Friday, April 29, 2011

All is Nothing: the Paradox of the Complete

There is a theme which I've noticed often underlying our discussions recently. It pervades the legendarium and, as it is "applicable", real life. This is the idea that the complete, or the perfect, is not achievable in the earthly world, and in fact, if one tries to achieve it, he is likely to lose much more than he stood to gain. Inversely, those people will be happiest who aim high but are satisfied with a proper amount of earthly perfection.

The obvious example, of course, and the one we discussed most in class, is that of the Numenoreans. They were given almost an earthly paradise by the Valar, but they tried to make this earthly paradise complete by gaining immortality; of course, we all know how that worked out for them.

This example's converse might be taken to be the Shire. This land, too, has natural beauty, and its people (usually) live in ease. However, they (unlike the Numenoreans) are content with their simple life, not seeking great wealth or immortality, and thus they are able to maintain it instead of falling into ruin.

Then there is Sauron, who wishes to conquer the entirety of Middle-earth (at least) and become the absolute tyrant of everywhere he can get his hands...er, Eye...on. Like the Numenoreans, he looks like he's getting quite close to his goal when he is thrown down and his power broken utterly.

Juxtaposed with this, of course, we have the example of Aragorn. He did great deeds, won back his kingdom, and lived a long life, but he did not seek to conquer more lands, and he chose his time of death when he was old and Eldarion was ready for the kingship, not sticking it out to the bitter end.

Now, what are we to make of this rule of Tolkien's world? Surely it is related to what we discussed in class about how something (or, to be specific, a created thing) could not exist entirely with no possibility for its opposite, such as how Light could not exist without the possibility of not-Light. It is not such a stretch to extend this to say that verygood-Numenor could not exist without the possibility of notsogood-Numenor; that is, a Numenor perfect on Earth with no faults could not exist.

And now we can begin to see the deep Christian foundations of Tolkien's literary philosophy. This "paradox of the complete" is straight out of Christian scripture and theology. The builders of the Tower of Babel, for example, strove to rival God, and were thereupon cursed with confusing languages. Even the problem of free will, which may seem a bit different, is actually closely related; for, were any person to have a will which is all good, then would he have no thought for evil, and his will would hardly be free at all.

The common thread here is simply this: that earthly perfection is unattainable, and, in fact, to attempt it is wrong. For God is the only perfect being, and to try to attain perfection without His guidance, as the Numenoreans did, is evil. "In you all things are finite...in the sense that you hold all things in your hand", as says Augustine*, and so we must accept that and not try to attain power through perverted means as did the Numenoreans and Sauron.

--Luke Bretscher

*Confessions VII.xv

10 comments:

  1. It feels to me like you have several thoughts tangled together here: the problem of perfection, the co-existence of "x" and "not-x," and the perverted effort to go against one's nature and/or exert dominion over others. I'm not sure that they interrelate in quite the way that you suggest. "Not-x" is not an issue of perfection or completeness, but simply of otherness--Being makes possible not-Being; Light, Darkness; this story, all the stories that it isn't. And seeking perfection of itself is not a perversion unless (in Tolkien's argument) you then try to exert dominion over that which you have created. It can be a disappointment not to be able to fulfill the vision of one's heart, but it is a perversion only if one tries to force it to be something that it is not. Does this make sense?

    RLFB

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  2. I understand what you're saying, but I'm actually trying to link those ideas. Maybe I'm wrong about how they go together, but I'll try to explain.

    Basically, we have, as you say, "the problem of perfection" and "the co-existence of 'x' and 'not-x'". I'm saying that these are both manifestations of the property that perfection is only to be found in divine matters.

    The problem of perfection is that when mortals attempt to achieve perfection without modeling it after the ultimate divine good, their "perfection" will necessarily be perverted. The world is necessarily imperfect, and the things of the world are themselves imperfect except in the ways they reflect the divine.

    And the reason the world is imperfect is the co-existence of 'x' and 'not-x'. Such differentiation is necessary for us to have free will, and a consequence of that is, as I have said, the problem of perfection.

