Hegel, Marx, and Sauron’s Ring

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 41

I have been examining Tolkien’s characterization of domination in terms of the attempted reduction or assimilation, by means of Magic or Machinery, of the being of others to the being of oneself. As Tolkien’s stories also aim to illustrate, and as a number of his commentators have noted, one of the great ironies of modern industrialization, technology, and its related consumerism is the way in which they have rendered human beings so helplessly dependent upon the very things that were supposed to set them free. This is certainly the case with Sauron, the objectification of whose power in the One Ring makes him simultaneously able to conquer Middle-earth and that much more vulnerable to eventual defeat. As Tolkien puts it:

The Ring of Sauron is only one of the various mythical treatments of the placing of one’s life, or power, in some external object, which is thus exposed to capture or destruction with disastrous results to oneself. If I were to “philosophize” this myth, or at least the Ring of Sauron, I should say it was a mythical way of representing the truth that potency (or perhaps rather potentiality) if it is to be exercised, and produce results, has to be externalized and so as it were passes, to a greater or less degree, out of one’s direct control. A man who wishes to exert “power” must have subjects, who are not himself. But he then depends on them. (Letters 279)

Tolkien’s reasoning here calls to mind Hegel’s famous master-slave dialectic, according to which it is the master who, in his dependence upon the slave, is in fact the slave to the slave. As Kreeft observes, if today we do not have slaves it is only

because we have substitutes for them: machines. The Industrial Revolution made slavery inefficient and unnecessary. But our addiction is the same whether the slaves are made of flesh, metal, or plastic. We have done exactly what Sauron did in forging the Ring. We have put our power into things in order to increase our power. And the result is, as everyone knows but no one admits, that we are now weak little wimps, Shelob’s slaves, unable to survive a blow to the great spider of our technological network. We tremble before a nationwide electrical blackout or a global computer virus… In our drive for power we have deceived ourselves into thinking that we have become more powerful when all the time we have been becoming less. We are miserable little Nietzsches dreaming we are supermen. For in gaining the world we have lost our selves. (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 187-8; for a similar analysis, see Caldecott, The Power of the Ring, 43-5)

Approaching Tolkien’s Ring from a related direction, Alison Milbank has compared Tolkien’s insight into the estrangement between agent and artifact with Karl Marx’s critique of capitalism (based in its turn on Hegel’s master-slave analysis). According to Marx, capitalist economies alienate the worker from his labor by treating the commodities he produces as having an independent life or existence of their own (Milbank, “‘My Precious’: Tolkien’s Fetishized Ring,” 36-7), a relationship which, at any rate, certainly obtains between Sauron and his Ring wherein we see the Manichaean aspirations of evil as the will-to-dominate seeking to make itself “objective” and so independent.

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Denethor’s Hegelianism

Yesterday I posted on Denethor’s Machiavellianism. He is also Hegelian (not coincidentally: the notion of conflict or strife lies at the heart of both Machiavelli’s and Hegel’s thought), describing (admiringly) Sauron’s policies this way: “He will not come save only to triumph over me when all is won. He uses others as his weapons. So do all great lords, if they are wise, Master Halfling. Or why should I sit here in my tower and think, and watch, and wait, spending even my sons? For I can still wield a brand.”  Compare this instrumental outlook to Hegel’s characterization of the “world-historical individual”:

“It is not the universal Idea which involves itself in antithesis and struggle, exposing itself to danger; it remains in the background and is preserved against attack or injury. This may be called the Cunning of Reason, that it allows the passions to work for it, while what it brings into existence suffers loss and injury… Compared to the universal, the particular is for the most part too slight in importance: individuals are surrendered and sacrificed. The Idea pays the ransom of existence and transience—not out of its own pocket, but with the passions of individuals.” (Introduction to the Philosophy of History, 35)