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.

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)

Elves: Nostalgic Progressives or “Bad Conservatives”?

Tolkien’s metaphysics of evil, part 27

The previous post suggested that Tolkien flecks his characterization of the Elves with an element of the bad kind of escapism he discusses in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” It should be said, however, that in the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth (“Debate of Finrod and Andreth,” Morgoth’s Ring), Tolkien allows Finrod to articulate a more balanced, considered Elvish perspective on the matter:

“Other creatures also in Middle-earth we [the Elves] love in their measure and kind: the beasts and birds who are our friends, the trees, and even the fair flowers that pass more swiftly than Men. Their passing we regret; but believe it to be a part of their nature, as much as are their shapes or their hues.” (Morgoth’s Ring 308)

Verlyn Flieger, in an excellent discussion of the necessity of change in Tolkien’s philosophy and fiction, indicates something of the complexity and even self-critical nature of Tolkien’s emphasis on this point. While Tolkien was himself an Elf of sorts, and his “psychological and emotional yearning was nostalgia for aspects of his world that had vanished or were vanishing in his lifetime, still, his philosophical and religious position was that change is necessary” (Splintered Light 170). Flieger also makes my earlier point about “evil” in this regard involving the desire for some good when she writes: “Desire to preserve a present good inevitably becomes desire to keep it from passing, but this leads to stagnation. The process of change is part of the design, and must continue if the design is to be fulfilled” (170). Finally, Peter Kreeft has also written perceptibly (if not slightly hyperbolically) on the problem of Elves and change, describing them as “bad conservatives: they want to embalm the present. Seeing the downward slant of the present, they try to preserve the past. They are not evil like Sauron, who always wants to sing ‘I Did It My Way’, but they are foolish because they sing ‘I Believe in Yesterday’” (The Philosophy of Tolkien: The Worldview Behind the Lord of the Rings, 80).