    Does that make sense?

    --Luke Bretscher

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  3. The only problem I have with your thesis is that it seems to run contrary to the emphasis within Tolkien's world on creation--how necessary it is, how intrinsic it seems to human existence. His characters are often creators: writers like Bilbo, Frodo and Sam, jewelers like Feanor, shipwrights like most of the Numenoreans, and all elves it can be argued are primarily artists. I think this inheritance can be traced back to the Valar, who are so inspired by the beauty of the Ainulindalë that they feel they –must- create. The first creation, that first example of beauty, drives the people of Middle-earth so thoroughly that the desire to recreate it shapes who they are.

    So is it blasphemous and virtuous to try and imitate God, if it is so natural and intrinsic? Is striving for perfection allowed so long as it is only done with the intention of imitating creation—not God himself? Or is it only when the desire to create comes from the desire to have the power over it which God does? When does the unattainability of perfection stop us from our desire to achieve it?

    ~Sarah Gregory

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  4. I think where this lost me is in the comparison between Sauron and Aragorn. While it is true that Sauron sought to control all of Middle Earth and Aragorn did not, I don't think that the acquisition of lands or creation of kingdoms is the key point in which they differ.

    Like we talked about in class on Monday, the evil of the Ring, and Sauron, lies in the fact that they impose their wills over others, and rob others of their free will. Conquering nations is certainly a visible display of this sort of domination, but I think you're focusing more on this physical fact than what underlies it. Great men in Middle Earth made kingdoms (and Aragorn did reincorporate previously lost parts of Arnor into his realm) but he did so without any malicious domination.

    It is important that Rohan and the Shire remain independent, and to have conquered them would have been an evil act, but not, as I think you’re arguing, because the creation of physical perfection is impossible and leads to downfall. Rather, the domination of other wills is evil.

    Along these lines, I think Sarah is right in pointing out that creation is a virtuous task in Middle Earth, and that those you have pointed out as sinful (Sauron, the Numenoreans) at the time of their downfall do not create. Rather, the Numenoreans live on isle made for them, and at the height of their sin are worshipping the wrong god through acts of destruction, and Sauron’s act of creation (as the Ring is a created thing) is made entirely for evil purposes, and to regain it Sauron will raze Middle Earth, if he must.

    -Caroline Crouch

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  5. Sarah, I agree with you about the importance that Tolkien places on creation by mortals. I would say that it is not blasphemous to create, or rather sub-create, in imitation of and in harmony with God's creation--rather, it is blasphemous to attempt to rival God's creation. Similarly, it is right to aspire to His perfection, but wrong to think we can attain earthly perfection without being in harmony with His will.

    Caroline, I don't think it's a matter of "creation of physical perfection" opposed to "domination of other wills". Rather, Sauron attempts to rule everything, even as God rules everything; his attempted perfect, evil domination of the world is a perverted rival and mockery of God's pure good rulership of the world.

    --Luke Bretscher

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  6. Not even Valinor was perfect in the sense that was free of strife or problems of any kind. It housed the malice of Melkor and the discord among the elves. In it lurked Ungoliant on the fringes. It seems that anything in contact with Middle Earth (the material/created world) is doomed to imperfection. So you are right that earthly perfection is quite unattainable in the Legendarium if perfection is freedom from conflict, pain, suffering, and death. I suppose it was perfect in so far as it was made as Eru intended.

    The Numenoreans were not so much seeking perfection, but rather total control—over all people, over the world, over life and death. Their folly was to absolutely reject of the conception of a higher power (essentially embodying the spirit of Melkor). Now, if the persuit of perfection (in the sense of freedom from conflict and discord) is through the suppression of free will, then yes, the pursuit of that kind of perfection would be wrong. But, I doubt that Melkor or Sauron had such altruistic goals at heart, but rather sought power for the sake of having it.

    They had a fundamental misunderstanding of the proper use of power. Eru already has ultimate power. In every case I can think of now, Eru used his power to create and, as importantly, to give his creation to others. His power was selfless. Melkor/Sauron sought and used power to take away, hoard, and destroy.

