More on the metaphysics of invisibility

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 35

In the previous post I made the point that the Ring, by making its wearer invisible to all others while they remain visible to him, effectively makes the being of others an extension of the wearer’s own self. In a related remark Stratford Caldecott has observed that the Ring’s

gift of invisibility symbolizes this ability to destroy all natural human relationships and identity, to become untouchable by light. The person who places himself within the golden circle of the Ring seeks not to be seen, and thereby to have power over others… Its circular shape is an image of the will closed in upon itself. Its empty center suggests the void into which we thrust ourselves by using the Ring. Once there, unseen by others, we are cut off from human contact, removed from the reach of friendship or companionship, anonymous and isolated… In that world of evil there is no room for two wills: the wearer is either absorbed and destroyed, or he defeats Sauron and becomes another Dark Lord himself. (Caldecott, The Power of the Ring: The Spiritual Vision Behind “The Lord of the Rings,” 57-8)

Peter Kreeft gives a slightly more theological analysis of the problem of invisibility:

Invisibility also means isolation. God alone can endure this (and only because He is a Trinity of persons, a society in Himself). He is God alone; there is no other. Yet He is other in Himself and never alone. God is a community. That is why He needs no community, as we do. The Ring cuts us off from community, and contact. We are alone with the Eye. There is no room for an Other in the One Ring. This is why the Ring surrounds emptiness. If We-ness, or Relationship, or Love, or Trinity is the name of ultimate reality, then the Ring makes us unreal by isolating us. It plunges us into its own emptiness, like a Black Hole. Its circular shape is an image of that emptiness: it encloses nothingness with its all-encompassing circle of power. (Kreeft, The Philosophy of Tolkien, 181)

Finally, Jane Chance has approached the visibility-invisibility issue raised by Tolkien in light of Michel Foucault’s discussion of Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon,

a ring-shaped building enclosing a tower that oversees cells that might contain a convict—or a lunatic, a patient, a worker, or a student. It is the same model used by Tolkien to locate the nature of Sauron’s power… Visibility—the searching Eye of Sauron—is necessary to ensure access to all individuals; it is this same visibility that insists on a rigorous and universal power. (Chance, “The Lord of the Rings”: The Mythology of Power, 21)

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Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 1

Another topic central to the Tolkien’s fiction and St. Thomas’s philosophy of being is the topic of evil. Indeed, part of what gives evil both its prominent place and powerful plausibility in Tolkien’s work is not only his interest in such themes as creation, sub-creation, angelic governance, love of otherness, mortality, free will, and so forth, but his related concern to examine the myriad ways in which the motives behind these themes may become corrupted. Despite the importance of the subject in his writings, however, the exact nature of Tolkien’s representation of evil has been the subject of some dispute and not precisely understood. From the time of its first publication in the mid-1950s, many critics have faulted The Lord of the Rings’s portrayal of the conflict between good and evil as overly simplistic and even dangerously naïve, while other readers have found in Tolkien’s representation of evil plenty of food for thoughtful reflection and deserving of comparison with the ideas of such prominent recent thinkers as Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Emmanuel Levinas, René Girard, and Michel Foucault.[1] Perhaps the most important philosophical debate concerning Tolkien’s depiction of evil, however, centers on his relationship not to recent but to very ancient theories of evil. Of particular note is the evident Christian Neoplatonism readers have found Tolkien to share with such eminent thinkers as St. Augustine, Boethius, and St. Thomas, according to whom everything is good to the extent that it exists, so that evil, as the privation of the good, is also the privation of being. On the other hand, Tolkien scholar Tom Shippey has argued that Tolkien’s philosophy of evil, as a consequence of his personal effort to come to grips with uniquely modern forms of evil, especially the threats of modern fascism and industrialized warfare, syncretistically combines Neoplatonic monism with its historically contrary position of Manichaean dualism, according to which evil is not a mere absence of being, but is an independently existing force in its own right.

In the series of posts to follow, it is chiefly with reference to these two positions that I propose to compare the respective ponerologies (the branch of theology dealing with evil, from the Greek word poneros, meaning evil) of Tolkien and St. Thomas. As I have argued before, Tolkien’s view of being (of which evil is a privation) is no generic metaphysics, but holds much in common with the specifically Christian and creational metaphysics developed by St. Thomas, according to whom being is not some necessary, impersonal, and highly mediated emanative surplus (as per classical and later Islamic Neoplatonism), but a voluntary gift immediately bestowed by an ever-personal God. As I hope to show, it is thisunique concept of being that, first, provides the logical structure or coherence to what I argue is for Tolkien a kind of hierarchy of evil, and second (and more paradoxically), which helps at the same time to underwrite rather than contradict the otherwise extreme power and seeming Manichaean independence of evil in Tolkien’s mythology, while at the same time allowing Tolkien to reduce this same evil to nothing.

[1] As Tolkien commented in 1954 on the response of some readers to The Lord of the Rings, “Some reviewers have called the whole thing simple-minded, just a plain fight between Good and Evil, with all the good just good, and the bad just bad. Pardonable, perhaps…” (L 197). On Tolkien and Foucault, see Chance, The Lord of the Rings: The Mythology of Power. On Tolkien and Levinas, see Eaglestone, “Invisibility,” and on Tolkien and Girard, see Head, “Imitative Desire in Tolkien’s Mythology: A Girardian Perspective,” both of which are discussed below. On Tolkien and Heidegger, see Malpas, “Home,” which considers Tolkien in light of Heidegger’s technology-essay and his famous lectures on the poetry of Friedrich Hölderlin. For comparisons of Tolkien and Nietzsche, see Blount, “Überhobbits: Tolkien, Nietzsche, and the Will to Power” and Candler, “Tolkien or Nietzsche, Philology and Nihilism.”