Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 37
In this series of posts I have been examining Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, the discussion surrounding which has been greatly influenced by Tom Shippey’s provocative and challenging claim that Tolkien’s fiction does not in fact contain a consistent or coherent presentation of evil, but involves rather a “running ambivalence,” tension, or contradiction between two ancient and antagonistic accounts of evil: the Augustinian privation theory of evil on the one hand, according to which everything that exists is good to the extent that it exists, meaning that evil is only an absence, lack, negation, and corruption of that existing good; and on the other hand, the Manichaean doctrine (once espoused by Augustine himself but later abandoned as he turned first to the Platonists and later to Christianity) that evil is a real force, presence, and power in its own right, equal to and equipotent with the good with which it is eternally at war. My purpose, by contrast, in this series of posts has been to show that Tolkien’s literary representation of evil is actually more coherent than Shippey allows, but that, contrary perhaps to some of Shippey’s critics, it is a coherence that is achieved not through an outright rejection of Manichaeism, but (paradoxically) through the deliberate inclusion of and even dalliance with Manichaean elements within his fiction. As I hope to show, Tolkien’s is not an Augustinianism in the face of Manichaeism (an opposition that itself inconsistently implies a kind of Manichaean dualism–Manichaeism as Augustinianism’s “outside,” its intractable, unassimilatable “other”), but an Augustinianism that at some level self-consciously recognizes and exposes the “falsehood” and “evil” of Manichaeism as itself a kind of “privation”–but for that reason also a (distorted) preservation and presupposition of–Augustinian truth.
It should be said, however, that part of Tolkien’s subtle and subversive sublation of Manichaeism is his overt representation of it as evil within his fiction. Thus, in the last post we considered some of the dualistic elements implicit in Sauron’s Ring. Shippey himself takes the Ring’s characterization as something inherently evil and incapable of any proper use as evidence of Tolkien-as-author’s more Manichaean moments, a point I hope to come back to later. Yet as we saw previously, perhaps more significant than the Manichaean metaphysics the Ring allegedly and unwittingly embodies is the Manichaean reality the Ring deliberately and malevolently seeks to enact, particularly by suppressing its wearer’s materiality and physicality by rendering him invisible. It is not Tolkien, in other words, but Sauron who is the Manichee. Consistent with this is the fact that, as Birzer points out, it is something like a Manichaean Gnosticism that Sauron converts the Númenorians to in their worship of Morgoth as the prince of darkness. More significant still is what we learn in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, namely that it was just this seduction into a Manichaean deification of darkness that comprised the Original Sin of Men as a whole. As Andreth reports to Finrod, “still many Men perceive the world only as a war between Light and Dark equipotent. But you will say: nay, that is Manwë and Melkor; Eru is above them…” (Morgoth’s Ring 321). The Elves are the Augustinians, and corrupted Men are the Manichees.
Thus, it would seem that Shippey is more correct than he realizes when he discovers a certain Manichaeism in Tolkien’s representation of evil, for it is not an implicit but an explicit Manichaeism that Tolkien embodies in his fiction. Yet surely it weighs heavily against Shippey’s claim that Tolkien’s own views on evil were Manichaean when the principal representatives of the Manichaean outlook within his fiction are themselves the greatest agents of evil, as well as the ones standing to gain the most from the proliferation of its doctrine. Instead, and as we shall see more fully later, Tolkien’s purpose seems rather to have been to illustrate the point John Milbank makes in his account of the privation theory of St. Thomas and Augustine: “For evil to be at all, it must still deploy and invoke some good, yet it would like to forget this: evil as positive is evil’s own fondest illusion” (Milbank, “Evil: Darkness and Silence,” in Being Reconciled, 22). And so, while Tolkien was indeed expressly interested in the question of Manichaeism, what we see here is that much of his concern seems to have been the genealogical, etiological, psychological, and ultimately critical one of giving to Manichaeism a mythic and even demonic origin behind its teaching. If so, moreover, it’s possible to see here Tolkien as undertaking a reversal and subversion of what Peter Candler observes to have been Nietzsche’s own “implicit suggestion” in Thus Spake Zarathustra, namely that “Judaism and Christianity are themselves corruptions of an originally pure [pre-Christian and proto-Gnostic] Zoroastrianism which can be redeemed by more forcefully saying ‘yes’ to that particular past, while negating its false images…” (Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism,” 27). As we will see later, then, Tolkien was deeply interested, as Shippey rightly observes, in the seeming independence and autonomy of evil recognized by the Manichees, yet in a way that (as I shall argue) led him to give this seeming independence and autonomy of evil a very different and arguably even more powerful source than what ancient Manichaeism was able to account for.