146)

In another place, Tolkien writes of Sauron’s originally good intentions this way: he had “gone the way of all tyrants: beginning well, at least on the level that while desiring to order all things according to his own wisdom he still at first considered the (economic) well-being of other inhabitants of the Earth. But he went further than human tyrants in pride and the lust for domination, being in origin an immortal (angelic) spirit” (Letters 243). Similar to the Elvish motive of preservation, then, the Sauronic motive of domination has its origin in the desire for an otherwise good end, and like preservation, domination involves the desire to control other beings, to make their being more directly conformable to the desires of one’s own will. In this respect domination emerges as simply a more extreme form of coveting God’s own absolute unity of will and intellect that is his by virtue of his status as Creator.


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