    I’m not sure that to aim for perfection (in the sense of the unattainable good) is itself wrong. Is there not nobility in the attempt to vanquish evil in the face of almost certain failure? We cannot and should not control everything, but we can control ourselves. Ought we refrain from attempting personal or spiritual perfection because of the failure that ultimately awaits us, or should we accept the possibility (or certainty) of defeat and bravely make the attempt anyway?

    -Jason A Banks

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  7. You say that perfection is impossible or wrong because Eru/God is the only perfect being, and it is blasphemous to try to rival God. This might be true but I don't think that's why the characters you mention are wrong to pursue perfection.

    Aside from the other issues with their actions (namely domination of wills etc) I think the definition of perfection is not the completion of good over evil, or of one action over another but the proper balance and continual struggle between opposing forces. This is the nature of the world; from the two types of light from the lamps in the trees, of the deeds and deaths of men, to even the nature of the Ainulindale, with the struggle between the music of Melko and the others.

    The Numenoreans not only defied Eru by throwing away the gift of death and seeking immortality, but actually upset the balance of nature by trying to become immortal. I think its especially key that the way Numenor was destroyed was literally a natural act of God; as if upsetting the balance of the world literally reverberated out into the sea and caused a tsunami.

    The Shire is so paradisical because the hobbits not only are content with mortality, but with all aspects of their humble existence. Their lives are like ours, a mix of the the good and the bad, the happy and the terrible, but they take what comes to them and do what they can with it, only rebelling when the nature of that existence is threatened, like Saruman's attempted conquest of the Shire. They live in harmony, like the Ainulindale itself.

    -Katie M.

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  8. I feel like what you’re working with here is complicated, but I like where it’s
    going. The point I have taken away from it is that perfection, or almost a sort of
    purity, it seems, is not possible for sub-creators to attain. I like the comment
    about free will and how no one would have a free will if they did not have the
    option of doing wrong and evil and that in that case, perfection cannot exist.
    However, I’m not sure exactly when these characters who have done wrong in
    the Legendarium are seeking perfection. It seems, rather, that they become bad
    or evil once they no longer worry about perfection or doing the right thing by
    accepting their roles as sub-creators and instead covet only powers which they
    were never meant to possess. I do not think that perfection and access to evil-
    doing are mutually exclusive. I think perhaps something resembling perfection
    would be the accessibility to doing wrong but the choice not to go about doing
    so. In this case, I think that perfection can be attained, there just cannot be
    universal perfection and purity, as good and perfection need wrong and evil in
    order to exist.

    -AlKl

    (Sorry I can't get this formatted well!)

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  9. I think the way that you've set up this question provides a really valuable way of viewing Tolkien's world. I, too, agree that it would be difficult to make sense of your "rule" without introducing the question of theology, but I'm not sure sure I agree with your rule. It reminds me little of the story (probably a Western urban legend) of the "Persian flaw" -- the idea that every great Persian rug maker intentionally leaves one tiny flaw in his work, so as not to challenge God. Personally, I find this problematic: it would take an awful lot of pride to assume that your work would rival God's if you didn't purposefully create a flaw in it!

    My view here is that motive, and not the strife for perfection, is the ultimate corrupter. No matter how hard the mortals of Middle Earth will try, they will never achieve true perfection.

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  10. I think the way that you've set up this question provides a really valuable way of viewing Tolkien's world. I, too, agree that it would be difficult to make sense of your "rule" without introducing the question of theology, but I'm not sure sure I agree with your rule. It reminds me little of the story (probably a Western urban legend) of the "Persian flaw" -- the idea that every great Persian rug maker intentionally leaves one tiny flaw in his work, so as not to challenge God. Personally, I find this problematic: it would take an awful lot of pride to assume that your work would rival God's if you didn't purposefully create a flaw in it!

    My view here is that motive, and not the strife for perfection, is the ultimate corrupter. No matter how hard the mortals of Middle Earth will try, they will never achieve true perfection.

    ReplyDelete